May 2021:
Captain Albert Robson Symes

May 2021:
Captain Albert Robson Symes

In late May 1901 there was a little bit of a kerfuffle in the offing in Weymouth with the focus falling on Cosens’s Albert Victor.

Albert Victor leaving Weymouth.

Some money had been stolen from the company’s office. Some money was found hidden behind panelling in the captain’s cabin on the Albert Victor. More money was found at the Weymouth lodging of Albert Victor’s master Captain Symes. It looked like an open and shut case. How could the captain defend himself in the face of evidence like that. He was duly convicted on 8th June 1901 of larceny and sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour.

So what of Captain Symes? How did he find himself in this unfortunate position just as he was given his first command? I am very grateful to David and Heather Green for doing some background digging around this subject and for coming up with some fascinating facts.

Albert Robson Symes was born in 1875 in Southampton. The 1881 census records him as living at 10 Charles Street, Southampton with his father John, described as a butcher, and his mother Jane. The 1891 census records that, aged 16, he was engaged as an errand boy and was living with his mother Jane who was now documented as the “Head of the Household” and “Living on means”. His father had died. Now there was just Albert and his Mum.

Duchess of Cornwall.

We know that he then worked for what became Red Funnel initially as a deck hand, later as an Able Seaman and then as Mate of the paddle steamer Duchess of Cornwall at his home port of Southampton.

Monarch as built.

In 1900 we find him as mate of Cosens’s flagship Monarch under their senior master Captain Philip St B Rawle so clearly he must have been highly regarded. He was a young man on the way up, getting himself qualified and impressing his employers along the way.

Majestic.

For the 1901 season Cosens had built the state of the art paddle steamer Majestic so there was a shuffle around of masters. Captain Rawle moved onto the new ship. All the others moved up and Captain Symes was given his first command of Albert Victor. He was just 26 years old. Companies did not then and do not now appoint masters to their ships lightly so we can be sure that Cosens had a high regard for their new captain. They would have asked others for their opinions of him too including Captain Rawle. The reports must have been favourable for them to have given him his own ship and at such a young age.

All seemed set fair for a long and golden career. And then this. Money found in his cabin and in his lodging after a theft from the company office. His whole career, his whole life came crashing down around him.

I find this troubling as it just does not have a ring of truth about it for me. Of course I know that anybody may do anything but I ask myself why should such a young man clearly with so much going for him, now earning a higher salary and newly appointed as master do something so really stupid as to steal from his employers. And even more stupidly to hide the booty in such an obvious place in the captain’s cabin of his new ship where it could so easily be found. But there it was. There could be only one verdict.

And then I wonder if there could perhaps have been another explanation. Take the case that he was a young man on the way up which we know he was. Sometimes young men on the way up can be a tiny tad arrogant and not slow to point out the defects which they see in others in an attempt to smarten them up. Did Captain Symes make any enemies along the way? Were there others around jealous of his youthful success? And was there anybody out there who had had their nose so much pushed out of joint by this maybe cocky young captain that they determined to get their own back. Because stitching him up would have been a fairly straight forward thing to do for anyone with a mind, opportunity and sufficient grievance to do it.

Mostly the crews did not live aboard the ships at Weymouth. Most went home at night and we know that Captain Symes had local lodgings ashore. It was a freer age then when doors were not always locked. Could some kind soul have come aboard one night and deliberately planted some money behind the panelling in the captain’s cabin before posting another tranche of it in a brown paper parcel through the letterbox of his lodgings? And then intimated to Sergeant Plod of the local constabulary that he had overheard Captain Symes talking about the theft and therefore best to take a look. So a look was taken and that was that. And remember that 1901 predates the routine use of finger printing evidence to help solve crimes.

Captain Symes was therefore on his way to prison with hard labour. And that must have been really difficult for anyone and particularly so for an educated man not used to manual labour. Working on the treadmill for ten hours a day incessantly stepping on and off, on and off was designed to sap a man’s will. And smashing rocks each and every day between spells on the treadmill was punishing physical labour too.

If he served his full sentence then he would have been out of prison in December. I can understand that after all that he might have had a keen desire to get away from everything and put the past behind him. It is therefore interesting to note that in December 1901 there is a record that an Albert Symes, aged 30, bought a ticket to leave the country and travel to New York from Southampton. I don’t know for sure that this was the same Albert Symes but given the age recorded and the fact that Southampton was Albert’s home town it does seem very likely.

Whatever the case, we know that he was back in the UK by 1904 as there is a record of him working for the fire brigade and marrying Emma Eliza James aged 25 on 14th November in Beddington. They had two children, James Albert Wellington in 1908 and Frederick George in 1910. James died in infancy. George lived on until 1979. Sadly his mother mother died in 1908 so his children never got to know their grandma. He died in 1937 aged just 62 whilst still working as a fireman by then for London County Council. His wife Emma survived the war and lived on until 1956 when she died aged 76. I wonder how she lived and made ends meet for all the years after Albert died, a not dissimilar situation to that of Albert’s own mum years before.

All in all I think that it is a very sad tale of a promising career snuffed out so early on. If this episode had not happened and if he had stayed then it is likely that Captain Symes would in the end have become Cosens’s senior master and commanded their flagship Emperor of India. As it turned out his time in command of a paddle steamer lasted for only a few weeks.

Looking back on that fateful period in the run up to the 1901 season the question remains for me: did he do it? Was it an on the spur of the moment action taken in ill judged haste maybe to help his Mum who may have been in financial difficulties living on her own in Southampton after the loss of his dad? Or was he framed by someone who had got it in for him and was determined to do him down?

We shall never know the answer to that. But any which way it was I have more than a little bit of sympathy for Captain Albert Robson Symes and the troubles he fell into in May 1901.