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Women, violent crime and criminal justice in Georgian Wales


This article examines encounters of women with the criminal justice system in Wales during the century before the Courts of Great Sessions were abolished in 1830. Drawing on evidence from cases of sexual assault and homicide, it argues that women who killed were rarely convicted or punished harshly. A gendered discretion of sorts also acted against rape victims, as trials never resulted in conviction. Using violence as a lens, the paper reveals a distinctively Welsh approach to criminal justice, and offers quantitative evidence on which further comparative studies of the history of law and crime in England and Wales may be based.

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1 Smith Bruce P., ‘English criminal justice administration, 1650–1850: a historiographic essay’, Law and History Review 25, 3 (2007), 593634, here 598.

2 Greg T. Smith, ‘Civilized people don't want to see that sort of thing: the decline of physical punishment in London, 1760–1840’, in Carolyn Strange ed., Qualities of mercy: justice, punishment, and discretion (Vancouver, 1996), 21–51.

3 Richard McMahon ed., Crime, law and popular culture in Europe, 1500–1900 (Cullompton, 2008).

4 Shani D'Cruze and Louise A. Jackson, Women, crime and justice in England since 1660 (Basingstoke, 2009); Peter King, Crime and law in England, 1750–1840: remaking justice from the margins (Cambridge, 2006), 165–223.

5 Exceptions include Garthine Walker, Crime, gender and social order in early modern England (Cambridge, 2003); and Gregory Durston, Victims and viragos: metropolitan women, crime and the eighteenth-century justice system (Bury St Edmunds, 2007).

6 Michael Roberts and Simone Clarke eds., Women and gender in early modern Wales (Cardiff, 2000), 2.

7 Key works that investigate violence in selected English counties using quantitative methods include J. M. Beattie, Crime and the courts in England 1660–1800 (Princeton, 1986), 74–139, Walker, Crime, gender and social order, 113–58 and King, Crime and law in England; and in London, Durston, Victims and viragos.

8 A. A. Powell, ‘Crime in Brecknockshire 1733–1830 as revealed by the records of the court of Great Sessions’ (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Wales, 1990), 70–5; Howell David W., The rural poor in eighteenth-century Wales (Cardiff, 2000), 213–27; Woodward N., ‘Infanticide in Wales, 1730–1830’, Welsh History Review 23, 3 (2007), 94125; Howard Sharon, Law and disorder in early modern Wales: crime and authority in the Denbighshire courts, c.1660–1730 (Cardiff, 2008), 5296.

9 Works on Scotland and Ireland in this period are relatively few, but include two important monograph studies: Anne-Marie Kilday, Women and violent crime in Enlightenment Scotland (Woodbridge, 2007); Neal Garnham, The courts, crime and the criminal law in Ireland 1692–1760 (Dublin, 1996).

10 Jenkins Dafydd, ‘The medieval Welsh idea of law’, Legal History Review 49, 3–4 (1981), 323–48; Llinos Smith Beverley, ‘Disputes and settlements in medieval Wales: the role of arbitration’, English Historical Review 106, 421 (1991), 835–60; Llinos Smith Beverley, ‘A contribution to the history of galanas in late-medieval Wales’, Studia Celtica 43, 1 (2009), 8794.

11 Minkes John, ‘Wales and the “Bloody Code”: the Brecon Circuit of the court of Great Sessions in the 1750s’, Welsh History Review 22, 4 (2005), 673704, here 703.

12 See King Peter, Crime, justice and discretion in England 1740–1820 (Oxford, 2000); Jones David J. V., ‘Life and death in eighteenth-century Wales: a note’, Welsh History Review 10, 4 (1980–81), 536–48.

13 Strange, Qualities of mercy, 3–20; Beattie, Crime and the courts, 430–49; King, Crime, justice and discretion, 297–333.

14 Howard, Law and disorder, 96; italics added.

15 For a detailed description of the legal history of the court, see Glyn Parry, A guide to the records of Great Sessions in Wales (Aberystwyth, 1995), iv–xlix, who notes that the poor reputation of the judges was only partially deserved, and Thomas Glyn Watkin, The legal history of Wales (Cardiff, 2007), 145–67. Monmouthshire held assizes as part of the Oxford Circuit in England, and is therefore excluded from the research on which this article is based.

