Fremantle Stuff > books and papers > Hitchcock 1921d

Early Days of Fremantle:

Convicts who made good

J.K. Hitchcock

Hitchcock, J.K. 1921, Convicts who made good, Fremantle Times, Friday 28 January 1921: 2.

The author disguises as 'Lyon Worth' the real name of Lionel Holdsworth.

Those who moved in shipping circles in Fremantle from 30 to 40 years ago will remember a tall, patriarchal-looking old gentleman, of dignified mien, who held the position of accountant in what was the Port's chief shipping office, which was situated in Cliff-street. His long white beard, immaculate attire, and commanding presence—to say nothing of his well-caparisoned carriage and pair— would attract attention anywhere, but few would suspect that he was one of the principal figures in a remarkable maritime case which was tried in London, in 1866. The son of an army officer, this old gentleman was born in Mauritius in 1825, and died about 20 years ago at Fremantle, where he had resided for more than a quarter of a century. I withhold his real name because, although he left no descendants or relatives in this State, some who were his friends are still living, and might take exception to an unfortunate episode in his life being revived in association with his real name, even though the recital might "point a moral and adorn a tale." For the purpose of this narrative I shall therefore give him the fictitious name of Lyon Worth. That he was a citizen of some tonnage is testified by the fact that one of the streets in Fremantle was renamed in order to bestow his (real) patronymic upon it. The original name of the street was that of an old Fremantle family, and what justification there was for the substitution none but the bumbles of that day could explain.

The case referred to arose out of scuttling of a ship called the Severn, and the men placed upon their trial were Charles Webb, Lyon Worth, Thomas Berwick, and Joseph Dean. The first named was charged with casting away the vessel with intent to defraud, and the others were indicted as accessories before and after the fact.

Worth was a ship insurance agent and broker, carrying on business in King street. Liverpool; Berwick was a ship owner of the same city; and Dean was Worth's clerk. Webb had shipped on board the Severn on its outward voyage, in the capacity of mate. The principal witness for the prosecution was H. T. Leyland, the captain of the vessel. He deposed that early in 1866 he had command of a ship named the Thomas, belonging to Worth, and had lost her in a gale of wind off the west coast of Scotland. In March of the same year he was requested by Worth to be in readiness to take command of the Severn, the latter stating that some friends of his were about to purchase her. Later on, the captain and Worth had an interview at the latter's London office, Dean being present in the discharge of his clerical duties. At that interview Worth informed Leyland that his friends had purchased the Severn, that she was then on her way from London to Newport. and that she was chartered to Shanghai. Definite arrangements were made on this occasion for Leyland to take command of the vessel. At a subsequent date, in accordance with instructions, the captain proceeded to Newport, where he met Worth and and Berwick. They dined together, and during the meal Berwick stated that he had procured a mate from London, adding that he had known the man for many years. It was stated, in the course of conversation that the ship would cost £7,000 to put to sea, and that it was proposed to insure her for several thousand pounds. Leyland's companions informed him that they did not expect the ship to reach China, and they added, that in the event of her not doing so, he would receive £700. They went on to say that they wanted a man whom they could thoroughly rely upon, and that he was in no way to interfere with the mate. They also suggested to Leyland that it would be as well if he insured his personal effects for £200. The same evening. Worth introduced Leyland to Webb, the mate.

Before the vessel sailed an enormous number of cases were shipped as part of the cargo. They were represented to contain metal and firearms, but as a matter of fact they were filled with salt. When the Severn had been some days at sea, Webb informed the captain that he had opened one of the cases, and found that it contained salt. Leyland told him that he had no right to do so, whereupon Webb replied that he had been anxious to know exactly what the cases contained.

They had good weather until arriving off Cape St. Vincent, when they encountered a gale of wind, which, however, did not amount to a storm. The order was given to close-reef the upper top-sail. It was stated that there was nothing in the weather to cause the ship to draw water, but she did so, and her leakage increased very quickly. From that time —which was about a fortnight before the vessel actually went down—the men had to pump her every two hours. In time the gale abated, the trade winds set in, and they had very fine weather. Nevertheless it was still necessary to work the pumps. On June 14 the leakage increased and at about 8 p.m. Webb came to the captain and asked him to get the boats ready, as the water was gaining, and the ship was going down. The captain turned round to Webb and charged, him with tampering with the ship. The latter replied, 'It's done, and can't be undone." The captain then asked Webb what he meant, and Webb replied, "I have bored a hole, and in the act of driving a plug in, I have broken the skin. I can't possibly stop it." The captain told him that he must be mad to do such a thing to a ship so far from land, adding that he had better go below and endeavour to stop the leak as it would be plain to everyone that the ship had been tampered with. Webb went below, but returned in ten minutes saying it was quite impossible to mend matters now, as the water had flowed over the hole. The captain remarked that every man in the ship would be lost, to which Webb replied, "Then you had better get the boats out at once, there's no chance of saving her."

At this time the nearest land was Cape Verd, and the vessel was about 180 miles to leeward of the closest point. The captain held the ship up for Port Baya, which was the only port they could hope to fetch. The crew were kept continually at the pumps.

