Category Archives: Wales

Discourtesy about curtesy: land squabbles in Victorian ‘Brecknockshire’

Another set of documents on the list for the next National Archives trip involves a raid into the nineteenth century, to tie up some loose ends relating to tenancy by the curtesy (widower’s right to hold land after wife’s death, which, at common law, depended on the birth of a living child to the parents). (It may also involve a pleasant field-trip to Powys). I need to know more about the case of Jones v Ricketts (judgment: 5th May, 1862).[i]

This was a case with two main points, and seems to have drawn contemporary attention principally for the ‘other point’, i.e. the one not relating to curtesy. This concerned sale at an undervalue of an interest in land. It seems to me, though, that there are probably some interesting gleanings to be had, on attitudes to curtesy, and the big question of life, and how to prove it, in the case, and the papers relating to it, which seem to be available in the National Archives.[ii]

The case involved a farm. Its recent history was that, in 1850, one Catherine Jones had been the freeholder. She had then married Ricketts (the defendant in this case).  In August 1852, it was said that they had a child. (The report, in slightly judgey fashion, sniffs that ‘one child only’ was ‘born of the marriage’). This alleged live birth was disputed by the plaintiff, Jones. The plaintiff, according to the report ‘insisted [that the child] was not born alive’. The defendant, on the other hand, claimed to be tenant by curtesy by virtue of this birth, and said that the child was ‘born alive but died shortly after its birth’. It was not disputed that Catherine had not lived very much longer – dying in April 1853, nor that, at that time, the right to the remainder was with Thomas Jones, Catherine’s father.

Not long after his wife’s death, Ricketts bought Thomas Jones’s interest for £ 200, and it was conveyed to him (using the correct formalities: by deed, on 11th June, 1853. Clearly not too deep in grief to be unable sort out his property rights … I am rather taking against Mr Ricketts …)

The next relevant point with regard to the interests was in December 1859, when Thomas Jones died. He died intestate, and the plaintiff, Jones (a Jones in Wales – that’s going to be a fun search …) was his heir under the intestacy. Jones the Plaintiff then sued Ricketts, challenging his right as tenant by the curtesy (on the basis that there was never any live issue of the marriage), and alleging that the sale had been at a serious undervalue, so should be set aside.

On the undervalue point, the plaintiff stressed that, in 1853, Thomas Jones was ‘in reduced circumstances’ and was ‘living with the defendant in a dependent position’, and, furthermore had had no independent professional advice (all sounds a bit Barclays Bank v. O’Brien/undue influence, doesn’t it, Land Law fans?). He claimed that the freehold of the property, Brechfa-Isha, was worth at least £1000, and the reversion much more than £200. He also suggested that the £200 had not actually been paid. He asked that the deed conveying Brechfa-Isha to Ricketts ‘might be declared fraudulent and void, that the Plaintiff might be let into possession, and that the Defendant might account for the rents’.

There was, apparently, evidence for and against the live birth, though the court came down in favour of it. (This is where I am hoping the papers will give some more information as to just how the argument went, and what sort of proof was regarded as sufficient). Ricketts was tenant by the curtesy.

On the undervalue point, the court agreed with Jones the Plaintiff that the reversion had been undervalued – it was worth £238. There may be something of interest in the method of valuation of the land, and on the costs points, for those who like that sort of thing, but I am not sufficiently ‘up’ on either aspect to make any informed comment.  It does seem to have been the ‘sale at an undervalue’ aspect which got the attention of the press in Wales (including one of my favourite publications, The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales – sounds a jolly paper, doesn’t it?).[iii] The curtesy point seems to have been uncontroversial, which is interesting for the common narrative of dower and curtesy being rather irrelevant, and perceived as a silly hang-over from the past, at this point. The question of ascertaining whether there had been life, or not, in the unfortunate child of Catherine and her husband really does not seem to have grabbed people’s attention. It is a lesson, I suppose, in the distance there may be between the questions we find important, and those which engaged the interest and critical faculties of lawyers, and journalists, of the past.

