Lives in Crime: The Social and Cultural History of Wales in the Court of Great Sessions

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 10-01-2020

The phrase ‘History of Wales’ often conjures up images of medieval Welsh princes and princesses like Llewellyn the Great, Owain Glyndŵr, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, and watershed events like the Edwardian conquest, or the Tudor Acts of Union. Alternatively, ‘Welsh History’ evokes images of social, economic and political change in the 19th century, characterised by mining and industrialisation, the growth of Methodism, Chartism, and the Rebecca Riots. These are all rich and fascinating subjects that deserve the attention they receive. However, the period between the Acts of Union and the Industrial revolution are often overlooked, especially in histories that explore the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people in Wales.

As a social and cultural historian of 18th century Wales, I am working to change this.  Fortunately, the National Library of Wales holds one of the best sources of evidence about the everyday lives of Welsh men and women during this often-ignored period. Perhaps surprisingly, the records I’m referring to are the Gaol Files of the Court of Great Session – the highest criminal court in Wales prior to the 1830s. These records provide rich details about peoples’ daily routines, their work and family life, their values, assumptions, interpersonal relationships and so on.

Pre-trial documents, such as depositions, examinations, complaints, and ‘information’, as well as confessions were produced when a crime, such as murder, riot, assault, theft, burglary, forgery, bigamy, and even bestiality were referred to the Court of Great Sessions. Clerks or magistrates would interview witnesses and suspects and record their responses, often after translating them from Welsh into English. Although rarely, if ever, verbatim, they were central to the trial process in a country where many witnesses spoke a different language to the court, as legal proceedings were held in English. For this reason, pre-trial documents from the Court of Great Sessions have a very high survival rate compared to similar records from the Assizes in England. In addition to providing compelling evidence of crime and deviance, pre-trial records also contain highly detailed accounts of what individuals were doing when they witnessed, committed or became victims of crimes. These records are therefore immensely valuable for anyone interested the social and cultural history of Wales.

A case of suspected arson in Anglesey in 1799 illustrates just how rich and detailed these records can be. In this case, a young, unmarried pregnant woman stood accused of setting fire to another woman’s property. The accused woman’s master was the supposed father of her unborn child. He was also courting the woman whose property was burnt, as evidence by the fact that he was said to be in possession of her garters. This rather scandalous case of an 18th century love triangle clearly reveals the complexities and intricacies of certain agrarian courtship practices. However, witness depositions also provide fascinating evidence of more ‘everyday’ circumstances, such as how fire was shared between hearths and homes (using straw and turf from a neighbour’s fire), and the hospitality shown to young female servants who found themselves away from home at dusk (they were taken in by households and allowed to lodge with servants for the night). This case is one of countless examples of the ‘ordinary’ daily routines, neighbourliness and interpersonal relationships found in these ‘extraordinary’ court records.

The Gaol Files have been central to my research on illegitimacy and midwifery in 18th century Wales, and form an integral part of my teaching at the University of Leicester. However, with an online index for the years 1730-1830, and records kept in English (mainly using secretary and italic hand) from 1730 onwards, the Gaol Files are widely accessible at the National Library.

Dr Angela Muir

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