Monday, February 03, 2014

An Outrage Scarcely Surpassed in Ireland

Although the old Radnorshire folk may be heading for the red-list along with the curlew and the skylark; your blogger is still a bit wary of naming names, even when describing events that occurred more than a hundred years ago.  The farmer responsible for the downfall of poor Miriam Jones remains anonymous in my account - no actual court conviction and too many potential descendants to offend.  Then there is a particular surname which appears far more often than it would be reasonable to expect in the county's criminal records ..... and even amongst those of the clan who migrated to the United States.  Let's leave their progeny in well-deserved peace.

Occasionally of course one makes a mistake, a name is mentioned and across the decades a family member gets in touch.  This was the case recently with a brief reference I made some years ago to the attack on the Llanbadarnfynydd police station in December 1880.  An incident which deserves to be described in greater detail.

Take this reprt from distant Hull where the local newspaper summed up the "murderous attack by the Rebeccaites" as an "outrage (which) has scarcely been surpassed in Ireland."  The Irish comparison was a frequently expressed opinion when the Radnorshire troubles appeared in the Victorian press.  "Death was then cried a score of times and volley after volley was fired, the door and windows being riddled with bullets and shot ... the valley of the Ithon appeared to be alive with armed men."  The opinion of the Hull paper was that "nothing but a strong force of military will restore order in these disturbed districts in Radnorshire."

A more sober report shows that Hull's hyperbole was not far off the mark:

"On the night of 5th Dec 1881, a police officer was badly injured by salmon poachers. This officer, who was stationed at Llanbadarn Fynydd, was patrolling the road between Llanbister and Llanbadarn Fynydd. Lights could be seen on the river and the noise of gun-fire heard.  When near a house called Brook Cottage the officer's attention was drawn by a noise in the hedge close to him. Turning his bullseye in the direction from which the sound came he saw three men about to climb over the hedge. Two of the men carried shotguns and the third a salmon spear. The latter at once struck at the officer with the spear. The policeman attempted to ward off the blow with his left arm but the spear pierced his helmet and cut his nose. The force of the blow fractured his arm. After a shot had been fired at the policeman, which fortunately missed him, the men ran away. The policeman then made his way home as best he could but his ordeal was not over, for shortly afterwards a gang of armed men appeared outside his house. Shots were fired at the window of the constable's house, smashing panes. A stone struck a clock in the living room and a shot passed over the crib in which the officer's baby was lying. Twenty seven slugs were later found in the front door. Fortunately no injury was sustained by the occupants, but this was undoubtedly a night of terror for the police officer and his family."

Now "salmon poachers" is hardly an accurate description of these Victorian activists.  Poachers don't usually draw attention to themselves by firing guns, parading in large numbers, often in daylight and in the centre of villages and towns.  This was an open challenge to the authorities and the Llanbadarn attack was the culmination of a month of  activity by the Rebeccaites on the Ithon and Upper Wye - an official inquiry later reported that a hundred individuals took part in the attack on the police station.  The Rebeccaites were standing-up for the traditional right of the populace to take salmon from the river and against over-netting by big landowners down-stream in Herefordshire.

Violence against the local police was uncommon, that against bailiffs and other outsiders less so. Police-Constable Cairns, the subject of the attack had a bad reputation in the county.  He seems to have been eager to confront the Rebeccaites.  In his 1976 article in the journal Llafur entitled the Second Rebecca Riots the historian David Jones gave some background concerning the victim of the attack:

"From Rhayader, where additional policemen were stoned on arrival came reports of 'foreign' armed policemen making noisy night patrols through the streets and subjecting innocent bystanders to undignified searches. One of the most unpopular constables was Frederick Cairns, who was charged at various times with assaulting people in the countryside near Rhayader."

Constable Cairns identified two of his assailants who were bailed (for a sizeable £400) to appear before the magistrates in Penybont.  Come the day and the village was said to have the appearance of a fair, such were the crowds drawn in support of the defendants.  Still suffering from his injuries Cairns braved a courtroom in which the public noisily greeted the supposed Rebeccaites as heroes.  Of course the defendants had alibis for the night in question and the court adjourned for a week to consider their decision.

To much public rejoicing the Penybont two were found not guilty.  The magistrates concluding that the constable had made an honest mistake in identifying them as his attackers.  Within a few weeks Cairns had been dismissed from the Radnorshire Constabulary.  Enquiries having shown that he had previously been found guilty of misconduct while employed in English police forces, something that he had denied during the court case.

Of course the Rebeccaites were operating in a society where the right to vote was restricted.  It's often forgotten that even after the 1884 Representation of the People Act some 40% of men were still denied a vote in parliamentary elections as well as 100% of women.  By resorting to shows of strength in support of popular causes the activists were able to curb excesses on the part of the local elite - evictions during the enclosures for example were carried out by newcomers to the district, who soon learnt the virtues of discretion when dealing with the commonality.  In the same way the Fishing regulations were a foreign imposition and there was conflict between outsiders determined to enforce the law and local magistrates and squires intent on social harmony.

There is a danger with popular movements which use threats and actual intimidation to achieve their ends, it's probably how the Mafia started out.  There are examples of over-stepping the mark in Radnorshire, for example I understand that this incident is still a cause of controversy amongst some families in the locality concerned.

Will Rebeccaism ever return to rural Wales?  Well you sometimes get the impression that our rulers regard democracy as only a short-lived experiment, so you never know.


Tarian said...

These incidents are evidence of a society infused with morality, communal spirit and a sense of justice. They refused to allow themselves to be crushed. We have become a weak and timid people, resigned to our lot. How many Radnorians know of their noble past or even identify with those who cared for these lands for centuries? Awn i ail-adfer bro, awn i ail godi'r to....? Can anyone offer more than half forgotten memories or empty words? Sorry for the negative tone but sometimes I despair.

radnorian said...

I suppose the aim of the blog is to inform Radnorians of their history, and also to inform other Welsh folk about a county that may be a bit of a mystery but is still an integral part of Wales and its story.

My stats would suggest we're failing to achieve those ends but on the basis that a butterfly beating its wings might cause a hurricane, I'll persevere!

When you look back at the stand taken by the likes of Radnorshire's Rebeccaites one thing is apparent - they were standing up for causes that affected them and their daily lives. They weren't concerned about what the great-and-the-good and opinion formers elsewhere thought about them.

How unlike Wales today where most within our National movement are far too concerned about being loved by the pseudo-liberal London elite to engage with issues that concern ordinary Welsh people.

Populism, democracy, the interests of Wales, even free-speech seem to have become dirty words.

The end result a ratbag party like UKIP will probably win 30% of the Welsh vote in the Euro elections and we'll tut-tut at the ignorance of the voters like the quango-loving, Lords loving, democracy-hating elitists we've become.

That's my thought for the day anyway.