Family History: Drunk & Riotous

Family History: Drunk & Riotous

For anyone researching their family history, newspaper archives can be an absolute goldmine. Some ancestors might not appear in the newspapers at all, some might appear in the births, marriages and deaths columns. Others, such as my four-times great grandfather, John Wilding, appear quite frequently!

When I started searching for family surnames in Find My Past’s newspaper archives, I had no idea what I would find. I certainly didn’t expect to find an ancestor appearing quite so often. It has, however, given me an insight into the life of a man who died a century before I was born.

Though born in Herefordshire, John Wilding lived in the parish of Bleddfa in Radnorshire, just a short distance from the Welsh border town of Knighton. Being a farmer meant that he regularly attended Knighton market and it seemed that it was on these market days that he ended up in trouble and, subsequently, in the newspaper columns of local newspapers.

The phrases “drunk and disorderly” or “drunk and riotous” were very common in the newspaper articles I found. It seemed that Mr Wilding enjoyed a pint or two whilst at Knighton market and this usually resulted in him getting into trouble. He’d end up at the Petty Sessions and was often fined 5 or 10 shillings plus costs (which were, more often than not, at least twice the amount of the fine!).

On 20th June 1857, John Wilding appeared twice in the Hereford Times! In the first article, he was charged with fighting and riotous behaviour in the public streets of Knighton (having already been cautioned the previous day). Another article, further down the column, is titled “John Wilding, of Bleddfa, again”. This time he was charged with being drunk and disorderly in the public streets of Knighton. Apparently:

“Wilding was again enacting some of his customary performances;… I found Wilding performing numerous feats with his poney; in one instance he was endeavouring to make his poney enter the public house, to which the animal had some aversion;”.

The arrest resulted in John Wilding kicking and hitting the police officer, but Wilding was the worst off. He received a severe blow to his head with the police officer’s stick (who claimed to have been aiming for his knuckles!), which required a surgeon to dress the wound.

In 1867, it got to a point that he had appeared in front of the magistrates so many times before that it was decided that fining the man was ineffective. Instead, he was imprisoned for seven days. It wasn’t long, though, until he was back to his old tricks. Before the year was out, he’d be back at the Petty Sessions, this time for assault.

Even in his seventies, John Wilding was causing trouble on the streets of Knighton. In October 1878, Eddowe’s Shrewsbury Journal and Salopian Journal reported on what they called “A Remarkable Case”. John Wilding was charged with being drunk and riotous at Knighton, having attended an Oddfellows’ fete. At about eight o’clock in the evening, he was found lying on his back in a gutter, and very drunk. Some boys, with great difficulty, helped him along the road a considerable distance. Mr Wilding then caused a disturbance in the middle of the town by shouting and making a noise. Despite being seen drunk by P.S. Rogers, several witnesses claimed that John Wilding had been perfectly sober. Unfortunately for Mr Wilding, the magistrates unanimously agreed that the case was clearly proved. He was imprisoned for one month without hard labour (due to his increasing age) and to pay the costs of the prosecution. I was relieved to read a character reference from one of the magistrates:

“He (Sir Richard) had known defendant for many years as a respectable, inoffensive man when he was sober, but when he indulged in drink his conduct was unbearable. He exceedingly regretted to see the defendant in his present position, and trusted that for the future he would keep from the drink and behave himself well.”

Apparently, the case had created a lot of interest in the town and neighbourhood, and the court was crowded during the five-hour hearing.

Two years later, the very same newspaper would be reporting John Wilding’s death. This time he didn’t make it to Knighton market. On 22nd September 1880, Eddowe’s Shrewsbury Journal and Salopian Journal reported:

“He was found dead on the road leading from his house to Knighton, about ten o’clock on Thursday morning, the horse quietly grazing on the hedge side, and his dog lying beside him and guarding a basket of butter. From all appearance, deceased must have seized with an apoplectic fit, fallen on his back, and died. There were no marks of a struggle or movement, excepting the scratch of his spur on the road.”

In all, I think I’ve found around 30 articles, so far, with John Wilding (my four-times great grandfather), appearing at the Petty Sessions.

