Rebeccaite Trials at the Pembrokeshire Winter Assizes

The trials of suspected Rebeccaites continue, and an attempt is made on the life of an unpopular anti-Rebeccaite magistrate. From the Cambrian (excerpts):

Pembrokeshire Winter Sessions.

 — The Commission for holding these Assizes was opened , by Mr. Justice Cresswell…

The calendar contains the name of 37 prisoners for trial, 28 of whom are charged with being implicated in the Rebecca outrages, and the rest are indicted for various other offences. There are about 25 persons out on bail, charged with being concerned in the attack upon Fishguard gate, and with the demolition of two houses.

The town, as might be expected on such an extraordinary occasion as the holding of a Winter Assize — a circumstance, I believe, unprecedented in the history of Pembrokeshire — presents a scene of unusual animation, bustle, and excitement. The streets are filled with numbers of country people, congregated in groups at different corners, &c. in town, conversing about the approaching trials, and speculating as to their probable result.

In addition to the business of the Assizes, a circumstance occurred , which furnishes a topic for conversation, and which has indeed created a very strong sensation in the town and neighbourhood. I allude to a most daring, though happily unsuccessful, attempt made upon the life of the Rev. James W. James, a Magistrate for the county. This gentleman resides near Robeston Wathen, a small village in the vicinity of Narberth. When retiring to bed a few hours after the Judge had passed through Narberth, and a short time before the Bristol mail arrived at that town, and while rising his arm for the purpose of fastening the bedroom window, three gunshots were successively fired through the window — one shot following the other in rapid succession. The first and second schots fortunately did no injury, but the third took effect in the arm — the ball passing obliquely through the coat collar, entered the fleshy part of the arm just above the elbow. Medical aid was immediately obtained, and upon examination it appeared that, though a severe wound had been inflicted, yet no serious injury had been sustained, and Mr. James is going on well. As soon as the fact of the attempt became known, the London Police and the Military were actively on the alert in their endeavours to discover the offenders, but unsuccessfully to . Mr. James is a very zealous Magistrate, and he had made very active (the Rebeccaites say “officious”) endeavours to trace out the leaders and perpetrators of the various nocturnal outrages which have lately disgraced Pembrokeshire and the adjoining counties; but it is stated that what has, at the present moment, rendered Mr. James peculiarly obnoxious, is the circumstance of his having, at a late meeting of the Whitland Trust, of which he is a member, proposed a resolution to the effect, — that all the gates, bars, &c., which had been demolished by the Rebeccaites, should be re-erected. This resolution, it appears, was carried by a majority of one, and the farmers and other toll-payers of the neighbourhood are greatly aggravated at the circumstance.

Following this is a list of magistrates and grand jurors, pretty much all of them being Somebody-or-other, Esquire. The Judge addressed the Grand Jury, summarizing (and occasionally prejudging to some extent) the cases they would hear. I’ll excerpt the ones that touch on the Rebeccaite phenomenon:

The first case in the calendar participated of the character of those cases which had lately occupied so much of the attention of the country, and which had so greatly disgraced that and the adjoining counties; still he must observe, that the case under their notice did not appear to be accompanied with those most daring outrages which frequently characterized cases of the description.… The next charce to which he would call their attention, was that against a person who was indicted for assaulting the keeper of a pound in the neighbourhood of Narberth, with the view of rescuing the cattle which had been secured in the pound. As far as he could form an opinion from the evidence, the case appeared to be very simple, and he should not have felt it necessary to mention it were it not for the purpose of observing how obvious it was that, if the habit prevailed of violating the law for the purpose of attaining one object, the same effect would be observable in another direction. It would always be perceived that, if violent means would be used for the redress of alleged public grievances, the same violence would be found expedient to obtain private rights. He had received a report , showing that outrages of a still more aggravated nature were taking place — outrages not confined to property, but committed upon the person. He forbore dwelling at greater length upon that circumstance, as he had heard it from mere rumour only, but it was melancholy to contemplate how far the passions would go, when once given way to in violating the law. The last case to which he should think it necessary to call their attention, was one in which a number of individuals were charged with having committed a riot near Fishguard. He should abstain from making any observations upon that case, for several reasons. One consideration he had in view was, that whatever could be done by kind and considerate advice, and gentle admonition, had been done by the Learned Judge who occupied the judicial seat at the last Assizes. Another reason was, that her Majesty had been pleased to send a Commission of Inquiry to inquire into the origin and causes of the outrages which had taken place, and he would await the result of their investigations. And, the last reason he had for abstaining to make any comments upon the case was, that the Attorney General, who had attended at that place in the performance of his duties, had thought it necessary to make every inquiry into the case, and after a careful examination of the evidence, he came to the conclusion that it would not be expedient to prefer a Bill of Indictment against the parties at these Assizes. That being his determination, after a very careful enquiry and examination into the nature of the evidence, he (the Learned Judge) should make no observations beyond remarking, that the parties who were really guilty of these outrages, would have no occasion for triumph; for it would appear, that though the march of justice was slow, it would not fail at some period to bring the guilty to account.…

The Fishguard cases represented cases #9–34, and the Judge agreed to put those off until the Spring Assizes, continuing the defendants’ bail until then. After muddling through a few non-Rebeccaite cases, we come to this:

The Rebecca Riots.

