Dead Drunk or Just Deviant? Homicide and Alcohol in Wales, 1730-1914

By Cassie Watson; posted 27 September 2016.

Prologue: Murder in Wales, Summer 1766

On 21 July 1766 William Thomas, the Calvinistic schoolmaster of Michaelston-super-Ely near Cardiff, noted in his diary that a man named Philip Evan had killed his wife that morning, apparently in a drunken rage. Drunkenness was widespread in the region but Thomas did not regard it with particular disapproval unless it led to ill effects on health or fortune,[1] as was clearly now the case. The diary records several significant features of the crime, not least the fact that since her marriage the victim “gave herself very much to drink”, her husband was likewise “a drunken sot”, and the couple were “much reduced in the world” as a consequence. As the maidservant had arrived on the scene immediately after the deed was done the coroner’s inquest had little option but to find a verdict of wilful murder, ensuring that Philip Evan would stand trial. But even then it was by no means certain that he would be found guilty and punished for, as William Thomas tells us,

“all [make] their endeavour now to save him, because he Murdered on his freehold, and if he shall be hanged, all will be forfeit. And his wife was a very drunken one, selling the cheese and butter as soon as made, and her clothes, and all she could come to it, for ale. She was very drunk the Night before, and drank as the report runs, the morning before she was murdered, seven quarts of ale.”[2]

Tried in Cardiff on 8 August, Philip Evan was acquitted. But that wasn’t the end of the local news about murder. A diary entry of 11 August mentions a woman who was reputed to have poisoned her husband (after two unsuccessful attempts) in the neighbouring county of Breconshire:

“Died of conceit and guilt of her conscience by the noise of the trumpets and bells at the coming of the judges to Brecon Town in jail suddenly, Jennet Lewis of about 60 years of age, she that had lately poisoned her husband… just… seven days before… Philip Evan murdered his wife”.[3]

It should come as no surprise to criminal justice historians that we have here two very different outcomes for such different types of homicide. Philip Evan, an unhappily married drunkard, killed his drunken wife in a passion and the jurors exercised their right to acquit. Although the accused man may indeed have struck the fatal blow, the victim herself apparently bore an equal or larger share of culpability. But Jennet Lewis planned to poison her husband: fear and a guilty conscience led to her suicide. She could not have known that there was every chance that she too would be acquitted: legal records show that the Welsh were remarkably unwilling to convict and hang a woman for murder, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of guilt.[4] Men, on the other hand, were most likely to escape the noose if alcohol was involved, though clearly the case of Philip Evan shows that other factors such as money and local reputation also played a part.

Dead Drunk and Disorderly

Welsh society was markedly less violent than English society but, as in England, the public house and consumption of alcohol were common features of situations that led to assault and homicide.[5] This continued in the nineteenth century: even though commentators claimed that Welsh men and women rarely drank to excess, official statistics do not support this. Drunkenness and associated disorder were lamentably visible in Victorian rural and especially urban locales, notwithstanding the fact that the “temperance and teetotal movements had considerable support in Nonconformist Wales”.[6]

A number of obvious questions can be asked about the presence of alcohol in fatal confrontations. How were women involved in such disturbances? Were such conflicts always located near pubs and beer houses? Did witnesses regularly voice opinions about the influence that alcohol had on an individual accused of homicide? How did these attitudes change over time, and was this in relation to temperance and religious revival? Were drunken killers uniformly held to be less culpable by the court? Did the abolition of the Welsh Court of Great Sessions in 1830 have a noticeable impact on trial outcomes?

The Beery Eighteenth Century

Alcohol formed an important part of the average Welshman’s life during the eighteenth century. The number of alehouses was high and the consumption of alcohol even higher,[7] and although Peter Clark’s study of the English alehouse touches only briefly on their Welsh equivalents,[8] it is probably safe to say that public drinking in premises both licensed and unlicensed was commonplace among working class males during the Georgian period. Respectable women did their drinking at home.[9] The drink of choice for both sexes was beer or ale.[10]

Unsurprisingly, the most common scenario of lethal violence in and around pubs and beer houses involved only men. I analysed murder cases that occurred 1730–1830 in which alcohol or a public house was involved, and extracted 104 names from the online database: all men, nearly all charged with murdering another man. About half were charged as the sole perpetrator, the rest in groups of two to six. Given the total of 601 male murder suspects in this period, a minimum 17% of male-perpetrated murders were carried out under the influence of alcohol; but the true proportion was probably higher.[11]

