Over the last ten years or so I have transcribed material from the surviving chapel registers to help with my research. Over the next few weeks I intend to publish these on the blog. This post asseses the importance of these registers for researchers.
The imminent publication by Findmypast.co.uk of their index to and images of the Pembrokeshire parish registers will be a great step forward for family historians – albeit at the cost of a subscription or a trip to the library. However, while these registers are important, don’t forget the extensive non-conformist tradition in Wales. Although the church was the largest religious denomination in the country around the middle of the 1800s, it had to compete hard for worshippers with growing support for non-conformism. In our area, according to the 1851 Religious Census, the parish church of St Issells could hold 350 people while the four chapels in the parish, all of them opened in the previous 40 years, could hold a total of 948. In terms of attendance, drawing a very rough estimate from the same source, the chapels were on average three-quarters full while the parish church was near capacity.
It is clear then that these soon-to-be-published parish registers are useful but that they tell less than half the story for family historians. The accompanying map illustrates the growth of non-conformism in the Saundersfoot area. Before 1800 the nearest chapel was the Baptists’ at Molleston, a couple of miles north of Begelly. Judging by the surviving baptism register, it attracted a handful of worshippers from the local coalfield. More important was the start of the Independent cause in the early 1800s centred on the parish boundary between Amroth and St Issells. Its success resulted in the opening of Sardis Chapel in between Hean Castle and Stepaside in 1810 followed swiftly in the 1820s by the Calvinistic Methodists at Zion (Begelly) and Bethesda (St Issells) together with the Primitive Methodists at Hill (St Issells). Further development occurred on the back of Saundersfoot’s growth from the early 1830s with the Independents opening Bethel Chapel in 1838 (now the Thomas Memorial Church) with the Baptists, Calvinistic and then the Wesleyan Methodists following suit over the next 30 years.
All these put pressure on St Issells and Begelly churches and the parish registers tell a story of decline in numbers. While many left for the chapels, it should not be forgotten that something like 50 percent of the population at the time (for England and Wales) did not attend church or chapel in 1851.
That is not good news for family historians hoping to find material in the local registers. Nor is there much good news in the survival rate for chapel registers in the Saundersfoot area. At best it can be described as patchy. Some registers have survived, the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists in particular being well-covered, but there is next to nothing that I am aware of for the two Independent and three Calvinistic Methodist chapels and nothing at all for the Baptists. With so many gaps I hope you will find some material of interest in the transcripts that I post over the next few weeks, starting with the baptism register for the Kingsmoor Primitive Methodist Chapel.
The Old Series Ordnance Survey map on which the above graphic is based, surveyed around 1815, is reproduced with the permission of Cassini Publishing Ltd.