The Devonian 'Postman Poet', Edward Capern.

For a biography of the Postman Poet, click here,
but please also see Liz Shakespeare's site for details of her wonderful historical novel about this man: click here.

Otherwise a short essay follows, Written by John Lerwill, based on his own research and greatly aided
by research undertaken by Mrs. D. Guest at Birmingham.

Please click on the image to enlarge.
Capern's Grave

Edward Capern achieved national acclaim with his poem "The Lion Flag of England" (about the Crimean War) which was published as a broadsheet and sent to the troops. So moved was he by the poem that Lord Palmerston sent for Capern and awarded him a pension of £60 per year from the Civil List.

In 1866 at the age of 47 and after 15 years as a letter carrier (wages were now 13/= per week) he retired due to ill health. Reasons certified included varicose veins and the loss of sight in one eye. He received a pension of £8/9/5d a year. In 1868, the Caperns moved to Harborne near Birmingham to be near their only son, and here he published his last book of poems, "Sungleams and Shadows". He was, apparently, a friend and walking companion of Elihu Burritt, whose "Walk Around the Black Country and its Green Borderland" was published in 1869. (Capern Grove in Harborne to-day recalls Capern's time there).

Due to his wife's illness, the Caperns moved back to Devon, to Braunton in fact, in 1884. Edward Capern died on June 4th 1894, but his son, who was in Chicago, was not able to be home in time. Edward Capern was given a State funeral with his coffin draped with the Union Jack. A great humanitarian and social reformer, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, is said to have paid the funeral expenses. He was buried in the churchyard at Heanton Hill.

In a niche in the headstone over his grave is fixed the handbell which he used when delivering his letters in the Bideford district. and a verse by the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austen, is inscribed on the headstone:

O'lark like poet, carol on,
Lost in dim light, and unseen trill.
We in the heaven where you are gone
Find you no more, but feel you still.

A.H. Slee of Braunton (and historian) recorded that he knew Edward Capern when he (Slee) was a child, and he was made to recite the poem "The Mill, The Rill and The Bee". Slee said that "the Caperns were kindly folk and made many friends in our village. Capern was a great admirer of Gladstone and during election times he was often seen having heated arguments with political opponents".

The original manuscripts of his writings, two portraits of Capern and the post horn bugle he used on his rounds are said to be in the Bideford Public Library. His five published books of poems were:

1. Poems.
2. Ballads and Songs (1858).
3. Devonshire Melodist.
4. Wayside Warbles.
5. Sungleams and Shadows (1881).

It is not known for certain whether my gt-grandfather (William Lerwill) knew Capern in Birmingham, but since Capern lived not very far from William Lerwill, and William's son moved house to a street just round the corner from Capern's old home in Harborne, in the late 1880s, there is more than a hint of some kind of contact, particularly as William Lerwill was back at Braunton in 1881 ("The Clock in the Square") and that Capern moved on to Braunton in 1884. Further, Capern's apparent interest in politics and Gladstone seems to me to be partly a throwback to the achievements of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham from the 1860s and carried on after Chamberlain became an M.P. in the 1870s. Joseph Chamberlain's best friend, incidentally, was one Jesse Collings, from South Devon. Together with the Slees and others, Devon figures well in Birmingham history!

The following provides a much more full, description of Capern's life.
It was written by FRED FUZZENS, Postman, at Windsor, 1975.

This gem of information was so kindly supplied (since the initial creation of this page) by Allison & John Vandenbor in St. Thomas , Ontario, Canada. Allison is a relative of Edward Capern.


Rough stones from Nature's rudest bed,
Not shaped like those on beaches laid;
Unwashed by any classic surf,
They still retain their native turf.

EDWARD CAPERN "The Bideford Post"
Postman-Poet 1819 - 1894.

On Thursday, 2lst January 1819, Edward Capern was born at Tiverton in North Devon. Little did his parents realize that "Thursday's Child has far to go. "His father was by trade a baker and in 1821 the family moved to Barnstaple. Mrs. Capern became ill and spent the rest of her years confined to her bed.

