Ruined by a Fondness for Beer—Part I

I am sure you know the name Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). You might even be familiar with the English poet’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, or perhaps these lines ring a bell from your school days: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree’. But you may be less familiar with the name of Coleridge’s grandson, Derwent Moultrie Coleridge—a clever but reckless man with a fondness for beer. I’d like to introduce you.

Death notice_Freeman's Journal_11 Dec 1880, p. 11

Freeman’s Journal. 11 Dec 1880, p. 11.

Let’s begin at the end. Derwent Moultrie Coleridge died at his home in the Sydney suburb of Redfern on 5 December 1880. His death notice, published widely in New South Wales newspapers, describes him as the ‘first son of the Rev. Derwent Coleridge … grandson of the illustrious Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and first cousin to the Lord Chief Justice Coleridge’. An impressive lineage, but one, it seems, that that the younger Derwent Coleridge found it hard to sustain. In December 1882, the Anglo-Australian correspondent for the South Australian Register (who seems to have been somewhat tardy in his duties) wrote that he had just learned of Coleridge’s death. The London-based reporter began his reflection on Coleridge’s life with the words: ‘Derwent Coleridge was too fond of beer, and it was his ruin.’

Was alcohol really his undoing? Did he rebel against the elevated standards set by his family? And how did he come to end his days in the colony of New South Wales?

St Michael's Church, Helston

St Michael’s Church, Helston

Living in a Land of Poets

Let’s go back to the year 1828. Coleridge was born on 17 October in that year in Helston—a village roughly equidistant from Penzance and Falmouth, on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula—where his recently ordained father had accepted the curacy of the local parish. The Coleridge family’s social connections included the historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, the poet Chauncey Hare Townsend (later Charles Dickens’ literary executor), and the cleric and hymn writer John Moultrie. Another family friend was Coleridge’s godmother Emily Trevenen, herself an acquaintance of William Wordsworth and a friend of Charles and Mary Lamb. When Coleridge was still a boy, Trevenen published a small book of poems for him—Little Derwent’s Breakfast.

Frontispiece. Little Derwent's Breakfast.

Frontispiece. Little Derwent’s Breakfast.

The poems take the English lad through the contents of his morning meal: the locally produced flour, yeast, salt, milk, honeycomb and eggs, and other ingredients sourced from across the Empire: tea from China, coffee from ‘Arabia’, sugar from the ‘negro’-tended plantations of the West Indies. When Trevenen reaches the end of her lesson in food production, commerce and trade, she leaves Coleridge with some final thoughts in the poem ‘Farewell’. She expresses the hope that he will develop a thirst for knowledge and asks him to always remember the ‘honoured name’ he bears:

Be it your aim to keep in view,
What most that grandsire loved,
No thought to think—no deed to do‒
He would have disapproved.

The weight of family expectation! Coleridge, as his godmother desired, did continue to learn. (Well, he continued to be taught, which is not quite the same thing.) But whether he avoided thoughts and deeds of which his famed grandfather would have disapproved is rather less certain.

Charterhouse School (pre-1872)

Charterhouse School (pre-1872)

‘The Fastest of the Fast’

In 1841, Coleridge’s father moved from Helston to London to become the founding principal of St Mark’s, Chelsea, the second oldest residential teacher training college in England. Young Coleridge was sent to King’s College, Wimbledon, and then to Charterhouse in Clerkenwell. (William Makepeace Thackeray was a student at Charterhouse from 1822 to 1828 and portrayed the school, under the name ‘Grey Friars’, in his 1855 novel The Newcomes.)

His schooldays over, Coleridge went up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1847. Perhaps this is where his fondness for beer begins to influence his behaviour. Remember the South Australian Register’s Anglo-Australian correspondent who I mentioned earlier? He wrote that, at Oxford, Coleridge ‘was the fastest of the fast, and soon made the University too warm for him. Clever he was, but foolish … This was his character—utterly thoughtless and reckless.’ (Shades of Jane Austen’s George Wickham.) His cleverness does not seem to have tempered his recklessness. In Joseph Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses, a biographical register for all students who came up to Oxford until 1886, Coleridge’s entry is modest. There is no mention of his gaining a degree and no departure date is recorded. But depart he did.

According to the erstwhile Register reporter, when Coleridge ‘came down from Oxford for the vacation he turned his father’s Training College upside down with his mad pranks, and made all the grave youths training for school masters as wild as himself’. One suspects his behaviour did not commend him either to Oxford or to his family in London.

Where to next, then, for the dissolute son of an esteemed educator and grandson of a celebrated poet? Perhaps some family strings were pulled. In an unusual move for the time, Coleridge was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge, on 3 July 1850. His admission was based on the recommendation of the Reverend Richard William Jelf, principal of the young man’s former school, King’s College. Coleridge’s paternal grandfather had studied at Jesus College and his father was a student at another Cambridge college, St John’s. In a further anomaly for this era, Coleridge’s entry in Alumni Cantabrigiensis records no county of residence, nor is a place or date of birth provided. It is as if the young man slunk incognito into ‘the other place’.

He may also have slunk out again rather quickly. Although Alumni Cantabrigiensis confers on Coleridge the degree status ‘Bachelor of Arts’ in 1853, it is quite possible he did not successfully complete his studies and was not even still in England by that time. His name does not appear in the 1851 UK Census, but it is included in the list of ‘Passengers Inwards’ who arrived  at Port Adelaide on board the Thomas Chadwick on 8 March 1851. The ship had left London in November 1850.

Adelaide Times. 10 March 1851, p. 2.

Adelaide Times. 10 March 1851, p. 2.

Exile in the Antipodes

With his family probably in equal parts embarrassed and demoralised by his ongoing recklessness, Coleridge had been ‘packed off to Adelaide with a comfortable sum of money to try and be steady in the antipodes’. But it seems ‘the glorious climate of the sunny south was too intoxicating’ and Coleridge’s money was soon gone. The Register’s correspondent says that within a year the profligate youth had to ‘fall back upon his own resources and his university career’.

Initially, ‘his own resources’ seem to have offered limited opportunities. I’ll let the Register‘s correspondent continue the tale: ‘Within a year after Coleridge’s sailing, a young clergyman went also to Adelaide, and he was asked by relations to give an eye to this mad, wild fellow. Shortly after landing he took the opportunity in the Bishop’s Palace to ask Dr. Short if he happened to know anything of Coleridge. “Come to this window,” said the Bishop. “Do you see that heap of stones?” he continued; “well, if you had been here a week ago you would have seen Derwent Coleridge breaking them.”

Where to next for this young man cast off by his English family? Did he remember his godmother’s plea to respect his ‘honoured name’ and do nothing of which Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have disapproved? (Although, it must be said, ST’s well-known opium addiction gave his grandson some latitude.) Did he, at least for a time, re-shape his life according to respectable norms? Or did the intoxicating climate of the ‘sunny south’ seduce him into further drunkenness and dishevelment? Here’s a hint:

Geelong Grammar School advertisement_Argus_4 July 1859, p.8

The Argus. 4 July 1859, p. 8.

Not what you were expecting?

Stay tuned for Part II of Derwent Moultrie Coleridge’s peripatetic antipodean tale.

Links and Sources