By John Burgess
Family history is one of the great cottage industries of the 21st century and has been regarded as lowbrow history by some academic historians. However, as this article is designed to prove, it can be very useful in putting human flesh onto the conceptual and theoretical bones of historical argument and in illustrating national themes. It is my contention that the story of this one family is a perfect example of the social and economic changes in this corner of Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
William Rees (1800-76) migrated from Dinas to Tredegar to Bridgend to Cardigan to Fishguard to Salt Lake City and back to Fishguard between 1820 and 1860. This mobility reflects all that has been written about this part of Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century and as one historian has put it: ‘From the 1790’s the dissident south-west of Wales…was being transformed into the human matrix and the service centre of a new industrial society in the south-east’.1
William’s father, John Rees (d.1815) of Dinas was a slater who probably worked in the North Pembrokeshire or Prescelly slate quarries mentioned in trade directories of the period. The privations of the Napoleonic Wars and the post-war depression made north Pembrokeshire and neighbouring areas the most disturbed region in Wales – the ‘Galicia of Wales’ according to Gwyn A Williams – and public order and social control virtually collapsed.2 Fishguard was called ‘a miserable port’ (1798), ‘a miserable fishing town’ (1803), and ‘so filthy, so ill-built and so uncivilised… with a hatred of strange faces….The streets are barely passable with literal and bona fide dunghills’ (1807) by a succession of uncomplimentary visitors.3 The town saw food riots in the 1790’s and serious rioting from defenders of common rights in the 1820’s with the result that troops were stationed in the town by 1827 and all this was before the better-known Rebecca Riots of the 1840’s.4 The economic crisis led to heavy migration both overseas and within Wales to ‘The Black Domain’ – the world’s greatest coal and iron centre in the strip of land between Blaenavon and Hirwaun in Gwent and Glamorgan. The Rees family illustrate both migrations. John’s son David died in Calcutta in 1838 serving with the East India Army and son William (1800-1876) had an illegitimate child in Tredegar in 1825. William was probably working in the iron works, coalmines, or limestone quarries of the district.
The coal and iron industry suffered a major slump from 1829 and wages were reduced, strikes resulted and there was the Merthyr Rising of 1831. 20% of Merthyr’s population left in that year alone. There was also a serious cholera outbreak in Tredegar in 1832.5 This may explain why William Rees had moved to Bridgend by 1833 when he married at Coity. His son was baptised in the parish of Higher Coychurch, which contained many collieries, but Bridgend also had a coal-gas plant and the Quarella limestone quarry.
The economic depression continued throughout the 1830’s culminating in the Newport Rising of 1839 and by 1835 William and his young family are found living in Cardigan. Cardigan was a boom town and the second largest port in Wales between 1820 and 1850, but he made little money there because by 1837 he had moved to Wallis St., Fishguard, where 2 more sons were born and William is described as a hawker or a labourer in the certificates and in the 1841 census and his wife was illiterate. William had arrived just as the economic and social malaise of the area was about to erupt into the Rebecca Riots. There were 2 main toll-gates in Fishguard: at Pendre at the top of High St. and at Parc-y-Morfa between Lower Town and Dinas and the latter was smashed in September 1843 and up to 600 rioters entered the town. 26 Fishguard citizens were sent to the Assizes where the Crown offered no evidence.6 It is not surprising that this tinderbox of a town was so receptive to the fundamentalist, millenarian message of Dan Jones, the Flintshire Mormon, who made 4,600 converts in Wales between 1845 and 1849 from his headquarters in another tinderbox town – Merthyr. The Mormon Church offered escape to a New Jerusalem of economic opportunity and limitless land purchase and the California Gold Rush of 1849 added to the appeal.7
The 1851 Census describes William Rees as a marine store dealer and his 14-year-old son was still at school and from 1850 he begins to appear in trade directories. Therefore, he must have gone up in the world since the labouring and hawking days of the 1840’s and the family was converted to the Mormon faith in 1849. The Journal of Mormon John Price notes that he held regular saints meetings at William Rees’ house in Wallis St. from August 1849 and that the whole family had been baptised by Elders John Evans and William Rees and William was ordained as a Teacher in November 1850.8
Between 1850 and 1862, 116 Pembrokeshire Mormons crossed the Atlantic, including 6 members of the Rees family in April 1855. They sailed on The Chimborazo, an American sailing ship of 916 tons built in 1851. There were 431 passengers and the crossing from Liverpool to Philadelphia took 35 days. The Millennial Star, the British Mormon newspaper, reported that 200 of the passengers had their fare paid by the Perpetual Emigration Fund and that Elder Edward Stevenson was President of the company. He wrote an account of the journey in The Millennial Star, which shows that the Reeses arrived at St. Louis in June and at the River Platte, 400 miles from Salt Lake City in August. The journey overland was made by ox-wagons in 1855 but this was such a slow method that handcarts were used the following year.9
Unfortunately, the Reeses arrived in the Promised Land at an inopportune time. 1855 was a drought year in Utah followed by grasshopper plague and a severe winter in 1856, which killed half the cattle. Between 1857 and 1859 the so-called Mormon War occurred involving internal feuding and divisions and violence between Mormons and gentiles and between the US Army and the Mormon elders. In June 1858, the Army marched into Salt Lake City.10 Perhaps this is why some of the Reeses came home by 1861 but there must have been a major rift in the family because William was living in West St., Fishguard, in 1861 and his eldest son William (1833 – 1885), wife and 2 young sons, both born in America, were living in Wallis St. William’s wife and 2 other sons settled in the USA and died there. They lived in the Spanish Fork area of the city, which was popular with Welsh immigrants, and Mrs. Rees remarried and son Joseph Alexander Rees became a prominent professor and educationalist in Utah.
