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Reference: NLW MS 21834B

The autobiography of William Owen the 'noted smuggler' who was hanged for murder at Carmarthen on 2 May 1747.

Glyn Parry, 'Autobiography of a smuggler', in National Library of Wales Journal, 24, pp. 84-92

At Sotheby's, 22-23 July 1982, lot 139, the National Library purchased a remarkable manuscript autobiography (NLW MS. 21834B) of William Owen the 'noted smuggler' who was hanged for murder at Carmarthen on 2 May 1747. The volume measures 200mm. by 125mm. and is bound in vellum. The text fills 161 of the volume's 176 pages (approximately 18,000 words). Originally the autobiography was either written by Owen himself or dictated by him whilst he awaited his execution at Carmarthen gaol to the Rev. John Davies (probably the John Davies who was rector of Cardigan, 1743-63) who has attested that he attended on Owen during his confinement.

This ms. is a copy in the hand of Daniel G. Matthias whose name is inscribed inside the front cover along with the date, January 1811. Despite extensive research Matthias continues to elude me. He may be related to Sir Henry Matthias of Fern Hill, Pembrokeshire, who was the Prothonotary of the Carmarthen circuit from 1783 until the Court of Great Sessions was abolished in 1830. This would certainly explain how Matthias got hold of the original ms. in the first place.

Criminal biography

The genre of criminal biography, whilst particularly well known in England, is rare to say the least in eighteenth-century Wales. Miss Eiluned Rees,formerly of the National Library of Wales, editor of the definitive bibliography of pre-1820 Welsh printed works, Libri Walliae, informs me that there are only about half a dozen brief biographies of convicted Welsh criminals prior to that date. Probably the most comparable work is A Circumstantial Account of the Evidence produced On the Trial Of Lewis Lewis the Younger, For the MURDER of Thomas Price, late of Pen-y-Graig in the Parish of Llanafan-Fawr in the County of Brecon (1789). The most publicised criminal biographies in eighteenth-century England are the Ordinary (i.e. chaplain) of Newgate's Accounts. See P. Linebaugh, 'The Ordinary of Newgate and his Account', in J. S. Cockburn, ed., Crime in England 1550-1800 (London, 1979), 236-69.

This rarity in itself makes the autobiography extremely valuable. What makes it even more valuable, perhaps without parallel, is the fact that it contains a transcript of Owen's trial for murder at the Carmarthenshire Spring Great Sessions held in April 1747. The transcript is the only original source for Owen's trial since the gaol files of the Carmarthen Court of Great Sessions for 1743-9 are missing. I know of no other transcripts of eighteenth-century Welsh criminal trials and this particular transcript is precious evidence for court procedure in criminal trials in the Court of Great Sessions. Court procedure in the trials of criminals in the Court of Great Sessions - judging from the transcripts of Owen's trial - is very similar to the practice of English Assize Courts as described by J. H. Baker in 'Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law 1550-1800' in J. S. Cockburn, op. cit., 15-48. A significant difference was the need for interpreters in Wales.

Motivation for writing

I do not propose to go at length into why the work was compiled. Suffice it to say that the motivating forces were no doubt moral and financial considerations. The moral consideration was a need to indelibly impress on the mind of the reader the gruesome and inevitable end of an individual who continually flouted both the moral code laid down in the Bible and the Law. Owen's moral transgression included filial disobedience, 'debauchery', pride and vanity. The financial consideration was the possibility of making money from the publication and sale of the autobiography. This was certainly why the Ordinary of Newgate published his Accounts. In this instance it seems that Daniel James, the gaoler, rather than John Davies, the minister, was the intended beneficiary. After completion the ms. was handed to James (NLW MS 21834B, f.l) possibly in recompense for his expenses in maintaining Owen in prison. The autobiography states that James 'a very hospitable man, took compassion upon him [Owen] and found him with necessaries' (NLW MS 21834B, f.120).

