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Crime, Courts and Community in Mid-Victorian Wales: Montgomeryshire, People and Places

Crime, Courts and Community in Mid-Victorian Wales: Montgomeryshire, People and Places

by Rachael Jones

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This book explores the relationship between the justice system and local society at a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the characteristics of mid Wales. Crime, Courts and Community in Mid-Victorian Wales investigates the Welsh nineteenth-century experiences of both the high-born and the low within the context of law enforcement, and considers major issues affecting Welsh and wider criminal historiography: the nature of class in the Welsh countryside and small towns, the role of women, the ways in which the justice system functioned for communities at that time, the questions of how people related to the criminal courts system, and how integrated and accepting of it they were. We read the accounts of defendants, witnesses and law- enforcers through transcription of courtroom testimonies and other records, and the experiences of all sections of the public are studied. Life stories – of both offenders and prosecutors of crime – are followed, providing a unique picture of this Welsh county community, its offences and legal practices.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786832610
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Rachael Jones is Honorary Research Fellow at Leicester University, resident of Montgomeryshire for over twenty years, teacher and local historian specialising in genealogy, gender and crime.

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The focus of this study is the county of Montgomeryshire. This chapter will set the scene for forthcoming investigations, describing the main features of this part of Wales, namely the land, industries and people. There will be a description of the topography and changes that occurred in the countryside as industrialisation took place in hitherto market towns. Demographic features including occupational status and sizes of labour forces will be noted, and the justice system seen by people in court will be interpreted.


Montgomeryshire is now part of the modern county of Powys, but before local government changes in 1974 it was a county in its own right. It was the largest county in north and mid-Wales, and the second largest in Wales as a whole (Figure 1.1). Flat land pushes into the hills in the north-east forming a gateway into the area, and the low-lying land that accompanies the rivers Banwy and Vyrnwy provides routes westwards. Another way into Montgomeryshire is also from the north-east, but this time following the valley of the river Severn in a south-westerly direction past Welshpool, Newtown and Llanidloes (Figure 1.2).


During the nineteenth century, the main industry in Montgomeryshire was agriculture, and approximately one-tenth of the produce of Wales came from the county. In the 1871 census, 11,004 persons aged over twenty years were of the agrarian class, which constituted a little over a quarter of that age group. In modern times, much of the western side of the county has been classified by the government as 'severely disadvantaged', being wetter and less fertile than the east. The same situation existed during earlier periods as John Marius Wilson wrote in 1874:

The surface, in most of the east, to the mean breadth of about 5 miles, is a mixture of rich vale and pleasant hill, luxuriant, warm and low; but the surface, all elsewhere, is prevailingly mountainous, moorish, bleak and wild.

He did concede, however, that many western hills were wooded and surrounded by vales that afforded unexpected fertility. The main crops were oats, wheat and barley, with the first of these being the most produced, although by 1870 land under the plough was decreasing as stock breeding increased. New varieties of sheep were trialled, and dairy shorthorn and Hereford cattle became popular. Wilson wrote that about one-eighth of the land was arable, about one-third pasture and about half was common or waste. He observed a further disparity between the east and west:

Yet the farmhouses, in other parts than the east, are aggregately far from good – many of them timbered, and the cottages are very poor. The native cattle, a small, brindled short-legged breed, deep in the carcase, are kept on the inferior farms. The Devonshire and Herefordshire breeds abound on the best farms.

Two examples of the well-off farmers in the east were widow Susan Powell of Buttington Hall, near Welshpool, and her neighbour William Beckerton. Both these farms were of over 300 acres and gave employment to a total of fifteen residential workers. The survival of this live-in form of labour was a feature of the county, a more traditional form of labour that had been lost in many English regions by this time.


Along with agriculture, manufacturing was present in the county, the chief business being the production of woollen items which had been ongoing since the middle ages. Originally, the trade was a cottage industry, with all the preparatory processes carried out by hand, and only the final 'fulling', or washing, of the cloth being done at a fulling mill (pandy in Welsh). It is said that in Montgomeryshire 'nearly every farm had its weaving contingent and rents were half made from the making of flannel'. Daniel Defoe's account of his traverses through the county during the 1720s does not mention any factories:

The River Severn is the only beauty of this county, which rising I say, out of the Plymlymon [sic] Mountains, receives instantly so many other rivers into its bosom, that it becomes navigable before it gets out of the county, namely at Welch Pool, on the edge of Shropshire. This is a good fashionable place, and has many English dwelling in it, and some very good families, but we saw nothing further worth remarking. The vales and meadows upon the banks of the Severn are the best of this county, I had almost said, the only good part of it.

