Cornish ‘ghost ship’
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