Category Archives: Wales

Law and low literature

It is a wet morning and I am stuck indoors, an arm stiff from a Covid jab: not up to doing anything terribly energetic, but in need of some distraction. Naturally enough, I have turned to reading about some favourite topics – law, humour and poetry (loosely so-called). All of them come together in this report of goings-on in a county court in Cardiff, in 1907: Lloyd Meyrick, ‘Limericks and Law’. It alludes to the occasion, on 8th May 1907, when a judge, William Stevenson Owen, at Cardiff County Court, brightened up a dullish case by breaking out into a limerick.

This tale contributes to the image of this particular judge as something of a funny fellow. Newspapers of the period could not get enough of his ‘humorous’ remarks and caustic quips. Meyrick noted that, in court, Owen elicited laughter, ‘weak cackles and short hysterical yelps’, that he was known as one for ‘polished periods and sparkling epigrams’, but it was only at that point that he had revealed an ‘unsuspected vein of poetry’.

Mentioned in passing in this report were limericks about ‘A young lady from Chichester’ and another young lady, this time from Exeter, but Meyrick did not give the verses themselves. I had a bit of a search for possibles and found some rather rude ones.[i] (At least there was no hint of people hailing from Nantucket. If you don’t know, use your imagination). But, perhaps not surprisingly, there was no serious rudeness in Judge Owen’s court.

Luckily, the judge’s own limerick was reproduced in other, anonymous, reports, from 8th May 1907. Here it is in all its glory:

There was a young woman of Chichester

who went to see a solicitor.

He asked for his fee,

she said “Fiddle-de-dee:

I simply called as a visitor”.

Have to say the rhymes are a bit dodgy, but, according to the ‘stage directions’ in the newspaper report, the response in court was loud laughter. The newspaper report does not really explain what the nature of the case was, but it does seem likely to have involved an issue of whether somebody was consulting a solicitor professionally or not. Did he make it up there and then (in which case some struggling rhymes would be forgiven), or did he sit up for hours the night before, composing and polishing it (in which case, they would not)? In any case, it all adds to the picture of power-dynamics in court at this point, and, so it seems to me at least, the self-regard of judges.

I have quite a collection of judicial ‘humour in court’ reports now, and also a fair bit of material on Owen, who does seem worth investigating further.

Working from the newspaper archive (the easiest place to start!), the Welsh newspaper obituaries[ii] give us these apparent facts about his life:

1834       Born (1st February). Son of William Owen, of Withybush, Pembrokeshire (deceased), from a ‘well-known and highly-respected family in the county’.

?date    Married to Miss Ray, Kent family, had three daughters and a son.

1856      Called to the Bar 1856. Became a Chancery barrister. Travelled the South Wales Circuit. ‘An accurate  lawyer and a skilled equity draftsman’.[iii]

1883      Appointed County Court Judge in Mid-Wales

1884      Transferred to ‘Circuit No. 58’ (County courts at Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Chepstow, Abergavenny, Tredegar, Pontypool, Monmouth, Ross, Crickhowell and Usk.

1895      Chair of Pembrokeshire Quarter Sessions. Chair of Haverfordwest Quarter Sessions. Retired 1907.

1909      Died (4.30 a.m., 20th October) , at home in Abergavenny, Ty Gwyn, after an operation on ‘an internal complaint’.

1909       23rd October. Funeral, parish church, Llantilio Pertholey, nr Abergavenny. Grave on south side of church.

At the time of his death, he sat on the County Court Bench.

 

His legal views

Obituaries[iv] emphasise some detailed, technical views:

  • opposition to the judgment summons system (on the grounds that it encouraged credit)
  • support for a reduction in the time allowed for the collection of debt under Statute of Limitations, from 6 to 2 years.

 

His character or characterisation: ‘dry humour’ and ‘caustic and scathing observations’

In death, he was called a man ‘of strong character and striking individuality’,[v] and, in private life, ‘a charming host and a man of warm-hearted disposition’. [vi]

it was commented that he was ‘noted for the dry humour which he introduced into the prosaic proceedings of the county court’, and that ‘his smart, laconic commentaries frequently provoked laughter’. On the other hand, his ‘caustic and scathing observations … were things to be dreaded, as many a solicitor [would] admit’.[vii] There is a lot to interrogate there – both in terms of the apparent nature of his ‘dry humour’, and also the slightly sniffy suggestion that the proceedings of the county court were ‘prosaic’. My initial reading suggests that he was very keen to play up the importance of this, apparently scorned, jurisdiction. More on that in due course!

