A Waterman’s narrow escape from death

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The Silvertown India-rubber works and the the nearby WT Henley Telegraph cable Works, in North Woolwich in the second half of the nineteenth century

At half past 11 on Thursday, 19 September 1872 Thomas James was approached by two men as he stood by his boat at by the river near Woolwich (on the Surrey side of the river Thames). They told James, who was a waterman, that they had missed the last ferry over to North Woolwich and asked him if he would carry them over in his craft. James agreed, saying it would cost them 6d each.

The pair conferred for a few minutes and James was sure he heard one say to the other:

‘Promise him the shilling, and when we get to the middle of the river we will throw him overboard, and sell his boat tomorrow morning’.

The waterman thought it must have been a joke and the three set off. However, when they reached the middle of the Thames the pair seized him and manhandled the startled waterman overboard and into the river. Despite him being a strong swimmer he was almost drowned, encumbered as he was by a heavy coat and a large bag he was carrying.

He later told the Woolwich Police court magistrate that it was only the thought of his wife and children that made ‘him desperate’ and allowed him to recover ‘his presence of mind’ and make it to the shore. As soon as he was able he reported the theft of his boat and the attempt on his life and requested a summons to bring the men to court to answer  for it. Presumably he had some sort of description and had been told they lived at Silvertown (in West Ham), because the astounded magistrate granted his request.

One of the men was subsequently named as Thomas Pryce, a mechanic at Henley’s Telegraph Factory at North Woolwich. The case was called at Woolwich but neither Pryce nor his accuser appeared to hear it. The Pall Mall Gazette reported that ‘matter had been compromised by the defendant paying the  complainant a sum of money in compensation’.

This form of settlement was not uncommon in nineteenth century London (and indeed earlier in history). For all his presumed anger at being nearly drowned in the Thames, James wanted a form of justice that benefited him. Since he seems to have been able to identify Pryce it made sense (to him) to track him down and extract a pecuniary advantage from the whole situation. As for Pryce, having been caught he must have realised that a charge of theft with violence would lead to penal servitude for several years and the loss of his job at the telegraph factory. Settling their difference, as Londoners often did, made much more sense for both parties.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 21, 1872; The Pall Mall Gazette , Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

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