Bute Docks, 1869
Constable Gadsby was an officer who patrolled the Bute Docks in the 1860s. The force had been set up a few decades earlier to stop the constant pilfering of coal and equipment from the docksides. Some ship’s captains had reported sighting up to 200 men, women and children stealing coal each time they docked at the Cardiff port. It was not only locals that stole. Other visitors to the dockside ships, be they legal or illegal, were a problem for the ship owners and captains. It was not the responsibility of the Borough or the County force in Cardiff to police this area.
The new Bute Docks Police was small and had the same supervisory makeup as the town police, therefore PC number 13, David Higgins, and a few of his colleagues, always patrolled on the same shift with the same Sergeant. It was a thankless and difficult way of life. They had been issued with cutlasses in 1865 for protection because the job was so dangerous. Scores of ships were using the two main docks and hundreds of sailors roamed the quays drinking, either aboard ship or in the local pubs (of which there were many).
It is December 1869 and lighting is minimal. The time is half-past ten at night on a Saturday. It is cold and there is a full moon. The dockside activities of the labourers were relentless day and night; loading, unloading, and transporting.
PC 17, Gadsby had been visited by his sergeant, Tom Howard. Sergeant Howard was a local man, very local, lodging with the Higgins family in Tyndall Street, just a stone’s throw away from the top of the Bute East Dock. Tom Howard’s exemplary service record shows he was a first-class police officer. They met on the Junction Canal bridge under which the waters flowed between the East and West docks.
Things were going well, Gadsby was doing his job, patrolling the Bute East Dock so Howard made off to visit Higgins on the West. Gadsby turned and walked back to his East Dock beat. Soon after he heard a police whistle. He whistled back. He heard no more. He hurried to where he imagined he heard the police whistle and found a man flailing in the dark waters of the dock. He grabbed a boat hook and pulled him out. It was a Russian/Finnish sailor from a nearby barquentine (a type of sailing ship used for carrying cargo). The name he gave was Johan Halmen. It obviously wasn’t Halmen who had blown the whistle, it was a fellow officer, but there was none to be seen.
Anyone who has stood on those cold mighty cut boulders that make up the walls of the Bute Docks, can imagine the scene. The cold, black murky waters, a few feet below the edge, were not welcoming. Oil lamps on ships would have sent lines of rippling light across the blackness.
Gadsby noticed the man had only one boot. As he had just hooked him out he trawled again with the boat hook to see if he could find the other boot before it disappeared. He moved the boat hook about in the black water. It was not a boot that the boat hook came in contact with, it was a policeman’s cape.
Gadsby pulled hard to drag the cape onto the dockside but had the shock of his life when he saw that the cape was still attached to Sergeant Tom Howard. He pulled him onto the dockside. He was dead.
PC Higgins, on hearing the incessant calls of a whistle, attended as fast he could, as did PC Hole, who also answered the call. During all the commotion Gadsby had not noticed that the rescued sailor had gone. He had made off back to his ship. There had been no mention made by Halmen of the officer being in the dock, which pointed to a murderous crime having been committed.
PC Hole was told by Gadsy to fetch the sailor back, if needs be to arrest him. In the space of a few minutes Gadsby had heard the whistle, hauled a sailor and his Sergeant out of the black waters of the dock – one was dead and the other gone. A night to remember.
There were attempts to revive Sergeant Howard but to no avail. We do not know the level of efficiency or professionalism in the police career of Gadsby, whether he was a plodder or a man with ambition, but which ever, this incident was unprecedented. He was in the dark on the dockside with his dead sergeant and the main suspect gone. His relief was palpable when he saw PC Hole with Halmen, this time accompanied by his captain, William Wikander.
A story emerged.
Halmen claimed that he was returning to his ship and a policeman took hold of him for no reason. He shook him off and ran and in the process Halmen fell into the dock. The next thing he remembered was the other policeman, Gadsby, hooking him out. He said he had no idea how the officer came to be in the dock. He had not seen or heard him fall in. Whatever had happened to the Sergeant was nothing to do with him.
PCs Gadsby, Higgins and Hole knew that Sergeant Howard was a strong swimmer, therefore there must have been something wrong with him otherwise he could have easily pulled himself out. Captain Wikander thought the police sergeant lost his footing and fell in while pulling the sailor out. If that was the case why didn’t Halmen help him? All very confusing.
How had Howard had time to blow his whistle (which meant he was in control) and then fall in and drown so quoickly? You cannot take the whistle from your pocket and blow it if you are falling, or being pushed into the dock. Or, did he blow his whistle once in the water? Perhaps his cape made swimming impossible.
