BY T.W. PATERSON
The law, like God it seems, can work in mysterious ways. Such is the conclusion one must draw from a sentence meted out in Nanaimo magistrate’s court in the spring of 1890, when nine seamen were charged with being drunk and disorderly.
The charge was appropriate enough; it’s what the court did to the chief witness that makes one’s head shake.
It all started when the seamen from the clipper ship Glory of the Seas came ashore late one Saturday night, only to find that the city saloons had an 11 p.m. closing time. While searching for one that was still open, they lost their way, or so they claimed. About midnight, they noticed that the lights were still on in a building and they knocked on the door. When no one answered, they tried the knob, found it to be unlocked, and stepped inside.
Imagine their surprise when they found themselves inside, of all things, a brewery!
In court, they said they pooled their money, set it down as payment and proceeded to help themselves to five cases and a barrel of beer. Rather than hauling it away, they attacked the brew on the spot and soon were in various stages of intoxication, some of them sitting on the floor amid a sea of empties.
Which is where owner Richard Wright found them when he checked to see why the lights were still on in his brewery at 1 a.m.
At first they ignored him then they told him to get lost. Upon inspecting the building, he was further astounded to find his brewmaster cowering in a broom closet. Wright sent him for the police.
Two constables found their quarry staggering between Commercial Street and Comox Road under the weight of the cargo they’d imbibed, and the barrel of beer on their shoulders. They surrendered without a struggle and were locked up to sleep it off.
Next morning, in court, the brewmaster told how he was cleaning the equipment when he answered a pounding on the door and was frightened to see so many men. Without waiting to hear what they wanted, he fled to the closet and watched silently as the seamen counted out some money then helped themselves to the bottled and barrelled brew. When he later counted it, it added up to all of $1.80 – considerably less than the value of the consumed suds.
After the seamen gave their side of the story, a short adjournment was ordered so that Wright could calculate his loss. Then the magistrate gave his ruling. He noted that, upon their arrival at the brewery, the seamen weren’t intoxicated. Nor had they forced entry. However, at the time of their arrest, they were drunk as skunks, so, taking into account the value of the consumed beer, each was fined $5.25, the fines to be paid out of their wages by their captain.
So much for the seamen. But there was the matter of the brewmaster. By not ordering them to leave, he’d tacitly accepted their payment of $1.80 and was therefore guilty of selling liquor after hours! His penalty: $20 fine and $5 costs. Fortunately for him, employer Wright thought that he’d suffered enough for one night and offered to cover the fine.
This isn’t the only case of a miscombulated interpretation of the liquor laws by a Nanaimo magistrate. Justice of the peace J.P. Planta gave an intriguing rendering of the Sunday Closing Act when the executors of the Peck estate, who held the license for the Pink ‘Un Saloon, were charged with having served liquor to three merchant seamen the previous Sunday morning.
Bartender Charles Williams testified that, upon their having assured him that they were ‘travellers’ off a ship anchored in Departure Bay, he’d served them three rounds of drinks in the belief that this was permissible under the act.
Asked by Const. Stewart, acting as prosecutor for the Crown, the distance between his establishment and Departure Bay, Williams said he wasn’t sure. Nor did he know which ship they’d come from. Stewart then informed the justice that, he, Stewart had been intoxicated(!) when he arrived at the Pink ‘Un but Williams had served him anyway – a violation under the Liquor Act for which he hadn’t been charged because he hadn’t denied serving the sailors on the Sabbath.
Nothing further was said about Stewart’s lack of sobriety while on duty and Planta came down against the owners of the Pink ‘Un, inflicting the usual fine of $2 and $5 costs, without explaining his rationale.
Const. Stewart’s asking bartender Williams the distance between the saloon and the ship’s anchorage would almost seem to suggest that the seamen hadn’t ‘travelled’ far enough for his satisfaction. Or, perhaps, Planta was doing an end run around the dropped charge that Williams had served an already intoxicated customer.
This wasn’t the only case involving boozing seamen that day. It appears that one of them, Ed Russell who’d been involved in the Pink ‘Un business, also faced a second charge of disturbing the peace. On the latter charge he and Charles Boyle were fined $5 each and ordered to be held in custody until their captain paid their fines the next day.
Boyle objected. It wasn’t fair, he protested, as they’d already spent several days in custody for their “little spree” – and every day they were away from their ship they were docked $4 by their employer. They only earned $25 a month, he explained, and it wouldn’t take many more days in jail for their salary to “diminish to a vanishing point.” Planta expressed surprise. Did Boyle mean to tell him that he made only 75 cents a day but he was fined $4 daily if absent from his ship without leave, even though in port?
When Boyle assured him that such was the case, Planta ordered Const. McKinnon to see the pair safely back to their ship before they got into any more trouble.