A Child of God
CHILD OF GOD
n contrast to the region’s normally temperate, if wet climate, the month of January 1799 in <st1:place w:st="on">West Glamorgan</st1:place> was bitterly cold, and the morning of the 28th of January found the countryside locked in a white mantle of a severe frost.
Any person foolish enough to be abroad as the shadows of night gave way to the stark half light of a winter's dawn they would have seen a solitary horse, half obscured by the clouds of it own condensed breath as it turned its face into the raw, heartless wind that swept eastwards across the bleak sleeping dragon of Worms Head to batter itself angrily against the exposed headland of the Gower Peninsula;
Huddled together on the horse's broad, if resigned back as picked its way carefully between the churned rock hard cartwheel ruts rode two human beings.
One, the larger of the two, wore the rough worn clothes of a farm labourer, the other, dressed in little more than thin rags, was a boy of between eight and nine years old. Both man and boy were the servants of a Rhossili farmer.
Accustomed to being a beast of burden the horse slowly navigated the treacherous ridged and potholed unmade road that wound its torturous way from the fishing <st1:placetype w:st="on">village</st1:placetype> of <st1:placename w:st="on">Rhossilli</st1:placename>, to the seaport of <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Swansea</st1:place></st1:city> 18 miles distant.
Suffering himself from the bitter cold, the horseman, out of compassion tried to shelter the pitiful, poorly clad scrape of humanity that sat first behind and then, before him as best he could.
For the horse and man, their outward journey was to end at a place called "White Style" from whence, alone, they would retrace their steps the fifteen long miles back to Rhossilli.
From White Style the boy would have to walk a distance of over two miles to reach his destination, his father's cottage in <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Swansea</st1:place></st1:city>.
By mid morning the lonely frozen tableau of the three travellers had reached that part of the road that is bordered by the stone age burrows and Celtic burial mounds that punctuate the countryside between Knelston and Penmaen. To their right, had the sightless eyes of the child stared bravely into the cruel wind, he would have looked down onto the horseshoe curve of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placename w:st="on">Oxwich</st1:placename> <st1:placetype w:st="on">Bay</st1:placetype></st1:place>.
For the boy, the foam flecked sea would never again, if it ever did, draw his simple thoughts to a world of freedom and adventure. Unknown to his companion the child no longer needed what little protection the man kindness could offer, his spirit had at least found freedom from this world.
The sad soul of this Child of God * had flown from its emaciated husk as silently and uncomplainingly as he had lived the hell of his short and unhappy life.
.* In classical times mentally retarded children were considered beloved of the Gods. Christianity adopted this belief for the one God, at least in the use of the words, if not always the practice
In itself, the death of this child was unremarkable as it was commonplace. In the eyes of society he was at best a simpleton, idiot offspring, sold into servitude by parents too destitute to even feed him.
It was a time in history when childhood mortality was high. When, through disease, starvation or mistreatment 57% of all children born died before reaching the age of five. Nor did society at large, or its protectors, have the same beliefs in the innocence and lack of culpability of youth that is popular today. "Jack Ketch" * and his ever ready rope were often employed to protect society from the heinous depredations of children driven by hunger to steal an apple or a piece of bread in an attempt to ensure their survival.
* A popular name for public executioners, after a notorious and inept 17th century <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">London</st1:place></st1:city> hangman.
In 1801, just two years after the frozen January of our story, two criminals, sisters aged eight and ten were legally strangled to death at the end of a rope so that the good and honest citizens of <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Chelmsford</st1:place></st1:city> could sleep safe in their beds knowing two thieves had met their just desserts.
What then, is remarkable about out story is that in
Cardiff Goal on March 29th 1799, exactly two months after that fateful journey, John Webborn, Rhossili farmer paid the ultimate penalty on the scaffold for the crime of the wilful murder of his servant, little William Thomas.
What is even more remarkable, for this time in history, was that John Webborn, whilst not of the gentry, was at least a master. He was a man of considerable property, not above the law, but in many ways enjoying its protection far more than the half-witted child of a penniless labourer.
The facts, such as they are, surrounding the murder of William Thomas are not dramatic in themselves, they serve only as yet another heartrending portrayal of a man's inhumanity towards others less fortunate than themselves.
Some time during the Autumn of 1798 William Thomas's father was approached by the farmer, John Webborn with the suggestion that he would like to take the child into his employ in the role of hired servant.
