The year was 1916 and John Elias, or Sion ‘Lias of Tyddyn Bach, Llanfaethlu, was on trial for his life for murdering his son, also called John Elias.
Sion was an ex-sailor and quarryman who farmed his small holding with its meagre stock of two cows and a calf. He was known in the village as the ‘man with a gun’, because he was never seen without one. He also had the reputation of being something of a thief, but apparently no-one would accuse him of anything because everyone was afraid of him.
His son was very adept at repairing clocks, and found ample work in he village. He would never accept payment until he was certain the customer was happy. He had quarrelled with his father on at least one occasion when a satisfied customer had given Sion ‘Lias a sum of money in payment for clock repairs, asking if he would give it to his son and Sion had appropriated the money for himself.
Sion ‘Lias had difficulties finding a housekeeper, because he was very reluctant to pay a proper wage. Finally John Elias the son persuaded Sion to advertise for one. One Catherine Price of Abergele was employed for a wage of five shillings (25p) a week. She stayed for one night only, and left. John junior decided that it would be better to take a wife than employ a housekeeper, and unknown to his father he proposed marriage to Catherine by letter. She agreed and came back to Tyddyn Bach. She stayed for a short time then returned to Abergele. The marriage however was still to take place and preparations went ahead.
Things now started to turn bad. One day Sion was unable to find the key to his strong box where he kept his bank book. He went to the branch of the London City and Midland Bank, and asked if anyone other than himself could draw money out of his account. Although he was assured that his money was perfectly safe, he began to suspect that it was his son who had stolen the key, and was planning to rob him. All in all he was fairly well off. He had £20 in the bank twelve shillings and six pence (61p) in the Post Office, as well as a few pound notes in the house.
At a quarter to ten on a Saturday morning Sion went to a shop called ‘Shop Blac’ and from there he was given a lift to the Coffee House in the village in the car of Thomas Williams, the carrier. Later that morning he was seen in the vicinity of Tyddyn Bach, and later still at about 12 o’clock, he he was seen grazing his cattle along the verges of the main road. Then one William Parry , a neighbour had just finished his dinner and was crossing a field near Tyddyn bach, when he heard a shot. However, he thought nothing of it at the time.
There follows a complicated series of events. Sion ‘Lias went to another neighbour’s house, one Ellen Jones of Glasfryn, who was usually called on to lay a body out after a death. Sion told her that his son had shot himself, and would she come to prepare the body. He then went to a house called Hen Dy, owned by one John Williams and asked if he would go for Hugh Francis, the policeman. Before the officer arrived, another neighbour Edward Owen Tyddyn Waun, came to Tyddyn Bach to collect the buttermilk for his pigs, as was his wont. Sion met him before he arrived
‘My son John has shot himself’,’ he said.
‘A likely story,’ said Edward Owen, before he could stop himself. ‘You shot him yourself, you devil.’
Another witness told of a conversation he had with Sion earlier. He had found him crying and when he asked what was wrong, Sion said that his son had shot himself. He had stumbled against an axe he was repairing at the time, and that had fallen on the gun causing it to go off.
Meanwhile Catherine Price was preparing for her forthcoming marriage. She received a telegram from Sion telling her that his son was dead and that she was no longer required.
An inquest was held on the 16th May 1916 in the chapel schoolroom. Dr T W Clay of Holyhead, and Dr O J Edwards of Bodedern concluded that John Elias jnr could not have shot himself, because the gun had been fired from a distance. Another inquest was held in Holyhead the following Monday. Mr R Jones Roberts was the Coroner, Mr W Thornton Jones represented the police, and Mr R Gordon Roberts defended Sion ‘Lias. Witnesses established that things were ‘not right’ between father and son, but it was the evidence of one Mary Jane Williams that carried the most weight. Sion had called her to Tyddyn Bach and had told her that he had shot his son, and that she and her husband could come to live with him on the farm.
‘Why did you do such a thing,’ asked Mary, aghast. ‘They’ll hang you for sure now.’
