The Death Of Police Constable John Scudamore

The Bute Dock Police had only been formed for a couple of months and there had already been several fatal incidents for the new force to deal with. One of these happened at night and demonstrated that the world of dark ships, dimly lit quays and cold, black waters was not without its own particular set of dangers. Gas lighting had arrived at the docks as early as 1845, but twelve lamposts spread around the dock offices and sea-locks were not at all adequate. These were just the circumstances highlighted by Cardiff Borough Police Superintended Stockdale in a report in November 1857 in which he appealed for police to be stationed at the docks. It was ironic in the extreme therefore, that no sooner had the Bute Dock Police force been established, than one of the first fatalities it was called upon to deal with was to one of it’s own officers.

One Thursday night in early November 1858, winter seemed to be arriving too soon for there was a nip of early frost in the night air. Fog swirled around the spars and halyards of the brigantines and barques riding gently to their lines at the northern end of the new East Dock. Away from the water’s edge and the glow of the ship's lanterns, the night was as black as the hobs of hell.

Police Constable John Scudamore was on night duty and in solitary mood as he drank a cup of coffee in the watchouse. It was 5.30 in the morning as he re-lit his oil lamp and clipped it onto his belt. Two patrolling Cardiff Borough constables, Henry Fewings and John Cambridge, called in to pass the time of night. In conversation, Scudamore mentioned that he was thinking of leaving the force owing to having to work in such a dark and dangerous place. He said he would rather work for just fifteen shillings a week than carry on with these duties which he found so uncomfortable.

The two officers left to continue their patrol. They had not gone far when they heard shouts echoing through the fog from the direction of the feeder canal. A ballastman crossing the rickety bridge was shouting- “Here. Run with your light. There's a man in the water!” A labourer, Ferris, was also nearby and heard the splash, but found it impossible to do anything for the dark. The two officers shone their lamps into the black water but could see nothing save the swirling mist. As luck would have it, the grappling irons were in use at the other end of the docks and they sent the labourer hurrying to fetch them. Three quarters of an hour passed before Ferris returned with the irons and they were able to drag the feeder. Pc John Scudamore was quite dead when at last they pulled his body from the water. Two hours later, the body of 33 year old John Tanner, a ship's carpenter, was pulled from the waters of the lock at the seaward end of the East Dock, in an entirely unconnected incident.

The inquests on both men were held that afternoon. In Tanner's case, Sergeant Henry Dunn of the Bute Dock police gave evidence that there had been gaslights in the area and that they had been lit. But there was some evidence of Tanner being intoxicated and a straightforward verdict of “Found Drowned” was returned.

The jury of thirteen men found Scudamore's inquest rather more complex. They heard evidence from witnesses that not only was there no gas lighting in the area, but neither were there any railings or chains to mark the edge of the feeder, and that it was very dangerous place even to people who knew it. Concern over this had previously been expressed but the Bute Dock Company maintained that it would interfere with the commercial operation of the docks to erect railings. Police Constable Henry Fewings told the inquest that Scudamore had appeared perfectly sober when he had spoken to him a few minutes prior to the accident.

Ten of the thirteen members of the jury wanted to bring in a verdict of manslaughter against the parties whose duty it was to protect life. The Coroner would have none of it however, because it could not be shown who exactly was responsible. He discharged the jury for failing to agree. A second jury sat the next day, on Friday afternoon and they were sent to view Pc Scudamore's body before they convened.

The new jury discussed a comment Scudamore was supposed to have made when he drank his coffee, that- “…..it might be the last cup I ever drink.” Coupled with the fact that the shutter on his lamp was found to be closed when it was recovered, it was suggested that the deceased officer may have committed suicide. This was not pursued by the jury however, and they retired for just ten minutes. They returned the verdict “That the deceased was accidentally drowned but the jury cannot depart without remarking upon the dangerous approach to the bridge where the accident is supposed to have occurred and of the great necessity of gaslights to prevent further accident.” This was a tragedy that might almost have been predicted an neither was it the end of the problem. Within a matter of weeks, two more men, a 23 year old sailor named George Whitfield, and Thomas Cuckley, a ballastman from the West Dock, were also drowned in the dock waters in circumstances which suggested that the lack of lighting was at least partly responsible.

The Cardiff Times newspaper comment on the deaths of Tanner and Scudamore is interesting for more than one reason-

“It is a singular circumstance that two deaths should have occurred a few days after the receipt by the coroner of a letter from the Bute Trustees in which they repudiate any obligation to light the docks. It is now pretty evident that something must be done and the coroner has signalled his intention to write to the Secretary of State on the subject. We would suggest to the Trustees the propriety of enclosing the docks in the manner of London and Liverpool, which would not only settle the question of lighting, but would render life and property secure. By this means they would be enabled to dispense with their expensive police force.”

In fact, the Bute Dock Company took no notice. The use of gas lighting was not extended, the dock was not enclosed and they did not dispense with their expensive police force. That was left to Associated British Ports in 1985.