Amble and District
     Local History



This page is dedicated to the Memory of Charles Astley Cooper.



Meggie Dixon

Amble registered Barque, 473 tons. (1873-1896)


Meggie Dixon, Amble Barque, 1886


The Meggie Dixon, stern view at Capernaum Pier, Limekilns, Fife, 1886. (click for the large version)

This original photograph by Erskine Beveridge donated by Paul Goutiere, Alberta, Canada.

    Built 1873, 473 tons, Amble registered, owned by Andrew Richardson and Isaac Crane Mann. Richardson lived in Gibson Street, Amble and owned a number of vessels. Mann came from Norfolk but had strong connections with our area as his wife was from Warkworth. The vessel appears to have served between the east and south coast ports and Malaya and Sumatra.
    The vessel came to national notoriety in 1878 when the Master, Mate and Boatswain were accused of murder (see below).

The Times, April 25th 1878

     ALLEGED MURDER AT SEA. - Richard Proudfoot, the master, W. Strickland, the mate, and James Murray, boatswain, of the bark Meggie Dixon, were again brought before the Falmouth magistrates yesterday on the charge of conspiring to murder Charles Cooper, an apprentice on board the same vessel, while on a voyage to Penang.  William Hall, ordinary seaman, gave evidence to the effect that on one occasion deceased was put into the forepeak to remove coals, where he was kept for 24hours, and when brought out was compelled to walk the deck for one hour with two planks, 6ft, long on his shoulder.  Deceased had to work, when the other members of the crew had holidays.  The boatswain would sometimes rub the ropes across his nose until it bled, and he was subjected to frequent blows to face.  His hair was cut very close, and on one occasion his head was tarred. The boatswain had scrubbed him with a piece of canvas, and witness saw that his body was covered with bruises. The skin was broken on places on his legs and back.  Witness remembered deceased being sent aloft 12 times at midnight and made to crow like a cock.  The day he fell from the yard and was drowned he was looking very ill, and was not in a fit condition to be on deck.  His eyes was sunken in his head, and his body much emaciated.  Witness and others of the crew were requested to give the deceased only such food as the captain ordered.   Witness once give him a portion of his pudding, and the boatswain indicted extra two hours at the wheel for it.  Charles Lind, an apprentice, said deceased when he joined the ship was stout and healthy, and, moreover, good-tempered, well-behaved, and obedient.  Soon after leaving the Channel the mate and boatswain commenced to ill-treat him.  On one occasion deceased stole some slush from the forecastle in order to appease his hunger.  Three weeks before his death he was put into the lee scuppers and scrubbed with a broom, salt water being at the same time thrown over him.  His body was covered with sores and spots,  The mate on one occasion struck deceased with the hook of a tackle block, penetrating the flesh under the arm.  Deceased would frequently cry out, 'Oh Lord' Leave me alone'.  Thomas Waby, A. B., said he saw the mate on one occasion, hold the deceased by the neck and made him cry for mercy.  Deceased was badly treated, chiefly by the mate.  The captain once struck him for not keeping his cloths in order.  Witness saw the mate throw water over Cooper while he was in his berth.  He had been sent on watch half naked.  The prisoners were sent to take their trial for manslaughter, bail being refused.

