Newport First Stop - 100 Years of News Stories

"Well I'll Go To Cardiff" 1850-1860

By Derrick Cyril Vaughan

The title of this book reflects the importance to South Wales and Newport in particular of the coming of the railway. It opened up a whole new world to the inhabitants who up till then had perforce to use the stage-coaches for long journeys which could entail days of travel. Now it was possible for many of the cities of the United Kingdom to be reached in a few hours.

The fact that Newport was going to be the first stop on the line caused a certain amount of jealousy in Cardiff which had overtaken Newport both in size and population in the early forties. The knowledge that Newport, purely by geographical location, would receive the first train irked the Cardiffians no end and the Newportonians knew it. From that time on the expression "Well I'll go to Cardiff" was born and is used, particularly by old Newportonians, to denote amazement or disbelief.

Early in 1850 the railway line was complete and it was decided to run the first train on the 18th June from Chepstow to the terminus at Swansea.

The great day arrived. At ten o'clock in the morning many thousands had gathered at Chepstow to witness the start of this historic journey. The directors of the company were presented with an address and speeches were made; after which together with many important personages they boarded the train for the journey to Swansea.

The train left on its 75 mile journey to tumultuous cheers. All along the track were well-wishers, many of them waving flags, who had come from far and wide for this great event. The expected arrival of the first train caused great anticipation and excitement in Newport where the station had been decorated with wreaths of flowers, evergreens and triumphal arches. Flags flew from every building and the ships in dock were decked overall. The whole town appeared to have turned out for this great occasion, every available vantage point being taken. At last the train, pulled by two engines and with a military band in the tender, hove into sight over the new bridge. A great roar of approval went up from the crowd as it was seen that the architect and chief engineer of this massive enterprise, Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself, was on the footplate of the leading engine bringing the first train slowly to its first stop - Newport.

Music was played continuously while greetings were exchanged by the Mayor and Corporation with the officials of the South Wales Railway Company. Then the train was on its way again - under the tunnel and on to Cardiff - the second stop -and thence to Swansea, the end of the line, where a celebratory breakfast at four o'clock in the afternoon had been arranged.

Early in 1850 the Clarke Report was published showing that the worst fears of the authorities were realised. It was a most comprehensive document which dealt with all aspects of the sanitation of Newport. It showed that only action of the most drastic kind would save the town from becoming disease-ridden. It recommended that every house should have a water supply connected to main drainage, that a Local Health Board would he formed with complete powers to deal with the cleaning of the streets and the repair and replacement of sewers. In his report Clarke described one lodging house in Charles Street, which was occupied by thirty persons, many of whom kept rags, bones and putrefying fish and vegetables, in their unventilated rooms. In another property in Fothergill Street he had seen five beds in each room containing six or seven men to a bed, while the women and children slept in cupboards with the doors closed, the landlord providing no water, drains or privies. Clarke also recommended that Friars' Fields should he demolished forthwith and its inhabitants housed in outlying areas, a project easier said than done.

The Council took immediate action in regard to all Clarke's recommendations with the exception of Friars' Fields. No one presumably had the courage to deal with this festering sore and the place was left severely alone until a decade later, when the Corporation finally succeeded in ousting most of the denizens, and commenced to clear the area.

In 1852 a man arrived in Newport who was destined to change the town for the better, both in the administration of local affairs and the betterment of the population. His name was James Brown and he had been born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1809 and was married in 1836. In appearance he was a tall and robust personality and his character consisted of extreme tenacity and pugnacity together with fearlessness and an indomitable will. In certain respects he could be likened to John Frost the Chartist leader, as he was continually issuing pamphlets and was always mindful of the common good. He was a man of ability in many fields of activity. As an engineer he became interested with his brother in the great iron and coal works at Ebbw Vale, his brother running the works, while James represented the company in Newport in the sale of the output of coal, being also responsible for the utilisation of the waste gasses from the blast furnaces.

By the time James Brown came to Newport he was already a wealthy man. He moved with his large family into Bryn Glas House where he entertained lavishly. Three of his sons were accomplished musicians, giving public performances of their ability, which were much appreciated. His gifts to charities were many and any small service done to him was always amply rewarded. In fact he was an extremely well respected and popular man. When he put up for election to the Town Council in the Liberal cause he won the seat with ease and the following year 1853 was elected Mayor, an unheard of honour at the time. Although violently anti-Chartist, he had in fact some years before, at the time of the Chartist insurrection, offered £100 to anyone who would capture Zephaniah Williams, nevertheless he suggested to the Council that a Memorial should be forwarded to the Government requesting the pardon of John Frost and that he should be allowed to return to Newport. It was due to this action that his nomination as a County Magistrate was struck out by Capel Hanbury Leigh on the grounds that as Mayor he should not have joined in this Memorial - his exclusion reeked of prejudice and was a flagrant injustice.

