Poverty Among The Farmers

I considered splitting this long post in two but opted to retain as one to maintain cohesion.

Picton Castle (Copyright Tudor Williams licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

The general poverty of coalmining families in the Saundersfoot area in the 1700s and 1800s is well-known. What is less well-known are the problems faced by the local farmers. In parts of England and Wales farmers made good profits from the changes of the so-called “agricultural revolution”. This is certainly not the case in this part of Pembrokeshire, the following example of a group of farmers from around Thomas Chapel illustrating how precarious the business of farming was.

This table lists five farmers all of whom faced varying degrees of financial jeopardy during the 1810-65 period. At one time or another, they each farmed more than 30 acres as tenants of the Picton Castle estate (PCE) and, with this size of farm, could make a living from farming alone rather than needing to have a second occupation.


Acreage (approx)

Evidence of financial problems

George Hughes


He died in the Narberth workhouse in 1847; had farmed abt. 30 acres up to 1816 but then ran into financial problems
Sarah Phillips


She farmed at Bramble Hill; by 1849, she was twelve months in arrears on her rent; distress levied by PCE on her goods and in receipt of relief as a pauper through the 1870s
Sarah Hughes


Increasing arrears of rent owed to PCE from 1849; 18 months behind by 1851; died in poverty, documented in article in Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph
Morgan Hughes


Financial problems leading to bankruptcy in 1855; his problems are documented in a previous post
Richard Morgan


Bankruptcy, 1863

What was the cause of the problems? The answer is not clear. Farming is and always has been a precarious business with Nature, through disease, drought and fire, often making the difference between success and failure. But local farmers faced man-made problems as well, some of which they could control and others they could not.

National problems

Map showing farms around Thomas Chapel which experienced financial problems c.1840-63 (Begelly tithe map reproduced courtesy of Pembrokeshire Record Office, HDX/1210/1)

The period covered by the Napoleonic Wars represented a boom time for farmers with foodstuffs in short supply due to a run of poor harvests and difficulties obtaining imports. Welsh landlords took advantage of this, some rents more than doubling. In Pembrokeshire the PCE increased its rents by about 77 percent between 1790 and 1820 and George Hughes was a possible victim of this.** William Ormond was Hughes’ predecessor paying 8 shillings an acre in the early 1790s and then 18s from 1799 by which time he was already behind on his rent. With this indicator that the rent was already too high, Hughes took over the farm in 1800 but signed a new lease in 1808 at 22s. It may be no coincidence that he gave up this lease around 1817 shortly after the economic bubble burst, possibly unable to pay his way. David Thomas of Ramshorn farm took over from Hughes but at just the 18s an acre that Ormond had originally agreed in 1799.***

The period from around 1815 to the mid-1840s was punctuated by several economic downturns. Around 1822 for example, many of the local land agents reported to the proprietors the difficulty they found collecting rents. Unfortunately the PCE rentals do not survive for this period so it is impossible to assess how bad the problem was around Thomas Chapel. The rentals do survive to illustrate the problems around 1840, the period of the Rebecca Riots. By 1843, for example, Sarah Phillips of Bramble Hill and Richard Morgan were a year behind on their respective rents.

Regional problems

Contemporaries often noted that west Wales farmers lacked the capital required to make a success of their farms. With storage either poor or non-existent they sold grain at low prices after harvest only to have to re-purchase during the winter months at a high price. Farmhouses too were poor: in 1827 John Francis, tenant of Churchlands farm at nearby Reynalton, was living with his family in an outhouse as he did not have sufficient funds to build a new farmhouse. The supply of capital through banks in the area offered little salvation as they frequently came and went. George Hughes was a victim of the crash of the Narberth & Pembrokeshire Bank in 1826 committed to debtors’ gaol at Haverfordwest by the assignees in bankruptcy of one of the partners.

Local problems

In 1801 the vicar of Begelly, Rev John Williams, provided a pithy description of the main preoccupation of the farmers in his parish. They were

“…chiefly engaged in leading coal and culm to the shore; which they are bound to do by a covenant in their lease. Depending principally upon this business for their livelihood, they greatly neglect the cultivation of their farms.”

There is some evidence of increased activity in the coalfield in the mid-1820s with the work of the Tenby & Begelly Coal Co in the van which, if true, would have provided an Indian summer for the farmers’ carting business. But it did not last long. In 1833, the opening of the tramroad from Thomas Chapel colliery past the pits at Barley Park rendered this occupation largely obsolete.

