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History Group Meetings are held on the 3rd Wednesday of each month at the

Meeting Venues

St Mary's Church Hall, Caldicot.


Day Luncheon Centre, Sandy Lane, Caldicot

Commencing at 2-15pm


The Morgans of Tredegar House

The June meeting of the History Group had a talk on ‘The Morgans of Tredegar House’, given by Roger James, a member of the Tredegar House Talks Team.

In the whole United Kingdom, there are about 500,000 listed buildings, but only about 2.5 percent are grade I listed. One of these is Tredegar House, a very special house right on our doorstep.

The story of the Morgan Family at Tredegar House starts about 1400 AD, and spans 600 years. It starts with Llewellyn ap Morgan, who joined Owain Glyndwr when he opposed King Henry IV. When Glyndwr’s support waned in 1408-9, the king confiscated estates of the rebels, including Llewellyn ap Morgan’s holdings. However his grandson Henry VI returned the confiscated lands to their original owners, in an attempt to regain the support of Welsh aristocracy.

In 1485 Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire with a mercenary army and marched through south Wales. He gathered support and soldiers from landowners as he went, including Sir John ap Morgan, owner of Tredegar House. After Henry Tudor won the Battle of Bosworth Field and became King Henry VII, he rewarded his followers for their support, including Sir John.

Effectively there are two houses at Tredegar, the older part originally being a Tudor manor house. Inside that is the great hall where the (Tudor) family lived. Over the centuries, the family became separate from the servants, and that became the servants’ hall.

That hall was built of a grey Welsh stone, quite different to the red brick of the later house. It has been suggested that during the building of this magnificent mansion, they ran out of money and could not afford to replace the last wing of the old manor house. Instead they installed new windows in the old part in the same style as those in the new wing.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the siting of a castle or manor house depended on having a source of water nearby, preferably within the walls. Such an arrangement would make the structure difficult to capture by siege.

In the case of Tredegar House the source of water was a spring. Underneath the courtyard are extensive cellars where the Morgans kept their wines, beers, etc. Behind some boarding in one of the cellars, the spring still flows. These days it is directed into the drains, but in the fifteenth century it supplied the house with fresh clean water. Where the water issues forth, a face is carved, with the water appearing to flow from the mouth.

The association of a carved face with a spring dates back to pre-Christian times. When enemies were defeated and killed, their heads were cut off and hung on bushes and trees around the spring, to deter people from stealing the water. In those superstitious times, people assumed that springs could not possibly flow upwards and bubble out of the ground of their own accord, so they must be operated by spirits!

In 1661 William Morgan married his cousin Blanche; this extremely wealthy couple decided that this old manor house was no longer suitable for their status, so they vowed to replace it with the mansion that is now Tredegar House. It is believed the house was built somewhere between 1665 and 1675, but Blanche died before completion.

The stables are grade I listed in their own right, something which is very rare for stables. The inside of the stables were reminiscent of a riding school, as there was an area suitable for exercising horses, and would originally have had a peat floor, instead of the flagstone floor there now. The family probably taught children to ride there and exercised horses on wet days.

Inside the house, there are several rooms dating from the seventeenth century building. These include the Brown Room, which had beautiful oak on the walls and floor. It was used for special guests, and for laying out dead Morgans, prior to interment in the local churchyard. A carving on one of the panelled walls shows the face of a mouse, with whiskers attached, believed to be a caricature of Charles I. The king was a tiny man, less than 5 feet tall, probably due to childhood rickets. Portraits of Charles I show him on a horse, preventing people from noticing his diminutive stature. Consequently he was often lampooned as a mouse.

Included in the wall decoration of the family dining room is a crest of the Morgans, which includes a stag, with a griffin as one of its supporters. The Griffin Inn in Lisvane is so-named because the Morgans owned Lisvane at one time.

One side of the original house had no corridors, and progress through that part of the house meant going through intervening rooms, even bedrooms. This changed when a corridor was created by reducing the size of those rooms, resulting in fireplaces which were not central to the walls of the rooms.

Another well-known room is the cedar closet, a room in which all wooden panelling and cupboards are made of cedar to deter moths; it was originally used to store linen. One glass-fronted cupboard has the appearance of an old-fashioned museum cupboard which might be used for storing valuable or interesting objects, and that is how the Morgan family used it. As they travelled around the world they collected items which they put in this lockable cabinet. The items would then be displayed for their special guests.

Pirate Henry Morgan was never part of the family that owned the house, but was probably a second cousin. As a young man of 18, he joined an army that Oliver Cromwell sent to Jamaica to steal it from the Spanish. He stayed in the Caribbean, acquired his own ship and became a privateer (a pirate licensed by the government to attack and capture ships of other nations). He had a letter of marque from Oliver Cromwell authorising him to attack Spanish and French shipping in the Caribbean; he made a fortune for himself and a fortune for Oliver Cromwell. He became an admiral in the British Navy and at one stage was Governor of Jamaica, very much an establishment figure. He drank himself to death in Port Royal. The portrait of him in the house is the only one that still exists.

Like many mansions, Tredegar House has a parterre garden, but this one is unique. The spaces between paths are filled with minerals – crushed coal, crushed red brick, two shades of sand, and seashells.

The ornamental gates were made by the Edney Brothers of Bristol, the premier gate-makers in the country. According to a receipt still held in the records, the gates cost £1,000 in 1740. Until the 1980s the gates were in a deplorable condition; Newport Council, to their credit, had them rebuilt to their original condition.

In the eighteenth century the Morgans had a toll road built between Newport and Cardiff, going through their land. When the A48 was built, it followed the same route, as did the M4.

The original lodge gates were sited near a line of hills, lying half a mile from St Basil’s Church, Bassaleg. The members of the Morgan family who died in the 19th and 20th centuries are buried there. An avenue flanked by oak trees ran from the house to the vicinity of Bassaleg Church; it is still possible to trace the line of that avenue on aerial images.

During the Industrial Revolution, the Morgans invested heavily in local industry, mainly coal and iron. Much of that industry was situated around Blaenavon, a town critical to the development of south Wales industry.

The head of the family at the time was Charles Morgan. Born Charles Gould, he became advocate-general, the premier lawyer in the army. He also set up the Equitable Life Insurance Company in the 1750s, the first in the world. He married into the Morgan family, and his wife inherited the Morgan fortune after her three brothers died, all childless. When the last brother died in 1792, Charles Gould applied to change his name to Morgan and adopted the Morgan coat of arms, becoming Sir Charles Morgan.

During the 18th century, the Morgans owned most of Newport, plus 53,000 acres in the 3 counties of Monmouthshire, Glamorganshire and Brecknockshire. They also owned a finger of land which ran through the south Wales coalfield, which has some of the best steam coal in the world, plus deposits of iron ore.

Sir Charles let it be known that he did not wish to run coalmines or ironworks, but would lease his land to those who wished to exploit the mineral wealth at their own expense. As a result he had money pouring in from coal owners, iron masters, etc. He also had a thousand farms on his land, each one paying rent.

The Morgans also invested heavily in canals to carry goods from Brecon to Newport Docks. To supplement the canals they also built tramways for trams (horse-drawn) to carry coal, iron ore and limestone from places having difficult access to the canals. They owned Lisvane, Magor, Caldicot, Rogiet, Adamstown, Llanishen and Whitchurch (in Cardiff), these latter areas became quite valuable as Cardiff started to expand.

His grandson, another Sir Charles Morgan, became a member of the House of Lords in 1859, the first Morgan to do so. He took his title ‘Lord Morgan of Tredegar’ from the area in which they lived, not from the town Tredegar. He had 11 children with his wife Rosalind and possibly another 11 with various other women.

The eldest son Charles Rodney Morgan was due to inherit the family fortune. He went to a hunt ball in Usk, and fell in love with a Yorkshire girl. They decided that they would like to marry, and Charles got the consent of the girl’s parents. However his own parents refused permission as the young lady was Catholic, and the Morgans were ardent Protestants. Charles started drinking heavily, met a French singer, moved with her to Marseilles where they had several children, and died of syphilis at the age of 25. When Newport Rugby Club was looking for a ground, his brother Godfrey agreed to give them some land on condition that they named the ground after his brother Rodney.

Godfrey was a captain in the 17th Lancers, and participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the lancers charged some Russian guns. Of the 640 men who went into the valley, fewer than 200 came out, and Godfrey was one of them. He was so grateful that his horse got him in and out in one piece that when the Crimean war was over, he brought the horse, called Sir Briggs, back to the stables in Newport. When the horse died in 1874, he was buried in the garden. Godfrey said that after Crimea, he never had a happy dream again. Also on his return to Britain, he found that his fiancé had married someone else since she had not heard from him, and she thought that he had lost interest.

There was another step change in 1905 when Baron Morgan was elevated to Viscount. He was very much into country pursuits, riding to the Tredegar hounds. In all he became Lord Lieutenant, High Sherriff, and a Member of Parliament. It is estimated that the revenue he received from various sources topped £1,000 a day.

In 1875 Godfrey Morgan changed the entrance and lodge gates to the position that they still occupy on the A48, on the roundabout for M4 junction 28.

Some of the rooms in Tredegar House have not changed much since Victorian times. These include an entrance hall that he created, a housekeeper’s room, a butler’s room which has changed little since the 1850s, a bells passage which had on one wall the bells connected to the various rooms in the house, a complex of kitchens used for preparing and storing hot and cold food, a pastry room, a scullery for washing and cleaning pots, pans and other kitchen paraphernalia, a well-equipped bathroom (known as the ‘cow bathroom’ because of its bovine ornaments), and a shower which dispensed water through perforated pipes surrounding the user. This style of shower was a rarity at the start of the twentieth century, but Godfrey was so traumatised by his experiences in the Crimea, especially the filth and disease, that he became fastidious on his return.

Godfrey died in 1913 and his nephew Courtney inherited the estate and the title. Courtney’s profligate spending was legendary; one example was the purchase of a steam yacht requiring a crew of 55, and sailing it twice around the world.

The children that Courtney and his estranged wife had, Evan and Gwyneth, were very troubled offspring. Gwyneth disappeared in December 1924 aged 29, and her body was found in the Thames in May 1925.

Her father Courtney would nothing to do with her, so her body was buried in a churchyard near where she was found in the Thames. As soon as her father died, her brother Evan had his sister’s body exhumed and moved to a plot alongside her father. There they could disagree for all eternity.

Even Morgan was the last Morgan to live in the house. He was claimed to have one of the best devil worship rooms in the country; he was deeply into the occult, devil worship, black magic, etc. The master of black magic in the country, Aleistair Crowley, who often visited Evan in his black magic room, which was reputed to be in the cellars.

Evan was a disaster at almost everything he did, but his ability to handle animals and birds was unequalled. He converted to Catholicism in 1919, and was made a papal chamberlain, the highest lay position in the Catholic Church. It is possible that Evan changed his religion to spite his father, since they disliked each other so much. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1949, possibly due to his excessive drinking. Again, he was spending far more money than he had coming in. He married twice, in spite of his homosexual activities.

Evan died childless in 1949, and his cousin John Morgan took over. He took one look at the place and decided to sell it, as the estate was in a shocking state. His cousin and his uncle had almost ruined the family fortune, and death duties were starting to mount. John got about £3,5 million from the sale, and went to live in a small chateau in the south of France, where he died childless.

He sold the house to the sisters of St Joseph’s, and it became a Catholic convent school from 1951 until 1974, when a new school was built, and Newport Corporation bought Tredegar House for £250,000. The National Trust took over the running and preservation of the estate in 2012.

Dave Edwards




For the May meeting, the History Group had a talk by Richard Jones, entitled ‘The House with no Name’.

This relates to a particular house in Portskewett, a derelict house which is central to a project now being planned, which hopefully will give the village its rightful place in history.

Portskewett has changed but the core of the village has not, and neither has the layout of the roads. Portskewett did not develop in the Victorian era, but expanded in the 1920s and 1930s. There are also some significant historical connections in the area – Heston Brake standing stones, Harold’s Field, Sudbrook Camp, a Roman villa on Portskewett Hill, etc.

Portskewett is derived from the Welsh Porth Iscoed, meaning ‘harbour of the area below the wood’. The ‘wood’ is Portskewett Hill, just to the north of the village. At present there is a fashion to give every place a Welsh name, even though the place might never have been known by that name. On the other hand the name ‘Portskewett’ is derived from the Welsh name.

The ‘area below the wood’ was the cantref, the administrative region which had Caerwent at its centre. Historically the area between Chepstow and Newport was occupied by the Silures tribe. Portskewett was particularly important because it was the harbour which served the area, not just itself.

In Roman, Saxon and Norman times there was an inlet, similar to St Pierre Pill, and Portskewett was an ancient port. However the Nedern Brook silted up, changed its course during a storm and was changed again by Thomas Walker when he built the Severn Tunnel.

Nowadays the Nedern flows into the Severn at Caldicot Pill, but in those days its outlet was much nearer to Portskewett. Coincidentally there are lead panels which were taken from Portskewett Church roof in 2000 when the church was renovated.

It appears that the panels have not been removed from the roof since medieval times. Closer inspection shows that quite a number of panels have graffiti showing rather good illustrations of sailing boats on them, indicating a strong connection with the sea & Severn Estuary.