Obituaries noted the speed with which he picked up common law, that his judgments were rarely upset on appeal, that he was very fair to prisoners, in Quarter Sessions, and, in the County Court, ‘very much alive to the processes of the court being used to oppress the poor’, with particular attention to claims made by tallymen and moneylenders, and not to ask too much of poor defendants in terms of paying debts. Much, much more to say, I am sure, once I can delve further into his cases and the reports.

I note that the obituaries do not mention his poetical efforts. They do say that he had a ‘distinguished career’.[viii] That was clearly in law rather than literature, though.

GS

24/10/2022

 

 

Image from The Evening Express, 20th October, 1909.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Chichester:

 

A pious young lady of Chichester

made all of the saints in their niches stir

and each morning at matin

her breast in pink satin

made the bishop of Chichester’s britches stir

(shame about the double use of stir, to my mind, but Chichester/britches stir is rather skilful).

 

Exeter:

There was a young lady from Exeter,
So pretty that men craned their necks at her.
One was even so brave
As to take out and wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.

(grim and creepy, obviously).

No refs to author, nor date,  given.

Just how the Exeter verse mentioned by Meyrick was thought to end, we can’t be sure, but the first two lines were not quite the same as the rude version above – it began ‘There was a young woman from Exeter/ and a happy young man sat next to her’ [needs another syllable, doesn’t it ‘Sat down next to her’?]

[ii] See, e.g., ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)  JUDGE OWEN DEAD|1909-10-20|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales) DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iii] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iv] ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[v] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[vi] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[vii] ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[viii] JUDGE OWEN DEAD|1909-10-20|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

Lecturing on Law and Laughter

One of the more interesting characters of the legal profession of the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a lawyer from Denbigh, North Wales, T. Artemus Jones. Anyone who has looked into the law of defamation is likely to have come across him as the plaintiff in Hulton v Jones (1909) – the case which made it wise for writers of fiction to start off with a claim that their work is fiction, even if it coincidentally hits upon the name of a real person (and e.g. suggests he might have been up to no good with a woman other than his wife, in Dieppe). He had an interesting pathway to the legal profession, rather admirably pulling himself upwards via journalism and part time study.

Once he became a barrister, he continued to communicate to wider audiences. A newspaper report in an issue of the Denbighshire Free Press in 1907 reported on his lecture – returning to Denbigh Literary and Social Society’s Hall as a ‘local boy made good’.[i] There was ‘very good attendance … notwithstanding the inclemency of the (March) weather’, to hear Jones speak on the theme ‘The Humorous Side of the Law’. Obviously, this appeals to those of us with a passing interest in legal humour and there is also some legal historical content. So what laughs were there in matters legal, and what was the interest in legal history, as far as Artemus was concerned?

In fact, a fair amount of the lecture seems to have been taken up by discussions of legal history of a sort: a comparison of ‘now’ and ‘centuries ago’, ‘days gone past’, or the past as a bit of an undifferentiated lump. He discussed Ashford v Thornton (albeit situating the initial acquittal in the Common Pleas rather than a criminal court), oddly drew a direct link between ‘the blood feud’ and the petty jury (saying that the feud involved 12 men from each side). There was considerable use of the language of ‘barbarism’ to describe the criminal justice system of the past, as if seeing matters as a story of upward ‘progress’ to his present 9like the good Liberal he was), though, we might take a different view of the perfection of the ideas of his time, when we see that there was reported to have been applause when he remarked that ‘the punishment of whipping still existed, and he thought that, for a certain class of offences, it was an excellent remedy’.

A little baffling today but apparently regarded as amusing was a Lord Eldon anecdote: Lord Eldon ‘had said that a wife was like a tin canister tied to one’s tail’ [which does not sound complimentary!] Both baffling and groan-inducing are the great lines in response to Lord Eldon, from the Society Journal which Jones cited:

‘Lord Eldon presuming to rail

Calls a wife a tin canister tied to one’s tail;

And fair lady Ann while the subject he carried on

Seems hurt by his Lordship’s degrading comparison.