There is some accessible evidence about the characters involved. The Welsh census of 1851, shows an entry for ‘Llandefalley, Breconshire’, (now Llandefalle) with a household including John Ricketts, aged 45, a farmer, Catherine Ricketts, 27, his wife, her father, Thomas Jones, widower, 62, labourer, plus four Ricketts sons and several servants, and a visiting elderly stocking-knitter.[iv] The name of the house is Trebarried, and it looks to have been a very substantial place.[v] There is also a record of Catherine’s burial, in April 1853, at the church in Llandefalle, in ‘Brecknockshire, Wales, Anglican Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1994 (p. 39).  I am yet to find a record of the child’s birth or burial – which is not to say it does not exist (just – lockdown). And there may be a cemetery tourism trip on the cards, to see if I can track down any of the adults involved (would the birth be mentioned on Catherine’s gravestone, if it exists, I wonder). Also not irrelevant to this plan is the fact that the relevant church in Llandefalle (St Matthew’s or St Maelog’s according to allegiance) has medieval paintings![vi] Now I’m definitely going to have to persuade somebody who can drive to take me there, when all this is over.

GS

13/3/2021

[i] Jones v Ricketts (1862) 31 Beavan 130; 54 E.R. 1087  Curtesy case, Brecon. investigate. S. C. 31 L. J. Ch. 753; 8 Jur. (N. S.) 1198 ; 10 W. E. 576.

[ii] Cause number: 1860 I/J96. Short title: Jones v Ricketts. Documents: Bill,… | The National Archives

[iii] ABERDARE.|1863-03-20|The Cardiff Times – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

OUTLINES OF THE HISTORY OF POLAND.|1863-03-21|The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iv] subdistrict of Merthyr Cynog, 6b piece 2489, folio 669, p.1, household 1,

[v] Trebarried, Llandefalle | Coflein I have not managed to turn up ‘Brechfa Isha’ as a place name in the area – though we do see upper and lower Brechfa (Uchaf and Isaf – lit. superlatives, but would translate as comparatives) on this map: Brechfa-isaf – Recorded name – Historic Place Names (rcahmw.gov.uk) ‘Isha’ is, presumably a corruption of the latter.

[vi] Llandefalle | Felinfach Community Council St Maelog, Llandefalle © Philip Pankhurst :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

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

Advising ‘One in a Fog’ and others: the ‘Our Lawyer’ column

I am rather entranced by the 1890s ‘Our Lawyer’ column in the Weekly Mail, which can be found in the Welsh Newspapers Online database. Welsh Newspapers Online – Home (library.wales)  In it, an anonymous barrister gives short bursts of advice to people who write in under pseudonyms – several of them per week. This process seems interesting to me, in that we see a barrister interacting directly with the public (I may be wrong, but I thought that that would have been frowned upon at this period – a solicitor should have been involved between client and counsel). ‘Our Lawyer’ often finds fault with the information received – it is insufficient, or confused – and often points the correspondent towards consulting a solicitor, so I suppose he was not really taking work away from them overall. He also stands back from specific practical advice about whether to litigate, e.g. saying ‘We never give estimates of costs’ – to M.E. (Merthyr), enquiring about the possibility of bringing an action for the ‘seduction’ of her daughter.[i]

There is a great deal which I imagine would be worth investigating, in the advice sought and given. This ranges from property law, through employment law, divorce and defamation, to the odd bit of crime, or company law. The names chosen by the correspondents are sometimes delightfully whimsical – one 1891 column alone features the literary (‘Banquo’), the mundane (‘Enquirer G’; ‘A.A.R.’), the abstract (‘Consistency;, ‘Lover of Fair Play’), the legally suggestive (‘Next of Kin’), the self-satisfied (‘A Business Man’), the classical (‘Felix’), the folksy Welsh (‘Shon Bach’), the unimaginative Welsh (‘Cymro’) as well as poor old ‘One in a Fog’, who wants a divorce.[ii]

I rather like the fact that one correspondent asking about payments towards the maintenance of his ‘illegitimate’ child (and attempting to get out of them) took on the name ‘Bastard (Tondu)’ (rather more appropriate for him than for the poor kid).[iii] And I admit I may have sniggered at the pseudonym W.A.P. (Haverfordwest).[iv] He wasn’t to know that would seem very rude in 2020-21, I suppose.