James Brown's interests were many and varied. He was one of the leaders responsible for the development of the Monmouthshire railways, having written a pamphlet on the subject of the railways of South Wales, which advocated the desirability of the uniformity of the gauge and the advantage of possessing a uniform system of engines and carriages. He also established the "Star of Gwent", at a cost of £600, in opposition to the "Merlin" which had been established in Newport for many years. Another pamphlet he wrote on "The Present State and Future Prospects of the Monmouthshire Canal." In 1854 he organised an appeal on behalf of the wives and children of the 1st Royals, lately stationed in the town, who were left destitute on the departure of their husbands for the Crimean War. He also took a great interest in education and in particular the new National Schools in the town, advocating that all teaching should have a religious basis.

Meanwhile Bryn Glas House became renowned for the lavish parties given by James Brown. Money flowed like water, so much so that he was regarded as a merchant prince of the period. As one wag said of him - "His friends are many and his enemies not a few." Notable among the latter was a firm of lawyers, two of the partners of which were Clerks to the Borough Justices, and another solicitor was Clerk to the County Magistrates. Brown discovered that a certain Mr. Pyke was employed by these gentlemen to send them as many prosecutions as he could, no matter that proceedings were not taken in many cases. Pyke was giving them fees, and was instructed to conceal the association, by keeping separate Assize and Sessions Prosecution books. Pyke however quarrelled with his employers and the whole scheme was revealed. At a public meeting held in anticipation of the coming election James Brown in the course of his speech said the following on the subject: "From time to time there were statements of account between Pyke and his very liberal employers. So well did Pyke do his job that in a short time he arranged 60 prosecutions. It did not matter about a conviction, it was sufficient to go for arraignment as the fees were paid only for this. If you employ a clerk and put him on starvation wages, although he may bow and scrape to you, yet when the time comes stern necessity will make that man show his teeth at you, although you may consider yourself a benefactor to him. Pyke was obliged to maintain himself and dress respectably upon a miserable pittance of £100 a year. Little defalcations followed and Pyke was put on trial. It was proved that the lawyers never acted as clerks to the Magistrates, they cared nothing about their office and threw all their duties at Pyke. No wonder the learned judge threw the case out and highly discommended the prosecutions for this scandalous and disgraceful job. How do we know what arrangement now exits between others? Who knows, perhaps we shall never know until they quarrel. Ratepayers you have not had the opportunity until now to state your views. I will do all I can to lessen the heavy rates but it is no use for us, the members of the Council, to stop the holes where pennies and shillings drop through, if you leave the mouth of the sack unstopped where hundreds of pounds run out. Is it right for these lawyers to go to their houses with hundreds of pounds in their pockets which ought to be in your hands? There's only one way of arguing with fleas and that's to burn the mattress."

James Brown was a man of stature and integrity; Newport was lucky to have such a man at the head of its affairs. As time went on men of like mind joined him on the Council and at last graft and corruption which had been so prevalent in the past, almost ceased to exist. Honest administration became the watchword of the day. In 1860 and again in 1861 Brown was Mayor. It was during his administration that many future projects were planned, such as the Alexandra Dock and the sale or lease of Corporation land for building purposes. By this time the population of Newport had risen to 23,249; the town was expanding fast. It was James Brown who pressed for the elimination of that festering sore Friars' Fields and at last in 1860 the Corporation bought the site and commenced the slow task of removing the denizens as and when they could terminate the leases.

St Woolos Church, which had fallen into a very dilapidated condition was the subject of much discussion and finally a meeting was held, chaired by Sir Thomas Phillips, which decided to raise money for its renovation by leasing the pews at an annual rental, together with other money-raising projects. Included in the work was the removal of the tower clock and the closure of the burial ground which had been full for a number of years. Land was obtained from the Tredegar Estate bordering Bassaleg Road and Risca Road for future burials - this area became know as the New Cemetery.

Thomas Prothero died whilst on a visit to London in 1853. John Frost had continually attacked this man in a series of pamphlets over many years. Prothero had been a man of his time, probably no better or worse than many others, but he had had the ability to advance in life and appeared to care little for his fellow man in his progress. He had been agent to Sir Charles Morgan and as such held sway over the tenants of the Tredegar Estate. He probably misused this power, certainly John Frost thought so. From small beginnings as an impoverished lawyer he became wealthy, influential and powerful. He was not averse to dumping his mentor Sir Charles when it suited his purpose and he intrigued and fought his way to pre-eminence in the business of the town.

Prothero's body was brought back to Newport by train, the news of his death having preceded him caused quite a sensation in the business community. A show of mourning was put on, the ships in the port lowering their colours and the flags in the town flying at half mast. Few however regretted his passing when his body was finally placed in the family vault at St. Mary's Church, Malpas.

The death of Prothero reminded the public of the fate of his antagonist John Frost, who had been popular in the town in spite of his treasonable activities, and was still serving his sentence in Van Dieman's Land. The general feeling was that the time for forgiveness had arrived, and representations were made to the Council for a Memorial to be sent to the Government, pleading that Frost should be pardoned and that he should be allowed to live once more in his native town. The Memorial was rejected but a few years later Queen Victoria granted, in 1851, a general amnesty on the successful conclusion of the Crimean War and John Frost was returned to Britain and settled in Bristol.

--- o ---

- Next Chapter -