What follows then is a brief resume of Owen's autobiography. I have corroborated some particulars in his story and added some further evidence. Generally, the autobiography has some basis in fact, but Owen has doubtlessly exaggerated some parts in order to show himself in a more favourable light. Further likely sources, such as the Customs records and Treasury Solicitor's papers, I have not yet had the opportunity to search.

Early years

On the evidence of the parish registers deposited at the National Library, William Owen was born in the parish of Nevern, Pembrokeshire in January 1717, the son of Owen David Bowen (though Owen does not once name him in his autobiography) who was 'looked upon as the most substantial farmer in the said parish'. I have found no evidence for the wealth and social standing of Owen David Bowen. As the wealthiest farmer in the parish one would expect him to fill the roles of parish constable and churchwarden but he does not appear to have done so. If Owen's account is correct then his father must have been a comparatively wealthy man, since few farmers could afford to send a son to school let alone contemplate paying for an University education. It will also be seen that Owen's father purchased a vessel for him.

Owen received the best education the 'country' could afford, probably at Cardigan, but flatly declined his father's offer to send him to university in order to become a clergyman and similarly rejected an offer of an apprenticeship to an attorney. He loathed farming and insisted that he wanted to be a sailor. Thus in 1731 or 1732 he ran away from home to Haverfordwest and joined a small vessel trading with Bristol. He sailed with this ship for a year before returning home chastened by the experience of being a mere tea-boy and of being whipped. He was, as he maintained, 'too much of a gentleman for such usage'.


To the delight of his parents he started to work on the farm but soon wearied of being 'on a level with the common labourers' and promptly absconded for a second time. On this occasion he enlisted on board a Bideford vessel. Upon his return home in 1733 his parents succumbed to his wishes and purchased a small vessel for him. He then 'betook himself to debauchery' with Madam Stokes's maid in Cardigan. Displeased with his son's conduct Owen Bowen re-possessed the vessel. Owen, no doubt equally displeased at his father's conduct, 'out of revenge' married the maid. She was Anne Nicholas. According to the parish registers in NLW, they were married at Cardigan on 15 February 1735. Owen mentions two children; they were Anne baptized on 4 November 1735 and William baptized on 31 August 1737. Owen's father seeing that his new, if unwelcome, daughter-in-law carried no fortune, relented and returned the vessel to his son and gave him a sum of money to establish himself in trade.

The smuggling begins

Owen continued legitimate trading for a year before venturing on his maiden smuggling expedition in order, as he asserts, to make his fortune. The voyage was a disaster since the inexperienced smuggler's vessel was seized by Customs officers on the return journey from the Isle of Man. Penniless, regretting the fact that he had married so young, and seeking adventure he enlisted as second mate on board a ship bound for the West Indies. He fled this ship, however, after a quarrel with the captain and subsequently joined a well-armed smuggler aptly named the Terrible.

Sometime in 1736 the Terrible whilst on a smuggling run was approached by two Spanish 'guard- coastars'. The Terrible's captain - by Owen's account a rank coward - wanted to run for it but Owen and the other 'officers' were determined to stand and fight. The crew (with the captain securely locked in his cabin) led by an heroic Owen engaged the Spanish ships in a furious two hour battle during which 60 Spaniards were killed, 25 in an instant when Owen rolled powdered casks on board one of the Spanish ships. Eleven of the Terrible's crew were killed and Owen himself suffered a bad wound in the back of his head. Owen's and the crew's safe arrival was warmly welcomed by the locals in Barbadoes. Indeed the welcome seems to have been over-enthusiastic for Owen soon 'gave himself up to women, embracing all opportunities', and though 'a sober and sensible man not given to cursing or swearing' his sexual liaisons resulted in illegitimate children 'of all colours'.

Further smuggling adventures, including a couple of skirmishes with the Spaniards off Salamanca and Honduras, were rudely interrupted by a heavily armed British man-of-war which blew off his mainmast forcing him to strike his colours. The captain of the man-of-war was so 'delighted' at having captured Owen, who was in his estimation 'such a brave fellow', that he appointed him midshipman.