16 Geraint H. Jenkins, Richard Suggett and Eryn M. White, ‘The Welsh language in early modern Wales’, in Geraint H. Jenkins ed., The Welsh language before the Industrial Revolution (Cardiff, 1997), 45–122, here 69.

17 In 1800 probably 70 per cent of the people spoke only Welsh: see ibid., 48, 70.

18 Garnham, Courts, crime and the criminal law in Ireland, 93–4, 112, 261.

19 Richard Suggett, ‘The Welsh language and the court of Great Sessions’, in Jenkins, Welsh language, 153–80, here 164; Keith Williams-Jones ed., A calendar of the Merioneth quarter sessions rolls, 1733–65 (Dolgellau, 1965), 171, 229, 245, 254; National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth (hereafter NLW), Great Sessions (GS), BC4/10 (1790–2), BC8/6 (1809), BC14/3 (1829) Carmarthen circuit; 4/275/2 (1774), 4/255/1 (1785), 4/259/2 (1821) North Wales circuit.

20 NLW GS, BC4/10 (1792), 4/260/3 (1824).

21 Suggett, ‘The Welsh language’, 164; NLW BC14/3, Mr Thomas Bishop junior and Mr George Thomas (two separate cases) – the use of ‘Mr’ suggests educated men.

22 Suggett, ‘The Welsh language’, 168.

23 See, for example, Frederik Pedersen, Marriage disputes in medieval England (London, 2000), 63–4, 71–3; Ermerlinda K. M. Jarman, ‘An edition of the depositions from EDC 2/6, deposition book of the consistory court of Chester, September 1558–March 1558/9’ (unpublished MARM thesis, University of Liverpool, 2010), [accessed 22 August 2012]. Garnham does not reflect on this issue, but a similar process must presumably have occurred in Ireland.

24 Williams-Jones, Merioneth quarter sessions rolls, xxi–xxii, xl–xlv; Beattie, Crime and the courts, 5–6; Norma Landau, The justices of the peace 1679–1760 (Berkeley, 1984), 243–9; Geraint H. Jenkins, The foundations of modern Wales 1642–1780 (Oxford, 1987), 165–72; J. Gwynfor Jones, ‘The Welsh language in local government: justices of the peace and the courts of quarter sessions c.1536–1800’, in Jenkins, Welsh language, 181–206, here 200–6. Eighteenth-century Welsh quarter sessions appear to have been functionally bilingual courts, but do not constitute part of the present analysis.

25 W. M. Jacob, The clerical profession in the long eighteenth century, 1680–1840 (Oxford, 2007), 227–34; Jenkins, Foundations of modern Wales, 324–5.

26 Parry, Records of Great Sessions, xxviii.

27 Ibid., xxxv–xl; Powell, ‘Crime in Brecknockshire’, 16–18.

28 Parry, Records of Great Sessions, 107–10, 114–17, 123–5 (Chester), 175–6, 178 (North Wales), 276–9, 284–7, 289–92 (Brecon), 376–8, 382–4, 387–9 (Carmarthen). Figures give average survival rates of gaol files (the principal records of criminal proceedings), the maximum being two per county per year. However, the large number of unknown verdicts suggests that not all relevant documents are included in these files.

29 NLW, Crime and Punishment database, [accessed 17 January 2012].

30 The violent offences studied in this article comprise 7.9 per cent (1,652) of the total database entries (20,979). Other (e.g. riot) and more minor forms of violence (e.g. assault) have been excluded.

31 Clive Emsley, Crime and society in England 1750–1900, 4th edn. (Harlow, 2010), 24, 31.

32 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the laws of England, vol. 4 (Oxford, 1769), 210–15.

33 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 124–32; Simpson Antony E., ‘The “blackmail myth” and the prosecution of rape and its attempt in 18th century London: the creation of a legal tradition’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 77 (1986), 101–50; Anna Clark, Women's silence, men's violence: sexual assault in England 1770–1845 (London, 1987); Edelstein Laurie, ‘An accusation easily to be made? Rape and malicious prosecution in eighteenth-century England’, American Journal of Legal History 42, 4 (1998), 351–90; Walker Garthine, ‘Rereading rape and sexual violence in early modern England’, Gender and History 10, 1 (1998), 125; Martin Ingram, ‘Child sexual abuse in early modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and John Walter eds., Negotiating power in early modern society: order, hierarchy and subordination in Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2001), 63–84, 257–62; Simpson Antony E., ‘Popular perceptions of rape as a capital crime in eighteenth-century England: the press and the trial of Francis Charteris in the Old Bailey, February 1730’, Law and History Review 22, 1 (2004), 2770; Durston Gregory, ‘Rape in the eighteenth-century metropolis: part 1’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 28, 2 (2005), 167–79; Durston Gregory, ‘Rape in the eighteenth-century metropolis: part 2’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29, 1 (2006), 1531.