History is a record of change, and over the centuries, Portskewett has certainly changed; partly due to its position as a crossing point on the Severn.

The oldest historical site in the area is Heston Brake, a group of ancient stones which are the remains of a burial mound. They are estimated to date from between 4,000 and 2,500BC. When they were excavated in 1888, human bones, animal bones and some pottery were found, showing evidence of human habitation in the Neolithic era.

Sudbrook Camp was constructed in the Iron Age. What we see now is possibly only a fraction of what it once was, erosion having taken the rest over the centuries. It was occupied by the Silures from the second century before Christ, and re-occupied by the Romans, as its position made it an ideal look-out point. Nearby Black Rock’s importance as a ferry point across the Severn can be judged from the number of coins thrown in to appease the gods of this temperamental river.

Portskewett Hill, just north of the church, has evidence of Iron Age use, the remains of a Roman villa, and a Roman temple. Lots of coins from the third and fourth centuries have been found.

References to church architecture usually apply to the medieval period, but at Portskewett and Sudbrook the ecclesiastical architecture is Saxon and early Norman. In the rest of south Wales, there is very little evidence of architecture dating from the Saxon period, but at Portskewett and Sudbrook, there is Saxon and Norman construction.

St Mary’s Church Portskewett is a fine example of a preserved small Norman church of the early twelfth century, one of the best in Wales. Because the work is so crude, we cannot definitely determine its age. However the chancel arch is round-headed, which indicates it was constructed in the Norman era. Also, on one side of the church is a blocked doorway, which has a very large lintel stone over the top, probably Saxon. The original church was originally just a nave, but a tower as added in the sixteenth century.

Sudbrook has a church, and a very similar story, but the building is in very poor condition. Photographs taken in the 1960s show just how much has disappeared int the past 50 years.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains a statement that Harold Godwinson defeated Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1065 and tried to stamp his authority on the area by building a hunting lodge at Portskewett, on a site previously occupied by the Welsh prince.

Local tradition claims that Harold’s Field, an area next to the church, was the site of that hunting lodge. This would have been the base for hunting parties in Wentwood and the Forest of Dean. The location had the advantage of being accessible from the Severn by small boat, making it independent of the hazards of travelling by road.

However once Harold and his soldiers left the area, the local Celts destroyed the partly-built lodge and killed the builders. Harold in turn never got the chance to seek his revenge since he was killed the following year at the Battle of Hastings

There is some evidence to support the traditional story. In 2007 a ‘Time Team’ excavation found evidence of a Norman fortified tower, contemporary with the adjacent church, accessible from the Severn via a tidal inlet.

There was no conclusive evidence of Saxon buildings, but they would have been built of wood, so evidence is unlikely to survive. One piece of Saxon pottery was found, making the tradition credible, but a much larger excavation would be needed to confirm it.

The period following 1066 was a time of change, quite rapid change in some instances. The evidence of change is still there, and it is possible to walk around any village and see similar evidence of change.

These include the church buildings, the churchyard cross, parts of local houses, all surviving evidence. Also fields were laid out in particular ways, some in the style of the feudal system, some more modern. Maps of towns and cities were produced, many of which can still be traced at street level.

The first written evidence was produced when parish registers were recorded and kept. The parish registers in Portskewett date back to 1593, very early compared with many others. Also included in the records is a list of vicars going back to 1427.

In Portskewett there was social upheaval that many places do not see. The St Pierre estate is now a golf and country club. It was built in the fourteenth century, and owned by the Lewis family from about 1380 until 1919, when the last member of the family died and the estate was sold off by the executors. During the 1920s and 1930s many country houses were lost because of high death duties, staff shortage, and high taxes.

There is an historical connection between St Pierre and Portskewet, together with Mathern, Mounton and Crick. The Lewises of St Pierre were the lords of the manor that comprised these villages and the land surrounding them. They were not just lord of the manor in title, but also in ownership. There was very little land or property in Portskewett that was not owned by the Lewis family – during those years people who lived in Portskewett were almost certainly Lewis tenants.

In 1919 the estate was sold by auction. Copies of the documents advertising the auction still exist, and whoever owned one of the copies must have been present at the auction, because he or she wrote down the values for which the properties were sold. The whole estate was disposed of, the auction being conducted by ‘Edwards, Russel & Baldwin at the Beaufort Arms Hotel on Monday 22nd September 1919 at 2pm punctually’.

The advertisements for the sale are useful in that they help identify the location of the auction lots. Some of the properties are immediately recognisable because the names are the same, but others have to be worked out from the information available.

The property which is the subject of this talk is probably included in these lots, but is by no means guaranteed. There is a reference to ‘a cottage and garden, lot 15, coloured blue on the plan’. However the plan of Portskewett is missing from the bundle of auction documents.

There is reference to ‘a cottage and garden near Portskewett Church, number 140 on the plan, containing one rood ten perches, tenant Mrs Pitt. Quarterly tenancy commencing 2nd February, rent £5.15s.6d. If Mrs Pitt can be identified in the 1911 census, then her address will be given. In this case the main clue is that the cottage has no name.

From all this, it is obvious that Portskewett has a story to tell, and it is hoped that the ‘house with no name’, which currently sits within the churchyard, will be used as the Portskewett Heritage and Information Centre.

The story of Portskewett spans a long period of history, but it is also the story of the community today. It is an active and lively community, and the aim of this project is to bring back the story of the past. Therefore the aim, and their motto, is ‘bringing the past to life’. This means involving the community, not just a few enthusiasts..

The project is the renovation and refurbishment of the old cottage, which has been referred to so far as ‘the house with no name’. it is a Grade II listed building within St Mary’s Churchyard. The aim is to use the building as the base for spreading the history of Portskewett within the locality.

Photograph of Portskewett Church taken in the 1920s shows that the ground outside the churchyard was at a lower level than the churchyard itself, whereas the ground outside is now at the same level as the churchyard. Also, the cottage to which we have referred is not within the churchyard.

Therefore what we have referred to as a cottage now appears to be a very small cottage. It is nothing whatsoever to look at, but was Grade II listed in 1999. The listing for 2000 says ‘it is in a very poor derelict condition, and will require an awful lot of work to convert it into a heritage centre’.

It will not be a museum, but a place where an interactive hub where some artefacts can be displayed, but also include interactive displays giving signposts to the various historical sites in Portskewett and further afield. It will be primarily for visitors but will certainly be of interest to local inhabitants.

It will also have kitchen and toilet facilities to facilitate exhibitions and work in the church which cannot be done at the moment. Every week on a Tuesday 60 children are in the church, since Archbishop Rowan Williams Church in Wales School is associated with the church.

If is quite ironic that this mysterious house, the house with no name, this building with absolutely no architectural merit, should be the hub for informing the public about the history of Portskewett, and the signposts directing visitors to the notable and important things of historical value.

The Grade II listing merely says ‘old cottage and storehouse in the churchyard of the Church of St Mary. The building appears on a “buildings at risk” register because it is appalling condition and it is listed. Its height was increased in the nineteenth century, and was shown as two cottages on a map dated 1839.

During the twentieth century it became a shed for the upkeep of the churchyard. There is a fireplace inside, stone and brick, and a pantile roof. It is a scarce cottage of the most humble type, possibly seventeenth century. The house, with its humble origins, was inhabited until the 1950s.

The heritage centre will act as a signpost to the adjacent Harold’s Field, where some outdoor displays are planned, and also to Heston Brake, St Mary’s Church, and the history of the village.

Associated topics will be the railway heritage, Black Rock, the Wales Coastal Path, the Tunnel Centre in Sudbrook (run by Caldicot Local History Group), the history of the land settlement houses (largely unexplored) and the history of the churchyard and the war memorial. Subsidiary topics include the lave fishermen who operate from Black Rock – so much to cover.

It will also be a point at which church and parish records can be accessed digitally for family history purposes.

The centre is located exactly at the centre of the village, convenient for public transport and the Wales Coastal Path. It will be open every day, with an entrance which operates on an automatic time lock, but will not be permanently manned.

It will use the latest audio-visual technology to share information in an interesting way. The facilities, including kitchen and toilet facilities, will be available to schools, walking groups, visitors, etc. as well as tourist business and events held at the church.

The centre will display a limited quantity of artefacts as space is limited, but examples of the medieval lead panels might be included, with the medieval graffiti on them.

The aim is to raise the profile of local history and culture in Portskewett, and to share more widely with all sections of the community, and in doing so increase the sense of belonging and place. It is also hoped to improve experience for tourists and visitors to the area, and to join up with other places, forming a network of historical places.

There is already a working group, the architects plans are agreed, and the consents and permissions are currently being obtained. This nice idea suddenly became reality in April 2016.

The dilemma of what to do with this building has exercised minds for at least the last 20 years; the building is in a derelict state; it is on the ‘at risk’ register, which means that the owners can be prosecuted for neglect of their listed building. The options were fix it or demolish it, but a listed building cannot be demolished unless it is first de-listed, which is a lengthy and legalistic process.

People are welcome to volunteer to take part in the work, and also to make donations to the fund. More details will be available soon.

Dave Edwards



Wolvesnewton Folk Museum

The April meeting of the History Group had a talk by Bob Greenland entitled ‘the Wolvesnewton Folk Museum’.

The Folk Museum at Wolvesnewton operated between 1974 and 1993. However no account of the museum would be complete without mention of the farm itself.

The farm was unique, and still is. It was built in 1780, for the 6th Duke of Beaufort. The first Lord Raglan, youngest son of the 5th Duke of Beaufort, led British forces in the Crimean War, and was made Lord Raglan as a result. Also a house (Cefntilla Court) was built at Llandenny near Usk, as the result of public subscription. Model Farm became part of his estate.

The last Lord Raglan to live at Cefntilla Court was Fitzroy Somerset, the 5th Earl, who died in 2010. Since then the house has been sold, and the assets divided amongst his heirs.

The 6th Duke of Beaufort had an estate in the area amounting to about 20,000 acres. On the site of Hill Farm in the Wolvesnewton Valley, he built a set of very unusual farm buildings. The duke was something of an agricultural innovator, and he considered that this could be the model for farms of the future.

The most significant feature of this ‘new farm’ was the cruciform shape of the barn, which he thought provided several advantages. First, the layout gave four courtyards, giving shelter for animals whichever way the wind blew.

This was a 400-acre farm, principally a dairy farm, built of red sandstone quarried from an adjacent hillside. Near the main barn is the ‘mill barn’, one side of which was built up so that carts and wagons could  tip out their loads, emptying the grain directly onto the threshing floor with minimum manual handling. Also the mill barn had a water-powered mill wheel for grinding the corn, and a reservoir to drive it.

Another unique feature was a tramway; after the corn was ground into meal, it could be transported to the centre of the main barn, where a turntable could guide the meal-filled trams to whichever arm of the barn contained animals waiting to be fed.

This was intended as a standard design for farms of the future, with minimum manual handling of the grain, etc. – in fact a labour-saving farm. It remained a working farm from the time it was built until 1972.

During that time it went through various ownerships. The farmhouse is a magnificent 5-bedroom house with large rooms, completely symmetrical, all carefully designed by the duke, with a passage going from front to back and rooms going off on ground floor and first floor. However throughout its life the farm was always a commercial venture and the house was always occupied by the tenant or manager.

When the Duke sold it, it was to Lady Curre, and for a number of years she farmed it as part of her estate. Eventually she sold it to someone who lived at Tredean. Tredean is a remarkable house built in the Arts and Crafts style. The farm then went through a number of ownerships, all of whom farmed it via tenants.

There some interesting stories darting from the time that it was a farm. One remembered by local folk is that a very steep hill that runs behind the farm, at the top of which is a small cottage occupied by a farm worker named George. Such is the beauty of the Wolvesnewton Valley that he would take great delight in looking out over that view as he was going home at night. Consequently the hill has become known as George’s Delight, and there is a lovely view from that position.

In those days it was common practice, once the corn had been harvested, to store it in the upper floors of houses to prevent it from being eaten by vermin. So every night at harvest time, George would take a hundredweight sack of corn on his back up the hill, and put it in the upper floor of his cottage. The same thing must have happened in the farmhouse, as Bob discovered some years ago. Bob had to lift some floorboards on the first floor, and found that the area underneath was full of husks from corn that had been eaten by mice, leaving the husks behind. It might have been good insulation, but it was an incredible fire risk.

One interesting feature of the cross-shaped barn is the roof design at the junction of the cross, which Bob called the ‘Round House’. The Duke of Beaufort had enough money to ensure that the barn was built to be the best that it possibly could be. Most of the timber available locally was oak, but the lengths of oak available were not long enough to run from one side of that centre section to the other. The beams that were installed were 38 feet in length, and 12 inches by 9 inches in section.

Beams of those dimensions and straightness were available only in pine from Scandinavia. Therefore in 1780 the then duke imported these beams, and they now form the central trusses of the barn, with the smaller beams being oak.

As you can imagine, the roof structure at the central area is very complicated. When they built the farm in the 1780s, the roof structure was so complicated that they were not able to put it into the form of a plan. Therefore before they started building the walls, they put together the roof structure on the ground. Having assembled it, they had to take it apart before they could build the walls. To enable them to remember how the joints fitted together, they numbered every joint with Roman numerals; those numerals are still visible on the beams today. It really was a fantastic farm building, and has remained unique.