William Narbett, shoemaker, aged 23, of very juvenile appearance (committed by the Rev. James W. James,) was then placed at the bar, charged with having on , in the parish of Slebech, together with divers other persons unknown and disguised, did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble and break open a certain pound, called the Slebech Manor Pound, and did unlawfully and riotously rescue certain cattle from the said pound, and also with having assaulted James Row, one of the keepers of the pound.

Mr. Nicholl Carne stated the case for the prosecution. The prisoner at the bar stood indicted for an assault and a riot. It appeared, that in , the Baron de Rutzen had distrained upon one of his tenants, who occupied High Toch farm, for arrears of rent due, and had got the cattle so destrained, placed in a pound, which was watched by James Row and others. At , a mob consisting of a number of persons armed with slicks, clubs, &c., in martial array, came up to the pound. The majority were disguised in women’s clothes and caps, some had their coats turned, while several others had their faces blackened. The pound-keeper asked them what they required. They immediately appealed to one conspicuous person amongst them, whom they called “Lady Rebecca,” who said that the cattle, colts, &c., must be released. One of the party forcibly pushed James Row, while the prisoner repeatedly struck him on the head with a stick, until he fell quite senseless to the ground. When he recovered himself, he found all the cattle gone, and one of the colts in the act of leaping over him while he lay on the ground. The prosecutor himself could not identify the prisoner, but two other persons would be produced as witnesses, who would positively slate that the prisoner was present, and wore a women’s cap, and had acted the part stated, but he had not got his face blackened. Now he (Mr. Carne) would tell the jury, as probably they would be told by the Learned Judge, that to establish the prisoner’s guilt it was not necessary to prove that he had carried a stick or made use of it; but if he was there disguised, forming part of the mob, he was equally guilty with the foremost and most active amongst them. Mr. Carne then called

George Thomas:— Is under-gamekeeper to Baron de Rutzen. Remembers a distress of cattle and colts, on High Toch farm, they were put in the Manor Pound; it was on . Witness and James Row were put to watch the pound, with Merryman, the pound-keeper. , a mob came up, consisting of fourteen or fifteen people — the prisoner was one of the mob. Some of them were dressed with women’s caps and gowns, and others had their faces blackened — some had sticks in their hands. The prisoner had a fustian trousers and white coat, a woman’s cap and black hat on his head; he had a stick in his hand — heard him speak — had known him for seven years, and seen him often. When the mob came to the pound, they all halted at the same time, and one of them spoke to Row, saying, they had two heifers in pound which must come out. One of them addressed another, saying, “What shall we do, Becca?” The other replied, “Have them out, to be sure.” One of them caught hold of Row by the arm. Witness then was going to strike them, when two men caught hold of his stick, and another struck him on the head, and knocked him down. Witness then got up, and went out to the road, and one of the mob again struck him on the head; he then went back to the pound, and found that the cattle were all gone — the people were also gone. The prisoner asked, “What are you going to keep the cattle in there for?” The prisoner’s father lives about a mile-and-a half from the pound. The pound is in the parish of Slebech.

Cross-examined by Mr. L. Hall:— Commenced watching the pound about  — it was a fine night. It was about when the mob came. The mob were about forty yards off when witness first heard them; they were at the pound about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. Witness well knew the prisoner. Witness has been in prison twice for poaching. Robeston Wathan, where the prisoner resides, is about three miles from the pound. Saw prisoner all the time at the pound — he was doing nothing.

James Row:– Went to the pound, , to watch it. , a number of men came up the road in disguise — from twelve to sixteen. Some had women’s clothes and their faces blackened — they had slicks in their hands; they came to the pound gate. Witness then asked them what they wanted. They replied they wanted the cattle out. One of the men said he had two cattle in pound, and would have them out. Witness said they had better come by day-light. One of them then said, “What is to be done, Becca?” He (witness) did not hear what answer was given. One of the mob told witness that he should go from the pound. Witness said he would not; and the man then replied, “By God, you shall,” and caught witness by the hand. One of the men struck witness on the head, which stunned him; he received several more blows, and was ultimately knocked down. When witness came to himself, he saw a colt jump over him. The person called Becca was standing close by at the time. The mob then left in the direction of Narberth. Witness afterwards saw the pound — the gate was unhinged, and the cattle gone. Witness did not see the prisoner there.

Cross-examined by Mr. L. Hall:– Daniel Rodney was at the pound when the mob came up.

John Rees:– On , witness distrained cattle on Hign Toch farm, and put them in the Manor Pound. A body of men came up — they broke open the pound. Saw George Thomas struck by some of the mob.

Cross examined by Mr. L. Hall:— Before the mob came up, a cow was let out of the pound by Row.

