Poison, Prison, and Protest was the intriguing title of a talk by law historian Richard Ireland at a recent meeting of Aberystwyth Rotary Club.
Crime was not uncommon in 19th century Ceredigion – then known as Cardiganshire.
One example was a case near Pontrhydfendigaid, which involved a woman allegedly poisoning her mother-in-law. The prosecution’s case was based on pioneering work in forensic studies by William Herepath, a Bristol academic, who was able to show that there was indeed evidence of arsenic in a teapot at the victim’s home.
But due to the unreliability of much of the evidence, the defendant was acquitted, and the perpetrator was never brought to justice.
The case was also interesting for, although English was the sole language of law courts at the time, members of the jury were required to prove that they could understand both English and Welsh.
All counties were required by law to have a county jail, and a ‘house of correction’ for those found guilty of minor offences.
Cardiganshire’s jail was located in Cardigan, but Aberystwyth had a ‘house of correction’ in Great Darkgate Street, and the living conditions were said to be notoriously bad, with prisoners sleeping together in dormitories, usually several to a bed.
Cardiganshire had failed to comply with the 1865 Act of Parliament that directed that all prisoners should be housed in cells, with the result that many from the county had to be taken to ‘cellular’ jails at Carmarthen or Pembrokeshire.
Richard recalled how rural communities, acting outside the courts system, would sometimes apply their own retribution for transgressions that went against local social rules and moral standards.
The ‘ceffyl pren’ (wooden horse) was a common means of community punishment; this involved tying the culprit to a wooden frame and dragging him (or her) through the district.
There was a court case in 1837 involving someone who had been killed as a result of resisting the ceffyl pren treatment.
A case had gone before the Petty Sessions at Tregaron for “creating a disturbance at Llangeitho by carrying a ceffyl pren”. Although this kind of community punishment had been phased out in England, it became more prevalent in 19th century Wales, following the publication of the 1847 ‘Blue Books’ which had scandalously denigrated the moral standards of the Welsh people.
Richard’s talk ended with references to some famous court cases: the murder of Hannah Davies of Pencarreg, and that of Jane Lewis by two Irishmen – Murphy and Sullivan; the case of David Davies (Dai’r Cantwr), one of the leaders of the Rebecca Riots who was transported to Australia, and that of Sarah Jacobs, the 13-year-old ‘Welsh fasting girl’ whose parents had been convicted of manslaughter for neglect, and sentenced to hard labour.