Robert the Devil
By Cedric Porter
New light on perhaps the most famous of all the Erith characters in days gone by, Robert the Devil, came in a yarn spun me this week by Mr Donald Sidhall, of Milton Road, Belvedere.
Here is what Mr Sidhall told me about the man he once used to work with:-
“Robert was an extremely strong man and no respecter of persons, whoever they were. At a time of life when most people were extremely respectful of those in position. They had to kow-tow to get a job-otherwise they starved.
He had his own sailing barge which was wrecked and, not being insured, this started him doing things he would never have dreamed of doing before.
He was always completely independent of everybody and the sort of man who wouldn’t recognise there was anyone superior to him in his own particular line.
No mug of course, he was skipper of a barge at 16-although this was not unusual in those days-and after he got his own boat, his character was that of a very careful, earnest sort of chap whose one interest in life was to save up and buy another barge.
After his boat sank, one of his best known haunts in Erith was the public house which used to stand opposite the causeway. The Yacht. For the benefit of lightermen and dockers, this was open more or less 24 hours a day.
In the summertime it was quite usual for him to be in there and perhaps the tide would come up and he would walk straight out the pub and into the water.
When he started to swim out to the middle of the river, often the police would go after him in their boat rowed by four constables with a sergeant and coax him to come back with them. They would leave him to go and sit in the pub with all his clothes dripping wet until he tried again.
There were times when Robert got a bit obstreperous and the police had to be called.
This was always a pantomime-the police had an ambulance, which was simply a stretcher on two wheels and it always took at least six of them to strap him down on this and wheel him off to the police station.
For some people this was their only entertainment of the week-children used to find which public house he was in and wait for the policemen to begin.
A very great friend of his, Kate Carter, was a money lender who lived in Maximfeldt Road. She was a very large Irish woman and a devout Roman Catholic, although she went to Mass once a year, at Christmas.
Then, after first visiting the pub next door to the church, she would go into the service and sing everybody out of the place before going back next door.
The occasion would inevitably end up with Kate starting to fight half the men in the pub and it always took at least six policemen to get her strapped on the cart.
She would be brought up at Dartford Court on Monday morning, fined 2/6 and always thanked the magistrates very kindly and wished them well before she left.
I myself remember seeing an illustration of Bob’s tremendous strength one when a preacher set up his outdoor wooden pulpit opposite one of the local pubs. The preacher was just saying “The money that is being paid across the counter in there should be providing food and clothes for the children”-all quite true of course. Robert came out of the pub, crossed the road, picked up the preacher, pulpit and all, and carried them back inside the pub.
Although only 5ft 10 inches tall, he was very powerfully built and, despite the way he carried on, he retained that physique until his fifties. The last time I saw him though, in West Street in the thirties, he was almost a helpless cripple with arthritis and there was no doubt what had brought this on. If there was anything he thought other men couldn’t do, he would try to do it-like lift a barrel of beer.
On barges he took pride in doing the work of two men-lifting by himself the baulks of timber weighing a couple of hundredweight that were used to cover up the cargo. But he was always careful never to do another man out of a job-he would tell his mate to brew up tea in the cabin while he did the work.
Another time he took the horse out of the milkcart, got in the shafts and pulled the cart three streets away. The milkman came out of the house where he had been and got the shock of his life but neither he nor anyone else would ever have dreamed of taking Bob to court for the things he did.
One characteristic was his forthrightness-I have never known him hum and ha about anything. I was just a boy when I worked with him and the foreman would send me with requests for Bob to do something-if he refused, it would do no good standing around waiting for him to change his mind.
There were only two lightermen who would have anything to do with the barges of rotten fish or rabbits for the glue and fertiliser factory that used to be at Belvedere. Bob, of course, was one of them and these two would do the job only when they were drunk because the stench was so awful.
Even they didn’t have the worst job-that was given to the men who had to dig everything out of the hold with shovels-the smell used to get right into the skin and they were not allowed on any trams in the area. For this, the workers were paid 5d and hour.
Bob was always very kind to me and I thought he was very likeable fellow, but at times when he was drunk he used to pick a quarrel for the sake of picking a quarrel. People would gee him up to start something so they could have a good laugh.
Although not educated, he was very intelligent. When something displeased him, he would ramp off but what he said was always very logical and well thought out. He was very very seldom bested in a discussion on everyday topics, which showed he must have read quite a bit.
His language of course, was very uncouth but he talked so well that people would sometimes be so intent on what he was saying, they would forget to order another drink. Quite a lot must have listened to his views and then gone off somewhere else and put them forward as their own. “Can he take a barge out with a north-easter blowing its guts out? Of course he can’t” he would say. “He’s an accountant working with figures, I’m bringing foodstuffs for the community-who’s doing the most important work?”
One gentlemen who owned one of the fist cars in Erith and had it done out like a cottage on wheels, with curtains in the windows, made a fatal mistake once with regard to Robert. The gentleman-who was a very nice man, by the way-used to pull up in his car outside a shop and the proprietor would come rushing out to serve him even it was only a quarter of tea he wanted and the shop was full of people.
So that he didn’t have to get out of the car, he would call someone in the street over to come and turn the crank handle of the car, then give the man something to buy himself a drink. On this occasion, he saw Bob coming out of the pub, and not knowing anything about him, called him across. Bob wasn’t quite sure what it was all about, so he said: “What do you say guv’nor?”
“My man, just turn the handle at the front to start.”
Well, Bob went round to the front all right, but then he lifted up the car with the man still inside and put it down so the rear wheels were in the gutter and the front wheels on the kerb outside the pub. The Bob poked his head in the side window where the gentleman was sitting, very frightened, and said” Don’t be so——- lazy, you stupid man”
I’m pretty certain that was the only time in his life that the gentleman was spoken to like that.”