The Barque John
After the wreck of the "Dispatch" and
"Primrose" the parish registers are
comparatively silent for forty six years and only
scattered entries of the burials of drowned individuals
intermingle with those of the local inhabitants.
Commander Lory however affirmed in 1855 that he believed that 25-30 vessels had been wrecked during the interim on the same rocks, that seven to eight hundred lives had 'been lost and that the destruction to property had amounted to between three and four thousand pounds.
But of these there are no entries, until the wreck of The John" appears in all its singular mysterious horror.
No gale ravaged the coast when Edwin Rawle (Captain) and his crew of eighteen steered the barque from Plymouth to the Lizard, on its outward bound journey to Quebec. The weather was fine, a NNW wind filled her sails - the moon was one day past her full - the month of May had begun the emigrants were hopeful - everything indicated a pleasant voyage. When without any warning the "John" struck on one of the eastern rocks of the Manacles.
The "John" however beat over this obstacle and did not become stationary until she received an impact from another rock nearer the shore. Then her fate was sealed, and slowly she began to fill with water. Her upper deck was never-the-less dry half an hour later and her passengers and crew might have been saved had proper means been taken for their preservation.
But all that the Captain did in this terrible crisis was to assure his charge that there was no danger, and to forbid the lowering of the large boats. Help, he said, would come from the shore before the tide commenced to flow. His knowledge of the tides was inaccurate, and through his ignorance one hundred and ninety six beings were hurled into eternity.
The "John" was lost through stupidity, ignorance, carelessness and muzzy bewilderment, and the fearful loss of life accompanying it may principally be attributed to the same cause. That this incapacity did not hinder the Captain and crew from taking care of themselves was demonstrated by the fact that when the boats arrived from the shore they were ready to step into them with their bags, and that every seaman was saved, while women and children and the other men cried in vain for help.
The shore, says an old inhabitant of Porthoustock, was a sight never to be forgotten. One hundred children had sailed in the "John" and side by side in a long row numbers of these little ones were laid awaiting identification. Parents too were there, sisters, brothers, struggling hard-working men and women (as a list of their occupations showed them to be). Such men were fitted to build up our colonies, and Canada had need of them, but the negligence of one man intervened, the unreclaimed land remained untilled and the would be labourers were borne to St.Keverne churchyard.
A verdict of manslaughter was passed on Captain Rawle at the Inquest and he was removed to Bodmin to undergo another examination at the Cornwall Assizes.
The story of the "John" however is not entirely devoid of heroism, and self sacrifice. After midnight the wind sprang up and the tide began to flow, never-the-less the men of Coverack collected by the old Inn in order to put out the boats if possible. It was not considered possible so they despatched a messenger to Porthoustock to see what could be done by the fishermen there and went themselves to that cove to help in the work of rescue. What followed is best described in evidence given by Thomas Clear, Coastguardman of Coverack at the Inquest.
"We proceeded to Porthoustock, which was a weather port, to see if we could reach the wreck from thence. We divided ourselves into three parties. On reaching Porthoustock we found the Coastguard there knew nothing of the wreck. This was between 12 and half past. We got a boat from one of the cellars, and launched two other boats, but the boat I was in was over manned, and the sea was so rough we were obliged to put back. We tried a second time with fewer men, but with no better result. After about an hour we tried again. The crew consisted of Townsend Mark Daniel, Baker and John George -coastguardmen, and John Matthews a fisherman of Porthoustock and myself. We made three trips at great risk and saved about 35 from the wreck."
James Hill, another witness, tells a story of indomitable perseverance and unostentatious bravery. He says
"I went to Porthoustock half dressed, and got two boats out. Finding we could not clear the point we returned, and all got out except two men and myself. We started again on our way we met the other boat return ing and were told it was impossible to reach the wreck. An hour after we launched the boats again and succeeded in reaching the wreck. We took one man from a boat which was floating and we also took one woman and 9 men from a raft and landed them at Tom's Cove from whence they were handed up the over the cliff by some of the neighbours and coast- guards. We made three other trips to the wreck and saved about 50 lives in all. our crew consisted of myself, my son James, William Matthews, Thomas Pearce, Henry Tripconey and James Connor, a coast guard. There was a heavy sea running and the crews of each boat went out at great risk of themselves."
With such records it is little wonder that the conduct of these gallant rescuers was highly commended at the Inquest. A piece of slate inscribed with the following marks the burial place of the victims in St.Keverne churchyard, erected by one of the survivors. "Sacred to the memory of 120 persons here interred who were drowned in the wreck of the "John" May 3 1855.
The next wreck of importance was in 1869 when the "Aurora" steamed on the Manacles and became a total wreck, on the spot where the "Mohegan" now lies. A year previous to this catastrophe the Life Boat Institution had placed the "Mary Ann Storey" in Porthoustock Cove.