The prodigal Reeses who returned must have travelled via New Orleans where one of William junior’s sons was born in 1860. This was common practice because The Chimborazo, for example, worked the ‘cotton triangle in the 1850’s carrying emigrants from Europe and then returning with cotton and passengers from New Orleans. On return, they resumed their old business as marine store dealers. William senior remarried wrongly claiming he was a widower on the marriage certificate and he was buried in Hermon Baptist cemetery in 1876.
William junior was also buried in Hermon in 1885 and so they preserved the family’s Nonconformist tradition and indeed the tradition of the area.
In the 1851 Religious census, 16% of Haverfordwest Poor Law Union area attended Anglican places of worship and 84% attended Nonconformist ones.11 However, between 1881 and 1889 all 6 of William’s (1833-85) children were baptised at age 14 into the Anglican Church, including those born in the USA. This exactly mirrors the revival of the established Church in the later nineteenth century. By 1880 there were 223 church schools in St.David’s diocese teaching 19,000 pupils and it was much more likely that aspiring retailers would choose Anglicanism than Nonconformity.12
Also in the late nineteenth century occurred what has been called ‘the retailing revolution’. Average real wages rose by 40% between 1860 and 1875 and another 33% between 1875 and 1900 and the number of bakers/ confectioners and greengrocers/fruiterers rose from 76,400 and 16,500 respectively in 1851 to 171,000 and 52,600 by 1901. The Bank Holiday Act of 1870 started the growth of leisure time to spend these increased wages and the spread of the railways created the mass seaside holiday in Pembrokeshire. In short, retailing was to create an urban shopocracy which ‘bridged the worlds of municipal politics, local government, chapel and church affairs and social leadership in organic and democratic communities’ and which eventually led Lloyd George to rail against Conservative ‘glorified grocers and beatified drapers’.13 Even a brief glance at Fishguard trade directories between 1844 and 1912 shows a major development of retail outlets and leisure facilities and the arrival of the harbour for the Irish ferries in 1906 was a major commercial boost to the town. The urban district population grew from 1,739 in 1901 to 2,892 in 1911 and there were 13 grocers and drapers in 1844 and nearly 40 by 1901.14 The sons of William Rees (1833-85) reflect this social change perfectly.
William (1860-1923), the second son became a china and earthenware dealer in Lower Town, Fishguard and became a minor member of the shopocracy serving on inquest juries in 1903 and 1906 and he owned land on the Wallis worth £4 per annum and a house in Wallis St.
David (1865- 1943), the third son, became the most prominent of the retailing Reeses and he started as a china and earthenware dealer. In 1894 he made his first attempt to join the Parish Council and came last but one, but he was successful 5 years later by which time he was a baker and confectioner. In 1901, he won a diploma for Hovis in a London competition of 700 bakers and he was providing the cakes from his Main St. bakery for various local groups. Business was so good that he extended the bakery in 1902 and he may even have acquired a bakehouse in Cardiff between 1901 and 1906. The local paper was regularly mentioning his innovative methods and use of modern technology like ‘electric yeast’. In 1906, his prosperity was assured when he won the bakery contract for the GWR ferries from the new harbour and in the same year he had acquired additional premises in High St. His firm still had the GWR contract in 1932. His bread continued to win awards and in 1911 and 1919 he was appointed Chair of the Urban District Council, Fishguard’s equivalent of Mayor. It is his name that appears on Fishguard George V Coronation mugs and Peace mugs. Just before the Great War, he diversified into mineral water and purchased a motor van. At his retirement in 1922, the Main St premises were worth a rental of £104 per annum and he owned a house in West St. and in Park St. and 3 houses in Hottipass St. and at least 3 acres of land as well as renting 9 other acres. As a Churchwarden of St.Mary’s for 16 years and a County Councillor between 1919 and 1925, David Rees is the best example of the new urban shopocracy in the family and his Conservative politics would have put him firmly in Lloyd George’s line of fire.