One unexpected problem has arisen in the modern era; the height above ground of the main beams are comparable with a standard domestic ceiling, too low for modern tractors fitted with safety cabs. At this point the farm was no longer a labour-saving farm – in fact it became the opposite. Occupiers of the farm struggled with the arrangement during the 1960s, when the farm went from one owner to another.

The farm carried on in this way until 1972, when it was put on the market, and bought by Rex Moreton, an author, artist, photographer, and collector of Victorian memorabilia, but not a farmer.

He had lived in a very large country house in Sussex, and had collected so much that he did not know where to put it. Also his wife had become distracted as the house was filling up with all these collectibles, almost to the point that she could not do any dusting. She insisted that if he wished to continue collecting, then he had to sell some as well. Reluctantly Rex became an antique dealer, but not a very successful one because he hated getting rid of anything, so his collection kept on growing.

In 1972 Rex came to Monmouthshire on holiday, having never been here before. By chance came across a farm for sale – the Model Farm at Wolvesnewton. The buildings at the farm were the answer to Rex’s prayers – several barns 60 feet long and empty. Rex and his wife bought the farm in 1972, and the family moved in. They installed Rex’s collection of antiques in the barn, and he reluctantly agreed that he would sell some of it. Someone came to look at his collection because it consisted mainly of memorabilia from the Victorian era; they suggested that he put his collection into a museum – people would pay to come and see it. It included washing dollies, butter churns, and many other artefacts from bygone years. Consequently in 1974 Rex opened the Model Farm Folk Museum to visitors for the first time, including Bob and Scilla Greenland. In spite of its haphazard arrangement of objects, Bob was fascinated. He was not a local politician then, nor a museum curator – he had run retail shops in Newport and Cardiff. As he was approaching 40 and living in Mamhilad near Pontypool, he decided that he was in need of a new challenge.

One evening in 1985 he read that the Model Farm Folk Museum was coming on the market. He mentioned to his wife that the Folk Museum was for sale, to which she replied, “Oh no!” thinking that he was talking about St. Fagans. Bob corrected her misconception, and she calmed down.

They decided to view the property, put in an offer and bought it. The moved in two days before Good Friday in 1986. In previous years the museum had opened on Good Friday and stayed open throughout the season until November. It had a café, a shop, the museum, an art gallery and also a number of craftsmen who had workshops around the buildings. One was a corn dolly maker, another made rocking horses, yet another made musical instruments. There was also a furniture restorer (who was actually Rex Moreton’s son Christopher), and several other craftsmen that people would come and see, as well as viewing the collection.

Bob decided that they would run it as it was, to get used to the idea of running a museum before making any significant changes. It was however very hard work, opening evenings as well as daytime, and catering for groups such as W.I. trips. However the constant round of work, often until ten or eleven at night, as well as the demands of a family and businesses in Newport and Cardiff, was exhausting.

Bob and his wife decided that they wanted to tell the story of farm livestock over the last 100 years, since the farm animals and equipment were entirely different to those we have now. For example the animals kept now have incorporated modern breeds imported from the continent, and they look so different. He also wanted to explore the reasons for diverting from the traditional British breeds to the imported ones. The story of how the breeds evolved is very interesting. Of course the primary reason for making the changes was to provide better (i.e. leaner) meat for the public, and better value. Bob decided that he would like to tell this story in the farm. He contacted Gwent County Council and asked if they could have some brown and white tourist signs. His request was turned down because the Folk Museum did not have enough visitors – the rules said that attractions getting more than 25,000 visitors could have brown and white tourist signs, but those getting less could not (the museum only got 24,000). Bob said that if they gave him the signs then he could get the requisite number of visitors, but the rules did not allow that.

Bob’s response was that if he could not have brown signs to direct tourists to the museum, then he would put the museum where the tourists were, which in this area meant the Wye Valley. He discovered that there was an empty farm near Bigsweir Bridge, so he bought an option on the farm and put in a planning application.

As the summer was approaching, and the press were entering what was known as the ‘silly season’, when Parliament is on vacation and newspapers will print items which they would not consider at any other time. The press alighted on the planning application and blew it out of all proportion; they turned from an application to site a farm museum with parking for 80 cars to an application for a theme park in the middle of the Wye Valley catering for 8,000 cars.

The furore was immediate, and no denials of the rumoured developments made any difference. The campaign against the museum was led by a local resident who happened to be a correspondent of The Times – she knew how to get the press interested. On one occasion Bob had a call from the environment correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. He said, “I think that you have been fixed. I’ve looked at your application, and the stories in most of the papers have very little in common with it.”

Considering the hostility generated, Bob became disillusioned with the whole project, cancelled his option on the farm and withdrew his planning application. The dream was over – the museum stayed at Wolvesnewton until it eventually closed. Bob converted the Mill Barn to a house and sold off the original farmhouse.

One day Bob stood at the centre of the cruciform barn, where the arms met and had vision of the area as it could be. When his wife returned, he said, “I’ve had an idea.” This filled his wife Scilla with trepidation, since these words had preceded many of Bob’s ideas for change. Bob explained his vision of making this central area, which they termed ‘The Round House’, into a living area, with a bedroom wing, a kitchen wing, etc. radiating from it. His wife responded with, “Why, that is a marvellous idea,” and plans for the changes were made. It was finished two days before Christmas, so Bob cut down a 16-foot fir tree to erect and decorate as a centrepiece for the living area.

One day Bob had a phone call from his local Conservative association, asking him to be a candidate for the forthcoming county council election. He refused, but they persisted until he agreed to stand. He won the seat, and realised that in spite of all the wrangles he had with the council officers, he could do things to make a difference. One thing he put forward, which got adopted, was a change in the regulations associated with the brown and white tourist signs – the number of visitors which triggered the allocation of a sign was changed from 25,000 to 7,000.

Dave Edwards



The Cobb Family of Caldicot Castle

The March meeting of the History Group had a talk on the Cobb Family of Caldicot Castle, given by Pauline Hayward.

Pauline Hayward has amassed a lot of information about the Cobb family while researching the history of the castle itself. Many of the names given to children are the names (often surnames) of people who have married into the family, and these have become family names as a result.

Sir Joseph Cobb, a solicitor from Brecon, bought Caldicot Castle in 1885, prompting the question, ‘How can a solicitor from Brecon afford to buy a castle?’

Antiquary Joseph Richard Cobb was born at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire in 1821. By profession he was a lawyer, and was also a promoter of railways. However his main interest was antiquities, and he was a prominent member of the Cambrian Archaeological Association. He played a leading part in the restoration of the priory church at Brecon (now the cathedral) and of Manorbier Castle. He died in 1897.

Sir Joseph always maintained that he was descended from Sir William Cobb of Sandringham in Norfolk, who owned that estate between 1670 and 1686. Today we think of ‘Cobb’ as an unusual surname, but 17th century Norfolk had many residents of that name – they were a vast family. If he was related to that William Cobb, then his ancestry would include Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister, and Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar.

The Cobbs were staunch royalist. It is possible that he was related to Sir William Cobb of Adderbury, who also claimed that he was descended from the Sandringham Cobbs. What we do know is that two Cobb brothers left Sandringham in the 16th century, one going to Banbury, and one to Adderbury, 5 miles away.

A Thomas Cobb of Banbury became a blacksmith. To us this might sound an unlikely profession for the son of gentleman. However within wealthy families, the eldest son would inherit the estate, a second son would join the army, a third son might become a clergyman, and any younger sons would have to make their own way in the world, usually learning a trade. This was certainly true during and after the Civil War, when some families lost everything, and had to re-establish the family fortune, somehow or other.

Thomas Cobb was a puritan, and after the war ended he feared to stay in Banbury, even though he was promised that there would be no reprisals. This unease was heightened after Charles II died, and Catholic James II became king. Consequently part of the family sailed for America, arriving in Boston in August 1685. It would not have been an easy crossing, but they felt that by going they would escape possible persecution in England. They settled there and multiplied. Whereas the name ‘Cobb’ has largely died out in Britain, over the water it is the 471st most popular name in USA.

Three children (Dorothy, Henry and John) decided to stay behind in Banbury. John was a blacksmith, like his father. His son Thomas became a successful weaver, so successful that he was able to lease Calthorpe Manor in Banbury and use part of the house as a woollen manufactory. His family prospered, and his grandson, also Thomas, became a banker. In partnership with John Wheatley, a wealthy ironmonger, Thomas set up Banbury Old Bank.

One story relates that there was a run on the bank, fuelled by rumours of problems within the bank. To prove that the rumours were unfounded Thomas Cobb loaded a barrow with money and wheeled it through the streets of Banbury.

In 1813 Thomas’ son George married John Wheatley’s daughter Sophia in Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire, and had 6 children – Sophia Wheatley (born 1814), Matilda Tennant (born 1815) and Charlotte. Sophia died in 1823 and George moved his family to Comyn Villa, Leamington Spa. It was built by a William Thomas and is the only remaining villa from that period that is still there. George also owned land in Brecon, houses and land in Birmingham, a considerable amount of land in Oxfordshire, including Wigginton Heath, Wigginton Mill and Wigginton Farm (still owned by the Cobb family today), an Essex farm and some land. Sophia was his only child, so she inherited everything. George was already a wealthy banker, and he now owned everything left to his wife. George died in 1865, their son George Lord Cobb died in 1835 aged 15, Thomas Wheatley Cobb died in 1851 aged 33, and their three daughters, Sophia, Matilda and Charlotte, never married.

In 1856 Joseph married Emily Catherine Powis de Winton. The name ‘de Winton’ goes back to ancestors who came to Britain with William of Normandy. Over the centuries their name changed, until they were known by ‘Wilkins’, but in 1837 her father and uncle changed the name back to de Winton. Emily was born at Maesderwen, a house in Llanfrynach near Brecon. William Wilkins was an MP; he travelled to India, became wealthy, and built a substantial family home on his return.

After Joseph got married, he built a house he called Nythfa on land his father had owned in Brecon, and had 6 children – Lucy Powis Cobb, Geoffrey Edward Wheatley Cobb, Mabel Parry Cobb, George Powis Wheatley Cobb, Richard Wheatley Cobb and Edward Powis Wheatley Cobb. He also created a coat of arms for himself, to give the family an air of importance. He even wrote to Queen Victoria, requesting that all the lands and titles that had once been associated with his castle, and had been given to ancestors such as Alianore, be transferred to him, since he was descended from the Cobbs of Sandringham. There is no record of the queen replying, or even that she saw the letter. What is certain is that Sir Joseph did not get a title or land. The house is now a hotel used by travel companies.

Joseph died in 1897, and Emily died in 1900. When Emily died there was a long list of people who had to be informed when Emily died – railways, goldmines, coalmines, banks – companies in which she owned investments, 15 in total.

While Sir Joseph, Emily and their family lived in Caldicot, some photographs were taken, showing gatherings of family and staff. One shows Anne Andrews, who started as a nursemaid for one of their children, stayed on and in later life became a companion to Emily. She is buried in the Cobb group of graves in Caldicot churchyard. Also pictured are Miss Wright (housekeeper) and Percival Morgan, who did a lot of the building work at the castle, and on other houses in Caldicot.

When their parents died, Sir Joseph and his sisters drew up an agreement; whereby each sibling would leave their wealth to the remaining siblings. By 1896, Joseph and Charlotte were the only two remaining siblings. Before Charlotte died (also in 1896) she and and her brother drew up an agreement deciding who would get what out of the family fortune. They decided that George would get Wigginton Heath, Wigginton Mill and Wigginton Farm (all in Oxfordshire), the land and cottages at Great Broughton, the Essex Farm and land at Weybread (Suffolk), Geoffrey Edward Wheatley Cobb would inherit the castle at Caldicot plus property in Brecon.

George, Edward, Mabel and Lucy gave up their rights to the house in exchange for £1,000 each, plus interest, Richard having already died at the age of 24. When Charlotte died, they knew that they had to survive on the £1,000 plus what they already had.

For a short while, Geoffrey worked as a clerk in his father’s business in Brecon, but his first love was ships. In Hartlepool, there some paintings of ships that he did, and they are considered to be very good. He bought the Foudroyant, Nelson’s flagship at the battle of the Nile, and had it refitted it as a training ship. When it was sailed around the coast of Britain, it was wrecked in a storm and beached near Blackpool. Much of the contents of the vessel were taken off by the trainees living aboard, but the ship itself was considered not worth recovering. Geoffrey then bought another ship and renamed it Foudroyant. That vessel is now stored in Hartlepool’s historic dockyard.

In 1921 he married Anna Jacob Leach, when he was 64 and she was 54. They met in Madeira in 1930 and she fell in love with him straight away pursuing him relentlessly.  Unfortunately he was of a different persuasion, preferring men to women.

Anna was born in Liverpool to American parents. One of 3 children, all born in Liverpool, her brother was John Newton Leach, and her sister was Nellie Knickerbocker Leach. They were apparently connected with the Knickerbockers, a very wealthy family in USA.

