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The Carmarthenshire Antiquary

1970, Vol vi

This article has been extracted by Gareth Hicks (July 2004) with the permission of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society from original material provided by Deric John.


SOME ASPECTS OF EARLY NONCONFORMITY
AND EARLY COMMERCE IN LLANELLI

By W. KEMMIS BUCKLEY, M.A.

(An address given to the Society at Llanelli Public Library on February 20th 1970).

IN THE YEAR 1760  1   there rode into Llanelli, perhaps indeed past this very building, Sir Thomas Stepney's new agent. He was aged 18, he came from a Pembrokeshire family, and his name was Henry Child. For the next seventy years he and his son-in-law, Rev. James Buckley, had a considerable influence on the growth of Wesleyan Methodism and on the development of business in Llanelli ; and it is about these two men, remarkable by any standard, that I would like to speak tonight.

I had always assumed that Sir Thomas chose Henry Child as his agent because he was a Methodist, but I now find that this is not so: he did not become a Member of the Methodist Society until 1769.   2   We will never know the reason why Sir Thomas engaged him ; it may have been because he knew his family in Pembrokeshire, or it may have been simply that he had recognized his ability. Whatever the reason, he can have had no cause to regret his choice.

This was an exciting time in the history of Llanelli. New ideas, religious and commercial, had began to penetrate into West Wales. John Wesley was bringing the Gospel to the people ; and Henry Child's arrival in the Borough almost coincided with that of Alexander Raby and Chauncey Townsend and just preceded that of the other big business men of the time --- the Wards, Wedges, Nevills and Lord Ashburnham.

He could see that there were ample opportunities for anyone with capital to make money ; and his first task was therefore to create capital. This he did in the classic manner by working harder and saving his earnings. In addition to his duties with the Stepney Estate, he became agent  3   to Admiral William Langdon, and to the Vaughans of Golden Grove in respect of their Kidwelly and Llanelli property.

By 1769 he was ready to take advantage of the situation created by the growing population which followed industrial expansion, and he took a lease of the Talbots Head  4 ---- an inn with a garden --- adjoining Parc Eynon. Shortly afterwards, he bought the old Malt House   5  which, until a few years' ago, stood at the top of Wind Street. (Why, after all, should one pay a middle man if one could make one's own Malt ?) Having become a Maltster, he then proceeded to find adequate outlets for his malt ; and he next acquired the Falcon.  6  This house, whose name is perpetuated in the name of the offices of Messrs. W. Griffiths, Son & Lewis (Architects) --- Falcon Chambers --- adjoined the churchyard at the bottom of Thomas Street ; and it soon became the centre of a considerable commercial activity stimulated by Henry Child --- to his great profit. He developed the market around the walls of the churchyard, the painting of which by Mrs. Havard in 1854   7 is so well known --- and the sellers and buyers doubtless frequented the Falcon. One of his duties was to supervise the perambulations of manorial boundaries,   8  " beating the bounds ", and the perambulators always returned to the Falcon. Here too, he received rents ; and his bills to the Vaughans and Stepneys for meals and beer to the rent-paying tenants have survived: it is interesting to note that the bills for beer and spirits were over ten times as much as for the food eaten. At election times, the forty-shilling freeholders met at the Falcon   9  and then trooped away under Henry Child's guidance to cast their votes as their conscience, or that of Henry Child's, dictated. Finally, he entered the auctioneering   10  business --- both of property and household and agricultural goods --- and the auctions were, of course, held at the Falcon.

Clearly, this was a profitable business ; and in 1791 he leased another inn, the Carmarthen Arms 11  in Wind Street. This was followed by his building the White Lion   12  in the same neighbourhood ; and finally, in 1799, he obtained a 55-year lease --- at 5 a year --- of the ground on which the Brewery now stands. 13

Coincidentally with all this, he expanded in a further logical direction : instead of buying barley with which to make malt, he took leases of farms 14  on which to grow his own grain. His next two ventures were again perfectly logical: Llanelli was a growing town and it needed flour to make bread, and he therefore leased the Llanelli Mill   15  and bought the Felinfoel Mill.   16 This business prospered in its turn, and he obtained a lease of a wharf at Llanelli Dock 17  from where he could export his surplus grain and flour.

