Crime, Justice and Punishment in the Georgian Age
barbarous criminal code of the Tudor and Stuart era was equally severe in the eighteenth century. In
January 1754 the court ordered Ann Harris,
"to be stripped from her waist upwards and to be whipped from the County gaol to the Western
Gate of the town and back again to the
said County gaol'. What was her crime? Well, she had stolen property to the value of 4/-. In the early
years of this century, the oldest
residents of Cardiff still had recollections of criminals being tied to the cart's tail, before they were
dragged and flogged through the streets.
The confession of Josiah Hughes has
a familiar ring in 1755, when he admitted his "unrequited passion' for
Mary Rees, a milkmaid whom he subsequently strangled. He was condemned "to
be hanged by the neck and afterwards in chains'. More trivial crimes were just
as likely to be punished by the death sentence, as John Rosser and Elias John discovered
in 1828 when they were executed for stealing two lambs.
Delinquents, guilty of minor
offences, were held in custody at the prison under the Town Hall, but the
majority of felons were confined at the County Gaol in High Street. Inmates
were usually manacled in irons and for serious crimes the "great irons'
were brought into service. The blacksmith's account for 1763 indicates that he
was a very busy man indeed, as he first placed the irons on a murderer, then
applied them to a horse thief, before transferring them to another thief. Other
gruesome implements at his disposal included thumbscrews and handbolts.
The state of the County Gaol had
become a scandal by the late eighteenth century. The gaoler still purchased his
office and recouped his outlay from the fees he charged for his services. He
also extracted payment from the prisoners, or their friends, in exchange for
privileges which made prison life more bearable. At the Great Sessions of 1790,
after a number of escapes from the gaol, Judge Hardinge demanded sweeping
reforms. He advocated better conditions in the criminal quarters with provision
for solitary confinement. At the same time, he recommended that the gaoler
ought to be in residence on the premises and should be paid a salary instead of
fees. Reforms were introduced far too slowly to please the judge. Despite
threats to remove the Great Sessions to Cowbridge, and to bring the
"lamentable state' of the gaol to the attention of the King, it was 1799
before Judge Hardinge pronounced himelf satisfied with conditions at the gaol.
As the town began to expand,
overcrowded conditions in the County Gaol once more posed a serious problem.
New premises were essential and in 1833 a new prison, which is still in use,
was built on the Spital Fields at Adamsdown. The former premises in High Street
now became the Town Gaol and for several years served mainly as a debtors'
prison, though by 1855 it had become the police headquarters.
The stocks in High Street served as
a deterrent until the middle of the nineteenth century, only disappearing when
the Old Town Hall was pulled down in 1861. Recourse to the ducking stool had
ceased several years earlier, but in 1739 it was still regarded as a suitable
form of retribution for the scold and the gossip. In that year a new stool,
fixed to a long, moveable beam, was made at a cost of £3. Near the Taff Bridge,
amid the jeers of a scornful crowd, the unfortunate woman would be ducked in
the river several times. Perhaps the new stool was made for Elizabeth Jones,
who suffered this humiliating punishment in 1739, though the nature of her
offence is not recorded. During the eighteenth century, capital punishment was
sometimes commuted to transportation. Thomas Harris was sentenced to death for
committing burglary in 1735 but, following a plea for mercy, he was transported
to "His Majesty's Colonies and Plantations in America'. A similar
judgement was made against Thomas Parry in 1766, after he had been convicted of
stealing a pair of silver shoe buckles and breeches from his master.
Prisoners, liable to
transportation, were first taken in irons to Bristol, from whence government
contractors shipped them to America. In 1737 the gaoler and his two prisoners
from Cardiff spent a week in Bristol, waiting for a vessel to become available.
The gaoler claimed that this delay cost him £7, but he was suspected of some exaggeration and the
authorities allowed him only £4.
Transportation was invariably a
cruel fate and it was not unknown, given a choice, for prisoners to prefer the
death penalty. The separation of families across thousands of miles was an
additional burden, as William Thomas and his wife, Martha, discovered in 1753.