Joseph (1871- 1926), the fifth son, was a china dealer in Main St in 1901 on the opposite side of the road from brother David’s bakery.
er, by 1905 he was a greengrocer and fruiterer and he won the contract to supply these products to the GWR ferries in 1906. This made him a wealthy man like his brother because by 1910 he owned 4 acres of land, 5 houses in Wallis St., a house in Main St. and a house in Market Square. Like his brother, Joseph diversified – in his case, into fish, rabbits and running a café. He delivered bread and cakes to Croesgoch, Mathry and Trevine and was in the Kemes Freemasons Lodge. Times were harder after the First World War. In 1918 there was a serious fire in his shop and his wife died soon after, although the two events were unrelated. He remarried in 1923, and, when Joseph died in 1926 his prosperity was reflected in effects to the value of £1,721 although he also had an overdraft of £450.
Although William (1860-1923) was buried with his father and grandfather in Hermon cemetery in Fishguard, brothers David and Joseph were buried in St. Mary’s Church of Wales cemetery, illustrating the family move from Nonconformity towards the established Church.
In just over a century, 4 generations of the Rees family had experienced life as slaters, coal/iron workers, hawkers or labourers, marine store dealers, Mormon pioneers and city builders, and prosperous retailers. As we have seen in a previous article, the 5th generation, represented by the war hero Ben Rees, moved into mobile retailing as a commercial traveller using the motorcar to cover the whole of West Wales. So this article illustrates how the investigation of one family can be used to humanise and bring to life the broad trends of Welsh history over more than a century as well as providing a story worth telling in its own right.
The sources for family history are well known and include wills, certificates, local papers, solicitor’s records, parish registers and church records and tax and electoral records. The information about the family has not been referenced in footnotes because there would be too many. However, sources for the historical context of these years have been referenced in these notes
- G.A. Williams, The Welsh in their History, (1981), 45
- G.A. Williams, The Merthyr Rising (1978), 32 and see D. Jones, Before Rebecca – Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835, (1973), 18-19
- H. Skrine, 2 Successive Tours Throughout the Whole of Wales, (1798), p.92 and J.T.Barker, A Tour of South Wales, (1803), 91 and B.H.Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales, (1807), 236
- D.Gareth Evans, History of Wales 1815-1906, (1989), D.Williams, The Rebecca Riots, (1955), 79-80, and D. Jones, Before Rebecca, (1973), 44 and 61
- G.A.Williams, The Merthyr Rising, (1978), D.J.V.Williams, The Last Rising: The Newport Insurrection of 1839, (1985)
- P.Molloy, And They Blessed Rebecca, (1983), 52,109,177-8 and B.R.Lewis, ‘Turning the Clock Back: Fishguard a century ago’, County Echo, 20/12/1951/27/12/1951
- A.Conway, The Welsh in America, (1961), 310, R.Mullen, The Mormons, (1967), 84-5 and P.A.M.Taylor, Expectations Westward: Mormons and Emigration of their British Converts in C19th, (1965)
- www. Welshmormonhistory.org. Journal of John Price.
- P.A.M.Taylor, Expectations Westward, (1965), 248-9. Mormon Church Shipping Registers, Tape 0025690, Book 1040 Liverpool Office. Millennial Star, various issues throughout 1855.
- J.Allen and G.M.Leonard, The Story of the Latter-Day Saints, (1976) and N.F.Furniss, The Mormon Conflict 1850-9, (1960)
- D.Gareth Evans, The History of Wales 1815-1906, (1989)
- D.Gareth Evans, The History of Wales 1815-1906, (1989)
- G.E.Mingay,(ed.) The Victorian Countryside (1982), 282 and 301-3. J.Walvin, Leisure and Society 1830-1950, (1978). D.Gareth Evans, The History of Wales 1815–1906, (1989), 305. G.A.Williams, When Was Wales? (1985)
- County Echo, 22/06/1911