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.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