In one case, he didn’t turn up until after the proceedings, and on being informed of the result of the case (Fined 5s for drunkenness, 2s 6d for damage to The Kings Head Inn, and 9s 6d expenses), he said he particularly wished to hear the case for himself. The magistrates declined to go into it again but said he was just in time to head a second charge (this time for resisting PC Constance in the execution of his duty on the very same day). He was fined 10s, ordered to keep the peace for twelve months and to pay expenses.

Over the years, other charges included furious riding in the streets of Knighton, assault, breach of the peace, and aiding and abetting. His sons are charged with him on a couple of occasions, too.

I have no idea what lead John Wilding to drink or why it seemingly turned him from a respectable, inoffensive man into one regularly in trouble, but it’s certainly been interesting and fun to read. Who knows what else I might find out about this direct ancestor?

The newspaper archives are definitely proving to be an interesting and useful resource for my family history research. With the research based near the English/Welsh border, I’ve had to be resourceful and search newspapers on both sides of the border and in multiple counties.


Have you researched your family history? Which resources have you found the most useful?


  1. Kelly says:

    I would say we all have our share of “skeletons” in the closet, but I honestly don’t think this ancestor of yours was a skeleton. He was just a fellow who couldn’t hold his liquor! I think it’s fascinating how you’ve been able to find out so much about him this way.

    I’ve not gotten the urge to do any research, but that might be because a great deal of mine has already been done by others. It would be nice to flesh out some of it, though… especially that from over your way (most of mine come from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales).

  2. Jo says:

    It’s such fun finding out about our ancestors. What a sad way to die, alone on the road. I think he probably had a drink problem going by the number of newspaper articles you’ve found.

  3. Barbara says:

    I’ve so enjoyed reading this Nikki, and I think it very telling that “several witnesses claimed John Wilding was perfectly sober.” It just goes to show how popular he was, even if he was a bit of a pest at times. The same with the boys with great difficulty helping him along the road – I don’t think you would find many boys willing to do that these days.
    I was sad to read about his death, especially because his dog was lying beside him, but hopefully it was very quick and John didn’t know too much about it.
    Find my Past is my favourite resource, but I’ve let it laps for a while. I might take out another subscription when we get back from Australia next April. I don’t want to take it before then and be away for three months. I miss being able to refer to it especially as I had just started researching one member of my family who was hanged at the Hertford assizes.

  4. rashbre says:

    Very interesting and good fun to have a real character in the back-story. It’d probably be fun to photograph one of the stories and enlarge into a picture frame.

    I’ll also tip off our family about that site/subscription. I think they use but it doesn’t cover this stuff.

  5. rashbre says:

    Hi Nikki – I just took a peek at that website and was really surprised about how much stuff there was in the old newspapers.

    We’ve an uncommon last name (not rashbre though) and there’s a certain area where the folks lived in the olden days. I can see many mentions with stories involving fires, women, knives, guns and -er- cricket.

    I may have to subscribe at this rate!

    • Nikki says:

      It is amazing what you can find in old newspapers. It’s definitely worth subscribing. They often do £1 for a month, just to get you hooked! They’re adding new newspapers all the time.

  6. Tracy Terry says:

    My goodness, how wonderful. I must admit that researching my family tree I hoped to find something really scandalous but alas nothing. No, not even the merest whiff of one who was drunk and riotous.

  7. Claire Williams says:

    Not exactly the God-fearing, Chapel-going sort! But he must have been quite a loveable character for a magistrate to give him a character reference. I’ve not looked into the newspaper archives much, I work at a Uni so have good access to resources including Historic Digimap for historic photos and maps. I’ll have to start looking at Bleddfa and Bettws!

  8. Teresa says:

    What a tale! And I agree, newspapers are such a rich source of family history – they really help put flesh on the bones, so to speak. I have blogged at least twice about using newspapers in my research and I’m sure I’ll blog again, given how much I’ve found using, among others, Trove, FMP Newspapers, BC Historic Newspapers, and Ancestry’s newspaper collection of obituaries.

  9. Elle says:

    Thanks for this blog post Nikki! I believe I have the same John Wilding in my family tree (1st cousin 5x removed) so thanks for the insight. I am also a ‘Wilding’ from the Radnorshire area (born in Knighton).

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