Anna owned a house in Sussex, a Sussex weald house. In 1919 she had it taken down, brick by brick, re-erected in Flushing near Falmouth, and named it Kiln Quay. In the harbour, near Flushing, was the training ship owned and run by her husband Geoffrey Wheatley Cobb. They came to an agreement – she would give him £2,000 a year to maintain the ship, he would live on the ship, but would dine with her each day. In his diary, he said that he did not love her, but needed her for her money. He in turn had a very racy relationship with painter Henry Scott Tuke.

Regarding Anna’s family, her father was born in New Jersey, but moved with his wife Julia to Atlanta in 1857. He started a dry goods store with a Sidney Root, who put up capital of $37,000 to start the business. They expanded, bought the rest of the street, bought land, exported cotton; they became the most lucrative firm in Atlanta. By the time the civil war broke out, they had become the biggest company in Atlanta and its most prominent citizens.

Even though Leach had been born in the north, he sided with the confederates. The partners bought ships, and did all they could to resist the blockade imposed by the navy of the union forces.

When the Leach and Root store operated in Atlanta, they never gave credit, never borrowed money, and never bought anything on credit. They ran the blockade each time that they sailed into or out of Atlanta, and lost 7 ships sunk by union forces.

Root and Leach decided that it would be best if John and Julia Leach went to Liverpool, where the partners had already established a trading company. They left Atlanta by sea, carrying a trunkful of money with them. However it was confederate money, and by the time they reached Liverpool, it was worthless.

Sidney Root sent his family to stay with John Leach for their own safety. The children carried with them some gold and precious stones sewn into their clothes and hidden in their toys. Sydney stayed in Atlanta, and lost his house, business, everything. In Liverpool, John Leach prospered, and by the time he died, his 23-year old daughter Anna was a lady of independent means, as was her sister.

Another member of Sir Joseph’s family was George – ‘George the farmer’. He married Rose May Tucket and had 2 children – Geoffrey Richard Wheatley Cobb (born 1912) and Rose Wheatley Cobb (born 1915). Geoffrey was in the Northampton Regiment in World War II, and spent time in Singapore. He inherited Caldicot Castle. He did not believe that girls needed to be educated, so poor Rose was educated at home. She died in 2015 aged 99. George was averse to spending money – he had money but did not want to spend it.

His son Geoffrey used to spend lots of time with Anna and Wheatley at Kiln Quay (their house in Falmouth). On one occasion Geoffrey had appendicitis, and his father flatly refused to let him go to hospital to have an operation. Anna’s neighbour, a Harley Street surgeon named Cathcart, arranged for him to have an operation but without telling his father.

In 1963 the castle was sold to the Chepstow Rural District Council, and is now a museum and country park.

Dave Edwards



Total War – Gwent in 1916

The February meeting of the History Group had a talk by Peter Strong, entitled ‘Total War – Gwent in 1916’.

During 1916, the war continued. If conditions in the trenches were bad in 1915, then they were worse in 1916. Early in 1916, the South Wales Argus published a letter under the heading ‘War Over This Summer’. It was written by the Rev. Anderson, minister of the Victoria Road Congregational Church in Newport. He had been over in France and Flanders, working with the YMCA.

He wrote ‘the optimistic spirit of the men is simply marvellous. There is among them no pessimism. Officers and men alike are permeated with the confidence that we are going to win through because of the superiority of the British soldier, and the popular feeling of the men in the trenches is that the war will terminate this summer. Preparations are now being made for the big thrust which is bound to come off soon.

In contrast to that, Sergeant Dick Richards of the Tenth South Wales Borderers, known as the First Gwents, wrote a number of letters to a friend in Ebbw Vale, one of which included the following statements:

Everything is mud, from head to foot, and it is nothing to sleep in the mud. Five out of every six are lousy and unfortunately I am among the five. Do what you will you are unable to keep them away. By what I can see of it out here, we will never shift the Germans. I can tell you Jack that the Germans are a marvellous nation, and we can be thankful that we are no fighting them on our own, or we should be wiped out. It is hard to believe Jack, but it is nothing uncommon to hear the men wishing to have a ‘Blighty’ as we call it – an arm or a leg off, or have a wound bad enough to be sent home. Believe me Jack lad, as far as we are concerned out here, we are a long way from winning yet. The war does not seem to be coming to an end anyhow – I think the best thing to do is to call it a draw.

On land, the war was not just in France and Flanders – it was truly becoming a world war, and events in the Middle East were becoming important.

During 1915 allied troops had marched north from the Persian Gulf, and expected an easy campaign to take Baghdad itself. However they were stopped and besieged about 80 miles south of the city, and forced to surrender after a siege of 147 days.

This, plus the disaster at Gallipoli, was a major humiliation for Britain and the Empire.

Those British battalions in Mesopotamia included the Fourth South Wales Borderes. In April 1916 two men from that battalion were awarded the Victoria Cross, both of whom had Gwent connections.

The first one was Angus Buchanan, a former pupil and head boy of Monmouth School. He crawled out under heavy Turkish fire to help rescue a wounded officer. He lived to tell the tale, but later in the war, in 1917, he was shot in the head and permanently blinded.

The other VC, James Finn performed a similar feat just three days later. A Cornishman by birth, he came to south Wales to work in the mines. He crawled out under fire to rescue injured men, then went back to collect a stretcher, intending to rescue more injured men. He survived to tell the tale, but he was killed later in the war. He is commemorated on the Abertillery war memorial, and also on the Basra war memorial.

The great thrust to which the Reverend Anson had referred was the Battle of the Somme. The official version, published in the Argus, said that the infantry attack was launched swiftly, and the German front line trenches offered little or no resistance.

Actually, the first day of the Somme was the worst day in British military history in terms of casualties – approximately 20,000 men killed and another 40,000 wounded. In spite of that disastrous first day, the battle continued until November, by which time the British casualties had risen to about half a million.

For Wales, Mametz Wood was the scene of a very significant battle. On July 7th the 38th Division of the British Army, known as the new Welsh Army, was ordered to capture the wood, even though it was of little strategic importance. They did so, but at tremendous cost – 4000 men killed or wounded.

In spite of all the official propaganda, the scale of the slaughter was becoming increasingly clear to the people at home. Within the Weekly Argus itself, there were blocks of photographs and memorial notices of men who had been killed, and many drew their own conclusions as to what was happening. Also trainloads of wounded soldiers were arriving in Newport Station, to be taken up to the Third Western General Military Hospital, now known as St Woolos Hospital.

The war at sea was relatively quiet, the big naval event of the war being the Battle of Jutland, in May-June of 1916. This was an attempt by the Germans to draw the British fleet into battle by themselves coming out into the North Sea. It is one of those battles which both sides claimed victory. The Germans compared the number of ships and men lost on either side, which appeared to give them the victory. On the other hand the British pointed to the fact that the Germans fleet broke off the battle, returned to port and the fleet did not leave port for the remainder of the war.

Another hazard at sea was from mines. One example concerned HM Hospital Ship Britannic. In November 1916, it sank in the Aegean Sea after hitting a mine. It took 55 minutes to sink and, thankfully, most of the 1,000 seamen and medical staff on board were saved. 29 were killed, including Captain John Cropper of the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was the husband of Annie Walker, daughter of Thomas Walker, builder of the Severn Tunnel. Captain Cropper was a retired ophthalmic surgeon who joined the Royal Army Medical Corps when war broke out.

At home, many of the freedoms that we were supposedly fighting for were being restricted by the war itself, especially under wartime legislations such as the Defence of the Realm Act, otherwise known as D.O.R.A. This act prohibited any activity considered to be prejudicial to recruiting, something which could be interpreted at the discretion of the magistrates.

D.O.R.A. also restricted the right to strike; 15 Newport dockers stopped work while loading a cargo of coal for the Admiralty because the conditions were said to be unsafe, so they were immediately arrested and charged with attempting to cause disaffection among the civilian population. The trial, which was held in Newport, became something of a cause celebre, so much so that Admiral Jackie Fisher, formerly the First Sealord, and a very famous British sailor, came to witness the proceedings. The men were found guilty and fined £5, with the alternative of a month’s imprisonment.

A similar act to DORA was the Munitions War Act. Under this, munitions workers lost the right used to leave their work and go to work elsewhere unless they had permission from their employers. Special munitions tribunals were set up to hear appeals against the decisions, but there were suspicions that the act was being used to restrict the power of the trade unions and impost harsh industrial disciplines.

The greatest loss of freedom was the introduction of conscription under the Military Service Act of January 1916. This did more than anything to divide opinion, particularly among the trade unions and the Labour Movement. The opponents probably feared that military discipline, as shown in the munitions industry, would be extended to all industry, and trade union and labour rights would be lost.

At this stage of the war, miners were exempt from conscription but 40% of miners volunteered anyway. Miners who did go were often replaced with other men, often from rural areas of the country. Employers did not ask too many questions because they were so desperate to get the labour. For example in February 1916 one man who had been working in the pits for 2 years was found to be a deserter from pre-war army, living under a false name.

Under the conscription act, local tribunals were set up to adjudicate appeals against conscription. People could appeal on grounds such as being responsible for running a family business with no-one to replace them, that their occupation was essential in some way, or on grounds of conscience (e.g. religion).

The logic underlying some of the decisions of the tribunals was not always clear. For example in March, the Newport tribunal granted exemption to two members of a group called the International Bible Students Association, now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, but refused exemption to a Quaker, three Christadelphians and granted only temporary exemption to a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

The increasingly militarised and restricted nature of Newport society was demonstrated in October of that year when police and soldiers blocked off High Street, examining the identification papers of all men of military age. Anyone who could not provide a satisfactory explanation for not being in uniform was taken into custody until they could prove their identity and status.

Women were employed to replace men who had conscripted, though probably not to the same extent as in 1915. For example, the local paper in Abertillery still considered it newsworthy that a post woman had been employed in Aberbeeg shows that it was still something of a novelty. Attitudes to working women were changing, but slowly, particularly in the heavy industries that dominated the valleys.

Even in areas which might be considered suitable work for women, there were few employed. For instance, among the shipping clerks on Newport docks, women were said to be a rarity. In contrast, a lot more women were employed as railway clerks. The chairman of the white collar trade union Railway Clerks Association welcomed the large number of lady members who attended a meeting. Unusually for the time, he also pointed out that it was the union’s policy to demand equal pay for women. Most unions were way behind that, and it was well into the 1970s before equal pay became the norm.

Farmers were slow in changing their attitude to the employment of women, but in some cases women were allowed to run their own family farms. A Mrs Harriett Evans aged 63 of Hollybush Farm Malpas, together with her daughter, was running a farm of 104 acres, including 23 acres of arable land, 40 beef cattle and 17 cows.

Abergavenny District Council sought to take on women to replace the roadmen that had joined the army, but reports of council proceedings produced some unintentional humour. For example when the surveyor stated to councillors, “If you engage women on the roads, I must insist that members of the council do not interfere with them; they must be left absolutely to me.”

The employment of women had done something to change attitudes. Although the suffragettes had called off their militant campaign of civil disobedience in favour of co-operating with the war effort, they were still pushing for the vote. Sylvia Pankhurst, the youngest of the Pankhurst sisters, came to Blaina to address a meeting of the Independent Labour Party in 1916, and called for the vote for all men and women at the age of 21.

Working conditions were often quite harsh, even in employment that might be considered to be relatively light. For example, female tram conductors complained that they were being made to work split shifts. Often these would start at 7.30am, and not end until after midnight, with a break in the middle of the day. Also they were subject to all sorts of rules; for example they were not allowed to sit down on the tram, even if there were no passengers. Also any shortages caused by giving the wrong change, which was quite easy in the blackout, had to be made up from their wages. Sometimes this amounted to a quarter of their earnings.

In February 1916, there had been a number of Zeppelin raids in the eastern part of England, and it was considered that they might try and raid Wales, largely for propaganda purposes. Consequently blackout regulations were introduced, and the mayor of Newport issued a proclamation telling people what to do in the event of an air raid; in essence this said that they should stay inside and put their lights out. There were no proper air raid warnings, but there was a siren at the docks. People were told that they should get someone from the docks to come and tell them if there was going to be a raid. People in eastern Monmouthshire were told to listen for the hooter at Avonmouth.

It was all a bit haphazard, but in fact it was never really needed as there were no air raids anywhere near. Later on it did cause a stir in Newport because they introduced common regulations for the whole of England, but separate regulations for Wales. Newport, and presumably the rest of Monmouthshire, was included in the English regulations. Magistrates were at first very lax at first in enforcing blackout regulations, but later imposed a 5-shilling fine each breach. Wales was considered to be out of range of the attackers, and so needed less stringent regulations.

The food situation in 1916 was much the same as in 1915 – continued price inflation. There was a huge increase in the price of potatoes – £12.50 a ton in November 1916 compared with £3.50 a ton in the previous November.

The Times reported that there were those in south Wales who agitated against the war, and using these issues to further their cause. However before any inflation-inspired unrest started, the government stepped in and put south Wales mines under government control, effectively nationalising them. The Western Mail declared that the Minister of War, David Lloyd George, had become the controller of the south Wales coalmines.

When a peace meeting was organised in Cardiff, it was broken up by patriotic people who supported the war, including a number of trade unionists. The miners were clearly responding to an appeal to support the war. The government sent out an appeal to take only one day bank holiday at Whitsun instead of the usual two had good response. They responded almost to a man, and absenteeism on that second Whit holiday was below that of a normal working day.

