The Inhabitants of Llanelli in 1847

As part of an enquiry into the state of education in Wales in 1847, two of the most powerful and important men in Llanelli were consulted about their opinions on the working people of the town; Richard Janion Nevill and William Chambers Junior.

Richard Janion Nevill managed and controlled the biggest employer in the town, the Llanelly Copperworks and its associated coalmines. In his employ were hundreds of copper men and coal miners. He was also a member of the Harbour Commission, a committee that administered the town's port. He was a Justice of the Peace who had been in office during the turbulent period of the Rebecca Riots. In common with many industrialists of his time, he employed child labour at his works and mines. At the time of the enquiry he lived at the large residence known as Llangennech Park.

William Chambers Junior, through his father's inheritance had custodianship of the entire Stepney Estate in Llanelli and lived at Llanelly House. Under his control were the many farmers and tenants on the estate and the workers of Llanelly Pottery which he owned. Like Nevill, he was also a Harbour Commissioner and a Justice of the Peace during the Rebecca Riots. Both men were town burgesses, members of the governing body of the town who had been described as a 'corrupt clique'.

These were the questions that were put to them...

Are you acquainted with the Condition of the Mining and Manufacturing Population in any part of Wales?

“I have for more than forty years been acquainted (with) the mining and manufacturing population of Llanelly, in Carmarthenshire, having for the whole period been connected with collieries and copper-works there.” (RJN)

“In Carmarthenshire and the western part of Glamorganshire, I am.” (WC)

State your opinion of it under the following heads:-

Domestic accommodation?

“The houses of the colliers and copper-men are built of stone, tolerably dry, and usually occupied by one family only; but they are deficient in comfort, and, owing to the want of drainage and an imperfect supply of water, they are generally dirty. Many of the men live in their own houses, built on leases for long terms.” (RJN)

“The iron and copper men, a better class of workmen, are generally well provided with as many necessaries and comforts as their condition in life would entitle men to, receiving similar wages, in any part of England; many live in their own houses. Generally the back accommodations are not as well arranged as might be, and this more particularly applies to old houses. Gardens are small, as the men seem to have no taste for any description of horticulture. The potatoes are raised on the farms in the neighbourhood, and the cultivation carried on by the women and children. The colliers are a degree worse in every particular, receiving less wages. A few Staffordshire potters have lately introduced a taste for gardening which is likely to be copied by the Welsh. Windows are not often opened, but, as large fires are kept with their allowance of coal, the door always open ventilates the apartments.” (WC)


“The people are much more sober than formerly; but there is still a good deal of drunkenness, and beer shops are found a very serious evil.” (RJN)
“As regards sobriety, all classes are improved, and much of this improvement may be attributed to the efforts of teetotallers.” (WC)

Providence and economy?

“In Providence and economy the population is very deficient, though many of the men belong to benefit-clubs and building societies.” (RJN)
“The farmers and agricultural labourers are provident and economical, but the average of the other classes are not so.” (WC)

Religious feeling and observance?

“Both men and women are regular in their attendance at public worship on Sundays (almost all being Dissenters); but, from their disregard of truth and laxity of morals, it is evident their standard of morals is not what it ought to be.” (RJN)

“In this they appear to be extremely particular; Sabbath-breaking, or an absence from divine service, would subject a man to more odium from his acquaintances than, perhaps, any other offence.” (WC)

Care for their children and sense of parental responsibility?

“The people are fond of their children, but they are wretchedly managed; punishments are almost always prompted by anger instead of by wish to effect improvement. Of sense of parental responsibility they have scarcely any; the consequence is, the children throw off all control before they are of an age to think and judge rightly for themselves.” (RJN)

“Very fond of, and kind to, their children, especially when young; but I do not think they attach much importance to their responsibility as parents for the good conduct of their children; they are left to do much as they please very early, and soon leave their parents.” (WC)

Feeling towards their employers and superiors?

“The people generally are respectful to their superiors, and have never shown themselves actuated by ill-feeling towards their employers.” (RJN)

“This is a very difficult thing to find out. Most of the employers of work-people are English, to whom they behave with external deference - though their extreme civility, or rather servility, would lead one to question their sincerity. They stand much in awe of their superiors, from the difference of language not enabling them to enter much into communication with them, except upon matters connected with their employment; and partly for the reason of the number of workmen employed bears so large a proportion of their employers, that there can be little intercourse upon subjects touching the welfare and comfort of the former.” (WC)

Capability of forming a judgement on the true interests of their class, and general intelligence?

“They are naturally intelligent, and as competent to judge of their own interests as their imperfect education and knowledge will allow them be.” (RJN)
“The Welsh possess a degree of intelligence and acuteness admirably developed in their transactions with one another; but they receive with suspicion any information from a stranger.” (WC)

Whether improving or retrograding, and in what respects; and whether likely to continue in the same direction?

