Daniel O'Brien Gavin (1823-1873)

Cutlass of police who patrolled violent Bute Dock displayed in Cardiff Museum

Five years in the making, The Cardiff Story museum will finally open its doors to the public on April 1. In the fourth of a five-part series, CLARE HUTCHINSON delves into the violent past of Cardiff’s docks and the valiant efforts of the Bute Dock Police WALK around Cardiff Bay on a typical weekend evening and you will pass couples walking arm-in-arm, families on their way to see a show and tourists taking pictures of the view over the Bay. But step back 150 years and you would be thrown into the thriving industrial heartland of Cardiff, where sailors and dock workers rubbed shoulders with criminal gangs and soldiers just returned from the bloody Crimean War, forced to scratch a living using any means they could. In charge of protecting this motley group were the Bute Dock Police, set up in 1858 and headed by Superintendent Daniel O’Brien Gavin, a retired military man who took no prisoners when it came to fighting crime in his grimy patch of the city. According to historian Viv Head, of the British Transport Police History Group, at its height the Bute Dock force had some 40 officers. He said: “Were they elite? No, quite the reverse. “The officers were part of the local community – hard men, often ex-soldiers themselves and often fond of the drink. “Robberies and thefts were rampant. Ships’ captains complained of being stopped and robbed by gangs, and thefts of ships’ stores were an everyday event, with both rope and chain particularly sought after. “But anything not screwed down – and some things that were – were fair game. “It was not unknown for a ship’s funnel to be stolen in the night and little urchins were always up for anything, especially theft of coal or food – no doubt encouraged by their families.” It was with this in mind that the order was made to arm 20 burly officers of the Bute Dock Police with long, curving, naval-style cutlasses. “In other police forces of the time, cutlasses were issued to officers on patrol after dark or when things were particularly violent and this may have been the case with the Bute Dock Police,” said Mr Head. “I’m sure that the sight of a tall powerfully-built officer armed with a long-bladed cutlass would be enough on most occasions, just as a truncheon – or staff as they were called – were in later years. “There is a story that when the cutlasses were replaced by the traditional police staff, a short warning was carved along their length. “Long before the official police caution was formulated, officers still gave offenders a form of warning before they arrested people. “Often, the officers were unable to read and so they would hold up their staff as a token display of an official warning. “The fact that the offender probably couldn’t read either didn’t seem to matter.” The cutlasses were worn by members of the force for almost 30 years until they were replaced by the truncheons officers still carry today. But one cutlass survived, and it will take its place among hundreds of artefacts donated by Echo readers and archivists at the National Museum of Wales, to be displayed in the first-ever museum dedicated to the city’s chequered history.

Source: www.walesonline.co.uk