By Pat Swales Barker

Reverend James Thomas, Vicar of St Mary’s Church, Haverfordwest, for thirty eight years, was the head of a distinguished family which, during the nineteenth century, played a significant part in the Anglican Church in Pembrokeshire. His marriage to the daughter of a rich St Kitts businessman established a colourful and fascinating family.


An entry in the register of St Mary’s Church, records the baptism on 28 May 1761 of James Thomas, son of John and Sarah Thomas.1 He was educated at Haverfordwest Grammar School 2 where he would have been prepared as a Literate for a career in the church.3 In the second half of the eighteenth century in the St Davids Diocese, many more Literates were ordained than graduates.4  They were educated at one of nine licensed grammar schools where they had to study divinity and other subjects for a minimum of seven years.

Ordained deacon on 24 August 1783 and priest on 19 September 1784 by Edward Smallwell, Bishop of St Davids, James Thomas’ first appointment, from September 1784, was as Curate of St Mary’s Church, Haverfordwest where the vicar was Revd Charles Ayleway.  Between 1790 and 1804 he was Perpetual Curate of Clarbeston, and from 1795 until 1805 also Curate of Walton East.

It is probable that he combined these curacies with some teaching because in October 1800, at the age of 39, he was appointed by the Haverfordwest Corporation to succeed Revd Thomas Phillips MA as Master of the Free Grammar School, and “receive and take all the rents, profits and advantages belonging thereto in a full and ample manner as any of his predecessor masters.” 5 The Grammar School had been established in the town since at least 1488. The Bishop of the Diocese retained responsibility for the appointment of the Headmaster until the seventeenth century when it was entrusted to the Mayor and Common Council of the borough, though Diocesan records reveal that the bishop licensed Head Masters, all ordained clergymen, until 1825. The appointment also had to be approved by two Justices of the Great Sessions.

In the early nineteenth century the Grammar School was located in Church Lane, adjacent to St Thomas Churchyard.  When James Thomas became Headmaster there were no boarders and only eight day boys, despite the schoolroom having being built in 1761 to accommodate fifty pupils.6 His appointment had an immediate effect as within two years there were forty four pupils, including four boarders.7

John Brown, writing in 1882, recalled:
“As the old gentleman bore in sight, with his brown wig and stout walking-stick, and a keen black eye that used to look through one, a stranger did not need to be told who he was. He was master of the Free School, where he ruled strictly yet lovingly….the Parson was an active magistrate as well, and an accomplished chemist. He performed daily and seventh-day duty in church.” 8
The biography of Admiral Sir William Robert Mends, written by his son, paints a less than attractive picture of the school in about 1820. Mends attended the school between the ages of seven and eight, but his experiences caused him to move on to a school in Plymouth. In spite of the assistant masters he acquired a little knowledge of the three r’s and a smattering of Latin grammar. “The school was of the roughest, plenty of flogging taking the place of legitimate instruction.” 9   He described the large churchyard [St Thomas] in the vicinity where the school fights took place. The “brutality and ignorance of his masters inspired him with a horror and disgust of it”.

James Thomas resigned as Headmaster in 1825 and was succeeded by his son, Revd James Thomas, MA. Following his death in 1843 the Pembrokeshire Herald reported that a committee had been formed to make a public mark of respect to his memory and “the reverence and affection in which his character was universally held,” by erecting a suitable memorial in the church. This was to be a stained glass window, “to be erected immediately behind the free school seat,” with the cost to be met entirely by his old pupils.10 The result of the appeal was a window of highly coloured, early gothic revival glass on the south side of the chancel, now the oldest surviving window in the church. The inscription reads

This window sacred to the memory of the Revd James Thomas many years Headmaster of the Grammar School of this town and vicar of this church who died anno 1831 11 and was given by friends and former pupils. Ano 1843.

When James Thomas became Headmaster in 1800 he was also admitted as a Burgess, or Freeman, of the town and so was eligible to be elected as a member of the town’s Corporation. In October 1803 the Corporation unanimously agreed that James Thomas, Clerk, and Charles Allen Philips, Esq., should replace Joseph Fortune and Richard Foley who had died.12 So he joined what was described by the Royal Commission in 1835 as “a self-elected irresponsible body”. 13 Members of the Corporation had to be Freemen and only members of the Corporation could appoint Freemen. There were twenty four members who annually elected the mayor and sheriff from among their number. The town returned its own MP to Westminster, although from 1741 to 1812 no election was required as William Edwardes (from 1776 he was Lord Kensington) of Johnston Hall was returned unopposed until 1801, and was followed by his son William, 2nd Baron Kensington.  All members of the Corporation were of the same political party.

