Bute Street, 1869
It had been a violent decade and Dr Hallam Moor Dixon, of the hospital ship, Hamadryad, inCardiff Docks had seen it all. We can trace the movements of one of his unfortunate clients from the early hours of a Saturday morning in 1869 back to the incident that caused the fatal injuries. His name was Mr Thomas Williams and was nineteen years of age and looking forward to being a Dock Pilot in Cardiff. He was apprenticed and doing well.
Dying Declarations were not unknown to Doctor Dixon and this is what he recorded:
He was only about nineteen years old. I could see the stab wound in the abdomen was deep, very deep. I told him he was dying. He wanted to say something so I wrote it all down.
What an emotionally charged moment – lying there knowing you had been knifed and were about to die – and being asked to sign your dying declaration.
He said to the Doctor, ‘I hope I shall soon be in Heaven.’ The last words of Thomas Williams were recorded:
I was at Mr Roger’s public-house in Bute Road. I had been drinking hard for the last three days. Some man struck me with a knife in the bowels. I could not recognise him, I was too drunk. I fell down and don’t remember anything afterwards. I don’t remember being taken to Dr Jones’ surgery. I know you are the Doctor on the ship. At the public house where I was, there was some foreigners. There was a row about the pilot-boat not winning the race. The Italians could not speak English. They said they could find a faster boat. I did not hit any man, and cannot tell why they should strike me.
Mr Rogers’ public house was the Rothesay Castle. The doctor read the words back to Thomas Williams who made his mark. He then fell into unconsciousness and died two hours later from internal haemorrhaging.
A police officer reading that dying declaration today would immediately notice that he had been led in what to say. This drunken sailor had been attacked and murdered by men he did not know, sailors from a ship. Sadly, this occurrence in the unruly days of the mid-19th century was common. So, what had happened?
In 1869 the Rothesay Castle was also the home of landlord James Rogers and his wife Ann. They were both 47 years of age, James having come from Pembrokeshire to work, his wife a native of Gloucester. They had a thirteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth. The police knew them all well.
According to Jimmy Sully, from James Street, he and Tom Williams left the Rothesay Castle at around midnight. They had been talking to Kate Williams who lived at 32 Charlotte Street and one or two other people, including a group of Italian sailors. Sully and Williams went to walk down Bute Street when some Italian sailors punched Thomas Williams. Williams ran after one. Sully joined in the scuffle and saw one of the sailors, he later found out to be Pietro Gustra, take out a stiletto knife (a deadly weapon and used as a meat skewer) and plunge it with force into the lower abdomen of Tom Williams, who immediately fell to the ground. The sailors ran off chased by Sully and one or two passers-by. They lost them around the Maria Street junction.
Thomas Williams was taken, bleeding profusely, to a local druggist and then to Doctor Jones at his Bute Street surgery. He was then conveyed to the hospital ship where he died later that afternoon. From there he was taken to the Dead House in Mill Lane.
Sarah Ann Watts had been drinking in the Rothesay Castle that night and saw the men leave. She exited and joined them. She saw a fight and one Italian called Cuirollo pulled a knife, then his friend, Pietro Gustra also produced a knife. She thought it was Cuirollo who had plunged the knife into Thomas Williams.
Not so, according to another witness who had been passing at the time. Albert Story was walking home from the one of the lower dock pubs and was making his way to 32 Havelock Street, Temperancetown. He was a musician and he had been entertaining in a couple of pubs. His wife, Angela, was at home. They had two married lodgers too. Story would have a tale to tell once he got into the house about the knife fight he had witnessed. He thought that it was the sailor Gustra who had plunged the fatal blow into Thomas Williams, even though Cuirollo also had a knife. There were punches being thrown too.
Jacob Pearce was a Police Sergeant patrolling along Bute Street when he heard the cries of ‘Police! Police!’ He ran towards the North and Lowes Bridge (near St Mary’s Church) and saw a man lying on the road just before the Rothesay Castle. There could not have been much light, perhaps the Sergeant had his lamp with him. The time according to the police officer was 11:53 pm.
Pearce directed the injured men to a druggist (by now midnight) of which there were several in Bute Street, before he went off to look for the assailants but not before retrieving a knife from the road. He was on his own and both the sailors might still be carrying knives, therefore they were armed and dangerous. It didn’t seem to matter then, even though it was dark with people milling about, and scores of pub staff ‘helping’ their drunk clients back to their ships.