On June 15 matter assumed so serious an aspect that the boats were held in readiness, and provisioned for 20 days. The long boat was filled with men, loosed down by the tackle, and allowed to go astern. Soon after this had been done Webb went to the captain and informed him that the men in the long boat were crying out that they saw two holes in the stern of the ship, and he added that he would have to go on board of her and shove off. He did so, and the long boat cruised off in the distance ahead of the ship. About 6 p.m. the long boat returned alongside, and Webb came on board the Severn, and had a further conversation with the captain. The latter remarked that a child could tell that the vessel had been wilfully destroyed. Webb replied tihat there was nothing to fear, that he could buy the whole of the crew overhand that he did not believe any of them had actually seen the holes.

During the interview Webb asked the captain to leave the ship, but the'latter refused, saying that he would rather go down in her than face the exposure that inevitable. "Well, yo can do as you please," said Webb, and he then returned to the long boat and cruised away. The carpenter, the boatswain and three, other men remained on board the Severn with the captain. At 8 o'clock Leyland yielded to the persuasions of his companions, and they all got on board the gig and rowed away from the ship, which, in less than an hour, went to the bottom. The captain steered the gig about until next morning, when he found the long boat, and the whole party was eventually picked up by the Arequipa, and taken to Permambuco.

The log book of the Severn had been kept by Webb, and upon the captain looking over it, upon their arrival at Permambuco, he declared that it was "exaggerated too much." Webb thereupon cut some of the pages out and rewrote portions of the log.

The party went home to Southampton in the s.s. Oneida, Leyland and Webb occupying the same cabin. On the voyage the mate informed the captain that he had bored seven holes in the bottom of the vessel. He went on to say that he had done the same thing in. the case of the Jane Brown, adding, "I know the trick very well. I can put the plugs in and take them out at pleasure."

When they arrived at Southampton the captain telegraphed to Worth, and then at once proceeded to London and 6aw that gentleman in his office. Leyland said. "I am sure the "thing will be found out. The men saw the holes, and they have threatened to report it." Worth replied that it was a bad job, and added that he would hear what Webb had to say in the morning. Next day the captain went again to the office, where he found Worth and Webb together. The latter said that the ship's crew had seen him off at Southampton, and had given him three cheers. He added, "It's all right, and will never be found out. I have spoken to the carpenter, and find that he did not see the holes, only Kelly and the boatswain saw them, but I have squared them, and we shall hear no more about it."

It was alleged at the trial that a false log book had been manufactured, with the assistance of Dean, and it was also given in evidence that upon its being produced, the captain remarked that it would never pass muster, as anyone could see that it was quite new, and had never been used at sea. Upon this Worth and Berwick both wetted the edges of the leaves, and rubbed them. Not reassured by this proceeding, the captain insisted that the discovery of the fraud was imminent, and that he would be ruined. Worth replied, "Nonsense. I'll give you £10 a month to keep you going until the insurances are recovered."

Inquiries were afterwards instituted at Lloyds', and the trial was the result. The men who were in the long boat testified to the fact that, while she was astern of the Severn they saw holes just below the water line of the vessel. Evidence was given as to the nature of the cargo, and as to the insurances that had been affected.

The case occupied five days and terminated in a verdict of "Guilty" against all the prisoners. Worth and Berwick were sentenced to 20 years penal servitude, Webb to 10, and Dean to 5. The two first-named were transported to Western Australia, and both were released from Fremantle prison, on ticket-of-leave, about the year 1874. Worth possessed a wide knowledge of shipping matters, and soon obtained a good appointment, carrying a handsome salary, in addition to which he was in receipt of an annuity of £150 from an Irish source. He was thus enabled to speculate successfully in the pearling business, and whilst still retaining his position in the shipping office, he accumulated considerable landed property, as well as becoming part owner of two sailing vessels. In short, he "made good," and became a respected member of the community. The same may be said of Berwick, who led an exemplary life after regaining his liberty. He secured an appointment as schoolmaster in a southern township, and faithfully discharged his duties in that capacity until the time of his death. I remember an incident in connection with Berwick which is worth relating. The firm by whom I was employed advertised for a clerk, and among the applications received was one from Berwick, who had just been released. As a testimonial he enclosed a letter addressed to him in Newgate Prison by the Board of Trade, notifying him that, owing to his having been convicted of a criminal offence, his certificate as a master mariner had been cancelled. This was rather a curious document to put in as a testimonial, but would not be considered so strange in those days, as ticket-of-leave men were often employed for the sake of cheapness, and I suppose his object was to show that he had held positions of responsibility, and was therefore possessed of some ability. It failed, however, to get him the job.

No doubt both Worth and Berwick fully deserved their punishment, but they expiated their misdeeds, and then did all that was humanly possible to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of a censorious world. After all, there are many worse men who have never seen the inside of a prison, but scuttling ships for the insurance is a more risky, if not less reprehensible means of making money than some other methods which are practised in the present day.

References and links

My page for Lionel Holdsworth.

J.K. Hitchcock page


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