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.
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)