As can be imagined, this suggestion was greeted with relief by a poverty stricken father faced with the never ending worry of putting food in his family's mouths and caring for a child who up to that moment had little or no hope of ever finding employment. The terms of this verbal agreement between the two men were as simple as they were fatal.
The child would enter into Webborn's household to be trained as a domestic servant. The father was to pay a token sum towards the child's upkeep. The main responsibility for William Thomas's maintenance, his clothing, food and general well-being now fell to his new master John Webborn. In principle, Webborn was to assume the moral role of, as described by the judge at his trial, a "self adoptive parent", to the boy.
What William Thomas, or his father did not know was that when the boy left <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Swansea</st1:place></st1:city> for Rhossili he was to begin the last few months of his short life.
From the moment of taking the child into his care, Webborn's treatment of the boy was not even that of a hard master towards a servant, let alone that which is expected of a surrogate parent.
William Thomas was given no extra clothing to supplement the threadbare rags he wore, nor was he given either stockings or shoes. What little food he received was both lacking in quantity as well as nourishment. Fed only on scraps discarded as inedible during food preparation, this ragged barefoot child was so hungry that out of pity the other servants began saving portions of their own scant fare to give him.
Close to starving and without the means to keep himself warm in the increasingly severe winter, and more often than not lacking comprehension as to why he was being punished, this poor unfortunate was "corrected" three times a day by his master for the "vice of obstinacy". No doubt, considering his affliction, young William Thomas gave the impression of being slow to understand the ‘instruction’ he was given. An impression amplified, one would imagine, by his sheer terror of his ‘instructor’.
When questioned the other servants agreed that the boy could give the impression at times of being obstinate and truculent. They also said that if kindly treated he was alert and good natured.
Kindness however, was the one thing William didn't suffer at the hands of his master John Webborn. Webborn's favourite instrument for correcting his servants was long brass handled horsewhip.
As the weeks progressed, so it appears did the regularity and severity of the beatings that Webborn gave to the boy, to the point when he became so enraged he beat the child around the head with the heavy brass handle of the whip. Rather than improve the child's disposition, this act of cruelty so weakened and injured William Thomas that he was physically incapable of carrying out even the most simple of tasks.
Having reduced, by his own brutality, his victim to this pitiable state John Webborn then tried to rid himself of him. Webborn sent a message to William Thomas's father asking that the verbal contract between them be annulled because the child was of such a sullen disposition it was impossible to correct him.
Webborn also added " that he (William) was in good health and very able to work".
Not surprisingly this message came as a blow to
father. Poverty had caused him to send the boy away in the first place, to have him back after so brief a time was little short of a financial catastrophe.
The message he sent back was not one to please the farmer. Due to his extreme poverty, he told Webborn he could not possibly have the child back. He begged Webborn to honour the agreement they had between them and hoped that despite the boy's difficult nature, he would act with kindness towards him as his behaviour was an affliction placed on the boy by God.
Little or nothing is known about William Thomas's father other than his unenviable station in life, the reason he first placed and subsequently pleaded that his son remain in the care of the man who was slowly but surely putting him to death.
It's perhaps easy for us today to condemn this little known parent for his culpability towards the final outcome of this sordid, if tragic, little drama, but in his defence several things must be remembered. It was Webborn who approached the father for the child's services, not the other way around. We are also talking about an age where children of five and sometimes younger were put out to work by families who were otherwise too poor to maintain them. To his credit, William Thomas's father had kept his son with him, and in good health until he was almost nine years of age before receiving an offer, which must have appeared to be a golden opportunity, of employment for an otherwise unemployable son. Only if he was aware of Webborn's vicious nature can any of the blame be laid at the father's door and there is no evidence that this was the case.
Webborn, deaf to any entreaty to act with kindness towards the boy, and doubtless incensed by the father's refusal to take the child back, then banished the already seriously sick child from his house. Hurt and bemused, huddled on a pallet of straw in an unheated barn, without adequate clothing or covering of any kind to protect him from the bitter cold, little William Thomas existed, for it could be called nothing else, for the last two days of his miserable life.
During the evening of January the 27th 1799 John Webborn summoned one of his labourers to his house. Webborn instructed him that the following morning he was to take William Thomas by horse to Swansea and leave him at White Style so that the child could make his way as best he could the last two or three miles to his fathers cottage.
