Making The Punishment Fit The Crime

Crime in the Saundersfoot area was typical of much of Wales. More serious crime occurred rarely but petty theft abounded. One type of theft was typical in this part of the coalfield: the theft of small amounts of coal.

There is an interesting series of prosecutions for this offence from 1838 onwards.  Previously, prosecutions had been heard at the Narberth Petty Sessions. Now they were heard at the higher Quarter Sessions at Haverfordwest in front of a jury. While a simple fine with costs had been the traditional remedy, the convicted were now sent to Haverfordwest Gaol for between one week and three months and put to hard labour on the treadmill and occasionally held in solitary confinement. From a very small sample, these facts emerge: about 80 percent of those guilty were women but 70 percent of these were married so this was not just a problem of elderly widows and spinsters trying to keep warm.

Haverfordwest Gaol Female Wing - shortly before demolition (Copyright Pembrokeshire Record Office)

Remembering that the early 1840s was a period of severe agricultural and industrial depression, part of the cause of the Rebecca Riots that raged to the north and north-east of Begelly, these were tough times. With money at its most scarce, it is little wonder many sought fuel for food and warmth however they could get it.

This picture, drawn from the pages of the Quarter Sessions records, only tells half the story. A letter published in a local newspaper in 1846 gives us some idea of the serious problems the other side was facing. It also goes some way to explain the use of these harsh remedies. Robert Brough, agent to the Tenby and Begelly Coal Company, wrote it in response to a complaint about the value of these prosecutions when the cost of coal stolen often only amounted to about 3d, as much as a woman could carry in her apron.

Such acts of theft were endemic, he stated. Judging from the Quarter Sessions records, it was not just his employers that had problems. Their local competitors all brought similar prosecutions during the early 1840s. The reason why is obvious: Brough claimed his own employers were losing at least £400 a year to theft, a significant amount of money large enough to make the difference between profit and loss for these risky ventures. If this figure is correct, and based on an average value of each theft at 3d, seven acts of theft per day occurred at Brough’s pits at Spadeland and Barley Park in Begelly.

Even with watchmen and fences, the owners found it impossible to secure their pits. The over-riding problem, Brough believed, was that they were facing organised crime. Parents trained and encouraged their young children to steal coal. If caught, the children could not be tried as they were below the age of criminal responsibility. Bringing prosecutions where they could, however costly, and asking for (and getting) heavy punishments was the only course open to the pit owners to discourage the practice.

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Quarter Sessions rolls

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Haverfordwest Gaol registers

Pembrokeshire Record Office: picture of Haverfordwest Gaol (cat ref PCC/SE/77/39)

Pembrokeshire Herald

6 thoughts on “Making The Punishment Fit The Crime

  1. The Gaol at Haverfordwest was one of the first penal establishment in Wales to install a tread wheel and was used for those prisoners sentenced to hard labour, One of the most well known prisoners was a young local girl Mary Prout from Amroth parish who was incarcerated in 1863 for three weeks hard labour for theft, then in 1864 prior to and immediately afterwards of her trial for the murder of her 6 week old illegitimate infant daughter Rhoda, by casting her down a disused mineshaft near Colby Lodge, Amroth.
    Mary Prout was tried at the nearby Shire Hall and was found guilty and subsequently sentenced to death,she was reprieved and was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude. Her trial caused a sensation locally at the time and is well recalled today.

    • The House of Correction at Haverfordwest to give the Gaols other desigation, it also dealt with other matters not always directly prosecuted by the State a case in point which is directly linked to mining is recalled.
      As the combination of a naked flame and explosive gases were proving a lethal combination; Colliers were bound by strict Bye Laws introduced by the management and owners of mines, that it was a serious offence to open a Davy lamp or otherwise expose a flame in the pit; an early and worthy attempt at a form of Health and Safety Legislation. One case of this law being enforced is as follows.
      On the 6th July 1864 in the Bonville Court Colliery at Saundersfoot where a certain Thomas Cale, a miner was employed, he transgressed the regulations applicable in the Colliery as follows:
      “By opening his lamp underground without due authority in which firedamp is likely to make an appearance in explosive or dangerous quantity”
      This carelessness resulted in him being prosecuted at Narberth magistrates where the Rev. Richard Buckby was one of the magistrates; and on being found guilty of the offence Thomas Cale was sentenced to three months hard labour in Haverfordwest Goal. Hard Labour in this penal establishment meant that he was to become a close acquaintance of the Treadmill; which was used by the inmates in a mind numbing task to grind barley and corn to be used in the jail; or was sold to outside customers to defray costs ~ Ref PQ/AG/64 PemRO
      Three months hard labour in a Victorian jail must have been a salutary experience and warning to others that a deed like this was not going to be overlooked; Thomas Cale* who was an experienced Collier should have known better than to commit the miners cardinal sin of exposing a naked light in the pit, must have rued his action that day, but thankfully no explosion occurred at the mine concerned, as a consequence of this stupid action any miner who transgressed the life saving rule would have been cold shouldered by his workmates and been subject to other unofficial sanctions by his workmates; and the mining community,

  2. I took some notes about the treadwheel from the Haverfordwest Goal Rules book for 1842. If you’d be sentenced to hard labour you’d spend 10 hours a day in summer and 8 hours in colder months on it, 10 mins on the wheel at a time. Highdays and holidays were days of leisure!

    The Wheel provided power to drive millstones grinding wheat and barley generating a profit of more than £10 a quarter from sales.

    Picture of similar wheel at Brixton prison:

    As to Rhoda Prout, have you found her grave in your researches?

    • Rhodas Prout’s grave has proved elusive to find and recent personal searches of the graveyard of St Issell’s drew a blank, no headstone or marker was evident.

      But thanks to the uncovering of the St Issell’s Burial Board records and the accompanying map which has indicated that the burial plot where Rhoda is interred is as being plot No A8 this correlates on the register and plan as the area to the west of the stream.

      The burial register and plan are indeed a useful extra resource and add considerably to the existing parish register details

  3. Thanks Jon for the information you have published here. This detail enables us to understand more of the lives of our coalmining forebears.

    It is difficult today to understand the terrible hardship which forces a mother to encourage her child to steal, in order that they may eat and keep warm.

    You have provided great reading and told of happenings which were affecting our family’s lives during these years.

  4. Not all misdemeanour’s regarding petty pilfering of Coal or Culm stocks ended in punishment by a custodial sentence, a case brought before Saundersfoot Petty Sessions on14th May 1867 at which three elderly women: Francis Davies, Jane Davies and Hannah Richards were charged by Mr W. Foley with being on the tramway of the Moreton Colliery with intent to commit a felony,under the vagrant law.
    Extensive pilfering of Culm had been going on for a long time and it was necessary to stop it, the women pleaded Guilty, and Mr Foley stated to the Bench that that he did not wish to punish them but only to put an end to the system of robbery that had prevailed, they were discharged by a payment of costs of 5s 6d each, with a strong caution for their future conduct.
    Although the fine imposed was probably more than enough punishment.
    No doubt this case was brought by the Colliery company to bring home the message that stealing from the Colliery was not to be tolerated any more and they would be ready to prosecute any further incidents and even the age of the perpetrators would not be a mitigating factor.

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