Crime and Punishment, Pirates and an Intoxicating Drink: 'Taffy was a Welshman..'

Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to our house
And stole a leg of Beef.

This old doggerel has annoyed Welshmen for centuries – without need, for once the reason behind the rhyme is understood things can be seen in perspective and with a sense of humour. Mention of it is made in this book not so much to destroy an old and mischievous myth but to introduce some interesting facts about crime in our ancestors’ day: a subject which in itself has created legends.

The doggerel stems from the period after the Norman conquest when the Welsh, driven back into the hills by superior force, had to content themselves with quickly executed raids on the enemy. Later, as time went on, the raids became less warlike and more predatory: and these, in the eyes of the English living in the lowlands, were nothing less than acts of barefaced larceny- hence the jibe. To the Welsh, however, smarting after their defeat, the forays were glorious attempts to retrieve something stolen from them by the conquering race. Thefts of cattle and sheep were ways of getting back at ‘yr hen elyn’ – the old enemy. An historian, writing at a time much nearer to this period than we are, summed it up as follows:
‘Therefore, placing themselves (the Welsh) in the lower mountaines, in the ffrontyers of the low Country, with often rodes and incurtions, assalyed the Strangers, sometimes out of one part of the mountaines, sometimes out of another, and taking them at advantage often slew great Companies of them…  taking form them preys and booties, whereby they sustained themselves. For the mountaines in those days bare noe such Corn eas now growth thereon, lyming not knowne.’  

And even when the English tried to make peace the Welsh would have no truck with the upsurpes:  

‘Messages were sent then offering Condictions of Peace, yet Malice and Rancour soe boyled in their Stomackes they would not heare thereof, thinking it more honest to dye by dint of sword than to suffer unrevenged.’

Just to bury the myth completely it would be worth mentioning that, in 1874, an independent observer named Thomas Nicholas dourly went into the question as to which of the races living in Wales was the more dishonest. He examined the records of the inmates at Cardiff County Gaol who had been imprisoned there over the previous five years and came up with these interesting figures.

No. of Prisoners, 1869 -1874:
English: 2133
Scottish: 129
Irish: 2228
Foreign: 555
Welsh: 3181

Total: 8226

He came to the conclusion that ‘Wales is distinguished by its comparative freedom from crime’ and that most of the misdemeanours were perpetrated by ‘transplants from other lands,’ adding that the main cause of all the trouble was ‘the curse of intemperance, the prolific breeder of crime’.

More interesting to coastal folk is the way the nature of crime changed over the centuries in the mid Glamorgan area, together with the methods of punishment meted out. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries local people could be imprisoned for ‘evil conversation’, ‘unlawful games’, and even ‘incontinent living’. Penalties for these heinous offences were whipping, the stocks or the pillory; Nicholas Richards of Cowbridge, for example, being sentenced to stand in the pillory for three hours for stealing a hide.

This period was probably the most lawless in our history, with murder and robbery commonplace and landed gentry happily employing gangs of ruffians to do their dirty work for them. Heaven help the poisioner, however, for this crime was regarded as being more dastardly than any mere bludgeoning or knifing; and if a woman committed it she was burned or boiled alive. Death by hanging was also considered too lenient for some as was shown in the case of Dafydd ap Hopcyn who was committed to Cardiff Gaol for strangling his wife and was sentenced to be ‘put naked into the ground, except his breeches, and a hole made under his head and his head put into it and as much as a stone and iron put upon his body as it will carry, and more, and he is to be fed on bread and water of the worst kind, bread one day and water another day and so kept alive until he dies.’

This was also the period when a distinction was made between the varying values of goods stolen. To steal something over the value of five shillings (25p) was a felony punishable by death – hanging for a man and drowning for a woman. The drowning of women miscreants went on for a long period of time until someone in authority suggested that it was barbarous: then it was changed to hanging, to be on a par with men.  One of the first recorded as having met her death in this way was Catherine Griffiths who was hanged for breaking into a house,. She went to the scaffold wearing her shroud ready for her demise and singing a Welsh song of her own composition.  

