Ship Inn Brawl


During the early 1850s, when the North Devon Railway was being extended from Crediton to Barnstaple, large numbers of men known as navvies (navigators) were to be found working on the huge cutting which lies to the east of Coleford. Many of these men were billeted at The Ship Inn (now Browns Farm) in the middle of Coleford. It is said that Thomas Peters, who was the landlord of the Ship at that time, would charge the navvies one penny a night to sleep on clean straw in the stone building which adjoins the road to Copplestone. On one particular Saturday night in January 1853, an argument broke out amongst the men, which Mr Peters tried in vain to subdue. He had to call on the services of Police Constable John Okeford, who was employed by the North Devon Railway Co as a “peace officer” and was stationed in the village. In the ensuing fracas PC Okeford was severely injured, and a number of villagers helped Mr Peters restore order. The following Monday, at a Crediton magistrates court that had hastily been convened, three men, Robert Harris, Charles Smith and Robert Burt were remanded to stand trial later.

A reward was offered for three other men involved in the fight. They were described as “Welsh Joe”, aged about 23 and 5ft 5ins tall and no whiskers. “Chickey” the same age and size and an unknown man, slightly older, with black hair and whiskers. These men were never traced. The trial took place in Exeter in early March. The three men were accused of causing damage to the Inn and injuries to PC Okeford from which he had only just recovered sufficiently to give evidence. He said that on being summoned, he was set upon by a group that included these three men. He was thrown to the ground and kicked by Smith. He managed to get up but was hurled partially through the window. He was dragged back whereupon he heard Burt shout, “let’s burst him, let’s finish the b***** off”! Luckily by now, Mr Peters had managed to summon extra help, and the situation was restored. In his evidence, Mr Peters said he had been in the habit of supplying the navvies with liquor under “The Truck System”, an old arrangement by which the men would have been paid partially in vouchers or tokens to be used locally. The three men were each sentenced to 12 months gaol with hard labour. Two other men who swore they had been sitting quietly by the fire while, as they put it, the others were “leathering the policeman” were released without charge.

© Neville P. Enderson