In Part II of ‘On Being Ruined by a Fondness for Beer’, I left Derwent Moultrie Coleridge languishing in Sydney’s Darlinghurst Gaol. Having had the misfortune to find employment at two schools that then closed down (Geelong Grammar School in Victoria and St Mark’s Collegiate School in Macquarie Fields west of Sydney), Coleridge had resorted to the companionship of an old friend—alcohol.
An Elegiac Mood
But all is not yet lost for the banished son of a distinguished British educator and author. Coleridge combines his drinking with the family trade—writing. The rhythms of 19th century English poetry would have been second nature to Coleridge. He had grown up under the influence of his grandfather (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), his uncle (Hartley Coleridge), and his family’s friends and acquaintances (including William Wordsworth and John Moultrie).
Coleridge’s first published poem (as discovered to date via Trove Australia) appeared in the Empire newspaper on 29 May 1866. The poem is a lament for the death in Sydney of the 20-year-old Louis d’Orléans, Prince of Condé (the first member of a European royal family to visit Australia). Louis had been part-way through a world tour when he arrived at Port Jackson in April 1866, but he was not in good health and news of the death of his grandmother, Maria Amalia, ‘was so severe as to cause a fatal relapse’. His funeral procession took place before a ‘multitude of spectators’ who voiced frequent ‘exclamations of sorrow’ (Empire 29 May 1866: 5)—a sentiment echoed in Coleridge’s ‘plaintiff requiem’.
Oddly enough, Coleridge’s next poem could have had a similarly mournful theme. In March 1868, Sydney’s newspapers published horrified reports of the assassination attempt on Queen Victoria’s 21-year-old son, Prince Alfred. (Alfred was the second European royal to attempt an Antipodean tour—one wonders whether his nephew, the future King George V, felt some trepidation when he set foot in Sydney in 1881 as the third royal visitor). Alfred survived his gunshot wound, and Coleridge was able to write a hymn of thanksgiving rather than another requiem. The hymn (set to music by William Cordner) opened a promenade concert in Hyde Park to celebrate the prince’s continued recovery.
Coleridge’s thanksgiving poem was published first in the Sydney Morning Herald (21 March 1868: 6) and then in newspapers across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It also found its way into a poetry collection titled Prince Alfred’s Wreath. The book’s proceeds were directed to a public subscription fund (established no doubt with pangs of loyalist relief) that resulted in the building of a new Sydney hospital named in the prince’s honour—the Royal Prince Alfred.
Coleridge’s melancholic march continued some years later with a poem for the funeral of the famous explorer and prominent landowner William Charles Wentworth. (Wentworth had died in England in 1872 but, in accordance with his wishes, his body was returned to Sydney and a state funeral conducted in May 1873.) Coleridge’s maudlin theme flowed on into 1874. In March, he published a short poem honouring the recently deceased comic actor Charles Young and, in May, he took up the cause, on the widow’s behalf, of Emmanuel Jacinto (aka Jesson), a Portuguese man who had drowned in a boating accident on Watsons Bay.
Between the 1868 assassination attempt and the 1874 death of Jacinto, Coleridge’s poems appeared sporadically in colonial newspapers and he found some employment on the staff of Sydney’s Punch magazine. Despite his modest success, he remained financially dependent on his parents. The preface to the 1872 Punch Staff Papers (which included four of Coleridge’s poems) makes the situation plain: the ‘literary man’ in Australia is ‘comparatively underpaid’, ‘despised for his poverty’, and his talent is ‘unappreciated’ (iv).
A ‘Most Particularly Short Man’
Perhaps seeking another string to his impecunious bow, Coleridge tried his hand on the stage. At Sydney’s School of Arts in 1876, he joined the company presenting Pickwick, a play based on Charles Dickens’ novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Coleridge played the role of Mr Justice Stareleigh. In Dickens’ novel, Stareleigh is ‘a most particularly short man, and so fat, that he seemed all face and waistcoat’. He had ‘two queer little eyes’ and ‘one broad pink face’.
Did Coleridge’s own physique match that of the fictional character? Certainly he was a short man, standing at a height of only 5’ 3” (160 cm). This fact is recorded plainly in one of Darlinghurst Gaol’s entry books.
A Further Fall from Grace
While the name ‘Derwent Moultrie Coleridge’ crops up in 19th century newspapers as a ship’s passenger or when letters from home await his collection, and when he finds employment or attends social engagements, it unfortunately also appears in court reports and prison logs.
The first court appearance is in 1868 when Coleridge is brought before the water police magistrate on a charge of drunkenness and is faced with the choice of a five-shilling fine or two-days’ imprisonment (The Sydney Morning Herald 11 June 1868: 2). The following year, he is charged with riotous behaviour; this crime escalates his choice of punishment to 20 shillings or seven days in prison. Sadly, the publication of Coleridge’s name in the literary pages seems to coincide with its appearance in the lists for the magistrate’s court.