But wherefore degrading? Considered aright

A canister’s polished and useful and bright.

And should dirt its original purity bide,

That’s the fault of the puppy to whom it is tied.’

 

This was funny, right! The newspaper reports laughter.

Partly funny, partly deadly serious was his treatment of a gripe of his own age and country – critical comments by English judges on the veracity of Welsh witness. Here, Jones played to his audience: he could ‘assure them that more lies were told in the courts of London in two days than the whole of Wales in three years’. This, as might have been expected, elicited applause from the good men of Denbigh.

Going back to humour, he gave his listeners a story of a murder trial in which there had been a conviction, but then the man allegedly murdered appeared in court. Although the judge ordered that the jury’s verdict would have to be withdrawn, ‘the foreman of the jury said that the prisoner must be guilty, as he knew him for a rogue, as he had stole his bay mare three years ago’. How they laughed! Likewise, mirth was caused by amusing tales of drunk judges and judges being ‘witty’.

There was a bit of a mixed judgment in the end, by Jones, on the ‘system of justice in England’ [and yes, there is that slipping, characteristic of the period, between portraying England as separate from Wales, and speaking as if Wales was absorbed in England]. On the one hand it was ‘a pattern for the whole world’, on the other ‘there were defects in the system’. Finally, he gave his listeners some homework – to learn about the laws of their country, he recommended:

  • Memoirs of Lord Brougham
  • Memoirs of the Old Bailey
  • Dickens
  • Thackeray

 

Damn – will have to revise my reading lists now.

All in all, an interesting little insight into this ‘character’ of the law, and into the ideas of his time, about Wales, law, and humour. Probably somebody who deserves a bit more attention today, for these reasons amongst others.

GS

19/10/2022

 

[i] Intro: in the chair was the Rev. James Charles, who, reading between the lines, may have been hogging the limelight a little. In a bit of a ‘back to me’ moment, he seems to have described his own appearances as a witness, and in what sounds like some very heavy attempted humour, making comparisons between law and theology. There was said to have been laughter and applause at all of that, though, so no accounting for (early 20th C North Welsh) taste.

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

For more on the libel case, and background on Jones, see in particular Paul Mitchell, Artemus Jones and the Press Club.” Journal of Legal History, vol. 20, no. 1, April 1999, pp. 64-68.

Poetry of the prison

Well it’s legal history of a sort – a penal poem from Welsh newspaper Y Drych. Felt like a bit of amateur translation. Can’t reproduce the effect of formal Welsh verse, but a rough and ready translation of this 1893 poem by Hugh Jones (Vet) would, I think, be …

The Gaol

The gaol: an old, bare, tight locked house,

with a dreadful look about it;

destination of criminals, traitors

and the torturer.

 

I think we are getting the convict-gaoler all trapped together, matter of chance which side of the bars one is on vibe, well known to watchers of gritty modern police/detective shows.

There is another layer to poems about prison in Welsh, which is that strict-rules poetry writing (so, so hard!) is called canu caethcaeth referring to confinement or chaining.  So rather appropriate for such subject matter.

GS 10.10.2022

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

The Barmaid’s Belly: a late case of de ventre inspiciendo

Today, I am researching (in so far as it is possible, without usual access to libraries, archives etc.) a late instance of the writ de ventre inspiciendo – ordering the inspection of a woman claiming pregnancy, by women, in civil proceedings. It has come up in my research on ‘Unknowns at the Start of Life’ for a swiftly approaching paper (April), and needs a bit of thought.  The case was heard in Knight Bruce VC’s court, on 8th May, 1845.[i]

It involved a dispute about a trust. A ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’ had some property – he held it as tenant for life, and the remainder was held by trustees on a thousand year term, on trust to provide money for Blakemore’s issue, and the remainder was for the people bringing the action here.

The petitioners were not able simply to have the property, however, because there was a competing claim, from the ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’s wife: this woman claimed to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child, and, if that was so, then the child would be entitled to money from the trust. It was therefore in the interest of the petitioners to cast doubt on this claim to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child.

