In a day and age quite different from ours, one could be tried and punished for things we would nowadays deem absurd or to be an infringement of one’s personal civil liberties. What we would now consider trivial was once considered serious and the sentences passed reflect this. Some may seem asinine and laughable, some more serious but all are of interest from a historical point of view.
We have tried to include a wide variety of misdemeanours as well as the places and names of those involved and in some cases the resultant outcomes; all were gleaned by sifting through individual examples from old court rolls from sessions at Cardiff. The majority concern the citizens of Cardiff, but we have tried to use examples from throughout rural Glamorganshire.
(The eighteenth century town hall at Cardiff, the lower floor of which housed one of the towns gaols)
One of the most heinous of all crimes and common throughout recorded history is murder, and old Glamorgan certainly had its share, which in a day and age where there was no police force, cctv or forensics, murder would have been easier to get away with. During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1562, Philip Robyn was murdered by Edward Vaughan of llandowe, gentleman, and William Vaughan of Roth, gentleman: the reason is unknown. In the same year Gwenllian Morgan, of Cowbridge, spinster, and Jane Thomas, of Eglwysbrues, spinster, were sentenced to be burnt for murder and treason (possibly for anti-royal sentiments). Interestingly in 1594, William Lewis of Llandaff, yeoman, was with others charged with murder but claimed benefit of clergy: this was usually restricted for members of the clergy to be tried in an ecclesiastical court. This appears to have worked as William got off whilst the others were punished. Maurice David, of Cardiff, saddler, pleaded guilty to a charge of murdering Lewis Edmond, of Cardiff, by stabbing him with a rapier (a sword), at ‘the green betwene the two briges'.
(In an age where there was no police force carrying personal weapons such as a sword for defense was widespread, although they were frequently employed offensively as well as defensively as shown in this seventeenth century print)
In 1577 before a special commission, six people were tried for piracy, none of these people were from Cardiff. One of the pirates, a London man called Henry Moore was sentenced to hang. Piracy was once common along the Welsh coasts in days gone by.
Moving on to 1713, an interesting account comes from St Athan where Mary, the wife of James Jones attempted to poison her said husband with a pancake mixed with ratsbane, (arsenic) but accidently poisoned here father-in-law instead. No punishment is recorded, although dispatching an affluent relation via arsenic was a common form of murder in days gone by. There was a murder at Penmark where Josiah Hugh confessed to the murder of Mary Rees where he ‘battered her with a stick’ when she was returning from milking sheep and then strangled her, all it seems in the name of passion. He was sentenced to be hanged and then hung in chains; gibbeting executed criminals was common as it served as a rather grizzly reminder of the ultimate fate of would-be lawbreakers.
(The noose and gibbet would have been the fate of many criminals in old Glamorgan as this seventeenth century print depicts)
Lesser crimes would often result in sentences such as public flogging (whipping) or time spent in pillars (stocks). The fact that these sentences were carried out in public would add a further degree of punishment in that they were both humiliating and degrading. Vagrancy was a very common offense in the preceding centuries and many of these poor wretches, of which poverty was their only 'crime', would be punished with a variety of severe methods. For example, In Cardiff in the year 1576 Joan Raffe along with five other woman and two men were judged to be vagrants and were sentenced to be flogged and burnt in the hand. In 1577 one John Llangened and James Kurrye were imprisoned for vagrancy. Elizabeth Gunter in 1618 was flogged for theft.
(Prisoners encased in stocks)
Robbery and Burglary were also common crimes and a quick and easy way of obtaining money or goods. In 1591 Richard Longmeade of Cardiff stole a horse and was hanged for his crime. In 1693 William Thomas, labourer stole a large sum of coinage from Grace Lewis, widow of Llanishen, namely 38 gold ‘broad’ pieces, 2 guineas, a half-guinea and an unusual Spanish gold coin worth 100 shillings. Easy money you might think but a surprising amount of people who stole money from houses, especially domestic servants, were often caught as the court rolls bear testimony to. Military service or transportation to the colonies i.e, North America to work on the plantations were also common punishments for criminals such as Thomas Harry of Cardiff; he was convicted of burglary but got off lightly as the original sentence was death. An example of a type of robbery which is synonymous with the eighteenth century, namely highway robbery, occurred in 1756 where one Cristopher Turberville, a labourer of Aberavon robbed James Carson saying (in Welch) “stand, God damn you, I want your money”.
(Highway robbery, often synonymous with the eighteenth century and dubious characters like Dick Turpin were common - travelling between towns could be a dangerous business in old Glamorganshire)
A type of crime which is no longer recognized in enlightened western civilizations are those of one’s choice of religion. Essentially when England split with Rome during the reign of Henry VIII and established her own church i.e., Church of England with the English monarch as supreme head, being a Catholic became a risky business. Associated with foreign powers, treason and terrorist plots, such as the Gunpowder plot of 1605, Catholics suffered much persecution and this is reflected in the old court rolls for Glamorgan. The offence of ‘not turning up to church’ such as John David of Whitchurch, yeoman (a prosperous landowner, usually a farmer) in 1591 was common. There is mention of 19 persons indicted for non-attendance at church in 1605 including a Turberville (who happened to be from a staunch Catholic family). As late as 1679 one Phillip Evans Gentleman, was brought before the courts being suspected of being a Jesuit priest - the same year that Samuel Pepys was accused of being a Papist and also of treason. Writing in 1657, John Everlyn expresses in his diary his disdain for the church during the reign of Cromwell's Protectorate saying 'I went at all to church whilst these usurpers posses'd the pulpit was that I might not be suspected fnow indeede that or a Papist' – anti-Catholic sentiment is seems was common during the seventeenth century. Religion was a serious concern of many in old Glamorganshire, so much so that one’s absence from a local parish church would not go unnoticed. In 1703 Evan William of Pentrich was brought to account for having the audacity to play his harp on a Sunday amongst many others mentioned for such petty religious misdemeanours.
