Cor­nish ‘ghost ship’

Fortean Times - - Letters -

The Ed­war­dian guide book From

St Ives to Land’s End by AG Fol­liott Stokes (Green­ing and Co, 1908) con­tains a strange ac­count pur­port­edly re­lated first-hand to the au­thor by an un­named St Ives fish­er­man and “more or less in his own words”. The fish­er­man had been catch­ing conger eels one wind­less, moon­less night (no dates or lo­ca­tions are given) and whilst tak­ing a break to light his pipe sud­denly saw “a large full-rigged ship” close on his star­board bow. The nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues in the Cor­nish di­alect of the fish­er­man:

“[A]lthough there was not a breath o’ wind, she was a-go­ing through the wa­ter like a steamer and ev­ery­thing a-draw­ing fit to bust. I couldn’t a’ moved hand nor foot, not if you’d a’ given me the throne of Eng­land. I just sat and stared at her, sort of mazed like… she had a lot of port­holes, like them ‘ere old frigates used to have. These ‘ere port­holes was all abroad and the ship was lit up fore and aft like a bloom­ing theatre… they was a-danc­ing like mad atween decks. I could see ‘em whirling around. Women in these ere low dresses and a sight of flesh show­ing and men in pig­tails, like John­nie Chi­na­man, only shorter… Every now and then this ‘ere gra-ate bell gave out a deep, low toll, as solemn as you mind to. I could hear it long af­ter the sound of the fid­dles and the swish of the wa­ter, and long af­ter I had lost sight of the ship in the murk of the night. I must have sat there for some time sort of mazed; for when I got up to have a look round, the day had dawned and the tide had drifted me well­nigh of the pier head. So I turned to and rowed the boat in. But I can tell ‘ee, it was more nor a day afore I felt my­self again. And many night since have I dreamt of that ‘ere ship, and heard the gra-ate bell a-tolling as solemn as you mind to.”

The sug­ges­tion here is that this was no or­di­nary ‘nuts and bolts’ ves­sel. But was this an in­cred­i­ble first-hand ac­count of a ghost ship col­lected lo­cally by Fol­liott for in­clu­sion in his guide? Al­ter­na­tively, was it some kind of bizarre wak­ing dream or vi­sion ex­pe­ri­enced by a lone, tired fish­er­man at night? Or could it sim­ply be a fan­ci­ful tale con­cocted by the au­thor him­self with no ground­ing in re­al­ity?

Re­gard­less of whether or not this is a true ac­count of an ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence, it does con­tain a num­ber of de­tails which will be fa­mil­iar to read­ers as ex­ist­ing in that murky hin­ter­land where fairy lore and UFO en­coun­ters/ alien ab­duc­tions over­lap. Firstly, the nar­ra­tor sug­gests when first en­coun­ter­ing the ship that he couldn’t move “hand nor foot”, al­most as if in some kind of paral­y­sis (a fea­ture com­mon in many ab­duc­tion ac­counts). His de­scrip­tion of port­holes, all lit up with strange, ex­otic ‘peo­ple’ vis­i­ble through them is a fea­ture

oc­cur­ring in many 20th cen­tury UFO re­ports and even those of the ear­lier mys­tery air­ship waves of the lateVic­to­rian and early Ed­war­dian era. Then we have some pe­cu­liar­i­ties com­mon to fairy lore such as the play­ing of mu­sic and non-stop fre­netic danc­ing. His de­scrip­tion of see­ing fe­male flesh on dis­play also tal­lies with the sex­ual fan­tasies present in many fairy and alien nar­ra­tives. And when the fish­er­man de­scribes the oc­cu­pants as be­ing “like John­nie Chi­na­man, only shorter” is he sug­gest­ing they are diminu­tive peo­ple like those de­scribed in many clas­sic fairy or alien en­coun­ters? The nar­ra­tor then ap­pears to be in a sort of daze im­me­di­ately af­ter the event (al­most as if un­der a spell), sub­se­quently find­ing him­self in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion and hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced some miss­ing time to boot. Fi­nally, the next day he still didn’t feel com­pletely right and con­tin­ued to reg­u­larly ex­pe­ri­ence the strange craft in his dreams.

My per­sonal view is that this is a made-up ac­count; given the date the book was pub­lished (1908) it may well be that the au­thor was aware of the re­cent mys­tery air­ship sto­ries that had cir­cu­lated and de­cided to con­tribute his own mar­itime ver­sion. But with noth­ing to val­i­date the truth of the ac­count and no dates or names to work on I don’t sup­pose we will ever know if the event de­scribed re­ally hap­pened. Alis­tair Mof­fatt Totnes, Devon

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