George James Caple, photographer and date unknown. Courtesy Ann Toler
Man’s life a vapour, full of woes
He cuts a caper, and down he goes
The above words were a favourite saying of George James Caple, the youngest son and child of George Caple and Harriet Cross of Albert House, later called Peterhurst, in Copse Road, Clevedon in Somerset, England. George James (probably named for his two grandfathers George Caple and James Cross) was born in 1844 and baptised at St Andrews Church in Clevedon on 15th December 1844.
George was educated at the British School and he became a newspaper proprietor, editor and journalist with much ambition and great entrepreneurial skills.
George wrote about his beginnings in the newspaper business himself:
…as a youth I joined Mr. Dare to learn the business, but from the first to last received no pay.
The paper was hand printed on a Stanhope Press; there were also one of the earliest wooden presses and an Albion Press for printing circulars and cards. The whole outfit was very crude and we were always “out of sorts” (insufficient type). I soon became adept in the art of wood letter cutting, and when we were really hard up we got material from the Weston office, as old Mr. Dare helped his son all he could.[i]
From 1863-85, George pursued his dream of making journalism and printing a success with the start of publishing of the local newspaper he called Clevedon Mercury. Although very young at the time, being only 17 years of age, he must have had the necessary business acumen and competency as a journalist for the job, as for many years after his departure from the Clevedon Mercury, he was always credited with building the solid foundation upon which, for decades later, the newspaper continued to grow.
His enterprise started very modestly. Working all through the night of 23 January 1863 in an outbuilding of the property owned by his father in Copse Road, he worked to put the finishing touches to the first issue. As George said:
I was about 17 years of age, with little experience, but I fought hard, and was a proud young man on that auspicious Saturday morning when I read my name on the head of the paper and felt myself to be a full-fledged proprietor, editor, reporter, compositor, pressman and printer’s devil all in one, for I had no help whatever. I sold 300 copies, sold them to the shops and sold copies myself, and got a number of subscribers; although I had been working all night I was a young cyclone that morning.[ii]
When he was about 25 years old he married Emily Bubb who was born in Bristol in 1844. She and George lived in the same premises in which the Mercury was printed at Gutenberg House, Alexandra Road, Clevedon. Gutenberg was the inventor of mechanical moveable type printing that started the printing revolution in the 15th century and which laid the basis for the spread of learning to the masses. Together they had seven children:
Lionel Ernest George 1870 – 1942 Edith Isobel 1872 – 1949
Reginald Weir 1873 – 1922 Ida Winifred 1875 – 1945
Walter Lacey 1877 – 1964 Kathleen Gladys 1878 – 1958
Percival Douglas 1881 – 1965
After The Mercury was floated as a public company in 1885, it seems George decided to seek his fortune elsewhere and sailed for America. I think he arrived in New York per Wisconsin in August 1886, just before the winter. From the articles he wrote for various newspapers he does give a timeline of his movements, although the years are hard to tie in exactly. He says he spent ‘two winters in New York’ before moving to Galveston but, in speaking about winter in New York, he also mentions Philadelphia reporting that:
…The summers in both cities are, however, intensely hot, and the winters cold—bitterly cold. I have known warmly-clad people frozen to death in the streets. I had a narrow escape one early morning after leaving the New York “World” office. I was caught in a blizzard on Broadway, and managed to drag myself into a saloon only just in time to escape death by cold. Six persons were frozen to death In New York City that night.[iii]
So it is possible George also visited and perhaps lived in Philadelphia for a time as well. In 1900 George recalls moving to Galveston ‘14 or 15 years ago’ which puts him there in 1885 or 1886. He was still in Clevedon in 1884 so perhaps he was confused about how long ago it actually was as he lived in so many places and was writing many years after the fact. [iv]
Sometime during this period, and most likely in New York, he met a young widow and heiress, Harriet Jacqueline Short who was the daughter of John Garland Cregoe and Cornelia Powne Gully. The Cregoe family, in particular, were very wealthy gentry and landholders in and around Gorran in Cornwall and the Gully family were also members of the gentry. Harriet had been born in Gorran on 1st April 1848 and baptised in the family Church of Caerhays, St Austell. She arrived in New York on 8th June 1884 per the ship Cornwall.
George and Harriet are said to have married there in about 1886 or 1887. There is a problem with this in that George still had a wife alive and well back in England who didn’t die until 1934, so any marriage, if it actually happened, would have been bigamous. They may have just lived together under common law and said they were married. Was this the reason both George, and later Mamie, were so reticent to talk much about their personal life? Was this why the spelling of their name changed from Caple to Capel? I suspect so. Mamie did give details of George’s first marriage and children on his death certificate so she did know about them.
George and, I presume, Harriet lived in Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico for two years where he liked the people immensely saying: ‘A more warm-hearted, hospitable people this world never saw.’ In 1900, he related information about life and the history in ‘the Oleander City’ Galveston and recorded many of his impressions, for example:
Galveston of fifteen years ago was a city without any water supply. There were thirty thousand inhabitants there, depending solely on rain water stored in tanks, or from water distilleries. These tanks were not as they are here, but were like vast brewery vats of wood, and the first impression given a visitor on entering Galveston, either by land or sea, was that it was a stupendous brewery. Six, and often eight, months passed without a rainfall, the tanks became empty, and the water had to be bought at the bakery at 6d. a gallon. This water came in by rail…………….
