Thomas the Black Barber

Thomas the black barber shopA copy of the business ledger of Davies & Rees 1832 to 1834, a local drapery company trading in the town, has been deposited in the Local Collection of the Llanelli Library. Entries within the book have been meticulously transcribed by local author and historian Byron Davies and include some of their trades, occupations and addresses.

The ledger is a useful adjunct to the historian and genealogist as it contains a wealth of information about the people and the town of Llanelli at a time period when there are no recorded censuses available to the researcher [1]. One customer in particular, who is noted in the ledger book proved enigmatic until now – Thomas the Black Barber.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Llanelli was a growing industrial town and sea port. As well as being a coal mining town, it manufactured iron and copper goods. All or most of its trade was by sea. Ships imported the raw materials required for the metalliferous works and exported the finished goods. They also carried the coal that was produced from the town's abundant coal mines.

A contemporary trade directory describes its harbour facilities:

The several important establishments are the sources from which the present flourishing trade of the port is derived, to accommodate which, three commodious docks have been formed, furnished with three convenient loading stages, and the copper-works has a wet-dock, sunk to the depth of 12 feet at the lowest neap-tides The Railway Company's dock is considered one of the best graving docks in the Principality; from one end of it, a breakwater stretches out, of great extent, which enables vessels to ride in perfect safety. Each of these docks has a reservoir for scouring it; and there is also a public reservoir of great capacity, for cleansing the harbour and channel. [2]

Although many of the vessels traded with the home ports off the south coast of England and Ireland, there was a degree of foreign trade, as evinced in a table showing the amount of foreign trade of Llanelli between the years of 1773- 1779 [3]. A total of 314 foreign ships entered its harbours in those years. These ships also carried human cargo in the form of the sailors and the crews that would have manned these vessels. It is possible that one of these sailors was a man called Thomas Rigby.

Llanelli - the New Drovers formerly the DroversResearch carried out at both the Swansea and Llanelli Reference Libraries has finally revealed that Thomas Rigby was indeed, Thomas the black barber! He was an African slave who was born about the year of 1790, and at the age of eight, he was taken as a slave to the West Indies. After an elapse of a few years he obtained his freedom and came to England and then Llanelli and made a living as a barber or hairdresser in the town. Later he married a local woman by the name of Mary and between them they had six children.

In 1841 his wife Mary, appears to be listed as 'publican' in Thomas Street, which at that time was the High Street of the town. It was a street full of pubs, shops, offices, and tradesmen's premises. It was also the venue of the livestock and farmers' markets and boasted: 'two very good Inns, well deserving the patronage of the traveller visiting the town; they are the 'Falcon' and the 'Thomas' Arms.' [2].

Llanelli Poor Rate Book 1843On market days, the town would have been full of travellers, farmers, drovers, businessmen and gentlemen, all needing a shave or a haircut after a long cattle drive or seeking to 'smarten up' before an important business appointment. Thomas Rigby probably had a barber shop in close proximity of this High Street, because his wife Mary was later shown to be living or working in the Drovers Arms in Thomas Street in 1843 [4]. Many would have known of Thomas the Black Barber, as it would have been unusual to have a person from the West Indies residing in the town at that time and no doubt, a novel experience to recount, having had a haircut and a shave by a black barber! It was reported that he was a very popular and industrious man.

Thomas and Mary Rigby had six children, who in 1841 were; Maryann aged 15, George 15, Thomas 12, Elizabeth 7, William 5, Caroline 5 months. It was on the 8th of March of that same year that Thomas Rigby, the Black Barber, died at the age of 51, leaving Mary a widow and her son George, an apprentice shipwright to look after the family [5].
His obituary reads as follows:

On the 8th instant, at Llanelly Carmarthenshire, aged 51, Thomas Rigby, an African, who was taken as a slave to the West Indies when only eight years old. After a lapse of a few years he obtained his freedom and came to England. He resided for many years at Llanelly, where he gained his livelihood as a hairdresser and was esteemed as an industrious and harmless man. He has left a wife and several children'. [6]

By 1851 Mary must have remarried and became widowed once more, for she is recorded as Mary Collins living in Church Street, and termed an 'eating house keeper' (probably running a restaurant). William her youngest son is a pottery labourer and her remaining daughter Caroline, is at school. [7]

What became of Thomas Rigby's children and his descendants? We will leave that for the genealogists to find out.


Notes and Citations

[1] Llanelli Public Library Local Collection
Davies & Rees Ledger book notes LC 12757
Davies & Rees Ledger book notes LC 13333
[2] Pigot's Trade Directory Llanelly 1832.
[3] The Industrial and Maritime History of Llanelli and Burry Port 1750 to 2000. p380.
[4] Llanelly Poor Rate Book p 9 1843 Llanelli Library
[5] 1841 Census Mary Rigby, Thomas Street.
[6] The Cambrian 20 March 1841.
[7] 1851 Census Mary Collins, Church Street.