The Richest Man in Saundersfoot

The release last week by 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.

Hean Castle, north of Saundersfoot, home of Charles Rankin Vickerman; rebuilt by him in 1875/6 (Author’s collection)

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.

Picture of S.S. Williamson's gravestone, St Issells churchyard

Williamson died 30 September and buried 4 October, 1898 at St Issells

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)

An Advert – Rev John Williams, Begelly

I mentioned in an earlier post how few first-hand accounts survive of life in the Saundersfoot area from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I can count those that I know of on the finger of one hand!

However, I have come across references to a second, the diary of Rev John Williams, rector of Begelly between 1793 and 1802. In 1820 extracts from it were included in a memoir of him in the Evangelical and Missionary Chronicle.  The memoir is worth reading if only for the few teasers it throws up about life in Begelly when Williams was rector.

Has the diary survived? If it has, I am sure it would include wonderful nuggets for us. I have searched in all the usual and obvious places but with no success. This post is simply the equivalent of a shop-window advert trying to attract anyone out there on the Net who may just know something of its existence. Fingers crossed.

For the record there’s a short biography of Williams in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography and his will and inventory are included in the NLW’s excellent online collection. Following his death in 1802 his widow, Elizabeth (nee Carruthers), married a Mr William Fowler in Derby in 1809.

Of course, if you know of any further similar first-hand sources then as ever I’d be delighted to hear from you.


The National Probate Calendar of Wills and Administrations

Big news in the family history and local history world. Today has launched the National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1861-1941.

The National Library of Wales (NLW) has already provided free access on line to most pre-1858 probate documents for the Welsh dioceses. Ancestry’s new Index together with the digitised calendars on Ancestry cover much of the post-1858 period down to 1941. This is a big step forward for genealogists and also for local historians who want to check if someone left a will or not. Rather than having to travel to a district probate registry to conduct your own searches or paying someone else to do it for you, the new Index and the Calendars are available at your fingertips – but at a cost of course payable to Ancestry.

There are two parts to the collection:

Firstly Ancestry provides a searchable index containing the following information:

  • Name of deceased
  • Date of death
  • Probate year
  • Death place (generally limted to county only)

If you find a possible ancestor you can click through to the second part of the system: the digitised Calendars. These include much more valuable information such as:

  • Name
  • Residence
  • Place of death
  • Date of death
  • Occupation/status
  • Date probate granted
  • Name of person/people to whom probate granted, residence, relationship to deceased, occupation
  • Value of estate

Those of you who have appropriate subscriptions to Ancestry (i.e. Worldwide or Premium) should be able to view both the Index and Calendars without further charge. If you don’t have a subscription, then you will either have to buy one or “pay as you go”. Of course, many libraries and record offices in the UK provide free access to Ancestry and its rivals.

However, unlike the NLW system, Ancestry does not provide with access to the original wills etc themselves. For this you will need to extract data from the Index and/or Calendars and apply to the Probate Registry for a copy.

Be aware that the later Calendars (especially from the 1890s onwards) do not include all the data listed above. But the standard information required to order copies of the documents from the Probate Registry is always included (i.e. name of deceased, date of grant and registry where issued).

Having spent several hours looking at the Index and Calendars this afternoon I quickly found new information about several ancestors, one of whose estate was valued at just £5!. This system is a boon. I do have one criticism however: like Findmypast and its Chelsea Pensioner collection, Ancestry’s Index does not include full address details where the death took place, just the county. As a result it may not be easy to pinpoint an ancestor. Instead you may have to click on several people of the same name to see if they are the one you want. In a land full of too many Davies, Jones and Williams, this is a pain.

Biographical Posts

One type of post I had at the back of my mind when starting this blog was to look at the lives of local people who did something out of the ordinary in their lives. Many from our area, like my great-grandfather, migrated from the Saundersfoot area and remained in mining for much of the rest of their lives.

The following post is a good example of what I am thinking about. While not exactly a rags to riches story, William Morris from Stepaside was a director of a successful mining company in Australia. Joyce Phillips, his grand-daughter, has written this piece for the blog.

I have several others in mind but I am sure that you may have your own stories. So feel free to let me know.


