Of Murderers, Starvation and Hangmen

We present an exclusive guest blog by Richard Ireland.

Richard W. Ireland is a legal historian who taught for many years at Aberystwyth University. He is the author of many articles and his books include ‘A Want of Order and Good  Discipline’: Rules and Discretion in the Victorian Prison and ‘Land of White Gloves’?: A History of Crime and Punishment in Wales. He is a founding Committee Member of the Welsh Legal History Society and has made a number of appearances on television and radio.


I am delighted to have been asked to write a guest blog for Ceredigion Archives. As a legal historian I have spent many hours in research at this institution. Whilst the County’s records relating to criminal justice history are not as full as elsewhere (so, for example, many of the Quarter Sessions records have not survived) there are, nonetheless some unusual and interesting documents to enlighten those whose thoughts may turn, in a purely academic sense, to crime.

One of these is a collection of pamphlets from the nineteenth century, collected together and fixed into a large volume. They number, at a rough guess, around six hundred and their subjects are diverse, ranging from mining disasters and shipwrecks, including a late one concerning the Titanic, to the opening of railways and the adventures of a black pig. The vast majority are in Welsh and I am hugely indebted to Margaret Jones of the Archives, who patiently assisted my wholly inadequate command of that language at those points (there were many) when I needed it. A few of the pamphlets referred specifically to matters relating to crime. It is those to which I will devote this short introduction.

A number of the ballads recount the stories of particular murders, a staple source of income for the pamphleteers (see, eg, pages 35, 103, 133), of which the killing of Hannah Davies in Pencarreg, Carmarthenshire in 1829 is the most represented in this collection which has three distinct printings (23, 25, 38).

Hannah Davies

The ballad relating to the murder of Jane Lewis by two Irishmen, Morris Murphy and Patrick Sullivan, in South Wales in 1850 (11) is worth a particular mention. At the end it bears a woodcut illustration, I think of a standard nature, of two travellers, one of whom carries an axe. In fact we know rather more accurately what the two offenders looked like, for they were photographed after arrest. Such was the interest in the daguerreotypes, which had been taken to be sent to Ireland to see what was known of the accused, that a wood engraving was undertaken by a female London artist and was then reproduced in The Monmouthshire Merlin newspaper, a remarkable early example of the practice.

Ballad illustration

More communal disturbances of the peace also find their way into the collection. One (57) deals with the case of Richard Lewis (‘Dic Penderyn’), controversially hanged for his part in the Merthyr Rising of June 1831. There are pamphlets too about the Rebecca Riots a few years later (13, 77) including several poems written by David Davies (‘Dai’r Cantwr’), transported in consequence of his involvement (32, 38, 55). Of these two different poems are presented as having been written whilst he was being held in Carmarthen gaol, whilst two are versions of a poem ostensibly written in Australia.

Cwyn David Davies

There are two poems (91, 131) written about, and supportive of the case of, Sarah Jacob, ‘The Welsh Fasting Girl’ who died in Carmarthenshire in 1869 having been observed by nurses to test her claim that she needed neither food nor drink. The case, which has been explored by a number of writers in recent years was one of national celebrity, heightening the then conflict between the competing ideologies of science and religion. One of these, by Hugh Roberts, contains a coda in the shape of a poem which I think was believed to have been written by Sarah herself.

Sarah Jacob

All of the above pamphlets were written in Welsh, but it is more than a greater ease with the language that makes me draw attention to Groans of the Gallows or a Sketch of the Life of Wm Calcraft, English Hangman, Commonly called Jack Ketch (95). This version can be internally dated to 1850, although certain other pamphlets share the title but not the content. The text is remarkable in promising (though hardly delivering to any great extent) a ‘General Review of the Causes of Crime’, a subject which was attracting more attention in an age in which the development of statistics and of a more uniform system of policing made crime and its punishment a matter of national rather than local significance. The suggestion here is that environmental causes were important: ‘The same bad social arrangements that creates [sic] victims for the gallows compelled WILLIAM CALCRAFT to become a hangman’. The critical treatise mentions the reduction in the number of offences punishable capitally which had marked the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Jack Ketch

The material considered here contains much of interest, but is it any more than a collection of ephemera? I think that it does have a rather greater significance. The collection covers a variety of subjects, of which, as said, those concerned with criminal justice form only a small proportion. It shows the vitality in the nineteenth century of the practice of pamphlet writing, predominantly in verse, in the Welsh language. Whilst the murder ballad, seen being sold at the foot of the gallows in Hogarth’s eighteenth century engraving at the close of his series Industry and Idleness retained its grisly allure, the body of work extends far beyond this. Even in relation to crime, issues of complexity and controversy, the social uprisings and the Jacob case noted above, are addressed as raising questions of justice and morality. At a time in which the Welsh language is often perceived, following the infamous ‘Blue Books’ criticism, as being under attack, to leaf through this volume of vivid responses to local and national events is to witness another side of that story.

Richard Ireland

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