Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Wrong Side of the Law

With the gales soughing round the house all day and showing no sign of abating even now, I have rewarded hard work on The Chair (I am now at the sewing-with-a-curved-needle stage) with the occasional break on the computer. I found a fascinating page or fifty on the Crime and Punishment section on the National Library of Wales website. Not much happened in our Parish, just a married couple sent to prison for a month because they attacked the local constable. In the adjoining parish, however, hell seems to have broken loose on many an occasion, and they sounded a pretty lawless lot. These crimes took place in the 18th C. I have omitted the names of the perpetrators, just in case someone in their 20th C family tree recognizes them . . .

There must have been some striking evidence here:

"Murder of Thomas David, tailor by stabbing him with a knife. Prisoner described as a 'quiet, honest, well-disposed man'.
Plea: Not guilty.
Verdict: Guilty of manslaughter.
Punishment: To be whipped"

Status: Labourer
Offence: Theft of money and a silver watch.
Location and date
Parish: Coychurch; County: Glamorgan; Date: 5 July 1754
Plea: Not guilty.
Verdict: Guilty.
Punishment: Death, pardoned, transported.

Then, what on earth was going on here?!

"Riot and assault on prosecutor (the vicar) whilst he was solemnising a marriage at Llan..... church."

Sometimes, though, the most dreadful accident would happen:
"Manslaughter of fellow servant, Margaret John, aged 13 years by accidental discharge of gun, according to information of witnesses. The accused, aged 15, fled. No indictment."

"Murder of Henry William George by striking him with a chair." (The accused was found Not Guilty).

Next parish across again, the following:

Status: Yeoman
Offence: Murder of Robert John Robert, Llangadog.
Date: 24 July 1774
Plea: Not guilty.
Verdict: Guilty of manslaughter.
Punishment: Prays benefit of clergy, branded

As to the punishment, perhaps someone might be able to explain it? Well, branded I understand, but the rest?


  1. Seems to be a bit of inconsistency here: whipping for manslaughter, but death penalty pardoned for thievery. I've read somewhere that Welsh law differed considerably from English law--one of the interesting points being that a bastard could inherit along with children of a marriage--as long as paternity was acknowledged?
    As far as I know I have law abiding ancestors--unless you consider those Scots who were transported after the Battle of Worcester. I suppose they could have been shot or hanged---and then I/we wouldn't be[?]

  2. I would love to know what happened at that wedding when a riot and assault occured! Perhaps one of them was already married or promised to another...or maybe a shotgun wedding...who knows!

  3. By the 18thC they would have been using English law in Wales - and I'm surprised that they were still using 'benefit of clergy' by that date, too.
    'Benefit of clergy' was an excuse in the middle ages, meaning that, as the accused was a priest, he couldn't be tried in an ordinary law court, but had to be tried by an ecclesiastical court - and they were far more lenient. Sometimes the accused could get away with the excuse just by being able to read Latin.

    Welsh law goes back to the 9thC and the Laws of Hywel Dda - Prince Hywel the Good, and they do acknowledge children born out of wedlock, and give women property rights which English women at the same period could only dream of.

    What can I say? I'm a medieval historian and historical re-enactor (13thC Welsh mercenary) when I'm not selling books!

  4. How interesting Eigon.

    The assault at the wedding has echoes of Lorna Doone.....

  5. Eigon - many thanks for explaining the "benefit of clergy" bit. This was in the late 1700s and we ARE something of a rural backwater here (or he had a good Brief!)

    DW & Goosey - I thought it sounded a bit like a jilted lover putting up one last stand.

    MM - you will have to consult Al about your Scottish lot.