Mitford, Miss Mary Russell


Notes on slips connected with Devonshire.

Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1877, Vol IX, pp. 354-360.


W. Pengelly, F.R.S.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The Note explores in some detail outcomes of the sudden tragic loss off Torquay, of the Belle Sauvage, a pleasure yacht with three friends on board, one of whom was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s brother. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Mrs. Barrett Browning: - Miss Mitford, speaking of "Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” in her Recollections of a Literary Life (3 vols., 1852), says, "She broke a blood-vessel upon the lungs which did not heal …… and after attending her for above a twelvemonth at her father’s house in Wimpole Street, Dr. Chambers ordered her to a milder climate. Her eldest brother …… together with other devoted relatives accompanied her to Torquay, and there occurred the fatal event which saddened her bloom of youth, and gave a deeper hue of thought and feelings especially of devotional feeling, to her poetry.

"Nearly a twelvemonth had passed, and the invalid, still attended by her affectionate companions, had derived much benefit from the mild sea-breezes of Devonshire. One fine summer morning her favourite brother, together with two other fine young men, his friends, embarked on board a small sailing-vessel for a trip of a few hours. Excellent sailors all. and familiar with the coast, they sent back the boatmen, and undertook themselves the management of the little craft. Danger was not dreamt of by any one; after the catastrophe no one could divine the cause, but in a few minutes after their embarkation, and in sight of their very windows, just as they were crossing the bar, the boat went down, and all who were in her perished. Even the bodies were never found. I was told by a party who were travelling that year in Devonshire and Cornwall, that it was most affecting to see on the corner houses of every village street, on every church-door, and almost on every cliff for miles and miles along the coast handbills, offering large rewards for linen cast ashore marked with the initials of the beloved dead; for it so chanced that all three were of the dearest and the best; one, I believe, an only son, the other the son of a widow.

"This tragedy nearly killed Elizabeth Barrett. She was utterly prostrated by the horror and the grief, and by a natural but most unjust feeling that she had been in some sort the cause of this great misery. It was not until the following year that she could be removed in an invalid carriage, and by journeys of twenty miles a day, to her afflicted family and her London home. The house that she occupied at Torquay had been chosen as one of the most sheltered in the place. It stood at the bottom of the cliffs almost close to the sea; and she told me herself that during the whole winter the sound of the waves rang in her ears like the moans of one dying. (Vol. i pp. 268-270.)

Torquay had become my home for upwards of four years before the occurrence of the fatal accident described by Miss Mitford, with all the details of which, so far as they were known, I was well acquainted; for it must be needless to say that it threw a gloom over the town which was not speedily dispelled. I am sorry to have to add that in her narrative the author has fallen, or has been led, into numerous errors.

From Miss Mitford’s version of the accident it appears -

1. That the boatmen were sent back, and did not accompany the party. 2. That the accident occurred within a few minutes after the party embarked. 3. In sight of the windows of Miss Barrett's lodgings. 4. And just as the yacht was "crossing the bar." 5. That no one could divine the cause of the catastrophe. 6. That the bodies were never discovered. 7. That of Mr. Barrett's two friends and companions, one was an only son, and the other the son of a widow.

I propose turning, not to my memory, but to the local contemporary newspapers and to parish registers to test the accuracy of the foregoing points.

Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post for July 16th, 1840, contains the following paragraph: -

"On Saturday last the Belle Sauvage, pleasure yacht, left Torquay for a trip to Teignmouth, with three gentlemen (namely, Capt. L. Clarke, Mr. Vanneck, and Mr. Barrett,) and an experienced pilot named White; as the Boat did not return on Saturday, as was the intention of the parties, considerable uneasiness was felt by their friends. During Sunday a rumour reached us, that a boat corresponding to the one missing was seen to sink off Teignmouth, this however wanted confirmation, and as there was a possibility that they might have gone to Exmouth, parties were sent to that place and along the coast to make inquiries, but without success; it however now appears that two boatmen belonging to ‘The Swan of the Warren’ of Exmouth, saw a yacht with four men sink as above named; and in consequence two boats well manned with grapnels, &c., were instantly dispatched to the spot where the Yacht is supposed to have sunk."

Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for Saturday, July 18th, 1840, gives the following more circumstantial account: -

“Fatal Catastrophe off our Coast ! Four Lives Lost! It is our painful duty to record the particulars of one of the most distressing occurrences that has taken place off the coast of Devon for many years past. The Belle Sauvage pleasure yacht, left Torquay for a trip to Teignmouth on Saturday last, having on board Capt. L Clarke of the Bengal Service, Mr. Vanneck, Mr. Edward Barrett, and a pilot named White, the whole of whom met a watery grave, the yacht being lost in a squall about four or five miles off Teignmouth. The yacht not returning to Torquay on Saturday evening, as was the intention of the unfortunate gentlemen, caused much uneasiness ; and as it was thought they might have put into Exmouth, persons were sent thither and along the coast to make inquiries. It had been reported at Budleigh Salterton, by a gentleman, that he had seen a boat at a distance suddenly go down, which answered the description of the missing yacht; but it was hoped that he had been deceived, and that the boat, with her crew, might yet be found. The rumour reached Teignmouth, Sidmouth, and throughout the line of coast on Sunday, and the Belle Sauvage not appearing, she was given up as lost; and all doubt was removed by the melancholy statement of Mr. R Wake, jun., of Heavitree. This gentleman was sailing up the Channel from Torquay in his yacht, on the afternoon of Saturday, when he observed another yacht about a mile a-head of him. The wind was high and squally, and Mr. Wake was making sail towards the distant bark, when he saw it suddenly capsize and go down, those on board being left to the mercy of the waves. Mr. Wake made all possible sail towards the spot, in order to render every assistance; but not a vestige of the yacht was to be seen, and every soul on board was engulphed in the yawning deep :

‘The hostile waters closed around their head; They sank, for ever numbered with the dead.'

.... Two boats, with grapnels, &c., were dispatched to the spot where the yacht sunk to search for the bodies; but up to last night none of them had been found, nor had any portion of the yacht been discovered A reward of £50 has been offered for the discovery of the first body. ..."

A very similar paragraph will be found in the Western Times newspaper for 18th July, 1840; and the same paper contained in its next issue (25th July, 1840) the following account of the inquest held on one of the bodies: -

"An inquest was held by J. Gribble, Esq., one of the Coroners for Devon, at the London Inn, Torquay, on the 17th and 20th instant, on the body of Capt. Carlyle Clarke, aged 35, when the following evidence was offered. Robert Couch, fisherman, stated that he saw the Belle Sauvage sail out from Torquay with all sail up, Mr. G. W. Vanneck was at the helm, and Captain Clarke and Mr. Barrett were seated at opposite sides of the vessel. W. White, the boatman, was attending the sails. They were shaping a course towards Exmouth. Henry Cousins, fisherman, was out in the ‘Ellen' on the 16th inst., and when four miles off Dartmouth he saw the deceased's body floating on the water, it was picked up by two men, sent in a boat from the  “Ellen," and brought on board, and ultimately taken to Brixham where it was identified. In the pockets were found 15s. in silver, a silk handkerchief, and some cigars, but no watch or rings were found. Samuel White, of the “Ellen," corroborated this evidence. Thomas Parker, master of the 'Swan’ yacht, belonging to R. Wake, jun., Esq., of Heavitree, stated that on the 11th instant he and Mr. Wake were aboard the Swan about 2 in the afternoon going to the eastward and between three and four miles off Teignmouth. They saw a yawl-rigged sailing boat about a mile to leeward with all sail set except the gaft top sail A heavy puff of wind came off the land and he saw the boat go down, and told Mr. Wake. The helm was immediately put down and they made sail for the spot, and continued beating about it for half an hour, but could not see anything. Verdict - 'Accidentally Drowned.' . . . ."

In a letter which appeared in the Western Times of August 1, 1840, Mr. Wake says "The vessel an open un-decked boat, with at least, as I have heard, two tons of iron ballast, and only one of the four persons could swim, when, as I believe, from carrying too much sail she was overset by a sudden squall "

The following statement appeared in Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for August 1, 1840, and in the Western Times for August 8th: - "The Hon. Mrs. Gerard Vanneck has been plunged into the deepest affliction by the untimely death of her son, Mr. Charles Vanneck, who was drowned by the upsetting of La Belle Sauvage, off Torquay. Mr. Vanneck was in his 21st year, and was the only son of the late Hon. Gerard Vanneck, brother to the present Lord Huntingfield, of Heveningham Hall, Suffolk."

The Western Times of August 8th also contains the following article: —

“ANOTHER OF THE DROWNED PERSONS FOUND NEAR TORQUAY"- August 5th, an inquest was held by J. Gribble at Torquay, on the body of the late Edward Moulton Barrett, Esq., aged 33 years. Mr. W. Jacob, of West Oowes, pilot, stated that while sailing off Torquay, he saw the body of the deceased floating about a mile and a half from the Great Rock, Torbay, bearing East, about 2 p.m., on August 4th; he proceeded to take the body into the boat, and brought it ashore, and on being examined it was found a little mutilated in the face and hands. The following articles were found on the deceased - a purse containing 16s. in silver, a gold watch and guard, a pocket handkerchief marked E. M. B., pencil case, cigar box, and a gold ring was found in the boat which fell off his finger; the watch was identified and owned by his father and servant. Similar evidence was given as that offered on the inquest of the late Capt. Clarke, and a similar verdict was returned."