The Times, August 2nd 1878



CROWN COURT. - (Before Mr Justice DENMAN)
     Richard Proudfoot, 35, master mariner, of good education, William Henry Strickland, 21 mate, also of good education, James Murray, 26, boatswain, able to read, were indicated for the manslaughter of Charles Astley Cooper, on the high seas, on August 4, 1877. 
     Mr Collins, Q. C. and Mr M'Kellar prosecuted on behalf of the Treasury; Mr Carter and Hon. Claud Vivian defend the master; Mr Poole and Mr. Pitt-Lewis the other two prisoners.
     Mr COLLINS, in opening the case for the prosecution, said that the prisoners, who were the officers of the bark Meggie Dixon, were charged with having grossly ill-treated the deceased, an apprentice, aged 21 years, over a period of three months, while on a voyage from Sunderland to Padang in Sumatra, the consequence of the ill-treatment being that the lad was reduced to a skeleton and to such a state of weakness that he was utterly unfit to go aloft, and having been sent aloft, fell overboard and was drowned.  The learned counsel then briefly stated the facts of the case, which were supported by the following evidence:- 
    Charles Edward Beach, assistant to the Registrar-General  of seaman, proved that the Meggie Dixon was a British  bark of 473 tons register.  The crew should consist of 11, all told, including officers and apprentices.  There were in fact 13 on board, of whom two were apprentices. 
    Fritz Ropcke said,- I was cook and steward on board the Meggie Dixon.  She sailed on May 1, 1877, on a voyage from Sunderland to Padang in Sumatra.  The deceased was an apprentice, it was his first voyage, and he knew nothing about ships.  He was very healthy, He was put into the mate's watch.  The mate used to rope's-end him.  He used to do it constantly.  The boy got thinner and thinner, and at last got like a skeleton.  He was treated very badly the whole time.  On August 4th I got my coffee ready at 5 o'clock.  The mate and the carpenter were there at the time.  Cooper was on the lookout, the mate called him and said 'Go up to the royal-yard and cry 'Cuckoo'.  He went.  When he came down the mate asked the carpenter to help to give him a scrub down.  The carpenter would not.  The mate then made Cooper strip, he then had water thrown over him and broomed him down with a new whalebone broom.  His clothes were washing about on deck.  He was like a skeleton, and black and blue all over.  I saw that there was a large wound on his thigh.  He had many other wounds on him.  The mate grumbled that he did not come on deck.  Later in the day the captain rope's-ended him.  Four or five minutes afterwards the captain gave the order to reef topsails.  I sew the boatswain kicking Cooper along the deck.  He then hit him three times with a rope and ordered him to go up aloft.  I went down below and came up again, and I heard the boy crying out, 'Oh God, leave me alone,'  Afterwards I heard the cry.  'A man overboard,'  and I saw Cooper in the sea.  I never saw him after.  The captain ordered me to throw a lifebuoy overboard, and the ship was weared, but we could not pick him up.
    Cross-examined by Mr. CARTER- When there was a cry of ' A man overboard' the captain did not put the ship about as quickly as he might.  I threw a buoy overboard.  I took 20 minutes to do it.  The captain made me fasten a rope to the buoy before throwing it over.  The lad could not swim, and he had on sea boots and a big coat. 
    Cross-examined by Mr. POOLE- The deceased could go up and down the rigging very well.  I did not see sores on him when he first came on board.  The ship was under manned, and it took sometimes ten times as long as it ought to reef.  I never saw other men rope-ended.  I remember the police coming on board at Falmouth.  Petrie, the carpenter, did not say, 'Now there is going to be a row' it's all along of having no liberty at Padang.  I never taxed the boatswain with Cooper's death.
    Re-examined by Mr. COLLINS- The complaint I sent to the board of trade was written by the second mate of the barque Kingdom of Fife at Padang, at my dictation.  I could not write myself.  It was as follows-  'Padang.  Sumatra, barque Meggie Dixon, July 27, 1877.  'To the President of the board of trade, London.  'Sir- I bet to call your attention to the ill-treatment practised on the crew by the captain, mate and boatswain, for every day the mate and boatswain are beating and kicking some of the crew.  But more especially I must drew your attention to the case of an apprentice named Charles Cooper.  belonging to Hull, who was drowned by falling overboard from the foretopsail yard on the 4th August, while on our passage from Sunderland to this port.  The first month he was brutally beaten and kicked by the mate, but then being shifted into the boatswain's watch, the boatswain ill-used worse, and then at the end of the third month the captain began to ill-use him by beating and starving him, and threatened the crew, if any of them gave him anything, that he would starve them,  after this he had got the scurvy, and then the captain rope's-ended him because he had scurvy, and the only food that he had was barley and rice, and very little of that, and shortly before he was drowned the boatswain threatened to throw him overboard, and when he fell from the yard I heard him asking the boatswain for mercy and not to strike him any more, and when I taxed the boatswain with throwing him overboard he showed signs of trouble, and on previous occasions when I had interfered to prevent his being ill-treated I was threatened with violence by the boatswain.  The captain's name is Pratpool. [sic]  The mate's name is Strickland, and the boatswain is unknown.  Trusting that you will not neglect this case as a worse one could not be. 'I remain your humble servant, 