Eventually, Coleridge’s name finds its way into one further section of the newspapers— the ‘Family Notices’ (i.e. Births, Deaths and Marriages)—but not before one final twist in the tale. In 1875, now aged in his late forties, Coleridge is again brought before the water police court. He is fined for drunkenness and ‘bound over to keep the peace for six months’ (The Sydney Morning Herald 1 Nov 1875: 5)—a sentence inferring some resort to violence on Coleridge’s part. The charge itself is not unusual, but the person laying it is cause for interest. The complainant is a woman named ‘Emma Taylor’. Now, fast forward four years. Coleridge pops up once more in the Herald‘s pages, this time under the ‘Marriages’ heading. And who does he wed? … a widow by the name of Emma Taylor.
Was she the same woman who laid the complaint against him? Very probably. (As ever, further research is required to establish this.) In any case, the marriage was short-lived. Less than two years later, Coleridge was dead from a ‘diseased liver’ (unsurprising for someone addicted to alcohol) and the medically vague ‘effusion on the brain’.
One Last Journey
On the 7th of December 1880, at 8.15 in the morning, Coleridge’s funeral procession left his residence in Cleveland St, Redfern. The cortege, destined for Mortuary Station en route to Rookwood Cemetery, would have moved along a street inhabited by blacksmiths and stonemasons, coachbuilders and compositors, ironmoulders and collarmakers. (Coleridge’s old Redfern address still reflects its era’s economic times—the University of Sydney’s School of Information Technology now stands on the site of 33 Cleveland Street.)
Derwent Moultrie Coleridge, grandson of the famed poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had been sent into exile as punishment for alcoholism, financial recklessness and moral delinquency. His 30 years in the colonies of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales ended without producing the hoped for rectitude. His death did not even yield an ode of lament from his literary acquaintances. Perhaps his father’s assessment, in an 1874 letter to John Moultrie, can stand in place of a eulogy: Coleridge was ‘an odd mixture, with some talents, no judgement, much kindliness, little principle … [and] no temperance’.
Links and Sources
Items sourced via Trove Australia’s digitised newspapers resource:
- ‘The Prince de Conde.’ The Sydney Morning Herald 27 April 1866: 4.
- ‘The Funeral of His Late Royal Highness Coeur de Louis d’Orleans, Prince de Conde.’ Empire 29 May 1866: 5.
- Coleridge, Derwent Moultrie. ‘Thanksgiving Hymn.’ The Queenslander 28 March 1868: 6.
- Coleridge, Derwent Moultrie. ‘Charles Young, Comedian.’ Evening News 31 Jan 1874: 2.
- Coleridge, Derwent Moultrie. ‘For Your Charity’. Evening News 9 March 1874: 2.
- Advertisement for Pickwick. The Sydney Morning Herald 8 Nov 1876: 2.
- ‘Water Police Court.’ The Sydney Morning Herald 11 June 1868: 2.
- ‘Water Police Court.’ The Sydney Morning Herald 1 Nov 1875: 5.
- ‘Marriages.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 24 Feb 1879: 1.
Other online sources:
- Dickens, Charles. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall, 1837.
- Sands Directory: 1880‒1889.
- ‘RPA History.’ Royal Prince Alfred Hospital: RPA Museum & Archives.
People named in this post with entries in the Australian Dictionary Biography:
- Gibbney, H. J. ‘Edinburgh, Duke of (1844–1900).’
- Lea-Scarlett, E. J. ‘Cordner, William John (1826–1870).’
- Persse, Michael. ‘Wentworth, William Charles (1790–1872).’
- Rutledge, Martha. ‘Young, Charles Frederick (1819–1874).’
- Yarrington, W. H. H. Prince Alfred’s Wreath: A Collection of Australian Poems. Sydney: A. W. Douglas, 1868.
- Coleridge, Derwent. ‘May 6th, 1873.’ (This is Coleridge’s poem for the funeral of William Charles Wentworth. Possibly the only extant copy of the poem is held at the State Library of NSW. The library catalogue mistakenly attributes the work to Coleridge’s father, also named ‘Derwent’.)
- Punch Staff Papers. Sydney: Punch Office, 1872.
- Coleridge, Derwent (Snr). ‘Letter to John Moultrie’, in Hainton, Raymonde and Godfrey Hainton. The Unknown Coleridge: The Life and Times of Derwent Coleridge 1800-1883. London: Janus, 1996, p. 240. (A biography of Derwent Moultrie Coleridge’s father.)