Birth of a son

He sailed on this ship for twenty months until a letter from his father informing him of the birth of his son kindled his longing for home. After deceiving the captain with a forged letter he was granted permission to leave. He arrived at Portsmouth in November after an absence of three and a half years. The November referred to must be November 1739 since he left Cardigan a few months after the birth of his daughter in November 1735. He must then have set off for the Caribbean about May 1736.

Owen was now comparatively well off and with a sum of money given to him by his indulgent father he purchased a vessel in Swansea and commenced legitimate trading. His business flourished and he expanded into malting and curing herrings. While his business thrived his marriage floundered. His wife confessed to having an adulterous affair with a local gentleman and from then on Owen grew to hate her and even though he kept her 'in a handsome way' he began to have extra-marital affairs of his own. If his account is correct then simple arithmetic would have shown Owen that he was not the father of his namesake.His affairs with two Irish women proved disastrous however; both deceived him. One was a kept woman with an illegitimate child, while the other was a secret drinker and Owen hated a 'drunken woman above everything'.

Corn riot at Cardigan

He then returned to his old smuggling ways with considerable success. Unexpected trouble came his way, however, in the guise of a corn riot at Cardigan. A crowd of 80 or more attacked his ship. They opened the ship's hatches and also stole the mainsail. Owen after seeing that firing over the crowd achieved nothing fired into them wounding the leader. With his crew of two he then drove the crowd off his ship and forced them to hand back the mainsail. When the dust had settled the crowd informed Owen that they bore no personal animosity towards him but that a local man with whom Owen had quarrelled had got them drunk and incited them to attack his ship.

This event happened on 1 March 1741. Owen's account is not complete however. He omits to mention the fact that he brought a prosecution against seven of the rioters for riotous assembly and stealing his mainsail. The Cardigan Grand Jury returned a true bill at the Cardigan Spring Great Sessions of 1742 but the verdict is not known (NLW, Great Sessions 4/892/4). This does not square up to Owen's assertion that he 'made a peace with them [the rioters]' since prior to the formation of a professional police force prosecutions were almost invariably instigated by individuals. Moreover, Owen himself was bound over to keep the peace especially towards John Bowen of St. Dogmaels, mariner. Bowen heads the seven names on the indictment of the rioters so that it is quite probable that he was the 'chief' - as Owen calls him - whom he shot.

Attack on Aber-mad

Owen had a brief respite from smuggling when he decided to assist Thomas Parry, an Aberystwyth attorney and a 'sincere' friend. Parry had incurred the wrath of the Johnes family of Aber-mad by 'demanding his own' and was being harassed by the family - who always had 40 men at their disposal - for his pains. Owen, then, led a troop composed of 'gentlemen and others' in an assault on the mansion house of Aber-mad. The majority of his followers turned tail at the first whiff of grape-shot, leaving Owen with but eighteen men. Despite his depleted force Owen persisted and the fighting continued unabated for eleven hours. The conflict was finally resolved when Owen placed a cask of gunpowder on a wagon, set the wagon on fire and ran it under the balcony of Aber-mad. The besieged surrendered immediately.

Incredible as this attack sounds, on the mansion house of a man who was, after all, High Sheriff of Cardiganshire in 1737, it is authenticated by strong circumstantial evidence. Thomas Parry was a scion of the Llidiardau estate in the parish of Llanilar and a neighbour therefore to the Johnses of Aber-mad. Parry did as Owen states - 'demand his own' - by bringing an action of debt against Thomas Johnes in April 1741. Johnes refused to appear though frequently summoned. The court awarded the suit and damages to Parry. The refusal of Johnes to appear in court is certainly consistent with his behaviour both previous to and following 1741 (apparently, he forced messengers to eat the summonses!). Johnes was in severe financial difficulties and had mortgaged his estate in 1736. He refused to pay the interest on the mortgage and even though proceedings 'were taken again and again they failed because the "said Thomas Johnes had lived many years past in open and publick defiance of the law",' (NLW, Great Sessions 18/272, m. 4; 'Cardigan Freeholders in 1760' in West Wales Historical Records, iii (1912-13), 111 and Bethan Phillips, Peterwell The History of a Mansion and its Infamous Squire (Llandysul, 1983), 125-7).

