Accidents at the Docks

Health and safety during the war was not as it is now. With so many men working on unfamiliar ships at the docks, accidents happened, some of them fatal. Here are the events of two of them.

At about 3am on 22nd October 1914, William James Dale, a Dock labourer from Battersea, fell between the jetty and a ship, which was being loaded with stores at Newhaven. He had been working at Newhaven since the 19th and this was his fifth shift. Frederick Vincett, Chief Petty Officer, saw Dale disappear between the ship’s side and the jetty. He called out “Man overboard” and placed a lantern between the ship and the jetty, but couldn’t see any sign of the man in the water. The distance between the ship and the jetty was between 18 inches and 2 feet, wide enough for a man to swim between if he was not injured. “The body was recovered with the aid of grappling irons, and artificial respiration was tried without success”. The spot where the man fell was some 3 feet away from the gangway. Mr Whitelaw, HM Inspector of Factories, believed that “the poor fellow did not use the gangway, but stepped over the side of the ship, as men often did when a vessel was moored close to the quay. He himself did the same.”  John Machin, a friend of Mr Dale, disagreed, thinking that he must have tripped on the gangway. He asked “You don’t think a man would be such a fool as to do that?” To which the Coroner replied “men often do somewhat foolish things”. A verdict of “Accidental death” was returned.

On 14th November 1916, George Geall (aged 37) from William Street, Brighton, was employed in a shed on Newhaven quayside.  The men had been ordered to move some loose sacks that were lying against a stack of bags filled with sugar. The bags weighed 80lbs each. While they were working the stack fell over, knocking Mr Geall to the floor, where he hit his head “with considerable force”. He died at the Royal Sussex County Hospital on 17th November from “septic meningitis following a fracture of the skull”. A verdict of “Accidental death” was returned, the jury adding that there was no evidence of carelessness. By coincidence, Mr Geall had been the foreman of the jury at Mr Dale’s inquest.

By Jenny Flood – from stories in the East Sussex News between 1914 and 1916

Photo: Newhaven Museum ref. A319-018