The small south coast town of Gosport is an interesting, rather than an attractive, place. Optimistic residents may believe it was once known as ‘God’s port’, though the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names’ more prosaic and likely explanation is that the name derives from ‘Goose port’. What we do know is that Gosport developed as a naval town in the shadow of the huge Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, across the harbour to the east.
There’s a naval cemetery in Clayhall Road, the final resting place for some 1500 British sailors. It opened in 1859 and was the official cemetery for the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, which once stood nearby. For some time, the route between the hospital and the cemetery was playfully labelled known as ‘Dead Man’s Lane’ due to the high number of funeral processions from the former to the latter.
Segregated behind a neat railing-topped brick wall, in a corner of the cemetery by Stoke Lake, are the graves of 26 Turkish sailors. How did that happen? Well, in life, these were crewmen from two ships of the Imperial Ottoman Navy, the Mirat-i-Zafer and the Sirag-i-Bahri, which were paying a courtesy visit to Britain in 1850 and were anchored just off Gosport. The ships stayed for several months and the foreign sailors were welcomed ashore by the locals. It is said they were well-disciplined and, of course, they probably did not drink alcohol – in undoubted contrast to the usual breed of matelots that frequented Gosport’s nineteenth-century hot-spots.
Most of those poor men buried far from their homes are said to have been victims of cholera; some perished as a result of accidents during training; there’s a further suggestion that some may have died from tuberculosis. Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, is an ancient bacterial infection that thrives in conditions of overcrowding and among those with weak immune systems. Cholera is a bacterial infection caused by contaminated food or water, usually as a consequence of poor hygiene. Both diseases were killers in Victorian Britain. We don’t know whether the Turks arrived infected or contracted a disease while guests of this country. TB sufferers can take years to die; cholera can kill within hours. In the circumstances, it would seem that the authorities did well to contain any contagion. The Turkish sailors were all originally interred near the hospital where some of them were looked after, but were moved due to building work in 1900.
Anyway, that’s why there’s a corner of a foreign field that is forever Turkey, two thousand miles to the northwest of the occupants’ homeland. It’s a sad little story. The memorial inscription reads, in Turkish and English:
“They set sail for eternity met their creator and here they are laid to rest.”
I wouldn’t overplay the nursing care they received – it is likely to have been basic. The Crimean War, just a few years later, revealed the shocking state of the British Army’s medical services. But I am proud that my country honoured these men all those years ago. It is comforting, particularly given the times, that the Royal Navy appears to have looked after them in life, and in death. Britain fought alongside its Turkish and French allies against the Russian Empire in the Crimea. Sixty years after that, the Russians were our allies and we, together with the French, tried to invade Turkey. It is strange how things turn.
Members of the Turkish Embassy still come to Gosport to commemorate their countrymen, and in 2011 the President of Turkey paid his respects during a state visit to the UK.
Apparently, Gosport is sometimes referred to as ‘Turk Town’ – presumably stemming from its association with the Turkish Navy all those years ago, and this small cemetery immortalising that memory. A logical suggestion is that the nickname originated in neighbouring Portsmouth – though I know that town fairly well and hadn’t come across the expression until researching this piece. You learn something every day.
Just a short step from the 26 Turkish sailors when I took these photographs, Stoke Lake presented an evocative picture of decay in one direction, with an attractive view across to St Mary’s church at Alverstoke in the other.