Statistical evidence suggests that drunkenness helped to mitigate homicide. Of the 104 accused murderers, two thirds were acquitted or not tried at all, 22% were found guilty of manslaughter, and only three men (2.9%) were convicted and sentenced to death. This is a low figure even in a country which was reluctant to execute killers: of the 601 male murderers, nearly 10% were sentenced to death and only 4 pardons were granted. But one of these was for a man convicted of killing a fellow militia-man with a bayonet: they had been drinking and a fight erupted outside an inn. The judge was especially sympathetic: “I respited him till after the next Great Sessions being of the opinion that the crime as proved was only manslaughter, tho’ a foul manslaughter and he was afterwards pardoned”.[12] The real question here is thus why he was convicted in the first place! The two men who were actually hanged following drink-related killings were almost certainly left to their fate because of what were seen as especially aggravating circumstances. In 1761 a sailor killed his ship’s captain and although both were drunk, such a breach of the social hierarchy could not be tolerated,[13] while in 1821 a man left a pub with an inebriated fellow drinker probably with the intention of robbing and killing him.[14]

The eighteenth-century evidence, then, suggests that a sizeable proportion of known murders were carried out under the influence of alcohol, and that the perpetrators could expect a considerable degree of leniency from the Court of Great Sessions, the Welsh equivalent of the English assize court staffed by different – some said less well qualified – judges.[15] But in 1830 Great Sessions was abolished and the Welsh counties were brought within the English assize system. This may well have influenced judicial sentencing practices, but the juries were still Welsh and it is doubtful that they became more or less willing to convict their neighbours solely as a consequence of legal reorganisation. Three other factors were of far greater importance during the rest of the nineteenth century: alcohol licensing laws; religion; and population growth consequent upon industrialisation.

The Intemperate Nineteenth Century

The Beer Act of 1830 liberalised the popular drink trade and led to an explosion in the number of beer shops serving the poor; the number of pubs rose in an effort to keep pace with the competition. When stricter licensing laws were reintroduced in 1872, bringing all drink retailers under the local authority of the licensing magistrates, beer shops were badly affected but pubs enjoyed the custom of a population which had a growing amount of leisure time and spare cash.[16] In 1881 the Welsh Sunday Closing Act became the first piece of legislation to apply solely to Wales, reflecting the strength of the temperance movement in the country.

According to W. R. Lambert, the nineteenth-century temperance movement in Wales “assumed the characteristics of a moral and religious crusade which … was predominantly nonconformist in character”.[17] The Welsh adhered mainly to Protestant (especially Calvinistic) denominations and, although religion was more deeply engrained in rural, northern parts of the country, migrants from these areas to the industrialising south brought their religious beliefs with them.[18] This made Welsh towns different from English towns in religious provision and adherence, and gave the temperance movement a strength which grew out of the biblical warning that “no drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians VI, 10). But people continued to drink to excess, as rising numbers of arrests for drunkenness attest. These were highest in the industrial counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, but there was disorder associated with alcohol everywhere.[19] Action against drunkenness was facilitated both by adherence to the temperance movement by local authorities, and by the growing presence of the police who enforced laws against public drunkenness and the violence associated with it.

Two trends were thus acting against each other: people drank more when they had more money and greater access to establishments in which to drink, but were more harshly condemned for it in both moral and legal terms. But respectable working class women began to venture in to pubs, as prostitutes moved their trade to cheaper lodging houses. Although still largely frequented by men (though often staffed by women), the impression given by witness testimony in nineteenth-century Welsh murder cases is that women entered drinking establishments either to buy beer to take home, or, if they wanted to drink in the pub, they went in company with their husbands and friends.

Welsh ballads stressed the evil consequences of alcohol, including wife-beating, suicide and murder.[20]  As in the eighteenth century it was mainly men who killed each other in drunken brawls in and around pubs, and were then usually acquitted of murder. Women generally fell victim to husbands and lovers. Martin Wiener has shown that in England, the provocation of a drunken wife “came to mitigate less or not at all”, while men who were drunk when they murdered their wives became more likely to be hanged than they were at the beginning of the century.[21] This seems to have applied less in Wales, however: figures compiled by Steve Fielding show that of men executed for wife murder in Britain between 1868 and 1899, 41% were drunk at the time of the crime, but in Wales none of the 4 men hanged for this offence were said to have been drunk.[22]

This began to change after 1900, as pleas of drunken insanity were dismissed in at least four cases.[23] Here, the pattern of executions in Wales may be instructive: of the 26 hangings carried out from 1868 to the end of 1914, 77% occurred in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire (the most populous and criminal counties) and only 11% in north Wales – where both the number of murders and the proportion of murder defendants convicted was lower. Convictions for murder represent a different process than executions, the former being related to local jury decisions and the latter to the opinions of judges and politicians, but there appears to have been a noticeable difference between north and south Wales.

