This week, local historian Mark Muller looks at crime and punishment and the story of the last man hanged in Haverfordwest...

ON April 21, 1821, William Roblin was hanged at Haverfordwest Castle.

It was not only the last public execution, but was the last time that any execution was undertaken in Pembrokeshire. After this date executions took place in Swansea. As the last man so dealt with at Haverfordwest, Roblin tends to be the only one remembered, but the list of those executed or who received extremely harsh treatment is a long, extremely sad one.

A prison, or ‘House of Correction’, had been created during the 1770s within the inner ward of the castle but it was an extremely ramshackle, grim affair consisting of a double decker, timber arrangement against the north eastern wall. A huge treadmill was erected to provide the element of hard labour; men had to do fifteen turns in it before a rest was given, women, twelve turns. This prison, for the county, was in addition to the tiny town gaol that stood originally in the Mariner’s Square before being moved a few yards to a point immediately below St Mary’s Church wall.

Prison reformers, most notably John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and later Charles Dickens, campaigned endlessly for improvement in the treatment of prisoners but it was slow coming. As the result of an outbreak of scarlet fever, which the whole prisoner population succumbed to, a decision was made to build a new prison.

With grant money of £1,500 from the government in 1817, the prison was built that we are all familiar with. It housed the Record Office until very recently and is now the subject of the controversial decision to sell it and potentially have a ‘bijou’ hotel in its place.

William Roblin’s crime was the murder of 23-year-old William Davies, of Boulston, on August 18,1820. Davies worked for Roblin and following an argument at the ‘ale house’ at Deep Lake Farm, Roblin left the property which led everyone to belief that the argument was over. But he had only gone to fetch his gun and returned and shot Davies.

Roblin immediately went on the run and the vicar of St Mary’s, Haverfordwest, was asked to swear in a number of special constables to enable a man hunt. Roblin was found and arrested in Martletwy on September 4, but at that point Davies was still alive. He died five days later on the 9th and Roblin’s trial for murder was set for the next visit of an Assize judge.

The court records of Roblin’s trial show him to have been 50 years of age and he is listed as a farmer. Initially Roblin’s wife was implicated and arrested with him and even went to trial but was acquitted.

On the day of the execution, the town took on a fairground type atmosphere and 5,000 people are estimated to have come to watch the hanging. The site of the gallows can be estimated as being very close to the entrance into the castle from the fact that the upper rooms in Dark Street were being rented out for the day giving, apparently, an excellent view.

Not all executions were carried out at the castle. Edward Lee was hanged on Merlin’s Hill on May 1, 1753.

Any examination of trials and punishment records requires the hardest of hearts and has to be done with an attitude that is objective in the extreme.

Women consistently come off the worst. In addition to their secondary status they had invariably to look after small children on their own and were often compelled to steal small amounts of coal or food for which crimes they were flogged, executed or transported.

The story of the Mathews family from Prendergast has to be the most awful; during the mid 18th century, the mother of three small girls stole a small item of clothing for one of her daughters.

Sentenced to death, this was commuted to transportation following a whipping around the town whilst stripped to the waist. On completion of this first piece of punishment, and as she was being taken away bloody and semi-conscious, her husband committed suicide and the three small girls were left on their own. Hard Times.