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R J Nevill and the Early Welsh Coal Trade

J H Morris & L J Williams, National Library of Wales journal. 1957, Summer Volume X/1.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article by Gareth Hicks 2002

There is also the follow up article by Robert Craig R J Nevill and the Early Welsh Coal Trade --- A Comment  from the Winter 1958 journal, Volume X/4

The outstanding development in the South Wales coal industry in the decades after 1840 was the growth in the shipments of coal, particularly of steam coal to meet the overseas demand. But in 1830 the coal trade of the district was still restricted almost entirely to coastal shipments either of anthracite, for which there was a specialised demand, or of bituminous coal for household and foundry purposes. The markets mainly served were those geographically adjacent to the coalfield; the British Channel and South-West coastal ports as far as Plymouth and the Irish ports to the South of Dublin. These, however, had over several centuries been the traditional markets for Welsh coal. The era of canal-building that had been introduced into South Wales in the 1790s had, by reducing costs, resulted in a considerable expansion in the scale of trade and had led to the emergence of Newport and Cardiff as coal-shipping ports alongside those of the west, but it had not changed the direction of trade.

The first substantial steps towards this end were not made until the decade before 1840, when there was a growing realisation of the peculiar qualities of the coals of the area and a conscious effort to win new markets on the basis of these qualities. In dealing with this movement the attention of historians has generally been captured by the extraordinary rise in the steam coal production of the Aberdare valley and in the foreign coal trade of the port of Cardiff. It is the purpose of this article to draw attention to the important part played by coal owners in the western sector of the coalfield during the early stages of this search for new outlets.

One of the signs of the growth of interest in wider markets was the determined attempt during the 1830s to extend Welsh sales in the London market. This, the greatest home market, was still overwhelmingly the preserve of the north of England suppliers. Hitherto the cargoes of Welsh coal sent to London had been mainly isolated shipments, frequently of anthracite, but now there was an effort to establish a regular commerce and to base this largely on the steam-raising qualities of Welsh coal. It has been traditional to grant the main credit for this to a remarkable woman, Lucy Thomas of Waunwyllt. Her husband, Robert Thomas, had taken in 1824 a lease of the coal at Waunwyllt, near Merthyr, on a yearly tenancy from the Earl of Plymouth. 1  He opened a level here on the famous Four Feet seam from which he supplied the householders of Merthyr and Cardiff. The enterprise, however, has come to be particularly associated with Lucy Thomas because, after her husband's death, she and her son carried on the business and opened out the Graig colliery. In 1830, the Cardiff agent for the Waunwyllt coal, George Insole, shipped a small cargo to London. Although this particular venture was scarcely profitable, the smokeless quality and steam-raising power of the coal ....................

  • 1. Merthyr of Senghenydd Deeds, doc. 339

.................... succeeded in attracting some attention. As a result Insole was able to enter into a contract to supply Messrs. Wood and Company, London coal sellers, with three thousand tons a year of Waunwyllt coal after 1831. 1

It is largely on the basis of this transaction that Lucy Thomas has been dubbed the 'Mother of the Welsh Steam Coal Trade'. 2    It may be ungallant at this stage to dispute her claim to this title. It is, however, at least doubtful whether she had assumed control of the business as early as 1830 because at that time Insole still directed letters to Robert Thomas and it was not until 1835 that the account with the Glamorganshire Canal was transferred from Robert to Lucy Thomas. 3  Moreover the financial risk for the first shipment was taken by George Insole which suggests that the initiative in sending it was also his. Wherever the credit lies, however, the significant point is that the entry into the London market marked a crucial expansion in the horizon of the Cardiff coal trade. The process once started was cumulative since the use of Welsh coal by the tiny steamers plying the Thames brought it into wider notice. In 1831 Insole bunkered H.M. Steamer 'St. Pierre' with Merthyr coal and sent a cargo to Malta. A year later, referring to the London market, Insole wrote ' I am sure that if I could have obtained five times the quantity I could have sold every ton there', and in 1833, that 'much of this Merthyr coal is used by Government Steam Packets at Woolwich and is found to answer extremely well'.