Sergeant Pearce found his men. They had only run 200 yards before stopping to lean against a wall. It must have been a surprise to Pearce as they could have run through the Bute Street underpass and back to their ship. If we are to believe Pearce’s account he calmly spoke to them saying, ‘Are you carrying any knives?’ They replied they were not. We can’t be sure of the veracity of this evidence. It seems more likely Pearce was told where the two men were and with his staff raised he approached, threatening them if they moved a muscle.
It is Norman McPherson who can clarify it for us. He kept a shop at 225 Bute Street in the block near the corner of Maria Street. It was not only pubs and lodging houses in this busy area, there were many prosperous businesses too. Norman ran a successful outfitters and he was standing at his doorway, even though the hour was midnight. The location of the shop can be imagined by the numbers given to the temporary plots of 227 and 228 Bute Street. These two plots were to be bought the Town Council for the construction of Bute Street Police Station twenty-five years later. Research shows a John Thomas was a druggist living at 226 Bute Street so it is even possible he helped the stabbed individual.
The assailants ran past McPherson and he, unwisely one would have thought, ran after them. When they stopped and turned he stopped too. He walked off back to the incident location and retrieved a silver-plated stiletto knife from the roadway. He gave it to Sergeant Pearce and pointed out to him where the men were. He accompanied the officer a short way down Bute Street before stopping outside his shop. He witnessed the arrests.
There was another witness in the House of Blazes, Ann Edwards, who was a little off her home territory, the Cross public house in Canton. She told police she saw Gustra strike the fatal blow.
We know that Thomas Williams was helped to a doctor at 138 Bute Street, the proprietor being David Edgar Jones. He ran the surgery with his wife Charlotte and one servant girl, Hannah Mahoney, who was 23 years of age. Being woken in the middle of the night was probably a common experience for the family (and Hannah). It was early on Saturday morning, about 12:15 am, he remembered. He noted the patient was suffering from shock and was losing blood at an alarming rate from a deep stab wound on the right side of the abdomen.
Imagine the procession that was to take place. Thomas Williams lying on a stretcher with a man at either end and James Sully. Dr David Edgar Jones following closely. They made their way to the hospital ship, Hamadryad (a recent and increasingly necessary facility, pictured below) where they were booked in a few minutes before 1:00 am.
It is then that Doctor Hallam Moor Dixon wrote down the dying declaration as detailed above.
The two Italians, Gustra and Cuirollo denied the murder.
Petro Gustra (via interpreter): ‘We three were walking down together, and when we arrived in Bute Street, the man who ran away first gave the dead man a shove. When we saw the other man run away we ran away as well. We stopped there a little while because we did not know the man was stabbed. When we found that the man was cut we went away because we were afraid that we should be taken as in his company. As we were walking down the road slowly, the policeman came up and apprehended us. We did not know he was going to take us, or we should have got away.’
Cuirollo: ‘I can say the same as my companion, for we were together. We know who stabbed the wounded man. It was the one who ran away.’
It is interesting why they had not run away too far and were easily arrested by the Sergeant. Were they telling the truth? Their Assize trial took several days. The jury were out for only twenty minutes and found Cuirollo involved in the fight but not guilty of manslaughter or murder. They placed the responsibility of the death of Thomas Williams on Petro Gustra. They found him guilty, not of murder, but manslaughter. It was a quick decision, therefore the evidence must have been compelling. The Judge told Gustra to stand and said:
Petro Gustra, you have been convicted of manslaughter, having killed Thomas Williams. The jury have acquitted you of murder, but have found you guilty of manslaughter. They must have come to the conclusion that the wound was inflicted in the course of the quarrel, and after some fighting. It is difficult to understand to what extent the struggle had gone on between you and the deceased. I give you the benefit of the doubt in that matter; but whatever the struggle may have been, there was nothing in it which justified you using so deadly a weapon as a knife. The sentence of the court is that you be committed to penal servitude for eight years.
The Judge decided that Cuirollo should be charged with a Common Assault on the dead man Thomas Williams. The police offered no evidence and he was acquitted. The Judge discharged him from the court. Cuirollo walked away a free man. However, his friend Gustra was securely locked in the holding cell to await transport to the prison he would call home for the next eight years.
This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.