Monday, July 15, 2013

End of the line in Wales

Bad news: I’ve hit a roadblock tracing the Smith male line in Wales.

As outlined in a recent post, I have a fair amount of information about Thomas, our great great grandfather, including his date and place of birth (1798, Abergwili, Wales), occupation (inland revenue agent) and father’s and mother’s names (John and Bridget). But that’s as far as I can go with assurance.

I do have a baptismal record for a John Smith also born in Abergwili, in 1761. He’s in the right place to be Thomas’s father. People didn’t often move far from where they were settled in those days. It would not be surprising if John the father of Thomas had stayed most of his life and sired a family in the place he was born.

Detail of page in Abergwili, Wales parish register

This John Smith is also the right age, or at least a plausible age, to be Thomas’s Dad – 37 in 1798. And Abergwili is a tiny place. The population today is under 600. It may once have been somewhat bigger since it was a bishopric. (The palace, dating from 1542, survives.) Still, is it likely in a place so small that there would be two John Smiths in the same generation?

Not likely, perhaps, but unfortunately possible. John Smith is a very common name – although this being Wales, perhaps less common than Richard Evans, say.

The fact that John was an “excise officer,” an employee of the central government in London – he’s listed as such in Thomas’s baptismal record – also means he may have been posted to Abergwili, rather than having been born there. (It’s the fact that John is listed as an excise officer that makes me certain I have the right baptismal record for Thomas. We know for sure Tom was a revenuer, and sons were very likely in those days to follow the same profession as their fathers.)

The Exciseman and the Countryman, Woodward & Cruikshank (Lewis Walpole Library)

The excellent National Archives (of Britain) website has a surprising amount of historical information about the collecting of taxes, excises and duties and the people, like our ancestors, who did it. The first instruction on how to use the site’s resources to search for ancestors is, “Try to find out…in which county the person was posted.”

I think there’s still a pretty good chance the John Smith born in Abergwili in 1761 is our great great great grandfather. After all, Inland Revenue must have sometimes hired locally. If this is our guy, then we also now know the name of our 4X great grandpa: John Edward Smith (see page from parish registry above).

I can’t find any other very likely hits for a John Edward Smith in the available online resources, though, so I’m still at a stand still. I may have to go over there one of these years and root around in undigitized records.

Bostonians Pay The Exciseman, 1774, attributed to Philip Dawe

Footnote 1 Excisemen, like our ancestor John Smith in Abergwili, were apparently not held in high regard in the 18th century. They were considered avaricious, dishonest and unfeeling – especially, of course, in America. The two cartoons illustrating this post give you the idea. On the other hand, the Scots poet Robbie Burns earned his living as an exciseman, at about the same time as John Smith was working in Wales.

Footnote 2 Searching in the National Archives database of historical records related to Inland Revenue, I found one for a Thomas Smith working as an “Excise man” in Scotland in 1826. The chronology works. Our Thomas would have been 27 or 28 that year. Was he posted to Scotland for a period before making his way to Gloucestershire in time to retire in the 1840s or 1850s? Possibly. Maybe I’ll send away for scanned copies of the handwritten documents to see what other details they provide.

But no, he wouldn't have been a colleague of Burns, who died two years before Thomas was born.


  1. Tangent/shameless bragging: The second satirical engraving you've illustrated here refers to an infamously hated excise officer named John Malcolm, who was one of the most prominent loyalists to get tarred and feathered in pre-Revolutionary Boston - a similar print is referenced in my newly published article! :)

    1. You should link the article (or at least send us the link!)


      Unfortunately only accessible to those with a subscription or willing to buy the journal :( Notice that the very small thumbnail of the journal uses an image from my article as the cover illustration, making mine the de facto cover story! Woop!