The Corporation administered a large number of local charities and owned many properties in the town. In addition the members were responsible for appointing and paying the stipend of the Vicar of St Mary’s Church as well as meeting expenses incurred by the church. When Revd Charles Ayleway, also a Common Councilman, died in 1805 after over thirty years as Vicar of St Mary’s, the Corporation appointed Revd James Thomas to replace him as Vicar of the civic church. The council and church had long been closely linked, not least as the council chamber was a room above the north porch of the church.


During his 38 years as the Vicar of St Mary’s, the church continued to be at the centre of town life. The size of the parish is only thirty acres (High Street, Dew Street, Market Street, Quay Street, Mariners Square and part of Goat Street), but it included most of the town’s public buildings; both the old Guildhall and the new Shire Hall in High Street, the old market in and around the church yard, the new market opened in1826 in Market Street, the corn and fish markets, the Assembly Rooms and the Grammar School. Revd Thomas presided over many significant events such as the large and impressive funeral service for Lord Milford in 1823. There were regular assize, civic and military services. In 1815 he was appointed Chaplain to Pembrokeshire County Gaol and House of Correction.

“The Rev. James Thomas, vicar of St Mary’s, was a staunch Protestant, and so were the younger ministers who used to officiate for him, some of whom had been of his training in the Grammar School. I remember that he sometimes spoke strongly against Popery, and once called it ‘the masterpiece of the devil’.” 14

In 1839, at the age of 78, he arranged the appointment of his son Francis Thomas as curate to assist him.

From his election in 1803 James Thomas was an active member of the Haverfordwest Corporation, attending most meetings until its demise in 1835 when he was the second longest serving member. In 1811 he was elected Mayor, the first clergyman to hold the office. He was also a magistrate. His fellow members included Lord Milford, Lord Cawdor, Nathaniel Phillips, Sir Henry Mathias and Lord Kensington. His time as Vicar and Common Councillor saw a reconstruction of parts of his parish and a transformation of its governance. The demolition of much of the area between the river and Hill Lane for the construction of the Shire Hall, Victoria Place and Castle Square, the early steps in the purchase of residential properties for conversion to commercial use in the High Street, along with the provision of street lighting and paving, significantly moved the town forward. This was greatly enhanced and driven by the greater democracy resulting from the creation of the new Borough Council which comprised four Aldermen and twelve Councillors. The power and privileges of the Freemen, the roll of which included Revd James Thomas, were substantially reduced.

James Thomas married Frances Beach at St Martin’s Church on 21 June 1798. His wife died in 1815 at the age of 41. In June 1823, at St Thomas Church, he married Miss Maria Gillam of Prendergast Parish, daughter of a Bristol banker, Benjamin Gillam. James Thomas died in February 1843 at his home in Goat Street and was buried in St Thomas churchyard .
Four of his sons, two grandsons and a great grandson followed James Thomas as Anglican clergymen. Three sons studied at Pembroke College, Oxford. All four sons and a grandson returned to minister in Pembrokeshire parishes.

The eldest son William Beach Thomas, was born in 1800, educated at Haverfordwest Grammar school and graduated at Pembroke College, Oxford in1823. He was ordained Deacon at Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford in 1822, and Priest in May 1823. Initially he pursued an academic career at Oxford University as Tutor and Fellow, then Dean & Public Examiner and in 1830 was licensed as Stipendiary Curate at Longford. He married Mary Pitman; their daughter was Mary Elizabeth Thomas. He returned to Pembrokeshire in 1841 as Vicar of Carew. In 1845 he was appointed vicar of Johnston with Steynton, remaining there until his death in 1876. In 1859 he was collated as Canon & Prebendary of St Davids Cathedral.

Like his older brother, James Thomas was educated at the Grammar School and Oxford. Following graduation he returned to Haverfordwest where in 1825, at the age of just 24, he succeeded his father as Headmaster of the Grammar School, a position he retained until 1864.


His clerical career saw his appointment as Rector of Llysyfran in 1835 and as Perpetual Curate of Walton East in 1840. In 1865 he became Vicar of Herbrandston. He was Prebendary of St Davids Cathedral. He died in 1888. James Thomas married Ann Carver of Wenallt, Carmarthen in 1826. Their eldest son, James Henry Thomas matriculated at Oxford but cut short his academic career to emigrate to Australia.15 Their second son, William Smith Thomas, qualified as a doctor and also emigrated to Australia.16 Their youngest son, Daniel George Thomas, Rector of Hammerton, Huntingdonshire, was the father of the renowned First World War journalist Sir William Beach Thomas.