The petitioners proceeded with the doubt-casting by portraying both Blakemore and his widow as dubious characters. It is not altogether clear why they needed to have a go at Blakemore himself, but apparently there were affidavits which ‘represented [him] to have been a man of dissolute and intemperate habits’. It was probably with a view to having a go at both of the spouses that they stressed that he had ‘married the barmaid of an inn in Wales’ (not just some barmaid, but a Welsh barmaid – just at the time that Welsh women were about to be insulted quite horrendously in the treacherous Blue Books, as being of extremely easy virtue). Blakemore had, so they said, come to London, leaving his Welsh barmaid wife behind, and died in January 1845. He was dead then, so the petitioners couldn’t have a go at him any further, but they had not finished with the widow Blakemore. They said that she had ‘carried on adulterous intercourse’ with the groom of her husband, during the latter’s absence before his death, and after she was widowed, had started to live with the groom ‘as man and wife’ (and as if that was not bad enough ‘at a certain public-house in Wales’, and the ‘subsisting connection’ was ‘one of sin’ (rather than there having been a second marriage).

The report is a little telegraphic (v. much the latest thing – see how on point my tech reference is?) but it is clear that an order was made for an inspection of the widow, by a ‘jury of women’. Although some of the evidence on behalf of the petitioners seems to have been not that the widow was not pregnant, but that she was not pregnant with her dead husband’s child, the inspection would not have been of any value in relation to that issue. Perhaps the point is that they were trying to discredit both the existence of a pregnancy which had begun during the marriage, and also, if that failed, to do the more difficult job of rebutting the presumption that the child of a married woman was her husband’s issue. This had become a little less difficult in the first part of the 19th C, but very strong evidence was still required.

So, the petitioners’ case can, perhaps be understood. The puzzle, from my point of view, is that there does not seem to have been much interest in the press. Why did I expect that there would be? Well, sex, adultery, class, bashing the Welsh – good ways of getting people to read your paper, I would have thought. Then there is also the de ventre inspiciendo process itself – now something of a rarity in civil cases, and, when it was proposed in a case in 1835 (of which more in a later post) it was considered quite, quite scandalous, and cruel. Could the difference possibly have been that between a respectable English tradesman’s wife – easily believed to be too delicate to be poked and prodded (the situation in the Fox case of 1835)– and a Welsh barmaid, who could not be imagined to have any finer feelings? Surely not.

Further details on the parties, the story, and whether there ever was an inspection of the body of the much-maligned Welshwoman will have to await the great re-opening of the archives. Another one for the pile!

GS

12/3/2021

(Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash)

[i] Blakemore v Blakemore 1 Holt Eq. 328; 71 ER 769; In re Blakemore, 14 L.J. (NS) Ch. 336 (1845).

Photo by Klim Musalimov on Unsplash

Mining and undermining: a ‘lady lawyer’ at the Glamorgan Assizes of 1908

(Normal medieval service will be resumed soon, but here is a last one from Welsh Newspapers Online for the moment, found on one of my searches during the recent AALT disruption).

In the few years before Covid 19 came into our lives, there was a lot of activity in relation to the centenaries, first, of militant suffrage campaigns, then the gaining of the vote for (some) women, and then the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. (I had a small role in some of that, especially looking at how suffrage campaigning interacted with/clashed with ideas of Cymreictod (‘Welshness’), and, even more specifically, at events in my native town, Abergavenny). I am sure we have all become familiar with certain stories and images over the course of all this activity – iconic shots of the Pankhursts and that one picture of Helena Normanton and Rose Heilbron as silks in particular. It is comforting, in an unjust world, to see a fight in which ‘the good guys’ (sort of) (eventually) won – a reasonably straightforward cause and a definite ‘victory’. Nevertheless, it always seems to me that it is important not only to remember the winners – however impressive they may be – but also those who didn’t manage to smash down walls or transcend the limits placed upon them, those who experienced ridicule without eventual recompense, and who often seem to be lost in shadowy ‘before’, as we focus on the struggles we know to be connected to the attainment of particular equality goals. The thing is, there was a lot of ‘before’, and most of us probably have less in common with the ‘winners’ in these stories than with the shadowy multitude, whatever we may like to think.

It is harder, of course, to tell these other stories. They are likely to be less well documented: it is a question of looking for hints and snippets, and trying to interpret them, often ‘against the grain’ of the particular source, its tone and assumptions. Here is just one, which I found quite telling, and useful in thinking about narratives around the removal of the bar on women working as lawyers.