Towards the end of the seventeenth century there was a change in the pattern of crime in the coastal areas of Glamorgan. This was a period of increased trade when many ports came into being along the coasts of the Bristol Channel, among them Newton. A brisk interchange of goods between the Welsh ports and those of Devon and Somerset brought about an attendant rash of piracy. To destroy another old belief it should be pointed out that all the important pirates were foreigners: the Welsh of the Vale of Glamorgan and the coastal areas appear to have taken little part in this activity, although, to be honest, it must be stated that they certainly had no qualms about buying booty when it was offered.

Most of these pirates used the off-shore islands as their headquarters. Lundy, Sully, Flat Holm and Steep Holm were the hide-outs of such men, as the greatly feared Colyn Dolphyn and the legendary Maricot Callice, who once captured Sir Harry Stradling of St. Donat’s and held him to ransom. There was also the infamous William Chick, a big-time pirate who, when captured, nevertheless turned informer under the thumbscrew and revealed that he had most of the landed aristocracy on his pay roll. The county families were, of course, never charged with complicity in the courts. They were to influential.

But by 1700 the days of the pirates were numbered. They had become too much of a nuisance, even for the ruling class. They were imprisoned in large numbers and lost their grip on the Channel waters. Their place was taken by the smugglers and the footpads. Smuggling was a lucrative and fairly safe occupation in those days for there were very few customs officers and the coastal inhabitants were loath to give evidence – they benefited too greatly from the reduced prices of liquor, tea and tobacco. Many inns along the coast obtained a reputation for being smugglers’ haunts, among them the ‘Ancient Briton’ of Newton, now the ‘Jolly Sailor’; but the biggest depot for the contrabrand goods was Barry Island still active as late as 1791 when a greatly strengthened body of customs men eventually succeeded in closing it down. Not to be out-done some of the locals living on the coast, particularly  in the area around Nash and Dunraven, took to wrecking; and at all times pillaging of wrecked vessels was rife – an activity that cannot be condoned but which can be understood if the  poverty of the time is remembered.  (For a fuller account of this subject see Porthcawl: its History and Development).

Inland the footpads were active, preying on everybody who was likely to possess goods or money, including the smugglers themselves. Many legends exist about highwaymen (the relatives of the notorious Dick Turpin are said to be buried in Newton churchyard) but the truth is that the highwayman proper, with his pistols and horse was rarely seen in South Wales. The reason probably is that there was too much competition on the highways of Glamorgan. Any lone horseman trying to out-do Cap Goch, the Cefn Riders and the Red Goblins would have found it hard going.

The law enforcement officers were not helped at this time by an intoxicating drink which was freely available to locals in the know. It was so strong that it became legendary in its own right: one small glassful was enough to make a man dead drunk and, if spilled on a table top, it could burn holes in the wood.  This was a contrabrand liquor distilled in almost every village from herbs abd stolen brandy.  Customs men were always searching for this drink ‘wch has duty before and the herbs wch is free of duty’.

During the eighteenth century transportation and flogging largely took place of hanging. This may sound like progress, but often the punishment was quite as severe as before. For example, two  men of the Glamorgan Militia who were imprudent enough to allow some French prisoners of war escape in 1762 were sentenced to receive 1000 lashes each, in instalments of 400, 300 and 300. One, a youth of nineteen living not far from Porthcawl, never recovered, dying in agony nine months later. Most of these punishments were carried out at the House of Correction at Cowbridge, but sometimes the flogger had to travel to Bridgend to deal with the miscreants living in the area. An official record exists of one such visit:

‘Money laid out to William Philliphs – For Horse Hire in Going to Bridgend with two to be whipped and paid for whipping them £2 2s. ’

One myth can therefore be finally destroyed, as any one reading the foregoing will agree:  there were no such things as ‘the good old days’. They exist only in the imagination and the writings of romantic novelists. Slowly but surely, in spite of our present-day imperfections and the rise in the crime figures, we are becoming more civilised. 

Illustration by Margaret Wooding

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