‘At Postbridge, in a rude cottage of granite blocks put together without mortar, and in the midst of a marsh. lived an old blind man, Jonas Coaker… When Mr Sheppard and I saw him he was aged eighty-three, and came downstairs for a few hours only in the day. He called himself “The Poet of the Moor,” but there was not a glint of poetry in his compositions. They were bad jingles, void of ideas.’ (Baring Gould, 2003, p.201).
The above passage is Baring Gould’s impression of Jonas Coaker the self-styled ‘Poet of Dartmoor’ who for nearly a century lived and worked upon the moor. Jonas Coker was born on the 23rd of February 1801 at a small farmstead known as Hartland in Postbridge. His working life was long and varied and began with the position of a servant-boy to the parson of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Mr Rendle. The parson died shortly after Coaker moved in but he was kept on by the new vicar, Rev. J. H. Mason. It was he who introduced the youngster to the realms of literature and learning which probably led to his interest in poetry. Jonas stayed in his employ until the age of 15 when he went to live at nearby Blackslade and worked for a farmer named Man. Hemery (1983, p.509) considers that whilst in Man’s employ he learnt the skill of wall building which was to prove very beneficial in later years. Here he stayed for about ten years before moving back to Postbridge to become a labourer. Amongst the many tasks he laid his hands to was that of building newtake walls which at the time would have provided many chances for work. Crossing (1966, p. 41) described Coaker as being, ‘One of the most noted newtake wall builders, next to John Bishop‘, which was praise indeed. Coaker was married on the 4th of October 1830 to his wife, Susanna Austin at Lydford church. By 1834 Coaker had become the landlord of The New House Inn which was the predecessor of the modern Warren House Inn. By all accounts this was not one of the more select drinking establishments of the area as most of its clientele were tin miners. In the census of 1851 Coaker and his family are listed as Jonas Coaker – age 49 – occupation gunpowder maker, Susan Coaker – age 48 and John Coaker – age 9, all living at Cherrybrook Bridge, (On-line source – Ancestry.com). Towards the end of his working days he became the rate collector for the parish of Lydford which would have taken him far and wide across the moor. When old age overtook him and he could no longer collect the rates Coaker retired to Ringhill Cott at Postbridge where he spent his final years. In the 1881 census Jonas was recorded as being a retired farmer boarding with Mary Hawke at Ringhill, (On-line source – Ancestry.com). Jonas Coaker died on the 12th of February 1890 aged 89. In the tradition of the old moormen his corpse was carried down the Widecombe Church Path for burial at the ‘Cathedral of the Moor’ in Widecombe. Sadly, his later years saw him blind, infirm and with a failing memory which he attributed to the over-use of his brain whilst composing his poetry.
In his younger days, Jonas was a long distance runner and it is reported that at the age of 35 he ran the twenty odd miles from Postbridge to Exeter in around 4 hours which was no mean fete. It will come as no surprise that his other talent was one for poetry which for the most of it reflected his Dartmoor experiences. Much of his work has only been printed in snippets although there are examples of some full poems such as the one about Widecombe. He described himself as:
I drew my breath first on this moor;
There my forefathers dwelled;
Its hills and dales I’ve traversed o’er.
Its desert parts beheld.’
Amongst the subjects of his poetry were the convict prison at Prince town, the Dartmoor military manoeuvres of 1873, aspects of religion and virtually every aspect of the moor, (Burnard. 1986, pp. 78 – 80). In the 1921 December edition of Notes and Queries, (p. 516) a writer suggests that a poem entitled, ‘Dartmeet’ which was noted in Everitt’s book, ‘Devonshire Scenery’ was the work of Coaker. In the book Everitt simply says that the poem came from the Visitor’s’ book from French’s Cottage as was simply signed ‘J. C.’.
A maiden fair from the West came down
Clad in a dress of the brightest brown;
‘Twas trimmed all o’er with silv’ry frill,
Spangled with white, like rippling rill,
If you gazed into her crystal eye,
With a liquid glance she passed you by,
Bounding and dancing with skippings fleet
Swift as Dart her lover to meet.
A dashing youth from the East drew nigh,
Dark grey was his suit, bright brown was his eye;
His buttons were silver, sparkling bright,
The lining silk, of a glossy white,
If stared at long, or gazed by chance;
‘Twas ever the same unflinching glance;
With a leaping, bounding, merry Dart,
He tried to meet but his own sweetheart.
It was here they met one wintry morn,
Never again were their lives forlorn;
No priest was required to make them one,
For their wedding day was known to none;
The stream of their lives right merrily sped,
Together they roamed where Nature led;
Their will was one, their purpose alone
In the sea of Love to lose their own.
J. C. (Everitt, 1884. pp. 103 – 104).
Now I am no expert but if you compare this with the Widecombe poem there seems to be the same naivety and a certain lack of something in both works which could well indicate they were penned by the same author? It is interesting to see how the words; East, Dart, Meet, West, Dart, here and sea or all picked out in italics thus giving East Dart, Dart Meet, West Dart and here sea (see?).
Having began with a rather insulting critique of Jonas Coaker it would be nice the redress the balance. This can easily be done by noting the comments of W. H. K. Wright in his book ‘West Country Poets’ where he says: ‘Coaker’s verses, which have been printed in fragments, disclose a poetic spirit, and had he possessed the advantages of education, they would, doubtless, have attracted some attention.’, (Hemery, p.510).
Baring Gould, S. 2003 Further Reminiscences 1864 – 1894. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.
Burnard, R. 1986. Dartmoor Pictorial Records. Exeter: Devon Books.
Crossing, W. 1966. Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.
Everitt, W. (Ed.) 1884. Devonshire Scenery. Exeter: William Pollard.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Hale Publishing.
Markland, R. 1921 Jonas Coaker – The Dartmoor Poet. In Notes and Queries. 12 S IX.
1851 Census – Lydford – found at: Ancestry.com
1881 Census – Lydford – found at: Ancestry.com