Newport First Stop - 100 Years of News Stories

The Years of Exploitation 1800 - 1830

By Derrick Cyril Vaughan

When the bells of St. Woolos rang out the old year to summon in the year 1800 the inhabitants of Newport, the small town at the foot of the hill leading to the church, could not have envisaged the change that would come about in the next hundred years. So little had altered in the past that the townsfolk, few in number, had become for many generations accustomed to their quiet way of life. Their main occupations were agriculture, salmon fishing at the mouth of the Usk, and work on the wharves, where a few ships put in from time to time. Now the great canal, ever snaking closer down the valley in the west, meant that their peaceable existence would be for ever shattered. Irresistible forces were at work. Slowly at first but then with increasing momentum, turning the sleepy town into a hustling, bustling hive of activity by the year 1900.

The story of Newport really began in the last decade of the eighteenth century when James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, had perfected this reliable source of energy which did not rely on the muscles of man or the power of the wind. Steam ships were being built in ever increasing numbers which were of course fuelled by coal. Iron also was much in demand and iron ore and coal could be found in vast quantities in South Wales and particularly in the valleys and hills surrounding Newport. Needless to say entrepreneurs, from all over Great Britain, descended on the Welsh valleys to mine the black gold and to smelt the iron ore in the iron foundries built near the coal mines.

In order to exploit this source of wealth it was necessary to have a means of transport to the coast whereby the coal and iron could be shipped to the great cities of the United Kingdom. The Government agreed to the construction of a navigation canal for this purpose and Newport was chosen as the obvious point of departure, having already a number of wharves along the river. The town with few inhabitants was now swollen by an influx of a transitory population of engineers and others connected with the construction of the canal.

In 1739 John Wesley passed through Newport on his mission to Wales. Be stopped off in Westgate Square to preach and noted in his diary for the 19th October that he found the citizens of Newport the most insensible, ill-behaved people he had ever seen. During his sermon one old man cursed and swore almost incessantly and took up a stone which he attempted to throw. On Wesley's return to the town in 1775 he preached once more but this time to a large and serious congregation and afterwards wrote: "I believe it is five and thirty years since I preached here before to a people who were then as wild as boars. How amazingly the scene has changed." Another visitor to the town was the great philosopher Voltaire who took ship for France from Newport in 1729 after his enforced exile in England. Arriving from London by coach, he and his party put up at the Westgate for the night, before boarding ship the following morning. He is reported to have said that Newport would he a final pleasant memory of his sojourn in England. He obviously had not had much time to make the acquaintance of the inhabitants!

The growth of Newport in the 19th century was astonishing. From 1800 onwards it was the boom town of Great Britain; a population of just over a thousand at the turn of the century had by 1900 increased to 67,000 and had become a thriving and prosperous community. Society also changed rapidly. In the early years the inhabitants had been dominated by the great landowners, notably the Morgan family of Tredegar Park, which owned 40,000 acres in and around the town, closely followed by the Duke of Beaufort and the Jones Family of Llanarth. The influx of a new and more enlightened population gradually eroded the power of the aristocracy and gentry which was transferred to the entrepreneurs who were now flocking into the area to exploit the immense mineral wealth of the valleys.

The Morgan family of Tredegar House had held sway in Newport for many generations. They had become prominent in the fifteenth century and since then had amassed much land and great wealth. William Morgan born in 1700, was a relation of Sir Henry Morgan the buccaneer who had harassed the Spanish in the Caribbean had in 1671 sacked the city of Panama and was knighted for his efforts. William married lady Rachel Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, when he was twenty four, shortly afterwards being made a Knight of the Bath. He died five years later.

Lady Rachel was left a widow with four children. Her eldest son inherited the title and estates but died at an early age childless. Her sole surviving child being a daughter the title passed to her brother-in-law Thomas Morgan. Lady Rachel resented the fact that her daughter had been deprived of her inheritance and is said to have placed a curse on the Morgan family to the effect that the name would die out. She had only a short time to wait for the curse to take effect. When Thomas Morgan died in 1792 his three unmarried sons had predeceased him and their sister Jane inherited the Tredegar Estate. Jane, being already married to Sir Charles Gould, successfully applied to the Court for her husband to be granted the arms and name of the Morgans. Thus Sir Charles Morgan Gould artificially revived the name of Morgan for the next 170 years. Inevitably Lady Rachel's curse continued to work, taking slightly longer this time, for in 1962 the family name finally became extinct.