‘Our Lawyer’ is usually fairly matter-of-fact, but can’t seem to keep back the sarcasm at times, e.g. telling ‘G.B.’ of Cardiff, who was asking about adoption (not legally recognised in the jurisdiction at this point) that his enquiry ‘shows more zeal than discretion’,[v] telling ‘Fair Play (Llanelli)’ that he has ‘got rather mixed’,[vi] and suggesting to more than one unmarried woman that she is rather lucky to get a financial settlement from the father of her child.[vii]

Other bits of snippy, judgey or critical comment include:

‘Kindness is wasted upon such a man as the defendant has proved himself to be’ – replying to ‘Memo’ (Cardiff).[viii]

‘He must be a very mean man to ask for them’ – advising ‘Young’ not to give up her wedding and engagement rings to her husband.[ix]

‘Why did not ‘Commercial (Newport)’ look after his luggage at Tredegar? That is what any ordinary traveller would have done.’[x] Not much sympathy for this careless correspondent!

… telling ‘Justice’, in a case headed SEPARATION ORDER, that he has no right to take away from his wife gifts to her from her friends, and adding that ‘He appears to have queer ideas of justice.’[xi]

There is certainly some lack of sympathy with women, as in the  in  1891 entry – presumably somewhat after R v Jackson -telling ‘J.T. (Newport)’ that he has no power of making his wife live with him, ‘The letter he wrote to his wife was a very injudicious one. To threaten an obstinate woman that, unless she returns home she will be fetched, is certainly not the way to get her back. He had better try persuasion.’[xii]

I do warm to him when he is having a go at men out to rip off women, though, particularly in the following paragraph:  ‘A SELFISH LOVER. ’Careful Boy’ (we charitably omit the address) might have a settlement prepared for execution before his marriage is celebrated. [tells him how to do it]… But he should moderate his desires as to the division of the lady’s fortune. His proposal is simply monstrous, and if he should insist upon having half her fortune while he is in a state of impecuniosity, we hope she will throw him over before it is too late.’[xiii] Slightly going beyond the brief of legal advice there, O.L.?!

Anyway – it’s fabulous stuff. I am not qualified to do it, but if nobody has ever written a paper or a thesis on this topic, then they definitely should.

Amongst other things I’d like to know would be:

(i) Who was ‘Our Lawyer’?

(ii) How would this procedure have been seen by the profession?

(iii) How did ‘ordinary’ people perceive this service/project (It has a vague resemblance to modern pro bono or Law Clinic work, doesn’t it?). What does it tell us about their views and hopes of, and attitudes to, law?

(iv) Since I am sure this was not a one-off, what similar columns existed in other parts of the press?

I will end this with a personal favourite, from 1891:

‘HUSBAND AND WIFE. ‘J.M.A., who has been married for more than 40 years, and whose wife has recently refused to sleep with him on account of the coldness of his feet, is advised that he has no legal remedy. He had better try persuasion, and have a hot water bottle to put his feet on.’[xiv]  Very much Team Mrs J.M.A. – the cold feet thing sounds like a useful excuse to me!

 

GS

19/2/2021

 

 

[i] ‘.’ OUR LAWYER.,-.|1891-12-12|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[ii] OUR LAWYER.|1891-10-24|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iii] OUR LAWYER,|1890-11-08|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iv] ———–OUR LAWYER –‘0|1891-09-19|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[v] OUR LAWYER|1890-09-13|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[vi] OUR LAWYER. .|1890-09-20|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[vii] OUR LAWYER. .|1890-09-20|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[viii] ———-OUR LAWYER. .|1890-11-01|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[ix] OUR LAWYER.|1891-12-19|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[x] OUR LAWYER. «.|1890-12-06|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[xi] OUR LAWYER.|1890-12-27|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[xii]  OUR LAWYER. .|1891-10-17|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[xiii]  ———IOUR LAWYER.|1891-01-10|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[xiv] OUR LAWYER. .|1891-12-05|Weekly Mail – 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.