An article in the Weekly Mail for 11th  April 1908 is headed ‘Young Lady Lawyer’.[i] It is not, obviously, about a woman officially employed as a legal professional – that would not be conceded as a possibility until after the passing of the 1919 Act –  but about a woman acting in a somewhat analogous fashion. The legal matter was a case at Glamorgan Assizes, between William Watkins and William Burchell Rees (the two men identified geographically, in classic Welsh style –  ‘William Watkins, Crofte, Brynamman’ and ‘William Burchell Rees, Godregraig, [=Godre’r Graig] Ystalyfera’) over mineral rights (i.e. coal – it’s South Wales, after all) in Camarthenshire. There were professional lawyers, including a KC, on the plaintiff’s side, but the defendant acted ‘in person’. The newspaper report, however, though it found much of the case ‘dry and uninteresting’, makes much of the assistance given to William Burchell Rees by ‘a young lady’.  It notes, but with less interest, the fact that the defendant himself had clearly become familiar with quite a lot of law in this area, preferring to concentrate on the fact that his daughter ‘a girl of about nineteen summers’ was ‘at his side, prompting him’ as he questioned witnesses ‘on the intricate legal and technical details involved’. What an interesting juxtaposition – daughterly duty, properly assisting rather than speaking, and yet (somewhat unnaturally?) conversant with legal and technical detail, to a greater extent than her father, and (shrewishly?) ‘prompting’ him. She also ‘took copious notes’ during the hearing.

The report notes that this was not the only occasion on which ‘Miss Rees’ (we get no more) had been involved in legal business. In another legal case from the same area, she had been said to have ‘extraordinary legal knowledge’, and a certain Mr Abel Thomas had said that he had had ‘great pleasure’ in cross examining her. Furthermore, apparently, one judge (Bray J) was said to have wanted to be in charge of the case, in order to see her, but it had been assigned to another judge. So it sounds as if Miss Rees was a curiosity, a strange prodigy, and perhaps a focus of creepy desire from male lawyers and judges.

Miss Rees was called as a witness, by her father (I warm to him somewhat – he clearly thought highly of her). The judge asked, charmingly, ‘What is she?’, and her father responded ‘I hope some day she will be called to the Bar.’ This was greeted by incredulity on the part of the judge, and laughter in court.

This, then, was the sort of reception given in 1908 to the idea of a ‘young lady’ aspiring to be a professional lawyer. In this environment, the change which would come in 1919 was far from inevitable, and I think that this low-level ridicule, and belittling, and those on whom it was focused, should be integrated into overall narratives of the beginnings of women’s entry into the legal profession. How wearing it must have been. Not only could she not act as a barrister, but even her informal help to her father was met with a fragile hostility and an undermining focus on her as an object of unseemly male fascination.

GS

26/2/2021

Update 4/3/2021

There is a portrait of this ‘interesting Welsh girl’ in another edition of the paper, in April 1908: AN INTERESTING WELSH GIRL.\|1908-04-11|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

Miss Burchell Rees seems to have been familiar with the inside of a court room, and with her father’s litigation: in a report from 1906, relating to Langer Anthracite Co. (Llandilo) v William Burchell Rees and Edgard Rees, her father is reported to have been accompanied to court by ‘a young girl’: A LLANDILO CHANCERY ACTION|1906-03-24|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales) (I am assuming that it is the same ‘young girl’). Possibly by way of explanation of her presence, her father is reported to have said that he was ‘a Welshman, and rather deaf’ and ‘could not afford counsel’. This seems to be evoking ideas of women as carers, rather than (entirely) presenting her as some sort of legal assistant. Earlier still, as a ‘schoolgirl’, her ‘remarkable knowledge of law’ was remarked, with regard to yet more family litigation, in 1904: STARTLING CHARGESI|1904-08-17|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales).