In 1806 Sir Charles Morgan Gould died at Tredegar House and was succeeded by his son Sir Charles Morgan Robinson who was prominent in the life of Newport until his death in 1846. It is his statue which was removed from its first location in high Street to its present position in Park Square. Sadly he never obtained the peerage which he so ardently desired, the honour being bestowed on his son, Sir Charles Morgan Robinson Morgan for services rendered to the Tory government of Disraeli in 1859.

Lord Tredegar as he now was, continued to take an active interest in the affairs of Newport when he was in residence at Tredegar House. However, a great deal of his time was spent at Court where he was well liked by Queen Victoria. Ill health finally brought him back home. In April 1875 he was due to open the Alexandra Dock on behalf of the Prince of Wales but was already on his death bed attended by Lady Tredegar, who due to her husband's illness, was unable to deputise for him at the ceremony. He died on April 16th 1875 in his 83rd year, his memorial being the erection of the Corn Exchange.

Godfrey succeeded his father as the 2nd Baron Tredegar. Born in 1831, he served in the Crimean War in 11th Lancers, during which time he took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade on his charger "Sir Briggs" surviving the massacre unscathed. He returned to Newport with his trusty steed which was stabled at Tredegar House and lived long enough to see his master inherit the Baronetcy. Lord Tredegar became a great benefactor to the town and a patron of many organisations. He never failed to be present at the annual Cabbies' Dinner and was popular with one and all. He survived the nineteenth century and died in 1913.

In 1808 Peter Napper, one of the Society of Friends, bought the old "Pyes Shoppe" at 65 High Street. It was there he sold the celebrated gingerbread which was the talk of the town. Napper's Muffin Shop became the meeting place of the wealthier classes and Sir Charles Morgan was often seen there on his patriarchal visits to Newport. Mr Napper continued in business until his death in 1835 when the shop passed to his two sons Charles and Edwin. Edwin was in possession as late as 1871 when the site was acquired for the building of the Tredegar Memorial Corn Exchange.

Another well known figure in Newport was John Thomas who in 1817 made a clock on an entirely new system. He was a working smith and farrier and probably made the piece of mechanism in his spare time. The clock on being wound would continue to go for 384 days without further adjustment. It had a pendant with extremely large weights and a dial plate showing minutes and seconds. The famous clock was on view at the maker's home in Chepstow Road when Octavius Morgan, son of Sir Charles, was taken by his father to see "the wonderful Newport clock" and was so impressed with it, that years afterwards he made enquiries as to its whereabouts. He discovered that after Mr. Thomas died it became the property of his son Isaac Thomas who fixed it on the wall so insecurely that it fell and was broken beyond repair. The pieces were then sold as scrap to a marine store dealer.

In the early years of the 19th century parochial matters were the main concern of the Newportonians. Little heed was given to the great events of the day, such as the war against Napoleon and the victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo. They were much more concerned with local politics and the corruption which was clearly evident in the administration of the town. The example of the French Revolution only thirty years earlier made small impact on the local population, but in the hills and valleys around it was a different matter. The red virus from the continent was already at work. Discontent was rife due to the poor wages and the atrocious living conditions. Rabble rousers, some of them orators of no mean ability, converged on South Wales, stirring the people into a ferment of anger against authority and the law which protected the rich and did little for the poor. The Government was very conscious of this unrest, and fearful of a situation similar to that which arose in France in 1789, was in process of preparing a Reform Bill.

The attraction of jobs in the mining valleys of South Wales brought in thousands of hopefuls looking for work in the coalmines and iron foundries in spite of the living conditions. The Irish having no work at home, were happy to leave the Emerald Isle to seek work, as navvies on the canals and the tram-road now under construction. Coal and iron were required in ever increasing quantities to supply the industrial centres of Britain with these vital materials. The age of steam had arrived and iron ships and railways were being constructed both here and abroad. It was through the ports of South Wales, notably Cardiff, Newport and Swansea that these commodities were shipped and it was on this trade that the towns grew and prospered during the 19th century.

Trades people moved into Newport together with clerks, underwriters, shipping agents, lawyers, doctors and all the services of an expanding economy. The doyen of the gentry in the area was Sir Charles Morgan Gould M.P. of Tredegar Park. The value of the land which his family had owned for generations in Newport and the surrounding areas was increased a hundredfold due to the arrival of this new population. It became necessary for Sir Charles to review his assets and it was thus that the Tredegar Estate was established with offices in High Street. Leaseholds were being negotiated, houses built and rented, companies formed, and industrial land sold. For Sir Charles was determined to exploit his assets to the full.