The third son of James and Frances Thomas, Francis Thomas, graduated at Pembroke College and was ordained at Oxford in 1834. Following a period as Curate at St Mary’s, Haverfordwest, he was Vicar of Haroldston West from 1842 until 1880. In 1843 he was involved in a notorious court case at the town’s Shire Hall when Caroline Jane Williams sued him for a breach of promise of marriage.17 He went on to marry Susan Dobbin of Milford at Steynton in December 1845.
Their fourth son George Thomas was a farmer at Milbrook, Wiston. His son William Beach Thomas was educated at Haverfordwest Grammar School and following ordination in 1861 he became Vicar of Harrington before returning to Pembrokeshire as Vicar of the parishes of Walton East and Llysyfran in 1865, and of Uzmaston and Boulston in 1871. He married Elizabeth Starbuck in May 1866 at Steynton. Their daughter Flora wrote the book The Builders of Milford; significantly her mother was one of the Quaker whaling family from Nantucket who settled in Milford.

The fifth son was Hugh Percy Thomas who studied at Lampeter College in its early days. His first appointment was as a curate in Lancashire. In 1853 he returned to Pembrokeshire as the Rector of Nash, Pembroke.

In the chancel of St Mary’s Church, Haverfordwest, is a memorial to the wife of Revd James Thomas:

Of FRANCES wife of Revd James Thomas, vicar of the parish and daughter of the late WILLIAM BEACH of the Island of St Kitts, Esq., Obit 8 September 1815 age 41

Give joy or sorrow, ease or pain, Take friends and life away,
But let me find them all again In that eternal day

Also of HENRY STEPHEN son of the above James & Frances Thomas who departed this life 16 July 1818, age 7.

William Beach was a rich English merchant living in College Street, Basseterre, St Kitts. The island was at the centre of the British sugar trade in the West Indies and by the later eighteenth century was the richest British colony in the Caribbean. It suffered many attacks by the French throughout the eighteenth century, including the battle of St Kitts in 1782. British ownership was recognized finally under the Treaty of Versailles in 1783.

The will 18 of William Beach, dated 1787, lists his children as William, John, Hugh, Mary, Ann, Martha, Frances, Margery, Charlotte and, Sophia. On his death in 1788 he left about £12,500. His will instructed that all his money in the West Indies should be remitted to England and the family settled in Haverfordwest.19 William’s son John Beach was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He lived in St Thomas parish and ran a school in Prendergast.

“Lieut. Beach kept an excellent school here. He was one of that class of residents, half-pay officers…[who added] greatly to the charm of good society in the place”.

Two of the Lieutenant’s sisters, Martha and Margery, lived for many years at Grove Place, St Thomas Green.20 The youngest daughter, Anne Beach, gained some notoriety through her connection with a French prisoner of war, captured after the failed invasion at Fishguard in 1797. The prisoners were incarcerated in the prison at Haverfordwest Castle and the town’s three parish churches. St Mary’s was said to have sustained considerable damage by the 700 prisoners incarcerated there. Elaborate and incorrect accounts have been written about her, making much of the fact that Anne was the sister-in-law of the Vicar of St Mary’s, but James Thomas was not appointed to that position until 1805. The earliest surviving account of the events involving Anne Beach was given by the Duke of Rutland who witnessed the embarkation of the French prisoners from Pembroke Ferry in August 1797.

“Amongst them were two or three officers of low degree, one of them a Monsieur St. Amand, who during his short stay at Haverford West, had so captivated a young lady of some fortune (by name Miss Beach), that she had consented to correspond with him by letter in his prison, and intends as we afterwards heard to marry him. He was the son of the Marquis de Saint-Amans and married Anne Beach, sister-in-law of Rev. James Thomas, Vicar of St Mary’s, Haverfordwest, and Head Master of Haverfordwest Grammar School.” 21

The marriage between Anne and Pierre Honore Boudon de St Amans 22 eventually took place at Blandford St Mary, Dorset, on 4 February 1802 with her sister Martha as a witness. Her husband went on to develop a very successful career in the field of ceramics, producing paperweights, medallions and cameos. He perfected the technique of making a sulphide plaque, receiving a patent for his “cristalo ceramie” in Paris in 1818. He worked closely with the English maker Apsley Pellatt who took out a patent for an identical technique in London in 1819. Was it a coincidence that Pellat’s daughter Sarah married John Phillips, chemist and druggist of Haverfordwest in 1830, or was there a Haverfordwest connection between the families? 23 Pierre St Amans predeceased his wife by six months in 1858.24

Reverend James Thomas was the first of five vicars appointed to St Mary’s Church during the nineteenth century. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 led to the enforced sale of the Advowson of the church by the Corporation. It was purchased by Revd Thomas Watts, Chaplain at Codrington College, Barbados. Following the death of James Thomas in 1843, Thomas Watts became Vicar. His is another fascinating story.