Mirrors and Borderlands: some Lockdown reflections on a recent project

In what now seems like the very far-off pre-lockdown part of 2020, an article of mine was published, the culmination of a project I had been working on for two years or more, and had presented, at different stages in its development, to audiences at the International Medieval Congress in 2017 and the British Legal History Conference in 2019. Before the current crisis began, I had decided to write something about it for the Law School research blog. In this post, I will do that, but since this unexpected period of locked-down working has prompted more general reflections upon work and life, I will also offer some personal reflections on the project, and some of the more general thoughts about law, history and scholarship which are presenting themselves to me with some force at the moment.

I: The Article

Judging a Hereford hanging: Agnes Glover v. Walter Devereux, William Herbert and others (1457)[i] considered the events of a few days in the spring of 1456, when the English city of Hereford was taken over by a mixed Welsh and English force, led by notable men of south east Wales and Herefordshire. William Herbert and Walter Devereux, along with their kin and connections, the Vaughans. A member of the Vaughan family – Watkin Vaughan – had been killed in Hereford, slain with an arrow through the heart, as one record has it, and the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan allies came to Hereford to seek justice or revenge for this outrage. They obliged local citizens to try and convict six Hereford men for the killing, then proceded to hang them. Legal action followed, as Agnes Glover, the widow of one of the hanged Hereford men attempted to prosecute the main offenders. The case went on for some legal terms, but, in the end, there was a spate of pardoning, and nobody was punished in accordance with the full rigour of the law.

Perhaps it may seem unremarkable that there would have been an episode of disorder at this point in time (as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ period geared up) or in this particular area (the English-Welsh border having a reputation for tension), and unsurprising that nothing much came of the widow’s attempts to bring to justice those who had caused the death of her husband (since so many medieval ‘criminal’ cases ended without conviction and punishment). Nevertheless, this incident and associated cases seemed to me to be worthy of further investigation, and discussion, partly because of the unusual nature of the available records, and partly because of some issues relating to ciminal law and ideas about law which were striking to a legal historian, but had been left out of political historians’ treatment of the Hereford incident.

 

i: The records

The documents in this case are much richer than those available in relation to many medieval offences. There are records from ‘the centre’ – the plea rolls and indictments which make a formal note of the (many) stages of legal proceedings. There are law reports in the ‘Year Books’. These were accounts of arguments in cases deemed to be of special interest, made and circulated by lawyers. Putting together report and record can really expand understanding of the proceedings, and it is always very satisfying to be able to match up the different sources. A great bonus in this case is that there is actually even more contemporary material besides these ‘legal’ sources. Most importantly, the incident and its aftermath have left a trail in Welsh poetry, and there is also a reference in an English source, the Paston Letters. Welsh poets of this, ‘the golden century of praise-poetry’ were predisposed to favour the Herberts and Vaughans, as powerful figures in Wales and the borderlands, and also important patrons of the Welsh bards. Perhaps not surprisingly, all things considered, the literary evidence proceeding from this school of poetry gives a positive spin on what might otherwise look like banditry. The relevant section in the English Paston Letters, on the other hand, shows considerable contempt for the Welsh, and ignorance of their language and customs.[ii]

 

From my own point of view, this was by some distance the best treasury of contemporary sources I have ever worked with in my legal historical investigations, and it was backed up by some very fine secondary scholarship. The work of Dylan Foster Evans and Helen Fulton on the relevant praise poetry, and on William Herbert, was essential.[iii] There was also the rewarding experience of working with an excellent thesis from the 1970s, on fifteenth century Hereford, which I had out on loan from Swansea University.[iv] Holding and reading that physical volume, typed on one side of the paper only and corrected with Tippex and painful care, and with a ‘borrowed by’ list at the front containing the signatures of several of the most prominent late-medievalists of the twentieth century, brought an unexpectedly vivid connection with more recent history, with things which have passed away in my own lifetime.