“The condition of the working-classes is certainly improving; they are better fed, clothed, and lodged than formerly; there is less drunkenness and more attention to religious duties, and I have reason to hope the improvement will progress. It would so rapidly, if the wives were more provident, cleanly, and industrious.” (RJN)

“A dread of ridicule, and an obstinate perseverance in ancient customs and manners, is a great check to the introduction of improvements. Some of the better informed of the middle classes are doing much by the introduction of mechanics' institutions in towns, to improve the mental condition of the people and, by agricultural examples in the country, to give ocular demonstration of the truth of their principles.” (WC)

Whether their moral condition is improved, or the reverse, by good times?

“The moral condition of the population does not appear to be sensibly affected by good times; but wages do not fluctuate here as they do amongst the iron-workers, and the workmen are not at all inclined to change their masters, or leave their homes.”

“The two great outbreaks (except that of Rebecca) took place in good times. One at Merthyr, when the mob disarmed the yeomanry, and very nearly obtained the arms of a company of infantry. In this case they were fired on, and 70 killed. Another at Newport, under Frost, where the mob endeavoured to get possession of the town, but were repulsed with great loss by a few soldiers. The Newport was strictly a Chartist movement, and so I believe was the Merthyr. Emissaries are always at work with the people; but it is only in good times when they can earn money enough in a few days to keep them some time idle that they can find time to attend to political matters.” (WC)

Extent to which English is understood?

“English is almost universally understood by the copper-men, and by most of the colliers, but many of the farmers and farming labourers speak Welsh only. The English language is gaining ground daily and its universal diffusion would be of extreme advantage to the country.” (RJN)

“English in general, except by the labourers from the upper part of the country, who only understand a little.” (WC)

Position, character, and influence of females among them and how far the duties of mothers and wives are adequately understood and fulfilled?

“Excepting perhaps the wives of small farmers and the farming labourers, the women are generally inferior in intelligence and education to the men; as wives they are mostly slovenly and improvident, and as mothers ignorant and injudicious. There is no apparent difference in their composition, compared with that of the men.” (RJN)

“A great freedom of manner and conversation exists amongst the young women, not of necessity followed by impropriety of conduct, though it is evident that such licence, unchecked by the parents, tends to dissipate the restraint of the other sex towards them, and evil consequences ensue; but after once they have entered a state of matrimony they seem to devote themselves to the duties of their families with assiduity – the exceptions are not many. The affection for the child is animal, and to this they appear to sacrifice all other considerations for its well doing.” (WC)

Whether an improved system of education is required for this population – what means exist for procuring it – the best manner of employing those means?

“An improved and extended system of education is urgently required for boys and girls. Considerable efforts to this end are now being made in this large parish, but I fear they will not extend to the rural districts, for they depend on the voluntary exertions of persons living near or immediately connected with the copper-works and collieries. If every married man could be induced or compelled to pay something towards the education, there would then be a strong desire felt to send them to school, that a return might be obtained for the payment.” (RJN)

“I think no Government system of education will be efficacious unless all the more intelligent of the middle classes are by some means enlisted to the scheme. The Dissenters are making strong efforts to educate the rising generation, and, as they join for this object, religious peculiarities of doctrine are avoided, except perhaps against the Church in some cases. I have endeavoured, and with some success, to introduce the union persons of the Established Church, and am in hopes that the plan will become general. Instruction upon all matters which can interest and benefit mankind is needed, except religion, and I know no better means of imparting the desired information, and of rendering the system popular (without which it would be of no avail) than by Government giving a certain part only of the necessary funds for the erection of schools – the other part being obtained locally – paying a certain proportion of the Master's salary – not making it imperative on the master to impart religious instruction which savours of the Established Church doctrines, nor intrusting the supervision of these schools to any parties whose bias would lead them to such a direction.” (WC)

It must be remembered that this enquiry was conducted over one hundred and sixty years ago and the respondents should not be judged by today's standards. Both Nevill and Chambers made important improvements to the town and its society. At the time Nevill was already in the process of building the Copperworks School for his workmen’s children – a school which is still open today. He also provided aid, at personal loss, during times of grain shortages. Over three thousand people attended his funeral in 1856.

Although he was a Justice of the Peace, Chambers had been sympathetic to the causes of the Rebecca Rioters and in August 1843, had chaired the 'Great Meeting' at Mynydd Sylen, called to address the grievances of the protesters. The following year the people of Llanelly resolved to present him with a piece of plate as a 'testimonial of his intrepid conduct during the whole of the Rebecca Riots'.

In 1850, Nevill and Chambers were acknowledged for their assistance in the Government's Clark Inquiry into conditions in the town of Llanelly, which brought an end to the corrupt government of the Burgesses. Chambers was chosen as the first Chairman of the Llanelly Board of Health, the administrative body that replaced the Burgesses.

On his final departure from the town in 1856 Chambers received a silver plate valued at one hundred guineas from the people of Llanelly bearing the inscription “Presented by the inhabitants of Llanelly and its vicinity to Mr and Mrs Chambers and Family in testimony of respect and esteem and of regret at their leaving the neighbourhood. Llanelly, November 1856”.

Notes and Citations

  • Compiled from the The Blue Books of 1847
  • Photograph of Llanelly House reproduced by kind permission of Kate and Sam Lighting
  • Image of Llangennech House courtesy of Carmarthenshire Museum Services