‘He moved his backside and body as mankind do when in copulation with womankind’ Bestiality in eighteenth-century Wales

**Content warning: this post contains details of a sexual nature which some readers may find offensive or upsetting**

In keeping with last week’s raunchy theme, I thought I’d write about a court case relating to a far more extreme form of sexually deviance. I bring to you the tale of John Hughes, a farm labourer in Denbighshire in the eighteenth century, who was allegedly caught ‘in the act’, as it were, with one of his father’s cows.

The account, as recalled by neighbour Morris Edwards, a farmer, was recorded in a pre-trial witness deposition and can be found in the Court of Great Sessions gaol files held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Here’s a Full Transcription of Morris’s witness statement.

On a June morning in 1772, Morris visited his neighbour David Hughes (the accused’s father) to see if one of his sheep had strayed into David’s flock. As Morris searched the neighbourhood for his missing sheep, he spied John herding three cows through his father’s field.

And that’s when things start to get a bit strange. Morris claimed he saw John chase after two of the cows, but neither would cooperate. The third cow, a medium sized red brindle cow, proved more docile, and John was able to get her into position. Morris said he then saw John drop his breeches, wrap his arms around the hindquarters of the cow and, move ‘his backside and body as mankind do when in copulation with womankind’ for about a quarter of an hour or so. All this time the cow apparently stood there still, with her head hung low.

When he was finished, John pulled up his trousers, and that was that. Crucially, Morris testified that he didn’t actually see John penetrate the cow. Morris never confronted John, and only confessed what he saw to a neighbour several months later in the autumn of that year. He was formally examined by a justice of the peace two years later. However, John wasn’t indicted for the crime of bestiality, and the case was dropped.

Morris’s testimony is interesting for a number of reasons, and not only because it appears to capture what was intended to be a private, deviant sexual act. However, it is possible that John Hughes never actually engaged in a sex act with this poor cow. Morris may have spun this rather salacious story to tarnish the reputation of his neighbour, who he believed stole one of his sheep. John wasn’t tried for the crime, which was likely due to a lack of evidence. Proof of penetration would have been required as evidence that, ‘the detestable crime of bestiality with a cow’ actually took place, but Morris said outright that he did not actually see Morris penetrate the cow. Despite the fact that this case never made it to trial, John’s neighbours undoubtedly knew about the accusations, and the stigma of this alleged event would have hung over John’s head for some time.

Another interesting feature of this, and most bestiality trials from Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, are the profiles of the accused and their victims. In total, between 1730 and 1830, twenty-one men were accused of bestiality across Wales. These included servants, yeoman, labourers, mariners, farmers and an earthenware seller named William Shakespeare (I’m not making this up). So, all were from relatively lower down the socioeconomic ladder. Only one man – and eighteen-year-old servant – was actually convicted of the crime, but the reasons for this aren’t clear.

In addition, in all but two cases, the sex of the animal is given, and in all of these the animals are female. So, despite the fact that these men were allegedly engaging in sexual activity with animals, they still opted for the ‘appropriate’ sex (by eighteenth century standards, that is).

The last observation from all of these records challenges a long-standing derogatory assumption about Welshmen. Out of twenty-one alleged instances of bestiality in Wales, not a single case involved a sheep.

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The Will of Frances Hughes, a 17th Century Welsh Midwife

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The Last Will and Testament of Frances Hughes of Haverfordwest, Midwife
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

Frances Hughes was a midwife and widow who died in Haverfordwest in 1700. The only clues we have of her existence are found in her will, which was drafted on 26 April of that year. She died just a few days later.

We know nothing of her age at the time of her death, the details of her former occupation or that of her late husband (or husbands), but her will does provide some fascinating evidence about her circumstances at the time of her death, and offers a few tantalising clues about what appears to have been a long and perhaps eventful life.

At the time of her death she lived in a five room house consisting of two bed chambers, a garret, a small parlour and a kitchen. This in itself suggests she must have had some degree of wealth during her life as this was a substantial size house for the time, even in a market town such as Haverfordwest. Throughout Wales in the early modern period most homes were small and sparsely furnished, with single-room dwellings and small cottages being common. Frances, or at least her late husband, was likely one of the more well-off members of the town.

