Trouble at the Tower of London

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The Tower of London stands today as a popular tourist attraction maintained by the Royal Palaces. Almost every day of the year it is thronged with visitors snapping selfies with the Yeomen of the Guard (or Beefeaters) or the ravens. It remains a royal palace and a functioning building but is no longer a prison or a fortress as it once was.

When I used to visit the Tower as a boy my main interest was in the Tower Armouries, then housed in the White Tower. I was fascinated by the arms and armour on display nearly all of which has been moved to an excellent (but sadly distant) museum in Leeds. The Tower was home to the Office of Ordnance (responsible for the stores of weapons held there) from the early 15th century.

In 1855 the Ordnance employed many men to work in different capacities at the Tower, and amongst these was William Handley whose title was ‘foreman of labourers’. He lived in the Tower itself, in one of the houses (no. 41) with his wife and four children. We know this because he appeared on both the 1841 and 1851 census returns.

One of the men that Mr Handley supervised was Patrick Dawson, an ‘elderly Irishman’ who worked as a ‘porter and timekeeper’ on one of the bridges leading over the Moat and into the Tower grounds. Dawson however is not listed amongst the Ordnance’s employees in the RA’s document so perhaps he was casually employed or simply not recorded.

He was certainly there though because on the 27 June 1855 he was controlling the bridge crossing when a house and cart pulled up with a load of iron coal boxes to deliver. The driver, or carman, was called Benjamin Matthie and he was employed by a man named Porter who was a contractor used by the Ordnance. Porter operated out of premises in Camden Town and he had despatched Matthie with his load to the Tower that day.

Apparently there was a small railway on the bridge, ‘to facilitate the traffic’ (which was Dawson’s responsibility to regulate), and the carman duly pulled his horse and van up on it and began to start unloading his cargo. He removed the boxes from the van and was lowering them in to the dry moat below when another vehicle arrived.

This cart was going directly into the Tower and so Dawson called down to Matthie and asked him to move his van out of the way so the other could pass. Now without wishing cast aspersions or generalise too wildly, delivery drivers do tend to be a bit grumpy when asked to stop unloading or to move out of the way when they are busy in their work. A Victorian carman was the equivalent of the modern day white van man, and they enjoyed a similar reputation.

Matthie looked up at the old porter and told him that the other van would have to wait. Dawson insisted he move and the carman again refused. The porter went to fetch his boss, Mr Handley who also asked Matthie to move his van.

He too was refused.

At this Handley called over another man to take hold of the horses’ reins and move them back over the bridge. Seeing this Matthie threw down the box he was holding and declared that he ‘would be ______ if he unloaded any more’.

You can fill in the blanks from your imagination.

Once the other driver had passed over the bridge Matthie attempted to move his cart back onto it, so he could continue to unload at a convenient point. Dawson was having none of it however. His duty, he said, was to keep the bridge clear and Matthie had already demonstrated that he wouldn’t do as he was asked to.

Matthie seized him by the collar and said he didn’t ‘give a ____ for his duty’ and that he would ‘throw him over the bridge and break his ______ neck’ if he did not let him place his van back on it. A scuffle ensued and Dawson was indeed pushed over the bridge, falling nine feet down to land on the boxes below.

The poor old man was badly hurt. He was taken to the London Hospital in Whitechapel where he was treated for broken ribs, ‘a contusion of the leg’ and other injuries. The police were called and Matthie was arrested. When he was charged he told PC Josiah Chaplin (124H) that he admitted shoving Dawson. ‘I told him to stand away from me three times’, he added, before pushing him over the edge.

The case came before the Thames Police Court several times from late June to late July 1855, partly because it was initially feared that the porter would not recover from his injuries and was too ill to attend court. He was kept in  the hospital for two weeks but continued to be a day patient right up until the case again came up in late July.

When Mr Yardley reviewed the case on July 26 he listened to various witnesses for both the prosecution and defence.

Mr Porter, on behalf of Matthie, told him that his employee had a good record of employment previously and was the sort of person to deliberately set out to harm anyone. He was, he told him, ‘very civil, industrious, and sober’. Two other witnesses vouched for the carmen. But there were also other labourers working for the Ordnance who saw what happened and heard Matthie threaten Dawson.

Mr Porter was continuing to plead for his servant when the magistrate interrupted him. As far as he could see, he said, there was such a disparity in strength between the defendant and the victim that ‘he would not be doing his duty if he did not commit the prisoner for trial’. A jury could decide on intent or provocation he added.

He bound over the various witnesses to appear and give their evidence. Porter asked him to bind Handley over as he felt he could affirm that his man had the right to unload his vehicle on the bridge (perhaps suggesting that Dawson had overstepped his authority). Mr Yardley didn’t really see why that was necessary given the evidence he had heard but he agreed, and insisted Porter turn up for the trial as well. Having completed all the paperwork he committed Matthie for trial (at the Middlesex Sessions I imagine since there is no record of it at Old Bailey) and released him on bail.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 27, 1855]

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