                           [signed] Fritz Ropcke.  Steward British bark Meggie Dixon, of Amble.  (This was also signed by C. Smith, A. B.; John Slatttery, boy; George Barnes, O. S.; T. Waby, A. B.; William Hall, O. S.; John Henderson, A. B.; Andrew Petrie, carpenter.)
   By the JUDGE - When the boy fell over I heard some one say, 'Now he has done it at last,' and the boatswain looked frightened. 
   Charles Smith, able seaman, gave similar evidence as to acts of ill-treatment by the mate and boatswain.
   Andrew Petrie, the carpenter, gave corroborative evidence, and said that at the time of the lad's death his eyes were sunk into his head, and he was in a very bad state.  The lad was very greedy and would over eat himself and be sick, and he was also very dirty, and the men complained of him.  The witness was never ill-used, but the crew were. 
   Charles Lind, apprentice, 18, said-Cooper was stout and healthy.  The mate used to strike him and beat with his fists and a rope's end.  Blood came from his ears.  I have seen him sent aloft by all three officers to crow like a cock and say 'cuckoo'.  He would go as fast as he could, but the captain wanted him to go faster.  I have seen him scrubbed by the mate with a whalebone broom, while Barnes poured water over him.  He was covered with sores and had the scurvy.  I saw the mate give him three dozen with a cane.  After the death of Cooper, the captain asked me to write home to Cooper's brother and say that he would send full particulars.  He told me to say that there was no foul play.  It is not true that Cooper fell overboard by his own carelessness.
    Cross-examined by Mr. POOLE- I believe the deceased was so weak from his ill-treatment that he fell overboard.  I tarred Cooper's head once by the boatswain's orders.  I said before the magistrates that I had nothing to do with tarring his head, but that referred to a prior occasion.  George Barnes, ordinary seaman, swore to various acts of cruelty.  The mate on one occasion had Cooper held down naked over a windlass while he flogged him with a cane. 
    Wightman Cooper, the brother of the deceased, an apothecary's assistant, who stated that the lad's health had been good for years before went to sea, said - When the ship arrived at Falmouth I went on board.  The captain asked me to come below into his cabin,  He said that although he had seen me before, he could not muster up courage to speak to me then.  He said 'When your brother came on board he gave me this seal.  Do not be so much affected, others were ill-treated besides your brother.  I cannot deny that other officers were brutal and bad men, and I should like to give evidence against them if it would help the case.  I have a wife and family, can you help me?  I said it was out of my power. 
    This closed the case for the prosecution. 
     It was submitted on the part of the prisoners that there was no case to go to the jury.  First as regards all the three prisoners, the death of the deceased was not the direct result of their act.  The death was caused by the deceased falling overboard, and this was said by the prosecution to be caused by his weakness resulting from bad treatment.  There was no proof of that, and even if there were the cause was far too remote from the results.  A man who injured another's leg might as well be indicated for manslaughter because the latter subsequently was unable to run away from a mad bull, and so was killed.  Secondly, it was argued that the mate being below when the order to go aloft was given could not be responsible.  Also the boatswain was bound to obey the captain's order, and so could not be responsible for ordering the deceased aloft. 
    For the prosecution it was said that the prisoners knew the duties and position of their apprentice, they knew it was part of his duty to go aloft, and if by a systematic course of ill-usage they so weakened him that going aloft was dangerous, and he did go aloft under orders and was drowned, they were guilty of manslaughter.  As to the captain, he was peculiarly in charge of the deceased, who was an apprentice, and it was his duty to see that in the state he was in he did not go aloft to do dangerous work, and as to the boatswain, he could not shelter himself from ordering the deceased aloft by saying he was ordered to do so.  He might as well shield himself from larceny by saying the captain told him to steal. 
    The learned Judge said that the case was the most difficult one he ever had to deal with and there were no authorities on the point.  He should leave the questions to the jury- 1st, whether the death of Cooper was directly owing to his having been reduced by acts of the three men to such a state that he was unfit to do his ordinary duties.  2nd, Whether, if the death could not be directly ascribed to those acts, it was ascribable to the unlawful conduct of either the captain or boatswain or both.  Which would depend on whether they knew that sending the deceased aloft was so dangerous that it was highly probable he would meet his death therefrom.   Whatever answers the jury gave to those questions, the learned Judge said he should grant a case for the consideration of the Court of Crown Cases. 