Operation of the local mines caused another problem to farmers. Even on the comparatively small-scale in which the local mines operated, they left their mark on the landscape. An observer in 1806 noted that “…the whole country is defaced by the large coal slack heaps, many in almost every field and common…”. This must have caused problems to Sarah Hughes in particular. Thomas Chapel colliery was operating on her land from possibly as early as 1825 but definitely by 1838. When operations ceased there in 1854, a new shaft was sunk at New Hayes, also on her land. There is little evidence in PCE documents that she was granted any abatement in her rent to cover for the losses she suffered in the quality and amount of land she held.

For want of conclusive evidence any explanation of what caused this flurry of financial problems around Thomas Chapel remains conjecture. The general vicissitudes of farming in the first 40 years of the 19th century established a tough environment for farmers to succeed in. Regional issues such as lack of capital exacerbated these problems. What remains unclear however is to what extent the local coal industry effected the farmers. For example, how much revenue they lost from the tramroad replacing any carting business is unfortunately hidden from our view. Whatever happened, it is clear that the local farmers, like the coalmining families, often shared similar doubts about where their next shilling was coming from.


** Howells pg 9

*** It cannot be said with certainty that Ormond, Hughes and Thomas farmed the same amount of land but, judging from the available primary sources, it is more than likely.



The National Archives, Parish Acreage Returns 1801 (HO 67/22)

National Library of Wales, Picton Castle estate rentals and leases

Pembrokeshire Record Office (PRO), Debtors’ gaol records (PQ/AG/8)

PRO, Harcourt Powell estate papers (D/POW/H/191)

London Gazette (on-line)

Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph

Narberth, Whitland & Clynderwen Weekly News


Pembrokeshire County History vol. IV, Modern Pembrokeshire, 1815-1974, David W Howell (ed.), Pembrokeshire Historical Society, 1993

Industrial Saundersfoot, Martin Connop Price, Gomer Press, 1982

Land and People in Nineteenth-century Wales, David W Howell, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977

Aerial view of Thomas Chapel today showing some  change in the landscape (such as new housing on Broom Lane) from the above tithe map. The spoil tips have of course been removed.

Poor Law Records (Part One)

In such a poor area as Saundersfoot the Poor Law system played an important role in keeping many out of destitution. This two-part post assesses the surviving Poor Law records to see what value they have for both family and local historians.

The history of the Poor Law can be split in two: firstly, from about 1600 until the mid-1830s, each civil parish was required by statute to raise funds to support its own poor. Records for our area for this first phase are scant: only the Overseers’ Accounts for East Williamston for 1781-1807 & 1826-27 have survived but these are largely illegible due to damp and also incomplete.

From 1834 onwards the system changed to a union of parishes run by a board of elected guardians. The local union was based at Narberth and covered 46 parishes surrounding the town with the new workhouse, completed in 1839, on the road south from Narberth to Begelly. Several sets of records have survived and this first post looks at the most detailed of these, namely the “Abstract and List of Paupers” published by the Union twice a year. Fifteen copies are extant out of a possible run of 21 for the years 1872-1881. The following breakdown shows some of the interesting data contained in the abstracts:

1. All those paupers receiving “outdoor” relief either in kind or by money showing age and address of recipient, reason for relief. Names are listed by parish.

Several of my ancestors appear:

  • Susanna Nash (my gggg-gmother), aged 83 of Thomas Chapel, received £1 13s due to old age. This payment lasted for 11 weeks at 3s a week in 1871
  • The sum of £1 1s was paid by the Union towards the cost of Frances Nash’s funeral (my g-gfather’s sister) in 1881

2. All those paupers receiving “indoor” relief in the workhouse showing age, the number of days in the workhouse and the parish covering the cost.

  • William Nash (aged 10) and his brothers John (8) and Isaac (7), all of Begelly and cousins of my g-gfather, each spent 236 days in the workhouse in 1878. (Their widowed mother was in Carmarthen gaol at the time)

3. All those paupers in the Joint Lunatic Asylum at Carmarthen including the name of the parish covering the cost of their stay.

  • John Belt, aged 23 of Small Drink, Begelly, was in the workhouse in late 1878 but by 1881 he had been moved to the Asylum

This is rich information for family historians.