So far as 1 have found, none of the local papers contain any mention of the recovery of the remaining two bodies ; but my search has been by no means an exhaustive one. There is no doubt, however, that the body of White the boatman was found, for in the Register of Burials at the parish church of Tormohun, Torquay, the following burials are recorded:- "Carlyle Clarke" on 30 July 1840. "Edward Moulton

Barrett on 6 August 1840, and ''William White on 11th August 1840. The words "accidentally drowned" are appended in each of the last two cases. In all probability Mr. Vanneck's body was also found; for, unless I am misinformed by persons who profess to have been, and probably were, well acquainted with the facts, one of the bodies was met with about, or east of, St. Alban's Head in Dorsetshire.

It appears from the Torquay Directory, which had not at that time developed into a newspaper, that the Torquay addresses of the unfortunate gentlemen were: - Mr. Barrett, 1 Beacon Terrace - long known as the "Bath House ; "Capt. Clarke, Webb's Royal Hotel; and Mr. Vanneck, 5 Beacon Terrace.

The foregoing newspaper gleanings are in complete accordance with my own recollections, and show that each of the first six of the points to which I called special attention in Miss Mitford's narrative contains an error. 1st. The boatman (not boatmen) was not sent back, but did accompany the party and was drowned with them. 2nd. The accident did not occur within a few minutes after the party embarked. Indeed, a considerable time elapsed before it was known to have actually occurred at all. 3rd. It occurred, not within sight of the windows of Miss Barrett's lodgings, nor in any part of Torbay, but 3 or 4 miles off Teignmouth. 4th. It did not occur just as the yacht was "crossing the bar." In fact, none of the Torbay harbours - Brixham, Paignton, Torquay - have bars. 5. The cause of the catastrophe is easily divined; and there can be no doubt that, as Mr. Wake remarked, the Belle Sauvage was "carrying too much sail," and "was overset by a sudden squall." 6. Of the bodies, three were certainly, and all were probably recovered.

With regard to the 7th point, it has been shown that Mr. Vanneck was both "an only son," and "the son of a widow ;" but the other of Mr. Barrett's companions - Capt. Clarke - was neither. His father and brother were well-known inhabitants of Torquay, and lived together in the Lower Terrace at the time of the catastrophe.

It cannot be supposed that Miss Mitford's statement will ever cease to be repeated by most of those who have occasion to speak of the accident. Indeed, though I have made no special search, some instances of such repetition have already come under my notice. Thus in an article quoted in the Western Express (a Bideford newspaper), of 8th August, 1876, from Cassell’s Library of English Literature it is stated that “In November, 1846, Miss Barrett became Robert Browning's wife and fellow-worker. For health she had been taken to Torquay, and there had received an almost fatal shock by witnessing the drowning of a much-loved brother."

It will be observed that the paragraph just quoted actually, and not unnaturally, adds to the error; for, whilst Miss Mitford says that the catastrophe took place "in sight of the very windows" of the Barretts' lodgings, she does not say that anyone really saw it from the house. The more recent writer, however, informs us that Miss Barrett "received an almost fatal shock by witnessing the drowning of a much-loved brother."

Again, in an article entitled, New Books - Biographies, in Blackwood’s Magazine for February, 1877 (No. 736, p. 195), the writer says of Mrs. Barrett Browning, "Her favourite brother, who had gone with her to Torquay, was drowned under her windows."

But all this is quite eclipsed in a little volume entitled, Clever Girls of our Time (2nd. Ed., 1862), and containing several Biographical Sketches. The second of these is of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (pp. 10-23), and is illustrated with a plate including four figures, representing an elderly gentleman and three ladies looking with painful eagerness on the sea from a sort of balcony. The gentleman, obviously Mr. Barrett, is supporting a lady, who it cannot be doubted is his daughter the poet. At the bottom of the plate are the words, "Miss Browning witnesses the drowning of her brother ;" and thus shows that the author has fallen, not only into the same error as the writer in Cassell’s Library of English Literature already quoted, but into the additional one of also making Mr. Barrett a spectator of his son's death; whereas the Torquay Directory shows that the father was not at Torquay when the tragedy occurred. A blunder is also made about the maiden name of the poetess, since the plate calls her Miss Browning instead of Miss Barrett.