By the end of 1916, people were beginning to feel that the war had to be pursued more aggressively if we were ever going to win it. Their hopes were raised in December of that year when the Prime Minister Asquith resigned and Lloyd George replaced him. Lloyd George proceeded to pursue the war with more vigour than his predecessor, but that came in the year that followed.

In conclusion academic historians would argue with ‘total war’ as a description for this phase of the conflict, but compared with anything that happened before, this was wider and more intense than the events of previous years. This war had another year to run, but people looked forward to peace with hope rather than expectation.

Dave Edwards


The January meeting of the History Group had a talk entitled ‘Marco Polo’, given by Don Wood.

Marco Polo lived in the city state of Venice, in what is now Italy. The country was not a unified kingdom, but a series of city states, the main ones being the great maritime trading rivals Venice and Genoa. The rest were little kingdom in their own right but associated with one or other of the large ones. The maritime cities Venice and Genoa ran fleets of ships.

The cities made their money through trading, both overland and by sea, but were constantly fighting against each other for trade and possession of territories. Venice and Genoa each ran a fleet of ships, so most of the goods brought to Italy by sea were carried on their vessels.

Such was the situation when Marco was born. His father was a trader and together with his brother went off to find whatever he could sell. The most valuable trading commodities were silk, precious stones, and ointments, brought from the ‘Mysterious East’, especially Cathay, now called China. Arab communities between Europe and the east prevented most Europeans from passing through, but acted as middlemen themselves, selling to Europeans goods they had purchased in the east.

The source of the Arabs’ annoyance was European involvement in the Crusades, and in Arab countries the word ‘crusader’ is a term of abuse to this day. Many European traders wanted to trade directly with the nations producing the goods, so they sent emissaries to nations in the Far East, especially China.

In 1206 Temujin was elected leader of the Mongol tribes, and was proclaimed Chiggis Khan (roughly translated as ‘universal ruler’, and known to us as Genghis Khan). He gathered the Mongol tribes together and organised them into an army, using that army to conquer large parts of China and Asia. Their main weapon was the recurved bow, which had the power of a longbow though much shorter, with the added advantage in that it could be fired from horseback. One of their battle tactics was to advance using their bows, then ride away at breakneck speed, while firing arrows back at their pursuers.

In this way Genghis Khan conquered China, entered Persia and Russia, and imposed his rule of law on his now extensive empire. When Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, became emperor, the Mongol Empire extended over flat land as far as their horsemen could ride, bounded only by mountains and jungles deemed unsuitable for horsemen.

Kublai Khan was ruler when Marco Polo arrived in China. According to Marco, Genghis Khan was wise, just and moderate and had integrity. According to others, Genghis Khan was ‘the scourge of mankind’. Marco was obviously following the official Chinese line, prudent as he was a guest at the court of the Great Khan. The Mongols were also known as Tartars, a name derived from the classical name for Hell – Tartarus. They were physically violent ‘hellions’ who conquered all before them, and exterminated anyone who stood against them.

Genghis Khan was very fond of religion; whenever he conquered an area, he adopted that religion or brought it into his own system. It is claimed that he said he was not sure who was the true god, so he did not want to offend anyone. He erected temples to all sorts of people, according to who had been conquered.

During the 13th Century Europeans had already attempted to send embassies to the Great Khan, but with little success.

In 1260 Marco’s father Niccoló and his uncle Maffeo undertook a trading mission to Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan. They decided to continue travelling eastwards to China and reached Beijing. They were received favourably by Kublai Khan, who sent them back to Italy as his emissaries, with the request that they should return to his court bearing oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and one hundred Christian scholars to promulgate the Christian faith.

They arrived back in Italy in 1269. Unfortunately that was the year after the death of Pope Clement IV, so this emissary from the Khan to the Pope could not be delivered, since there was no Pope to receive it. The Polo brothers waited for a new Pope to be elected, but set of for Beijing when no-one had been elected after two years. They took some Holy Oil but no missionaries, having been given leave to go by the papal nuncio of the time.

They had only gone three days when they were recalled; since that same papal nuncio had been elected pope, and he was able to supply them with the official letters, the Holy Oil and two missionaries. Unfortunately, as they were making their way along the established route, they came into an area between Iraq and Syria where there were threats of war, so the two missionaries took fright and returned to Rome.

The Polo brothers went on and this time they had with them young Marco, son of the elder Polo brother. They reached Beijing where the Khan was living. He was pleased to receive them, but wisely did not mention the absence of the hundred missionaries. He was particularly taken with young Marco, about 17 years old at the time. Marco was very good at languages – during his time in the Far East, he became fluent in four local languages, and could get by in several more.

Marco’s father told Kublai Khan that since he like his son so much, he would leave the boy in China, and he could be servant to the emperor for a while. The Khan was quite agreeable to this arrangement and he used the young Marco as an emissary, sending him to various parts of his vast kingdom.

Marco had noticed during his time in the imperial court that when the Khan sent people out on tours of duty, he liked to hear interesting stories about the places through which the emissaries had passed, and was rather scathing if people did not have background information about the journeys. His kingdom was so large that he probably never managed to visit all of it himself.

Young Marco decided that if he went on such missions, he would pay particular attention to the details that the Khan liked to hear. He described the towns and cities that he went through, and he also described their strange customs and pastimes. These varied considerably, particularly in their treatment of women. In some cities wives were virtually considered as common property, that any passing traveller was welcome to share, to other areas where women were not considered as marriage material until they had experienced at least a dozen men, by which time they probably lost interest in the whole idea!

In one area that he went through, if a family suffered the loss of a young child then the community would find a family which had lost a child of the opposite sex, and join the two departed children in marriage, so that the families were joined together. In this way they hoped to build up family ties in the community.

These anecdotes can be found in the book that Marco wrote while languishing in prison, after his return to Europe.

On his travels representing the Khan, Marco made copious notes and related their contents to the Khan on his return to the capital. The Great Khan thought a lot of the young Marco.

Khan then sent him to escort a young princess to south west China. Marco asked the Khan if he could travel to Europe after delivering the princess. He had been in China for seventeen years, and had not seen his family or friends during that time.

Khan agreed and Marco made his way to the coast, boarded a ship, and sailed down to Sumatra, then Malaya, across to Ceylon, along the coast of India, then travelled overland through the Iran/Iraq region to Acre on the coast of Palestine (now Israel) and boarded a ship to Venice, his home port in Italy.

Marco was one of the first people to travel to the Far East, and record his travels through the various countries that he had visited. As a result the Far East started to become a little less mysterious.

Marco returned to Venice with quite a lot of money, since he had bought many jewels in his travels, and had sewn them into his clothes. Using the money that he accumulated, he financed a ship in the Venetian fleet, to fight against the traders of Genoa. There was a great sea battle, which Venice lost. Marco was captured and imprisoned in Genoa. If wealthy people were captured they were often ransomed to raise money.

In the same prison was a man named Rusticello who was famous for writing; he had been a scribe and teller of stories in the court of Edward I of England, including legends of King Arthur. With the aid of his cellmate, Marco wrote down an account of his travels. When the book was published it caused a great stir, since most people did not know very much about the Far East, and the book dispelled many of the fanciful legends which had grown up about these distant lands. However he also introduced legends of his own, some of which might have been true, but many were the fanciful stories that he had been told. At the time, most Europeans thought that Marco Polo’s journeys were entirely made up, and even today people are still very sceptical about parts of it.

In modern times, two major objections have been made about Marco’s account. Firstly if he had supposedly travelled around China, then why did he not mention the Great Wall of China? The answer to that is that it had not been built while he was there. The other thing which he did not mention was foot-binding, the custom of binding young girls’ feet to keep them small as they grew up.

One thing that he did report was that paper money was used as currency within the Great Khan’s area, something which was unknown in Europe at the time.

As the result of Marco’s account, a boost in trade between east and west might have been expected, but unfortunately events intervened. First there was an outbreak of what became known as ‘The Black Death’, one of the great plagues which seemed to occur at intervals. This one wiped out about a third of the population, concentrating people’s minds on survival rather than trade. The other thing that happened was that Kublai Khan died; there was no single strong leader to take his place, resulting in conflict between his potential successors. It was not until 1368 that one leader took over, and that was the start of the Ming Dynasty. The members of that line of rulers were extremely xenophobic, i.e. opposed to all foreign (i.e. non-Chinese) influences.  Westerners were regarded as barbarians.

The administrators of the Ming era were expected to be trained, college-educated and knowledgeable. The whole system was set up to be run very smoothly.

The consequence of Chinese dislike of foreigners and the sudden decrease in European population was the cessation of trade and isolation from each other.

During the sixteenth century, some people thought that sailing westward across the ocean might be an alternative way of reaching the Far East. Their ambitions were thwarted by the existence of North and South America, which the early explorers such as Columbus assumed was part of ‘The Indies’

In the absence of a reliable sea route to the Far East, the Silk Road was re-established; that was used to bring silk and precious stones from the Far East.

Marco was ransomed from his captivity, he went back to Venice, had a family, and lived a happy though mundane life.

As for his book, it faded from popularity and for several centuries was viewed as pure fiction. It was when people began travelling to the Far East that they realised that his narrative had a kernel of truth, even though some things were quite fantastic.

The cities he described were actually there; the travels he described were true. There were many things which were very descriptive and very recognisable. For example he said, “When you get to the coast around here, do not drink the water. Unless you can find a spring with water coming straight out of the ground, do not touch it.”

Regarding the food eaten in that area, he said, “These people eat some very funny food; they put so much spice in it that it burns your mouth.”

Dave Edwards


The November meeting of the History Group had a talk on Newport’s Role in the First World War, given by David Ashwin.

In the early years of the 20th century, Newport was booming – new docks, new town centre, women started to work in the professions – this was a golden era before the outbreak of the First World War. When the war began, men flocked to the colours, as army pay and conditions were preferable to working in the mines.

The war stemmed from Britain’s promise to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium. The war started on August 4th, and Newport authorities had information that there was a German liner anchored at Barry Roads. The following day, the harbourmaster and the chief constable took some guns from the armoury, arrested the ship and brought it back to Newport. They hoped to profit from this ‘prize of war’.

Lord Tredegar offered his yacht for use as a hospital ship for the duration of the war. He also raised the Royal Naval Division, which consisted of sailors who fought in khaki alongside the regular troops. They grew navy-style beards and kept sea watches, all of which irritated the army and caused a bitter rivalry between them. The battalions of that division were named after famous admirals – Hawke, Howe, etc.

The onset of the war saw the appearance of the U-boat; British admirals thought it ‘most ungentlemanly’ to use such underhand methods as submarines to fight a war. This ‘dastardly’ conduct continued for four years, costing many lives and many ships, the best known sinking being the ‘Lusitania’.

Among the crew of the Lusitania was a Newport man. He had the unusual trade of ship’s printer. This meant that he would get the news via wireless telegraphy, typeset and print it then distribute copies. He was one of those who died.

In 1915 the Western Front was locked in stalemate, so Churchill decided that the allies would go through the Dardanelles and force Turkey out of the war. They sent an expeditionary force, but the whole thing was a fiasco.

In the Dardanelles Campaign Chepstow got a hero – Leading Seaman William Williams, who, with three other seamen, won the Victoria Cross for standing chest-deep in water while under fire, holding pontoons in place so that troops could disembark. He kept his position for several hours. He worked in a Newport steelworks, so Chepstow and Newport both claimed him as ‘their hero’.

Another unit raised was the Scottish Women’s Hospital, funded by voluntary contributions, and led by a few lady surgeons (unheard of in those days). Their offer of services was rejected by the War Office, but gratefully accepted by the Greeks in Salonika.

The nurses later served in France, where they took over an old abbey and turned it into a hospital. Again, their work was much appreciated by the fighting men, but not by the War Office.

A Newport woman who enrolled in that organisation was Sister Alice Annie Guy, who was sent to Salonika. Six days after disembarking she contracted an infection from the troops, and died. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission added insult to injury by misspelling her name on her tombstone. pipe! Thomas’ work (cartoons and posters) continued into the Secord World War.

In 1917 the war still dragged on, and Wales needed a hero. A young man from north Wales duly obliged. His name was Ellis Evans, but he was better known under his bardic name Hedd Wyn. Killed at the battle of Passchendaele, he was awarded the bardic crown posthumously at the National Eisteddfod, held at Birkenhead after he died.

In the absence of radio and television, propaganda played a large part in involving the public. A Newport artist named Bert Thomas produced many cartoons for the war effort. He created one famous cartoon, in which a British soldier says, “Arf a mo, Kaiser!”, the implication being that he would ‘sort him out’ as soon as he had lit his

As the war continued, shortages were starting to have an effect. For example, because of a paper shortage some newspapers changed their format from broadsheet to tabloid. People had one meatless day, rationing was imposed, and the home front was suffering. Many pieces of unused land were dug up and used to grow crops – even part of the grounds within Cardiff Castle was used.

One of the main figures during the war was David Lloyd George (called ‘the man that won the war’ by some cynics). After 1916, when he became prime minister, he dominated the British political scene, and drove everything  forward to completion. He won the war but ruined his own political career – by 1922 he was finished. The armistice was signed, but the terms of the treaty meant that Germany was humiliated, something that was used years later by Hitler.