For local historians the period covered by these abstracts is of significant interest as well. Throughout the 1870s the history of local mining was punctuated by several lengthy stoppages. If these were due to strike action, the Union was under no obligation to offer relief but with little money in the local economy there were many others who suffered as well. Together with other sources, the data in the abstracts can be used to assess the response of the Union to these calamities.


My thanks to Gerry Brawn for pointing this source out to me.

I have copies of the abstracts for the parishes of Begelly & East Williamston, Reynalton and St Issells. If you have labourers, miners and widows amongst your ancestors living in these parishes at the time but you can’t get to the Record Office, leave a Comment on this post or email me at snorbensblog@aol.com and I will check the lists for you.


Pembrokeshire Record Office, The Narberth Union Abstract and List of Paupers (cat ref HDX/1026/1/x)

Pembrokeshire Record Office, East Williamston Overseers’ Accounts (cat ref HPR/110/13 & 14)

From Stepaside to Queensland

I wish to thank Joyce Phillips, grand-daughter of William Morris, for writing this piece for the blog.

William Morris was born at Lower Level in Stepaside, St Issells, on 21 December 1852. His would not have been an auspicious birth. His mother Mary Morris was unmarried and no father’s name was given on his birth certificate. Mary was the daughter of William Morris and his wife Ann (née Evans) who lived at Lower Level. By the time of William’s birth his grandfather, a blacksmith, had died and in the 1861 census William was living with his grandmother and two collier uncles. In 1860 his mother had married and was living in Kent but whether she had been involved at all in her son’s early life is unknown.

William’s formal education was probably limited and irregular as it was for so many children of the time. Sometimes a woman with a little education would open a ‘school’ in the room of her home and, for a small cost, teach basic literacy. One such woman was Rachel Hodge (née Allen) who ran a ‘school’ in Pleasant Valley. It is very likely though that William was largely self-taught. His daughter Minnie once remarked that he didn’t have much schooling but he had a good brain.

William Morris with his first wife Matilda and their daughter Laura

About the age of 12 William first went down a mine. As mining in Pembrokeshire declined William was ‘up off’ to the flourishing mines of south-east Wales, to Tredegar in the Sirhowy Valley. He worked there in a mine employing 500 workers and by 1887 he had risen to the position of fireman and night overman (in charge of a mine district at night).

In 1881 William married Matilda Phillips, also a native of Stepaside, and a relative of his through the Evans family. In the next seven years she gave birth to four daughters, of whom only Laura survived early childhood.

Perhaps because of Matilda’s delicate health the couple decided in the late 1880s to leave Tredegar, and Wales, for a life in Queensland. Migration to Queensland was booming and they were booked as remittance passengers with part of their fare paid by the Queensland government.

Morris soon moved to Ipswich, about 40 kilometres from Brisbane, where he was employed by another Welshman, Lewis Thomas. Thomas had opened a coal mine, the Aberdare, in Blackstone near Ipswich in 1866 and over the next 20 years became the most successful mine proprietor on the Ipswich field. He was a generous employer, and his style of benevolent paternalism won him overwhelming support from ‘his men’, many of them also Welshmen. William was able to purchase a house with a loan from Thomas.

The early years in Queensland were troubled by Matilda’s ill health. Soon after their arrival a son was born but he too died in infancy. Then Matilda herself succumbed to tuberculosis and William now had to provide for his motherless daughter. He decided to ask his sister-in-law Sarah Phillips to come to Queensland and become his wife. She agreed and the marriage established a stable home life for Laura and the four children who were born to the couple.

Rhondda pit, Queensland c. 1905. Click to enlarge

The 1880s were a boom time in the mining industry but by 1893 profits had declined to such an extent that Thomas decided to close his mine. Understandably the men were most concerned so his alternative was to suggest that he lease the mine to the miners to be worked as a co-operative. Hence in 1894 the Aberdare Co-operative Colliery Limited was formed with 12 of the miners, including Morris, forming a Board of Directors.

For a number of reasons the Aberdare Co-operative was never really successful and by 1900 Morris and four other miners were concerned about the long-term future of the venture. They then took the big decision to open their own mine. In this decision they were following a long line of men, men with limited capital, who believed that with hard work they could make a success of such a venture. Many who had tried had failed but a few like Thomas were successful and these were the men whom the partners hoped to emulate.

