The release last week by Ancestry.co.uk of the National Probate Calendar (NPC) opens up several avenues for research for family and local historians. One of these is to take the figure for the value of the estate for each local entry, group these together by occupation and determine what changes occurred over time. For example, tracking the worth of local farmers should provide information concerning the success or otherwise of farming during the national boom of the 1850-70 period.
In this coalmining area one such key group was more important than any other: the colliery proprietors. An important question about this group is whether any of the proprietors made a substantial profit from their local operations. On the face of it this is unlikely as Connop Price has concluded that local mining in the 1800s was more about loss than profit. Many proprietors, such as James Mark Child and Lewis Pocock, invested heavily following the development of the harbour and tramroad in the 1830s. A search for these names and others in the NPC appears to bear out Connop Price’s conclusion – up to a point.
There are two proprietors who did leave substantial assets, far in excess of their competitors. One of these was Charles Rankin Vickerman. The NPC shows the value of his estate as £33605 at his death in 1897, a sum worth several millions of pounds today. The amount is not surprising. Inextricably involved with the local pits from the 1840s, Vickerman had also (with others) invested extensively in the iron works at Stepaside, owned hundreds of acres of the parishes of St Issells and Begelly and also rebuilt Hean Castle, his mansion. But it must be remembered that the value shown in the NPC generally reflects the gross value of the estate. A more appropriate indicator of success is the net value, a figure not included in the NPC but which can be checked in the Death Duty Registers. A search of this register shows that his net value amounted to just £3241, near enough one tenth of the gross sum. That Vickerman had continued to throw good money after bad into the local pits is a conclusion drawn by Connop Price.
The second apparently successful proprietor was Septimus Stephen Williamson. Much less is known about him than Vickerman. Like Vickerman, however, he was not a local man having been born in Holywell, north Wales. In 1839, with several others, he had taken out a mineral lease for Moreton colliery, a mile or so to the west of Saundersfoot, in which he remained involved until the 1880s. Williamson died in 1898 leaving an estate listed in the NPC at £31282. With a net value of just over £29000, he was probably the wealthiest man in 19thcentury Saundersfoot.
Is Williamson the one man who reaped the reward of investing in the risky local mines? Possibly he is but extensive research is needed to assess the sources of this wealth. If he is, and it’s a big “if”, his importance is that his success provides a counterpoint to Vickerman’s failure in the history of coalmining in the Saundersfoot area.
Pembrokeshire the Forgotten Coalfield, Martin Connop Price, Landmark Publishing Ltd, 2004
TNA, Death Duties Registers (cat ref IR 26/x)