They were both convicted of stealing wheat but, whereas she was whipped as his
accomplice, he was transported for seven years. William's life as a convict in
the New World was almost certainly spent in harsh servitude though some enterprising characters, when they had served their sentence, found prosperity
in a foreign land. When the United States gained its independence in 1783,
convicts were transported to the new British colony at Botany Bay. Joseph John,
found guilty of perjury in 1797, was put in the pillory at Cardiff, before he
began a period of seven years transportation to New South Wales.
When war broke out with France in
1793, criminals were sometimes offered a pardon on condition that they enlisted
in the army. Two prisoners, Jacob Isaac and John Thomas, took this option in
1794 but they may well have come to regret their decision. Not only were they
confronted with the danger of sudden death or mutilation, they were also
subjected to a regime of ferocious savagery. The court-martial in 1762 of two
soldiers, serving in the Glamorgan Militia, typifies the harshness of military
discipline. John of Hendy was given 300 lashes after missing duty and George William, a carpenter from
Llandaff, received 200 lashes for "running from duty without liberty'.
In this atmosphere of brutality, it
is perhaps not surprising that the armed forces sometimes indulged in riotous
behaviour.In 1759 sailors from H.M.S. Aldeborough brawled with the crew
of a Bristol galley, Eagle. As both sides were armed with muskets,
pikes, swords and cutlasses, it seems little short of miraculous that only one
person was killed.
At the outset of the French
Revolutionary Wars, troops were conscripted for the Glamorgan militia by
ballot. A plaque at Howell's store recalls that an old gabled house in Wharton
Street, known as the Armoury, served as their barracks. The gravel walks of
Cardiff Castle were used as a parade ground and, after the French landing at
Fishguard in 1797, their training acquired an extra vigilance.
As the armed forces demanded more
recruits, the press gang were ruthless in seeking them out, though conscripts
did not always accept their lot quietly. In August 1793 a band of sailors,
equipped with cutlasses and bludgeons, marched through Cardiff towards Newport.
Hot on their heels were the press gang and eventually a pitched battle was
fought at Rumney. The local citizens watched the affray with interest, but
finally decided it was time to find a way of rescuing the outnumbered press
gang. As John Bird wrote in his diary, "The Gang very prudently declined
the attack and the Townspeople treated the sailors with a pint of ale each at
Piracy was suppressed in the
Bristol Channel by the Georgian Age but smuggling remained a grave menace until
after the Napoleonic Wars. The revenue men found the local population
unco-operative in its refusal to impede a trade which regularly supplied them
with brandy, wine and tobacco at vastly reduced prices.
Penarth, Sully, Aberthaw and, above
all, Barry, were notorious smugglers' haunts. In October 1783, Thomas Knight
arrived at Barry with a 24-gun frigate and a crew of 40. The customs authorities
were always at full stretch to deal with illicit trading and Thomas Hopkins was
the only searcher in the area. He complained that Knight pursued, "a very
considerable trade in the smuggling way and ... the people here are in such
dread of Knight and his guns, that we found a difficulty in finding people to
work for us'. Knight was at last expelled from Barry by the authorities, but he
was soon back in business from a fresh base on Lundy Island.
It was always difficult to obtain evidence for
the conviction of such villains as Knight. The same problem arose when
investigating the pillaging of wrecks, another reprehensible practice of the
times. In 1769 a French vessel,La Concorde, capsized at Aberthaw and
drifted towards St. Donats. The crew was rescued but the customs officer
reported that the local inhabitants fell on her, "according to the savage,
inhuman and detestable custom of the county'. Two thousand men and women hacked
away with hatchets, destroying everything in their path to reach the brandy and
wine. The magistrates and the customs officer risked their lives to prevent the
looting but met with little success. As darkness fell, the plunderers completed
their thieving by torchlight, before setting the ship ablaze to burn any
This kind of licentious behaviour
reflects that contempt for the law was all too common, especially when the
restraining forces of justice were helpless onlookers. Likewise the threat of
savage retribution was no deterrent when the risk of arrest and conviction was