In 1758 Johnes was imprisoned in the Fleet. Lewis Morris wrote that Johnes 'had been carried to Cardigan jail by a mob of 100 men, and that 100 men of his [Johnes] mob, hearing of his being decoyed into their snare, have march'd ... to Cardigan to carry him off'. (Quoted in West Wales Historical Records, op. cit., 111). This tallies quite well with Owen's assertion that Johnes had 'about fourty people at command' (NLW MS 21834B, p. 44). It is also known that a crowd of mainly Llanychaearn and Llanilar yeomen - almost certainly tenants of the Aber-mad estate - led by a Llanbadarn gentleman and John Johnes of Llanychaearn, gentleman, on 14 June 1742, attacked Thomas Parry's house in Aberystwyth. Windows were smashed and threats were made to demolish the house and to kill Parry (NLW, Great Sessions 4/892/5). Even though more than a year had elapsed since Parry commenced his suit it seems probable that Johnes's refusal to appear in court had delayed the conclusion, or if not, the debt and damages remained unpaid. Possibly the assault on Aber-mad was in reprisal for the attack on Parry's house.

Return to smuggling and a new 'wife'

Returning to smuggling Owen narrowly avoided capture in the Isle of Man by pretending to be a Welsh baronet cruising in his yacht. Similarly, only the weather saved him in Whitehaven, while off Workington he seriously damaged a Customs cruiser. He sailed from Workington to the Isle of Man where he met and fell in love with a young woman and even though she had promised to marry a local gentleman Owen won her affection. Owen 'inwardly grieved' that he was married already. He considered that his wife's adultery was sufficient ground for a divorce but desisted from divorcing her because of all the 'inconveniences' that that would entail. Divorce was rare in the eighteenth century since a private act of Parliament was required which was inevitably an expensive procedure.

On his next expedition he ran smuggled goods to Pembrokeshire before sailing to Cardigan. Here he found his wife drunk and running up bills in local public houses. He paid the bills and decided to leave his wife and marry the Manx woman. Astonishingly, during this interlude at Cardigan, the revenue officers asked the poacher to turn game-keeper by assisting them in the hunt for salt smugglers. Whilst the officers' backs were turned Owen cheerfully sold his own smuggled goods before finally sailing for the Isle of Man.

The Customs officers strike

He then resolved to sail to Westmoreland and took his 'young woman' with him in order to get married since, as she was a minor, her friends in the Isle of Man refused to give their consent. Owen, after landing, went on foot to Kendall to meet his 'correspondent' about a cargo and left a Yorkshireman in charge of his vessel. On his return he found that his ship had been seized by Customs officers who had successfully bribed the Yorkshireman. The officers took practically everything Owen owned on board the ship, a loss (excluding the value of the ship) which he calculated at between £400 and £500. His small crew, though each man had been wounded, managed to escape. Owen was left, however, with but a shilling in his pocket.

Owen and his 'young woman' now pretended to be man and wife and made their way on foot from Kendall to Liverpool. Whilst she stayed with her sister-in-law in Liverpool Owen went to Cardigan where he advertized the loss of his ship and raffled a cow by which means he raised £30. He informed his wife that he was leaving her and left for the Isle of Man via Liverpool.

He then re-commenced smuggling on a Manx ship. He smuggled goods to Liverpool and to Cumberland in November 1743 and then ran a large quantity of tea to Barmouth before sailing to Conwy to purchase a yacht from a local squire with the money his new 'wife' had given to him.

