Newport First Stop - 100 Years of News Stories

Immature Years 1860 - 1870

By Derrick Cyril Vaughan

Both virtue and vice flourished in the Newport of the sixties and seventies due in the main to the increased population and a certain amount of prosperity amongst the working classes. The beer houses and inns of the town did a roaring trade and drink was cheap even by the values of the day. Many a man having been paid his wages on a Friday would visit the nearest tavern on his way home from work and by the time he emerged most of his wages would have been spent. It was not uncommon for a wife to be seen waiting at the door of the beer house in order to extract from her husband's pay packet, before he went in, enough to keep the family for the week ahead.

The evil of drink was the theme of many a sermon in the churches and chapels. Visiting preachers, most of whom were orators of note, travelled the country condemning the imbibing of alcohol in forthright terms. It was not long before temperance societies, sprang up in Newport and temperance hotels were opened, where travellers could take their families without fear of being molested by drunken revellers. Drink was the social evil of the time; employers found that they could not rely on their workers to turn up for work, families were broken and destitution resulted. Many were urged to "sign the pledge" at an early age before they had a chance to imbibe strong liquor. Members of the temperance societies were most vociferous in their condemnation of all forms of alcohol but this had little effect on the drinking public.

On the 16th January 1860 there appeared in the Star of Gwent under the heading "Startling But True" the following article which deserves to be quoted in full.

"A red hot Welshman has recently come to live in Newport. He is described as a great Welsh writer and bard and has a figurative name. One evening he made a speech on the Welsh language and the Welsh nation. He said that Welsh was the first language ever spoken. He traced the Welsh back to Gomer and to Noah, Enoch, Seth and Adam and said that he was quite sure they were all Welshmen. He then said that Welsh was the language spoken in Heaven; that every angel was a Welshman and that God was a Welshman. We should be very proud of such a man for had it not been for him it is probable that those things would have been hidden mysteries for ages again."

The statue of the late Sir Charles Morgan which had been erected in High Street in 1850, was found to be a hazard due to the increased flow of traffic, and was therefore removed to a site in Park Square in 1860. Another hazard was the highway on Stow Hill which had no protective barrier, the lack of which had been the cause of many accidents, particularly to inebriates who had a habit of falling into the road. A parapet wall was built not before time and the danger eliminated.

Newport was sadly in need of a public hall suitable to its increased size and growing importance. It was decided to build such a hall and H.P. Bolt was engaged to do the job. He had lived in the town for a number of years having arrived from Devonshire as a working carpenter and had by his thrift and industry become a builder of some renown. By 1862 he had built the Victoria Hall, a magnificent structure which was featured in the Illustrated London News of that year. The hall became the venue of all the great actors of the day and also served the town for large assemblies and official banquets. Whilst this great undertaking was being completed the Queen's Hotel opposite was under construction and by the end of the year Bridge Street was opened.

A form of evil which flourished in this outwardly respectable Victorian era was the easy availability of brothels. Newport had many, a number of which were to be found in George Street. It was easy and extremely profitable for a householder to rent, on a part time basis, the facility of his home, where prostitutes could take their customers; beer houses generally being contact places for these ladies of the streets. Naturally societies were farmed for the rescue and protection of these fallen females. One such society was the Industrial Home for Fallen Women, the secretary of which was the Reverend J. Tinson Wrenford - Vicar of St. Paul's.

By the mid 1860's the Irish element in Newport had increased in size due to successive migrations and now formed a sizeable proportion of the population of the town. All were Catholics and due to the hard work of Fathers Cavelli and Bailey of St. Mary's Church on Stow Hill, were well organised and able to hold their own both in the social and political life. Most of them were of the labouring class with a few outstanding exceptions and lived mainly in Pill. Their disciplined religion of course was a source of irritation to the indigenous population and the fact that they were of the "Old Faith" and foreign did not endear them to the hardcore Protestant and Conservative establishment. On the other hand the Non-Conformists, usually of Welsh origin and radical in their politics, were upstaged by these Irishmen who were Liberal to a man.

In the thirties, when the Irish formed only a poverty stricken minority, the fifth of November was an opportunity for the hooligan elements of Newport to show their antagonism to their Catholic counterparts. The Merlin newspaper at this time of the year would refer to the 'Popish Plot' of 1605, thus creating an anti-Catholic atmosphere in the town. The Irish youths, resentful that they were being accused of somehow being implicated with the English traitor Guy Fawkes, would meet their opponents outside the Westgate Hotel where battle was done. Tar-barrels of all shapes and sizes, including hogsheads of sixty gallons of molten tar, would be set alight and rolled through the streets and home made squibs would be thrown at passers-by. Each succeeding year the situation got worse and escalated to such an extent, that by the eighteen sixties, Newport had become notorious throughout Britain for this annual event. The religious rivalry by this time had disappeared and "Squib Night," as it was now known, became the excuse for a general riot.

