The Tipsy Tide-Waiter

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A tide-waiter is essentially a Custom’s man. He waits on the tides at the docks until the boats come in and then must check the cargo. Cargoes of spirits were tricky, as long voyages led to considerable evaporation through the barrels and seals. Spirits were often pilfered and subject to fraud and deception. Duty had to be paid on the spirits brought into the country and so accurate assessment of the amount on board was vital.

Experienced Custom’s men or Tide-Waiters knew the approximate amount of evaporation that would occur on a voyage and would assess whether what was arriving in port corresponded with the paperwork for when the ship left the previous port.

Percival Hindmarsh was a single man who was born in 1812 near Falstone in the hills of Northumberland. He and his younger brother were left orphaned in 1821 and ended up living with their unmarried Uncle, William Hindmarsh, a grocer in Clayport Street in Alnwick. Percival, in the 1830s and early 1840s can be found in Newfoundland working as a tide-waiter, but on 4th August 1850 he arrives in Australia and begins work as a tide-waiter in Sydney.

New South Wales, Australia, Public Service Lists, 1858-1860

This list from New South Wales Australia Public Service Lists 1858-1870, for 1858, shows Percival as 3rd Tide-Waiter just before his early death at the age of 46 in 1859. You will see from the notes at the bottom of the table that a few customs staff were suspended and it becomes clear from Percival’s subsequent inquest that a large investigation into the day to day running of Customs at Sydney was starting to gain momentum.

PH-exhumedInitially Percival’s body is buried but someone, it is not clear who, raises concerns about the manner of his death and so, against the wishes of all who knew him, his body was exhumed, as you can see from this report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Coroner then opened an inquest, in which Finney Eldershaw described Percival in the following way

“I am clerk in the Legislative Council, and have known the deceased Percival Hindmarsh for about eight years; he was landing waiter in the Customs: he was a single man and of late resided in Princes Street; he was about 47 years of age, was a single man, and never, to my knowledge, had a days illness, he was remarkably healthy, and had resided for some time past in Prince street;”

William R. T. Passmore deposed : I am a landing-waiter in the Customs, and have known deceased for five years; he was generally employed out of doors, and, consequently, much exposed to the sun; on Saturday, the 19th. deceased and myself were gauging casks on MaCnamara’s Wharf, when he complained of the excessive heat; he complained it affected his head, and had to go into the landing-waiter’s box to rest ; I requested him to take a nobbler of brandy, but he declined, saying he had already taken one that morning; I did not see him again until Monday morning.

summary-inquest-phThroughout the Inquest Percival is referred to as a sober man. I do not think we would view him that way now, however the way that life was then it was obviously quite normal to drink brandy in the morning, and brandy was considered at the time a cure for sun-stroke which clearly we now know is incorrect. The summer of 1859 in Sydney was particularly hot.

The verdict of the jury was at odds with the evidence and the Coroner was not happy with the verdict:

“The jury retired, and after half an hour’s consultation agreed to, and returned with the following verdict:
“We find that the said Perceval Hindmarsh came by his death from natural causes.”
Rider-“The jury beg to express their opinion, from the evidence produced, that the deceased Percival Hindmarsh was a man of steady, regular, and sober habits: and consider that there were not sufficient grounds to warrant an inquest.”

The Coroner returned the jurymen thanks for the time and attention they had given to the enquiry, and intimated that he was bound to accept their verdict, though he must inform them that it was not in accordance with the evidence.”

Quote from Hindmarsh Family Tree website where further details of this case can be read.


Clearly the conditions that the tide-waiters worked in were not ideal as you can see from this anonymous letter to the newspaper.

So this shows that by simply finding an inquest report you can end up with wonderful details about that person and how they lived and who they know. It is clear from the numerous letters written to the Sydney Morning Herald that Percival was well liked and respected and subsequent newspaper reports relating to him dying intestate and regarding sales of his effects draw an even more detailed picture of this man. The list of his effects lists 2 birds and cages with various chests, clothes and shares.

See the Hindmarsh Family Tree website where further details of this case and the transcript of the Inquest can be read.

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