My great-great grandfather Joseph Debondt was a dockworker. I didn’t know that. I never heard about him. His painful and abrupt end of life is not a story that his wife and my great-great-grandmother, Sophia Goris, will have loved to pass on. Simply because it was too hard to tell. But now, some 120 years later, let me help you discover his story. The fate of a dockworker.
As a dockworker, Joseph Debondt loaded and unloaded ships at the Kempish dock. In the old days, a dockworker was also called a ‘buildrager‘. Loading and unloading ships was hard labour. All cargo from the ships had to be brought on and off by hand. This kind of work also involved hazards: heavy loads, pollutants, fall risks, … After all, in the early 20th century, there were no regulated security measures as there are today.
Joseph, full name Josephus Henricus Debondt, moved to the Kempish dock at the Port of Antwerp on Saturday, January 17, 1903. He did so every day, probably from just before his marriage in 1897 to Sophia Goris. Yet he was destined to build his life as a farmer in his Ranst, where he had grown up. After all, his father was a farmer, as were his grandfather and his three brothers. But after all, he had met his Sophia in Antwerp who was working there as a maid at the time, and the big city had many jobs to offer. Joseph knew his trade and by now had been working as a dockworker for 6 years.
The Kempish Dock
Sophia and Joseph lived at 37 Maasstraat, near the port of Antwerp. For Joseph, it was only a 1.5 km or a good 20 minutes on foot from his home to the Kempish dock, where he worked. Sons Petrus Joannes (“John,” my great-grandfather) and Petrus Theodorus were 5 and 4 years old, respectively. A third child was expected during the spring.
The Spanish steamship Gorbea had arrived at Antwerp Harbor the day before yesterday, Thursday, January 15, 1903, and docked at No. 39 of the Kempish dock. The ship came from Huelva, Spain, and its previous stop was London. Joseph Debondt and his fellow quay workers had to unload the cargo of iron ore.
While unloading the Spanish steamer Gorbea, around 3:30 in the afternoon, something happened that should never happen. The chain of a crane set up on the ship to remove goods from the hold broke. A bin containing 1,500 kg of iron ore being pulled up fell from a height of 4 to 5 meters on a group of workers, one of whom was crushed. That one victim was Joseph Debondt. He was 44 years old.
Interestingly, when the police arrived on the scene to make the initial determinations, the same chain broke in another place! The body of the unfortunate Joseph Debondt was transferred to the mortuary on Korte Dijkstraat. An injured dockworker was taken to the hospital.
Terrible accident. – Saturday in the eve, a terrible accident occurred on the steamer Gorbea, moored at No. 39. Breaking a chain, workman Josef De Bondt, 54 years (sic), living in Maasstraat 37, was hit on the body by a bucket of ore, weighing 1,500 kg. The unfortunate was hideously mutilated and was instantly dead. The body was transferred to the morgue on Korte Dijkstraat.
Antwerp. – At No. 39 of the docks, where a crew of quay workers were unloading ore aboard the steamer Gorbea, a bad accident occurred Saturday. A bin of ore came loose from the crane’s chain, fell onto the quay and crushed a dockworker under a 1,500 kg (3300 pounds) weight. The unfortunate was instantly dead, his corpse horribly mutilated. The victim, Jozef De Bondt, 54 years old (sic), lived at 37 Maasstraat.
Grief of a widow
We can hardly imagine how the news must have reached Sophia Goris. Heartbreaking. There was still so much for them to do together. The two boys were still so small, and she was halfway through her pregnancy of a third child. Then you really don’t know how to proceed, I would think. She was 39 and suddenly widowed, with soon three children.
The S/S Gorbea sailed back out of the port of Antwerp on January 22, 1903, bound for Rotterdam. For Sophia Goris and her family, time stood still for a moment.
This situation must trigger memories in some immediate family members of an unfortunately similar situation where my grandmother lost her husband very suddenly. They had three children and a fourth was on the way. The grandmother of whom I speak was Eveline Debondt , the granddaughter of Joseph and Sophia Goris. Scary how history can repeat itself.
Three months after Joseph’s death, on April 26, 1903, Sophia gave birth to their third child. She called him Jos, or in full Josephus Guilielmus Debondt.
The value of a human being cannot be expressed in money. This becomes evident in the loss of a loved one.
In October 1903, the captain of the S/S Gorbea, Mr. Azcue, found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of 50 francs. The captain also had to pay damages of 25,000 francs, namely 10,000 francs to the widow and 5,000 francs to each of the three children. The convict filed an appeal, but it was not granted. Roughly estimated and taking inflation into account, that 25000 fr. would now be worth €31000. A relative sum, but really nothing compared to a human life.
MARTYRS OF LABOUR. – While unloading the Spanish steamship “Gorbea,” the chain of a crane installed on the ship to remove goods from the hold broke, and a crate being lifted fell from a height of 4 to 5 meters onto a group of workers, one of whom was crushed.
Strange detail: when the police went aboard to investigate, the same chain broke again in a different place!
The captain was prosecuted for reckless manslaughter and sentenced to three months in prison and a 50-franc fine. The court also awarded ten thousand francs in damages to the widow, the civil party (solicitor Van Doosselaere), and five thousand to each of the three minor children. The 15,000 francs earmarked for the children will be included in the ledger of public debt.
APPEAL DISMISSED. – We announced the severe sentence handed down in absentia against the captain of the s/s “Gorbea,” aboard which an accident occurred that took the life of one employee and caused injuries to another.
In addition to a prison sentence and a fine, the court ordered the captain to pay 25,000 francs in damages.
Appeal was filed. This appeal was declared inadmissible, as the captain did not appear at the hearing.
Resilience of a widow
It must not have been easy, but Sophia nevertheless managed to raise her sons healthy and well. None of them went to work at the port.
Sophia Goris did not remarry and died in the first half of July 1948 in Wommelgem. She lived to be 85 years old.
Josephus Henricus Debondt
° November 7, 1858, Puurs – † January 17, 1903, Antwerp
- Het Handelsblad van Antwerpen, 16/1/1903, p. 3, Port of Antwerp arrived
- Het Handelsblad van Antwerpen, 23/1/1903, p. 4, Port of Antwerp departed
- Het Handelsblad, 22/6/1948, p. 4, Obituary Sophia Goris
- The Latest News, 19/1/1903, p. 2 – Frightful accident
- Le Matin, 18/1/1903, p. 6, Liste des emplacements de navires se trouvant dans le port d’Anvers le 17 janvier 1903
- Le Matin, 19/10/1903, p. 2, Tribunaux
- Le Matin, 13/11/1903, p. 3, Tribunaux – Oppostion rejetée
- The News of the Day, 20/1/1903, p. 2, Interior Antwerp
- National Archives, Birth Certificates Puurs (1858-1858), Birth Certificate Josephus Henricus Debondt
- National Archives, Birth certificates Baal (Tremelo) (1861-1890), Birth certificate Sophia Goris
- National Archives, Antwerp Marriage Deeds (1897-1897), Marriage Certificate Josephus Henricus Debondt – Sophia Goris
- National Archives, Antwerp birth certificates (1897-1897), Birth certificate Petrus Joannes Debondt
- National Archives, Birth Certificates Antwerp (1899-1899) via FamilySearch, Birth Certificate Petrus Theodorus Debondt
- National Archives, Antwerp Death Certificates (1903-1903), Death Certificate Josephus Henricus Debondt
- National Archives, Birth Certificates Antwerp (1903-1903), Birth Certificate Josephus Guilielmus Debondt
Like to be notified of the next blog post?