Newport Past

The City of Newport, A Thousand Years In A Thousand Words was written by Haydn Davis.

See also: When the Newport Ship was Sailing.

The City of Newport -
A Thousand Years in a Thousand Words
© Haydn Davis

First we have to cleanse our minds of the historic waffle pumped out hitherto by town guidebooks and newsletters. Forget that "Newport was founded over 2,000 years ago by Celtic tribesmen who lived on the Gaer Fort". Ignore the vastly inflated age of the Murenger House. Seek in vain the "fine 17th Century buildings in High Street" because there are none older than the 19th!

Take with enormous pinches of salt doubtful assertions by local zealots that the Chartist Rebellion of 1839 was anything but an ill-judged move by sadly misguided men which did irreparable damage to their own cause. At the same time, remember that it was the authorities of Newport that, in a bloody dénouement, hastened their decline! And bear in mind that the Chartist bullet holes in the pillars of the Westgate Hotel have been discredited!

Furthermore, do not waste time looking for "the statues that lie round every corner!"

Then, when you have heeded all this advice, give the same treatment to the new, manufactured history such as "Newport was the seat of all the ancient Kings of Gwent" - an achievement to which only Caerwent can lay a justifiable claim.

Nennius, the 8th Century Welsh chronicler wrote what are believed to be the earliest accounts of King Arthur's wars against the Saxons. In his wanderings he came across Caerleon several times but apparently never noticed any other habitation worth mentioning only three miles away! So it is generally conceded that no permanent settlement began its existence where our city stands today until much before the 10th Century.

Even so, it may be said that the earliest pointer to human occupation at this location was the foundation of St Woolos Church by Gwynlliw in the 7th Century and this might suggest that a congregation of sorts existed even then at the top of the hill. But this is purely the subject of popular legend so no great store can be put by it. It would, however, have been more logical for the first inhabitants to have been highlanders because the ground for a great distance around the foot of Stow Hill consisted of unhealthy swamp and marshland, often inundated by the high tidal waters of the Rivers Usk and Severn - certainly no place for the faint hearted to try and put down roots!

By the 10th Century however, it would appear that some hardy individuals had taken up occupation, probably Welsh but, as the years went by, mixed with a sprinkling of Saxons from over the nearby border (River Wye) with the Kingdom of Mercia, all at first sharing a tiny collection of mud and thatch hovels. The Saxon influence eventually would bring more substantial buildings in solid timber including a meeting (moote) house, a mill and possibly some sort of fortification on the still bridgeless river bank.

This then was the anonymous village that the Normans found when they entered Gwent some years after the 1066 invasion. It was they who brought with them the vogue for building in stone; it was they who gave the place its first recorded name: Novus Burgus; it was they who built the first castle which prompted the natives to call its immediate environment: Castell Newydd, and it was their descendants who, in the town's Charter of 1427, made the first reference to: Newporte in Wallia, no doubt to give indication of the town's earliest beginnings in maritime trading.

From this time on, little of historic interest was heard of Newport. From time to time it stood in the path of some warring factions, sometimes losing its bridges in the process, but in general a long period of stagnation resulted in little population growth or topographical beautification. Corruption was always rife among its administrators and its so-called gentry whose conniving machinations made fortunes for themselves and paupers out of fellow citizens! Even 700 years on from its foundation Newport was being written about by travelling academics as grotesque, gloomy, insalubrious, wretchedly dirty and many other epithets of similar ilk!

Then, in the mid 18th Century, came the great awakening when the Monmouthshire valleys were discovered to contain vast deposits of coal and iron ore! It now needed only the burgeoning industrial revolution to provide the economic wherewithal with which to extract these treasures, and the marvels of steam power, tram roads and canals to bring them to the nearest deepwater port. Newport was on the way!

By the 1830s the small, dingy village by the River Usk had seen an explosion in progress which had increased the population tenfold, creating the largest town in Wales (for a time larger than Cardiff) and providing an inland dock complex that was the envy of the world!
In 1839 came the most vividly remembered incident in Newport's lacklustre march through time. The Chartist Riot erupted notoriously and embarrassingly over a period of only 24 hours, soon blowing over and allowing the worthy citizens to forget it - that is until, over a hundred years later, it was resurrected as the town's most historic landmark!

Today, most of the features that turned Newport into a thriving, prosperous borough in the 19th Century have gone, replaced by the new industries and technology that satisfy the demands of the 21st Century, but it is not really like starting all over again. Through no fault of its own the town has suffered some very unfair setbacks which now, as a new city liberated from, (as many have been heard to say), the half-baked municipal ideas of yesteryear, it has been presented with a wonderful opportunity to overcome!