The reason for the labourers being told to set him down at White Style we can only assume was so that the child's father could not, as he perhaps would have done, if William had been taken to the door, refuse to accept him.
Early next morning, whilst still dark, on going to the barn the labourer found William Thomas too sick to either stand or walk without help. For two days the only way the child had been able to move about was by crawling next to a wall and using it for support. Leaving William Thomas where he was, the labourer went to Webborn, described the state of health of the boy and courageously ventured the opinion that should the child undertake such a journey in his condition and in such extreme weather he would surely die.
His master John Webborn's answer is on record and it is this answer that changed him from being just a brutal and inhumane master, to a murderer.
" Take him and set him down at White Style - Be he as he may."
Accustomed to fulfilling the servile role expected by a master such as Webborn, his protest rejected and in fear of the consequences of disobedience, the servant returned to the barn, saddled a horse, and placing the boy behind him set out on their journey. Within a short distance, unable due to his weakness to hold on, William Thomas fell from the horse's back onto the hard frozen ground. Dismounting the labourer picked up the boy's frail body and placing him once again behind him remounted.
A short time later the man, realising the boy was so weak he would only fall off again, stopped the horse and transferred the semi-conscious child to sit in front of him so that he could keep a hold on him.
Some indeterminate time later, supported by the arms of his companion and amid the harsh winter beauty of the Gower, John Webborn's servant, William Thomas was, in the apt words of a contemporary newspaper reporter:
"consigned to that asylum against the oppressed, in which the persecuted are sure to find safety and peace."
When eventually becoming aware that the child had died, the labourer later stated that this was no more than 6 or 7 miles from Rhossili, he did not, as might have been expected out of fear for himself, either return the shorter distance to Rhossili or leave the body, as instructed at White Style, but continued on to Swansea and the cottage of the boys father.
Once there he was taken into custody pending the inquest into the cause of the boy's death. He was immediately released following the inquest and a warrant in the name of John Webborn was issued on a charge of "Murder".
Although at Webborn's trial her evidence was dismissed as incompetent in terms of medical evidence, the woman who laid out William Thomas's body testified at the inquest that she had counted ninety nine wounds or contusions on the corpse. Describing many of them in great detail, the woman laid great emphasis on a serious head wound which, she believed was a contributing factor in the boy’s death and had been caused, in her opinion, by the head being struck with a heavy blunt instrument.
The trial of Rhossili farmer, John Webborn for the wilful and malicious murder of his eight year old servant William Thomas, was held at the Great Sessions for the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placetype w:st="on">County</st1:placetype> of <st1:placename w:st="on">Glamorgan</st1:placename></st1:place> before the Kings Justice the Honourable George Hardinge.
For the prosecution the case was a difficult one; even if the evidence given at the inquest had not been ruled out, no single act of violence could be immediately attributed to being the cause of death. The prosecution had therefore to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that William Thomas's death had been the direct result of John Webborn's mistreatment.
To do this they had the even more difficult task of proving, at a time when protection for an employee was unheard of, and even the young trade union movement was soon to be legislated against under the General Combination Acts, that the physical punishments administered by John Webborn had far exceeded that which he, just as any other master, had a legal right to exercise over his servants.
What is more, if they managed to prove Webborn had exceeded what was morally acceptable as his rights as a master, they still had to prove that not only had he wilfully caused the child's physical deterioration, but had then exposed him to extreme weather conditions with the malicious intention of causing death.
The prosecution also made it clear that there could be no possibility of a conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter. As far as the law was concerned John Webborn was either guilty or innocent of the murder of William Thomas.
In the words the Attorney General used to address to the jury:
" It was murder on this indictment, or, as it bore upon the charge before them, it was no offence at all."
On the face of it, to prove "murder on this indictment" was an uphill task.
As far as witnesses were concerned the prosecution only had two non-expert witnesses of any importance. The labourer who had borne first the living and then the dead boy from Rhossili to Swansea, and a maid from Webborn's house who would testify to the general mistreatment of the child and more importantly had witnessed the beating around the head that Webborn had administered to William Thomas with the brass handled horsewhip
The defence, as expected, tried hard to discredit the testimony of these two witnesses, and failed. The labourers actions, in first telling his master that to send the boy home in his condition and in such weather would surely kill him, and subsequently in doing all he could to protect the child, and when failing, in carrying his dead body home to his family convinced the jury that they were dealing with an honest man.
