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Dishonest Deal boatmen charged over the odds for sea rescues and salvage until they were caught

By Sam Lennon

Events in Deal did not often attract national attention in Victorian times.

Unfortunately when they did it was usually for the wrong reasons.

In 1880 it was the massively corrupt by-election, which led to the constituency being disenfranchised.

The owners of The Kit Carson were fleeced by greedy boatmen (Nancy DeVita/shiverickships.com)
The owners of The Kit Carson were fleeced by greedy boatmen (Nancy DeVita/shiverickships.com)

Earlier, in the 1860s, it had been the discreditable behaviour of certain Deal boatmen, William Spears and William Middleton in particular.

The 1860s were a relatively good time for the 400 or so Deal boatmen.

It was a hard and dangerous occupation, but there could sometimes be large rewards.

The most celebrated bonanza came in 1866 when the Iron Crown, homeward bound from Shanghai with a valuable cargo, struck the Goodwin Sands.

The ship was saved with the help of lifeboats, steam tugs from Ramsgate and the Deal “South-end” lugger England's Glory.

Sixty two local boatmen shared an award of £7,000.

Among them were Spears and Middleton, part owners of the lugger.

Perhaps the windfall encouraged them to chance their arm, to put it mildly, in search of further rewards.

Boatmen derived much of their income from rescue and salvage work and from supplying sails, anchors and chains to ships in the Downs.

The lugger Early Morn and her crew, c1876
The lugger Early Morn and her crew, c1876

The way costs were calculated and claims settled left plenty of scope for sharp practice.

In January 1867 the owners of the American ship Kit Carson were comprehensively fleeced.

Spears and Middleton (with Baker, a pilot) took the Antwerp-bound ship to an unsafe berth in the Downs, and played an only minor and rather ineffectual part in putting things right.

Then followed grossly inflated claims for services rendered and for the supply of replacement anchors and superfluous new sails.

Local arbitration failed to protect the interests of the owner and underwriters, on whom the preposterous costs were intended to fall.

The captain, anxious to be on his way, joined in the scam.

At the subsequent enquiry only one person who had been on the Kit Carson was reckoned to have given honest and trustworthy evidence – a Belgian pilot.

In a parallel case involving a second American ship, the Bazaar, “the discovery of the truth...was rendered impossible by the determined obstinacy of W Spears to remember any circumstances happening while he was on board the ship”.

But it took the case of the Olivia to bring Spears and Middleton down.

Having persuaded the ship to anchor in the Downs they connived in – possibly caused – the parting of the anchor chain and the slipping of the cable, and persuaded the captain to falsify

the log.

“South-end” boats, with the iron pier in the background
“South-end” boats, with the iron pier in the background

In August 1868 Spears, Middleton and Baker were brought to trial at the Kent Summer Assizes on 18 counts of fraud. They were found guilty, and received six months' hard labour.

The cases were extensively reported in The Times.

Set against the undoubted bravery of Deal boatmen in saving life “was the habit of demanding exorbitant sums for the slightest assistance in saving property.”

For the Solicitor-General it was a national disgrace: the facts of the Olivia case would “in great measure justify the character given by foreigners to the English coast”.

The people of Deal, of course, were on the side of the boatmen.

For the Mayor and Alderman Cavell, appearing at the trial as character witnesses, Spears and Middleton were honourable, upright and honest.

How was their behaviour to be squared with this glowing testimonial?

In part perhaps because cheating far-distant owners and, especially, anonymous underwriters felt to them like a victimless crime.

But there was more to it than that.

It was the constant complaint of boatmen at that time that, although they could be well rewarded for a successful salvage, there was no reward for saving a life.

As the author of the official report on the Bazaar case explained: “If boatmen save a collier and its hands, at the risk of their own lives, they are very poorly paid.”

They therefore consider, he said, that when they render “little or no service to a large and valuable vessel they are to be overpaid to make up for the deficiencies in the former case”.

Fair's fair, in other words.

The two boatmen in the Olivia case met very different ends.

Poor William Middleton was one of those who drowned when the lugger Reform sank in 1871.

William Spears, in contrast, lived to be 83.

“The hale and hearty appearance which characterised his personality to the last was not out of harmony with the more prosperous and adventurous days with which his memory will be associated”.

He left an estate worth over £1,600.

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