    Mr. COLLINS then summed up the case for the prosecution.
    Mr. CARTER, in addressing the jury in defence of the captain, characterized the whole of the story of the crew as a gross fabrication.  Why did Ropcke in the memorial say that he had taxed the mate with knocking Cooper overboard?.  That was deliberate falsehood on his own admission.  Was not the rest like it?  The crew admitted they did not know the contents of the document when they signed.  Then the wicked story of the deceased's brother was a lie concocted at the last moment.   Why had it only just been told to the court?.
     Mr. POOLE addressed the jury on behalf of the mate and boatswain.  He said the grave difficulty in the case was that it was, no doubt founded on a substratum of truth.  Of course there was some ill-usage on board, and on that the crew had - and they had ample time to do so on their long voyage home - concocted as gross and malicious a story as could be conceived.  It could not be contradicted, except out of the witnesses' own mouths, as they had gone against all the officers, so that they could not give evidence in each other's favour.  The crew were - they had it on their own admission - a drunken, lying lot.  They would not work, and had to be dragged out of bed and made to go aloft, and they had their liberty refused at Padang.  What further motive could be required for their conduct?.  When their story is looked at, it is so fiendish as to be improbable, it is steeped in contradiction and admitted lies.  If the story was but half true, Cooper must have died before August 4 from the treatment he suffered and yet there is no evidence that he was laid by for a single day.  As to the specific act of ordering him up aloft on August 4, the crew was in such a miserable state and so incompetent, that it was in all probability, absolutely necessary that the deceased, whatever his state, should do the little he could.  Moreover, there was absolutely no evidence that the fall was not a accident, such as might have happened to any other of the crew.  Then as to the tale of the brother.  Could the jury possibly believe a story admitted by the prosecution to have been told to them after the trial had lasted a whole day by a man who was before the magistrates and heard all that there went on?
    Evidence was then given of good character on the part of the captain and mate.  The learned JUDGE, in summing up the case, said that it was one of the very highest importance.  It was important that sailors, a class of men who were ignorant and generally incapable of looking after themselves, should be protected by the law from brutal ill-treatment, but it was also important that anything like a conspiracy on the part of a crew against their officers should not be allowed to put them in peril by stopping their mouths.   The main grounds of the defence was that the whole story was a gross exaggeration agreed on by the crew.  The jury must examine into the acts of cruelty detailed, and if they found that they were described by the witness falsely and with such a degree of circumstance that it was probable that the details were agreed on, they would look with the up most suspicion on the whole story.  The learned judge then went very carefully through the evidence. and pointed out that if they had any grave doubt on the case the evidence of character was very material.  The points for the consideration of the jury were these - Was the falling overboard the cause of death;  Was the sole cause of the falling overboard weakness, which disabled him from holding on?  Was that weakness, reduced by systematic illusage; if so, which of the prisoners were guilty of that illusage?  Was the illusage part of a system or was it a series of isolated acts, mere instances of bona fide indiscretion?.    Were acts done which materially contributed to  the state of the deceased, if he was in a state of weakness? Were the captain and the boatswain, or either of them, guilty of gross negligence in sending the deceased aloft?  The learned judge said that he could not ask the jury to answer the points specifically, but must require them, in the light they afforded,  to answer the single question :- Are you satisfied that the three prisoners or either of them, are guilty of manslaughter- i.e., of doing unlawful acts which caused the death of the deceased?  The jury, after an absence of an hour and a half, returned into the court and asked whether they were confined to the question of manslaughter.
    The learned Judge said they were.
    The jury then said that they found the prisoners Not Guilty of manslaughter.
    The learned Judge said he should, in order to guide the prosecution in the order indictments for assaults and ill-treatment which had been found by the grand jury, asked the jury whether they found the prisoners not guilty on the grounds that they did not believe the tale of the crew, or whether they merely thought that there was no evidence of manslaughter. 
    The jury replied that if the question had been one of the existence of cruelty they would have found a different verdict. 
    Mr. COLLINS, on the part of the prosecution, then said that he should proceed on the order medicated, but it was agreed by all parties not to do so until the next assizes. 
    The prisoners were, accordingly, taken back to gaol.