Despite the size of her home the moveable possessions recorded in her probate inventory were valued at the modest sum of £12. To put this in perspective, a study of fifty-six spinster wills from the Diocese of St David’s between 1700 and 1715 revealed a range of inventory values from as little as 2d to as much as £322, with many under £20, and eighteen with £10 or less.* A large portion of these women were rural householders able to maintain themselves through subsistence farming, however most lived in much smaller houses.  It would appear that Frances had a substantial house with a modest but comfortable level of wealth. She was essentially house rich but cash poor(ish) in an early modern sense.

At the time of her death Frances was likely quite old, which is made brutally evident by the repeated and somewhat bleak use of the adjective ‘old’ before virtually every item in the probate inventory drawn up following her death. Her inventory consisted primarily of domestic goods, including three bedsteads, featherbeds, tables, chairs, a chest of drawers, a rug, linens, clothing and a parcel of old wool, as well as kitchen goods such as pewter dishes and plates, brass pots and pans, a cauldron, spits and a dripping pan, billows and skillet.

She’s was far from wealthy when she died, but it doesn’t appear as though she was suffering in abject poverty either. That she possessed a range of household goods suggests she was living in her own home and was able to support herself at the time of her death, although the pattern of bequests in her will does suggest one of her children may have been caring for her.

Bequest to Gwillum Sons

Bequest to Frances Hughes’s Sons
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

In her will Frances listed six surviving children from at least two different marriages, all of whom had different levels of independence. She left one shilling to a son named John Roberts, who was a millwright; ‘seventeen or eighteen shillings’ to her son Joseph Gwillum, a farmer, to buy a ring; forty shillings to her son Thomas Gwillum, who had no occupation given; one shilling and some clothes to her daughter Sibley Davies of Sutton; one shilling to her son Richard Gwillum, a smith. The rest of her estate and clothing was left  her daughter Ann Bowen and granddaughter Mary Bowen. Ann was also made executrix of the will.

This discrepancy in bequest is not necessarily indicative of favouritism, but is likely a reflection of her children’s own level of independence. John Roberts and Richard Gwillum, the two children who were left the least, were both in occupations in which they could conceivably sustain themselves more readily. Given their professions of millwright and smith they were probably in better financial positions than her other children. Likewise her son Joseph Gwillum, who was a farmer, was bequeathed less than his brother Thomas, who appears to have had no notable occupation, and therefore may have been in worse financial circumstances.  Her daughter Sibley was likely married and living in a more stable, sustainable circumstances resulting in her smaller bequest as well.

Bequest to Ann Bowen

Bequest to Ann and Mary Bowen
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

This leaves Ann Bowen and her daughter Mary Bowen who inherited the majority of Frances’s possessions. Although we can’t know for certain it is possible that Ann and Mary were living with Frances in a reciprocal relationship with Ann providing care for ageing her mother and Frances providing a home for her daughter and granddaughter. It is quite possible that Ann was herself a widow who would have been in a much more precarious financial situation than her siblings, thus warranting her receipt of the lion’s share of her mother’s possessions. Furthermore, that Frances appointed Ann to be her executrix suggests that Ann had a clearer understanding of her mother’s wishes, which would be the case were they living in the same house.

Another interesting clue about Frances’s life comes from the differences in surnames of her sons. These suggest she had been married and widowed at least twice if not three times. John Roberts was probably her eldest surviving child from her first marriage, with the remaining three Gwillum sons from her second. But Frances herself was neither a Roberts nor a Gwillum at the time of her death – she was a Hughes. The husband who predeceased her was not mentioned in her will, but it is possible that she had been married and widowed a third time.

And what of her own profession of midwife? Unfortunately there is very little we can glean about that from this document. We only know she was a midwife because the appraisers listed her as such. We know very little about the practice of midwifery in early modern Wales in general, although documents such as applications for licenses to practice midwifery do exists, but have yet to be studied in detail. Much more is known about midwifery in England during this time.

What is apparent is that Frances Hughes had at least some level of modest prosperity during her life, and given her dwelling at the time of her death her last husband had a degree of wealth and standing. That her appraisers saw fit to list her own profession suggests it held some significance, and as such she was likely a respected member of the community. At present this document stands very much in isolation and cannot be seen as evidence of a norm, but in these regards it would appear that Frances Hughes did fit the mould of an early modern British midwife. It is also clear that much more research is needed.

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*This post is very much indebted to Lesley Davidson and her chapter ‘Spinsters were Doing it for Themselves: Independence and the Single Woman in Early Eighteenth-Century Rural Wales’ in Michael Roberts and Simone Clarke, eds., Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales (Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2000), pp. 186-209.