34 Simpson, ‘The “Blackmail myth”’, 109.

35 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 411.

36 Clark, Women's silence, 58; Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, Rogues, thieves and the rule of law: the problem of law enforcement in north-east England, 1718–1800 (London, 1998), 56–8, 230 note 27.

37 R. T. W. Denning ed., The diary of William Thomas 1762–1795 (Cardiff, 1995), 90.

38 NLW GS 4/638/4.

39 Williams-Jones, Merioneth quarter sessions rolls, xliii.

40 Denning, Diary of William Thomas, 79.

41 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 411, gives a total conviction rate of 63.6 per cent for attempted rape cases tried at Surrey assizes and quarter sessions 1660–1800 (33 cases); Durston, ‘Rape part 2’, 28 cites 47 per cent at the City of London quarter sessions, and Clark, Women's silence, 47, 151 note 4, finds about 25 per cent at Middlesex quarter sessions (191 cases, 1770–1775, 1780–1785, 1790–1795). In Sussex, the conviction rate rose from 60 per cent (10 cases, 1767–1799) to 83 per cent (18 cases, 1800–1825): Sussex criminals and victims, transcribed by M. J. Burchall (Waterlooville, 2012). There were apparently no sexual assault prosecutions at Merioneth quarter sessions 1733–1765: Williams-Jones, Merioneth quarter sessions rolls.

42 Julie Gammon, ‘“A denial of innocence”: female juvenile victims of rape and the English legal system in the eighteenth century’, in Anthony Fletcher and Stephen Hussey eds., Childhood in question: children, parents and the state (Manchester, 1999), 74–95.

43 NLW GS 4/398/2.

44 Durston, Victims and viragos, 143–4.

45 NLW GS 4/1009/8.

46 Ibid.

47 NLW GS 4/302/4/17.

48 NLW GS 4/186/1, nine Welsh Gypsies of vagrant status indicted for the rape of a married woman; all were acquitted.

49 Anthony Robert, ‘“A very thriving place”: the peopling of Swansea in the eighteenth century’, Urban History 32, 1 (2005), 6887.

50 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 130.

51 John Jenkins (1820), Daniel James (1823) and Richard Radnor (1829).

52 Powell, ‘Crime in Brecknockshire’, 79.

53 Beattie, Clark, and Morgan and Rushton show that penalties for attempted rape included fines, the pillory, or imprisonment for up to one year. In Sussex, hard labour and whipping could also be imposed.

54 David J. V. Jones, Crime in nineteenth-century Wales (Cardiff, 1992), 79–80; Russell Davies, Secret sins: sex, violence and society in Carmarthenshire 1870–1920 (Cardiff, 1996), 170–1; Barber Jill, ‘Stolen goods: the sexual harassment of female servants in west Wales during the nineteenth century’, Rural History 4 (1993), 123–36.

55 D'Cruze and Jackson, Women, crime and justice, 16–20, 56–7, 79–80; Walker, Crime, gender and social order, 113–58; J. Beattie M., ‘The criminality of women in eighteenth-century England’, Journal of Social History 8, 4 (1975), 80116; Anne-Marie Kilday, ‘Women and crime’, in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus eds., Women's history: Britain 1700–1850: an introduction (Abingdon, 2005), 174–93.

56 Indictments for murder and manslaughter were evenly distributed across time but most common in three counties: Cardigan (10), Glamorgan (9) and Pembroke (10). Other county totals are: Anglesey (3), Brecon (7), Caernarfon (4), Carmarthen (2), Denbigh (6), Flint (7), Merioneth (1), Montgomery (6) and Radnor (4).