At this stage, one becomes somewhat breathless in recounting his achievements ; but there are two further matters to be recorded. In 1810, he was named Trustee in the Act of Parliament for inclosing lands in Llanelli Parish and for leasing the said lands and applying the rents to improving the town and port.   18  Finally, in 1795, he went into partnership with Lord Ashburnham and a Mr. Tatlow to work Pembrey Colliery.  19

So far, this has been the story of a highly successful business man. but there was more to him than that. As I said earlier, he joined the Methodist Society in 1769.

It may be worth while at this stage to pause and consider briefly the extraordinary influence of Methodism at this period. I have not seen it better summed up than by Harold Nicolson in his "Age of Reason". "Lecky", he writes, " goes so far as to state that it was Methodism which at the end of the eighteenth century preserved England from a revolution as terrible as that of France . . . . Methodism, for the working classes, proved a welcome emotional sedative, while it gave to the rich a sense of responsibility and philanthropic conscience. It passed on to the evangelicals its high ideals of public and private duty ; by its example it reformed and raised the Church of England ; it purified politics, gave a fresh stimulus to public education, and created the wave of humanitarianism that led to the abolition of slavery and penal reform. Certainly it was one of the most civilizing inspirations that has ever improved the lot of man. All this was due to the genius and virtue of the gifted and charming little scholar who was born in Epworth Parsonage on 17th June 1703. "

Charming and gifted John Wesley certainly was: but two other qualities permeated his life --- spiritual dedication and almost unbelievable physical energy. In the year 1738 he underwent a mystical experience in a room in Aldersgate. We cannot know the precise nature of this experience but we do know that it was a turning point in his life and in the history of these Islands. From that moment on, his whole being was devoted to bringing the Gospel to the people, and particularly to the toiling masses who the Church of England was unwilling or unable to reach. From now until his death in 1791 he rode up and down the country preaching in markets, churches, churchyards, village greens, outside gaols and in shops.

One cannot help wondering whether there is any connection between Henry Child's conversion and the visit of John Wesley to Llanelli in that year. You will probably recall the well-known passage in Wesley's journal for 17th August 1769:   " At twelve I preached in the Castle at Carmarthen, in the evening in Llanelli. The behaviour of Sir Thomas's servants here (four or five of whom belong to the Society) has removed all prejudice from him, as well as from most of the town. Indeed, they are a pattern to all of their rank, truly 'adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour'. "

One wonders if Henry Child was already one of those four of five about whom Wesley speaks, or whether indeed he was converted as a result of listening to Wesley preach. We will never know.

This happy state of affairs in the Society in Llanelli did not last long ; and we find Wesley writing in his journal for 18th August 1774:  " .... I went on to Llanelli. But what a change was there ! Sir Thomas Stepney, the father of the poor, was dead ! Cut down in the strength of his years ! So the family was broke up, and Wilfred Colley, his butler, the father of the Society, obliged to remove. Soon after, John Deer, who was next in usefulness to him, was taken into Abraham's bosom ; but just then Col. St. Leger, in the neighbourhood, sent to Galway for Lieutenant Cook to come and put his house in repair and manage his Estate. So another is brought just in time to supply the place of Wilfred Colley ! I preached at five near Sister Deer's door, to a good company of plain country people ; and then rode over to the old ruinous house, which Mr. Cook is making all haste to repair. It is not unlike old Mr. Gwynne's house at Garth, having a few large handsome rooms. It is also situated much like that, only not quite so low for it has command of a well-cultivated vale, and of the fruitful side of the opposite mountain.

Friday, 19th: We rode on to Larn --- Ferry ".