Treason is another anachronistic crime consigned to the history books, but for a very long time this was a capital offence. Treason could reasonably be defined as betraying ones country, but the definition stretched beyond physical deeds or international espionage to simply speaking one’s mind. In 1562 Thoman Ffankelyn of Penarth was ‘indicted, with many other persons, for treason felony’. The act is not recorded but it could well have been for speaking against ‘good Queen Bess’. Mark Jenkin, yeoman of ‘Llantrissent’ in 1690 was accused of uttering the words “it was ffitter for one of King James’ men to ride a stone horse then such a rouge, declaring he was one of King James’ men, and that it might happen ere Long that he should ride the said stone horse”. No doubt a reference to the exiled and deposed Catholic James II. Also in 1695 Edward Carne of Cowbridge and his friend Edward Powell, both gentlemen, were accused of ‘speaking contemptuous words against his majesty and his government to Miles Thomas of Llancarfen’ – freedom of speech was not quite what it is today in late Stuart Glamorganshire.
(Executed criminals were often hung in a device called a gibbet near their place of execution as a warning and deterrent to our would be criminals)
A firm belief in the supernatural pervaded all levels of society until fairly recently; in fact, it still lingers. In 1588 John Robert ap Leuand and Robert Adams, both bailiffs of Cardiff were ‘presented for permitting sorcerers’, witches perhaps? During the sixteenth century William Sackeford, of Cardiff was ‘presented for trespass in his own house by 'evil conversation.'
You might think that rouge traders are a recent phenomenon? Not true, although we doubt you would be the unfortunate recipient of a badly tarmacked drive in the previous centuries, but you might well fall victim to traders selling sub-standard goods or using dodgy trade weights In Cardiff during the sixteenth century Thomas Herbert was prosecuted for selling beer without a licence and Thomas Phelipps, also of Cardiff was prosecuted for the unlawful selling of beer and games in his house.
Violence was and unfortunately always will be a part of life and it was no different in times past. In Tudor Cardiff John Thomas Bengoh was imprisoned for assault and affray. In 1617 one William Richard, a laborer, was indicted for being 'a common barettor, and a constant and public disturber of the peace of our said Lord the King, as also a common and troublesome slanderer and consorter with prize fighters and a sower of strifes between his neighbours, procured and exited divers strifes and quarrels, brawls and fights"
Trespassing on someones property could earn you the displeasure of the owner as in 1711 Howell Williams, clerk of Penarth found out when he strayed onto land at Lavernock called the Croft, owned by Richard Hawkins, yeoman – Richard proceeded to assault Howell. In 1737 in Cardiff one John Price assaulted a young girl called Anne Plumly in his garden. Interestingly he made a series of threats including visitations from the ghosts of the monks when he said 'the spirits would come out of the friars and take her away' and also threatened her with a visitation from a supernatural entity called the ‘Bully dean’. In Cardiff in 1759 there was a full - on riot at Homanby Street (now called Womanby Street) between sailors armed with pikes, swords, pistols, muskets and cutlasses. The sailors were crews of two different ships, namely the Eagle of Bristol and the Aldbrough, a man-of-war; this affray involved the death of one of the men, a sailor called Edmund Ffaharty.
(Alcohol, like today was easily available and drunk in large quantities, hence offences related to its consumption or sale crop up frequently in the court rolls such as disturbing the public peace as these two well dressed yet very drunk Georgian 'blades' are in the process of doing by tipping over a night watchman's box)
Offences relating to beer seem to have been common in sixteenth century Cardiff as in 1558 John Evans of Cardiff was brought to account for selling alcohol without a licence and incontinence within his own house! James Rosser in 1594 was caught selling ‘bad beer’ whilst in 1698 Mary Griffiths, spinster, John Ffiledurst, ironmonger and Barbara, wife of Phillip Tanner, grocer were all caught using false weights. In 1619 one George Brodley, sailor of Penarth was selling beer unlawfully at a tavern in Penarth. We have from the year 1720 John Griffith, a labourer who was practicing as a cordwayner (a shoemaker) when he was not in fact qualified to do so.
(Rowdiness and drunken behavior much like today were extremely common, perhaps even more common in the past)
The hoi polloi were often fond of engaging in casual acts of violence as they are today, but if a person of quality felt aggrieved he didn't head-butt you or throw a beer bottle at your head, he wrote you a rather eloquent letter inviting you to be shot at dawn. Our final example comes from the year 1770 and was written by Henry, Esq (knight) of Laleston in Bridgend. Henry, rather indignant at being mocked or ridiculed by one Thomas Bennet, also of Bridgend, challenged him to a duel.
'Respect to the Company prevented my taking the Proper Notice of the Insolence of your Language yesterday at Ewenny, but it were Disrespect to myself not to resent it now. I therefore acquaint your self-Importance that you behaved like a Fool and spoke like a Liar—which I am ready to make good as a Gentleman ought, when and wheresoever you think proper to appoint'.