Conflict at Cardigan

After disposing of most of his smuggled goods in St. Brides Bay, Pembrokeshire, on 12 March 1744 he sailed with the remainder of his cargo to Cardigan. Here he was met by the revenue cruiser which he quickly repulsed and unloaded his prohibited goods. His vessel, which he had moored on the Teifi, was ambushed by the Collector of Customs and twenty assistants composed of four Spanish prisoners of war, two convicts, a tide-officer and 'supernumery catch poles and informers'. The attack was launched on 4 April 1744. Owen and his crew killed four men - two Spaniards and two Welshmen one of whom was the Customs officer - and wounded a convict whom Owen took on board at his own request. Four days later with the advent of fair weather he sailed for the Isle of Man.

The Cardiganshire Grand Jury at the Autumn Sessions of 1744 returned a true bill against Owen but since a person could not be tried for felony in absentia (Owen, of course having fled to the Isle of Man) all proceedings were stayed. The coroner's inquest found that James Phillips, the Customs officer, had been murdered by Owen. In the case of the other Welshman killed, one John Hughes, saddler, a verdict of murder by person(s) unknown was returned. This was also the verdict on one of the Spaniards named Domingo de Zioneto whilst the other Spaniard named Alfonso Pintado 'got over the side of a ship and grappled there in order to save his life from the said William Owen but fell in the river and was drowned' (which presumably meant accidental death) (NLW, Great Sessions 4/893/1).

The net was closing in on Owen. The Governor of the Isle of Man issued a warrant for his arrest. Two of his crew had already been captured and his ship seized. A watch was placed on all Manx ports to prevent his escape. He and his 'wife' were forced to hide in caves until they finally managed to escape in a Strangford oyster-boat. There was no peace in Strangford either since the Collector of Customs there had an information against Owen which forced him to move inland to Lusgrove in May 1744. Here he and his 'wife' pretended to be peddlers and for three months followed the markets and fairs. He then decided to go to Wales to seek advice whether it would be safe for him to surrender or not and stand trial, that is, for the murder of James Phillips. Despite his friends' assurances that he could safely stand trial he retreated back to Ireland.

Capture and arrest

He then returned to the Isle of Man on business. Bad weather marooned him on the island and the authorities soon got wind of his presence. He fled to the hills in company with his 'wife'. She was soon caught and imprisoned for carrying food to him. Cold and hungry Owen surrendered. A King's messenger brought Owen and his crew to Liverpool and, after a confinement of some months, to Hereford. After Owen's capture the trial was held not in Cardiganshire where the offence had been committed but at Hereford. This was almost certainly because the Commissioners of Customs thought they had a far better chance of securing a guilty verdict in land-locked Herefordshire where there was no tradition of smuggling and where the almost universal contempt felt by maritime communities towards Customs officers was absent. The Commissioners of Customs brought in 'a very severe prosecution' against them but Owen, who defended himself, created a deep impression on the judge and the gentleman spectators by his able oratory. After a trial lasting twelve hours he and his crew were acquitted.

Owen and two members of his crew were charged with the murder of James Phillips and one of the Spaniards named Domingo St. Sebastian and not Domingo de Zioneto. All three were acquitted on the second charge (who cared about the death of a Spanish prisoner of war anyway?) whilst on the first charge, though acquitted of murder as Owen states, they were convicted of manslaughter (PRO, Assi. 2/13). The sentence is not known but it was certainly not imprisonment since - if Owen is to be believed - he made his way to the Isle of Man immediately after the trial. The date of the trial was in actual fact 16 March 1745 and not 23 March as Owen stated. If Owen is correct in his statement that the trial lasted 12 hours then it was an unusually long trial since eighteenth century criminal trials were very perfunctory (PRO, Assi. 2/13; J. H. Baker, op. cit., 37).

Return to the Isle of Man

He returned to the Isle of Man and took a house in Douglas. He then decided to have one last smuggling run and made a successful trip to South Wales. After this venture his 'wife' prevailed upon him to refrain from smugglng and he then ran a 'pacquet' between Dublin and the Isle of Man for the 'season' of 1745.