…………….I have seen oysters larger than a man’s hand-a dozen, dipped in corn- meal, and fried, made a dinner for a hearty man. Oysters were so plentiful that they were tipped out in cartloads opposite the saloons and opened for the free lunches. They grew on the wharf piles, on the mangrove trees lining the bayous, and on every bit of wreckage cast up by the sea. The side streets and footpaths were all paved with oyster-shells. Fish was very plentiful; all one had to do was to throw out a baited line and draw in a fish. Shrimps were a caution; a Galveston shrimp is a monster a foot long, and a dozen will make a good breakfast…..
………… The mosquito was a terror, whose spear would pierce the thickest fabric. The city was alive with cockroaches and ants, and no flood or fire ever decreased their numbers. Birds there were none; with the exception of the buzzard and the English sparrow. There are very few small wild birds in America, the pugnacious British sparrow having exterminated them.[v]
From Galveston the couple moved to San Francisco where their daughter, Mamie Mary was born in 1887 or 1888. It is possible this is where another daughter, known to not have survived, was also born. Many records, if they existed, for San Francisco were lost during the earthquake of 1906. [vi]
From San Francisco they went to Chile and must have been there by 1891 when there was an armed conflict known as The Chilean Civil War or Revolution of 1891. George fortunately survived being shot twice in the war that involved a confrontation between the Chilean Army, which had sided with the President, and the Navy, which had sided with the Congress. It is not known how he came to be wounded – perhaps covering the story. This conflict ended with the defeat of the Chilean Army and the presidential forces. The war marked the end of the Liberal Republic and the beginning of the Parliamentary Era in Chile.[vii]
From Chile, we next hear of George and his family in Hawaii where once again he was involved in conflict –a coup d’état on January 17, 1893. This was an attempt to overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in which anti-monarchical rebels within the Kingdom of Hawaii, made up largely of United States citizens, organised the overthrow of its monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani an Hawaiian native.
After the coup, Hawaii was at first reconstituted as an independent republic, but it was eventually annexed to the United States in 1898.
All in all George is said to have ‘travelled in the United States and Cuba, Canada, South America, Japan, Hawaii, and the islands of the South Seas.’[viii]
According to George’s obituary in the Clevedon Mercury:
….He received his education at the British School in this town, and was subsequently apprenticed to the late Mr Charles Dare, whose printing offices were situated at the corner of Railway View, abutting Kenn Road. After a year or so Mr. Caple started in business for himself in his father’s coach-house, at the back of Albert House. There the “Clevedon Mercury” was printed and published. This was in 1863, and in the following year he bought the “Clevedon Courier” copyright from Mr. W. Patey, who is still living at Burnham. Then he took Woodlands, in Woodlands Road, and afterwards followed the handsome block of buildings in Alexandra Road now in the respective occupation of Messrs. Kirkpatrick and Jones, which was built under his direction and supervision, and where the printing and newspaper offices were for some years located.
During his residence in this town, in addition to newspaper work, Mr Caple compiled several publications, including the earlier editions of “All about Clevedon” “The Clevedon Almanack and Annual” (an almanac and diary in book form, which ceased to exist some years ago owing to lack of advertising support), and other works; whilst in recent years he was the author of a book of useful household recipes published in Brisbane entitled “How to Make and Save Money,” which must have entailed considerable time in its preparation. He also, when at Clevedon, occasionally broke out into poetry of a humorous nature, one piece in particular, entitled “the Cow with the Iron Tail.” Written after a raid made on the local dairymen by the police, which resulted in numerous prosecutions, specially tickling the risable faculties of his readers. In politics the deceased was a Radical, with a strong leaning towards Nonconformity. During his control of “The Mercury and Courier” Clevedon was at one period a hotbed of religious controversy, the paper contained columns of letters on religious maters week after week fomented by members of the then Clevedon Protestant Association, which created a large amount of bad feeling in the town, and it was with the view of putting a stop to this sort of thing that, when at the end of 1885 the “Mercury” came into the market, the present proprietors decided on purchasing it and to endeavour to carry it on in the future free from the religious strife and bitterness which had been so prevalent hitherto.
Besides being a thorough practical printer, Mr. Caple was a writer on various subjects, indeed some of his articles might be described as exceedingly smart, though highly coloured by an imaginative and exaggerated mind; but his great failing whilst at Clevedon was his inveterate habit of indulging in personalities, which frequently brought him into conflict with gentlemen who were among is best friends. In the nature of his soul, however, he couldn’t help it – it was his style of writing. Probably the lack of experience as a journalist in other newspaper offices – he was a self-taught man in this respect – accounted for much of his want of tact and courtesy so essential in the conduct of a business. It is extremely doubtful if the editor of any other newspaper in this country, outside the late proprietor of “Truth,” had ever been threatened with more actions for libel than the deceased during the time he controlled the destinies of this paper, amongst the gentlemen he had offended in this respect being the late Sir Arthur H. Elton, Bart., Mr. C.A. Homfray, of Park House, the Rev. S.H. Saxby, vicar of Portbury, the Solicitor-General of the day, and numerous others whom we cannot now remember. His genial manner, however, combined with a prolific pen – he was an adept in apologetic letter writing- saved the situation, and thus he escaped the financial consequences of what would undoubtedly have proved disastrous to the printing business, if not the ruination and ultimate extinction of the newspaper, had the proceeding gone so far as to reach the Law Courts.
