Grand Jury Convicts Rebeccaite Prisoners

The grand jury deciding on the case against several accused Rebeccaites met again on to decide on the cases of John Hughes, John Hugh, and David Jones. The Cambrian was there to report on the proceedings.

The toll collector, William Lewis, and John Morgan, a surveyor, started by testifying about the extent of damage to the Pontardulais toll house. Then:

The papers on which there were writings in the Welsh language, was also put in evidence. A translation had been committed to writing by Mr. Powell, the Court interpreter.

Mr. Wm. Cox, Governor of the Swansea House of Correction, was also examined, and produced a small quantity of powder, some percussion caps, 5s. wrapped in a piece of paper, addressed “Mrs. Becca,” and stating that it was 5s. from Thos. Thomas, of some place, in addition to 5s. given by him before.

This summed up the prosecution’s case. The defense attorney, a Mr. Hill, then offered his rebuttal. Excerpts:

The Attorney General had told them that this was an unusual course of proceeding. He referred to the Special Commission — a similar one he (Mr. Hill) had not heard to have ever taken place in the history of the county of Glamorgan. They also heard it said that the cases were extremely few. Was that any reason for conferring upon the country the unenviable distinction of a Special Commission. He could not devise what cause existed for one, but that did not prove that a cause did not exist. Why was it not sent to a neighbouring county, where there were apparently greater reasons for sending it? For this they had had no explanation. It was no part of the Attorney General’s duty to give the explanation; but if the object was that a great public example should be made in the vindication of the power and majesty of the law, he could say, that the effect produced would not be that which was intended. Be that as it may, he admitted that it was no part of their duty to enquire into it. He thought that all good men, in every district, deprecated the outrages which had been committed; but he did not remember any instance in which the penal law, even when justly incurred, had succeeded in staying disturbances consequent upon notions of the existence of public grievances, whether real or supposed. He did not know whether any grievances existed; but if they did, it was beyond the power of the law to restore tranquillity merely by the infliction of punishment. In making these observations, he did not rest upon his own authority alone, but he spoke the opinion of Edmund Burke, one of the brightest stars of political opinions. In that immortal speech or his, in favour of the consolidation with America — a measure which it would have been good for this country to have adopted, he illustrated his argument by a reference to the Principality [Wales].

He said that in former times, when the grievances of the people used to be answered by the application of force, either of the penal law or military power, crime multiplied to such an extent, that an Englishman passing through Wales could not go five yards from the highway without incurring the risk of being murdered. Special Commissions, with the Attorney and Solicitor General, a number of Queen’s Counsel, and a host of lawyers, were things never suggested by the wisdom of their ancestors, very justly so called. But when just legislative measures were adopted, they were successful beyond even the anticipation of those who, like himself, had almost an unlimited confidence in the power of moral force. So great was the effect produced by such means in the reign of Henry the Eighth, which was not very auspicious for mercy and justice, that it had been likened to the “sudden stilling of the storm.”

Hill went on to criticize the way the prosecutor had made his case, and along the way characterized the guns seized at the bridge and presented as evidence in this way: “He was glad the guns were produced, for he believed that, if the choice were offered him of firing them, or having them fired at him, he would choose the latter alternative, but he might be wrong.” He suggested that, contrary to the testimony the prosecution had offered, perhaps the police had fired unprovoked on the Rebeccaite crowd, and not in response to having been fired upon.

The instances were not new, but were in the memory of all, in which soldiers and police, in similar transactions to the present, both exceeded their duty.