It so happened that an impecunious lawyer named Thomas Prothero from Usk had made his appearance in Newport. Shortly after his arrival he managed to wheedle an introduction to Sir Charles who, being impressed by this eager young lawyer, appointed him as his agent to control the Tredegar Estates, which left Sir Charles free to pursue the social round. Great power was therefore thrust into the hands of Thomas Prothero at an early age. How he dealt with it will be seen later through the eyes of his contemporaries, but suffice to say, within a very few years of his arrival in the town he was not only agent to Sir Charles, but had also been appointed agent to other great landowners in Monmouthshire namely, Sir Robert Jones, Allard Kemeys and Thomas Nixon Esq. He became Treasurer of the Caerleon Charity, Treasurer and Deputy Sheriff for the County of Monmouth and Town Clerk of Newport. By 1820 Thomas Prothero was a very big fish in a small pond. He had power over the tenants of his employers, over land sales and leases, control over the county treasury and control over who should be prosecuted and who should not. He was also able to choose the jurymen for most prosecutions.

Thomas Prothero dominated the affairs of Newport for nearly fifty years and his power was such that he became dictatorial and oppressive. He alienated many of the burgesses, including John Frost, who accused him and many of the Newport Aldermen of wholesale corruption. Frost even went so far as to attack Sir Charles Morgan for aiding find abetting Prothero, his agent, in his alleged nefarious schemes.

The rise of Thomas Prothero from near poverty to great riches was meteoric. From a rented room in Thomas Street he moved to The Friars and later to an even larger mansion - Malpas Court. Supported and protected in the early years by Sir Charles, he later felt powerful enough to go his own way after a difference of opinion with his patron. Besides his official appointments he had his own law firm, owned a coalmine and had an interest in the Canal Company. Whenever and wherever a new enterprise commenced in Monmouthshire Prothero was somehow involved.

Thomas Prothero was feared and hated by many, few of whom dared to challenge him openly. One of the exceptions was his arch enemy John Frost and in later years - after Frost had been transported to Van Diemen's Land - others took up the challenge to fight for the rights of their fellow townsmen.

In the early part of the century John Frost was a draper having opened a shop in High Street in 1811. Be had learnt his trade in both Bristol and London where having witnessed the poverty, squalor and degradation of the vast majority of the people in those large cities he began to take an interest in the fiery politics of the day, in the hope that he may help to alleviate the lot of his fellow men. Inevitably he turned to Radicalism and returned to his home town with a determination to enter local politics and eradicate the corruption which he knew was rife in Newport.

The Frost family had for years taken an interest in local politics and had gained the trust of the people, many of whom were illiterate. They had a reputation for fair dealing and looking after the interests of the small man. John Frost therefore had no difficulty in being elected to the Town Council, most of whose members with a few notable exceptions, were already under the domination of Prothero.

At an early age Frost had discovered that he had the gift of being able to express himself well in print. On becoming a member of the council he started to publish pamphlets highlighting the many injustices which he had discovered. Often he would write accusatory letters to persons of whose actions he disapproved. One such letter he addressed to Thomas Prothero. Shortly afterwards inaccurate rumours of the contents were spread about the town, probably by Prothero himself. In order to justify his letter and scotch the rumours, Frost foolishly published the text. Prothero was overjoyed at this public disclosure and immediately charged him with libel. The case was heard in London and Frost was fined £1 000 (a massive amount in those days) together with a term of six months imprisonment in Coldbathfields Prison. On his return to Newport Frost was met by a large number of his admirers who escorted him in triumph to the Friar's where the crowd taunted Prothero.

Frost had for many years fought the Council, some members of which were feathering their own nests at the expense of the people. In one letter to the Mayor and Aldermen he accused a certain clique of Aldermen of out and out corruption, by quoting the case of Thomas Watkins, who having been made a burgess in 1802 had fallen foul of the Town Clerk, by accusing him of dishonesty, the result being that Watkins was forced to renounce his rights and his share of the Marshes by signing a statement to this effect, witnessed by three aldermen, George Griffiths, Abraham Jones and Thomas Prothero. This allegation of Frost was ignored by the Council, but was well remembered by the other burgesses who in later years managed to rid it of those councillors and aldermen who had held such tyrannical power.

This then was the atmosphere in early 19th century Newport. Hardly an auspicious commencement for a town on the brink of great things. In later years men of integrity emerged and guided the affairs to a prosperity unheard of in earlier times but in those turbulent early days the battles for the soul of Newport were only just beginning.

--- o ---

- Next Chapter -