The family were living in poor circumstances and at the age of eight years Edward was sent to work in a local lace factory where he spent long hours. The close work he was engaged upon affected his eyesight, the vision being impaired for the rest of his life. A kindly schoolmistress taught Edward to read and spell and he worked hard to teach himself to write. After much suffering Mrs. Capem died, and on October 17th 1846, the widower married a servant girl who was apparently illiterate, for she made her mark on the marriage certificate.

Edward by this time had become very versatile, performing such jobs as house-carpentry, portrait painting, and French Polishing. On October 26th 1847, he married Jane Trick, a 27 year old brunette who was a dressmaker, of Mill Street, Bideford. At 29 years of age, with no secure occupation, Edward found that his ability to read and write was to prove beneficial, for he was engaged by the Post Office as a messenger. So on 29th May, 1848, he began his duties which were between Bideford and Appledore, for the wage of 10/6 a week, The job involved reporting for duty every single day of the week.

Thrown out of employment in September 1849, in consequence of an alteration in the post, he was re-appointed on 27th December, 1851 as Messenger between Bideford and Westleigh, and subsequently transferred to the walk between Bideford and Buckland Brewer. Having become the father of two children, Charles and Milly, Edward and his wife we re in poor circumstances, but little did they know that their lot was to improve. For seven days a week Edward would set out from Bideford Bridge, armed with bell and posthorn. He would walk 13 miles to Buckland Brewer, though later he was provided with a pony and trap. The bell would be rung to warn the cottagers of his approach and the horn blown so that the valley dwellers would prepare their mail for collection.

There arose in Capern a desire to compose poetry and his contributions to a local journal drew the attention of Mr. F. Rock, a stationer of Wallbrook, who in 1856 secured subscribers for him to launch a fist book of poetry. It is interesting to note some of the names of those who subscribed. These included the Duke of Wellington, Lord Viscount Palmerston (Prime Minister), Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley and Rowland Hill. The First Edition of one thousand copies showed a profit of L150 for Edward and his family, So successful was the first book of poems that a second and third edition followed.

Many of the thoughts expressed in Capern's poems were composed as he performed his daily tasks, thus :

"He owns neither house nor lands,
His wealth is a character good;
A pair of industrious hands,
A drop of poetical blood."

There were also thoughts of a bygone age :

'When e'er I tread old By-the-ford,
I conjure up the thought,
'Twas here a Grenville trod
And here a Raleigh fought."

On reaching the village of Buckland Brewer, and having delivered the mail to the postmistress at the cottage post office, it was necessary for him to wait three hours before making the return journey. This time he occupied by sitting at a cottage table and putting pencil to paper and recapturing the thoughts that had occupied his mind whilst traveling over hill and down dale. A man of stout appearance, with clear ruddy complexion, it was said that his features resembled those of Oliver Goldsmith.

The "Rural Postman," a poem in his first publication, gives an insight into Capern's work as a letter-carrier :

"O the postman's is a pleasant life
As any one's, I trow;
For day by day he wendeth his way,
Where a thousand wildlings grow."

Of course there was inclement weather and this caused Capern to continue with:

"O the postman's is a blessed life
As any one's I trow,
If leaping the stile, o'er many a mile,
Can blessedness bestow.
If tearing your way through a tangled wood,
Or dragging your limbs through a lawn -
If wading knee-deep through an angry flood,
Or a ploughed field newly sown -
If sweating big drops 'neath a burning sun,
And shivering 'mid sleet and snow."

There was resentment at working on the Sabbath, and this is expressed in : "The Rural Postman's Sabbath":

"The mellowed sounds of Sabbath bells
Fall gently on my ear,
And as they break in murmuring swells
My heart is tuned to prayer.
In Sunday garb, all neatly clad,
With joy upon each face
The dame and sire, and lass and lad,
Approach the holy place.
'Tis true, in yonder sacred fane
I cannot praise my King;
Yet in the meadow and the lane
I will be worshipping,"

The poem that gave the poet national acclaim was "The Lion Flag of England". This was written at the time of the Crimean War and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was so moved by the poem that he sent for Capern, It was published as a broadsheet and sent to the troops. A pension of L60 a year from the Civil List was awarded to Capern. By this time Capern was receiving excellent reviews from the literary world, Walter Savage Landor began his review by writing :

