Proceedings preliminary to the Inquiry re Damages

Thursday June 7th, 1855

In the Journal of last Thursday, we published a report of the enquiry instituted by the Board of Trade, before a numerous bench of the county magistrates at Falmouth, into the circumstances connected with this melancholy occurrence, up to Saturday.

In addition to the evidence given on that day, which we then inserted, Wm Clemence, of St Rew, who, with his wife and eight young children were passengers in the John, positively swore that he saw the captain in the vessel in his cabin asleep an hour after she had struck.

On Monday the enquiry was resumed.

John Barker deposed that he was a first-class Trinity pilot, residing at Coverack. On the evening of Thursday 3rd inst., between eight and ten o'clock, he was in charge of a ship to the S.S.W. of the Lizard, in sight of the Lizard lights, which he saw about half past eight o'clock. It was rather hazy; he could see the lights at from twelve to fifteen miles distance; he could also do so between nine and ten o'clock.

On a clear night from the deck of a ship the Lizard lights can be seen for a distance of twenty-four miles. The land could not, on the night in question, be seen at further than four or five miles, so far as he could judge. At about ten o'clock it blew a strong breeze, and they took in the main top gallant sail. If he took his departure in a ship from the Rame-head, steering west, it would bring him about Helford, and within three or four miles, in passing of the Falmouth light. If he had made such light coming down Channel he should haul up south to clear the Manacles. South-by-west might do if Falmouth light was on the beam three or four miles off. West-south-west would not carry him clear; it would carry him on the Manacles.

Falmouth light of a clear night can be seen ten or twelve miles off. On the night of the third there was nothing in the weather to prevent a ship going up or down channel with perfect safety. On leaving the Falmouth light - steering south - he should know he was clear of the Manacles. When he saw the Lizard lights, the course of a ship from the Rame-head downwards would be west-south-west; that would carry him six or eight miles clear of the Lizard outside of it.

Between twelve and one o'clock that night there was a freshening breeze and sea; it was low water between twelve and one o'clock; between three and four in the morning there was a strong sea; the rise and fall of the tide at the Manacles is from sixteen to eighteen feet spring tides. If he commanded and emigrant ship, he should steer his course at sea; he should not consider it necessary to keep the ship quiet to get the passengers to rights. He has seen the wreck; there is a beach on each side of her, the nearest to the south side, a quarter of a mile distant, round a point not visible from the wreck; a bold cliff immediately inside the ship. Strangers could not very well land passengers there.

TUESDAY   The bench sat today at ten o'clock, but did not consider it necessary to call any further witnesses in this case.

Mr Tilly, in an able speech of more than an hour's duration, reviewed the whole of the evidence, and commented on those parts which he considered were such as to exonerate the owners. He also pointed out that in some things they had even exceeded the requirements of the passenger's act, and said he was sure the bench must have seen that in the things wherein they fell short, it was not done from any meanness, or with a view to save or leave anything undone for providing comforts for the poor unfortunate persons who had perished.

He said he could not account for the position in which the ship was put by the captain, and he certainly could not offer any defence on that point; he believed the captain had made some great mistake. He had, however, been unable to find that on the evidence there was the least shadow or plea to be detected of the captain having been drunk.

With regard to several of the witnesses, he would not for a moment insinuate that they had voluntarily made false statements, but in the hurry and confusion subsequent on their distressing situation, and the darkness when the ship struck, he had no doubt they had confounded many of the circumstances. He would leave the case in the hands of the bench, trusting they would see it in a favourable light, and acquit his clients, who he believed were honest and respectable shipowners, and wished to do their best to provide properly for their passengers.

Mr O'Dowd, solicitor from the Board of Trade, was then allowed (although not in strict order) to address a few words to the court. He submitted that the clauses of the act had not been properly complied with, in confirmation of which he referred to the ship's boats, the want of rockets and lights for making night signals, &c. He said he had great pleasure in seeing that this first inquiry under the act had been so ably carried on, and he wished it to be understood that the Board of Trade had no other object than to see that the poor emigrants should have proper protection, and that the owners of emigrant ships should be compelled to do what is right towards the public.

The court the adjourned till two o'clock, when the following report was read, addressed to the Board of Trade.

To the Right Honourable the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council of Trade.