I have quoted this passage at length not only because of its own intrinsic interest but because there is some local historical interest in identifying the people mentioned in it. We know nothing more about Wilfred Colley  20  or why he had to leave ; but was he perhaps the father of the John Colley who was joint owner with Sir John Stepney of the parcel of land in Pembrey which Henry Child sought to buy in 1810 in order to build a Meeting House ?   21  Of John Deer we know nothing except that he was one of two Methodist Brothers ;   22  and we know that Lieutenant Cook had served under Wolfe in Canada and that John Wesley had first met him Galway.   23

We know something more about Col. St. Leger. He came, it is said, from a Yorkshire family and served in the 34th Regiment of Foot, now the Border Regiment. His connection with Carmarthenshire came through his marriage to Mary, widow of Sir Edward Mansel of Trimsaran and Stradey. Sir Edward, who was not one of the more respectable members of the Mansel family, died without issue in 1754 and dispossessed his nephew and heir Sir Edward Vaughan Mansel to the Trimsaran property so that he inherited Stradey only. When, therefore, Col. Barry St. Leger married Lady Mary Mansel it is at least a reasonable assumption that they lived at the Plas, Trimsaran, and that this was the house at which John Wesley stayed for the night of 18th August 1774 and which Lieutenant Cook was making such haste to repair. Col. St. Leger was made a Freeman of Kidwelly in 1774 ; but he and his wife   24   lived latterly in the parish of St. George's Bloomsbury. I am much indebted for the information given in this passage --- and indeed in other passages --- to Mr. A. H. Williams (the noted Methodist historian), to Mr. W. H. Morris of Kidwelly, and above all, to Major Francis Jones whose encyclopedic knowledge of local genealogy makes easy the path of amateur antiquarians.

Be all this as it may, it is clear that at some time after the death of Sir Thomas Stepney, Henry Child became a leader of the Methodist Society in the Town. In his obituary, written by his son-in-law in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine of 1824, he is described, in curiously modern language, as " a class leader whose exemplary conduct, sound judgement, strict veracity and uniform integrity silenced opposition to Methodism in the town ". John Wesley, who in the course of his Ministry visited Llanelli twelve   25  times, used to stay with him as did many of the earliest Methodist preachers.

At this time the Society was small because there were few English families in the neighbourhood, " the inhabitants generally " we are told " preferring their own native energetic language ".   26   On his last visit to Llanelli, however, Mr. Wesley was told that the one thing they wanted was a preaching house. He smiled, took a guinea out of his pocket and gave it to Mrs. Child .   27  The chapel --- Wind Street Chapel, demolished only three years ago --- was built in Henry Child's garden in 1792.   28

He married a Llanelli girl --- Mary Jones, the daughter of David Jones   29 --- and they had nine children one only of whom married and had issue --- Maria, the wife of Rev. James Buckley. He died in his house in Thomas Street in 1824 and is buried in the Parish Church.

Rev. James Buckley was born in Oldham, Lancashire, in 1770 and became a Wesleyan Minister in 1791. 30   He was appointed to the Glamorganshire Circuit in 1794; in those days the circuit was very extensive and stretched from Chepstow to Llanelli. His first visit to Llanelli is worth recording. We are told in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine that " Near the end of his journey he had to cross a small arm of the sea which was fordable at low water. A person whom he saw there told him he might cross with safety and directed him to keep a certain object steadily in view. Mr. Buckley had not proceeded many yards, when the water became so deep, and the current so strong, that he was carried downwards above a quarter of a mile, before he reached the other side ; and then he only found a soft mud, insufficient to bear his weight.

Happily, a person who was perfectly acquainted with the area saw him, called upon him to stand still, and then hastened to him and guided him out of his difficult and most perilous position. Completely wet and covered with sand and mud, he got over the remaining four miles of his journey as quickly as possible, and rejoiced to find himself under the hospitable roof of Mr. Child "   31

It was presumably on this occasion that he first met his future wife whom he married in 1798 just before he was appointed to Diss in Norfolk. Some of Mr. Child's neighbours expressed their surprise that he should allow his daughter to marry a Methodist Minister, but he replied, " I am only surrendering to the Lord what I received from Him ; and I see nothing dishonourable, but the opposite, in giving her to a Minister of the Gospel of Christ ".   32

