Crime, Justice and Punishment in the Georgian  Age


The 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 Rumney'.

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 evidence.

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 minimal.