The Times, November 2nd 1878

EXETER, OCT 29, 30 AND 31
Before Lord Chief Justice COLERIDGE
    Richard Proudfoot, 35, master mariner, of good education; William Henry Strickland, 21, mate, also of good education; and James Murray, 26, boatswain, able to read, were indicated for having grossly ill-treated Charles Astley Cooper, an apprentice, age 21, for a period of over three months.
    The prosecution was instituted by the treasury, at the desire of the Board of Trade.
    Mr. Collins, Q. C. and Mr. M'Kellar prosecuted , Mr. Carter and the Hon. O. Vivian defended the master, Mr. Poole the other two prisoners.
    The prisoners were indicted at the last Cornwall Assizes, for the manslaughter of Cooper, the charge being that, by a continual course of ill-treatment on board the barque Meggie Dixon, while on a voyage from Sunderland to Padang in Sumatra,  they had reduce him to such a weak state that he was unable to discharge his duties, that while in that state he had been sent aloft, and having falling overboard from weakness was drowned.  The jury, however, were not satisfied that the ill-treatment was the direct cause of death, and returned a verdict of Not Guilty, but said that if the question had been merely one of ill-usage they should have returned a different verdict.  There being other indictments against the prisoners for ill-usage, Mr. Collins intimated that he should proceed on the minor charges.  By consent of all parties the case was adjourned to the present Assizes.
   The story now told by the witnesses disclosed a course of the most revolting cruelty on the part of the prisoners.  It appeared that the deceased, who had been a chemist's assistant, had long had desire to go to sea, and after so talk with one Lind, an apprentice on board the barque Meggie Dixon, he went off with and entered the Meggie Dixon as an apprentice.  The Meggie Dixon was a  barque of 473 tons register, and had 13 hands, all told.  Cooper was entirely ignorant of seamanship, had no proper clothes, and used on cold days to go aloft in a long Ulster coat.  He was a tall, healthy lad when he first came on board.  At first he was put into the mate's watch, but was so ill-treated and ropesended  that the steward, Ropcke,  a Swede, complained to the captain, who had him moved into his own watch, saying he would not have the lad ill-treated.  After some time the lad appears to have been treated badly by all the prisoners.  He got the scurvy.  The captain ropesended him to 'let him know what the scurvy was' and ordered him to be fed on rice and barley only, and said he would starve any of the crew who fed him.  The crew appear, however to have given him food surreptitiously,  On one occasion, with the scurvy on him, he was told to shift coals to the fore peak, and the captain said he was to have no food till he had filled it.  This took the lad over 21 hours, and on the steward giving him secretly a bottle of water and a biscuit, the captain, who saw it, took both away.  On more than one occasion, while Cooper was black and blue with bruises, he was stripped, doused with sea water, and scrubbed with a whalebone broom, and his head was tarred and greased.  He was made to go up and down the rigging for 50 times in succession, and was made to cry 'cuckoo' each time he got to the masthead.  The mate said to the boatswain, 'do not let the lunatic have any rest'.  The boatswain said, 'I will take care of that'.  The lad appears to have been ropesended, knocked across the back of the neck so that blood came from his ears, and held down over a capstan and flogged with a rattan.  In answer to a question of the learned judge, one witness said that the lad was covered with lice, which he was made by the mate to eat.  He at last grew like a skeleton, and used to steal what food he could get; even taking out of a barrel the slush used for greasing the masts.  In this state he was ordered aloft in a gale of wind, was driven and kicked up by the boatswain, and finally fell overboard, the last words he was heard to utter being 'O god leave me alone!'  Every exertion was made to pick him up but in vain.  Charles Lind, the apprentice, who was of superior education, wrote at the captain's desire a letter to the deceased brother saying that Cooper had fallen overboard through his own carelessness, and that there had been no foul play.  This letter he give open to the captain.  He now stated that the contents of the letter were false, and he only said what he did from fear of the captain, as Cooper was really grossly maltreated.  On arrival at Padang a memorial was drawn up by the steward, signed by him and seven others of the crew, and sent to the board of trade, calling their attention to the matter.  The captain learning this endeavoured to get the crew to sign a paper to the effect that the memorial was untrue, but they refused.  On arrival at Falmouth the captain called on the deceased brother, and said that he know that the lad was ill-treated, but it was all done by the mate and boatswain, who got the upper hand.
    Mr. Collins in summing up the case to the jury, pointed out the strong corroboration of the crew's story in the passage in Lind's letter to the effect that there had been no foul play.  Why should such a statement have been made when it would never have entered the mind of the recipient of the letter that there had been any?
    The defence was that the story of the crew was the result of a conspiracy got up by them against their officers in revenge for having their liberty stopped at Padang, a story difficult to refute, as it was founded on a substratum of truth.  The facts no doubt true, but were grossly exaggerated.  Cooper was a lazy landlubber, and it was in evidence that he was dirty and inordinately greedy. The story of the starvation arose out of the captain having strictly forbidden any meat being given to the boy, as it would have been poison to him with the scurvy on him.  Treatment at sea was well know to be rough, and such as could easy exaggerated without fear of contradiction, especially if those who were charged with ill-treatment were the officer and all charged in a body, so that they could have no evidence of a fellow officer in their defence.
   The jury found all the prisoners Guilty, but added that they considered the captain the least culpable.

    The learned Judge in passing sentence said that the case was one of immense importance, and it was a subject of congratulation that it had been taken up by the Board of Trade and Treasury.  No doubt the officers of a ship must be endued with despotic authority - it was necessary for the safety of all that it should be so, but it was awful to find how that authority could be abused and terrible to think of the poor lad hunted by his superiors in mid-ocean, with no possibility of escape or refuge.  He fully agreed with what the jury had appended to their verdict as he considered that the captain had been overborne by his inferior officers, though he had at last, unable to resist, behaved with almost equal cruelty.  He should sentence him to 12 months' hard labour. As to the others, he must make an example of them, and should therefore sentence each of them to five years penal servitude.

Notes: 'ropesended' or 'rope's end' is the punishment of flogging with a length of rope. The text refers to the ship's destination both as penang and  padang.

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