Morgan Hughes: A Riches to Rags Story

Although this post is longer than normal, I trust you’ll find this tale of another local colliery proprietor worth persevering with.

Morgan Hughes was born in Hackney, east London around 1802. Although his father was for a time a wine merchant in the area, both parents were descendants of lesser gentry from around the Carmarthenshire/Pembrokeshire border area. They were rich enough that the father’s estate was valued around £2000 when he died in 1814.

By 1825, his mother was living in a house on the sea front at Saundersfoot, at the time a hamlet of little more than a dozen dwellings. Saundersfoot’s position as the centre for shipping coal from the local mines impaired what might otherwise have been an idyllic situation. Her house overlooked this scene. Her son, Morgan, lived with her. His late second cousin, Elizabeth Davies, had married one of the local coal entrepreneurs, James Mark Child of Begelly House. No doubt captivated by what he saw, and aged just 23, Hughes together with Child and five others formed the Tenby and Begelly Coal Co to exploit various local opportunities. Hughes took about 20 percent of the shares and also the position of managing partner.

The company rarely prospered and by 1833 was insolvent. Only repeated cash advances by Child kept it afloat. The other two remaining partners, dissatisfied with his work, sacked Hughes from his management role in 1834. When in 1837 he assigned his shares to Child, their value was next to nothing.

Hughes’ failings did not stop him looking for further opportunities. After all, this should have been a period of success for the local coal trade following the completion in 1833 of the new harbour at Saundersfoot and the tramway from there to the pit at Thomas Chapel, a mile further beyond Begelly House. The auguries were good enough to tempt Hughes to lease this colliery.

It is not clear when he signed this lease. Documents show that he had control of the colliery in 1838 but he had possibly signed as early as 1834. The fact that he mortgaged his interest in his mother’s estate for £1500 in 1835 provides a clue that he needed money around this time, probably to provide the capital base to work his new colliery. If so, this was a high-risk strategy. In liquidating this future asset, Hughes was betting both his and his family’s future on the success of his colliery.

Disaster struck in June 1838: six miners were drowned at Hughes’ pit when they cut through to old water-filled workings. Capital would be required to make it workable again and sales lost in the meantime. The auguries were starting to look less attractive! It probably took up to twelve months before the pit was back in operation. Whether he had been successful in making a profit before the accident is not known but there’s little doubt he was eating into his £1500 fund. Maybe because of this Hughes was now working the pit as lead partner with several other men including his brother, Rev. John Williams Hughes of Oxford. But sales were poor. This set him on a collision course with the directors of the Saundersfoot Railway & Harbour Company, the owner of the harbour and tramway. In building the tramway to Thomas Chapel they, too, had spent large sums of money and relied on Hughes to provide a good return on this investment. While other busier pits did make such good returns for them, his was negligible.

Frustrated by his perceived mismanagement of the colliery, the Harbour Company’s normally dry minutes are punctuated by increasingly vitriolic attacks on Hughes culminating in the following in 1845:

“…the only company not proceeding satisfactorily is the Thomas Chapel Co…and I don’t hesitate to say that that concern will ever be the incubus** of this district while Mr Morgan Hughes spends 3/4th of his time in London amusing himself and others with schemes of which he lacks the means and industry to mature…he so sadly mismanages (the company).”

The Harbour Company was right in its assessment. By 1850, Hughes’ money had run out. The Picton Castle estate terminated his colliery lease. In business terms he reached his lowest point in 1854 in debtors’ gaol in London, a bankrupt.

Hughes died on the 23rd March, 1864 at Barnwood Hospital for the Insane near Gloucester. He had returned to Saundersfoot in the late 1850s and had tried to resurrect his mining career but with no success. The fact that he had recorded his occupation as “proprietor of coal and iron mines” in the 1861 census perhaps indicates what his state of mind was, something of a fantasy as there are no records pointing to any interests he had had in the local mines for over ten years. The last two months of his life are gruesome: his attempt to emasculate himself in January 1864 – reportedly due to some sort of dementia – made him something of a cause celebre in his final days in Saundersfoot. The cause of death at Barnwood was recorded as “exhaustion from determined persistent refusal of food under influence of mental delusions”.

If his own decline was not sad enough, the effects of his business failure continued to be felt after his death. While two of his five children married local tradesmen, another, Caroline, did not enjoy any sort of comfort. Spending time in the Narberth workhouse with her two illegitimate children, she appears to be a victim of her father’s failed gambles.

Notes

** An “incubus” is an evil sprite, something from the dark recesses of nightmares.

My thanks to Sue Kane, a descendant of Morgan Hughes, for her help in unravelling his family history.

Sources

Pembrokeshire Record Office, Saundersfoot Railway & Harbour Company minutes (cat ref D/MER/55 & 56)

Pembrokeshire Record Office, Picton Castle estate records (D/RTP/RBP)

Gloucestershire Archives, Barnwood Institute records

TNA, Exchequer Court records

London Gazette newspaper

Pembrokeshire Herald newspaper

4 thoughts on “Morgan Hughes: A Riches to Rags Story

  1. Morgan Hughes like most incoming entrepreneurs to the Pembrokeshire Coalfield were aware that old methods of mining coal in this area was hampering progress, Thus an advertisement appeared in The Cambrian Register in May of 1828 requesting anyone who has a Steam Machine for sale, was to send details to Morgan Hughes of Saundersfoot, this machine was to be “Of the Boulton and Watt principle, and must be warranted in good order.”
    Morgan Hughes, at this time was the Colliery proprietor at Thomas Chapel. Begelly. his requirement for a Engine indicates that water was a big problem at this venture and installing this motive power was the only way to pump it out reliably from wet pits, thereby ensuring it could be worked on a regular basis
    As Morgan Hughes was essentially wanting a second hand machine it would show that finance was tight and that any capital expediture had to be wisely spent,

    • Interesting, Gerry

      Hughes’ history for this part of his career comes from court materials lodged for a court case between JM Child and Thomas Sleeman, two of the other partners in the Tenby & Begelly Coal Co. This shows that the company had rights to work not just Child’s estate at Bonvilles Court and Begelly but also, inter alia, Thomas Chapel (TC). The company gave up the lease for TC on 1/6/1833, surprisingly close to the opening of the tramroad to TC colliery from Saundersfoot. I was not sure if they’d ever worked the colliery although your comment suggests that they were at least close to doing so.

  2. This Morgan Hughes came to light as i was researching my own family history in Thomas Chapel. They were Hughes too but i quickly established they were not familially linked. However he was a colourful character with his wheeling and dealing. 1841 He lived at Thomas Chapel aged 35.1861 census gives as 57, u/m, proprietor of coal/iron mine, born Kingsland Midd’x, and living at 6 High St, Saundersfoot, Pem, with his daughter Anne 30 u/m and could afford a servant. His other daughter Caroline 22, dressmaker, was lodging at 11 Railway St (now The Strand), Saundersfoot with her daughter Alice Hughes 1. from October 1860 to 18 March 1861, there are leases prepared by Sir Richard Phillips for Hughes to lease a house and other land in Saundersfoot. The leases were not signed so presumably fell through.

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