The later predominance of Cardiff in the steam coal trade has led to the tendency to treat the early stages of the rise of the trade in this region as if they marked the original and outstanding effort to win a market for the steam coals of South Wales. To some extent this is misleading. Cardiff remained a minor source of steam coal till the Aberdare valley began to be opened out during the 1840s. Until 1840 Lucy Thomas's Merthyr coal was almost the only steam coal shipped from Cardiff, where the trade continued to be dominated by the house coals of Walter Coffin from Dinas and Thomas Powell from Gelligaer. 4  The really spirited attempts to expand the market before 1840 came not so much from Cardiff but from the coal proprietors around Swansea and Llanelly. In 1824, six years before the first cargo of Merthyr coal had been dispatched, the Llangennech Company, for example, had entered the London steam coal market. 5  In 1832, only three thousand seven hundred and sixty tons out of a total of thirty-eight thousand six hundred and forty-four tons of coal sent to London from Wales were sent from ........................

  • 1. The references to Insole in this and the following paragraph are based on E. D. Lewis: The Industrial Development of the Rhondda Valleys to 1910 (unpublished thesis submitted to the University of Wales, 1940).
  • 2. C. Wilkins: The South Wales Coal Trade (1888), pp. 72-3.
  • 3. Merthyr of Senghenydd Deeds, doc. 343. John Nixon's account suggests that Lucy Thomas was not restlessly seeking new markets in 1840. Nixon used to relate that when he first realised the possibilities of Welsh steam coal he approached Lucy Thomas to obtain a supply. He was refused because she could sell all her present output and was afraid that if she extended her production the coal would soon be exhausted. C. F. Vincent: The Life of John Nixon (1900), pp. 108-10.
    Possibly legend gathered easily round the figure of a woman singular enough to operate a coal business.
  • 4. The Aberdare Coal Company shipped small cargoes of steam coals to London from the end of 1837. (Lucy Thomas had moved from the Waunwyllt level in the early 'thirties, when the yearly tenancy was terminated, and had leased the neighbouring Graig property.)
  • 5. Mining Journal, 20 February 1841.

........................ Merthyr. Nearly all the remainder came from the Western sector of the coalfield where the three chief suppliers---Llangennech, Graigola and Warde's Llanelly --- between them accounted for twenty thousand five hundred and eighty-five tons. 1  It was firms such as these that were most prominent in bringing Welsh coals to the notice of metropolitan consumers. The market they were exploring, moreover, was not simply an extension of the special demand for anthracite; they were pressing the new claims of the semi-anthracite dry steam coals.

The merits of Cardiff steam coals were only slowly realised and the shipments from Swansea and Llanelly continued to predominate for over a decade. Swansea shippers possessed an advantage because the coal trade had been long established at that port and contacts had already been made with the London dealers through the small sales of anthracite. The transport facilities in the east were still insufficient to counterbalance the seaboard location of the coals in the west, while the regular trade in copper ore between Cornwall and the ports of Neath, Swansea and Llanelly made freights cheaper to obtain in the west at a time when the freight charge was probably the most important single factor determining the ability of Welsh coal to compete in the London market. 2

Even if the ports of West Wales had advantages compared with Cardiff and Newport it still needed enterprise to push sales in the London market in the face of the supplies from Newcastle. The activities of R. J. Nevill provide a good illustration of this. Nevill was primarily interested in the copper trade, being managing partner of the Llanelly Copper Works. The location of the copper industry in West Wales, however, had largely derived from the ready availability of coal supplies; it was not unnatural that Nevill should have reflected in his own activity the close connection between the two industries. In 1818 he became manager of General Warde's collieries near Llanelly and in 1829, in liquidation of a debt of nearly £30,000 owed him by Warde, he assumed ownership of these collieries. 3  Three years earlier he had gained control of the neighbouring collieries of Alexander Raby for a similar reason. 4

The bulk of the output of these collieries, which Nevill held for a few years quite separate from his copper interests, continued in find its market in the needs of the copper works and in the customary markets of Cornwall and Ireland. The colliery letter-books also show, however, that special attention was devoted to the development of fresh outlets. Thus an entry is made into the London market.