Fifty years later, Thomas Pennant observed the effects of the flannel industry while on his tour of Wales:

Llanidloes, a small town, with a great market for yarn, which is manufactured here into fine flannels, and sent weekly, by wagonloads to Welshpool ... Welshpool, a good town, is seated in the bottom, not far from the castle [Powis Castle, seat of the Earl of Powis]. Great quantities of flannel, brought from the upper country, are sent from hence to Shrewsbury.

The reference to Shrewsbury is very telling. The town had a monopoly on buying and selling Welsh cloth that began in Tudor times by an Act of 1565, and by the eighteenth century Montgomeryshire producers were totally dependent on the Shropshire drapers – a reflection of the poverty of the mid-Wales countryside, where the quick sale of cloth for ready cash meant the difference between existence and starvation. As well as this, the drapers helped weavers to buy raw materials, in some cases buying yarn for them and paying only for the weaving. By the end of the eighteenth century, local drapers emerged and eclipsed the Shrewsbury traders. When the Revd J. Evans travelled in the area at the end of the eighteenth century, he observed of Newtown:

It contains several streets and is in a flourishing condition. An extensive manufactory of flannel is carried on in the town, and in the parts adjacent. This article is got up in a masterly manner and employs the numerous poor of the town and neighbourhood ... All the flannels here are the effect of manual labour: machinery has not found its way into north Wales.

However, mechanisation did arrive, and investors in new machinery became powerful manufacturers. In 1818 John Aitkin noted: 'Newton [sic] on the Severn, is the centre of a considerable woollen manufacture, especially of flannels of all qualities.'

In 1871, about 22 per cent of the population aged over twenty years was involved in this industry, only a few percentage points less than agriculture. The manufacturing heartland was along the Severn the towns of Llanidloes, Newtown and Welshpool, facilitated by the accessibility of the valley. Indeed, both the county's only canal and the railway line to Aberystwyth, were constructed along this route. Of the three centres of production, Newtown was the greatest, and was known as 'the Leeds of Wales' owing to the success of its factories. In 1833, Robert Parry wrote a ballad extolling its success and the prosperity it brought:

Oh what a blissful place! By Severn's banks so fair,
Although there had been a downturn in the industry's prosperity after the 1830s, it was still a major employer in the town at the beginning of the 1870s. Investigation of the 1871 census show 300 woollen-cloth producers and 152 flannel manufacturers, and flannel workers living all around the town. There were pockets where the workers in these trades lived, generally in those quarters containing yards, sometimes known as shuts or courts. One of the main thoroughfares in Newtown was Park Street, and several yards were concealed behind it with access via narrow passages. Ten of these yards were investigated and 34 per cent of residents worked in the woollen or flannel industries. Across the town in a northerly direction was Russell Square, a small enclosed area with thirty-four residents stating an occupation. Eighty-eight per cent of them were flannel and wool workers. West of Russell Square, on the far side of the main shopping street was Kinsey Yard. Here 50 per cent were flannel and wool workers. Many of these areas have been demolished, but old photographs, maps and the remaining houses show building types that expanded during the Industrial Revolution. Some contemporaries considered them to be a cause of crime and vice, including close-packed, back-to-back, small terraced houses. The people of the Park Street yards had access to three wells and two pumps, and those living in Russell Square shared one well. Although the location of Kinsey Yard is not on any existing map, an idea about its whereabouts can be deduced from the census revealing that its residents had access to one pump. To the north of the town, across the river, lay Llanllwchaiarn and the industrial quarter known as Penygloddfa. Three yards were investigated here and it was found that 71 per cent of residents worked in the flannel or wool industries.

The flannel industry for which Newtown was famous also existed in Welshpool. A visitor to the town wrote in 1832 that it was: 'A large and populous town and the appearances of opulence are very predominant throughout the place perhaps owing to the trade in Welsh flannel which is carried on here to a very great extent.'

During the first half of the nineteenth century, housing for the workers grew up in parts of the town formerly occupied by gardens. The prosperity of the industry did not last and Table 1.1 shows the change in numbers of flannel manufacturers and merchants featured in trade directories. The demise of the industry in Welshpool has been attributed to strong competition by mills in Newtown and Llanidloes, although by the 1840s the industry was also failing in those towns. Robson's Directory of North Wales (1840) gives 'the centrality of Newtown' as the reason for its superseding Welshpool.

