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