  • 1. Sel. Comm. on Coals (Metropolis), 1853. App. II. In 1840 out of a total of 60,060 tons from Wales, 9,771 tons came from Merthyr and 1,557 tons from Aberdare. The possible deficiencies of these official figures are not sufficiently great to invalidate the general argument.
  • 2. Nevill MSS. VIII. Letter Book 1832-42. R. J. Nevill to Samuel Rhode 18 December 1832. Nevill pointed out that it was impossible to get ships to carry coal to London at a freight of 11s. 6d. a ton and that the state of the coal market at the time made it imprudent to offer a higher rate.
  • 3. Nevill MSS., Deeds 748, 817 and 821.
  • 4. Raby was one of the outstanding pioneers of the industrial development of the Llanelly area. Starting in the last quarter of the eighteenth century he had not only opened collieries, built tram roads and provided harbour facilities but had also made an unsuccessful attempt to establish iron works. For these and other purposes he used the £175,000 realised by the sale of his estates at Cobham.

For the first half of 1832 Nevill's London agent, Samuel Rhode, was paid commission at the rate of 2 1/4d. a ton on the sale of four thousand, three hundred and thirty-four tons and, for the full year of 1834, on the sale of fourteen thousand, one hundred and eighty-nine tons. 1  That these sales were regarded as a novel feature is indicated by the special commercial arrangements made for them. Nevill's normal practice was to sell his coal f.o.b. at Llanelly in response to definite orders received. This avoided risks arising from freight variations and over the final sale. In the case of the London market, however, Nevill more usually sent the coal on his own account, except when an occasional direct order was received. The actual sales were conducted through Rhode, his agent, and a London factor, William Metcalfe, but the essential risks of the enterprise rested with Nevill, who bore any losses that arose from high freights or low selling prices. 2

Perhaps, in view of later trends in the Welsh coal trade, the attention paid to the establishment of yet another market, the coals for the Government steam packets, was even more significant. Here again much of the credit for winning this market tends to be given to Cardiff owners and shippers, but there is much to suggest that they were largely consolidating and extending a position already substantially gained by their counterparts in the west. In his initial attempts to introduce his coal into the Government market Nevill adopted the same commercial procedure that he employed for his London sales, his agent being authorised to submit tenders to the Navy Board at prices that included delivery at destination. 3

The anxiety of Nevill to succeed with his Government contracts is illustrated by one he obtained early in 1833 to supply five hundred tons of coal for the West Indies. 4  This cargo involved special hazards because Llanelly harbour could not accommodate vessels of the size employed in the West Indian trade. The coal had to be loaded into small ships, taken to Bristol, and there trans-shipped into a larger vessel. This greatly increased the risks of the transaction since careless handling would create a great deal of small coal which the terms of the contract debarred from inclusion in the final shipment. In a letter to the shippers at Bristol, Nevill revealed both his anxiety and his eagerness to make the venture a success. He stressed the need to avoid making small coal, stated that he was sending a special representative to Bristol to supervise the trans-shipment and .........................

  • 1. Nevill MSS. VIII., 5 November 1832, 18 September 1834 and 17 February 1835. According to the Report of the Sel. Comm. on Coals (Metropolis), 1853, only 9,085 tons of 'Warde's Llanelly' and 'Nevill's Llanelly' were sold in London in 1834. These were the two main types of coal shipped by Nevill. Probably Rhode drew commission on some coal sold outside the actual London market---perhaps to the Government steam packets---and possibly some coal escaped official record if the payment of toll on it was evaded. Both sources, however, agree on the main points: that Nevill's coals were selling in the London market, and that the quantities so supplied were increasing in the early 'thirties.
  • 2. Ibid. 4 May 1833 and 17 February 1834. A letter to Rhode dated 1 July 1833 referred to a direct order and added, 'Pray mention this circumstance to Mr. Metcalfe it being our decided wish that all Warde's Llanelly coal for the London market should pass through his hands, but of course we cannot refuse to execute a positive order as in the present case'.
  • 3. Ibid. 18 December 1832. Rhode is instructed to submit a tender for 'Nevill's Llangennech' at 29s. a ton delivered at Gibraltar and 34s. a ton delivered at Malta. The name 'Nevill's Llangennech' was doubtless given because the Admiralty advertisement invited tenders for Llangennech coals, which were already established in the market.
  • 4. Ibid. 2 February 1833.

