Saturday, January 07, 2012

Rolfe's Tarcissus and Thomas Reardon

I did think that I had already brought this little discovery to the blog but a search of my own archive suggests that maybe I haven't. One of the first publications I ever put out was a new edition of Rolfe's first published work, Tarcissus. The Boy Martyr of Rome. Rolfe paid for and arranged for the original publication himself whilst he was a school master in Saffron Walden. At the front of the poem was a list of some 22 sets of initials representing 22 boys, mainly pupils of Rolfe. Cecil Woolf in his edition of Rolfe's Collected Poems, identified a number of them and, almost in the way some people do soduko, I have been digging away at the others now for some years. This work has included at one point reading the entire census return for Saffron Walden for boys of the right age and checking all their initials against the list.

One of the ascpects of the list which has always remained a little mysterious, until now, was the death of the only fully named dedicatee Thomas Reardon (RIP). Cecil Woolf identifies him as a pupil of Rolfe's at Saffron Walden Grammar School, and there is a memorial card in the Rolfe collection in the Bodleian which makes it clear that Thomas died by drowning in the Thames in 1878. Only recently have I discovered the full tragic extent of Reardon's death and perhaps, in doing so, providing a greater context for Rolfe being moved to poetry. Reardon, in fact, was a victim of one of London's worst marine disasters, an accident on the Thames which shocked the country and filled the papers for weeks. There was a collision between the “Bywell Castle” and the “Princess Alice” on The Thames about 7pm on the 3 September 1878. The latter sunk with the loss of over 600 lives (The Times, Sat Sept. 14 1878 p.11) The Times reports a few days later that Thomas (16) was identified by his father but at that point his younger brother John (14) was still missing. There were so many bodies that a warehouse in the Woolwich Arsenal was put aside to house them and to allow for identification. It was a horrible incident and much more than the solitary drowning by misadventure that I had previously assumed befell the young Master Reardons. There is a lot of reportage of the event from the papers of the time but I have recently come across the above image of the disaster, sketched by an eye witness, that I think gives some measure of the scale of the tragedy.

[I have a number of Rolfe bits and pieces to blog in the next few days so do keep a weather eye in this direction if you are of a Corvine bent!]


Brian Busby said...

Your fine post brings to mind another maritime disaster that took place less than three years later on Canada's River Thames, just outside Canada's London.

This sad event inspired verse by our celebrated bad poet James McIntyre (he of 'Ode on a Mammoth Cheese' fame.)

If interested, I wrote about the disaster - and included poem and images - here.

J said...

It's a bit later, but here in the States, the General Slocum caught fire and sank in New York's East River on June 15, 1904. At the time of the accident, the passenger steamboat was on a chartered run carrying members of St Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church (from Little Germany, Manhattan) to a church picnic. The ship's safety equipment was old and useless, and the captain decided to continue his course rather than run the ship aground or stop at a nearby landing. Some passengers attempted to jump into the river, but the women's clothing of the day made swimming almost impossible. Many died when the floors of the overloaded boat collapsed; others were battered by the still-turning paddles as they attempted to escape into the water or over the sides. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died. The General Slocum sinking was the New York area's worst disaster--in terms of loss of life--until the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Vintagemaison said...

Obviously, easy to make a comparison with the Marchioness in 1989, but I hadn't heard about the earlier Thames disaster.

Anonymous said...

Reminds one a little of the circumstances that inspired Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland.

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