From Stepaside to Queensland

I wish to thank Joyce Phillips, grand-daughter of William Morris, for writing this piece for the blog.

William Morris was born at Lower Level in Stepaside, St Issells, on 21 December 1852. His would not have been an auspicious birth. His mother Mary Morris was unmarried and no father’s name was given on his birth certificate. Mary was the daughter of William Morris and his wife Ann (née Evans) who lived at Lower Level. By the time of William’s birth his grandfather, a blacksmith, had died and in the 1861 census William was living with his grandmother and two collier uncles. In 1860 his mother had married and was living in Kent but whether she had been involved at all in her son’s early life is unknown.

William’s formal education was probably limited and irregular as it was for so many children of the time. Sometimes a woman with a little education would open a ‘school’ in the room of her home and, for a small cost, teach basic literacy. One such woman was Rachel Hodge (née Allen) who ran a ‘school’ in Pleasant Valley. It is very likely though that William was largely self-taught. His daughter Minnie once remarked that he didn’t have much schooling but he had a good brain.

William Morris with his first wife Matilda and their daughter Laura

About the age of 12 William first went down a mine. As mining in Pembrokeshire declined William was ‘up off’ to the flourishing mines of south-east Wales, to Tredegar in the Sirhowy Valley. He worked there in a mine employing 500 workers and by 1887 he had risen to the position of fireman and night overman (in charge of a mine district at night).

In 1881 William married Matilda Phillips, also a native of Stepaside, and a relative of his through the Evans family. In the next seven years she gave birth to four daughters, of whom only Laura survived early childhood.

Perhaps because of Matilda’s delicate health the couple decided in the late 1880s to leave Tredegar, and Wales, for a life in Queensland. Migration to Queensland was booming and they were booked as remittance passengers with part of their fare paid by the Queensland government.

Morris soon moved to Ipswich, about 40 kilometres from Brisbane, where he was employed by another Welshman, Lewis Thomas. Thomas had opened a coal mine, the Aberdare, in Blackstone near Ipswich in 1866 and over the next 20 years became the most successful mine proprietor on the Ipswich field. He was a generous employer, and his style of benevolent paternalism won him overwhelming support from ‘his men’, many of them also Welshmen. William was able to purchase a house with a loan from Thomas.

The early years in Queensland were troubled by Matilda’s ill health. Soon after their arrival a son was born but he too died in infancy. Then Matilda herself succumbed to tuberculosis and William now had to provide for his motherless daughter. He decided to ask his sister-in-law Sarah Phillips to come to Queensland and become his wife. She agreed and the marriage established a stable home life for Laura and the four children who were born to the couple.

Rhondda pit, Queensland c. 1905. Click to enlarge

The 1880s were a boom time in the mining industry but by 1893 profits had declined to such an extent that Thomas decided to close his mine. Understandably the men were most concerned so his alternative was to suggest that he lease the mine to the miners to be worked as a co-operative. Hence in 1894 the Aberdare Co-operative Colliery Limited was formed with 12 of the miners, including Morris, forming a Board of Directors.

For a number of reasons the Aberdare Co-operative was never really successful and by 1900 Morris and four other miners were concerned about the long-term future of the venture. They then took the big decision to open their own mine. In this decision they were following a long line of men, men with limited capital, who believed that with hard work they could make a success of such a venture. Many who had tried had failed but a few like Thomas were successful and these were the men whom the partners hoped to emulate.

Ipswich, Queensland, Australia (Copyright Ipswich City Council) Click to enlarge

The five men leased land in Blackstone and called their mine the Rhondda Colliery. Morris held the position of business manager and over the next few years, with the advent of more shareholders who provided capital for expansion, the mine did well. The Rhondda Colliery Ltd eventually became one of the most prosperous mining operations on the Ipswich coalfield.

Unfortunately William died in 1917, 16 years after the opening of Rhondda. Although the most profitable days for the mine would come later he had the satisfaction of seeing his own mine well established, his wife well provided for, and his own family enjoying better opportunities than the young William of Stepaside could ever have imagined.


If you wish to contact Joyce privately concerning this post, drop me an email to the address shown on the “About this Blog” page and I will forward it to her. Alternatively post a comment here.


‘William Morris and Rhondda’, Joyce Phillips, self-published (Australia), 2005