............................ concluded with an expression of his desire that the final cargo should be good 'more particularly as this is I believe the first cargo that has been sent from this Port to Barbados'. 1

Nevill was quick to exploit the prestige value that the Government contracts conferred on his coal. 'I shall be happy', he wrote to a potential customer 'to supply the Steamer you refer to with Coals of a Quality equal if not superior to any shipped for that purpose, as a proof of which I need only state that I am at present supplying (I believe exclusively) the Government Steamers from the Plymouth Dockyard.' 2  Moreover, as the Llanelly coals became more established as a fuel for the naval steam packets Nevill tended to modify his method of dealing with Government contracts. More and more he refrained from tendering direct, preferring to let London merchants undertake the freight risks involved and restrict his own share to the provision of the coal at an agreed price, a policy feasible only when he was tolerably certain that these merchants would in fact turn to him for supplies. In May, 1833, his nephew informed a correspondent that a recent naval contract had been 'taken by Robert Johnstone of Horse Shoe Wharf, London, who purchases the Coals off us at a price free on board here.' 3  A year later, referring to contracts for which he had himself tendered, Nevill wrote 'I do not at all regret to find . . . that Mr. Johnstone has taken the Deptford and Gosport contracts for my only object is the sale of my coal'. 4  His attitude is crystallised in two letters to Rhode. One announced his decision to tender for a Government contract for coals for Malta as he was afraid that the contract might otherwise 'fall to a firm like Jackson's---who will order the coal' from Swansea. But a week later he had decided not to tender because he 'does not want to compete with Mr. Johnstone and Mr. Gillespie on any Government contracts', and he was sure that the other coals concerned---Graigola and Bryndewy---would not be quoted below his price of 8s. a ton. 5  Nevill's readiness to withdraw from making direct tenders, leaving the middleman to accept the freight risks, was prompted not by timidity but by a hard realization of the advantages a London merchant possessed for securing vessels at the right time and freight, particularly when the contract involved overseas delivery.

The drive that Nevill applied in his efforts to dispose of his steam coal was not confined to these two markets. When he noticed an advertisement, in a Scottish newspaper, for coal for India he dashed off a letter to Rhode asking him to enquire into the possibilities of this outlet; 6  he urged Robert Johnstone, the London coal shipper, to send a trial cargo of Llanelly coals to Algiers as part of his contract ........................

  • 1. Nevill MSS. VIII, 7 February 1833.
  • 2. lbid. 18 April 1833.
  • 3. lbid. 21 May 1833.
  • 4. Ibid. 26 April 1834.
  • 5. Ibid. 10 and 18 February 1834. In his second letter Nevill asked Rhode to tell Johnstone and Gillespie of his decision not to compete with them, and to add a gentle reminder to these merchants that he could cut out the middleman if they did not buy from him.
  • 6. Ibid. 24 June 1833,

....................... with the French Government; 1   he persuaded a Ramsgate firm to take a cargo, confident they would find it superior to the north of England coals they had previously used; 2  and an advertisement for coals for French steam packets that was limited to north of England tenders spurred him to press on Rhode 'the propriety of seeing Mon. Andell, as surely the fact of our Government using Welsh Coals exclusively for Steamers would induce the French at all events to give them a trial'. 3

