THE memorial in Itchen's Peartree churchyard only hints at the terrible facts behind the death of a 17-yearold orphan 123 years ago.

"Sacred to the memory of Richard Parker," it says, "aged 17, who died at sea July 25th 1884 after 19 days dreadful suffering in an open boat in the tropics having been wrecked in the yacht Mignonette."

The gravestone tactfully fails to mention the gruesome manner of the cabin boy's death, which caused a "sensation" in Victorian Britain when the story was broken in the Daily Echo (then the Hampshire Advertiser) on August 31, 1884.

The 19-ton Mignonette was a racing yacht that had been bought by Australian politician Jack Want for £400.

He hired 32-year-old Tom Dudley to skipper it to Sydney, along with mate Edwin Stephens, 37, crew Ned Brooks, 27, and Parker, a teenage lad who grew up in the working class Itchen Ferry Village.

Forty-seven days into the voyage the 52ft yacht met heavy weather in the South Atlantic.

Pounded by monstrous waves, she sank in a matter of minutes and the captain launched a 13ft survival dinghy.

Parker was sent below to fetch a beaker of fresh water and a few tins of what he thought was canned meat. Thrown overboard in the expectation it would float, the beaker sank like a stone and all but two of the tins were dropped in the boy's haste to abandon ship.

Having filled "like an open bucket" the Mignonette sank without a trace within five minutes.

Her crew of four managed to board the lifeboat, hoisted an oar in lieu of a mast and attached shirts to act as a sail.

Sixteen hundred miles from land, with no drinking water and just two tins of what turned out to be not meat at all, but turnips, the castaways battled sunburn, malnutrition and dehydration.

They survived for more than two weeks on flesh from a small turtle pulled from the ocean, rainwater caught in a cape and their own urine when Dudley proposed drawing lots to decide which of them should die to save the others, but the men were repelled at the suggestion.

On the 21st day, a weak and delirious Parker leant over the side to drink tins of seawater in a desperate attempt to quench his thirst. As he lay desperately ill in the bow of the boat, Dudley persuaded Stephens that the boy should now be sacrificed as he would soon die anyway.

"Now, Dick, my boy, your time has come," said Dudley approaching Parker with a penknife. "What me, sir? Oh don't!" gasped the cabin boy, but his protest was cut short as the knife pierced his jugular vein.

As his lifeblood drained away, his companions caught it in a bailer and drank it.

They then opened a deep slit in the boy's belly and removed the warm organs to cut up and eat. Liver first, then heart. Ravenously they ate, squabbling over the boy's flesh.

After they had finished feasting they washed off his body, strips of flesh were hacked off and left to dry out and the boy's head was chopped off and thrown overboard. It took three hours to complete the grisly task. The larger bones were thrown overboard, inviting sharks to circle in a feeding frenzy.

Three days later the remaining crew were picked up by a passing German barque, the Montezuma, en route to Hamburg. Taking onboard the survivors, the German captain saw human remains still in the dinghy and said little.

But when the survivors reached Falmouth they made no secret of what they had done. Dudley and Stephens were promptly charged with murder on the high seas, with Brooks as a witness for the prosecution.

"I offered up a prayer most fervently that God might forgive us for such an act,"

Dudley said at the High Court trial.

"It was my decision to take the boy's life but it was justified by an overriding necessity.

As a result I have lost only one member of my crew in circumstances in which all would otherwise have perished."

They were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, but with a recommendation to mercy. Three weeks later they were reprieved and released from jail after six months.

It's said Stephens went mad and Brooks never recovered from their living nightmare.

Dudley became a ship's chandler in Australia, where he was known as "Cannibal Tom", and became the first person Down Under to die from the bubonic plague.

The legend surrounding Parker's grisly demise didn't end at his death as the trial of his crewmates unveiled a spooky coincidence.

It emerged that Dudley had been reading a novel written almost 50 years prior to the shipwreck. It was called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and described how three shipwrecked mariners ate a fellow crew member. His name was Richard Parker.