AWFUL LOSS OF HUMAN LIFE
PLYMOUTH AND STONEHOUSE JOURNAL
Thursday May 10th, 1855
On Saturday morning last, the inhabitants of the three towns were astounded and shocked by the intelligence that the barque John, of this port, Rawle, master, which had only left Plymouth Sound on Thursday afternoon, had struck on the Manacles Rock, off St. Keverne, on the coast of Cornwall, and that upwards of one hundred and ninety of her passengers had been drowned. The intelligence at first appeared to be too frightful to be credited; but it was soon ascertained that the statement was only too true, and that one of the most deplorable shipwrecks that had ever taken place on the western close had occurred.
The John was bound for Quebec, and when she left the Sound about four o'clock on Thursday afternoon, who had on board 154 adult passengers, 98 children, and 16 infants, together in a crew in all of 19, making the total of souls on board 287. The passengers principally from the North of Devon, the great source of American emigration in the West of England, numbers from other parts of this country and the remainder from the counties of Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset, - in fact, she was considered what is termed a West Country ship.
Many of the friends accompanied the unfortunate passengers to this port to bid them farewell, and as the vessel left the Sound relatives might be seen here and there on the Hoe, gazing after her with painful interest, or shedding tears at the separation between them and those they loved dearly - a separation which, as the sequel proved, was, in many instances a fatal one. Others put on a bolder front, and sought to infuse some of their own spirits into their friends on board by hearty cheers in which they were joined by some of the spectators, who happened to be present.
The ship left at the top of the ebb tide with a favourable wind off the land, and all bid her fare for a prosperous voyage down channel. How their hopes were blighted, it would be impossible to say, so varied are the accounts of those who have been spared to tell the catastrophe. This much, however, we may state that all accounts agree in condemning the captain, who, it is said, had no business to be so close in shore, and who, notwithstanding that he was warned of the danger, stupidly persisted in keeping the vessel in the same course.
So embittered were the survivors towards him that it is stated the Coast Guard were obliged to protect him from their fury. But whether this anger arose from a belief that the accident was the result of inattention on his part - or that the captain and crew saved themselves, as stated, to the sacrifice of the passengers - or, in fact, what gave rise to this angry feeling at all, it would be wrong to say until evidence shall be taken as it is easy to imagine that the survivors, many of whom have sustained the loss of their dearest relatives, whilst nearly all have lost the whole of their wealth the possessed, would be embittered, and give vent to their feelings against one to whom they had entrusted their life and property.
The scene after the vessel struck, as may be anticipated, was most distressing, the utmost confusion prevailed, and most of those on board gave themselves up in despair. The account rendered by one of the passengers is most heart-rending, thought the character of all similar disasters, except that human sympathy was in this case the more excited from the number of children on board, and from the extraordinary efforts of their parents to save them from the death impending.
One of the passengers, William Walters, a man apparently of sickly and delicate constitution, succeeded as the vessel settled in the water, in taking his wife and six children into the rigging one by one - the youngest, unfortunately, fell from the mother's arms into the sea; the father, though unable to swim, plunged after it, but failed in his noble effort to save his child, and, with difficulty, regained the ship.
Another, Wm. Clemence, who had a wife and eight children on board, attempted to raise the six youngest of them into the rigging by the aid of a "sheet", with which he had tied them together. Unfortunately, he failed in his efforts, and four were drowned. Samuel Rogers, a boy aged fifteen, one of the other passengers saved, has lost his father, mother, two brothers, a sister, and a cousin. Henry North, saved, lost his wife and three children.
So far as the facts can be gleaned from the parties on board, it appears that all went prosperously till about half past nine, when they made the Falmouth light, the captain himself pointing it out to one of the passengers on deck. Just at this time the second mate was trying to sight the Lizard light, and he asked some of the passengers if they could not see the reflection of the light in the sky; they replied they could not, when the captain said he could not either, but they would see it fast enough when they got there. It was the second-mate's watch, and the captain shortly after went below. About ten o'clock the mate came on the poop and asked the passengers if they had seen the captain, and on being asked what he wanted the captain for, he said he (the mate) thought they were a deal too nigh the land. Shortly after this the captain came on deck, and what the mate had stated, "that they were getting too close on land," was reported to him; the captain "pooh-poohed" the report.
Soon afterward someone forward sung out "rocks," and almost immediately the vessel struck with violence, so much so that she bumped over the rock and then struck, with still greater force upon rocks further in; the captain was then distinctly heard to call out "run her aground". The vessel then had all sail on her with great way, as she was when the accident happened going eight or nine knots, and though ran aground, the sea washed off her again, and she ran down the coast for some distance.
An attempt was then made to bring her up by letting go an anchor, when she grounded heavily broadside on. Attention was then directed to the boats - of which she had four on board, three on deck and one over the side - the captain, four seamen, a boy and one passenger, jumped into the latter boat and called out to lower, but finding no one answered the call, the captain returned to the deck of the vessel, when the boat was lowered. On touching the water it was found there was no plug in her, and she was without thowle pins. While they were waiting to supply these deficiencies, her tackle became unhooked, and the boat drifted off from the vessel with out the captain.
