Living On An Army Pension

The ongoing release of Chelsea pensioner records on Findmypast offers great potential for research for both local and family historians. The collection comprises an index together with digital scans of original papers for those soldiers, mostly ordinary soldiers, entitled to a state pension on leaving the army after 12 years’ service. Currently the collection covers much of the Victorian period.

As the records include year and place of birth there appear to be many lines of fruitful research. For example, for the local historian of the Saundersfoot area, understanding trends in enlistments by local men might throw more light on employment opportunities in the local pits. For family historians, finding missing ancestors or adding more colour to those we already know about are obvious boons.

Does the collection live up to the potential?

The answer is “no” for local historians. Findmypast has come up short in providing useful data in the index to help identify groups of men from one locality. There is one key reason for this:  while the original records do include year and parish of birth, these important data have only been transcribed by the company in less than 10% of the small sample of records I viewed. This is disappointing. Maybe Findmypast’s aim in creating this online collection was limited to the family history market.

The picture for family historians is conversely more positive. I was aware that 2 Begelly men from my extended family had served in the army in the mid-1800s: William Phelps and Isaac Nash (aka Bowen). I found their records easily, both containing new information about them. Phelps had been gaoled for desertion but then pardoned. I have doubts over Nash’s parentage which I had hoped would be erased by his records but unfortunately this was not to be.

In lieu of a search by place of birth, I then looked for what were common local names but rare nationally like Hilling and Gunter. While neither of these 2 names showed up in the index I did find several other entries for local St Issells names such as (Benjamin) Absalom and (Benjamin) Brinn. Brinn had an exemplary record serving 21 years as a trooper in the Life Guards. Absalom was a Royal Artillery gunner stationed in Malta, Canada and India (during the Mutiny) but his record was less exemplary having been court-martialled 7 times during his 11 year term. He spent over 6 months of this in various garrison gaols. What Absalom did to deserve this is not described in his pension documents but I assume the courts martial records held at The National Archives will throw light on his many misdemeanours.

I have yet to uncover how much the pensions were worth. No doubt these depended on criteria such as length of service and rank. Whatever the values were, both Brinn and Absalom spent time in the Narberth Union workhouse after their discharge, Brinn dying there in 1906.

The Deepest Pothole In 18th Century Saundersfoot

Writing in his diary in 1806, Dr Charles Collins left a useful account of the coal industry around Saundersfoot in the early 1800s. One phrase stuck in my mind:

“…the whole country is defaced by the large coal slack heaps, many in almost every field and common, and pits left open even close to the sides of the roads.”

I only realised how important this description is when indexing the 18th century coroners’ reports for the area. In his book, Martin Connop Price discusses the many pit deaths that occurred to colliers at work. He also refers to people falling into pits who were casual passers-by. What surprised me from the coroners’ reports was just how many of these there were, about a dozen or so in the last 30 years of the century. Cause of death was from the effects of the fall, from drowning or a mixture of the two.

The coroner’s report into Jane Harry’s death in 1781 illustrates the hazard. A stranger to the area she had come to Saundersfoot to hand over a message. On the way home

“…it being very dark and walking along the road… the said Jane Harry…fell into a Coal pit about seventeen fathoms deep**, which was within about four Inches of the road…”

Yes, the report does state “4 inches”! Judging from the address where the inquest was held, the scene was likely to be the Ridgeway, just west of Saundersfoot.

These accidents happened to locals as well and in daylight too. In Begelly, Mary Thomas, fell down a pit searching for her cattle. Mary Merryman met a similar fate blackberrying in Jeffreyston. Of course, if these accidents had happened in the pitch black of a pre-industrial night, there could have been some explanation for them.

For others the reason for their mishap is much clearer. Four died having been in alehouses just prior to their death. For example, on the night of 24th February 1771 somewhere close to Wooden on the Tenby/Narberth road

“James Lewis was come from his Day’s Labour, and on his way home called at Rees Beynon who keeps Ale to Sell where the said James Lewis drank pretty plentiful…went off and called at another Alehouse…after which he went off, as Supposed homeward, but was not heard of till the eighteenth of March…when he was found in a Coal Pit…”

To date I have found just two similar accidents in the 1800s, the last being in 1842 when Philip Davies fell down a pit at Thomas Chapel on his way home from work. Maybe by then a campaign to close up old pits had been waged to reduce the risk. Connop Price describes this practice of ‘tallating’ in his book as “throwing old trees, branches and rubbish of all descriptions into the shaft, before putting a timber cap topped with soil over the entrance”. If this was the practice in the late 1700s, Dr Collins’ diary shows us that it was not common practice, a reminder of the reckless attitude to life our ancestors faced.


** 17 fathoms is just over 100 feet


Pembrokeshire the Forgotten Coalfield, Martin Connop Price, Landmark Publishing Ltd, 2004

Narberth, Clynderwen and Whitland Weekly News

National Library of Wales: Court of Great Sessions records

Making The Punishment Fit The Crime

Crime in the Saundersfoot area was typical of much of Wales. More serious crime occurred rarely but petty theft abounded. One type of theft was typical in this part of the coalfield: the theft of small amounts of coal.