This last report has some very interesting material on gender and coal mining, and also gives us this: ‘An interesting witness was Florence Mary Rees, a girl of sixteen, who showed such a remarkable familiarity with legal formula [sic] and documents that the judge elicited from her that she studied law as a hobby, had a law library, attended police courts, because that was her delight, and hoped eventually to turn the knowledge she thus acquired to good account by becoming a lady lawyer’. I wonder if she might have been inspired by reports such as those relating to aspiring lawyer (and one who ‘made it’, Ivy Williams: LADY LAWYER AGAIN.I|1903-12-16|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)  It sounds as if Florence’s father was something of a self-taught lawyer himself. More details of the rather bullying questioning of Florence can be seen here: ^°0LGIKL’S KNOWLEDGE OF LAW.|1904-08-20|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

Certainly, William Burchell Rees was no stranger to litigation: his name appears in several other law-related reports, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, e.g. IA WOMAN’S LOANS.1|1904-08-16|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales) IERASURE IN THE DEED|1906-07-28|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales) . If this is also him, he was still at it in 1916: LOCAL COLLIERY ACTION.|1916-11-18|Llais Llafur – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales). He seems to have scandalised the community with his personal life: UNPLEASANT CASE.I – i|1904-08-18|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

(Inevitably, by the way, there was a racehorse called ‘Lady Lawyer’ in the 1920s, which has featured heavily in my searches!).

[i] https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3378810/3378816/136/Our%20Lawyer

The Cambrian, 14th September, 1839, p.3.

A little bit of nunsense

Proud to have a post on the excellent Legal History Miscellany blog this week: https://legalhistorymiscellany.com/2021/02/17/allure-of-the-runaway-nun/ about medieval nuns.

To be honest, I have not spent that much of my life thinking about nuns – academically speaking, they have always seemed to be pretty much covered by ‘proper’ historians, church historians, and scholars of literature, art and music (Hildegard …), and a Presbyterian upbringing meant I didn’t come into contact with nuns very much at all in real life (still not sure I have ever spoken to one). But they are interesting from a common law legal history point of view. There is the stuff I touched on in the LHM post, but also a lot more in terms of working out how to enable them to act at common law, if they were enclosed and unable to come to court, and issues around women being forced into convents to allow other family members to snaffle up their property rights. And then there is the fact that all of the common law learning must, presumably, have become more or less redundant after the dissolution of religious houses in the 16th C. It would be quite a fascinating project to trace what happened to it – were nuns still referred to, or used as examples, in common law treatises after that? How did it compare, e.g., to the ways in which law about Jews was referred to, after the 1290 Expulsion? Another one for the queue for the back-burner …

In the meantime – and it’s a bit of a nun sequitur (I’m trying to make that one happen ..) – in a trawl of the Welsh Newspapers Online archive, I found a ‘so-terrible-it’s-great’ poem about nuns in an issue of The Cambrian from 1839 which deserves much wider publicity: the gem at the head of the post.(1) Even by the standards of the day, it is mawkish in the extreme, and the last line is an absolute corker. Ka-blam – she wasn’t sad, she was dead! I love the idea of some hard nosed Swansea businessman sitting and reading his paper, moving between the price of copper (which is just above it) and this fabulous work. Surely ‘F.C.N.’ deserves to be better known.

GS

19/2/2021

(And PS – look up any word in this database, and there will be a racehorse with that name. There was one called Defamation, in my last search, relating to that subject. This time, we have the late 19th C horse ‘Nun Nicer’ – good to see a bit of nun-punning going on there … And there’s even a ‘Seabourne’ in the early 1900s – oh come on, as if we don’t all look our names up in these things – though in my case it is to find some of the ne’er do wells of my family in court records – nothing serious, other than being thrown out of a workhouse, and being caught for chicken stealing because of suspicious feathery debris on his clothes – Ymlaen Wncl Joseph!)

(1) Copper Ore sold at Swansea, Sept. 11, 1839.|1839-09-14|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

 

Defamation with a Welsh accent?

‘Oh my country, my country! Her Majesty’s Commissioners say we are a drunken, lying and dishonest race – men without honour, women without chastity …’[i]

 

One of the projects I want to take off the back-burner in the next year deals with defamation in relation to Welsh, and the Welsh people. My initial interest was in the early period of common law actions on the case for defamation – which come to prominence, and show rapid development, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at a most interesting period for both Welsh governance and the Welsh language, and, as far as I am aware, there has not yet been a full consideration of the way in which actions on the case for defamation dealt with the bilingual reality of Wales. This is something of a stretch for me, in that this is not a period in which I would claim any great expertise, and there may be a need for a bit of hand-holding from those who know it better, but I am not sure that any individual has all of the various skills and knowledge relevant to this, so it does not seem totally out of order for me to have a go at it. At the moment, of course, it is difficult to make any progress, given the inaccessibility of archives. I decided to do a little exploration of such sources as are available to me, and am currently searching through the excellent Welsh Newspapers Online – Home (library.wales). This is proving interesting both in terms of what I have thought of as the ‘core’ of the project – the doctrinal development of defamation law in relation to Wales, Welsh and the Welsh – and also in terms of wider ways in which defamation might have had a distinct role, a distinct accent, for the Welsh, over a much longer period.

