A Social History: The Sinking of the ‘John’, 1855

During the 19th century, up to 10 million British residents emigrated to start new lives, largely driven by economic factors.

Many British emigrants who left, particularly in the first half of the century, were farmers, agricultural labourers, or skilled artisans and craftsmen from traditional trades; many emigrated in family groups and were from rural areas such as Devon and Cornwall.

The ‘John’ was a 468-ton sailing ship that traded primarily between the South West of England and the United States and Canada during the mid-1800s. It was one of three ships owned by mariners and merchants from Padstow and Plymouth. They transported emigrants to new lives and returned with cargoes of timber.

On Thursday 3rd May, 1855, the ‘John’ left Plymouth, bound for Quebec. She carried 271 passengers*, most of whom were residents of Devon and Cornwall, and 19 crew. Later that evening, she foundered on the infamous Manacles off the Lizard close to Porthoustock (aka ‘the grave of a thousand ships”).

The ship did not sink immediately, but inadequate lifeboats meant passengers could not use them; nor did the ship have rockets or flares. It was decided that the only option was to await daylight and rescue.

Sadly, as the tide rose, the passengers had nowhere to go other than the rigging.  Of the 271 passengers on board, 75 were women and 118 were children (aged 15 or under).

There are harrowing tales of parents unable to hold on to their children and, before the ship was discovered in the morning, 194 passengers had drowned.

There were reports that the Captain had dismissed concerns from passengers before it struck the rocks that they were sailing too close to the shore, and one witness claimed that the Captain had been drinking.

The tragedy sent shock waves that transcended borders, with newspapers reporting on the sinking across the globe. A Board of Trade enquiry was launched immediately. The Captain was charged with manslaughter and quickly tried at Bodmin Assizes. He was acquitted, and the blame was given instead to a poorly refurbished compass.

It was clearly an important trial, as the prosecuting barrister was ‘Serjeant Kinglake’. He was John Alexander Kinglake, a Serjeant-at-Law and Recorder of Exeter. He was unsuccessful in an election bid that year but later became an MP in 1857, but to bring out such a ‘big gun’ was indicative of how important the trial was to authorities. 120 bodies were recovered and later buried in a communal grave at St Keverne, where a small headstone stands visible today.

Content warning: the following story contains themes of death that some readers may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised.


It seems the enquiry was conducted by the Board of Trade and, to a lesser degree, the Coast Guard. An inquest commenced and a ‘Coroner’s Warrant’ was issued, with the Captain apprehended and lodged at Bodmin Gaol. Sadly, the arresting officers are not mentioned.

Almost a month after the wreck, on 31st May 1855, the body of a female washed ashore. Two local residents were observed to be ‘stealing’ sovereigns from the body. The newspaper report does not make reference to the police but states “… the matter having come to the knowledge of the Rev. Mr.Griffiths, vicar at St.Keverne, a warrant was issued for their apprehension”.

Both were convicted and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment, one to hard labour.

Words by Cf Systems