 

ii: Borders and centres

My research, particularly in integrating the law reports into the story, showed me that the common law struggled to fit cases like this – cases of wrongful execution following some sort of legal proceedings – into the available modes of prosecution. It seemed as if some sort of limit to the ordinary law of felonious homicide, centred around a simple ‘man 1 hits or stabs man 2, man 2 dies instantly’ paradigm, was being reached. The reports show lawyers grappling with whether this could really be treated just like any other killing, and whether someone like Agnes Glover should have a right to bring a criminal prosecution. In a criminal justice system which relied on private initiative for some prosecutions, and which had not wholly accepted that dealing with killers was the crown’s business alone, these questions could be troubling. Previous political historical treatment of the 1450s has tended to pass over this, its accounts of the weakness of central control emphasising local corruption and royal incompetence, but I argue that at least part of the problem was caused by the common law’s uncertainty and the flaws in its procedure.

 

In terms of geographical borders and centres, this research gave me much to consider in relation to the attitudes of different groups to the common law and its reach within the realm of the king of England. While the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan faction were prepared to make some concession to co-operation with common law processes, their main strategy was forceful and extra-legal. It might be seen as inflected with a Welsh sensibility, given the particular emphasis placed upon the duty of kinsmen to respond to the death of one of their own which is to be found in native Welsh laws, but this distinction should probably not be taken too far: Cyfraith Hywel, the collected laws of the Welsh, did not favour forced show-trial and execution, and kin-vengeance was still part of the thinking behind some aspects of English common law procedure as well.

 

One of the additional perspectives which a legal historian can bring to this area comes from consciousness of the ‘time travelling dimension’of law reports, as they are handed on from one generation to the next, their arguments to be re-used and developed. When a case such as Agnes Glover’s appeal of Herbert and Devereux is made the subject of law reports, it takes on a life of its own, being cited in future legal works and cases, shedding what are considered unnecessary details and, in the process, changing in meaning. Within the common law tradition, the case soon dispensed with the need to name the claimant, and mangled some other names. It also cast off its geographical moorings, so that, in printed Year Books, it looks as if the location was Hertfordshire rather than Herefordshire. This may be a slip of just one letter, but it does demonstrate that the root of the dispute, in violence on the English-Welsh border, was not regarded as particularly crucial by the common lawyers in and around Westminster. Central control might not be terribly effective on the ground at this period, but it had a strong grip on the minds of the elite members of the legal profession.

 

 

II The Reflective Bit: the historical and the personal

In my early years as a lecturer and researcher, mentioning that my area of investigation held not only intellectual but personal fascination would have been unthinkable, so wedded was I to the idea of academic objectivity that any admission of emotional engagement with the subject of my research would have struck me as entirely unprofessional. I have learned since – from colleagues, from scholars I admire, from life – that detachment is not always the Holy Grail. Thus, I no longer have a problem with putting a few personal reflections ‘out there’ in this form (I did edit them from this for the Law School blog, mind you! Still some work to do …)

First of all, it’s worth explaining that I have particular reason to find all this interesting. The Herberts and their relations the Vaughans were based in what really is the ‘Land of My Fathers’. Places such as Abergavenny, Raglan and Tretower, which feature amongst the relevant locations of the raiders, are deeply familiar from childhood, and resonate from the parchment. The language of the poets resonates too, and presenting this paper to the British Legal History Conference was the first time I dared to recite a line or two of Welsh poetry in that decidedly Anglo-centric gathering. It felt a little like speaking the language of the Elven realm, if not in the land of Mordor (where the shadows lie), at least in the Shire. As J.R.R.T. had it in the 1950s, ‘Welsh is beautiful’.

The other thing I find extremely satisfying in projects like this is bringing to light the stories of women of the past. It was good to be able to bring Agnes Glover out into the open, and to show both her determination to try and do something about the loss she had suffered, and also what she was up against, in this attempt.