They decided that the dead must be commemorated, because in the Great War the accepted policy was that the bodies would not be brought home. Many people could not mourn because they had no corpse. Some went to France, if they could afford it. Newport council decided that they would have a large war memorial, like Cardiff. However they could not agree on the form it should take, or the amount of money that should be spent. Finally they ended up with a cenotaph, which is still Newport’s only memorial to those who died.

Among the people killed as Lt Roy Angus, who died in 1918 as the result of a flying accident. He was unusual in that he served in the Welsh Horse Yeomanry (a cavalry unit), Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Royal Flying Corps and finally the Royal Air Force. More airmen died in flying accidents than in combat, because the machines were very temperamental and the pilots were not allowed parachutes.

Another Newport personality was Oliver Seyama. His father was a former Samurai Warrior who left Japan, travelled to Britain, married a British girl and had a family. His son became one of the gardeners at Lord Tredegar’s estate in Newport. At the start of the war Lord Tredegar had promised his employees £5 for each year’s service, a promise he honoured that when they came home. One of those who volunteered was Oliver Seyama, who served in the 5th battalion (pioneers) of the South Wales Bordered. He survived the war and died in Newport.

Women, including war widows, were pressed into a whole variety of civilian jobs, from making munitions to being tram conductors. In doing so, they proved that they were just as capable as their male counterparts.

In 1919, Newport police were looking forward to the prize money expected for the capture of the German ship ‘Belgia’ at the start of the war. However no money was forthcoming, so the case went to the Admiralty, who decided that the ship was a prize of droit, which meant that the police got nothing – a bitter interpretation of the phrase ‘the fortunes of war’.

The soldiers who were injured or maimed in the war received a small pension, and the British Legion helped them, but they struggled. Harry Patch died recently, the last surviving soldier of the war in the trenches. He commented, ‘Too many died. War is not worth one life’.

Since the end of the ‘War to end all Wars’, have we learnt anything?

Dave Edwards


Tudor Food & Customs

The October meeting of the History Group had a talk on
‘Tudor Food and Customs’, given by Majel Lee.

Bread (the Staff of Life)
Bread was the biggest part of most people’s diet – a working man would eat about two pounds of bread per day. Rich people would eat bread prepared from the best white flour, made by putting flour from the miller in a piece

of fine wool and shaking it onto a white cloth. The bits left over, plus dregs, peas, beans, oats and barley was used for making ‘carter bread’.

After mixing, the lumps of raw dough were put into a pre-heated oven and left to bake. They were taken out when the aroma suggested that at least some of the bread was cooked. If the bottom of a loaf was burnt, it was cut off and given to servants or poor people, while the ‘upper crust’ was reserved for the rich.

Other Food
In Tudor times food was seasonal. In autumn people ate well, because fruit and hedgerow foods were available, but less meat. The poor ate hardly any meat, while the rich had a diet which was 75% meat. The rich did not eat many vegetables, ate no fruit unless it was cooked, and preferred not to eat any at all.
Everyone foraged, collecting nuts, blackberries, and mushrooms; all foods were seasonal with some stored for the following year. At one time acorn beer and acorn coffee were drunk, as was dandelion root coffee. Jam was made from carrots or parsnips, taking advantage of their sugar content.

There would have been lots of mutton available, because the shepherd was one of the most important people in the village, so important that he was excused from attending church on a Sunday. To prove to God that he was a good man, a piece of sheep’s wool would be put in his coffin, so God would know that he was a shepherd.

At the time, wool was a major export; to boost the home trade, Queen Elizabeth I insisted that everyone had to wear wool, and did not allow wool imports from any other country. Sheep were also a source of mutton, grease made from the fat, and milk. Cows at that time were kept for their meat, not their milk.

People’s diets depended on their position with the class structure. At the top of this hierarchy were the gentlemen and the nobles, below them were the professional people, then the citizens and free men with privileges – all these would have done reasonably well.

Then came the yeomen of the countryside, who were worse off than their betters. Below them were the farm workers, the servants, the vagrants and the labourers. However the yeomen and the servants were better off regarding diet and exercise – they had better quality food that the lower classes, but a healthier diet – no sugar – than their betters. Also they did regular physical labour, which kept them fit and active.

Most people would have had one meal a day, between 11am and 12 noon. Early in the morning they might have had ‘slops’, which was some warm liquid, with dried bread dipped in it if they were lucky. Some had the same in the evening.

Their main meal, between 11 and 12, would have been pottage, (a stew containing leftover scraps of meat, with vegetables as available). The mixture was cooked and recooked as required. The bread in slops would have been ‘sourdough’, made using wild yeast. They might also have had some yeast from the brewery, where the alcohol killed the germs.

People made their own butter, by putting milk in a wooden churn and swishing it using a suitably-shaped paddle. Producing butter by this method took a long time, but a knob of butter would eventually be produced. Salt was sometimes added to give it a flavour. The Tudors used calendula (marigolds) to give it flavouring.

In some regards, the poor people were the healthy ones, because they ate fruit, which prevented scurvy, and did not eat much sugar, which rotted teeth. The only sweetener available was honey, which also used as a medicine.

Nearly every household kept bees; the hives (‘skeps’) were made of straw covered in cow dung or clay to keep them dry. During the autumn a bee keeper would kill the worst hive and the best hive, that being the only way that he could extract the honey. The following year he would get wild bees (‘black bees’) for a fresh hive.

When sugar came to England, Queen Elizabeth I developed a liking for marchpane (which we call marzipan) and she had all her food decorated with little marzipan figures – with trees, butterflies or gilded Tudor roses around her meat.

Table Manners
Tudor food was put on a ‘trencher’, originally a crust of bread, but later replaced by a square wooden platter. Each person carried their own spoon wherever they went (hygiene and prevention of theft), or ate with their fingers. Knives were used only by the rich.

The rich had plates, goblet, a spoon and possibly a tankard made of pewter, while the poor had a tankard made of cow horn.

In one corner of the trencher was a hole for salt, a precious commodity. Ladies of the household had the task of producing salt by heating salt water in a shallow metal tray over a bonfire. The bubbling liquid was stirred, and some ox-blood or egg yolk added to extract impurities. The final product, ‘pure’ salt, would take some days to produce.

The Tudors considered a whole range of birds and animals as ‘food’ – there was little that was considered as inedible, even the parts of animals which we would not consider eating today. The poor ate ‘umble pie’, umble being their word for offal.

One thing that everyone needed was water. Water would be taken from whatever supply was at hand – river, stream, spring, well or, best of all, rain. Rain was the only guaranteed pure water supply. Water could be purchased from a water-carrier, at a price. Also the water-carrier’s source of water could be suspect. The collection of water in rain-barrels was quite common.

The lack of pure water meant that people drank beer instead. Beer came in two varieties: alcoholic beverage and ‘small beer’, made from herbs. The alcohol content of beer killed the germs and made it safe to drink. Hops were not used until later – they used malt, barley, nettles, dandelion and burdock.

There is a cottage in Abergavenny which used to belong to Llanthony Priory, and may have been part of their brewery. Someone doing research into medieval breweries said that the cottage was certainly an inn, because when layers of wallpaper were removed, they could smell the beer. It may also have been a resting place for those travelling between Llanthony and Chepstow.

Living Conditions
Tudor women’s costume consisted of kirtle and shift, with the head was covered by a cap – showing ones hair it was considered bad manners. Men wore hose and doublet. The length of the working day depended on sunlight, so summer days started at 5 am and ended at 10 pm, while winter days were short and people slept a lot.

During daylight hours, houses and even castles could be poorly lit and badly heated – there might have been shutters on the windows, but no glass. Since there were no toilets, chamber pots were used, the contents being thrown out through the open door.

Children would start work aged seven – boys as saddlers, farmworkers or gardeners and girls as maids.in the kitchens. Many girls would also help their mothers around the house. However infant mortality was common and many children did not reach that age.

The biggest hazard for the Tudors was falling chimneys. The oldest houses had a fire in the centre of the room and a hole in the roof. Later on they built a chimney around the fire.

As people got richer they had two-storey houses built and the fireplaces were moved to the outside walls. The walls were made of daub and wattle, and they would sometimes catch fire. Also if chimneys were made of brick, then the mortar between bricks might dry out, causing the chimney to become unstable.

During that period more people were killed by falling chimneys than by any other agency.  In the 1500s, Oxford municipal authorities declared that the construction of hearths and chimneys should be properly regulated, and they formulated the first by-laws covering fireplaces.

People used tapers made from rushes for lighting. They picked the rushes when they were green, stripped off most of the green, leaving one little section of green along the edge. They then soaked them in animal fat, and put them in a taper holder.

Each one would give about 20 minutes of light, or less. However if someone wanted a better light, then they would burn the taper at both ends, giving rise to the saying ‘burning the candle at both ends’. The best candles were very expensive as they were made from beeswax.

As well as flavouring for food, calendula was used as medicine, as were many things now regarded as food – gooseberries for example. Also much of the hedgerow foraging was for medicinal herbs.

There was always a physic garden – elecampane for coughs and colds, lungwort, camomile and hyssop. In former times elecampane was used as cough medicine; in more recent times it has been taken off the market because it can introduce troubles in pregnancy and lead to abortions.

Those with a headache or mental strain, especially gentlemen, are recommended to take rosemary, feverfew and lavender. Camomile and lavender are still available in shops, and are still good for headaches.

Good for the nervous system are borage, or lemon balm, and tansy for nits and worms. For wounds and skin healing, plantain, St John’s wort, comfrey and camomile would all be used.

Dave Edwards


Markets in Newport by Monty Dark

The September meeting of the History Group had a talk on ‘Markets in Newport’ given by Mrs Monty Dart.

The first written record of trading in Newport is within the castle bailey (i.e. the outer wall) in 1262. After a charter was granted in 1385, market stalls were still erected within the castle bailey, but soon extended from there to High Street. William Rees in his paper 'Medieval Gwent' describes Newport thus:

The town lay on either side of the old trackway from the castle to Stow Hill, a cluster of rudely built houses thatched and wattled, each standing in its own plot, possibly with a cow house or a pig's cot.

In 1711 new market hall was built, and the burgesses of the town, made up of landowners and prominent people, produced a series of local ordinances, which tell us a lot about trading conditions of the time.

One such ordinance stated that no person should buy grain, butter, cheese, capons or any other wild fowl, fish, eggs or other vitals other than that they require for their own needs, i.e. people were discouraged from hoarding food.

Furthermore, said the regulations, no persons, either burgesses or foreigners, were allowed to buy grain of any kind before the ringing of the bell at 12 o'clock. On November 12th 1789 Elizabeth Thomas, William Ellis and Elizabeth Howard were summoned for buying fowls before the hour of twelve of ye clock.

Another rule stipulated that a dairyman or farmer's wife found to be selling butter of short weight would have their butter confiscated and given to the poor, giving the vendors a big incentive to ensure that they traded fairly.

In 1739 the Christian preacher John Wesley arrived in Newport to preach the gospel, and he was less than impressed by the locals. He recorded:

I preached this morning on what I must do to be saved. They are the most insensible that I have ever seen in Wales. They are ignorant of the gospel and creed as a Cherokee Indian. One ancient man, during the greater part of the sermon, cursed and swore almost incessantly. Towards the end of the sermon he took up a great stone, which he many times attempted to throw, but he could not do so.

However he was not discouraged by the reception he received – in fact making another visit in 1772.

He said, 'I reached Newport at about 8 o'clock and preached to a large and serious congregation. I believe it five and thirty years since I preached here before, for people who were as wild as boars. How amazingly things have changed.'
In 1774 a stagecoach service came to Newport. Its advertising included the claim 'leaving on a Monday and arriving in London by Saturday’.

Lack of hygiene around the market and in Newport itself was a huge problem. There were public wells scattered around the town, but many of them were polluted, and a constant source of diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and cholera. The site of the most notorious well was Baneswell, being in the centre of town, situated at the foot of the hill leading to St Woolos Church. The graveyard at St Woolos was described as 'overflowing with the dead, and where skulls and bones protruded from the surface of the earth'. It was publicly admitted that water filtered through this ground and ended up at the bottom of the hill.

Another hazard was the disposal of waste. Sewers were virtually non-existent in the poorer districts of the town, and human excrement was thrown into the nearest open ditch, to be collected on rare occasions by the few scavengers employed by the council to clean the streets. Rats abounded - one pair of rats can multiply a thousand-fold in the course of a year. Therefore the services of rat-catchers were much in demand. Due to the overcrowded conditions, tuberculosis was rife; rabid dogs roamed the streets, making hydrophobia an unpleasant but very common death for poor people.

The stocks and whipping post were still part of the market scene. In 1777 Alice Morgan broke down part of a hedge. Her punishment was to be taken to the whipping post at twelve o'clock, stripped from the waist upwards and to be whipped with thirty lashes until the blood issued forth.

Another statute stipulated that 'no-one should allow another person's servant into their homes after 8 o’clock, no-one should give more than 3 nights lodging to an unmarried woman begot with child.'

To keep ladies of the night out of town, another statute specified 'no spinster may live in town unless she is in gainful employment, or has money, or owns land.'
The court which enforced these rules was called a ‘piepowder court’; it was only convened while a fair or market was held.