"l have been reading Capern's 'Poems' with equal attention and delight", From the 'Athenaeum', to the following passage shows our poet's warm sensibility for nature, and the pure Beswick-like manner in which he studies as he runs about the country lanes for 10/6 a week" :-

"Dear Celandine, fresh from the green banks springing,
I hail thy visit to this world again .,. etc! "

Another accomplishment of Capem was that he taught himself to play the flute, and in 1858 published his second book "Ballards and Songs" a third book, "Devonshire Melodist" was followed by 'Wayside Warbles". The poet was in great demand at functions and would often be requested to compose a few verses for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays ect, An instance of his composing was on the twentieth birthday of one of his friends, Capern sent a rosebud with the following lines :

"A rosebud from my garden of delights,
To talk to thee through silent summer night
Of joy and beauty, purity and love,
With words as sweet as angels breath above."

Charles Kingsley became a friend of Capern and used his house to give lessons on the arts and drawing. One poem in the first volume of "Poems" was a special favourite and it is called :-


Bird of the Ocean,
Graceful in motion,
Swift in thy passage from inland to sea;
Oft I in fancy pace
Over thy dwelling place,
Dear to thy nestlings and precious to me.

Bright in eccentric flight,
Gleaming with purest white,
Floating through ether, all buoyant and free;
Raptured, I've seen thee swerve
From thy fantastic curve,
Dropping with call-note to sport on the lea.

Oft when the billows foam,
Far from thy native home,
Sheltered by woodland, near meadow and brook,
Over a rugged stile,
Thoughtful, I've leaned awhile,
Watching thee play with some blackamoor rook.

And on the shore I've stood,
Marking thy snowy brood,
Dive 'neath the silver wave, searching for prey;
Then to the surface rise,
Soar to the fleecy skies,
Coo to thy comrades, and hasten away.

Bird of the ocean,
Graceful in motion,
Had I the pinions of Genius to soar,
Wild as thy airy flight,
I'd on her wings of light
All the fair regions of Fancy explore.

On January 6th. 1866, at the age of 47, after 15 years service as letter-carrier, (by which time his salary had been increased from 10/6 a week to 13/-) ill health forced Capern to retire from the Post Office, The medical certificate showed that varicose veins and loss of sight in one eye were the cause of retirement. An application to the Treasury was "made by the Post Office for a pension and the following commendation made:

"Edward Capern, better known as 'The Bideford Post' - in which capacity he receives from the Civil List a pension of L60 a year has discharged his duties as postman with diligence and fidelity, to the satisfaction of his superior officer. "

The reply from the Treasury Chambers was :- "The Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury, having had before them Mr. Tilley's letter, dated the 7 March submitting the case of Edward Capern - Bideford and Buckland Brewer messenger for superannuation, I am directed by their Lordships to acquaint you that they have been pleased to award a Retired Allowance of Eight pounds, Nine shillings, and Five pence per annum to Edward Capern."

The tragic death of his daughter Milly had deeply affected Capern, in the second part of "Wayside Warbles", entitled "Willow Leaves", he mourns the loss with the following stanza :-

"We called her 'Precious', 'Lamb', and 'Sweet’,
And 'Pretty Cheek', 'Pet, 'Lily’, 'Dove';
Such names as mothers use above,
When they their missing infants greet. "

In 1868, in order to be near his only son, Capern left Bideford to reside at Harborne, a village near Birmingham. Here he was to publish his last book of poems, "Sungleams and Shadows".

Also residing in Harborne was Elihu Burrit, America's 'learned blacksmith' who was appointed consul in Birmingham by Abraham Lincoln in 1865. A friendship developed between the two men and they went on long walks, resulting in Burritt’s Walks around the Black Country and its Green Wonderland, 1869. Another activity of Capern was organizing concerts, the poor letter-carriers often benefiting from the generosity of one who had suffered in like circumstances.

Writing in the Preface of "Sungleams and Shadows", published in 1881, Capern penned the following words "As heretofore, I have sought inspiration in the field and in the lane, in the woodland and by the stream, the majority of the poems now presented to the world for the first time, have been composed during my rambles." On August 31st. 1875, Capern had suffered another tragic loss, his grand-daughter who had been named Milly, died, and was buried in Saltley Churchyard, Warwickshire. In the section "Shadows" the poet wrote "To my son on the loss of his little daughter Milly":

Son of mine! to see thee weep,
Opes a wound I dreamt had healed,
And the woe I thought asleep,
Wakes, and will not be concealed.