 

Concluding thoughts: moving on from Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin

As is so often the way, and despite the unusually full range of records relating to her case, Agnes Glover gives us the slip in the end, disappearing from the record as her litigation ground to a halt, and Herbert and Devereux, pardoned, lived to raid on other days. Watkin Vaughan was commemorated by praise poets and avenged with impunity.[v] It feels a little ungrateful, having got a couple of conference papers and an article (as well as some good teaching material for the undergraduate Legal History unit) out of these characters, to bid them farewell, now, but it is time to move on. I will, however, be expanding on two of the themes raised in this research in future projects, currently at an early stage, one on wrongful execution, and the other on insulting the Welsh, so Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin may be back for the odd cameo appearance.

Gwen Seabourne

May, 2020.

[i] Midland History 45:1 (2020) 2-17 https://www-tandfonline-com.bris.idm.oclc.org/doi/abs/10.1080/0047729X.2020.1712077

[ii] N. Davis (ed) Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 172.

[iii] H. Fulton, ‘Guto’r Glyn and the Wars of the Roses’, in ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’ Ysgrifau ar Guto’r Glyn a Chymru’r bymthegfed ganrif; essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales, ed. D. Foster Evans, B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen (Aberystwyth, 2013), c.2; D. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan (d. 1469) family history and personal identity’, same volume, c. 4; D. Foster Evans, ‘Murder in the marches: poetry and the legitimisation of revenge in fifteenth century Wales’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18/19 (1998-9), pp. 42-72.

[iv] A. E. Herbert, ‘Public Order and Private Violence in Herefordshire, 1413-61’, M.A. Thesis, University of Wales, Swansea 1978.

[v] Elegy to Watkin Vaughan of Bredwardine. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan’, p. 100; D. Foster Evans (ed.), Gwaith Hywel Swrdwal a’i Deulu (Aberystwyth 2000), poem 23

Top Ten Gwens: a mostly trivial list

Named after my grandmother, and as an embodiment of Welsh heritage, I have always been proud of my name (it’s the sort of bone-headed pride which comes despite not having a hand in the choosing of it). Today, this splendid name seems to be in something of a decline – even on the lists of Welsh baby names (it’s all about Seren, apparently). So here, to assist in the Gwenaissance, is a list of fabulous Gwens of past, present and the imagination…

  1. Gwen Cooper (Torchwood) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYxWY1r7BiM (she’s not English, you know) See the source image
  2. Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwenllian_ferch_Gruffydd (definite Xena, Warrior Princess vibe) See this rousing trailer: https://twitter.com/BBCWales/status/1264605832081072136 – I’m not the only one who thought Xena.
  3. Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn (tragic stolen medieval baby princess, but has her own society) http://www.princessgwenllian.co.uk/
  4. Gwen John (artist) https://biography.wales/article/s3-JOHN-MAR-1876 (talented, slightly scandalous).
  5. Gwen Guthrie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Guthrie (nothing going on but the rent: first non-British Gwen I ever came across: international Gwen-solidarity)
  6. Gwen(ffrewi) St Winifred – she of the bouncing head, decapitation/stiched back on miracle: well, well … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Winifred https://www.stwinefrideswell.org.uk/
  7. Gwen(doline) Mary Lacy, from Malory Towers. Misunderstood and misrepresented by her goody two-shoes over-privileged boarding school nemesis, Darrell Rivers. Quite right not to like lacrosse.
  8. Gwen from the film Gwen (a bit scary, but nice big GWEN on the poster – good for Gwen-awareness… https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/exclusive-new-trailer-and-poster-for-dark-drama-gwen/ )
  9. Gwen Stefani (what is she up to? Deserves her place for barking brilliance of Rich Girl)
  10. Gwen Torrence (official fastest Gwen in the Gwenlympics https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Torrence )

Go Gwens!