The directions from which Nevill expected competition---so far as Welsh coal was concerned---suggest that other owners in the western part of the coalfield were showing similar enterprise. Consistently, it was from Swansea, Neath and the Llangennech Company at Llanelly, that the main opposition was expected. Only once is Cardiff mentioned in connection with steam coals and Newport receives similar scant notice. 4  In part, of course, the lack of attention paid to the possibilities of competition from the eastern ports of Cardiff and Newport has little significance; it was natural that Nevill should be more conscious of the opposition of the Llangennech Company on his own doorstep and of his neighbouring rivals at Neath and Swansea. But in the competition for the naval steam packet contracts, an important prestige market, it is often specifically mentioned that tenders were invited only for Bryndewy (Neath), Graigola (Swansea) and Llanelly coals. Moreover the overseas shipments of coal from Swansea and Llanelly in 1840 were fifty-two thousand tons compared with the seven thousand tons from Newport and the four thousand tons from Cardiff.

These figures were small but growing, and it is clear that the 1830s  had seen a determined attempt to win fresh outlets to supplement the traditional markets for Welsh coal. By stressing the steam-raising qualities of this coal the privilege of supplying Government steam packets and dockyards had been secured, a special position in the London market had been won and foreign sales had been extended. The evidence of the Nevill papers, supported by the figures of Welsh coal shipments to London and overseas, suggests, too, that the main impulse in this movement came first from the coal owners of the west, rather than from Cardiff and Newport who were soon to exploit the new possibilities so successfully.



University College of Wales,


  • 1. Nevill MSS. VIII, 5 October 1833.
  • 2. lbid. 3 May 1834.
  • 3. Ibid. 21 July 1834.
  • 4. Ibid. 24 December 1834; 14 August, 7 September and 2 October 1833.

R J Nevill and the Early Welsh Coal Trade --- A Comment

By Robert Craig from the NLW Winter 1958 journal, Volume X/4

The publication of a paper by Mr. J. H. Morris and Mr. L. J. Williams on Nevill's contribution to the expansion of the Welsh overseas coal trade in your Summer 1957 issue, draws welcome attention to the widely held, but nonetheless erroneous, belief that the pioneers of this important expansion of trade, which contributed so notably to the economic growth of the area, was centered on the eastern part of the coalfield. The following note may serve to throw some further light on the activities of R. J. Nevill and others in West Wales in a different, though closely related enterprise, namely, the creation of harbour facilities. Without the foresight shown in this respect, no expansion would have been possible, and the development of the export coal trade would have followed more closely the pattern that earlier economic historians of the period have, quite wrongly, adumbrated.

The following figures show the importance of the Swansea-Llanelly area in the early days of expansion

Coal exported to places overseas 1830-1833 (in tons)   1

                                        1830      1830(?)    1832         1833
 Newport ...                     1,930      4,698       5,244         2,609
 Cardiff                               -             726       1,052         1,521
 Swansea (incl. Neath)    6,403      7,013       8,198       13,501
 Llanelly                          3,855      5,817       4,740         7,109
Milford                               10           -             214              -
Cardigan                              -            35             -                 -

The overseas export figures for Llanelly and Swansea up to the end of the decade continued to exceed those for the other Welsh coal exporting ports. In the development of the London coal trade, whilst the sale of Nevill's coal had declined by 1840, Llangennech Colliery had still the largest individual sale in the London coal market, with a total of 17,692 tons sold. 2

In discussing the coal trade of South Wales there is a tendency to disregard the principle factor involved, namely, the provision of adequate facilities for shipment. I am sure that not enough attention has been paid to the work of Nevill and others in creating the harbours and providing the navigational aids which alone would induce the masters of ships to trade to the shipping places concerned. Whilst it is not my intention to examine in detail in this note the factors which led to the expansion of the Llanelly coal trade in this period, and its subsequent decline (this forms part of a longer study, now being prepared), it is, I think, necessary to suggest that the following developments, which I place in roughly chronological........

  • 1. Parliamentary Papers.
  • 2. Ibid., sales of coal to the London Market

..............order, are of primary importance in appreciating the reasons for such expansion, the consequence of which led Llanelly in particular, for a brief space of about ten years, so notably to explore the potentialities of the export coal industry.