It was no new thing to find that their conduct was not always such as resulted from united bravery with forbearance, and which indeed participated of the sublime, for there was nothing more sublime than the conduct of men armed with great power, with command to exercise it, and yet submitting to insults and injury rather than exercise it towards their erring fellow-creatures. The Learned Counsel then proceeded to make some general remarks upon the conduct of the assembly — they had advertised their projects on the night in question by firing arms, while the police had hid themselves in their retreat, having pistols loaded with balls, while the mob foolishly and innocently fired without any such implements, as if merely to cheer and arouse their comrades, for there was no evidence that they had injured a single individual. There had not a single hair from the heads of either of the police been singed, and yet it would seem, though strange, that it should be represented that ferocity had been exhibited on the part of the mob, and that justice demanded that they should be placed for trial at the bar of their country. What did the evidence prove? Nothing more than that there was an idle firing of guns — not loaded with bullet or ball. Certainly there had been a few shots produced, and the Attorney-General had asked if they were large? What number were they? Why, it was only necessary for them to be looked at to enable any person to see that they were small bird shot — and that they were fired as a mere feu de joie — for to suppose that with those they intended resisting the police, who were armed to the teeth with pistols loaded with balls, in addition to other weapons, would be the height of absurdity. Capt. Napier had said that there were marks of shots on the windows, and near the lamp on the toll-house door, which evidently proved the use of the small shot — to break the glass. He did not, for a moment, mean to contend that they were justified in doing so, but the question was whether they were guilty of the particular act charged in the indictment. The question was not whether they were guilty of some breach of the law, but whether they were so upon that indictment. He was glad that shot had been produced, for it afforded further proof that there existed no intention to injure. For with shot, though the injury done would be less than with balls, yet it would be more general — the chances of inflicting wounds with shot being at least fifty to one. How could the jury suppose that any shots had been fired, while not one had even penetrated the garments of any of the police or magistrates. — On the other hand, if the conduct of that body were glanced at, it would be found that information of the intended attack upon the gate had been given, as early as , and that after a delay, respecting which no explanation had been given, the police had proceeded armed, not with sparrow-shots but with pistols, each carrying balls, each of which would be fatal to man’s life. They were found coming to the field, and though knowing by the blue lights, firing of guns, &c., that a crime was contemplated, instead of making any attempts to prevent the riot, they were found hiding in the field until the gate had been broken. He confessed it was to him a novel part off the duty of the police of this country to watch until mischief had been accomplished before attempting to prevent it. Here the Magistrates and police had an opportunity of preventing a great outrage of the law, but instead of doing so, they had waited to see it committed. Mr. Hill, after making several additional observations upon the conduct of the police, remarked that in conducting the case against the prisoner, the first maxim of law had been overlooked, which was not to punish the guilty, but to protect the innocent. He hoped that he did not exceed his duly expressing a hope that the spirit which seemed to actuate some of the Glamorganshire authorities would not become general throughout the land. He had never before heard of a prosecution for a flight on one side, while the attack was upon the other. It was something new to him to see persons coming to that Court under the auspices of the Attorney and Solicitor General, to vindicate their conduct in shooting at British subjects with pistols loaded with balls. Such proceedings, in his opinion, exceeded those of the French revolution. Instead of appearing as prosecutors and witnesses, the wounded and injured men appeared at the criminal bar. He could give no expression to any feeling but that of astonishment.

He then called eleven character witnesses for John Hughes. The Solicitor-General then gave a rebuttal and the prosecutor summarized his case. The Monmouthshire Merlin goes into a little more detail here, and reveals the prosecution’s idea of the importance of the five shillings wrapped in the note:

There was also another paper found on prisoner, which was important. On it was writing, directed to Mrs. Rebecca, to the effect that 5s had been paid at some time before by a person named Thomas, and that he now paid another 5s, and two half-crowns were found wrapped up in this paper. It will be recollected that on the person of the prisoner, when apprehended, there was a large number of half crowns, besides other monies, and hence it would appear that he had been collecting subscriptions for some purpose.

Then the jury considered the evidence and came back with its verdict:

The jury then retired, and in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes [“about three quarters of an hour” reported the Merlin] re-entered the Court, and returned a verdict of guilty, with a strong recommendation to mercy on account of previous good character. Sentence deferred.

The Court was then immediately adjourned.

True bills have been returned against the Morgan’s family, of Cwmcillan; against David Lewis, for assaulting the Tycoch toll-collector; against Lewis Davies for a misdemeanor, in aiding in breaking the Pontardulais gate. No true bill against the boy, Wm. Hughes, upon the same charge.

Which confuses me, as I thought this was a grand jury designed only to decide whether charges could be brought, but this seems to indicate that at least in the John Hughes case, it was acting as an ordinary criminal jury.