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?
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.
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
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