I had imagined that my main questions for the doctrinal core would be:

  • in what ways might calling somebody Welsh (alone, or in combination with something else) be defamatory?
  • when might an insult in Welsh be actionable?
  • how would such an insult be evaluated?

I have found some good material on some of these points in the archive in the past, and today turned up a nice quote relevant to the last point, from a letter in a newspaper in 1821:

‘ In cases of libel or defamation, which originated in the Welsh, and are now brought into Court to be tried in the English language, the parties are frequently foiled, and the ends of justice defeated. No language will admit of a literal translation, or is always capable of giving every word its full force and meaning in another.  The Judges are totally ignorant of the Welsh, the Barristers equally so, and the Attornies, not uncommonly without any knowledge of it. The issue of the whole matter then rests on the fidelity of the Interpreter, who is not, at all times, the most competent for his office. And how, I would ask, can justice and equity be administered in such a case?’[ii]

After starting to look at the newspaper archive, however, I have an additional question: how would it be ascertained whether a person alleged to have uttered an insult in Welsh could in fact speak Welsh? This came up in a report of 1808 from North Wales.[iii] The case was Williams (an infant) v. Read and his wife. How much of an ‘infant’ Williams was is not clear – and nor, sadly, though unsurprisingly, are the words, the nature of the alleged insult is not set out. We are told that Mrs Read tried to plead justification, and failed, and that then there was the issue of whether she could have said the words in question (those pleas seem rather contradictory to me, but perhaps I am missing something!). The point was made that Mrs Read came from Cheshire, and that, despite living for 30 years in what was a seriously Welsh-speaking part of the country she had not learned any Welsh, or at least not enough to speak the words in question (were they particularly challenging to a non-native speaker? Lots of Ll and Ch? Had she allegedly described young Williams as the worst thief in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?). The jury didn’t accept this anyway, and Mrs Read was found to have defamed the infant Williams. (I am definitely going to have a poke about to see if there are other, more informative, reports: nothing so far!)

There are a number of leads like this to follow up, but also some wider contexts and trends to consider. I do wonder whether there is a particular vehemence to the condemnation of defamation in a community condemned in the way suggested by the quote at the head of this post, but which emphasises, in one of its central cultural institutions, the Eisteddfod, its own heroically truthful tradition: Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd (‘[The duty to uphold] the truth against the world’). It is interesting to note how regularly the Welsh language papers seem to leave ‘defamation of character’ in English – a nasty Saxon practice? Also, my superficial perusing has me musing (going a little bardic there?) about the regular mentioning of slander and defamation in relation to the bitter fighting over the position of the Anglican church, and native dissent, in the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century. From a modern, secular, viewpoint, this sometimes looks like a battle over trivial differences, but the feelings were very deep and real, and accusing the Tory/high church powers of defamation against the Welsh in general, and their dissenting churches and their ministers in particular, was a complaint which seems to have been something of a rallying cry.  One example gives a flavour – ‘The Church Times has out-Heroded HEROD in its superfluity of libellous traducement. We have occasinally noticed the sluice of persistent slander against the Welsh people which this High Church paper keeps continually open’.[iv]

Much to ponder, and to investigate further, when it becomes possible. I am encouraged, though, that there is something here. It just might be less the one painless article I had looked forward to, after more or less escaping the long pressure of the Women and the Medieval Common Law book, and more a set of linked pieces of a rather amorphous blobby nature. Ah well – Wales, Welsh and the Welsh never have been straightforward. Croeso i Gymru.

 

GS

7/2/2021

 

 

[i] North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality, 22nd February, 1848, p.2. Letter from ‘A Loyal Welshman’.

