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West Country Poets

Portrait of Jonas Coaker

JONAS COAKER (1801-1890)

Jonas COAKER, the Dartmoor poet, was born at Hartland, Post Bridge, on February 23, 1801.  His family came from Holne.   Jonas began life as a servant-boy to Parson RENDLE, of Widecombe, and remained in his service until he was fifteen, when he went to reside with a farmer named MAN, who lived at Blacklade, in the same parish.  Here he lived for about ten years, and then returned to Post Bridge, picking up a living as a labourer.  His favourite occupation was building newtake walls, and he reckoned he had a talent for this, in addition to the faculty he possessed of verse-making.  Later on, he became landlord of the New House, or Warren House Inn - a dreary spot, though much livelier then than now, as Vitifer and other mines were then in full swing.  Jonas used to get rough customers at times, for on one occasion a crowd of miners helped themselves to his liquor, and the landlord had to take to the moor to 'hidey-peep', as the old man termed it, until matters cooled down a little.  The old man had many stories to tell of moorland experiences and dangers.  He was man of fine physique, and in his youth was a long-distance runner; he was proud of an exploit of his at the age of thirty, when he ran from Post Bridge to Exeter, a distance of twenty miles in little over four hours.  No mean feat when the hilly character of the country is taken into consideration.

In October, 1888, a friend called to see him, and found him almost blind, but with intellect still active.  He, however, complained of his failing memory, accounting for it by saying that as he had always possessed a genius for poetry, he supposed he had over-whelmed his brain with over-much studying.   Latterly Jonas was the rate-collector for the parish of Lydford, and when he became too infirm for this he resided at Ring Hill, where kind and considerate attention soothed the few remaining years of the Dartmoor poet.  He died February 12, 1890, and his remains were carried, in the olden style, to Widecombe and buried on the Sunday following.

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.  Describing himself, in his poem on Dartmoor, he says:

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.'
He proceeds then to describe its hoary hills, round which so many storms have raged in vain - 'its soft rivers,' and  'its granite piles.'  Something, too, of its climate he tells us -
It's oft enveloped in a fog
  Because it's up so high.'
Another verse displays the amount of historical knowledge which has penetrated to this far-away poet's-corner,' and describes a feature of the moor, which, though we may criticise the use of the word 'ornament,' as applied to it, has lately had its interest enhanced by becoming the abode, for a space, of a very celebrated and truly great man.
'Another ornament we find
  Stands on the dreary moor,
Which was first build and designed
  For prisoners of war.

'But now its turned to other use,
And convicts are put there,
Whose labours make the land produce
Much better than before.

'Hundreds of convicts now are placed
  To cultivate the land,
Which ever was a desert waste,
  Untouched by human hand.'

Dr. Johnson was pleased to define a tax-collector as a 'wretch hired to collect a hateful impost.'  Had he known our genial poet, he had thought better of his class, and would, perhaps, like many another, have gladly joined company with him and his red bag, as they pursued their rounds together.  The great Doctor might have heard, in the quaint language of Devon, many a strange tale of moor and fen, and might, possibly, have modified many of his opinions of things in general.

In a modest apology prefixed to a poetical 'Sketch of the several Denominations in the Christian World; with a short account of Atheism, Deism, Judaism, and Mahometanism,' (Tavistock, 1871), Jonas COAKER informs us that 'he is of a penetrating and inquiring mind' and that he has read 'the most intelligent books and histories,' so that his conversation must naturally prove not only entertaining but instructive.  In the summer of 1873, Jonas COAKER had much stirring of spirit anent the Dartmoor manoeuvres.  Happily the rain which damped valour did not wash away genius, for our poet gave a description of the manoeuvres that offers a lively contrast to the more hackneyed and technical efforts of mere newspaper correspondents/  In the place of paltry accounts of what was done and monotonous comments on the weather, he has given a fuller and more original description of the bedizenments of England's defenders that the reader will find elsewhere.  The poem is too long for publication here.  [We are indebted to Mr. Robert BURNARD for the portrait which accompanies this notice, and also for some of the biographical details.]

Transcribed by Sandra Windeatt from: Wright, W.H.K., (1896) West-Country Poets:  Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, pp.99-101.

Last updated 22 Jul 2011 - Brian Randell.

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