His resolve to retire from smuggling was quickly forgotten for in late September 1745 he set off for South Wales in a vessel belonging to his cousin. There was a law suit pending between himself and another person and he was obliged to leave his 'wife'. Owen's statement here is very unclear. He states that 'he was obliged to leave his wife's sister son' (NLW, 21834B, p. 106). Did he possibly mean that he was obliged to leave his 'wife' with her sister in law who lived at Liverpool whom she had visited before (ibid., p. 82)? He sailed on 2 October but encountered a raging storm on the following day which completely wrecked the ship. Owen was the sole survivor. He returned to the Isle of Man to expect the return of his 'wife'. He waited until the end of November and, having heard no news, he sailed for Liverpool and thence made his way to Cardigan. On his way to Cardigan he was informed by a sailing acquaintance that the vessel (carrying his 'wife'), presumably the vessel on which his 'wife' sailed to Liverpool from the Isle of Man though this is not at all clear from the text, had been wrecked two months previously and that there were no survivors. The loss of his 'wife' was a shattering blow to Owen. He stayed with friends in Cardigan until March 1746 before returning to Dublin where he found employment as a ship's mate.

Following two voyages as a ship's mate he went master of a 20 gun privateer called Admiral Blake of Liverpool in July 1746. The privateer returned to Cork in January 1747 having met with little success. Worse, the crew fell victim to disease off the Barbary coast which claimed many lives and debilitated Owen. After recovering somewhat he moved from Cork to Dublin. On the way, however, he caught a cold which brought about a relapse. He stayed in Dublin for a while still very ill. All his possession had by now been either sold or pawned. He left Dublin for Liverpool and lodged at a doctor's house before returning to Cardigan to recover his health.

The murder of James Lilly

When he came to 'South Wales' he met one James Lilly on the road and they travelled together, Lilly on horse-back, Owen on foot. There were other people on the road, probably the hue and cry, about a hundred yards away. These people heard a shot and saw Lilly fall off his horse with a pistol in his hand. Owen was captured, examined and confined to goal.

James Lilly was a fencing master of Cardigan. Owen knew him well: he had brought an action of trespass upon the case against him in 1742 concerning work done by Owen for Lilly (almost certainly freighting goods; see NLW MS 21834B, p. 34). The dispute was sent to arbitration but the result is not known (NLW, Great Sessions 18/272/m.1; Great Sessions 14/53, f.50). According to one source Lilly himself was a notorious smuggler (Penny London Post 10 April 1747). When Owen shot Lilly both were being pursued by the hue and cry.

They had, apparently burgled the house of one John Thomas of Nevern, stolen twenty guineas and shot a servant in the face in the process (Penny London Post, ibid.). Having vanished for a few days Owen and Lilly were seen in Cardigan and a hue and cry gave pursuit. Lilly shot the horse of the leading pursuer whilst Owen shot the pursuer himself (Penny London Post, ibid.). The pursuer was the Cardigan 'post boy' which explains why Owen should state that after his arrest he was imprisoned 'on suspicion of killing the Cardigan post, but not charged then with the killing of Lilly' (NLW MS 21834B, pp. 119-20).

The Cardigan 'post boy' was Evan George of Cardigan. His widow was awarded 20/- and some half dozen members of the hue and cry 40/- between them by the Cardiganshire Quarter Session 'for the future encouragement of persons pursuing such notorious malefactors' (Ceredigion Archives, Cards. Q.S./O.B./1, Easter Sessions 1747). To compound matters Lilly had also escaped from Haverfordwest gaol where he was awaiting transportation to America for seven years for stealing two linen shirts (NLW, Great Sessions 15/53, f.60; A Calendar of All High-Sheriffs For the County of Carmarthen ... Front ... 1400-1818 (Carmarthen, 1818), 35).

Exactly why Owen shot Lilly will probably never be known. Did Owen, who was on foot and ill, kill Lilly so that he could take his horse and escape his pursuers? A coroner's inquest brought in a verdict of murder. Owen was duly indicted and tried at Carmarthen on 17 April 1747 and, after again defending himself, he was convicted. He was executed on 2 May 1747. He was thirty years old.

Glyn Parry