[ii] D.W., The Cambrian, 16th June, 1821, Letter, ‘The Welsh Language’, p.3,

[iii] North Wales Gazette, 24th November, 1808, p. 3, dealing with proceedings in ‘Carnarvonshire’ County Court.

[iv] South Wales Daily News, 22nd December, 1896, p. 4.

‘Friends and enemies: ‘suffragette’ incidents in Abergavenny, 1913’

Gwen Seabourne, ‘Friends and enemies: ‘suffragette’ incidents in Abergavenny, 1913’

(abstract of a paper given at the University of Bristol Law School, June 2014)  

The National Eisteddfod of Wales was held in Abergavenny in August 2013, and, leading up to it, there seemed to be particular reasons to suspect trouble: the militant suffragettes’ arson campaign was at its height. Wales, Abergavenny and the Eisteddfod had been targeted in the recent past, and two suffragette hate-figures, Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary (and north Monmouthshire MP) and Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, were expected. An anonymous Welshman threatened, in a letter to the press, to shoot any suffragette attempting to disrupt the Eisteddfod. Extra police were hired and other security precautions taken.

 

There was, in fact,  no direct attack on the Eisteddfod. Suffragettes were, however, reportedly present, leafleting. There was some apparently genuine destruction by ‘militant suffragettes’ in Abergavenny (the burning of a cricked pavilion and a hayrick), and also an case of a young man from Abergavenny creating a hoax ‘suffragette’ incident in nearby Llangattock shortly afterwards.

 

Until comparatively recently, there was an accepted narrative that suffrage campaigning, and particularly militant violence, was largely not acceptable to liberal, nonconformist Wales. It was not, however, entirely true, and it bears some reconsideration: see the painstaking work of Beddoe, Masson, Johns and Wallace,

 

The Abergavenny cases are good correctives to a too simple view of Wales as not interested or hostile to ‘the cause’ and the WSPU militants in particular as disruptive middle class English imperialists trampling all over cherished Welsh cultural institutions. It is worth considering why setting up this opposition was and has remained attractive.

 

‘Welshness’ is not and was not, in any case, an unproblematic thing, so that it is unrealistic to expect (or construct) a single ‘Welsh’ response to, or view of, suffragettes. And if Welshness in general is problematic, it is particularly so in Monmouthshire in general, and Abergavenny in particular: one only has to look at the Abergavenny Chronicle’s reports of wrangling over the holding and financing of the Eisteddfod there to see that that is true.

 

It is interesting to note, by way of postscript, that the version of Welshness of the Eisteddfod, with its emphasis on the language would have its own ‘militant’ phase, half a century and more later.

[I plan to publish a full – length paper on this topic in due course. For further reading, see, in particular, A.V. John, ‘Run like blazes: the suffragettes and Welshness’; and R Wallace, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Wales, 1866-1928 (Cardiff, 2009).]

Recent read: D. Beddoe, Out of the Shadows

Not a new book, but one I’ve just got around to reading, Deirdre Beddoe’s Out of the Shadows: a History of Women in Twentieth-Century Wales (Cardiff, 2000) is well worth tracking down. A sweeping treatment of 100 years of women’s history, and discussion of the distinctive Welsh experience. I spent a fair bit of time nodding in agreement, and noting echoes of the life of my own grandmother – particularly in references to the iconic figure of the Welsh Mam.

11/4/2014.

Recent read: R Wallace, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Wales 1866-1928 (Cardiff, 2009)

DRAFT

Yes, I know it’s not new, but I have just getting around to reading this. It was a pleasure to read something outside my usual historical period, to broaden out rather than going into ever greater detail. The book itself is clear, thorough and unquestionably filled a need. It is surprising, really, that the Welsh aspects of the suffrage campaign had not been treated in sustained form like this before 2009. Given the targeting of Lloyd George and McKenna (a Monmouthshire MP) by the WPSU and the complex interaction between nationalism, the language, trade unionism, nonconformity and the campaign for votes for women, it is a fascinating area. The chapter on anti-suffrage campaigning was particularly good, and, having seen many bone-headedly misogynist newspaper articles (and some truly Vogon-level anti- suffrage poetry) from Wales in this period, it was a revelation to me to learn about the enlightened pro-suffrage line of the Cambrian News.

GCS

13/3/2014