Yet More Digital Material Published – Land Tax 1798

We live in interesting times… has today made the 1798 Land Tax Redemption Schedules available to search and view on their web site. As ever you will need to have the appropriate subscription to view these. Ancestry’s introduction to this set of Land Tax records provides little context for this collection so here’s an extract from the ‘Oxford Companion to Local & Family History’:

“…in 1698 the direct poundage rate was replaced by a system of quotas at county, hundred, and parish or township level. During the 18th century the tax evolved into a true land tax, assessed on land, buildings, and various forms of rents. Relatively few records survive before 1780, but from that date until the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 annual copies or ‘duplicates’ of the assessments owed by each owner of real property and by each of his tenants were lodged at the Quarter Sessions in order to establish a qualification for the vote at county elections. These duplicates survive in bulk amongst the quarter sessions papers at county record offices. The only return that covers almost all of England and Wales is that of 1798, kept in 121 volumes at the National Archives in class IR 23.”

Academic historians have for many years mused about the usefulness of Land Tax returns. However, I have found them very useful for tracing the tenure of the many small-holdings in the Saundersfoot area using the near-complete run for the 1786-1831 period held at the Pembrokeshire Record Office.

From my experience, there are three main benefits for researchers in this new publication.

Firstly, in its marketing, Ancestry is promoting this new material as ‘almost a mini-census’. In general there is a touch of hype to this but, for the Saundersfoot area, it is not far wrong. Many of our collier and artisan ancestors were granted leases to small-holdings of around one to ten acres or so. What is interesting and unusual is that their landlords granted these on extended terms, for example the survivor of three named lives. The reason why large landowners were keen on this is that such leases attracted voting rights for the tenants and, in the days of public polling, they assumed that these tenants, in consideration for (apparent) improved security of tenure, would vote according to their wishes. As a result, more colliers in our area are recorded in the Land Tax returns then you’d expect to find for other areas where such leases were uncommon.

The second benefit is that the schedules list not only the lessees’ names but also that of the landowner (or the ‘proprietor’ as Ancestry shows it as). Finding this name acts as a portal into landowners’ estate collections where rentals and leases can be valuable sources of material. For our area, much has survived and the collections for, in particular, the Picton Castle estate (mostly at the National Library of Wales – NLW) and the Gogerddan estate (again held at NLW) are real gems in providing further material for researchers.

Lastly, for those of us fortunate to have landowners in our trees, this publication gives a quick and efficient view of the land they owned across wide areas and also county boundaries. For example, although I am not linked in any way to them, in my research into the Child family of Begelly House I was unaware before today just how much land they owned in Carmarthenshire.

While there’s much of benefit, I do have the usual gripes about the standard of transcription that Ancestry has achieved. It is lousy. For example, St Issells has been transcribed throughout as ‘Saint Glsels’ – at least consistently. ‘Begelly’ thankfully is Begelly. But don’t get me started on the wierd transcriptions of many of the surnames!

Church and Chapel in the Saundersfoot area in the 1800s

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 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.

Map showing the opening dates and denominations of the chapels in Begelly & St Issells parishes (click to enlarge)

Map showing the opening dates and denominations of the chapels in Begelly & St Issells parishes (click to enlarge)

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.

NLW Newspaper Digitisation Project – update

Back in October 2010 I posted a note about the future of the National Library’s project to digitise and publish on-line its newspaper collection. Well, the future is almost with us. NLW has posted an update on its blog today…expect a summer baby.

This is good news of course seeing that the albeit wonderful British Library/Findmypast project to digitise so much of the British Library’s huge collection contains as yet little Welsh material and none at all for our area.

My comments about the NLW project seventeen months ago still remain: their site will be free to use so no payment required BUT the NLW project is limited to only newspapers it is has original copies of. So, we will be to access a complete run of the Pembrokeshire Herald but little of the various late 19th century Tenby newspapers, many of which were so gossipy.

I wonder whether the British Library will arrange for the papers that it has copies of that NLW doesn’t have to be digitised under the Findmypast contract. Yes, we will need to pay for access but at least they will cover the gaps. I will do some digging.

Roll on summer!

A Problem with and the 1911 census?

The indexed and digitised census returns provided by the likes of Ancestry and Findmypast have been a boon to family historians over the last 10 years. With so many millions of names published on-line we of course expect there to be errors and for the most part we can work with this – as long that is the database that provides the data to us is working correctly.

I prefer Ancestry’s database to Findmypast‘s as the former allows you to search on any piece of data while Findmypast is more restrictive. For example, on Ancestry, there’s no need to enter a name at all so you can search on parish name alone if you want to. This is very useful for those of us with local history interests as well as genealogy.

However, there seems to be a problem with’s 1911 census database currently. The following is a good example of the problem. In the England database**, try searching on the following index field alone by entering the following wildcard “Pem*” in the “County or island” of birth field and for the 1911 census you will see that there are currently 483 names returned. By comparison, the same search for the 1901 census returns 9880 names. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Ancestry has yet to finish indexing the 1911 census for England, claiming a worthy 75 percent coverage so far. While this explains part of the discrepancy, the above shows that it can only be a small part of the cause.

Another example confirms that Ancestry’s database appears to be in a mess. My great-grandfather, Richard Nash who was born in Begelly, was living in Newcastle upon Tyne in Northumberland at the time the 1911 census was taken. I can find him searching on Ancestry by entering “Richard” and “Nash” with “Northumberland” for his county of residence. The search returns just two “Richard Nash” and my ancestor is one of these. That is good. But try searching for surname “Nash” with “Pem*” in the “County or island” of birth. He does not appear.

Has anyone else encountered problems such as these?


** you will need to be a subscriber to Ancestry to follow these examples.

St David’s Day news

I see from Chris Paton’s blog that the Welsh parish register collection is due to go live on later today.  The article he links to suggests this includes 9 million records for baptisms, marriages and burials.

Obviously you will have to pay to get access to both the index and digital copies but this is a big step forward for the many researchers who live nowhere near Wales.


Doh! I knew I should have waited for the press release before posting the above. As you’ll see from this site, the Pembrokeshire records have not been posted yet, only those for Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Glamorganshire. I say only but this is still a big step forward as many of us will have ancestors who migrated from the Saundersfoot coalfield to Glamorgan and with Carmarthenshire so close to our area, you may find some interest there too.

The Pembrokeshire records are, according to the press release, due for posting in the “following weeks”.

Once we have the Church records online, what’s the likelihood of the Chapel records being posted too? A long way off methinks.

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