Benjamin Davies was born in Penarth in 1861. On his marriage to Elizabeth he lived at a house in Windsor Road but soon moved to Burnaby Street in Splott. He joined the Dock Police in Cardiff and then the Borough Police as a Constable. He worked hard and passed exams and had his advancement stripes presented to him for good work.
On his promotion he was sent to a place he knew well. It was a dream move. Sergeant Ben Davies was to become supervising officer at the brand-new Bute Police Station at the turn of the twentieth century. He had with him his wife and three sons and a daughter. He wanted them to live in the area. It was industrious and had many fine families living there, although there were some bad ones too. He thought as long as the family were safe and well in the police station’s living quarters there would not be any danger from the troublemakers. He was right.
The eight constables permanently living at the station were all in their early twenties and all originated from outside Cardiff. Even after the Cardiff Borough Police became the City Police in 1905, Davies was still in the Butetown area trying to keep the peace and bring offenders to justice.
In the early 1900s Ben Davies was still living in the police station and had been promoted to Inspector, but his wife Elizabeth was soon to pass away. His three sons and his eighteen-year-old daughter remained in the station with their father until he retired. Two of his sons were shipping clerks and the other in school. His reputation made him an immovable object in Tiger Bay annals. He was part of the fabric. His superior officers were based in the new Central Police Station at the law courts so he would answer to them, probably once a day. Telephones were now becoming part of station life.
There were eight police constables living in the station when Ben Davies retired. Not one of those men was born in Cardiff, most were from rural England. And most were in their early twenties.
Female offenders court publicity especially with their street behaviour. Two such girls Jeanie Gilbert and Beatrice Heath in 1903 were at the forefront of Davies’ attention. They were taking his officers away from ‘real police work’ as he saw it. One of the girls was sixteen and the other seventeen. Not too much of an issue one might think, but this was Tiger Bay and the slightest problem brought the media boys running.
The girls were constantly blocking the street with their obstructive, disorderly behaviour and drunken antics. It was a farcical situation. They were perpetually being put before the court by the Bute Street officers, but nothing stopped them returning to re-offend. They had even been sent to a convent, being conveyed there by the Cardiff court missionary, but within two hours they returned to their favourite haunt, Bute Street.
There followed more boisterous behaviour with visiting sailors and sitting in the road stopping traffic. The officers at the station had had enough. They hailed a pony and trap, picked the girls up from the roadway and took them, laughing and fighting, to Central Police Station. The book was thrown at them, even being charged as Unfortunates (a term synonymous with vagrant) as well as the offences in relation to their recent behaviour.
In court, even their attire made the headlines:
They were charged as unfortunates, though they did not look it wearing Tam-o’-Shanters, short frocks, and long white pinafores, suggestive of skipping ropes and rustic games and dances on the village green. They were, however, bold of manner, and loud of speech, and brazen in their answers.
Not easy people to deal with considering their sex and tender age. The magistrates had enough too. Both were sent to prison for one month.
They sailed out of the dock with the same hoydenish devil-may-care care unconcern.
For just one month, Ben Davies and his officers could go back to dealing with the other problems on their patch. After that time, they returned and picked up where they left off.
One of the girls, Rose Jones, was brought up in Jenkins Court behind Millicent Street, on the south side Cardiff and not far from Bute Street. She lived there with her sister and parents. Her father was a dock labourer. The backyard courts were extremely impoverished and at the heart of raucous, backstreet life when it came to alcohol. The Glamorgan Canal was just a stone’s throw away. It is likely she was beaten and sexually exploited from an early age. It was the police, the likes of Sergeant Ben Davies, who had to pick up the pieces of such broken childhoods.
His fame was not just with older offenders, tiny children were warned to look out for him too. Angelina Street was not too far from Maria Street where the police station was situated. One house was a problem as it was drawing in sailors and becoming a centre for drunkenness and prostitution. It was a disorderly house and brothel. Inspector Davies was unhappy with the goings-on and complaints his officers had been receiving from unfortunate sailors whose wallets had been stolen.
He noticed that each time he walked down Angelina Street, whether in uniform or plain clothes, little children would run indoors. Mary, the woman of the house, had seven children and she had taught them, on seeing Ben Davies, to run in and shout, ‘Mother, here’s Ben Davies.’
Mary was fined £10 or one month’s imprisonment. She probably paid up-front as the disorderly houses were profitable money-makers for their owners. The conduct probably did not stop, even though her children’s early warning system had failed to work.
Constable Craddock was on Reserve (Desk) duty at the station. At 2:00 pm one afternoon an Italian sailor came in and asked the officer if he could use the station toilet. He pointed the way. After about half an hour the man had not returned and Craddock went to investigate. The door to the toilet was open and the Italian was hanging over a cross stay of the toilet. A shocked Craddock got him down and tried to revive him. Too late, the man was dead. The local doctor was called and the body was taken through an internal door into the police station morgue and placed on a slab.
Based on experience the Inspector would not have been a happy man. He would have thought it very naïve to have let an unknown sailor, with unknown intentions, unaccompanied into the police station for any reason. Craddock would have been warned not to do it again.
In 1909 reports were coming into Bute Street police station of robberies of sailors and women accosted. Inspector Ben Davies wanted help.
One of the busiest parts of the top beat (northern end) was around the Custom House pub. Two detectives were watching four men at the Wharf Street junction with Bute Street. They saw them jostle some sailors who were a little too streetwise for them. So, they moved away from them and up towards the Bute Street railway bridge and pulled a woman to the ground. One of the men started to undo her blouse and it was then the two detectives ran over. After a chase two of the men were caught. They had numerous previous convictions and had spent half their lives in penal establishments. They were on their way back. They were sentenced to three months hard labour each.
As they were being sent down they laughed when the Magistrate said: ‘You will find the way of the transgressor is hard in this Christian land, and you had better try to reform.’
The supervision of officers continued over the full course of a day. No officer knew when the Inspector would be on his trips in and out of the station. There were no sergeants residing there, so Davies knew a lot more of what was going on than his junior supervisors.
The station had a housekeeper and a general servant lady. It was a grand place and its domestic organisation was similar to that of a hotel. The cells were occupied most nights, the miscreants being transported to the central courts for justice.
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.