The Council seemed powerless to do anything about the situation. In 1855 J.N. Knapp, the then Mayor, had his term of office rendered unpopular through his attempts to suppress the Fifth of November demonstrations. The following extract from the Star of Gwent of 1868 serves clearly to illustrate the state of affairs.

"The Gunpowder Plot was commemorated with more than ordinary spirit in this town on Thursday evening. There was an abundance of squibs, rappers and suchlike fireworks, but the more enthusiastic had prepared effigies of Guy Fawkes, the hero of the great plot, which while in flames were carried about to the great delight of the juvenile population. Others there were who had procured a number of tar-barrels which were set on fire and under the control of sturdy fellows were dragged along the streets. The police have been pretty successful in preventing a practice, which to say the least, is highly dangerous. On Thursday evening however, the mob appeared too strong for the "peelers" and on the latter interfering and attempting to take forcible possession of the tar-barrels, a regular set-to was the consequence - we regret to state that in two or three instances the police came off second best. They succeeded however in getting hold of one or two barrels which roused the ire of the roughs who inflicted serious injury on Sergeant Wilcox, wounding him severely on the nose and eyes, and another officer was thrown upon a blazing barrel. Defeated in their objective, the roughs sought to wreak their vengeance on the civil funtionaries by smashing the windows of the Town Hall and of the borough police court by means of stones, pieces of the tar-barrel, hoops and other missiles. Such wanton destruction of property cannot be too highly censured. The whole scene before the Town Hall is described as a disgraceful riot."

It was evident that before long a tragedy would occur and Newport did not have many years to wait, for on 5th November 1875, P.C. Thomas Turner and P.C. George Jones were on duty in Portland Street, when a mob rolling tar-barrels came round the corner from Castle Street and seeing the two constables, charged them with stones. Both men were seriously wounded and P.C. Turner died two days later at the Infirmary. An inquest was held at the Queen's Hotel before Mr. Brewer, the Coroner. The verdict of the jury merely stated that "Thomas Turner died from a compound facture of his right leg and there was no satisfactory evidence to show how the fracture was caused." Apparently no effort was made to trace the culprits although a fund was set up for the widow and the seven children of the deceased. The following year the violence on the 'fifth' was as bad as ever.

Riots were not solely confined to Squib Night, in fact they were tame affairs compared with the disturbances at elections. From 1868 onwards politics were hotly debated and feelings ran very high both in Parliamentary and Borough elections, especially in the United Boroughs where parties were fairly evenly balanced between the Liberals and Conservatives. Few men had the franchise, but the lack of a vote did not prevent supporters of the candidates assembling in force at meetings, held usually in the open air, which thousands would attend. Inevitably the roughs would appear, often far gone in drink, many coming down from the hills to Newport to savour the excitement of the days before an election.

In October 1868 a General Election was held - Monmouthshire having two seats, one for the County and the other in respect of the United Boroughs of Newport, Monmouth and Usk. Newport being the largest town, had fifteen of the eighteen polling Districts, Monmouth having two and Usk only one. There were two candidates for the Boroughs, Sir John Ramsden for the Liberals and Samuel Homfray represented the Conservatives. This was the first time since the Reform Act of 1832 that those entitled to vote in the United Boroughs could really partake in a Parliamentary Election as the retiring member, Crawshay Bailey, had been returned unopposed for the Conservatives since 1852 and before him Reginald Blewitt and Sir Benjamin Hall had had little difficulty in holding the seat for the Liberals. A further Reform Act had lately been pushed through Parliament by the Tories giving wider representation to industrial workers, based on the payment of rates rather than on property qualifications. Thus in Newport there were many men entitled to vote for the first time.

As the election drew near Newport filled with the supporters of the candidates whether they had a vote or not. All the available hotels and lodging houses being taken over by one faction or the other. The great issue of the day concerned the disestablishment of the Irish Church, an issue which in the current century would have had little relevance, but at that time was the cause of passionate debate. On election day business was suspended in the town and many of the shops closed. Polling took place between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. amidst scenes of general excitement. The principal thoroughfares were thronged by a turbulent crowd for the greater part of the day and there were many clashes with the police, who were pelted with a variety of missiles. Effigies of the candidates were paraded through the streets and on one occasion Superintendent McIntosh rode into Westgate Square and ordered his men to stop the procession. The disorderly multitude did not relish interference and attacked McIntosh with sticks, striking his nose so violently that he was forced to abandon his horse and find refuge in the nearest shop. Red and blue ribbons and rosettes were everywhere to be seen. At one point the Parrott Hotel, at the bottom of Hill Street, which was used as the headquarters of the Blues, was stormed by the Reds who managed to break every window and did much structural damage.