For again among the dead,
I am called to take my place;
By your little darling’s bed;
Mill, pretty babe o' grace,

Lay her in her little nest,
And let this comfort be,
What the Father does is best:
Time has taught this truth to me,

Who can tell the evil she
Might have suffered and have scent
No prevision, son, have we,
And life is as it bath been.

Meeting means but parting here;
Parting meeting far above;
Plant the willow, drop the tear,
But remember God is Love.

That Capern still retained a sense of humour is shown in his poem "To Clotted Cream" written in 1882, to a Devonian who had sent some as a present to the poet:

"Sweeter than the odours borne on southern gales,
Comes the clotted nectar of my native vales -
Crimped and golden crusted, rich beyond compare,
Food on which a goddess evermore would fare.
Burns may praise his haggis, Horace sing of wine,
Hunt his Hybla-honey, which he deem'd divine,
But in the Elysiums of the poet's dream
Where is the delicious without Devon-cream?" etc.

After his last volume was published, Capern wrote a few poems and in a letter to his friend Claud Vincent he wrote: "l wish you had been with me last evening, and shared my delight in looking on one of the most exquisite pictures that any human eye ever beheld - - - it was a scene that Turner would have revelled in, and striven in vain to paint":

"Such heavenly lights and pearly heights,
Such ruby reds and blues,
And amber tints and mystic hints
In softly-painted hues. "

In 1884, owing to the illness of his wife Jane, Edward decided that it would be best if they returned to his beloved Devon, Jane came from the village of Ashford, near Barnstaple. They took up residence in Braunton. A severe loss was suffered by the poet when in February 1894, Jane died and was laid to rest in the churchyard at St. Augustine's, Heanton Punchardon. The following June 4th, in his seventy-sixth year, Edward died, the cause of death being certified as "old age" on the death certificate, the grandson Archie being present as the poet drew his last breath. The following Saturday, a dull day, the funeral cortege made its way through the lanes to lay Edward to rest in the grave of his wife, No better resting place could have been found for it overlooks the beautiful country-side where he walked and composed his poetry. The sympathies of those who stood around the open grave went out to the son, who had arrived from Chicago too late to see his father alive, The Vicar read a few stanzas from one of Capern’s poems, "The Poet's Grave", in which he pictured the kind of place in which he would like to lie.

The expenses of the funeral were met by Baroness Burdett-Coutts, to whom he dedicated his second book of poems. Hanging in a niche on the tombstone is the bell that the postman-poet carried on his rounds, The poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, paid his tribute with the verse engraved below the bell:

"O lark-like poet! Carol on,
Lost in dim light, and unseen trill,
We, in the heaven where you are gone,
Find you no more, but hear you still."

Beneath is a verse that Capern wrote in the hope that he would be remembered :

"For some word I said, some thought immortal,
Winged with passing breath,
But more for one, true tender-hearted deed,
Since such sweet things the world doth sorely need.

For those wishing to visit the grave at Heanton Punchardon, it is profitable to walk the lane called Heanton Hill Lane. This is on the A361 between Barnstaple and Braunton. As one climbs the lane, there is a reminder of the surroundings that Capern enjoyed, with a profusion of wild flowers in the hedgerows. The llth century church comes into view with its 90 foot tower, with pinnacles set at an outward angle suggesting the form of a crown. The grave of Capern will be found adjacent to the path at the side of the church, with bell inset in the stone. It is significant that close to the grave are the resting place of 92 Allied Airmen of the 1939-45 war. The last post sounded many times in this churchyard and Capern hoped too that he would not be forgotten, when he penned the following verse:

"Content with obscurity’s nook,
His thoughts are prophetic and sag,
And death has sealed up his book,
You'll wish you had scanned o'er the page."

The Bideford Public Library is worth a visit, where Capern's original manuscripts can be seen. Hanging upon the wall are two portraits, one with the caption "Edward Capern , the Bideford Rural Postman Poet." Also on view is the small post horn bugle that was carried on the walk from Bideford to Buckland Brewer.

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