Ipswich, Queensland, Australia (Copyright Ipswich City Council) Click to enlarge

The five men leased land in Blackstone and called their mine the Rhondda Colliery. Morris held the position of business manager and over the next few years, with the advent of more shareholders who provided capital for expansion, the mine did well. The Rhondda Colliery Ltd eventually became one of the most prosperous mining operations on the Ipswich coalfield.

Unfortunately William died in 1917, 16 years after the opening of Rhondda. Although the most profitable days for the mine would come later he had the satisfaction of seeing his own mine well established, his wife well provided for, and his own family enjoying better opportunities than the young William of Stepaside could ever have imagined.


If you wish to contact Joyce privately concerning this post, drop me an email to the address shown on the “About this Blog” page and I will forward it to her. Alternatively post a comment here.


‘William Morris and Rhondda’, Joyce Phillips, self-published (Australia), 2005

Pubs To The Left Of Them And Pubs To The Right

The quotations from Rev John Williams in the previous post seem to portray a Welsh equivalent of “Merrie England”. What led to “sin and impropriety” in his eyes were no doubt ingredients of a good night out to be savoured by many.

By the 1850s, hard drinking had taken on a darker aspect. Reminiscing in 1934, the 90 year old Edward Thomas recalled the endemic drunkenness in the Stepaside area in the 1850s. So bad was it that women could not walk out alone in the evening “for if they were not molested, insults would be heaped upon them from all sides”. Others supported this view.

What had changed in the intervening 50 years or so?

"Spread Eagle", Begelly (Picture courtesey of Gerry Brawn)

The combination of two factors explains the change. Firstly, the building of the harbour at Saundersfoot and the tramroad to Thomas Chapel in the early 1830s brought about a short boom in mining activity in the area. Population levels surged with the increase in Begelly and St Issells tracking the national trend rather than Pembrokeshire’s low-key growth. For the workers beer was the chosen drink as it was believed to be healthier for them. With the quality of local water supply so doubtful, there was some truth in this. More workers with more money represented a perfect opportunity for any seller.

The second factor was the Beer Act passed by Parliament in 1830. This relaxed the licensing laws by introducing a new class of retailer, the beer-shop owner. Unlike pub licensees, prospective owners did not need approval from magistrates to sell beer; rather they just paid a sum to the Excise for the privilege. The role of magistrates in controlling their communities had been paramount to local administration for 250 years and more. The magistrates sidelined, the floodgates opened: between 1830 and 1832, the number of people licensed for the sale of beer in West Wales leaped from 158 to 1226! In the face of so much competition, retailers had to fight for business with one key tactic being to sell strong beer cheaply.

Pits and Pubs in Begelly c. 1830-60 (Map: copyright Cassini Publishing Ltd) Click to enlarge

It will come as no surprise that various enterprising locals spotted the opportunity to turn a profit by establishing beer-shops** in the 1830s-1840s. The map of the mining part of Begelly parish illustrates what happened. Prior to the 1830 Beer Act, there had been just 2 pubs in the parish, the Spread Eagle and the Miners Arms, both on the Tenby turnpike. By the late 1840s the collieries at Thomas Chapel and Hackett had provided the stimulus for at least 4 new beer-shops all close to the pithead. These must have competed aggressively for the limited business of both the few locals and, more importantly, the 100 or so miners working in the Thomas Chapel area. With few alternative attractions, many no doubt preferred the companionship of their workmates and at least one too many beers.

This over-supply of beer seems as preposterous today as it was to some at the time. In 1854 James Mark Child of Begelly House, a local magistrate, complained that having beer-shops close to the collieries at Thomas Chapel (and Stepaside) was “highly demoralising” to the neighbourhood. But even in his official capacity he was powerless to shut them down en masse. Only local economic forces made the difference: apparently none of the beer-shops survived the closure of the last pit around Thomas Chapel in the late 1850s.


** The Swan might have been an alehouse, not a beer-shop.

Map used in second graphic: copyright Cassini Publishing Ltd. Maps available for purchase either as printed edition or by download.



Many and varied! Let me know if you have a specific question.

Narberth, Whitland and Clynderwen Weekly News

Pembrokeshire Herald


Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales c.1820 – c.1895, W R Lambert, University of Wales Press, 1983

Industrial Saundersfoot, Martin Connop Price, Gomer Press, 1982

The Pubs of Narberth, Saundersfoot and South-East Pembrokeshire, Keith Johnson, Logaston Press, 2004