Early Modern Crime and the Law

William Owen, eighteenth-century Welsh smuggler

NLW MS 21834B

The Birth, Life, Education and Transactions of Captn William Owen the Noted Smuggler who was executed for the murder of James Lilly at Carmarthen on Saturday the 2nd day of May 1747 written by his own hand when under confinement, and delivered to Mr Daniel James of Carmarthen aforesaid in the presence of Mr John Davies, the clergyman which attended him, a few days before his execution

Scanned images of the full text (NLW Digital Gallery)

Notes on the life and death of a Welsh smuggler

In his 'authentic account' of his life, William Owen tells that he was born in Nevern, Pembrokeshire (in 1717), into a farming family of local repute and substance. He was a clever boy and his father had ambitions for him to be a clergyman, but he ran off to sea in his teens; what follows is mostly a detailed account (written in the third person) of his exploits during his career at sea (and sometimes on land), sometimes in legitimate trade but mostly smuggling.

This is a life full of adventures and exploits, with battles (mostly victorious) described in great detail. Owen consistently highlights his courage, honour, Welshness, eloquence and his talent for war and business alike. These virtues are frequently intertwined; he recounts saying to a cowardly captain: 'I am a Welshman, the honour my country gained in former times by their valour and courage, I am determined it shall not be backward in my days, to shew the same valour as my fore-fathers did before me' (p.16). He makes both enemies and substantial friends in equal measure, and is vigorous in defending his own and his associates' interests - to the point of commanding a dramatic (and somewhat improbable-sounding) siege against the mansion of the powerful Johneses of Aber-mad, Cardiganshire, in support of a friend whom they wronged (pp.45-49). He tells of various clever stratagems he used in the course of his smuggling career to outwit customs officers (including posing as 'a Welsh Baronet' on his pleasure 'yatch', p.51).

But eventually the law caught up with him: he was tried for the murder of customs officers who had tried to seize his ship in Cardiganshire, at Hereford in 1745, and acquitted (according to him) despite a 'very severe prosecution' and a long trial by eighteenth-century standards (court records show that in fact he was convicted of manslaughter: note, Parry). But in the process he 'gained the affection of the country very much' ('the judge himself was astonished, to hear him plead for himself, with so good language, and so much to the purpose, not expecting from a mariner the like') so that 'the bells ringed for joy of his being acquitted' (pp.103-4).

He maintains (not entirely plausibly) that he is innocent of the murder of James Lilly, and passes over the circumstances of the death, arrest and trial in less than a page at the very end of the 'authentic account' - in contrast to all the earlier detail (pp.112-13). This may be the autobiography of a condemned criminal, then, but it is far from being a 'criminal biography'. It is certainly not the conventionally moralising account of sin, descent into horrific crimes and subsequent repentance before execution. The absence of any kind of 'providentialist' worldview is marked. It is closer to the alternative tradition of 'rogue literature', usually associated with the likes of highwaymen, although these tend to be far less personal and more stereotyped.

No: what is intended is self-vindication. Indeed, in the 'Character and Behaviour' (pp.114-18) he offers us a true paragon of virtue. The only faults to which he admits are lust (and his troubles and exploits with women recur frequently) and occasional pride - but clearly the intent is to show that he has plenty to be proud of.

In the end how much of the account is in fact 'authentic', how much exaggerated or even fictitious, is impossible to say; some passages sound almost fantastical, but as in the attack on the mansion of Aber-mad, apparently have at least some circumstantial support. The Cardiganshire gaol files of the period, as well as other records, demonstrate that at least some of the local gentry were still quite happy to use violence and riot against their enemies when it suited them. On the other hand, Owen certainly omits, or truncates, information that shows him in a less favourable light: his conviction for manslaughter, the reasons why he and Lilly were being pursued in the first place (suspected burglary followed by the shooting of a post-boy who was pursuing them for that crime: see Glyn Parry's careful excavation of these details).

At his trial, Owen puts up a stout (however implausible) defence - which is more than many eighteenth-century defendants managed to do. His case is based largely on 'forensic' evidence, apparently implying that Lilly shot himself (accidentally? intentionally?). Against that, though the prosecution case is never spelt out either, the circumstances of the case seem compelling: the near-inescapable conclusion is that Owen, who was on foot, shot his mounted partner-in-crime in order to take the horse (as he did) and escape their pursuers. But, in any case, perhaps the jury was less concerned with the facts of the case than Owen's other recent crimes. As a smuggler he might well have been popular; a burglar and killer was another matter.

The judges come across as unsympathetic; on the other hand, they don't seem particularly interventionist either; there is no sign of them cross-examining witnesses or in any way pressuring the jury to a verdict. But once convicted, Owen's fate did depend on the attitude of the judge, who had the power to recommend a pardon, even in cases of murder (not commonly done compared to theft cases, it should be said). Owen was accused of killing a man who had been his accomplice in burglary and another murder (it's certain that the judge, and probably the jury too, would have known about these accusations); and he had previously been tried for the murder of a customs officer and convicted, even though on the lesser charge of manslaughter. Finally, while smuggling was an offence regarded tolerantly by many during the eighteenth century - the high customs duties imposed on many goods were extremely unpopular - it would not have made him popular with authorities. No judge was going to intervene on his behalf for a pardon.

On the surface, William Owen's biography seems virtually to ignore the circumstances that brought him to trial and execution; in fact, throughout it represents a strong challenge to the system that convicted him. He revels in the 'crimes', the smuggling, the violent battles, to which he does admit. He refused to accept the roles that literary conventions ascribed to criminals - either the penitent sinner or the stereotyped 'rogue'. That it was never (as far as is known) published should really come as no surprise.