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  • Policing South Wales Docks by Viv Head

    Bute Dock Police Naval Style Cutlass. (Policing South Wales Docks, Amberley Publishing)

    During the Nineteenth Century, South Wales exploded into industrial activity; previously peaceful valleys were turned on their head. Iron masters built their furnaces, coal owners sank their pits, the railways arrived and great docks were built all along the coast; at Newport, Cardiff, Penarth, Barry, Port Talbot and Swansea. South Wales became the crucible of the Industrial Revolution.

    Men arrived from all over the country, eager to be part of these great mechanical workings. Seamen of every nationality came on ships ready to carry these fruits of industrial labour to all corners of the world. The docks became a land of opportunity; peaceful coastal communities were turned into overcrowded towns and cities. Disease, prostitution, violence and dishonesty were everywhere.

    Alexandra Railway & Dock Police in 1921. (Policing South Wales Docks, Amberley Publishing)

    Into this mix of blood, sweat and coal dust came the dock police, charged with keeping a lid on rough communities bent on self-intent. Crime and murderous violence were rife; it took a breed of hard men to step in and take control. The docks were a dark and treacherous place; PC John Foulkes served at Swansea Docks during the latter part of 1890.  One morning when he had not returned to the police station at the end of his night duty, a search was made and his body was found in the water by a fellow officer. There were no witnesses and no evidence of foul play. Cause of death was found to be drowning. So at some point in the night, he had stumbled and lost his footing, or perhaps simply lost his way, or perhaps had challenged someone and ended up in the water. Nobody knows – he was simply doing his job when, alone and in the dark, he had been overtaken by death. Neither was John Foulkes the only one, at least three other officers drowned on duty. The docks could be a fearsome lonely place sometimes.

    Each of the ports employed their own police forces. Over time they amalgamated to join into a single force, the British Transport Police. Then in the mid-1980s came privatisation and containerisation; it was perceived that the police had done their job and were no longer needed. So, in 1985, the last dock policeman switched off the light, locked the police station door, got into his car and drove away. Men, and they were almost entirely men, who had sort to preserve the peace 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost 130 years. Men dedicated to looking after the lives of others, who occasionally gave their own lives to the cause; men who worked twelve hours a day without a single day off throughout the years of the Great War. Men who did the dirty work that others turned away from.

    Policing South Wales Docks provides an illustrated insight into some of the darker and lighter moments of the dock coppers’ working lives. They weren’t always angels themselves but they do deserve to be remembered. In the 1970s I was privileged to serve at Cardiff Docks for seven years before my police career took me elsewhere. It was an experience unlike any other and I recall it often.

    Viv Head's new book Policing South Wales Docks is available for purchase now.

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