Sion said that he would give her the black cow and some items of furniture if she would keep quiet about what he had said. Later he told her that he had shot his son from the farm doorway while his son was mending an axe. He had then propped the gun against the wall by his son’s body.
It was suggested that Sion owed Mary money for work done, and that Mary had accused him out of spite. Mary denied this and further said that John Elias jnr has asked her earlier that year if she would be a witness is something happened to him, as his father had threatened to kill him.
Sion denied everything, saying that he was asleep on the sofa when the deed occurred. Chief Inspector Prothero said that the death was neither suicide or accident, and that Sion’s evidence did not hold water. The Coroner concluded that the medical evidence ruled out suicide. The jury’s task was to decide if the shooting was an accident. They were unable to reach agreement, however, because of the lack of any real evidence, and an open verdict was delivered.
Sion ‘Lias was sent to face the magistrates in Holyhead on the Thursday.
The same two defended and prosecuted. Chief Inspector Prothero of the Anglesey Constabulary gave evidence that he had found a gun hidden in a grandfather’s clock in Tyddyn Bach, but the defence still maintained that there was insufficient evidence to prove that it was Sion ‘Lias who had committed the murder. After a hearing of nine hours, however, the justices felt confident enough to commit him for trial at Beaumaris Court on 2nd June 1916.
The judge was Bernard John Seymour Coleridge. His grandfather John Taylor Coleridge was the nephew of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was considered to be a fair judge. The Sheriff Mr T A Eccles, Trearddur, and his deputy Mr T R Evans, the Chaplain T Charles Williams of Menai Bridge made up the retinue.
The prosecutor was Mr Ellis Jones Griffith, and defending was Mr Thomas Artemus Jones, who had been on Sir Roger Casement’s defence team also in the year 1916.
Sion ‘Lias pleaded ‘Not Guilty’, and it was said that as he stood in the dock he looked old and bent. Evidence was given that there was constant quarrelling between father and son, although Catherine Price maintained that she had never heard this and that Sion was willing for his son to marry her, and that he had promised that she would inherit some property after he died.
Furthermore the defence maintained that Mary Jane Williams who was one of the witnesses, had spent three years in the Valley Workhouse, and that she was still certified ‘insane’. Prothero for the police disagreed with this and said that she seemed sane enough. In any case he said he had arrested Sion ‘Lias before he had heard her evidence.
Another witness Mary Ellen Hughes, a relation of Sion said that Mary had told her that she had lied to the police because she was afraid of being arrested herself, and that John the son had often said that he was going to kill himself or his father, and that on the 10th of May he had put a cartridge in the gun with the intention of shooting his father.
Dr Prydderch of Llangefni, giving evidence on behalf of the defence, said that he disagreed with the findings of the other doctors called by the prosecution, and two other doctors maintained that the injuries were more consistent with someone shooting himself. Mr Artemus Jones made a great deal of the this conflict of medical evidence, and said in his summing up that he hoped that the jury would not send a man to the gallows on such slender evidence.
In his direction to the jury the judge told them to disregard the age of the accused, as that should not mitigate him from committing such a crime. He also said that the evidence of Mary Jane Williams was unreliable as there was evidence that she was easily led and that she was unable to think clearly. She had on several occasions given conflicting evidence.
The jury considered the evidence for an hour, after which they delivered a verdict of ‘Guilty’ but with an appeal for clemency because of the way in which Sion was treated by his son. The judge, however, sentenced him to death, saying that it was up to the Crown to extend mercy.
The appeal was dismissed but a petition was organised by Archdeacon Evans, the incumbent of Llanfaethlu, and most of the inhabitants of the area signed it. The petition was successful, and Sion ‘Lias was sent to Parkhurst rather than the gallows.
He was admitted to the prison’s hospital on the 16th September 1916 suffering from bronchitis and heart disease, and he never really recovered his health. He died on the 4th March 1920, maintaining his innocence to the end.
References Eigra Lewis Roberts Llydad am Lygad, Wikipedia