A Herm tragedy: the drowning of the teenaged Walter St John, August 1597

Inscription from memorial at Lydiard Tregoze courtesy of Lydiard Tregoze house

An inquest into the death of the eldest son of Sir John St John, of Lydiard Tregoze, in Wiltshire, and his young tutor, who died trying to rescue his charge. They were swept away by the current, probably off Belvoir Bay, 18 August, 1597. Walter St John was under the protection of the Governor, Sir Thomas Leighton, and living at Castle Cornet. It is extremely unusual for evidence in a case like this to survive; this was retained because Walter's family connections meant an account of the inquest had to be sent to Chancery. The French text is given in the Second Report of the Commissioners into Criminal Law in the Channel Islands of 1848.

A Herm Tragedy: The drowning of the teenaged Walter St John, August 1597

19 August 1597, before Louis De Vick, Bailiff; also present Nicolas Martin, Snr., Guillaume Beauvoir, Andre Henry, Jean Andros, Jean Saumarez, Pierre Beauvoir, Jean Effart, Nicolas Martin Junior, George Guille, Jurats.

An inquest was held today, at the request of the Queen’s Officers, thoroughly to ascertain how Mr Walter St Johns, Esq., and Isaac Daubeney, his tutor, died; they were found drowned in the sea off Herm, on Thursday the 18th of this month.

Mr Pierre Carey, one of the Jurats of the Royal Court, says in his sworn statement,

That on Thursday, 18 August, 1597, the Governor having required him to go with him to Herm, to hunt deer, he had accompanied Mr Thomas Leighton Jnr. (his son), Mr Walter St Johns, Pierre Carey Jnr., son of the witness, and Samuel Cartwright, with their schoolmaster, Mr Isaac Daubeney, and several of the said Lord [Sr] Governor’s domestic Servants. When they got to Herm, the aforesaid gentleman with Carey and several of his Servants went off to hunt and left Daubeney with the children; he was to stay all morning with them, going through their lessons, following their usual pattern of work, until 9 o’clock in the morning. After which, Mr Nicholas Blake, their Music Master, had them singing until 10 o’clock. Once this was done, the Governor asked Daubeney to get them to say their prayers. And straight after he went to dine, accompanied by the children, this witness, Mr Daubeney, the Castle Porter, Guillaume Le Prevost and Nicolas Le Gros; while they were still at table, at the end of the meal, his children asked him if he would kindly give them leave to go and bathe. The Governor said no to them two or three times. And their teacher, Mr Daubeney, agreed and told them that it was not a good idea to go as it was not really warm enough. Nevertheless, begging their honourable father once again, he gave them permission to go, as long as some adults went with them. Straight after that the four children, along with their teacher, Mr. Daubeney, Jean Andros, and Jean Farell, the Governor’s barber (he had instructed these three not to allow the children to go too far into the sea), went off to the sea.

And that about an hour later, this witness, accompanied by Mr Blake and Roger Baker, were approached by Jean Andros with Mr Thomas Leighton Jnr., who told them that Mr Daubeney had drowned. Immediately he heard this the witness went over to the Governor, who was asleep in his tent, deep asleep, as he had been up since one o’clock in the morning, and pulled a couple of times at his cloak to wake him, apologised for waking his Lordship, but it was to let him know that Mr Daubeney had drowned (drowned, he said, alas); and as he was getting up, his son and Jean Andros told him that Mr Walter St Johns had drowned with him; the Governor straightaway became twice as upset and was so shocked that he remained frozen in astonishment and despair. Then this witness asked them where the bodies were. And they answered that they were still in the sea, which had swept them away. Therefore the witness ran to the scene as quickly as he could, along with four of the servants. When they got there, the witness called over Henry de Calleys and his crew, who was nearby in his boat, and they helped retrieve the bodies and placed them in their boat, and the witness and the servants set off in it. And they took the dead Bodies to Castle Cornet, the Governor coming with them in his sloop.

Mr William Taylor, gentleman, Porter of Castle Cornet, says in his sworn statement that on the morning of yesterday, 18 August, 1597, two or three hours before dawn, he got up to remind the Governor what time it was, as the Governor had ordered him to wake him very early in the morning so that he could go to hunting in Herm; he then asked the Governor if the children were going on the trip and should he wake them; the Governor said no. He said that if no-one had already woken them, they were not to be woken; however, when the witness passed the children’s room, on his way to send the boat into Town to fetch Mr Carey and the boat crew, who were going on the trip, he found Mr Walter St Johns up in his nightshirt, standing at his bedroom door; he asked him whether it was time to go to Herm, to which the witness replied no, that they were not going because the Governor did not want them to; the boy answered that the previous evening the Governor had told him that he and his brother Thomas could go with him. Then they got dressed and ready; the witness informed the Governor of this and that the boys wanted to go on the trip with him; their schoolmaster, who was nearby, told the Governor that if he wanted them to go, he would go with them and take their books and get them to study. The Governor, hearing this and taking into account that his Cook was ill in bed and that the Kitchen-boy had to come with him on the trip, and that there would be nobody to feed them, allowed them to come with him. As they had arrived in Herm very early in the morning, their Schoolmaster made them attend to their studies until 9 o’clock. Then their Music Master, Mr Blake, made them sing until ten. The Governor asked Mr Daubeney to lead the prayers and then they dined, as Mr Carey said, when, at the end of the meal, Mr Thomas Leighton Jnr asked his father if he and his brother Mr Walter and the others could go bathing. The Governor did not at first give in to their request, but after they had begged him a couple of times, he agreed that they could go, providing that a few sensible adults went with them to look after them. And Mr Daubeney, their schoolmaster, Jean Andros, and Jean Farrell, were ordered to go, and the witness says he did not see them again until they were in the boat, after the bodies had been brought out of the sea.