I do not propose to relate the details of his career from the time he married until the time he returned to South Wales in 1823 as his work in these years has little bearing on the history of Llanelli. Three impressions must, however, be given. We are told that he was a considerable preacher in a day of considerable preachers. One of his sermons still exists --- of immense length --- and it is now deposited with other Wesleyan relics in Hall Street Chapel. The second impression is recorded by Rev. Thomas Aubrey in his autobiography who states that he was extremely critical of the Welsh people ; " he considered himself head and shoulders above them even when standing in his stockinged feet ". Finally, we are told that he took an active part in the formation of the Wesleyan Missionary Auxiliary Society and that he took a deep interest throughout his life in the growing success of Wesleyan Missions .   33

His importance to us this evening lies in the fact that he consolidated and built on to Henry Child's achievements both in commerce and in the expansion of the Methodist Society in Llanelli. He was lucky in his appointmens(sic) and in the timing of them : he was holding the appointment at Swansea in 1824 when his father-in-law died and, having been Chairman of the South Wales District, his last appointment was to Carmarthen, after which he retired although remaining as " supernumerary " in Llanelli .  34  Both Swansea & Carmarthen were close enough to Llanelli for him to supervise his interests there. Furthermore, his eldest sons, kept on a tight rein, were of an age to act as his agents.

One of his first duties was to rebuild the Wind Street Chapel as it had become too small for the congregation. On 16th July 1828 Mrs. Buckley laid the foundation stone   35  " as her honoured mother had done the former ; and Rev. James Buckley preached on the site ; and on 21st November it was opened by him and Rev. W. Davis   36  and Rev. J. Bond in Welsh and English ".   37 , At this time the land was settled on trustees and secured to the Connexion . 38   Still the numbers continued to grow and the chapel was enlarged again in 1834. 39  James Buckley could not preach because of declining health, but he opened the service and gave an address at the close .   40  Non-conformist historians may be interested to learn that the Minister of Capel Als, Rev. David Rees, attended this ceremony  41 although at this time he was engaged in strongly criticising the autocracy of the Methodist Conference.

He would doubtless have regarded the care of the Methodists in Llanelli as his greatest achievement --- and what a change came over his flock in the years when he was connected with Llanelli both in increase of membership and in the size and numbers of chapels --- but he was also a good business man. I can illustrate this no better than by quoting from his own letters.

On 25th August 1828, at the time when Wind Street Chapel was being rebuilt, he wrote   42  to his son James   43  a letter which starts by telling him, in forceful terms, to look after both his spiritual and physical health and continues : " Mr. Wesley says, who was a good judge and ought to be regarded ---

" Six hours of sleep the human frame requires
And through hard studiance may to scorn incline
But lazy knaves will have all nine ".

.......... I suppose Mr. C. Nevill wrote to you re Mr. James's offer to advance money on Llanelli Chapel: if you can get him to advance 200 at 4 1/2 %, if not we must give him 5 %.

It is purely fortuitous that the next letter to be quoted also concerns Mr. Nevill. In June 1830,   44   Rev. James Buckley received a letter from a Mr. Fisher of 38 Newgate Street, London: --- " As one of the Corporation of London and a common council man for the ward of Farringdon Within I have recommended to the Mayor, Ald. and Common Council as well as the " Committee for General Purposes " to use a material from the neighbourhood of Swansea for the Carriageway of Black Friars Bridge, i.e. such as is used in many places about Prescot, St. Helen's, Warrington, and Pendleton ; you will recall it, Copper Dross or Slag as it is called in Lancashire. I don't mean cinders or Iron Dross but the heavy hard copper dross ". The rest of the letter contains suggestions as to how this commodity could be brought by barge from Llanelli to London Bridge. Immediately after receiving the letter Rev. James Buckley   45  wrote to his son, James, instructing him to see whether sufficient quantity could be obtained and on what terms, and he ended by telling James to make the enquiry  "without explaining to Mr. Nevill or any other person the purpose for which they are intended ". We know that Black Friars Bridge was ultimately paved with copper dross from Llanelli, and we can only hope that the Nevills and the Buckleys both made a satisfactory profit out of the transaction.