There were more homicides in south Wales because there were more people and more single men, some of whom were outsiders or foreigners whom locals may have had few qualms about convicting or hanging. The increasingly dismissive treatment of pleas alleging drink-induced provocation or insanity may have taken hold more easily in the south, where there were more doctors, coroners, magistrates and police officers exercising an increasingly expert management of the criminal justice system. Juries in the largely rural and religious north may have continued to use their discretion to acquit, but how does that resolve itself with the religious instinct to view drunkenness as a sin rather than a disease? And other questions might be asked too: If jurors in north Wales were unable to understand as much English as jurors in south Wales, how did that affect their deliberations? What proportion of drink-related homicide was charged initially as manslaughter, and how did alcohol affect conviction and sentencing practices in those cases?

More Questions than Answers?

The answers to these questions are bound up with the related issue of just who was determining guilt and culpability, and at what point in the criminal procedure they were doing so. Jury decisions reflected the degree to which a community felt threatened or repulsed by a crime, but before a murder case ever reached a trial jury it passed first before a coroner’s inquest, a magistrate’s committal hearing, and from the 1840s a formal police investigation. These processes changed markedly over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as popular perceptions of violence, respectability, and acceptable behaviour in public and private evolved; new forms of leisure emerged; and from the 1890s temperance, nonconformity and the Welsh language began to decline.[24] All of these factors have to be taken into account if we are to fully understand how alcohol and homicide were integrated in the Welsh context and why that relationship changed over time.

[Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London, A drunken brawl in a tavern with men shouting encouragement, 19th century.]

[1] The Diary of William Thomas 1762-1795 (Cardiff, 1995), 24.

[2] Ibid., 167-168.

[3] Ibid., 169.

[4] During the period 1730-1830 there were 64 women tried for murder: two were sentenced to death and hanged (in 1735 and 1801). Three others were condemned for infanticide.

[5] Geraint H. Jenkins, The Foundations of Modern Wales 1642-1780 (Oxford, 1992), 170-171.

[6] David J. V. Jones, Crime in Nineteenth-Century Wales (Cardiff, 1992), 89-94.

[7] Jenkins, Foundations, 170.

[8] Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 (London and New York, 1983).

[9] Ibid., 236, 311.

[10] W. R. Lambert, Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales c.1820-c.1895 (Cardiff, 1983), 21 notes that gin palaces did not arise to compete with the beer houses in Wales. My own research reveals many references to beer but almost none to any other type of alcohol.

[11] In Philip Evan’s case the database makes no mention of alcohol, information that is however noted in the case file: National Library of Wales [NLW], 4/620/6 (Glamorgan), 1766. The only other way to ascertain whether alcohol was involved is by checking individual files, which are not all complete, or via trial reports. The first newspaper was published in Wales in 1804.

[12] NLW, 4/901/4 (Cardigan), 1780.

[13] NLW, 4/619/2 (Glamorgan), 1761.

[14] NLW, 4/536/5 (Radnor), 1821.

[15] Katherine D. Watson, “Women, violent crime and criminal justice in Georgian Wales”, Continuity and Change 28 (2013): 245-272; 247.

[16] Clark, English Alehouse, 336-339.

[17] Lambert, Drink and Sobriety, 115.

[18] Ieuan G. Jones, Explorations and Explanations: Essays in the Social History of Victorian Wales (Gwasg Gomer, 1981).

[19] Jones, Crime in Nineteenth-Century Wales, 89-94.

[20] Peter Lord, Words with Pictures: Welsh Images and Images of Wales in the Popular Press, 1640-1860 (Aberystwyth, 1995), 126-128.

[21] Martin J. Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2004), 183-199 (quotation on 199) and 255-277.

[22] Steve Fielding, The Hangman’s Record, Vol. 1, 1868-1899 (Beckenham, Kent, 1994), xxxiii.

[23] Steve Fielding, The Hangman’s Record, Vol. 2, 1900-1929 (Beckenham, Kent, 1995).

[24] Lambert, Drink and Sobriety, 247-254.

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