This court had unlimited jurisdiction over personal actions for events that took place in the market place. Any dispute, such as those between traders, had to be resolved that day, since the participants might be at some other venue on the following day. The courts acquired the name piepowder as a corruption of the French for 'dusty-footed', and it alludes to the dusty state of some of the travellers. In later years the word was used as a synonym for vagabond, traveller or wayfarer.

The second market was on land reclaimed by filling in the old town pill, somewhere near the present market, between Griffin Lane, Crosskeys Lane and Skinner Street, Its situation was ideal for unloading livestock and provisions from the river.

The new market of 1817 was constructed of stone, a single story of 60 feet by 125 feet, with entrances on Griffin Street and High Street. There was no entrance on Dock Street since it did not exist at that time. We are fortunate in that old documents and letters still exist, giving details of trading at the market providing a snapshot of life in previous centuries.

An old picture of High Street in 1822 shows stalls on the street, suggesting that the market was already full. Nearby was a shop run by Peter Knapper, pieman. An advertisement in a local paper said that Mister Knapper ‘wished to inform the public that he had opened his muffin shop for the sale of pastries, pies and muffins of the highest quality. He hoped that by paying strict attention to his orders that he would merit a share in public favour.’

The Monmouthshire Merlin of 1829 focussed on the poor of Newport. Under the heading ‘Condition of the Lower Orders’ a correspondent noted that ‘the condition of the labouring people of Newport was worse than it had been for some years, attributed to the number of Irish immigrants which arrived daily via steam packets from Bristol. Day after day, he said, men women and children, for the most part without shoes or stockings are seen parading on the streets, begging at tradesmen’s shops and houses, and then applying for relief.’

The correspondent continued, ‘We trust that the perfect tranquillity will be restored to our unhappy sister island, and in many cases the labouring peasantry will no doubt be able to find sufficient employment at home.’

The Irish incomers were known as the mud-crawlers, as they were usually tossed out of ships entering Newport Harbour onto the mud flats, since the captains of the vessels knew that they would not be allowed to offload their human cargo at the quayside. The fact that they had to wade through the mud meant that had no footwear when they reached solid ground.

By 1845 a number of bylaws were introduced. The population of Newport had to behave themselves, their lives being controlled by these local rules. These included: no-one may sing an indecent ballad or write a profane or obscene word, persons may not drive a horse as to endanger life or limb of the passengers on the thoroughfare, wantonly discharging firearms or throwing stones or snow or indeed any other missile was a crime, as was flying a kite, playing football, pitch and toss, or making an ice slide.

Persons should not indulge in scandalmongering; apparently this included saying that a man was ‘a bit of a rogue’, or saying a woman ‘possessed an evil eye’. Persons were expected to clean their front doorsteps before nine o’clock every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. There were 39 statutes altogether, all very similar. A fine of up to forty shillings could be imposed for disobedience.

Scott in his Ancient and Modern History of Newport, described the market hall of 1847 thus: the old market house, a curious remnant of architecture, having ponderous roof work, massive gable ends, low antiquated gate and doorways and an utter want of conveniences, which are seldom forgotten in the erection of all modern buildings.

The market premises were put up for sale in 1848, along with a number of town centre properties – private residences, shops, timber yards, wharves, a farm in the parish of St Woolos, one of the public houses (the Black Swan, locally known as the Mucky Duck), and the Steampacket Inn. However nobody wanted to buy the lot on which the market stood.

The market was outgrowing its building and overflowing into High Street. The corporation asked the Duke of Beaufort, who owned the land, to provide water and drainage for the premises. Eventually the Duke of Beaufort agreed to build another market and this opened in 1865. Unfortunately within 20 years this building was too small for the number of people who wished to trade there.

At this time the cattle market had not been built, so there were also cattle in Newport High Street, much to the chagrin of local traders. The teashops and ladies’ garment shops objected to their customers having to walk through cattle refuse to get to their establishment. When the cattle market was built on an entirely separate site, High Street celebrated.

Another market was the annual Stow Fair, held in Firtree Fields. This covered a wide range of goods, livestock, had minstrels and troubadours, traders selling gingerbread and ale, and people came from all over the country to this event. However it was not popular with the town council, who blamed disturbances on the drunken louts who frequented the fair. They also despaired of the poverty of families whose breadwinners spent their wages at the fair. The council vowed to get rid of fair, and told the landowner to lock his gates when next they came. They finally succeeded when there was a murder on the field.

It was a really important trading point in Newport, as shown by the ‘stow’ part of the name, indicating a trading place or market. It was held in the environs of St Woolos Church, spreading to the south down to the area now occupied by the Royal Gwent Hospital and in the other direction as far as Risca Road. Newport licensees had been banned from selling alcohol on the field itself because of the drunkenness for which the fair had become known. However all ale houses and some private houses on the roads leading to the fair became vendors of ale and food and sold all they could produce.

Newport Market’s position, close to river, road and railway meant that traders could be supplied via all three means of transport. After much wrangling, the Duke of Beaufort sold the land and Newport Council decided that they would run the market.

They started to clear the land, demolishing pubs, houses, etc. and in May 1889 the mayor opened the brand new market. He said, ‘It would be an honour to hand down the market to our successors as a memento of the skill, enterprise and energy of Newport people’.

This was greeted with hearty cheers from the stallholders and the assembled public. A councillor proposed a vote of thanks to the mayor ‘for opening a market which was not surpassed in any town in the kingdom’. He expressed the hope that people would make their money in the lower end of town and then come to the upper end to spend it in the market.

In the 1930s there were 146 stalls downstairs, varying from 9/7d to 28/- per week rent. Upstairs there were 48 stalls to rent, varying from 5/- to 11/- per week. There was even space to rent in the cellars for people who had bananas to store.

Scales could be rented at a rate of 6d a day, used by those who came in from the countryside and could not carry their own scales.

The floors were thoroughly cleaned every day and on four occasions throughout the year the market would be stripped and have a total scrub down. In addition there was an annex in Dock Street occupied by 14 stalls. Not only was the market full inside, there were also stalls outside. Indoors tables were marked out, and for every additional item outside the marked area, there was a toll – an extra goose would cost 3d, a dead rabbit was 1d, five live rabbits were 6d, every extra sack of vegetables was 4d.

The market opened from 6am to 10pm on Saturdays and Christmas Eve. One poor woman waited until the end of trading on Christmas Eve, and bought the last turkey on the shelf. She then walked home to Malpas, carrying the bird. Early on Christmas morning she unwrapped it, only to find it glowing blue. It stank, and had to be buried in the garden. That was the family’s first and last vegetarian Christmas!

Dave Edwards


SS Great Britain Trip

On September 1st the History Group joined the Science and Natural History Group for a tour of the SS Great Britain, a museum ship and former passenger steamship based in Bristol.

She was built to a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and was very advanced when she was launched in 1845. For some years she was the longest passenger ship in the world. She was intended for use on the transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. While some ships had already been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, the Great Britain was the first to use these features in a large ocean-going ship. In 1845 she was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, which she did in just 14 days.

The ship is 322 ft (98 m) long and was powered by two steam engines plus sails for emergency use. The four decks provided accommodation for 120 crew plus 360 passengers, who were provided with cabins, dining rooms and promenade saloons.
Her owners went bankrupt in 1846 after the ship run aground, and she was sold for salvage. After repair the Great Britain carried thousands of immigrants to Australia, from 1852 until converted to sail in 1881. Three years later, she was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was used as a warehouse, quarantine ship and coal hulk.

In 1970, following a cash donation by businessman Sir Jack Hayward, the vessel was towed back to the UK, and Great Britain returned to the Bristol dry dock where she was built. Now listed as part of the National Historic Fleet, she is an award-winning visitor attraction and museum ship in Bristol Harbour, with between 150,000 - 200,000 visitors annually.

When the Caldicot U3A group visited, most were aghast at the size of the second and third class accommodation (each akin to a large cupboard), and marvelled at the luxury of a first class cabin (the size of a British Rail toilet). None of our party volunteered to climb the rigging to the crow’s nest – I blamed it on not wearing the right shoes, but we all had our excuses.

The experience was a whole world of nineteenth century sea travel, from the first class dining room to the engine room to the galley, with its rats, to the ships wheel, which few could resist. It was indeed a Victorian time machine.

Dave Edwards



Abergavenny – History
History Group field trip to Abergavenny

The Church
St Mary’s was founded as a priory by Hamelin de Ballon, the Norman overlord of Northern Gwent, in 1087. It supported a prior and twelve monks, attached as a cell to the Abbey of St Vincent, near Le Mans, Normandy.

For well over 200 years it seems to have prospered but later its discipline and fortune suffered from the neglect of the mother house. There were periods of decline when the monks found difficulty maintaining the standards of the Benedictine Order, and when the monks confiscated the revenues during the long French wars.

When the Act of Dissolution of the Monasteries came into effect in 1536, there were only four monks and a prior at St Mary’s. The townsfolk were already using it as their parish church, and were able to persuade Henry VIII to let them continue doing so. They were also able to use some of the revenues of the suppressed priory to establish King Henry Grammar School in their old parish church of St John.

Outside the church, the Tithe Barn – now a state-of-the-art heritage centre and Taste of Wales restaurant – and small sections of the monastic buildings survive. Inside, the nave was almost completely rebuilt in 1882 and 1896, although 14th century work can still be seen in the chapels and the choir.

Royal Arms
In the south west corner of the nave, to the right as you step into the church, hangs the restored Royal Arms of Queen Anne, dated 1709. Royal Arms were first displayed as a symbol of Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church of England after the Reformation.

Their number increased significantly in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I and Charles II, but such Arms were removed from churches by command of Mary I and during the Commonwealth.

A pre-Norman bowl – older than the church itself – stands on a more modern base. The font was discovered in the churchyard during the 1882 restoration. It is thought to have been buried there during the Commonwealth, sometime between 1649 and 1660, when the practice of infant baptism was unacceptable. On the rim of the font is evidence of the padlocks which once secured a lid to prevent the blessed water being stolen for religious purposes. The bowl of the font, carved from one solid piece of stone, is so large because babies used to be totally immersed during baptisms.

Baptism was used as a means of making infants church members. There is a difference in age and appearance between the top and bottom of the font; the bottom is Norman, while the bottom is nineteenth century. The pillars were probably added to the damaged top during the 1880s.

The Bell
In the north aisle is a bell dated 1308 and inscribed ‘May the bell of John last many years’ – perhaps indicating that this was one of a peal of bells donated by Sir John de Hastings. The tower contains a ring of ten bells, recast in 1948 in thanksgiving for the end of the Second World War, and considered by many to be the finest ring of 10 bells in Christendom.

Wooden Effigy: Sir John de Hastings II
In the north transept is one of the most beautiful pieces of medieval sculpture in Britain. it was originally highly coloured, as many tombs and statues were in those days. Sir John was responsible for the 14th century rebuilding of the church, including the tower.

Jesse Carving
This unique 15th century representation of King David’s father Jesse is the greatest of the treasures in the church. Carved from one solid piece of oak, this is the base of a magnificent reredos, or alterpiece, which depicted all Jesse’s descendants on various branches of a tree, culminating with statues of the Virgin and Child and Christ in Glory at the top. Probably between 20 and 30 feet tall, it was originally highly coloured and has been described by art historian Andrew Graham Dixon as ‘the only great wooden figure to survive the British cultural revolution’ (BBC TV 1996).

Dr David Lewis (d. 1584)
Born in Abergavenny, Dr David Lewis was the first principal of Jesus College, Oxford, and became a judge of the High Court of the Admiralty in the reign of Elizabeth I. the tomb, against the north wall of the Lewis Chapel, shows his dress of office and, with accord, oak leaf and anchor, his links with the Royal Navy.

Two Stone Figures
The figure of a lady with a shield is Eva de Braose (d. 1256) and the oldest monument in the church. The arrangement of the figure holding a small casket suggests this is a heart burial.

The other figure can be dated to c.1350 to c.1390 on the basis of her hairstyle and open-sided gown. She is most likely a Hastings wife or daughter.

The Choir Stalls
The finely-carved 14th and 15th century stalls were once separated from the nave by a rood screen. The hinged seats (misericords) were raised to give some support to the monks as they stood through long services. The name Wynchester, carved on the front of the stalls on the right as you enter the choir, was a 15th century prior, and probably dates the stalls on that side. (Notice the 18th century graffiti carved into the stalls, probably by young men who went to school in the Priory House in either boring lessons, or gaps in singing.)

Sir Lawrence de Hastings (in the Herbert Chapel)
The last of the Hastings dynasty to be buried at St Mary’s, Sir Lawrence, was the 13th lord of Abergavenny. It is an interesting tombe in its solid construction and the inclusion of only one weeper (mourner), thought by some to indicate his immense humility.

The identity of the cross-legged stone figure on the south wall is not certain but is thought to be Sir William de Hastings, half brother to Sir Lawrence de Hastings.

William ap Thomas (d.1446) and the Lady Gwladys
William was a Welsh squire who fought at Agincourt, where Gwladys’ father Sir David Gam and her first husband Sir Roger Vaughan, died. He was later knighted.became rich and powerful and began building Raglan Castle in the 1430s, probably on the site of a small Norman castle. William was succeeded by his eldest son, also William, who took the surname Herbert, and who became the first Earl of Pembroke.