William Merryman:– Is pound-keeper of Slebech Pound. Remembers the cattle and colts impounded. Was present when the mob came up disguised. Saw Thomas and Row struck. Witness became afraid, and ran away. Saw the prisoner there; he was dressed in a fustian trousers and jacket — he had a hat and a woman’s cap. on. Has known prisoner sixteen years.

Cross-examined by Mr. L. Hall:— The prisoner was amongst the mob — he did nothing.

Mr. Lloyd Hall then addressed the jury for the prisoner, and said that it was not for him to stand up and defend the Rebeccaite mode of redressing all grievances; and any one who had paid any attention to their proceedings would not fail to discover that the effect produced by them were in direct opposition to what they were desirous of accomplishing. In tending to accomplish one thing, they did quite a different one. All would agree that their conduct was highly improper and impolitic. Redress of grievances under cover of night, as had been the case in this instance, could not find a justification in the mind of any person who took a proper view of matters. There was no doubt in the fact, that a highly improper act had been committed, and that all parties present were equally guilty, The question was, not whether the parties assembled were right or wrong, but whether the prisoner at the bar was amongst them or not. The Learned Gentleman commented upon the evidence adduced for the prosecution, and concluded by stating that a witness would be produced to prove that the prisoner was in bed with his wife and child on the night in question, as well as neighbours of the prisoner, who would say that he could not have left the house without their hearing the noise made by him. Mr. Hall then called—

Daniel Rodney, the son of Mrs. Rodney, of Toch Bridge. She had three cows impounded on . One of them turned out about eight o’clock. Witness was at the pound when the mob came up. Did not see them beat Row. Witness saw all the persons that were there. Did not see any one among them that could be mistaken for the prisoner. All the mob were so disfigured that they could not be recognized.

Cross-examined by Mr. Nicholl Carne:— When witness went home to supper about , did not go for Becca. Went back to the pound to protect his mother’s cows from injury.

Wm. Butler:— Lives at Blackpool. About , prisoner went to a singing school at Robeston Wathen; stopped there two hours and a half. After he left there, he went to Ormond, the tailor’s, where he remained half an hour; he afterwards met prisoner’s brother, and then went to prisoner’s house and knocked at the door twice. Prisoner’s wife answered, and prisoner then came and opened the door. Witness asked prisoner it his boot was ready, and he said it was, and then gave witness the boot — prisoner was in his shirt. Witness then left, and prisoner shut the door.

Cross-examined by Mr. Carne:— Witness thinks it was on when he went to the singing school.

Jane Rogers:— Lives at Robeston Wathen, about a yard from the prisoner’s house — there is only one door to prisoner’s house. Remembers the night the pound was broken. Heard the prisoner working that night . Witness’s mother was ill that night, and witness was attending to her. She heard Wm. Butler calling at prisoner’s house . Witness was attending her mother until . Heard nobody go out of or come to prisoner’s house that night after Butler left.

Wm. Ormond, tailor, Robeston Walhen:– Remembers . Wm. Butler came to his house about , and staid there half an hour.

Cross-examined:– Has no clock or watch in the house.

Mr. Nicholl Carne, in answer to the evidence adduced by the prisoner, proposed to read the prisoner’s [sic.] statement before the Magistrates.

Mr. H. O. Martin. Magistrates’ Clerk of the Narbeth district, was present when the depositions were taken down by Mr. Evans, the attorney for the prosecution. The prisoner was asked at the end if he had anything to say in answer. He made a statement, which was taken down by Mr. Evans.

Mr. Wm. Evans took down the depositions in this case, and asked prisoner if he had anything to say — he made a statement, which witness took down. He said I was not there — I went to bed rare that night. About Wm. Butler called for his boot I had been repairing. I got out of bed and gave it him, and went back to bed again. I then lived in the village of Robeston Wathen. No one lived there but myself, wife, and child. The prisoner was asked to sign that statement, but said he did not care to do so.

Cross examined:— Am solicitor for the prosecution, was not instructed until  — the hearing took place at Narberth.

Mr. Hall addressed the jury on the statement made by Mr. Evans.

George Thomas recalled, and examined by Court:— Told the Baron de Rutzen the after the pound was broken open, that the prisoner was one of the mob.

Wm. Merryman:— About a week after I told Mr. James, of Robeston, that the prisoner was in the mob. The Baron was present.

Mr. Carne replied on the whole case.

The Learned Judge summed up the evidence very clearly; and after an hour’s absence, the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty, observing, that they gave the prisoner the benefit of the doubt.

Another case that came up concerned a letter that was sent to a farmer threatening that “Becca” and her eldest daughter “Nelly” would burn his possessions and his house down around him if he did not fess up to fathering the child of his former servant and start contributing child support. Three people accused of crafting, writing, and delivering the letter were convicted. The judge was of the opinion that they were not true Rebeccaites but were using the name to make their letter seem more credibly threatening.

In one additional case…

Joseph Thomas, charged with breaking a chain belonging to a turnpike-gate… [was] discharged by proclamation.

…which I think means something like “charges dismissed without prejudice.” That is, the prisoner is free, but the prosecutor may refile charges at a later date.