Lines on the Crew of the Caledonia by John Adams

Who were shipwrecked on the Coast of Morwenstow in the night-storm of September 8th 1842

They looked in dismay to the shore,
As they shot through the blackness of night;
And before them, on cliffs that re-echoed the roar,
The billows dashed foaming and white:
They quailed as they saw that Death’s terrors were there
And clung to the mast with the grasp of despair.

They were hurled by the storm to their graves,
As though storming the door of that home;
They were dragged by waves harnessed like horse to waves,
Whose manes were white banners of foam;
Whilst voices of strife to a wild dirge were strung,
And loud the death-wail of the mariners rung.

But mourn not the moments of pain!
Those terrors which hung on a breath!
For the tempest-worn rocks and the billowy main
Grew as smooth as a pillow in death;
And the surges that swept them to die on that shore,
Were chariots that bore them to rest evermore!*

 

*One only of the crew of nine men escaped death. He was thrown on a ledge of rock, and scrambled up a precipice so steep and rugged that no human being would have attempted to climb it in broad daylight. I found him, a few hours after the wreck, speechless and covered in bruises, in a gully a quarter of a mile from the sea, and had him conveyed on a stretcher to my father’s house, where he was tenderly nursed for several weeks.

From St Malo’s Quest and Other Poems by John Adams, Vicar of Stockcross. Henry S. King and Son, 1876.

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I discovered this poem in Treachery at Sharpnose Point: Unraveling the Mystery of the Caledonia’s Final Voyage by Jeremy Seal (Harcourt, 2001) where it appears as Appendix III. In Chapter 22 of the book Seal describes his descent of the cliffs to the beach below Hawker’s Hut and his scramble along the shore to where the Caledonia struck on the September night of 1842. With considerable difficulty Seal eventually succeeds in making an ascent similar to that which presumably brought the sole survivor, Edward Le Dain, to the place in the Tidna valley where he was found collapsed and unconscious on the morning of 8 September.

In ‘Remembrances of a Cornish Vicar’ Hawker claims to have been the person who first discovered Le Dain and recounts the story of how the young man was carried to the Vicarage and nursed back to health. Adams, however, according to the note appended to his own poem, was the true rescuer on this occasion, remaining unaware of Hawker’s account until Sabine Baring-Gould’s biography of the latter was published in 1876, six months after the his death.

John Adams was born in 1822 and was brought up at Stanbury, just south of Morwenstow. Like Hawker he became both clergyman and poet, winning the Oxford Newdigate Prize in 1847, just as Hawker had done twenty years earlier. According to Seal’s account the two men had at one time been on friendly terms but had become involved in a variety of heated disputes, ranging from Adams disapproval of Hawker’s extravagance in carrying out church repairs to an accusation by Hawker that Adams had plagiarized the former’s own Newdigate poem.

Seal’s account of his trip to Dorset where he visits John Adams’ great grandson and examines an annotated copy of Baring-Gould’s book makes interesting reading. He describes how the ‘inflamed nature’ of the margin comments gives the impression that Adams was ‘hearing the lies for the first time’. Some of the comments he quotes certainly seem convincing: Adams writes of how he was ‘breakfasting at [Morwenstow] Vicarage when news of the wreck came’ and goes on to record that ‘The man was found by me and not by Hawker. I saw him in a deep gully among rushes as I stood on Tonnacombe Cliff and with the help of two men conveyed him to Stanbury where he was attended by a doctor and remained some weeks’. ‘Hawker was under the cliff on the beach when Le Dain was found by myself and taken to Stanbury where he was nursed’.

St Malo’s Quest and Other Poems was published in 1876. In the spring of the following year John Adams travelled to America where he died in a hotel fire in St Louis. The complete text of his book is available to read online at the Open Library.