A further examination of the evidence the following day revealed more information. The ship was the barquentine, Hermes which had tied up at Bute East Dock the previous day. It had arrived from Scandinavia. Johan Halmen maintained his story that he was going back to the ship around 10:00 pm on the Saturday evening. There was an intermittent full moon, so the area was well-lit. Halmen said the policeman grabbed him and tried to take him somewhere. This evidence was stated through an interpreter and who knows if anything was lost between original and translation.
PC Gadsby was visited by his sergeant around 10:20 pm at the northern end of the West Dock on the east side and on the canal bridge. Gadsby heard the police whistle within minutes of the sergeant leaving him. He hurried back, but saw and heard nothing. So, we can ascertain that there was no attempt to swim or splash about in the water.
He heard the whistle again around 10:25 pm when he was at the top of the East Dock on the eastern side. What grabs attention is that when he heard the whistle coming from the direction of the junction canal he replied with a whistle to acknowledge. He then heard a whistle straight afterwards as though in recognition with a response to follow. Was that whistle from Sergeant Howard or another constable?
He made his way to the spot where the junction canal empties into the East Dock and heard a shout and splashing. He looked into the dock and saw Johan Halmen, then dragged him out with a boat hook. Halmen said nothing about anyone else being in the water and that is suspicious. It was only when Gadsby was looking for the sailor’s other boot did he drag in a cape, finding Sergeant Howard.
An important piece of evidence was forthcoming the next day when Gadsby asked Halmen, ‘Do you know there is a policeman in the water?’
Halmen answered ‘Yes.’
If Gadsby’s version is to be believed, Halmen recovered, made no attempt to help drag the sergeant out of the dock, but simply left the scene. Gadsby was shouting for assistance but the sailor, soaking wet, walked away. That behaviour is suspicious and suggests a criminal act was committed. PC Hole arrived and it took the efforts of the two officers to drag their Sergeant out of the water and onto the dockside. Those that remember the old docks would recognise the drop from the dockside to the water level. Those few feet would have made the operation to drag the man out very difficult. They must have lain on the dockside pulling him in bit by bit. Howard was a big man and very heavy particularly with a soaking wet uniform adding to the weight. That event must have stayed with them for the rest of their lives. PC Hole then raced to find Halmen who had not gone back to his ship but was found in the West Dock. He took him back to the incident, by this time the Captain Wikander was with them also. Other assistance was forthcoming and a doctor pronounced Sergeant Thomas Howard deceased.
When the body was taken initially to the Dead House it was noticed by Gadsby that one of his sergeant’s leggings had what appeared a bite mark on it. Gadsby thought it was the mark of a man’s teeth. One would have to make their own conclusion on the relevance of that evidence.
To add to the confusion we have heard how Captain Wikander thought Tom Howard had fallen in the water attempting to help Halmen out. Where did that notion come from?
At the Coroner’s Inquest Halmen said (through his interpreter) that he was trying to get to his ship when the sergeant pulled him back. The question must have been asked: why? Howard was an efficient and experienced officer. What was going on? Halmen told the jury that when he ran off Sergeant Howard was about ten feet behind him when he, Halmen, tripped and fell in the dock. He did not hear the sergeant fall in the dock.
The Coroner ‘surmised’ (a quote from the records) that there must have been a struggle and that is why the officer fell in the dock. But supposition is not evidence to commit a man for trial on a murder or manslaughter charge.
There was no obvious injury on Sergeant Howard’s body. He had simply drowned. Verdict: ‘Open. Found drowned.’ This was an astounding verdict. Surely there was direct evidence to show that Halmen was involved in whatever had happened to Howard. So, a more appropriate verdict might have been manslaughter.
Was Halmen walking back along the dockside to his ship and acting suspiciously, perhaps carrying something, which may have subsequently gone into the water with him? Did Sergeant Howard, doing his job, challenge the sailor? When the sailor refused to be searched or spoken to, he may have become aggressive. Maybe the language barrier meant the sailor was completely innocent, but then felt threatened. Howard blew his whistle for assistance. An altercation followed in which both men fell in the dock. Howard would have been in difficulty immediately because of his large police cape. His heavy uniform and boots would not have helped. He drowned. A few minutes later Gadsby turned up and pulled Halmen out. In a nutshell, he just said ‘thanks’ and was off.
Without the missing boot and PC Gadsby’s desire to recover it for the sailor, Sergeant Tom Howard might not have been discovered for days. He may even have been listed as a Missing Person. It would have fuelled media speculation and sensation as to what had happened to him. His body would have no doubt have surfaced or been found soon after. One wonders what the Coroner’s verdict would have been in that scenario. Probably identical, ‘Open. Found drowned.’ The theories as to how Howard ended up in the dock may have abounded. Just one person knew the truth, and he was on his way back to Scandinavia.
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.