A Cornish Seaman
by Maureen Storey
This article was originally published in the August 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
In 1871 Stephen and Margaret Sawle were living at 2 Hedley Terrace, Porthscatho, Cornwall, with their five children. According to the censuses, Stephen was then about 40 years old and a master mariner. Stephen and Margaret had two more daughters while living at Porthscatho and then after 1874 the family vanished from the UK records.
The obvious explanation was that they emigrated but to where? With no clues as to their destination the fate of the family remained unknown to the Society for several years. Then in 2002 a review of a booklet entitled ‘A Cornish Seaman’ appeared in the journal of the Cornwall FHS. This booklet, which told the story of Stephen’s life in the form of a poem, was written by his eldest son William, with additional information about the family given in a note by Elizabeth Sawle Jones, one of Stephen’s grand-daughters. Usually when piecing together a family tree we have only bare facts to go on. We can use what we know of the conditions of the time to surmise what life must have been like in the nineteenth century and guess what motivated a family’s decisions but it’s only very rarely that we get to know what actually happened and why. A Cornish Seaman provides just that insight into Stephen Sawle’s life.
Stephen was born on 4 October 1830 in Porthscatho, a fishing village in the parish of Gerrans on Cornwall’s Roseland Peninsular. He was the son of Stephen Sawle and Charlotte Sawle who married at Gerrans in 1822. It isn’t presently clear from the records what if any was the connection between Stephen’s and Charlotte’s families but both Sawle families produced long lines of seamen. Stephen, senior, was a master mariner (he is listed as the master of the Hero of Falmouth in 1835).
Until the age of 10, Stephen junior led the comparatively carefree life of a schoolboy but childhood didn’t last long in those days and at 10 he undertook his first voyage as a member of the crew. However, unlike most of his village friends, after that first voyage Stephen returned to school for a few more months so that once he’d finished his basic training he would be able to follow in his father’s footsteps and get his master’s ticket, which he did in 1851.
In all Stephen spent 33 years as a seaman. Although he came from a small fishing village, he was not in fact a fisherman but worked on cargo vessels. Typical outward cargoes were coal, ore, china clay, grain and fish, whilst the goods brought back included timber from Norway, citrus fruits and wine from France, Spain and Italy, dates and figs from Smyrna and dried fruit from Crete.
After getting his master’s ticket Stephen bought the Naiad of Falmouth. Built in Plymouth in 1839, the Naiad was an eighty-foot, two-masted vessel with a capacity of 200 tons. As a deterrent to the pirates that she was likely to encounter in the Mediterranean, her sides were painted to look as if she had fourteen gun ports, though in fact she carried only one gun. Danger came in many forms at sea in addition to the threat from pirates: many lives were lost due to storms, accidents and sickness. In addition, the need to deliver the goods as quickly as possible – there was usually a £10 bonus for quick delivery – inevitably led many captains to cut corners, but Stephen was said to be a careful seaman and an excellent navigator who seldom took risks. Other sources of danger were not so obvious. In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War Stephen went ashore in Cherbourg to discuss business and was promptly arrested as a spy. Luckily he spoke enough French to be able to convince the authorities that he was English and there on business and was released after only one night in prison.
In 1857 Stephen married Margaret Rowe Dunn, a farmer’s daughter, and they set up home in Porthscatho. Although Stephen enjoyed the sailor’s life, Margaret found it hard to cope with its uncertainties and dangers – ten local ships were lost, most with all hands, between 1860 and 1873 – and she dreaded the time when her sons would join their father at sea as they inevitably would if the family remained in Porthscatho.
One of Margaret’s cousins had emigrated to the USA and his letters home describing it as a land of opportunity gave her the idea that the family could move there and become farmers rather than sailors. She eventually convinced Stephen to emigrate in order to give their children a better chance despite his misgivings about being able to adapt to a farming life. They sold the Naiad to raise the capital they needed to pay for their passage and buy a farm. The family left England on 31 July 1875 and landed in New York on 8 August. They headed for Wisconsin where friends had told them that the land was fertile and the climate was good and they arrived at Arena Railroad Station, exhausted but eager to begin their new lives on 13 August.
They spent six weeks looking around the area before buying a farm not far from Arena. However, life was very hard for the first few years – not only did Stephen know nothing about farming but they soon found that Wisconsin was not the land of milk and honey they’d been led to believe. They struggled through years of debt, with their wheat attacked by chinch bugs, poor stock and a house that was little more than a shack. Eventually it was realized that the land in Wisconsin was better suited to dairy than to arable or mixed farming and the farmers began introducing dairy herds. Dairy factories and creameries grew up alongside the farms and the local economy began to improve. The Sawles followed the move to dairy farming and they finally began to prosper. Though Stephen never really adapted well to the farming life – he never learned to milk a cow or drive a team hitched to a plough –with the help of his family he managed to make a success of his farm, Rosevale.
Stephen Sawle died in 1910, just a year after Margaret. They left 9 children and 21 grandchildren and a thriving 500-acre farm. After their deaths, their eldest son William took over Rosevale and lived there with his nine children. William wrote ‘A Cornish Seaman’ at the age of 88 as tribute to his parents. His choice of telling the story in verse may seem unusual but in fact he was following an age-old Cornish custom. Most people are familiar with the Welsh bardic tradition but not many are aware that the tradition is also followed by their fellow Celts in Cornwall. William’s verse may not be ‘great’ poetry but it paints a vivid picture of his parents’ lives in both Cornwall and the USA.
Postscript: Anyone curious about the fate of the Naiad will be interested to learn that she was wrecked not long after the Sawles sold her. She ran aground in fog on the Manacles, a notorious rock formation just off the Lizard..
Sources: Gerrans parish register; 1851 and 1871 censuses for Portscatho; A Cornish Seaman: Captain Stephen Sawle 1830-1910, published by Hilary Thompson and available from her at Chenoweth, 1 The Quay, Porthscatho, Truro, TR2 5 HF n
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