Friday, 29 October 2010

Theft on the water

One of the great problems faced by the London docks was theft: with a fortune in goods moving between ships and warehouses all the time, how did you stop some of it from disappearing? By the 1790s, merchants were actively campaigning for better facilities to reduce delays and losses from theft, but the problem was not new, as this little story from 1721 shows:
We hear that a Waterman at Deptford has been taken up for bringing too that Place a Bale of Goods belonging to the two Turkey Ships lately burnt on the Flatts, which he had begun to lay out and dry in the Air, in order to find his own Account in it; and has discovered several Persons whom he assisted in loading a Hoy from the said Ship, from whom he had the single Bale, it’s supposed, for his Pains.
Watermen usually carried passengers on the Thames: goods were the business of lightermen. However, this particular Deptford waterman had obviously decided to supplement his income with some very illicit carriage of goods. He had helped the 'several Persons' to load up their hoy, or cargo barge.

There was something unusually serious about this particular theft. The two ships, the Bristol Merchant and Turkey Merchant, had come to London from Cyprus and Turkey infected with plague. As it was feared that the goods on board would spread the infection, both ships and cargoes were ordered to be burned; their owners received government compensation of a massive £23,935. Our waterman, then, was carrying good which were not only stolen but also a potential source of disease and death.


Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Caroline - theft of cargo from the docks, or pilferage as it is known, is an age old problem and continues even today despite more security and containerisation.

By the way, any idea what happened to the waterman? I bet he didn't get community service :-)


CarolineLD said...

I assumed that containerisation would have made a big difference, but I suppose nothing ever really stops it.

I don't know what happened to the waterman, annoyingly - but yes, it's a safe bet that it wasn't very nice!