  1. Baptism Register St Mary Haverfordwest. The baptisms of his siblings John (1758) Anne (1763) and William (1766) are also recorded.
    2 Potters Electric News, April 26, 1865. Upon the occasion of a dinner to mark his own retirement at Headmaster of the school, his son said, “I think it considerably more than eighty years since my father was a boy at the school”
    3  G. Douglas James, The History of Haverfordwest Grammar School (Haverfordwest, 1961), 14, credits him as Master of Arts but there is no record of him receiving a university education
    4 As a result Bishop Thomas Burgess identified the need for a college in Wales in which ordinands could receive a higher education. Lampeter College was opened in 1827.
    5 Pembrokeshire Record Office  HAM/SE/1/2
    6 Dillwyn Miles, A Short History of Haverfordwest (Llandybie, 2007), 94.
    7 G. Douglas James, The History of Haverfordwest Grammar School (Haverfordwest, 1961), 14.
    8 John Brown, Haverfordwest and its Story (Haverfordwest, 1882) 80.
    9 Bowen Stilon Mends, Life of Admiral Sir William Robert Mends, GCB (London, 1899).
    10. Pembrokeshire Herald, March 29, 1844.
    11 There is an error in the inscription as he died 1843
    12 Pembrokeshire Record Office HAM/SE/1/2
    13 First Report of the Commissioners on the Municipal Corporation of England and Wales. (London,1835) 237
    14 John Bulmer, Popery in Haverfordwest in The Christian Witness and Church Members’ Magazine, (London, 1855).
    15 James Henry Thomas, born in 1829, matriculated at Braesnose College, Oxford, but never graduated. He emigrated to Penrith, Australia where he was a farmer.  His son, Major James Francis Thomas, was the attorney for Breaker Morant in a famous Boer War court martial documented in a 1980 film which dealt with the barbarities of war.
    16 William Smith Thomas, born in 1836 was educated at Haverfordwest Grammar School, qualified as a Doctor at Guy’s Hospital and emigrated to Australia where he practised at Wollongong from 1874 until his death in 1880. His son, James Mann Thomas, became a Vicar in Australia.
    17 Cambrian, August 5, 1843.
    18 Public Records Office. National Archives Ref 11/1163. The will reveals that his wife was Mary Hanna Beach (nee Ashington) but that the mother of his ten children was his mulatto Frances Johnson to whom he left his house and land in Basseterre, together with servants, carriage and horses, wine and an annuity. He left his wife one shilling. Other relatives named were his sisters Mary and Martha, niece Lydia and nephew John, (children of his brother John Beach)
    19 In wondering why they should settle in the town it might be significant that there had been trade between Haverfordwest and St Kitts.On April 18th 1755 the sailing ship MOLLY was stranded near Haverfordwest. It was sailing from St. Kitts to Haverfordwest laden with 320 hogsheads of sugar.
    20 John Brown, Haverfordwest and its Story (Haverfordwest, 1882) 128.
    21 EH Stuart Jones, The Last Invasion of Britain (Cardiff 1950), 127, quotes the Journal of the Duke of Rutland dated 20 August 1797
    22. Pierre Honore Boudon Saint Amans (1774-1858) was the son of John Florimond de Saint Amans, a naturalist and archaeologist.
    23 Sarah Phillips (nee Pellatt) was buried at St Thomas Church in June 1840.
    24 The will of Anne Beach otherwise de Saint Amans, late of Lamarque Commune of Castelculier Canton in Puymiriol in the Arondissement of Agen Lot et Garonne in France, widow, who died 17 August 1858 at Lamarque aforesaid, was proved at the principal registry by the oath of Margaret Jane Dupouy [nee Beach] (wife of Jean Baptiste Alendre Dupouy MD, of Agen aforesaid), the niece of the universal heiress or executrix. Dated 28 March 1866.    The London Gazette 9 June 1863 lists a Chancery Court case concerning part of a marriage settlement made between Anne Beach and her husband.