1805. Completion of the extension to Carmarthenshire Dock, Llanelly, by the Carmarthenshire Rail Road Company. A large breakwater was constructed which gave protection to ships loading in the harbour. In this year Nevill, with other local industrialists, met to discuss ways and means of further improving the harbour facilities.

1805-1808. Largely as a result of recommendations made by Nevill, the channel to Llanelly was provided with navigational buoys and beacons.

1808. General Warde's Colliery provided masters of vessels with a printed chart with navigational instructions showing the shipping places in the Burry Estuary. The chart was given free of charge to masters making use of the harbour. 1

1810. Pilot boats operating systematically from Llanelly: Nevill responsible for obtaining first pilot boat.

1813. With the establishment of the Commissioners for Burry Navigation, Charles Nevill became first principle clerk and collector of dues.

1819. Pembrey Harbour opened: 'can load 400 tons of coal daily' . 2

1824. Improvements completed at Pembrey Harbour.

1829. Two steam tugs operating at Llanelly. 3

1834. Completion of wet dock at Llanelly, the first in Wales. 4

1836. Llangennech (New) wet dock opened. Burry Port wet dock opened. 5

I would suggest that this evidence leads to the conclusion that Llanelly, in spite of geographical disadvantage, led the field in South Wales in the provision of adequate facilities for shipping, from which its early success in attracting a deepsea coal trade was the natural consequence. Shipments to the Mediterranean were regular from the early eighteen twenties, and Admiralty contracts were soon forthcoming as was shown by the loading of cargoes in the early eighteen thirties.............

  • 1. The earliest chart I have found served a similar purpose, and was published by William Jones of Loughor in 1757. See my 'Notes on the Shipping of South Burry', part 2, Gower, Vol. X (1957).
  • 2. See notice advertising the Harbour, The Cambrian, 5. 6. 1819: also notices in Carmarthen Journal, 1819 and 1822.
  • 3. This was a most important development: steam towage was an essential factor in safe navigation for large vessels in the days of sail, particularly in narrow esturial channels. It is likely that steam tugs were operating somewhat earlier than this date at Llanelly, in which case they were the first tugs to operate in South Wales.
  • 4. Cf. Llanelly Pilotage Committee minutes, 1. 12. 1834.
  • 5. The reaction of Swansea harbour interests to these developments are indicated by correspondence in The Cambrian, 1836. Also see W. H. Jones: History of the Port of Swansea (1922), p. 181,

........................ for the use of H.M. Vessels in the River Tagus. In July 1833 the first cargo of coal was shipped for Bombay, and between 1838 and 1840 at least thirty to forty ships per year, each carrying up to nine hundred tons of coal sailed for Bombay, Calcutta and Ceylon. 1

Mr. Morris and Mr. Williams on p. 62 of their article mention the difficulty of loading coal at Llanelly for the West Indian market in 1833, but such difficulty as Nevill had with that particular vessel must have been of a temporary nature (possibly the onset of neap tides) since, during the year, at least five West Indiamen loaded at Llanelly for Jamaica, Bermuda and Demerara, the two largest cargoes being of five hundred and ninety-three and five hundred and ten tons of coal respectively. In 1835, apart from the rapidly increasing India trade, coal was shipped to the Mediterranean, particularly Alexandria, and to Quebec. In the following year Calcutta, Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and Rio de Janeiro received cargoes, and later, a contract with the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company resulted in the west coast of South America being supplied. 2  It is thus reasonable to infer that, at this time, Llanelly enjoyed a brief supremacy in the spread and distribution of coal in the deepsea trades. It was only when the other ports on the South Wales seaboard developed their harbours that they competed successfully.



  • 1. Between 1838 and 1840 the Court of Directors of the East India Company contracted with Llanelly suppliers for large quantities of coal for India. Vessels were invited to tender for the carriage of coal from Llanelly to this market, and advertisements appeared in the Shipping Gazette and elsewhere.
  • 2. From the figures quoted earlier, it will be seen that Swansea and Neath exported a greater tonnage than Llanelly, but to a more restricted range of countries: in the creation of new oversea markets the impetus came from Llanelly.