This was the same in the case of the maidservant whose, as the Judge pointed out to the jury, obvious impartiality and reverence for the truth gave her a faultless credibility. At no point in her testimony did she deny that the child was often sullen and difficult in the presence of her master, and in such circumstances possibly required more than the normal amount of chastisement. What she did tell the Court was that punishment was administered too frequently and was far too brutal.
The medical evidence for the prosecution was given by a <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Swansea</st1:place></st1:city> surgeon, Mr Collins, who had also been present at the inquest. On its own the medical evidence was not enough to support the accusation of intention of malice required for a conviction on the charge of murder, though quite possibly it would have been enough for a conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter, if one had been sought.
However Surgeon Collins evidence, coming as it did after the testimony of the two servants, was crucial to the prosecution’s case.
Judge Hardinge asked Collins:
"Upon your examination of the deceased, and upon what you have heard from the witnesses, tell us, what in your opinion was the cause of death?"
As the opinions of most expert witnesses of whatever century are often both lengthy and convoluted thus was Surgeon Collins.
In short, he stated that he could find no single cause of death; the boy had not suffered any wound that could be described on its own as being mortal, and the extreme coldness of the day alone was unlikely to have killed him. His conclusion was that:
" the ill treatment which has been described, in all or part of it, the assaults, the wounds or contusions, the want of necessary food and of sufficient apparel, had occasioned the death of the deceased."
The defence, sensing one would imagine, that the initiative had passed to the prosecution, argued that the surgeon's opinions were not proof, as indeed they were not.
They continued by arguing that the intense cold on the morning of January the 29th could have killed a healthy person, or that the shock the boy suffered by falling from the horse, coupled with the cold could have caused his death (the labourer had testified earlier that the boy had suffered no apparent additional injury from the fall). Finally they claimed, somewhat desperately, if Webborn’s assaults and deprivations had in fact been the cause of William Thomas's death they had been without malicious intent.
As what was possibly a last resort, and in contradiction to their acceptance that although Webborn had been brutal, it hadn't been malicious, the defence called several prominent citizens (none of whom were or ever had been one of his servants) as witnesses to Webborn's character.
All these good folk testified, in good faith, though with a degree of reticence, to the accused man’s well known humanity and integrity.
The Judges summing up was a lengthy, as impartial as he could make it and involved clarification of the law as regards implied malice * when applied to the act of murder.
He then told the jury that there had been no positive testimony that John Webborn had in fact starved, beaten or exposed the boy to death.
*Put very simply, if someone commits various acts of wilful cruelty but without the direct intention to cause death but are of the nature which can endanger life and death is caused as a result then these acts are construed as murder. In addition, if these acts are committed over a protracted period, thus giving adequate time to reflect on and stop such actions, then the malicious intention is seen to be aggravated.
Nor did it positively appear that sending William Thomas home in such a weakened condition had in fact dealt a death blow.
He was, the Judge said, prepared to leave it to the jury to form an opinion in their own minds and consciences, as to whether the accused man's treatment of his servant had been morally correct, and if not whether this treatment had been so severe as to be the direct cause of the child's death.
The essence of the Honourable Justice Harding's legal argument was that if Webborn's inhuman treatment (during his summing up he stated that on the evidence he believed it to be so) coupled with the boy’s exposure to the weather caused his death, whether intentional or not, then, basing their decision on what is called a moral conviction of guilt, they were bound by their oaths to bring in a verdict of guilty.
Only if the jury could find any other cause for William Thomas's death, such as the severity of the weather alone, as refuted by Surgeon Collins with whom they were at liberty to disagree, should they incline towards mercy.
It took the jury two hours to come to their verdict. It may have come as a surprise to some of those present who believed that such a verdict could not be founded on such imprecise evidence, but that one word guilty obviously found approval in the heart and mind of the Judge.
In passing sentence the Honourable Justice George Hardinge addressed Webborn.
" regardless of justice and compassion, you violated the laws of God and man; you became the guilty author of this poor creature’s death:-and why?, not on a fit of passion, of provocation's real or supposed, not even, though deliberately for the purpose of correction; but from the fiend like depravity which tortures for the mere exercise of cruelty, our slaves and victims."
On the morning of the Friday following this speech, for John Webborn, Master, as for his servant William Thomas, Child of God,
There was no mercy.
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