The Barque John


Frightful Shipwreck – Awful Loss of Life’ ran the headline in the Plymouth and Stonehouse Journal newspaper some 163 years ago, in May 1855.  The wreck was that of the emigrant sailing ship, the barque John, on its way from Plymouth to Quebec and the subject of a talk by Mrs Nicola Wills at the Bude & District U3A’s May Open Meeting.

There was a lot of poverty in Cornwall in the mid-19th Century and many poor Cornish families braved the hazardous trip across the Atlantic in search of a better life in Canada.  The John carried 268 passengers, including 98 children and 19 infants, with a crew of 19.  The ship sailed from Plymouth around 4 pm and smashed into the notorious  Manacles reef off the Lizard around 10 pm that night.  The captain and crew survived, but 194 passengers died despite the efforts of local people from St. Keverne to try to rescue them.  ‘Had the ship just kept the Lizard light in sight, the disaster could have been avoided,’ said Mrs Wills. ‘Instead the John never got out of Cornish waters and became one of about 100 ships which have been wrecked on the Manacles with the loss of about 1,000 lives.’

Mrs Wills, who was introduced to the meeting  at the Parkhouse Centre by Bude U3A Speakers Secretary, Denni Clarke, is a volunteer at the Wadebridge and District Museum. She became interested in the fate of the John and its passengers when reading about another trans-Atlantic shipping disaster – that of the Titanic.  She credits a teacher at her school for her interest in history.  Once she started researching the fate of the John and its passengers, she remembered her father, who was from the Lizard Peninsula,  recounting stories of terrible shipwrecks.

Above all, Mrs Wills’ passion and interest lies in the stories of the people on that fateful voyage, both the survivors and those who died. In her search for their stories, she has been aided by the research of Mark Sandford, a descendent of one of the surviving crew ‘There were large families on board,,as well single men and women, and all with something to offer, she says. ‘ They had skills which would have been welcomed in the New World and some of the survivors did  eventually make it to Canada or the USA later on.’.

One such was John Garland from St Juliot, who lost his wife and three children when the John hit the rocks.  With his third wife, Mary, he emigrated to the USA in 1863 and died in Ohio at the age of 86.  A shoemaker called Silas also survived and also successfully emigrated later.  He is recorded as living on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1920 at the age of 90.

Edward Tangye from Redruth also survived. Later he married went on to have 12 children, one of whom, Helena, married Francis Lean. Their first child was David Lean, the film director remembered for Brief Encounter and Bridge Over The River Kwai, among others.  Among those who died were Joseph Lander and Ann Bunt, married just five days before they set sail with high hopes for their future.

Mrs Wills spoke also of members of her own family from Cornwall who have emigrated to Australia in more recent times.  ‘Like the passengers on the barque John’, she said, ‘they set off on long voyages in search of a better life.  Fortunately they have survived and done well.’

Anna Crew