57 Woodward, ‘Infanticide in Wales’, 115–16, 121–3.

58 NLW GS 4/178/2, 4/736/5, 4/533/3.

59 David Harley, ‘The scope of legal medicine in Lancashire and Cheshire, 1660–1760’, in Michael Clark and Catherine Crawford eds., Legal medicine in history (Cambridge, 1994), 45–63; Jackson Mark, New-born child murder: women, illegitimacy and the courts in eighteenth-century England (Manchester, 1996), 140–5; Clayton Mary, ‘Changes in Old Bailey trials for the murder of newborn babies, 1674–1803’, Continuity and Change 24, 2 (2009), 337–59.

60 Jackson, New-born child murder, 3.

61 Clayton, ‘Changes in Old Bailey trials’, 339.

62 Harley, ‘Scope of legal medicine’, 53.

63 Woodward, ‘Infanticide in Wales’, 102–3.

64 Jenkins, Foundations of modern Wales, 338–41.

65 A total of 36 out of 197 indictments for infanticide (17 in Carmarthen, Glamorgan and Pembroke), versus 75 out of 829 for murder and manslaughter (database search for prosecutor=overseer or churchwarden or coroner). These figures represent minimum values: I have been able to identify at least one example that is not noted in the database of a murderess prosecuted by churchwardens.

66 John Nichols ed., Illustrations of the literary history of the eighteenth century, vol. 3 (London, 1818), 126.

67 Watkin, Legal history of Wales, 179.

68 NLW GS 4/178/4; Ellis Bryn, ‘Horrendous murders at Wtra Wen near Llanfair Caereinion’, Montgomeryshire Collections 92 (2004), 6977.

69 NLW GS 4/66/1; GS 35/22 (Denbighshire returns of prisoners 1806–30). In 1774, Margaret Williams was convicted of a similar offence, found to be pregnant and respited (Caernarfon, GS 4/275/2).

70 NLW GS 4/272/3.

71 NLW MS 204D.

72 NLW GS 4/1017/6.

73 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 83, 97; 9.4 per cent of killers (excluding infanticide) were female, 39/415 including accessories.

74 Kilday, Women and violent crime, 55; Durston, Victims and viragos, 57.

75 Jones, ‘Life and death’; Minkes, ‘Wales and the “Bloody Code”’, 691–3; Howard, Law and disorder, 135–5; Melvin Humphreys, The crisis of community: Montgomeryshire 1680–1815 (Cardiff, 1996), 244–6.

76 NLW GS 4/394/6.

77 Jones, ‘Life and death’, 538–9.

78 Percentage for violent offences calculated using figures in Table 1; that for all offences by combining the number of accused persons designated as single, widow, married or servant (3,309). This provides a very good approximation but is not exact as each database entry represents one crime, not necessarily a single individual.

79 NLW Crime and Punishment database.

80 Richard Clark, ‘1800–1827 public executions’, [accessed 29 January 2012].

81 Deirdre Beddoe, Welsh convict women: a study of women transported from Wales to Australia, 1787–1852 (Barry, 1979), 13, 22, 155–63.

82 NLW Crime and Punishment database; 123 women in a total of 325.

83 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 485–7, 612 (percentage calculated using figures in Table 10.14).

84 Morgan and Rushton, Rogues, thieves, 134.

85 Smith, ‘Civilized people’, 37–41, notes the growing clamour against whipping in the second half of the eighteenth century. Williams-Jones, Merioneth quarter sessions rolls lists four women (no men) whipped for petty larceny (one is in the NLW Crime and Punishment database), whereas two of six people fined for assault were female.

86 Clark, ‘1800–1827 public executions’.

87 Richard W. Ireland, ‘“Perhaps my mother murdered me”: child death and the law in Victorian Carmarthenshire’, in Christopher W. Brooks and Michael Lobban eds., Communities and courts in Britain 1150–1900 (London, 1997), 229–44, here 243.

88 Jones, Crime in nineteenth-century Wales, 224–5; House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Stipendiary magistrates (London, 1873) – at Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd and Swansea.

89 Barber, ‘Stolen goods’, 124–5; Jones, Crime in nineteenth-century Wales, 79.

90 Jones, Crime in nineteenth-century Wales, 72–7.

91 Tina Loo, ‘Savage mercy: native culture and the modification of capital punishment in nineteenth-century British Columbia’, in Strange, Qualities of mercy, 104–29, here 116.

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