The Coble Dene Dock tragedy, which resulted in the untimely death of John O’Donnell, a 36-year-old fireman from Limerick, has sent shockwaves throughout the small community. The horrific incident took place aboard the steamer Beacon Light. At the heart of it was a man named Charles Brown, who was taken into custody and charged with wilful murder. The grisly details of the event unfolded during an inquest led by Deputy Coroner Mr H.T. Rutherford at the Percy Arms in Percy Main.
As the inquiry resumed, the court heard from Joseph Jordan, a seafaring man living at 5, George Potts Street, South Shields. Jordan claimed that on the day of the incident, he had been employed on board the Beacon Light, which was docked at the Albert Edward Lock in North Shields. He described how a quarrel had erupted between him and Brown over a pot of ruined soup. Sparks flew between the two men, ultimately resulting in a physical altercation. Despite attempts to quell the situation by O’Donnell, as well as their fellow crew members, tensions continued to escalate.
Jordan went on to describe how Brown had brandished a knife during the scuffle, cutting him in the process. As the situation devolved into pandemonium, Brown threatened Jordan with a revolver, eventually firing the weapon. However, instead of hitting Jordan, the bullet struck O’Donnell, who was following behind. The shot proved to be lethal, causing O’Donnell’s death and leaving the entire crew in shock.
Brown attempted to flee the scene, still brandishing his revolver. Sub-inspector J.T. Mayne, stationed at the Albert Edward Dock, intervened, finally apprehending Brown. Upon being disarmed, Brown chillingly remarked, “I’ve done one, and I will do another.”
Dr Martin of North Shields examined the body of O’Donnell, noting the fatal gunshot wound below the breast bone. He concluded that death had been caused by damage to a major blood vessel in the body.
The Coroner, in summing up the case, emphasized the significance of malice in determining the charge of murder. He explained that in a legal context, malice was not simply about ill-will towards a specific individual, but rather an overarching harmful intent. Consequently, the fact that Brown had meant to harm Jordan, but had inadvertently killed O’Donnell instead, still made him guilty of murder.
Following careful consideration of the evidence presented, the jury retired to deliberate their decision. After an absence of about ten minutes, they returned with a unanimous verdict, finding Charles Brown guilty of wilful murder. The death of John O’Donnell, they concluded, was due to hemorrhage caused by a bullet wound.
The Coble Dene Dock tragedy serves as a somber reminder of the tragic consequences that can arise from seemingly trivial disputes. In this case, a simple disagreement over soup escalated into a violent conflict that resulted in the senseless death of a man who had merely been attempting to restore peace. As the community continues to reel in the aftermath of the event, the trial stands testament to the pervasive and destructive nature of malice and human conflict.
Shields Daily Gazette – Friday 07 March 1902