In 1885 a Norwegian barque berthed in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland. Whilst the crew were taking some exercise they walked into a farm and without permission took a Shetland puppy from its mother in the yard. They stole the dog and in doing so they set up a chain of events that no one could have envisaged.
It was not long after the barque left the Shetlands that the Master discovered the puppy had been secreted on board. Surprisingly, it did not find its way to a watery grave but was fed and allowed to live on the sailing ship. Shetland dogs were unusual and hardly seen outside the Shetland Islands. They were known to be good guard dogs in so much as they bark a lot to warn of strangers.
The puppy became the ship’s dog and was a favourite with the sailors and after a year or so was known as a ‘safe’ dog. It brought no ill demons and did not get in the way. The dog lived on the ship and became part of life on board as it traded between ports on the high seas. It was fed and watered and became a popular member of the crew.
One afternoon the ship arrived in Cardiff and tied up in the Bute East Dock. The Master of the ship had decided that the dog was no longer to run free on his ship. So, he walked it off, and gave it to their dockside contact, a firm of ships brokers, who promptly chained it up.
This must have been a rough time for the dog as it had been used to life at sea since a pup. The dog stayed chained up for a week and then, by some unknown hand, let go to join the innumerable strays on the streets of Cardiff. He was someone else’s problem now.
It is thought the dog wandered the docksides for over a week pining for his ship and his shipmates but they were long gone. Shetland dogs are known to be friendly and need company, but who knows what he did and what he ate.
He ended up on the Pier Head where East Dock and West Dock discharge their ships into the Cardiff Bay via the basins. Wandering up and down for several days clearly looking for his ship, the dog was noticed by several people as well as the police. This culminated it being tied up outside a docks hut for several days, but he escaped only to be found again and once again tied up. It was a bittersweet location, as the hut was the police office. The police destroyed strays and that is why someone had probably tied it up there, to be dealt with as any other.
Rather than taking it to be destroyed a bond formed between local Bute Docks police officers and the stray dog. They named him Rodney. Under the powers of an Act of Parliament in 1871 (two decades earlier) the police were able to seize stray dogs, keep them for three days, then either sell them or destroy them. But the police officers let him loose. It would appear he wandered around the Pier Head in the daylight hours and lodged in the police station at night.
Rodney became a favourite. When the sergeants left the station to check on their men, Rodney went too. He followed them around, becoming as well known as the officers themselves. Officers coming on duty would bring tit-bits for the animal as did the cleaners at the station.
The dog had a built-in love and respect for law and order, perhaps gained on the high seas. He paraded with the men coming on duty on each shift. It is doubtful he stood to attention on parade but according to some contemporary reports he was quiet and couldn’t wait to get out on patrol. It was on those patrols that his new handlers welcomed his abilities of a keen sense of smell and ability to chase off trespassers. He was even decorated for his detective abilities and that of a ‘thief-catcher’.
One night he was patrolling with a sergeant on the dock near some railway trucks when he raced off and started barking. The officer went over to investigate and discovered that Rodney had chased out two French sailors who had just stolen a keg of brandy. They were arrested and convicted of theft.
The officers and local business people chipped in for a special collar to be presented to Rodney with a coronet to mark his entry into the ranks of the police as detective. Those small coronets on his collar increased over the years to eight as Rodney had many famous arrests attributed to him.
This quote from a contemporary newspaper may be exaggerated but there must be truth in it somewhere:
Rodney attends all fires to which the Docks Brigade is summoned, and, despite what all the newspapers say about first arrivals, is always on the scene before any else.
His fame among ambulance staff, fire staff and the police led to him being taken on tours, being presented at annual dinners, and leading processions. He was a regular guest on tugboats and seemed always to like ‘the good guy’ but sniff out the ‘bad’. A newspaper quoted a policeman as saying:
Rodney sniffs out suspicious loafers and lets us know where they are.
One new invention that Rodney did not welcome was the dockside hooter. He ran to the police station to avoid the noise by going the long way around.
His proudest moment came when he was chosen to lead the Bute Docks Police in a procession through the centre of Cardiff to welcome the Lord Mayor of London.
What happened to Rodney we do not know but the press mused that when he died he should be sent to a taxidermist and stay forever in a glass case in the police office on Cardiff Docks. Unfortunately, the story has no conclusive ending, as after eight or so years proud police service, we seem to have lost the record of his passing in 1893.
That Shetland dog must have been special to forge his way into so many people’s hearts at a time when a dog’s back street life as a stray was not good. Most straying from their home were taken to the kennels and promptly put down.
Where is that collar now?
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This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House by John F. Wake. As a former police officer, John brings his investigative expertise to the often macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.