The men put their knives in for thowle pins, and the passenger his German pipe for a like purpose and they pulled out to sea to get round a point of rocks over which the breakers were rolling heavily. When they had weathered this point they pulled for the land, on nearing which they called aloud for help; when they were heard by the son of Lieut. McLean, of the Coast Guard, who pointed out a place of safe landing. Immediately the alarm was spread that a vessel had struck on the Manacles. An attempt was then made to pull out some of the Coast Guard boats without success, from the dangerous character of the coast.
The passengers who had got on shore were taken by the Coast Guard people in their attempt to put out to assist the vessel in order to direct them where she lay - those of the ships' crew who got on shore positively refusing to lend even this assistance. Unfortunately the boats could not reach the vessel, and were compelled to return to the shore. They postponed all further efforts till the following morning, when, going further up the coast to a more favourable place of embarkation, they reached the vessel, which was then not above 200 yards from the shore. During the whole of this time, the crew being, it is said, for the most part intoxicated, not a single effort was made to save the passengers by either the captain or crew. Some of the passengers attempted of themselves to get the cutter out, in doing so they stove her bottom, and lost the boat.
The tide at the time the vessel struck was about two-third ebb, and when she sank she filled with water, but the decks were dry, and if assistance had been rendered at this time all might have been safely landed. Unfortunately, for the want of some directing mind, this opportunity was lost, and on the returning tide some portion of those on board got into the rigging, the crew getting in the tops, while a large number of the passengers took shelter in the long-boat - the boat was floated out of the chocks and beaten across the deck against the bulwarks until she was knocked to pieces, and the whole of her living freight either crushed or drowned.
The rising tide soon did it's work, washing the unfortunate people off the decks and out of the lower rigging, most of them having from cold and suffering lost even the little energy necessary to make further ascent up the rigging. In the morning the survivors were taken off the wreck by the Coast Guard and landed at Coverack, St.Keverne, when they met the most hospitable reception from the inhabitants.
One of the passengers, Mr. E.C.Hele, of Shaldon, being provided with a life belt, swam ashore in the night, and he declares that had the boats been lowered when she struck all might have been saved. Another of the cabin passengers, Mr. Knuckey, lately returned from Australia, had lost £500 of his earnings, but succeeded in taking ashore 700 sovereigns in a belt. Elizabeth Pearce and Mary Ann Penman, two of the partied saved, left the service of Mrs. Hector, 2, Albany-place. Another passenger among the fortunate survivors, who left the dockyard to emigrate, as if foreseeing the chance of calamity, asked for a week's leave only, instead of his discharge from the service, this would have expired to-morrow; he now returns in time to retake his employment. Seventy-two of the bodied of the unfortunate people were buried in forty-four coffins on Sunday in St. Keverne churchyard - relations being buried together.
Immediately the melancholy intelligence reached this place it was telegraphed to the Admiralty and to the Emigration Commissioners, upon which the former directed Sir William Parker, the Commander-in-Chief, to dispatch the Avon, second master Veitch in command, to the scene of the disaster, and which returned to this port on Tuesday-evening, bringing a number of the passengers saved. The Emigration Commissioners also directed Lieutenant Carew, R.N, agent at this port to proceed at once to the place of the wreck, and that gentleman left this port on Saturday evening. The Board of Trade also dispatched an officer to institute an inquiry into the circumstance of the wreck under the provision of the new act which came into operation on the inst., Commander Baldwin Wake, of the Coast Guard, having made the preliminary enquiry as the act directs.
In the interim, the coroner of the district has been performing the melancholy duty of holding inquisitions on the bodied thrown up by the sea. The evidence at the inquest showed that there was not a single palliating circumstance in favour of the captain. The vessel struck at ten p.m., and all were safe until daylight the next morning when the captain forbade the passengers from moving and in the case of a poor old man who fell overboard from the rigging, he refused to allow a party who volunteered to go to his assistance. The greatest loss of life was occasioned by so many of the passengers getting into the rigging that it broke away, the parties falling into the sea, those not able to swim or not strong enough to regain the vessel, perishing.
The jury having heard all the evidence, in recording their verdict, observed that they considered the conduct of the whole of the crew, with the exception of a seaman named Elder, most blameable, and expressed their surprise that the ship was not supplied with a signal gun nor blue lights, and recommended that a light should be placed on the Manacles. Against the Captain (Rawle) they returned a VERDICT OF MANSLAUGHTER, and the coroner's warrant was at once issued for his apprehension, and on which he has been lodged in the Cornwall county gaol at Bodmin.
The passengers who have survived have received their passage money back again, but in the instance where survivors have lost relatives, the passage money of the deceased has not been repaid.