Not all stories are exactly what they seem when you start reading them. I found this one, about a Thames lighterman – one of the men that operated the flat bottomed barges ferrying goods up and down London’s central river – assaulting an eight year-old boy, and assumed it was a simple case of child abuse.
However, the incident – unpleasant as it was – actually revealed that something else was going on in the capital at the end of November 1889.
Matthew Petter should have been at Sunday school on the 24 November. But, like many young boys, he was curious and as he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he got distracted watching the boats go up and down. As he watched he noticed a small group of men who were having an argument with a lighterman.
Henry Bliss (28) was a lighterman and when some of his fellows had recently downed tools and gone on strike, he carried on working. This hardly endeared him to his colleagues and today they were showing him how they felt.
Their hoots and cries of ‘blackleg’ escalated from verbal into physical brickbats being thrown; rubbish, bricks and stones were lobbed in his direction and Bliss lost his temper. He picked up a half-brick and threw it back, aiming at his tormenters. The brick missed them and struck a railing, bounced off and smacked young Matthew on the head, and knocked him senseless.
The crowd of angry rivermen roared in outrage and rushed forward to seize Bliss. He turned his boat and headed out into the river. The mob chased him along the bank and some took to other crafts. Finally Bliss gave himself up to river police, asking for their protection, as he clearly feared for his life.
The boy was hospitalised and when Bliss appeared to answer a summons at Westminster Police Court he was very apologetic, offering to compensate Mrs Petter for the cost of treating the little lad’s injuries. Mr D’Eyncourt probably sympathized with the lighterman – magistrates tended to side against striking union men – so he fined him a nominal 2s 6d and Mrs Petter accepted a payment of 50sin compensation.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 8, 1889]