Poverty Among The Farmers

I considered splitting this long post in two but opted to retain as one to maintain cohesion.

Picton Castle (Copyright Tudor Williams licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

The general poverty of coalmining families in the Saundersfoot area in the 1700s and 1800s is well-known. What is less well-known are the problems faced by the local farmers. In parts of England and Wales farmers made good profits from the changes of the so-called “agricultural revolution”. This is certainly not the case in this part of Pembrokeshire, the following example of a group of farmers from around Thomas Chapel illustrating how precarious the business of farming was.

This table lists five farmers all of whom faced varying degrees of financial jeopardy during the 1810-65 period. At one time or another, they each farmed more than 30 acres as tenants of the Picton Castle estate (PCE) and, with this size of farm, could make a living from farming alone rather than needing to have a second occupation.

Farmer

Acreage (approx)

Evidence of financial problems

George Hughes

3

He died in the Narberth workhouse in 1847; had farmed abt. 30 acres up to 1816 but then ran into financial problems
Sarah Phillips

38

She farmed at Bramble Hill; by 1849, she was twelve months in arrears on her rent; distress levied by PCE on her goods and in receipt of relief as a pauper through the 1870s
Sarah Hughes

38

Increasing arrears of rent owed to PCE from 1849; 18 months behind by 1851; died in poverty, documented in article in Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph
Morgan Hughes

55

Financial problems leading to bankruptcy in 1855; his problems are documented in a previous post
Richard Morgan

40

Bankruptcy, 1863

What was the cause of the problems? The answer is not clear. Farming is and always has been a precarious business with Nature, through disease, drought and fire, often making the difference between success and failure. But local farmers faced man-made problems as well, some of which they could control and others they could not.

National problems

Map showing farms around Thomas Chapel which experienced financial problems c.1840-63 (Begelly tithe map reproduced courtesy of Pembrokeshire Record Office, HDX/1210/1)

The period covered by the Napoleonic Wars represented a boom time for farmers with foodstuffs in short supply due to a run of poor harvests and difficulties obtaining imports. Welsh landlords took advantage of this, some rents more than doubling. In Pembrokeshire the PCE increased its rents by about 77 percent between 1790 and 1820 and George Hughes was a possible victim of this.** William Ormond was Hughes’ predecessor paying 8 shillings an acre in the early 1790s and then 18s from 1799 by which time he was already behind on his rent. With this indicator that the rent was already too high, Hughes took over the farm in 1800 but signed a new lease in 1808 at 22s. It may be no coincidence that he gave up this lease around 1817 shortly after the economic bubble burst, possibly unable to pay his way. David Thomas of Ramshorn farm took over from Hughes but at just the 18s an acre that Ormond had originally agreed in 1799.***

The period from around 1815 to the mid-1840s was punctuated by several economic downturns. Around 1822 for example, many of the local land agents reported to the proprietors the difficulty they found collecting rents. Unfortunately the PCE rentals do not survive for this period so it is impossible to assess how bad the problem was around Thomas Chapel. The rentals do survive to illustrate the problems around 1840, the period of the Rebecca Riots. By 1843, for example, Sarah Phillips of Bramble Hill and Richard Morgan were a year behind on their respective rents.

Regional problems

Contemporaries often noted that west Wales farmers lacked the capital required to make a success of their farms. With storage either poor or non-existent they sold grain at low prices after harvest only to have to re-purchase during the winter months at a high price. Farmhouses too were poor: in 1827 John Francis, tenant of Churchlands farm at nearby Reynalton, was living with his family in an outhouse as he did not have sufficient funds to build a new farmhouse. The supply of capital through banks in the area offered little salvation as they frequently came and went. George Hughes was a victim of the crash of the Narberth & Pembrokeshire Bank in 1826 committed to debtors’ gaol at Haverfordwest by the assignees in bankruptcy of one of the partners.

Local problems

In 1801 the vicar of Begelly, Rev John Williams, provided a pithy description of the main preoccupation of the farmers in his parish. They were

“…chiefly engaged in leading coal and culm to the shore; which they are bound to do by a covenant in their lease. Depending principally upon this business for their livelihood, they greatly neglect the cultivation of their farms.”

There is some evidence of increased activity in the coalfield in the mid-1820s with the work of the Tenby & Begelly Coal Co in the van which, if true, would have provided an Indian summer for the farmers’ carting business. But it did not last long. In 1833, the opening of the tramroad from Thomas Chapel colliery past the pits at Barley Park rendered this occupation largely obsolete.

Operation of the local mines caused another problem to farmers. Even on the comparatively small-scale in which the local mines operated, they left their mark on the landscape. An observer in 1806 noted that “…the whole country is defaced by the large coal slack heaps, many in almost every field and common…”. This must have caused problems to Sarah Hughes in particular. Thomas Chapel colliery was operating on her land from possibly as early as 1825 but definitely by 1838. When operations ceased there in 1854, a new shaft was sunk at New Hayes, also on her land. There is little evidence in PCE documents that she was granted any abatement in her rent to cover for the losses she suffered in the quality and amount of land she held.

For want of conclusive evidence any explanation of what caused this flurry of financial problems around Thomas Chapel remains conjecture. The general vicissitudes of farming in the first 40 years of the 19th century established a tough environment for farmers to succeed in. Regional issues such as lack of capital exacerbated these problems. What remains unclear however is to what extent the local coal industry effected the farmers. For example, how much revenue they lost from the tramroad replacing any carting business is unfortunately hidden from our view. Whatever happened, it is clear that the local farmers, like the coalmining families, often shared similar doubts about where their next shilling was coming from.

Notes

** Howells pg 9

*** It cannot be said with certainty that Ormond, Hughes and Thomas farmed the same amount of land but, judging from the available primary sources, it is more than likely.

Sources

Primary

The National Archives, Parish Acreage Returns 1801 (HO 67/22)

National Library of Wales, Picton Castle estate rentals and leases

Pembrokeshire Record Office (PRO), Debtors’ gaol records (PQ/AG/8)

PRO, Harcourt Powell estate papers (D/POW/H/191)

London Gazette (on-line)

Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph

Narberth, Whitland & Clynderwen Weekly News

Secondary

Pembrokeshire County History vol. IV, Modern Pembrokeshire, 1815-1974, David W Howell (ed.), Pembrokeshire Historical Society, 1993

Industrial Saundersfoot, Martin Connop Price, Gomer Press, 1982

Land and People in Nineteenth-century Wales, David W Howell, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977

Aerial view of Thomas Chapel today showing some  change in the landscape (such as new housing on Broom Lane) from the above tithe map. The spoil tips have of course been removed.

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