There is an interesting series of prosecutions for this offence from 1838 onwards.  Previously, prosecutions had been heard at the Narberth Petty Sessions. Now they were heard at the higher Quarter Sessions at Haverfordwest in front of a jury. While a simple fine with costs had been the traditional remedy, the convicted were now sent to Haverfordwest Gaol for between one week and three months and put to hard labour on the treadmill and occasionally held in solitary confinement. From a very small sample, these facts emerge: about 80 percent of those guilty were women but 70 percent of these were married so this was not just a problem of elderly widows and spinsters trying to keep warm.

Haverfordwest Gaol Female Wing - shortly before demolition (Copyright Pembrokeshire Record Office)

Remembering that the early 1840s was a period of severe agricultural and industrial depression, part of the cause of the Rebecca Riots that raged to the north and north-east of Begelly, these were tough times. With money at its most scarce, it is little wonder many sought fuel for food and warmth however they could get it.

This picture, drawn from the pages of the Quarter Sessions records, only tells half the story. A letter published in a local newspaper in 1846 gives us some idea of the serious problems the other side was facing. It also goes some way to explain the use of these harsh remedies. Robert Brough, agent to the Tenby and Begelly Coal Company, wrote it in response to a complaint about the value of these prosecutions when the cost of coal stolen often only amounted to about 3d, as much as a woman could carry in her apron.

Such acts of theft were endemic, he stated. Judging from the Quarter Sessions records, it was not just his employers that had problems. Their local competitors all brought similar prosecutions during the early 1840s. The reason why is obvious: Brough claimed his own employers were losing at least £400 a year to theft, a significant amount of money large enough to make the difference between profit and loss for these risky ventures. If this figure is correct, and based on an average value of each theft at 3d, seven acts of theft per day occurred at Brough’s pits at Spadeland and Barley Park in Begelly.

Even with watchmen and fences, the owners found it impossible to secure their pits. The over-riding problem, Brough believed, was that they were facing organised crime. Parents trained and encouraged their young children to steal coal. If caught, the children could not be tried as they were below the age of criminal responsibility. Bringing prosecutions where they could, however costly, and asking for (and getting) heavy punishments was the only course open to the pit owners to discourage the practice.

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Quarter Sessions rolls

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Haverfordwest Gaol registers

Pembrokeshire Record Office: picture of Haverfordwest Gaol (cat ref PCC/SE/77/39)

Pembrokeshire Herald

Don’t Forget The St Issells Burial Board Register

St Issells churchyard showing burial board plot area to left of wall on right, over ditch and through trees, November 2010. Click to enlarge

St Issells churchyard showing Burial Board plot area, to left of wall on right, including over ditch and through trees, November 2010. Click to enlarge

Did you know there was a municipal cemetery in the parish of St Issells in the 1800s? There was one, opened in 1862. But confusingly it forms a large part of the graveyard attached to St Issells parish church. If you know the spot, most of the area over the stream to the south-west of the church was effectively a municipal cemetery owned and managed by the St Issells Burial Board. Formed in 1861 under the auspices of the 1853 Burial Act one of the Board’s objectives was to provide the final local resting place for many from Saundersfoot and the surrounding area be they “church or chapel”.

At the time Saundersfoot was a growing hotspot of non-conformism. For staunch chapel goers, burial in St Issells parish churchyard before 1862 would have been anathema. The Burial Board cemetery changed matters: it was non-denominational and saved mourners having to travel more than a mile out of the village to the graveyards at Bethesda, Sardis or Cold Inn.

Thankfully the Burial Board burial register for 1862-1922 has survived. It is a treasure trove of useful information for family and local historians. At first glance the data contained in the register appears to be the same as in the parish burial register. This is wrong as the following table shows:

Name Same
Date of burial Same
Place of death Sometimes differs
Age at death Same
Description E.g. occupation, status such as widow or pauper
Officiating minister Name only
Plot number Should correlate with a plan that’s also part of the Burial Board collection – but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t!
Additional information For some burials only; e.g. cause of death especially where from a pit accident, or in 1866 cholera outbreak **

In reality the board register is a superset of the parish burial register. But there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes the data does differ and in important ways. For example the parish register shows that William Davies died in 1898 at his home, Winifred Place (next to Saundersfoot station). The board register shows he died at Carmarthen Asylum. This entry is an obvious boon locating the death in a different registration district. So, even if you have already found your ancestors’ burials in the parish register, do make a note to check the board register as there could be additional helpful information.

St Issells Church – Burial Board plot stretches away to left

The register’s real strength is as a record of non-conformist burials for the Saundersfoot area. Analysis of the 1008 burials shows that 2/3rd of them were “church” burials, the rest being “chapel”. They include burials for Baptists, Independents as well as Primitive, Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists. Obviously it does not list burials at Bethesda, Sardis or Kingsmoor chapels. But with so few records surviving for the local chapels, the board register is a gem.


Pembrokeshire Record Office, St Issells Burial Board Register, 1862-1922 (ref HSPC/18/3).


I have a transcription of the register so if you require a look-up or two, do let me know. My transcription does not including plot numbers.