The late Mr. George J. Caple was at one time a member of the old Local Board of Health, on which he served for three years, and during his tenure of office brought forward many schemes for the improvement and advancement of Clevedon. He was elected in 1882, and at the first meeting of the new board urged the advisability of purchasing the Clevedon Water Works for the town. Subsequently. In February of the following year, a letter was read from the chairman of the Water Works Co. stating that the company were willing to dispose of their property to the town for £24,000. A special meeting of the Council was held on Feb. 21st to consider the matter, and after a long discussion, when the board were of opinion that the price asked was altogether out of character, a member suggested that £`8,000 or £`9,000 was enough, but Mr S. Ransford thought that the board would be committing themselves if they went beyond £15,000. The proposed purchase was therefore rejected. At the meeting on June 9th, 1883, Mr. Caple advocated the placing of a fountain (given by a gentleman who did not wish his name to be divulged) in the centre of the Green Beach. At a meeting in July, 1883, the tender for lighting the town by the Gas Company was opened and it was suggested that a London firm would light the town with petroleum much cheaper. Mr Caple strongly protested against going out of the place to spend the money for lighting. At a special meeting in October, 1883, to discuss repairing the Beach after a severe gale, Mr. Caple proposed that buying the Pier (at that time owned by a private company) should be considered, and also said it was his opinion that the sea front of the future would be round the Church Hill, and suggested that a drive should be made round the hill. At a meeting on Aug. 6th, 1884, Mr Caple brought forward a proposal that the Local Board borrow a sum of £5000 to construct a small tidal harbour at the end of the Green Beach, but this did not meet with the approval of other members, who thought the cost would be much more. He was also instrumental in getting a steam roller for use on the roads. In many other ways he identified himself with the public life of the town, such as the regatta, flower show, season band, &c. He was also a Freemason, having been initiated a member of the Coleridge Lodge at Clevedon soon after its foundation in 1878.
A favourite saying of the deceased many years ago, one which has remained evergreen in our memory to this day, and nevertheless a truism was –
“Man’s life’s a vapour, full of woes; He cuts a caper, and down he goes!”
Sad to relate, this was the ultimate experience of our departed friend, though – unfortunately for himself, perhaps- we didn’t happen to be in his employ when the collapse came about. His experience, however, is but the experience of thousands of others in all walks of life, who on reaching a critical age get reckless and, in spite of warnings and heedless of consequences, fail to see the “red light” ahead until alas! It is too late, and recovery, without the aid of friends to the rescue, is well-nigh impossible. A hard taskmaster, one could not help liking the man with all his faults, and his ready wit and humour and withal genial manner stood him in good stead in this and in many other respects.
Mr. Caple in many ways was a remarkable man, for almost up to the time of his death his penmanship, although retaining the same style, was far more legible than it was 34 years ago, and was not in the least degree “shaky,” as might have been expected of a man of his age. This is all the more surprising when his unique and experience as a “globe-trotter,” previous to settling in Australia, is considered. His articles also which have appeared in these columns from time to time shew he must have been endowed with wonderful memory and vigour for a man who nearly reached the allotted span of three score years and ten, and this is further demonstrated by the hitherto unpublished letters and articles which we append below. These were written within the last few years, but, for want of space, were withheld from publication.
Thus has passed away a man with a world-wide experience, of a kind – one who might have held a different position commercially but for misdirected energy and circumstances over which he probably he had little or no control in years long since past. – W.G.S. [William George Sercombe][ix]
To be continued ..
[i] Unknown Author, Clevedon Mercury, c. May 1960, front page and back page col. 3, date unknown.
[ii] Unknown Author, Clevedon Mercury, c. May 1960, front page and back page col. 3, date unknown.
[iii] Capel, George James, The Queenslander 12 Oct 1895 p. 695.
[iv] Capel, George James, Brisbane Courier, ‘City of the Cyclone, Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, “The Oleander City” of America’ 22 Sept 1900, p.9.
[v] Capel, George James, Brisbane Courier, ‘City of the Cyclone, Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, “The Oleander City” of America’ 22 Sept 1900, p.9.
[vi] Qld Government Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, Death Certificate, George James Capel No. 15167, 30 Dec 1911, issued 9 May, 1996.
[vii] Brisbane Courier, ‘Jubilee Number of an English Paper’, 21 June 1910, p.6.
[viii] Brisbane Courier, ‘Jubilee Number of an English Paper’, 21 June 1910, p.6.
[ix] Sercombe, William George, Clevedon Mercury, ’Death of Mr. G.J. Caple Founder of the Clevedon Mercury’, 24 Feb., 1912, n.p.