Who links Saundersfoot to the Nobel Peace Prize?

The answer is the Rev. William Evans Darby, nominated for the Prize in seven out of thirteen years between 1901 and 1913 for his work as secretary to the Peace Society.

William Evans Darby with the National Memorial for Arrest of Armaments with over 100,000 signatures (Courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, American Peace Society Records)

William Evans Darby with the National Memorial for Arrest of Armaments with over 100,000 signatures (Courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, American Peace Society Records)

Born in Laugharne in Carmarthenshire in 1844, his parents soon moved to Saundersfoot where William spent his formative years. Apparently the family descended from Anglo-Irish stock with an estate based around Leap Castle in Co. Offaly. He had several illustrious members in his extended family. The writer of one of his obituaries claimed that William’s great-grandfather was Admiral Sir Henry D’Esterre Darby (friend of Lord Nelson), although the precise relationship is in some doubt. Another was John Nelson Darby, a key member of the non-conformist evangelical Plymouth Brethren in the mid-1800s. Yet another will be familiar to anyone who has studied English medieval history as William’s great-nephew, Prof. Sir H C Darby, was the author of the ground-breaking seven-volume geographical analysis of the Domesday Book first published in the 1950s.

On the one hand, it is therefore perhaps not surprising that William rose to the status he did. For 26 years from 1889, he was secretary of the Peace Society, an organisation formed by Quakers in 1816 for the “Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace” taking a leading role in setting the organisation’s strategy. He travelled widely in Europe and North America speaking at annual peace congresses and also published extensively on topics such as peace, international law and temperance.

On the other, however, irrespective of his family’s lineage, William’s success is surprising. His father, Evan, was one of several harbour pilots at Saundersfoot, a competitive business heavily dependant on the ‘boom or bust’ coal trade. According to his obituary writers, William’s family lived in the poverty that affected so many around the area. Narberth Poor Law Union documents confirm this: his father was a pauper in the 1870s. At one point the local community had to club together to pay for repairs to his vandalised sails.

William Evans Darby's gravestone at the City of London Cemetery, buried 13 November 1922

The inscription on Darby's gravestone remembers him as "An Apostle of Peace"

How did William rise from this? Like his contemporary, the Rev. James Thomas, education is the answer. Set to follow his father’s maritime career, his potential was spotted by a local teacher who ensured that William received good and prolonged schooling. Unfortunately, unlike Thomas, there is no record of which school he attended but it may have been at New Hedges (a mile south west from Saundersfoot) where he later taught.

William completed his formal education at the non-conformist theological college, New College, London, in the mid-1860s. Student records for this period are currently unavailable so it is not clear how William could afford this final step but he was later ordained into the Independent church becoming minister at various chapels in England between 1868 and 1889.

At the risk of being unduly critical it can’t be said that his professional life was wholly successful. He was declared bankrupt in 1885 following some ill-advised dabbling in local politics in Chippenham, Wiltshire. More importantly, the outbreak of war in 1914 shows that the Peace Society failed in its objectives, suffering much criticism from around 1900 for its passivity as Europe headed towards war. When William retired in 1915 the once-thriving society was effectively moribund. He was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


My thanks to Annette Harrison, a descendant of Evan Darby, for her help with this post.


Tenby Observer newspaper

Western Independent newspaper

Herald of Peace journal

Congregational Year Book, 1923

Pembrokeshire Record Office, Narberth Poor Law Union Abstracts (Cat ref. HDX/1026/1/15)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required)

The British Peace Movement, 1870-1914, Paul Laity, Clarendon, 2002

Stepaside’s Man in Shanghai

James Thomas was born near Stepaside in March 1843 into a poor coalmining family. Their house overlooked the construction of the new ironworks which started in 1848 and also the large pit sunk at Grove in the mid-1850s. With a thirsty workforce on the doorstep it is not surprising his father opened the house as a pub.

Rev James Thomas. His obituary in the Times newspaper recorded "His pastoral work there is still well remembered as well as his tall handsome figure and his long beard, then black, which endeared him to the Chinese."

Rev James Thomas, 1843-1933

Twenty-five years later, in 1868, the newly-ordained Reverend James Thomas arrived with his wife in Shanghai, a missionary sent out to China by the London Missionary Society (LMS), the same evangelical organisation that employed Dr David Livingstone in his early days in Africa. Thomas had a tough job on his hands: after just over 30 years the Shanghai mission had around 130 members amongst the local population of millions in the city and its hinterland. He did not last long giving up missionary life after three years and instead accepting the call to become minister of the Union (Congregational) Chapel amongst the opium dens and brothels on the river front in Shanghai. By 1877 he was back in England appointed as regional secretary to the British & Foreign Bible Society firstly in Derby before taking up the same role in London in 1885 where he made a name for himself as an able administrator and successful fund-raiser. He retired in 1919.

How did Thomas rise from Stepaside poverty to the heights he did? Education is the answer. Whether he attended any of the local schools around Saundersfoot is not known but his obituaries do record that he attended the only establishment providing secondary education in the county, the grammar school at Haverfordwest. Using income from two 17th century charitable endowments the school offered free education – but not books or digs – to a small number of  “the poorer sort of people” teaching subjects such as English grammar, History, Geography, Latin and Greek.

He was at the school during a period of great flux. Following the less than ringing endorsement it received in the  Government’s  1847 report into education in Wales, the school was reconstituted in 1855 and then moved to new buildings a year later. Unfortunately its pre-1855 records have not survived so there is no official record of his attendance nor is it clear how Thomas benefitted from these changes. The records that do survive show that he was the last local boy from a mining background to attend the grammar school during the 1800s.

Leaving school he appears to have been apprenticed to a Mr Evans, a chemist, druggist and bookseller in Narberth. He also attended the Tabernacle Independent church in the town where he came under the wing of the minister, Rev. Joseph Morris, and it was he who recommended Thomas to the LMS for training as a minister and missionary. Importantly the society also agreed to pay most of his costs to attend the non-conformist theological Cheshunt College north of London starting in 1863. He graduated in the summer of 1867, was ordained at Narberth in August, married in September in Bristol and sailed for Shanghai in October.


The Times newspaper, 1933

Blackheath Local Guide newspaper, 1933

Congregational Year Book, 1934

School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, London Missionary Society archive

Pembrokeshire Record Office, Haverfordwest Grammar School Admissions Register, 1855-1909 (cat ref. SSR/2/7/4)

The History of the British & Foreign Bible Society, William Canton, Murray, 1910

The History of Haverfordwest Grammar School, G Douglas James, (no publisher’s name), 1961


The next few posts on this blog will cover the biographies of various men (no women yet!) who left the Saundersfoot coalmining community for careers that had little or no relevance to their backgrounds. In the 1800s, this type of departure from mining was uncommon. What made these people take a different course from their peers? How did they achieve it?

My great-grandfather, Richard Nash, is an example of this. He grew up in a mining family in Begelly in the 1860s leaving the village around 1880 to become, amongst other roles, a captain in the Salvation Army, an evangelist and a brewer of temperance drinks. By comparison his four uncles moved from Begelly to the south Wales coalfield in the early 1870s but all remained miners. It is not clear whether he had any different opportunities than they did. The problem is that I don’t know what set him apart and this provides the reason why I won’t write a separate post about him.

Another example is the story of William Morris who left Stepaside to eventually become a director of a mining company in Australia. This post was provided by Joyce Phillips and I know from the number of hits and from email feedback how interesting readers found it.

If you would like to contribute something along these lines, do drop me a note to snorbensblog@aol.com