With Christmas approaching I wanted to share with you the spooky tale of a ghost soldier. It was first told in the local press around a hundred years ago, but over time it has been long forgotten.
If you’re opened-minded and brave enough, it’s the story of a phantom soldier said to haunt Marchwood.
I hope you enjoy it because who doesn’t love a ghost story at Christmas?
The tale begins in 1815 when the Royal Naval Armaments Depot opened in Marchwood. During the 19thcentury, gunpowder was stored in three “magazine” buildings. Each magazine was constructed with thick brick walls, designed to keep thousands of barrels of gunpowder safe.
One Boxing Day in the late 1800s, an officer in charge of the guards there returned to his quarters after a party. He sat down and smoked his last pipe of the day before going to bed. He quickly fell asleep, only to be rudely awakened by the sound of his pipe dropping to the floor. He then heard a rifle shot followed by a blood curdling scream.
Rushing in the direction of the scream, he found a sentry guard lying on the ground as if dead. It appeared the guard’s rifle had gone off. However, upon examination, the officer failed to find a mark of any kind on the man.
When the guard came to, he was unable to give an account of what had happened. Something had “turned his brain”. This expression translates in modern terminology as “gone insane”.
He was sent to hospital where the officer would later visit him. The officer was shocked to see the guard’s hair had turned completely white. The unfortunate man was discharged soon afterwards. He’d become a “hopeless lunatic”.
There were several theories as to what had sent him mad. Some said a rumour of Irish nationalists attempting to sabotage the magazines had put him on edge. Others said that fantastic shapes of vapours rising from the Marchwood marshlands were to blame.
But things were about to take another strange turn.
Over the coming weeks, odd things were seen at the sentry post. A newly installed guard swore he’d seen a man walk towards a wall, then disappear through it.
The officer in charge wanted to see for himself, so one night he stood guard at the post and waited.
All was quiet so he started to relax, believing it was all nonsense. But the tranquil sound of water lapping at Marchwood shore was suddenly broken by the crack of two gunshots.
The officer ran towards the sound of gunfire and arrived at another nearby guard post. The sentry he met claimed to have seen a Highland soldier walking towards him from the hard.
The sentry said he’d challenged the mysterious soldier three times, but the stranger continued advancing. The sentry fired, but still the Highlander walked on. He then lunged at the intruder with his bayonet, but met no resistance, as his blade went straight though the body.
A military inquiry is said to have been held after this extraordinary event. The conclusion was it could not be rationally explained.
However, the talk of the barracks that faced onto Marchwood’s Magazine Lane, was that it could only have been a ghost.
Gossip soon spread that a Highland soldier had been on duty at the magazine some years before. As punishment for ill-discipline, his Christmas leave was cancelled. This was said to have stressed him enough to vacate his sentry box one night.
The following day he was found drowned in the water.
You might ask why a Highland soldier would have been at Marchwood in the first place.
I’ve found records to show that in 1873 a detachment from the 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, an infantry regiment of the British Army, had been sent to Marchwood magazines for duty.
An anecdote from the late 1800s adds more intrigue to the story. It recalled how each time an admiralty stock taker visited Marchwood depot he’d ask, “where is the ghost?”. The reply of “not seen” would be entered into the appropriate column.
It’s a rather fun tale, and most of you reading this story will think “what a load of old cobblers” or “there’s no such thing as ghosts”. I tend to think along the same lines.
To help rationalise the story, I decided to search archives for news of drownings in Marchwood during this period. This could explain the tale of a ghost soldier.
I managed to find a few drowning reports connected to the Marchwood magazines. But there was one that stuck out due to the role of the soldier and the time of year.
On Christmas Eve of 1874, a sentry named Broomfield was on guard at Marchwood. Accompanied by his 5-year-old son, he rowed a carpenter employed at the magazines, over the water to Millbrook shore. Work to reclaim land, which is where the docks are we know today, would not start until the 1920s, so the area was ideal to land a boat.
The coroner’s report states both men had beer, after which the carpenter went home. Broomfield and his son got back in the rowing boat for the return journey.
As they approached Marchwood on the cold and dark water, soldiers at the magazines heard cries of distress. They deployed their own craft and found Broomfield’s boat with just his son in it alone. His father was nowhere to be seen. The boy would later say his father had stood up and fallen into the cold abyss.
Could the Marchwood ghost story stem from Broomfield’s tragic death? Perhaps the tale evolved over time to be a ghost story told around Christmas, just as I am now.
I’m not sure we will ever know.
Happy Christmas to all!
- Historical Records of 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (published 1887)
- The Wide World Magazine, Vol.19, “The Mystery of the Magazine” (1907)
- Hampshire Advertiser (January 1874, June 1933, April 1936)