Sudden Or Unexplained Deaths

An interesting source for the study of Welsh history** before 1830 are the Court of Great Sessions records held at the National Library of Wales (NLW). From 1543 until 1830 Wales had its own legal jurisdiction covering criminal, civil and Chancery cases. It’s the criminal side this post concentrates on.

"Hillside", Begelly (early 1990s); scene of inquest into death of William John in 1792

The Court’s criminal jurisdiction was similar to that of the Assize courts in England. Using the surviving records it’s possible to analyse the history of crime in Wales and, to help local and family historians get started, NLW has created an on-line database of cases heard in Wales between 1730 and 1830. One of the classes of documents referenced on the database are coroners’ reports. According to Parry, the coroner was “obliged by statute to go the place where any person was found slain or suddenly dead and was required by to summon a jury of local men to view the body…and to examine witnesses and suspects…”

It appears, from comparing another source, that all coroners’ reports have survived for the local mining parishes around Saundersfoot for the period between 1786 and 1820. Thereafter until the abolition of the Court in 1830, the survival rate is about half.***

What do these reports contain? The various coroners were not consistent in the information they recorded. In the late 1700s the then coroner was particular about recording all the types of data shown in the following table. His successor in the early 1800s was less so.

Types of Data Recorded by Pembrokeshire Coroners, 1786-1830
Always Included Sometimes Included
Deceased’s details
  • Name
  • Parish of residence
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • (If an infant) Name of parent/guardian
Venue of inquest
  • Parish
  • Date
  • Name of venue
  • Person who lives there
  • Relationship to deceased
  • Occupation and/or status of host
  • Names
  • Signature or mark
Circumstances of death
  • Date
  • Place
  • Witnesses’ names
  • Cause
  • Description
  • Verdict
  • (If died in mining accident) the name of both the owner the colliery itself

I have posted a list of coroners’ reports for the local mining parishes (including Amroth, Jeffreyston and Loveston) for the 1786-1830 period. The list includes the circumstances of death, the name of the deceased and the parish where the inquest was held. There is obvious value in this data for family historians. For example, anyone researching the Ollin mining family from around Wooden will find their ancestor, John Ollin, in the list. He died in a mining accident in St Issells in 1828.

For local historians the value is equally obvious. I  used this source in a previous post to describe the problem of uncapped pits in the area. Among the many industrial-related accidents, several men fell from wagons moving coal to, and also on, Saundersfoot beach for shipping. With a long shoreline it is no surprise that others drowned in the sea walking along the coast or in boating accidents. These records provide a few snippets of their history.


** excluding Monmouthshire

*** I will post the records for the period 1732-1785 in due course


A Guide to the Records of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales, Glyn Parry, National Library of Wales, 1995

8 thoughts on “Sudden Or Unexplained Deaths

  1. Thanks for posting these Jon — makes for very interesting but sad reading. Intellectually, one knows that everyone worked to help keep the family together, but it’s something else to read the ages and how they died.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve found a ‘missing’ family member in your list – Mary Griffiths of Amroth so again, thanks for posting this information — I’d never have found this information otherwise….


    • Thanks for your comments Lynda.

      Yes, I agree about the sadness of the details.

      I checked to see if I had any other information about Mary Griffith’s inquest from the reports but there’s nothing else to add.


  2. Hi Jon,
    The photo above is called “Hillside” with reference to the William Morris in 1792 – in the details it says “.. returning from smithy in Begelly to Hill St Issells” – is Hill and Hillside one of the same?
    My 2 x great grandmother Mary Belt was living at Hill, St Issells when she gave birth her son James Belt in 1876

    There is reference to Beacon Hill pit, a woman Elizabeth Morris is killed there in 1796 and the owners were Messrs Stokes & Roberts … so we now have a change of hands from 1792 when it was William Belth’s pit who we have discussed many times

    Excellent work you are doing

    • Hello Kevin

      Thanks for your comments.

      Hillside (Begelly) and Hill (St Issells) are 2 different places although both on the former turnpike road leading between Narberth and Tenby. If you walked up from Small Drink (where your Belts lived in 19th century) to join the main road at Begelly church, you’d see Hillside a few yards away on the opposite side of the road. Hillside (a 20th century name probably) was the scene of the inquest of Wm John, not Wm Morris. Morris’ inquest was held at Martha Morris’ house at Hill – I presume she was his widow.

      As to Beacon Hill, I think this scene of Elizabeth Morris’ death was in St Issells parish so not the same places as Belth’s.


  3. Hi Jon,I am living in Lower level,stepaside formerly,the Lower Level Quarry site and I am emotionally upset by the ages of the young people that died on our site. I have tryed to find any photographs relating to Lower level to no avail. I am aware of the history surrounding the site and unfortunately most of the site which I am sure should have been saved had long gone by the time we arrived! although,the blacksmiths remains and the small shed that stored the explosives will be cherished and left as they are. If you have anything which has anything to do with the Lower level site could you share with us! I believe the quarry mans house was made into our home in 1950’s and only the small rear part of the house is original! many thanks sue..

    • Good afternoon

      Many thanks for your post. I do empathize with your comment. It is difficult to feel otherwise when you look at that list especially when you consider the recklessness of the owners, the managers and often of the men themselves.

      I have nothing much to add. In two of his publications on the history of the local coalfield, Martin Connop Price included a picture of Lower Level colliery showing the chimney and winding gear still in place. See ‘Industrial Saundersfoot’ (1982, now out of print), or “Pembrokeshire: The Forgotten Coalfield” (2004). I am sure your local library will have copies of these. Alternatively there may be copies on the 2nd hand web sites such as Amazon or Abebooks.

      Local man, Gary Davies, has published a recent picture of the adit on the following site

      The records of the various Bonvilles Court colliery companies which finally managed the Lower Level colliery are held in private hands. Even if they do became available for public use, there may be nothing of interest.

      There are some original documents in the Pembrokeshire Record Office at Haverfordwest including 19th century maps and plans. You can search their catalogue by using the link on the right-hand side of this page.

      Lastly, the Saundersfoot Historical Society has a collection of items related to the local area and may have something of interest. Again, you’ll see a link to their site on the right-hand side of this page.


  4. Hi

    I was really interested to read of a John ollin who died in a mining accident, I think he is my great grandad, so I would be really interested in any more info you would have on him. Many thanks Jayne ollin

    • Jayne

      Not sure I have anything to add about John Ollin’s death. You can order a photocopy of the coroner’s report to see what else is quoted. Ask the National Library (NLW) for further details via their enquiry site:

      This is the reference you’ll need to quote (its for the relevant Gaol file in the Great Sessions series): “Great Sessions 4/837/4 document 35”

      John was buried at Begelly aged 75 although I do think his age is very much a rough estimate!

      Another lead on John Ollin is the will of his father in law, also held at the NLW – see their online probate document site and search for the will of Richard Thomas in 1796 for “Begeli”. If memory serves me right, his wife (Flora/Florence) died in the Narberth Union workhouse in 1848 but I don’t know where she was buried

      You might also want to get a copy of John & his family’s removal order under the ‘old’ poor law. Contact Pembrokeshire RO and ask for a price for a copy. It’s in the Quarter Sessions roll cat. ref. PQ/7/Epiphany/1801 – the RO doesn’t number the documents.

      Hope that helps.


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