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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R. v. Skewes [1840] NSWSupC 80

murder, manslaughter, ships, discipline on, ships' crews, alcohol allowance

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Dowling C.J., 1 September 1840

Source: Sydney Herald, 3 November 1840[1]

Thomas Skewes, late second mate of the "Ullswater", was indicted for the wilful murder of John Perry alias Ferry, at Sydney, on the 11th August last.  The circumstances of the were[sic] as follow.  On the night laid in the indictment, it appeared that the prisoner was in liquor and was quarrelling with the crew, in the forecastle, when the chief officer went forward and quelled the disturbance, after which the chief mate went to bed, and was aroused about eleven o'clock at night by loud cries of murder, and on going on deck to see what was the cause of the noise, he saw the prisoner in the custody of men, who took a case-knife from him and charged him with stabbing the deceased, who lingered till about 11 o'clock on the following day, when he expired.  From the evidence for the prosecution it appeared that a boy of the name of William George, belonging to the "Ullswater," had been ashore with the deceased and had gone a-board a short time before Parry[sic] was stabbed; the boy George gave the deceased his supper, and while he was eating it, George took down the ship's lamp, placed it on the forecastle deck, and commenced filling his pipe, when the prisoner came to him and asked what he was doing with a light there, and told him he had better put it out; to which the boy replied that he would put it out when he got his pipe lighted.  The prisoner replied "give us none of your cheek," to which the boy rejoined, "that is no cheek to light a pipe," when the prisoner struck him, and forced him out of the forecastle; the boy George then challenged the prisoner to fight him, when the prisoner beat the boy and chased him along the gangway to the wharf, where he knocked him down, and was on the top of him, when his cries brought Perry and another man from the ship; the other man named Saunders pulled the prisoner off the boy, when the deceased and the boy George began struggling with the prisoner, after which they separated; when the prisoner had got about five yards from the deceased, he suddenly stabbed at him with a case knife, which he was seen to pull from the waistband of his trousers.  The prisoner was secured, but before doing so, had returned the knife to the waistband of his trousers - a constable was sent for, and the prisoner given in charge; while he was being conveyed to the watch house the prisoner said he had murdered one man, referring to the deceased, and was willing to die for it, and if he could get his hands clear he would do for three or four others; he was then excited and under the influence of liquor.

            Mr. Purefoy for the defence, endeavoured from the cross-examination of the witnesses to prove that the prisoner had slain the deceased in self-defence, and in a long address urged that at most their verdict could only amount to manslaughter, and called the Captain of the vessel, who gave the prisoner an excellent character for honesty, sobriety, and attention to his duty as the second officer of the ship; at the same time he swore that the deceased was a drunken quarrelsome man, and had for several days previous to his being stabbed been in a drunken state, and would neither do his duty nor keep from quarrelling; he also deposed that the boy William George, about whom the quarrel had begun, was a thorough blackguard, having been just released from the stocks to come and give his evidence.

            The Attorney-General cross-examined this witness as to the daily allowance of grog which he gave to his crew, and was informed that at sea in ordinary circumstance he [sic] them one glass a day, but in the Port of Sydney he was compelled to give an allowance of three glasses of grog per day; while in some ports the allowance was only two.  In the West Indies the allowance was four, and in Quebec five glasses per day.  He would be very happy to get the custom changed; but it was useless to attempt it by himself.

            The Chief Justice, in putting the case to the jury, said it was to be lamented that such was the state of affairs in Sydney, that seamen had to be bribed with liquor to do their duty.  He sincerely trusted that the time was not far distant when no such thing as Port allowances would be given in New South Wales, and when even on the high seas the use of ardent spirits would be dispensed with.  With regard to the case of the prisoner before the court, he informed the jury that in order to constitute murder, it was not necessary to prove premeditation or malice aforethought; as, if no provocation was given, and one person took away the life of another, the law regarded the deed as amounting to murder; and even in the case of slight provocation, where individuals had lost their lives, the law held that it was tantamount to murder.  So absolutely necessary to prove provocation to warrant a jury in arriving at such a verdict.  There were therefore four questions for the jury to exercise their judgment upon: 1st, Had the deceased come to his death by violence?  2nd, Had that violence been premeditated by the prisoner?  3rd, Had provocation amounting to manslaughter been given to the prisoner by the deceased?  4th, Had the prisoner been placed in such jeopardy that he slew the deceased in order to protect his own life?  His Honor adverted in severe terms to the conduct of the boy William George, not only for disobeying the regulations of the vessel respecting the forecastle light, but his impudent answer to his officer, and his challenging him to fight - the animus with which he gave his testimony and his habit of drinking, and regarded him as the cause of deceased's death; and instructed the Jury that the excellent character given to the prisoner could not affect his guilt or innocence, but at a future period, if convicted, it would tend materially to mitigate the severity of his sentence.  The Jury retired for about a quarter of an hour, and returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter, and the prisoner was remanded.

Dowling C.J., 7 November 1840

Source: Sydney Herald, 9 November 1840 [2]

Thomas Skews, you have been convicted of feloniously killing and slaying John Parry[sic], a seaman on board the brig Ullswater, by stabbing him with a knife.

            The Jury who tried you took a most favourable view of your case, for it had all the characteristics of a heart bent upon wilful murder.  You were acquitted of that dreadful offence, and the court is relieved from the pain of awarding to you an ignominious death.  In vain I have sought for mitigating circumstances in your case.  It is that of an officer of a ship, suffering himself to get drunk, and upon very slight provocation giving way to the impulse of what, I fear, is naturally a sanguinary temperament.  The violence committed was wholly disproportioned to the occasion.  In utter disregard of discipline and of your own position as second officer, you accepted a challenge to fight an insolent apprentice on shore, and the deceased coming to his assistance you plunged your knife into his body.  To the fearful indulgence in spirituous liquors may be ascribed this melancholy catastrophe.  This is another horrible item in the catalogue of crime this session from that one besetting sin.  The time is now arrived when it behoves every man who takes an interest in the welfare of society, or who even acknowledges himself to be of the human race, to bestir himself, either individually or collectively, with his neighbours, to put down this hideous propensity.  Whatever may be the assumed necessity for stimulating to exertion, in the vicissitudes of seafaring life, by the administration of spirits, that necessity at all events ceases when in port, where a wholesome beverage can be obtained for moderate refreshment, and the sustentation of the human frame can be effected, without prostrating God's creatures to the level of brutes.  It is earnestly to be hoped that merchants, ship-owners, and mariners will seriously take to heart the frightful consequences of the noxious use of ardent spirits in the prosecution of those adventures in which their own fortunes, the character of the British seamen, and the lives of their fellow creatures are so deeply involved.  This, and innumerable other examples of the like kind, are sufficient to arouse them to a sense of public and private duty.  It is necessary that an example should be made of you, to awaken others to their liability for the consequences of their self-degradation.  The laws of the land must be vindicated by bodily suffering, if men will not obey the dictates of moral propriety.  The sentence of this court is, that your, Thomas Skews, be transported out of this Colony for 14 years.


[1]              See also Australian, 3 November 1840.  On the same day, the Supreme Court gave bail to a number of seamen who had been charged with mutiny by Captain Bunker, who had since left Sydney.

[2]              See also Australian, 7 November 1840.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University