Severn Street lies to the southwest of Welshpool. During the prosperous years of the flannel industry, a mill was situated on the northern side of the road, and the adjacent Red Lion Passage was occupied mainly by mill workers. In 1851 there were 76 persons living in the passage and of the 37 people in employment, 27 had mill occupations. The mill brought in workers from outside the area: out of all 37 workers, only eight were Welshpool born and three of these eight were Welshpool-born offspring of incomers. Eight workers had been born outside the county. Looking at the census for 1871, the effects of the collapsed flannel industry are clear as the total population of this passage had fallen from 76 to 59 and the flannel workers had mainly gone. What happened to the former occupants of the passage? It has been possible to trace some of the 1851 residents through the censuses and other records. Spinner John Hodgekiss moved to nearby Berriew Street and lost his wife. By 1871 he was remarried to a Liverpool woman and working as a gardener. Abraham Thomas, a weaver originating from Radnorshire, moved with his family to work in the industry in Newtown. His eldest son continued living with the family but did not follow in his father's footsteps, but became a carpenter. Another Radnorshire-born weaver was John Hammond. By 1861 he, his wife and eldest son were working as handloom weavers in the Penygloddfa part of Newtown. Thomas Swancott gave up weaving, moved his family to Staffordshire and became a labourer. Evan Andrews, also a weaver, moved to Liverpool where by 1861 he was aged 63 and no longer working. Weaver Isaac Astley appeared in court in 1854, was convicted of larceny and received six months' imprisonment. Neither he nor his wife appear in any subsequent census. In 1851, twelve-year-old Mary Ann Gough had been a servant to her spinner aunt in Red Lion Passage, possibly looking after her baby cousin. Mary Ann had been born into a weaving family living on the other side of town and had at least seven siblings. By 1861, her mother Elizabeth had remarried and moved with some of her children, including Mary Ann, to Ladywell Street in Newtown. She was now a currier's wife with the surname Hetherington. Her new husband was not present on the night of the census, but living with the family was Mary Ann's cousin from Red Lion Passage, now aged eleven years. Mary Ann was aged twenty-two years, but no occupation was given for her.

A picture thus emerges of fluctuating employment, an unstable resident population and, possibly, significantly high levels of unemployment. Local trade directories provide an indication of the work opportunities available across the county. Worrall's Directory of North Wales (1874) shows that the flannel industry was gone from Welshpool but still existed in Machynlleth on the western edge of Montgomeryshire. As expected, the two most populous towns had the greatest business diversity. However, business people probably had to pay for entries, so the directories may not give an accurate account of contemporary commercial enterprise. These figures may be better regarded as an indicator of the numbers present.


An element of squalor existed in the working-class areas of industrialised Newtown. Correspondence in The Newtown and Welshpool Express showed this, for example in a letter published on 23 February 1869:

The bulk of the dwellings upon Penygloddfa are not drained at all ... the sewer in Commercial Street intercepts rather than assists the natural drainage, it acts as a receptacle for a certain amount of decaying animal and vegetable matter as well as human excreta which cannot and does not run off during the greater portion of the year ... emptying as it does beneath the windows of dwelling houses, grossly offensive to the senses of vision and smell of the whole town, is a disgrace to the civilisation of the times.

Closer to the centre of town, near Kinsey Yard, there were two more sources of extreme insanitation which were discussed by Newtown Local Board:

There is a nuisance on the way leading to the Wesleyan chapel, on the corner of Wesley Street. There is an ash pit, indeed, I may say a cesspool, of stagnant filth, continually lodged there. The parties empty slops, chamberware, ashes and all other refuse, and this on the road leading to a public place of worship, and it is continually complained of. There is another nuisance question which has occupied my attention for the last few days. It is in respect to the emptying of privies into the public drains in different parts of the town. I am of the opinion that the drains were never meant for such a purpose.

We have Mr Davies pointing out to us the terrible state the drains are in ... It is worthy of consideration of the Board to say whether they are not disposed to issue an order to prevent the issue of such a quantity of night soil from their petties into the drains where there is not a sufficient supply of water to carry it away ... It will be some time before the evil which exists will be removed. I believe in some parts of town the drains are nearly choked up.

The Park Street area began to be developed early in the nineteenth century and the accommodation was described as 'little more than hovels'. The properties were often tiny, back-to-back, two-roomed houses (one up, one down), sometimes with weaving rooms above. Picton's Row, for example, off Park Street, no longer exists but measurements and calculations made from the 1902 1-inch Ordnance Survey map show that the rooms in the houses were about 10 feet square, as in some parts of East End London. Lying parallel to Park Street and connected to it by Picton's Row, was Ladywell Street. In 1874, the town's medical officer sent a report to the local board which said:

Since my last report, eight cases of scarlet fever have to my knowledge occurred within the district – three in Ladywell Street, three in Albion Yard [off Park Street], and two in the High Street. Of these, two have proved fatal. When I visited the houses in Ladywell Street and Albion Yard I found that in two instances the inmates were sleeping in the room with the dead body waiting burial. In one case a woman dying of pulmonary consumption and a boy ill with scarlet fever were lying near the corpse.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments List of figures List of tables Abbreviations Introduction 1 Montgomeryshire 2 The legal system 3 Montgomeryshire Constabulary 4 Petty sessions 5 Quarter sessions 6 Assizes 7 Theft offences 8 Vice Conclusion Bibliography

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