GS

16/5/2020

And hello to a new Gwen

New to me at least – check out this piece on Gwen Farrar – a vintage comedic Gwen (category: Gwentertainment)  https://womenshistorynetwork.org/partners-and-pals-by-alison-child/

18/9/202

A blow to Gwen-awareness

This week, like much of academia in the UK and elsewhere, I have been in recording and captioning mode, as we prepare for the new Blended Learning World (the sensible bit  – online learning – rather than the ludicrous face to face during a pandemic bit) and I have learned a terrible truth: the captioning software does not recognise the name Gwen. I am therefore ‘when seaborne’ … Not so bothered about the second bit – in fact my family did spell it without the u until c. 1900 when they decided Seabourne was posher, or something. But not recognising ‘Gwen’ – clearly an outrage!

Historical Gwen Injustice

This one is not at all trivial. The first woman executed in Wales for witchcraft, during the reign of Elizabeth I, was, apparently, a Gwen: Gwen ferch Elis to be exact: https://parish.churchinwales.org.uk/a065/history-en/gwen-ferch-elis-1542-1594/

An injustice at more than one level.

Gwens in space …

Watched an old favourite tonight – Galaxy Quest, I had forgotten its Gwen-relevance, with Sigourney Weaver as Gwen Demarco: See the source image

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/74/a8/b2/74a8b2d4ffab5135dfd0e7136f983ea3.jpg

5/12/2020

Gwentertainment continued … a long-lived and classy Gwen

Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (1891-1992): ‘legend’, it says! Good work!

Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (1891-1992) – Collections Online (museum.wales)

Trais a Thonypandy

Just come across this from this week’s Guardian: Simon Jenkins on the recent flap about whether Churchill was a hero or a rotter.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/14/winston-churchill-history-brexit-john-mcdonnell

Much of it is very predictable, but in making the (stating the bleeding) obvious point that heroes v. villains history is generally juvenile, the writer throws in some offensive nonsense of his own. First, we have the use of rape as a metaphorical idea – here, a particular presentation of the past amounts to the ‘rape’ of history. Is this: (a) tasteless; (b) stupid; (c) inappropriate; (d) a pathetic attempt to intensify his comments; (e) all of the above? In doing this, he puts himself right down there with that great bard, Sting, in his epic work De Doo Doo Doo (the one about being raped by words … enough said).

And then there’s the throwaway insult to an entire people, in discussing what he sees as the exaggeration of Churchill’s sins in relation to Tonypandy, ‘In Wales, any myth is history if the English are involved.’ Jenkins has, I believe, some Welsh heritage. There is, however, no trace of sympathy with his semi-compatriots in these cheap words of DARVO sneering. Very poor and very disappointing that the Guardian let this pass. But – note – I am not even vaguely tempted to try and suggest that being wrong, and insulting, is in any way like rape, just to try and make myself look – what – edgy? macho? a proper writer?

Apparently, he has been writing a history of Europe, but does not think we should ‘rewri[te] old feuds’ in Britain (Scots, Welsh and Irish are all implicated here – but I am sure we could bring in some moaning and aggrieved former colonies). This, of course means that we stick with existing versions of events, which are, needless to say, utterly value-neutral. So take that pretty much all historians of the last several decades, and kneel before the deep thinking of S. Jenkins.

Who owned Wales?

There’s a great opportunity to help make a fantastic digital resource relating to land in Wales in the mid-19th century. Using tithe maps, the Cynefin Project is creating a picture of land ownership, occupation and use, as well as the increasingly unpopular tithing system, across the country. The documents are not too difficult to read, and there is a wealth of fascinating material here – about who did what, and who owned what. Once it is all done, this will be a really valuable resource, for those interested in particular individuals, places, industries. I have already noticed some interesting material on how much land was held on trust, and concentrations of ownership in particular individuals (and, in one I’ve just done, Eton College). Feeling more than a little Rebecca-Rioty about it all!

Find the project at: http://cynefin.archiveswales.org.uk/en/ and do a few pages!

[22/06/2016] Working my way through some parts of Monmouthshire. Fascinating material on use of Welsh and English in this border area. Mostly English personal names, but still a lot of Welsh names for fields. There’s a Ph.D. in there for somebody.

 

 

‘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).]