MY LORDS -    With reference to the melancholy circumstances attendant on the loss of the barque John, and which you will find fully related in the accompanying copy of the evidence taken before us, we have to report that the said vessel, which was about 463 tons, as per register , sailed from Plymouth for Quebec, under the command of Edward Rawle, on Thursday the 3rd of May instant, between the hours of two and three p.m., having on board five cabin passengers, and 1981 statute adult passengers, equal to 263 souls. That the crew consisted of nineteen persons, and immediately previous to sailing, the government emigration officer at Plymouth made his inspection, and signed a certificate of clearance. The ship left Plymouth with a light wind from the north, and from a mile-and-a-half off the Rame-head she was steered on a westerly course, with the wind N.N.W., and so continued until the Falmouth light was sighted between half-past eight and nine o'clock in the evening, soon after which the course was by the captain's orders altered to W.1 S.; in ten minutes afterwards the captain again altered the course to W. by S., and in about twenty minutes he again changed it to W.S.W. That they continued on this course about an hour, when by the captain's directions the vessel was steered S.W., and a few minutes afterwards struck on the Manacles Rocks.

The wind then was, and since about eight p.m. had been N.N.W. The ship almost immediately afterwards surged off, whereupon the captain , finding the rudder gone, gave orders to run the vessel on shore with a view to save the lives of the passengers; she quickly filled and, ultimately, at about half-past ten, settled down about a quarter of a mile from the shore. The tide was then low, and the decks remained nearly free from water for two hours afterwards. During such periods ineffectual attempts were made to get out boats; only one of these, however, was launched; she subsequently broke adrift with five of the crew and a passenger on board her, and ultimately reached Coverack. That, as the tides rose, the passengers and crew were forced from the deck to the poop and rigging; during the night a large number of passengers were washed off the wreck, and about daylight the survivors were gallantly rescued by boats from the shore, manned by coastguard-men and fishermen.

That the captain and all the crew were saved, but, unfortunately, only from about seventy to eighty of the passengers. The captain having been incarcerated on a charge of manslaughter, did not appear at the meeting before us.

For a more particular statement of the circumstances that led to the terrible catastrophe, your lordships are referred to the accompanying evidence, upon which we now proceed to offer the following opinions;-

  That the ship was provided with four boats - three of which were inefficient, the other doubtful; that the lifeboat was neither stowed in the proper place nor prepared for immediate service as directed by the act; and to these circumstances probably the staving and loss of the lifeboat and the delay in endeavouring to get out the long boat are to be attributed.

  That, with the exception of one single lantern, there were no means on board the ship of making a signal of distress by night. We think that, had there been adequate means of making such signals, and had they been shown when the ship first got on shore, while the weather was moderate, the boats would have come off at an earlier period, and thus have rescued a much larger proportion of passengers.

  That with respect to the above deviations from the provision of the Passengers' Act, we consider that the Government emigration officers and owners of the ship are culpable.

  That, either from the ignorance or gross and culpable negligence of the captain, the courses steered by his orders were the direct cause of bringing the vessel on the Manacle rocks.

  That after the vessel struck, the conduct of the captain was most reprehensible in every respect; he appears to have taken no active means to save the lives of the passengers, did not assist them to leave the ship, quitted her himself while many of the passengers were still in the rigging and he and the mate were the only two persons who secured anything for themselves; the captain saving his cloak and the mate his quadrant.

  That the chief mate appears to be ignorant of his duties and responsibilities and is culpable in not having personally rendered assistance to the passengers.

  That the conduct of the crew, with the exception of Andrew Elder, and one or two others, appears to have been very bad, but would probably have been different had a better example been set them by their officers.

  That the conduct of the chief boatman of the coastguard and his men, and of a fisherman named James Hill, and others associated with them, in going to and taking the passengers and crew off the wreck, was highly commendable.

The circumstances of this case render it our duty to suggest to your lordships that in all passengers ships the first mate should be required to have a certificate of competency instead of one of services only, and that the number and nature of the night signals required to be provided by the owners of passenger ships should be specified.

We have the honour to be, my lords,
            your lordships' obedient servants,


Upwards of 100 of the bodies of the unfortunate persons who perished in the John have been recovered at St.Keverne, and all have been interred. The greater part of there were taken up by dredging. The whole of the passengers saved have now returned to their respective homes. An extraordinary and melancholy circumstance in connexion (sic) with this sad disaster is related. A respectable man , of South Molton, in the north of Devon, named Pincombe, with his wife and six children, were passengers in the John, and all of them perished. It appears that Mr. Pincombe would have gone out in another ship, but while corresponding with the owner for the purpose of getting the passage money reduced by £1, the berths were all taken, and he was obliged to wait for the John, in which, as we have said, he perished, together with his family.