Long before the closing of the polls some thousands assembled in front of the Westgate Hotel, where Sir John Ramsden was installed. The crowd included many women and children and some thousand sturdy men armed with sticks, who seemed quite prepared to use brute force against any opposition. A roar went up from the crowd when the news wan received that Ramsden had been elected. He responded by appearing at an upstairs window where he gave hearty thanks to his supporters, stating that the result would bring peace and conciliation to the Irish and pledged to aid in giving their wrongs speedy redress. Shortly afterwards the crowd dispersed. By 8 p.m. however, a mob began to assemble outside the Town Hall in Commercial Street. The Mayor and other magistrates had been waiting inside prepared for any emergency. It soon became apparent that the roughs were bent on mischief when stones began to fly and a number of police guarding the building were wounded. Soon hostilities began in earnest, the tumult increasing to such an alarming extent that the Mayor decided to call for the military. A detachment of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers numbering sixty men arrived promptly at the Town Hall under the command of Colonel Bell who was mounted. The soldiers were drawn up in line with fixed bayonets while the Mayor read the Riot Act twice. At this point the civil authority gave way to the military and Colonel Bell gave the order for his men to charge the mob. This operation was achieved successfully and the street was cleared when the crowd vanished up Stow Hill. Later the mob re-assembled and the soldiers again formed up in line. Both the Mayor and Colonel Bell appealed for order, the only response being derisive shouts and a barrage of stones at the windows of the Town Hall. It became obvious to the authorities that this state of affairs could not continue and the order was given for the soldiers to charge again. This time the crowd ran towards the Queen's Hotel in Tredegar Place. While the soldiers were charging along Baneswell Road, Mrs. Mary Grant the wife of a tailor who lived nearby, received a bayonet through her chest killing her instantly. Her son who was close by was wounded no less than five times and another man received a bayonet wound in his arm. The voluminous skirts of many of the women in the crowd were torn to shreds by the bayonets but no further injuries occurred. By midnight the tumult had ceased and the troops were withdrawn. Several policemen and soldiers were disabled having received frightful wounds to the head.

The following night trouble flared up again and worse violence occurred. Blazing tar-barrels were drawn through the town by a large mob and many buildings were stoned. Two Catholic priests from St. Mary's mingled with the crowd exhorting them to desist but all to no avail. After the Queen's Hotel had been badly damaged by the throwing of tar-barrels the cry suddenly went up "now for the Huxtables" and the mob with blazing tar-barrels went to the private house of the Chief Superintendent of Police and demolished all the windows of his house, terrifying his wife and children while indulging in violent threats. Finally when the energies and anger of the mob had been spent it vanished as quickly as it had appeared, the police though in disarray by this time, nevertheless managed to arrest a few of the stragglers. It was later announced that three men had been dangerously wounded by the police and another had died.

The inquest on Mary Grant was held at the Queen's Hotel and wan the focus of great public attention. Never before, even during the Chartist Insurrection, had Newport been subjected to rioting like this over such a long period. Colonel Bell, who had been in command of the soldiers, during the course of lengthy questioning stated "I thought when the Mayor ordered clearance of the streets the most humane way of doing it was to charge with fixed bayonets."

James Murphy, a waggon builder and the first Catholic to hold the office of Mayor, was much criticised for the way he had handled the situation. It was felt that he had abandoned Newport to lawlessness and that the mob had thus succeeded in establishing a reign of terror. He provoked a further outcry, when acting in his capacity as Chief Magistrate, he allowed the charges against the rioters who had been arrested to he dismissed and the men discharged. The general opinion being that it was a failure of justice and exhibited weakness.

About this time a macabre incident happened near the Parrot Hotel. A funeral cortege consisting of an ornate hearse drawn by four sleek black horses was about to mount Charles Street when the animals were startled by a vicious dog. They reared in the shafts and the hearse upended itself, the coffin was' projected into the air, disintegrating as it went and the corpse of a young man, as though it had a life of its own, continued its flight and landed in the midst of some startled shoppers. It took only a moment for the full horror of the incident to dawn on the public, but when it did a number of men fainted and had to be revived with copious draughts of eau-de-vie from the nearby hostelry. Strangely enough the women present, emotional as their sex usually is, kept their heads and a few of them helped the undertakers to retrieve the situation.

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