Mr Nicholas Blake gave a similar testimony to Taylor, and said in addition that he met Mr Thomas Leighton Jnr. and three others who came up to them crying, and saying that their brother, Mr Walter St Johns, had been drowned as well as his schoolmaster, Mr Daubeney.

Jean Jourdan, Roger Baker, David Morrice, Owen Roberts, Hughe Lambert, all recounted the same story as Taylor.

Jean Andros said the same as Taylor, and that after the meal Mr Walter St Johns came to find him to accompany him and the others bathing, and that he set out with Mr Daubeney and Jean Farell and the boys. And, as they were walking along the way, Mr Walter, more impatient than the others, unbuttoned his jerkin and removed it, gave it to Jean Farell to look after and went off like this to the East of Herm; and the said Mr Walter went into the water first. Mr Thomas Leighton, Jnr., Pierre Carey, and Samuell Cartwright were also over-excited and went into the water as well; by which I mean, the water came only half-way up Mr Thomas Leighton’s leg, and St Johns was only in up to his knees; then Mr St Johns said 'I am off to swim to my brother,' and as he got down in the water to swim, the sea swept him away so suddenly that Andros, who was hampered by being in the middle of taking off his shoes, could not help him; nevertheless he ran as fast as he could to some rocks nearer Mr St Johns, but on the way he fell and hurt his foot so badly he could not make it there; Mr Daubeney pulled off his clothes and jumped in the water and swam very strongly to Mr St Johns and told him to get on his back, which St Johns did. But unable to keep control of himself, Daubeney rolled around so much we lost sight of him and he did not resurface. And St Johns cried out to Andros to come and help him, and at this the said witness threw himself into the sea and as he could not keep control he was entangled in sea-grass, so much so that he was rolled head over heels and nearly drowned. He saved himself with great difficulty, using a rock he found in the water; and so it was that Daubeney and St Johns drowned.

Jean Farell told the same story as Taylor, with the addition that [after having got to] the sea the children went in to the water as Jean Andros said, and says that he saw Mr Leighton, who was only in the water up to his mid-leg, and St Johns, who was in no deeper than his knees; and when St Johns announced he was going to swim to his brother he got down low, and the tide carried him away so fast that the witness started to go in after him to fetch him back; he had not taken two steps before he found himself in very deep water, and he swam after St Johns but was unable to reach him, and it was very hard work to save himself, which he did with great difficulty by swimming to a rock and clinging on to it. For the rest his story agrees with Jean Andros.

Jean Bohyer says that, having run to the place where they were drowned, he went about five feet deep into the water, and when he put his head and shoulders in he found Mr Walter upright, caught up in the weed; he took hold of him and with great difficulty brought him to shore, where Mr Carey was. Jean Jourdan and David Morrice saw him bring the body ashore. David dressed him in his shirt and Mr Carey asked him to put the body in a nearby boat, along with the body of Mr Daubeney; and thus were they taken to the Castle.

Jean Jourdan and David Morrice agreed with Taylor, and said that they were present when Jean Bohyer pulled Mr Walter St Johns’ body out of the water and on to the shore, ... Roger Baker, Owen Roberts, and Hewgh Lambert corroborated Taylor’s story.

Guillaume Le Prevost, Nicollas Le Gros, Jean Le Marivel, Jean Vauldin, Amos Le Poytevin and Aymes Mutell said that they were all six in the Governor’s sloop at Jethou, and that when they came they were all astonished at the news. Henry de Calleys, Andre Marche, Collas Mauger, Jean Herm, Hillaire Godefroy, Robin de Bertrand, Thomas Le Guignon, Michell Nicolle, Samuell des Paulx, and Isaac Roberts, said that going with their net¹ in order to fish for rayfish upstream, Mr. Pierre Carey called them to look for the drowned bodies, and that they went to the place where they had been drowned, called the Mouillierres, the body of Mr Daubeney on a rock lying on his stomach, his feet dangling in the water on one side of the rock, and his head on the other. They dragged him into their boat and dressed him in his shirt. The body of Walter St Johns was also given to them, and they took them both over to the Governor’s sloop and from there they bore them over to the Castle.

In her book The Channel Islands, Edith Carey makes this observation upon the accident:

This occurrence gives colour to the theory that the east as well as the west coast of Herm may have been encroached upon by the sea in comparatively recent times; for the present beach of Belvoir is quite flat and sandy, and such an accident would be practically impossible nowadays. But if at that date the shore extended to the now isolated rock called Coq Robert, where the land suddenly shelves downwards and where masses of seaweed abound, such a catastrophe could easily be explained.

¹ They take their saffre in order to saffrer. Elie Brevint defines this in his Notebook §40 as 'A net to catch rayfish.'