He is a much easier person to get to know than Henry Child because we can hear him talking through his letters whereas we know Henry Child at second-hand through the medium of deeds and plans and secondhand commentary. Throughout his letters, Rev. James Buckley combines the deep religious sentiments of his age with a somewhat surprising business sense. At one moment his eldest son, Henry Child Buckley, is commenting   46   that " our business is going on pretty well and increasing a little. The colliery is improving. Farming is the most troublesome, expensive, and the least profiable ". At the next moment he is writing   47  to the same son to say that he has heard from a person lately in Llanelli that Henry has been   " guzzling and drinking to excess repeatedly ". This person has lamented that " so fine a young man should be destroying himself by such habits " ; and the letter ends by threatening that if Henry does not reform, his mother and father will dispose of the business and the property and retire " to some peaceable part of the kingdom ".

For all this, however, it cannot have been an unhappy household. Listen to this letter of 1st December 1807   48  from Mrs. Buckley to her sister Catherine Child. " Mary has a bad cough and I am poorly. James and Elizabeth are busy at play, they are constant companions and very fond of each other, she strokes his face and says "poo poo Dace " and leads him by the hand. She has a new pair of shoes that she is much pleased with, she calls them " Pitty Duffs ". James is very shy in speaking Welsh, only now and then he slips out a cant expression. I had given Mary some medicine the other day: he observed it operate and cry'd " Mae'r Llodes fach hun purgho ".

Brother and Sister remained great friends throughout their lives, and my last quotation comes from Elizabeth's letter to James of 11th November 1824.   49  This will serve to show that there was a light side to their lives : " I spent two months in Llanelli, was at two very grand parties, and had two invitations, one from Nevill Broom, the other from Martin Roberts, to go to a concert, the Performers were to come from Carmarthen, but Lo ! and Behold ! when the ladies were all dress'd and preparing to go to the Assembly Room (the Town Hall) the news came that the Performers had staid at Kidwelly, where I suppose they thought they should have a more brilliant audience ..   And now pay particular attention ! ! Please to send me by the next book parcel, a small china crepe handkerchief, to wear on my neck at tea parties. If china crepe are out of fash, any other kind that is light and pretty will do: it must not be large, and put it down to Father's account ".

Rev. James Buckley died in 1839. He had taken a great interest in the Centenary Movement and despite his advancing years he attended   50  the Centenary Conference in Liverpool where he died shortly after the Conference had ended. He is buried in the Parish Churchyard in Llanelli.

It is time now to draw together the threads of this talk. I hope you will have discerned two distinct themes in the lives of these two men --- early Methodism and early Commerce in Llanelli. In the course of these seventy years, the Methodist Society grew from small beginnings into a virile community with Chapels of their own. In the same period the business expanded from the Talbots Head and the Falcon on such a sure foundation that it has been able to withstand the buffetting and stresses of the next two centuries.

These two men lie now in the Parish churchyard, within sight of two living memorials to their dedication and ability. On the one side of them stands the Hall Street Chapel, successor to their little chapel in Wind Street ; and on the other side stands the Brewery. I like to think they would approve of what the latest and the least of their descendants has said about them this evening ; and I am sure they would welcome as an epitaph these lines by their great contemporary William Blake. This mystic, unknown in his own time, might have almost been speaking of them and of John Wesley when he wrote :

" I rest not from the great task To open the
eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes of
man inward ".

 

NOTES

In general the sources fall into two categories : contemporary or near contemporary Methodist publications, and unpublished Mss. held in the Carmarthenshire County Record Office. Three collections are of particular interest to students of early Methodism and early commerce in Llanelli ; the Castell Gorfod Mss., the Stepney (Llanelli) Mss., and the Cawdor Collection all three of which I have been guided through by the kindness of the County Archivist.


(Gareth Hicks  Last updated  26 July 2004)

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