On Monday 20th May 1901 there was a little bit of a kerfuffle in the offing in Weymouth with the focus falling on Cosens’s Albert Victor. Some money was 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 Albert Symes. It looked like an open and shut case. How could Captain Symes defend himself in the face of evidence like that. He was duly convicted on 8th June 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 described as the “Head of the Household” and “Living on means”. His father had died. Now there was just Albert and his Mum.
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.
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.
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 aged just 26. 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 as well including Captain Rawle. The reports must have been favourable for them to have given him his own ship.
All seemed set fair for a 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.
I find this troubling as it just does not ring true to 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 scenario. 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? Was there anybody out there who had had their nose pushed so far out of joint by this maybe cocky young captain and so 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. We know that Captain Symes had local lodgings. 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 hard 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 on and on 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.
On release from prison Mr Symes moved to the outskirts of London doubtless seeking to distance himself from the wagging tongues and to start a new life in a new location. There he got a job working for the local fire brigade. On 14th November 1904, aged 29, he was living in Beddington and married Emma Eliza James aged 25. They had two children, James Albert Wellington in 1908 and Frederick George in 1910. James died in infancy. George lived on until 1979. His mother died in 1908 so his children never got to meet their grandma. He died in 1937 aged just 62 whilst still working as a fireman for London County Council. His wife Emma lived on until 1956.
All in all it is a very sad tale of a promising career cut short so very early on. If this episode had not happened, and if he had stayed with Cosens, then Captain Symes would in the end have become their senior master and commanded their flagship Emperor of India. As it turned out his career as a captain lasted for only a few weeks.
Looking back on that fateful time 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 her husband? 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 for one have more than a little bit of sympathy for Captain Albert Robson Symes and the terrible trouble he fell into in May 1901.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 20th May 2021.