If you are a member of the Society of Genealogists, a database containing this register is available in the Members’ Area of the society’s web site.

** Nikki Bosworth of the Record Office published an interesting article on the register in the Dyfed Family History Society’s journal (April 2010) focusing especially on these additional comments.

How Old Is Begelly House?

The Child family was the dominant local resident gentry in the Begelly area for at least 150 years. Little is left now to mark their presence except their residence, Begelly House. As with many old houses, the date of its construction is not obvious to the untrained eye. Thankfully there are two sources of information provided by “trained eyes” that provide professional insight.

Begelly House (front) c 1910 (Copyright Jon Mein)

Firstly, investigators from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales describe Begelly House as follows:

“The present house, a rather stark cube, was probably built/rebuilt in the second quarter of the nineteenth century…”

This is not much to go on. A second and more recent source is the Pembrokeshire edition of CADW’s “The Buildings of Wales” series. The authors describe the house as having a “mid-C19 refronting to a house built c. 1750” and comment specifically about a mid-1700s staircase.

Taken together these sources indicate a two-stage building process: the first in the mid-1700s followed by a second about 70 to 100 years later. How, if at all, do these dates correlate with what is known about the family’s history?

If the “mid-1700s” is taken as an accurate date range, the answer is the first date at least does tie in nicely with a change in circumstances for the family. John Child, then head of the family, died in 1734 leaving as orphans his four young children. Their guardian whisked the children away to Tenby, collecting rents from the estate but without investing any money to maintain the empty family house. One contemporary source stated that by the mid-1740s the house was “in decay” (TNA C 12/1801/3). So, it is probable that when John’s son, James Child, took control of the estate around 1748 he was forced to knock down the existing structure and rebuild from scratch. Short of money, James would have delayed building work until the mid-1750s at the earliest to accumulate the necessary funds from rentals and sales of coal.

Any correlation between the second phase of development and the family’s history is less clear-cut. The re-fronting may have occurred when the then family head, James Mark Child, stepped back from investing his own money in the local mines and turned to national politics instead: he stood for Parliament in 1841 and threatened to stand a second time in 1847. So it is possible he spent money re-fronting his house to provide the effect of a modern building befitting the grand political aspirations of a local businessman.

Other than the church, is Begelly House the oldest surviving building in the parish?


RCAHMW’s web site including description of Begelly House

“The Buildings of Wales: Pembrokeshire”, Thomas Lloyd, Julian Orbach and Robert Scourfield, Yale University Press, 2004

Details of the sources for the Child family history available from the blogger.

The Importance Of The Thomas Chapel Colliery Disaster

From around 1800 onwards miners had to dig deeper to get to unworked seams of coal. Locals must have feared that serious accidents would result. On the 16th June 1838 their fears came true when six coalminers drowned in an accident at the Thomas Chapel colliery. It was the worst accident to date in the local coalfield – since 1732 anyway. What was their response?

A local newspaper report hints at raised emotions:

“A dreadful accident occurred at Mr Hughes’ colliery near Begelly Pembrokeshire on Saturday last in consequence of a very thoughtless…cutting in of water; by which means 6 poor men…were drowned. The quantity of water cut in was so great as to take the constant working of persons, night and day, at two pits, with the assistance of a steam engine at a third pit, from the day the accident happened, to Thursday morning, before the colliery was sufficient freed of water to get at the bodies of the poor sufferers…”

Scene of trial: Shire Hall (pale green building), Haverfordwest

No other report of the accident or the subsequent inquest has survived to corroborate the critical inference in the newspaper. However, a copy of the bill used in the prosecution of William Brace at the Pembrokeshire Assizes is extant. As manager of the pit, Brace was charged with the manslaughter of the six miners. Interestingly  the case was brought by James Thomas (of Thorny Park, East Williamston), father of one of the deceased. Alleging that Brace had “care…control and management” of the pit, Thomas believed that Brace had failed to exercise these properly in not using the correct equipment. In his eyes, this neglect caused the deaths.

The trial was held at Haverfordwest on 11 March 1839 with twelve experienced miners from the Begelly area ready to take the stand in support of the prosecution. But the case was not tried. At this time, Assize trials were subject to a two-step process. Firstly the case was examined before a Grand Jury to decide if there was sufficient evidence to hear it. Secondly, if this was proved, the case was tried in open court as we would expect today. However, the case failed to get beyond the Grand Jury where the examination was held in camera; no records survive to explain this.

The importance of this disaster for the local coalfield was that this was a unique prosecution. No doubt James Thomas’ anger at the manner of the loss of his young son was an important catalyst in bringing it. The failure of the case would have generated the same emotion throughout the community. More serious accidents, in terms of the number of deaths, followed with 40 killed at Landshipping in February 1844 and then three months later by seven men closer to home at Broadmoor colliery. Accidents such as these were a national problem and generated a national response: from the 1840s onwards, the government started to enact legislation that slowly brought the apparent recklessness of proprietors and managers under control.


Carmarthen Journal

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Haverfordwest Gaol records

The National Archives: Pembrokeshire Assize records


If you are interested in the details of the deceased take a look at the following site:

Above image of Shire Hall: copyright “Cerdiwen” and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.