Richard Herbert of Coldbrook, and Margaret
The second son of William ap Thomas, he and his mother were captured at Banbury in 1469 during the Wars of the Roses, and both were executed.

Richard Herbert of Ewyas
Richard was the natural son of Sir William Herbert, also grandson to Sir William ap Thomas and the Lady Gwladys. His descendants attempted to give him respectability by awarding him the title of Knight and lordship of Ewyas, without his having the right to either. A unique and beautiful plaque of the Coronation of the Virgin backs the monument though it is badly damaged, probably by zealous reformers or enthusiastic Puritans.

The Beadsman
During the restoration work on the tombs, the small figure of a Benedictine monk was discovered beneath Richard Herbert’s feet, praying for Richard’s soul. The Beadsman is once more hidden, though the restorers created an exact replica which is displayed nearby, mounted on the wall.

William Baker (d.1648) and Joan
This elaborately carved and coloured 17th century tomb on the north side of the chapel shows William and Joan at prayer. It is thought that the artist carved the tomb of local stone, in situ. William was the nephew of David Augustine Baker – lawyer, monk, historian and mystic – who was born in Abergavenny in 1575 and who was one of the restorers of the Benedictine congregation in this country.

Judge Andrew Powell (d.1631) and Margaret
Attached to the tomb is a plaque with Latin inscription, a translation of which reads ‘Lately I was a judge. Now sitting before a tribunal of a Judge, I am in fear. It is now that I am being judged.’ His wife Margaret was the daughter of Matthew Herbert of Coldbrook, hence their inclusion in the Herbert Chapel.

There are three stained-glass windows. The south window is the oldest, dating from the 1920s, while the north window, depicting the Magi presenting gifts to the baby Jesus, was made and dedicated in the 1950s. The great east window is dated 1922 and was the gift of the widow and two sons of Brigadier General Randle Barnett Barker, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who  died at the second battle of the Somme in March 1918.

Survival of the Monuments
Why did these monuments survive? Also, why did such a large priory escape the worst ravages of the Reformation? The answer may well be associated with the politics of the region, which had close ties to the House of Tudor. Also, it may have seemed unwise to antagonise the powerful Herbert dynasty by severely damaging figures of its ancestors.

The Tithe Barn
Abergavenny's Tithe Barn dates back to the 12th century. The building has been restored and converted into an attractive Welsh food hall, shop, café, exhibition space and local history centre.

Originally, the Tithe Barn housed the tithes (taxes) paid in kind by the local community to the monks of St Mary's Priory, nearby. Over the centuries, the building has been reinvented many times, serving as a coach house, theatre, timber warehouse, grain store, Women’s Institute shop, carpet warehouse and auction house. In the 1960s, it became Abergavenny's first ever disco.

Today it is a popular community and visitor centre, café and shop. One of its prize exhibits is a tapestry created by local residents to celebrate the history of Abergavenny and mark the year 2000.

The Tapestry
The Abergavenny Tapestry was designed by Susie Martin and created by a group of over 60 local volunteers, as a way of celebrating the new millennium in 2000. From conception to completion the project lasted some six years, and the stitching alone took three years and ten months to complete – not surprising when you learn that the tapestry is 24 feet (8 metres) wide!

The stitching was carried out in one of the chapels in St Mary’s Priory Church, with each section of the tapestry created on a separate frame, and more than 400 shades of wool were used to create the intricate designs. Visitors to the church were fascinated by the work, and the stitchers often found themselves explaining the proceedings to interested tourists!

The project was a learning curve for everyone involved. Many of those who worked on the project had had no prior experience of stitching, and they were able to learn new skills and make new friends in the process.

The tapestry was designed to celebrate 1,000 years of Abergavenny’s history. Some of the events commemorated include:

St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order of monks. St Mary’s Priory, founded in 1087, as a Benedictine priory.

One of the world’s finest pieces of medieval sculpture, the Jesse Tree is a 15th-century carving of Jesse, the biblical father of King David and ancestor of Christ.

Owain Glyndwr, the leader of the Welsh rebellion against the English in the 15th century, who sacked Abergavenny in 1404.

Sir Harry Llewellyn, the famous showjumper and his horse Foxhunter, who won Olympic gold in 1952.

The effigy of Margaret, betrothed to John de Hastings at the age of 12. Her pet squirrel is said to have caused her death in a fall from the castle ramparts when she was 13. Her tomb lies in St Mary’s Priory Church.

The Castle
Within the walls, the circular mound, on which a rather incongruous Victorian "keep" of 1819 sits, is the oldest part of the castle. It is the motte thrown up by Hamelin de Ballon, Norman conqueror of this area, before 1090. Early in the 12th century de Ballon founded the Benedictine priory of Abergavenny. Soon afterwards a stone keep was built on the motte, and the present building probably stands on its foundations. During the 12th century the hall, which was between the gatehouse and the tall ruined towers to the west, remained a timber building.

There was much building during the 13th and 14th centuries when the castle was held by the Hastings family. The most prominent remains from this period are the towers in the west corner, one circular and one semi-circular. Only their outer walls survive, but these stand to four storeys high in some places. The octagonal tower has large window openings, mostly now without their dressed stone surrounds, and the base of a spiral staircase.

Attached to the eastern end of the towers is a cross-wall which divided the castle ward into two. Its northern end was one wall of the hall block, and has a doorway which led into the rooms below the hall. The hall stood where the present ground is sunken, and was a large and rectangular room at first-floor level. Its inner wall has completely gone. In the middle of the lawn is an underground room, thought to have been a dungeon.

Although the description above mentions the castle's notorious lord, William de Braose, it is worth mentioning further that de Braose was quite possibly the cruelest and most hated of all the great Norman Marcher Lords. Practically all the Marcher Lords were forced to deal with a rebellious and resentful Welsh population in violent ways in order to protect their newly-awarded "kingdoms," but de Braose time and time again seems to have gone out of his way to commit acts of cruelty that went beyond his contemporaries.
Although some would say his family eventually got what they deserved, the extinction of the male line and a f orfeiture of all lands, de Braose stands out as an example of what the native Welsh population were up against, and why they rebelled so ferociously against the Norman invaders.

Gerald of Wales alludes to the horrible event in the history of Abergavenny Castle described above, during his famous journey through Wales of 1188, but refuses to mention the incident specifically, saying least (the story) serves to encourage other equally infamous men.
Here Gerald is referring to the Massacre of Abergavenny in 1175. Henry, the third son of Milo FitzWalter, earl of Hereford, was killed by Seisyll ap Dyfnwal in 1175. William the fourth son did not live to succeed.
Mahel, the fifth son, was killed a little later in 1175 in Bronllys Castle, when a stone fell on his head during a fire. There was no other male heir, and Brecknockshire and Upper Gwent passed to William de Braose through his mother Bertha, a daughter of Milo FitzWalter.
William de Braose decided to avenge the death of his uncle Henry. On the pretext he summoned Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, his son Geoffrey and a number of other Welshmen from Gwent to Abergavenny Castle, and there they were all murdered out of hand. At the same time de Braose's retainers ravaged Seisyll's lands, killed his son Cadwaladr and captured his wife. This is just one incident in the cruel career of de Braose.

The castle was one of many that passed back and forth between Marcher and native control in the turbulent years of the 12th century. Gerald also mentions Abergavenny in a later passage following it's recapture from the Welsh by English forces. As the Welsh were besieging the castle "two (Norman) men-at-arms were rushing across a bridge to take refuge in the tower which had been built on a great mound of earth.
The Welsh shot at them from behind, and with the arrows which sped from their bows they actually penetrated the oak doorway of the tower, which was almost as thick as a man's palm. As a permanent reminder of the strength of their impact, the arrows have been left sticking in the door just where their iron heads struck." Gerald notes that the men of Gwent "are more skilled with the bow and arrow than those who come from other parts of Wales."

Dave Edwards


The History Computers and Computing

In the absence of the scheduled speaker, the June meeting of the History Group had a talk entitled ‘A History of Computers and Computing’, given by Dave Edwards, a member of Caldicot U3A.

The earliest attempts at computing involved using an abacus, a simple but effective tool. The Greeks and Romans developed their own individual number systems, which were adequate for their needs but not suitable for difficult calculations. The Arabs developed the decimal number system which we still use today.

During the sixteenth century Gottfried Leibnitz proposed a ‘binary’ system of counting, the advantage being that it had only two numbers – 0 and 1. Its disadvantage was the increased number of digits as compared with decimal numbers. For several hundred years it remained a curiosity.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, mathematician Charles Babbage proposed and designed two mechanical devices which would perform calculations. However being before the age of electricity, they proved to be difficult to use.

During the 1930s, some basic electronic machines were developed in USA, but the next major step forward was taken during the Secord World War, when a series of computers were developed in Britain to break the cryptic codes used by Nazi Germany. These were proposed by Alan Turing and built by Tommy Flowers. Sadly, at the end of the war, Churchill insisted that the ‘computers’ be dismantled and the parts re-used, lest they fall into ‘the wrong hands’.

One of the first computers to be used commercially was the LEO1. Joe Lyons, of Lyons Corner House fame, saw a computer in USA and decided that he wanted one. He made a large donation to Cambridge University on condition that they designed and built him a machine, which he named LEO1 (Lyons Electronic Office). As well as being used for Lyons’ accounting purposes, it did the payroll for British rail. This offshoot of his empire was eventually sold to English Electric.

By the 1950s computers were being made in Britain and USA. The manufacturers had an agreement that the Americans would not sell in UK until 1956, giving the home-grown companies time to become established. After that date, the Americans showed how much better salesman they were, and ran rings around us Brits.

Two of the early British machines were the Stantec ZEBRA and the Elliott 803. The ZEBRA was based on a design proposed by a Dutchman, and was initially produced in Newport by Standard Telephones & Cables.

The 803 was widely used, but limited in size; in modern terms its storage capacity was something between a watch and a mobile phone. Three of these were used to perform a variety of functions at Llanwern Steelworks (then known as Richard Thomas & Baldwins Spencer Works).

During the 1960s, the Americans were competitors in the Space Race and miniaturised everything, including computers, to reduce the weight of things carried into space. One offshoot of this was the microcomputer, which performed the same functions as their much larger predecessors. Within ten years these were available on the open market, providing consumers with new innovations. There were many different manufacturers providing many different designs; each one had to be programmed, and no two were the same.

Users of those microcomputers will remember the multi-part magazines, containing printed versions of programs for the various machines. Each month a program for one machine or another would be printed, together with the corrections for the previous month’s program.

When IBM entered this market, they invented the term ‘personal computer’ or PC. They also set the standard for equipment and program design; from that stage onward, programs were designed to be ‘IBM compatible’, meaning that a program written for one machine could be run on any other compatible machine.

At about the same time, Macintosh produced a pointing device which they called a mouse, and a portable computer having a built-in screen (the first laptop).

While these ‘personal computers’ were becoming smaller and more powerful, the large computers, by now termed ‘mainframes’, were becoming larger, and were connected with other large computers to become a network (or internet) of computing power. Communication between these giants was via telephone lines, line speeds and capacities growing by the month as demand increased.

The future of computers is difficult to predict; how many of the devices and facilities now available were predicted fifty, forty or even twenty years ago? We did not even know that we needed most of them!

Dave Edwards



Gwent Curiosities

The May meeting of the History Group had a talk by Richard Jones, entitled ‘Gwent Curiosities’. One of Gwent’s famous sons is Fred Hando, author, local historian and artist. He wrote a weekly column on local history in the South Wales Argus for nigh on 30 years.

Some people criticised Hando because he intertwined legends, folklore and culture in with historical fact. However the history of any place is the history of its people, which is full of legend, folklore and culture. This was picked up by Edwin Morris, Archbishop of Wales in the 1960s.

He said, “If folklore and history are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another, then that is no great matter. There is always some substratum historical truth in legend and folklore. It is the type of writing which stimulates the imagination and people’s love for the land in which we live.”

A selection of Gwent Curiosities are:

Ascension Day Eve
Ascension Day Eve has a tradition involving ‘The Healing Stone’ at Holy Trinity Church, Christchurch. According to legend sick children brought into the church and laid on the stone will be healed. The stone dates from 1376, but how it came to be connected with healing is not known. The practice became so popular that people tried to make money out of it, resulting in it being banned in 1810 by the local landowner, Squire Van of Llanwern.

Dole Bread
In the vestry of Llanwenarth Citra Church near Abergavenny there is a ‘hanging cupboard’, constructed to hold the alms distributed to the poor, including bread baked to a special recipe, and called ‘dole bread’. It was placed high on the wall to prevent destruction by rodents and theft. Though originally a medieval tradition, in Llanwenarth it continued until1913. It is the origin of the word ‘dole’.

The Victorians loved exhibitions, the best known of which was the Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in Crystal Palace. However they also held one in Manchester in 1887, where they recreated scenes of old London, including a full-size church, complete with a set of bells.

When the exhibition was dismantled, the bells found their way to St Cadoc’s Church in Trevethin, Pontypool. They are inscribed as having been made for the 1887 Manchester exhibition.

Frescos are an art form in which layers of plaster are applied to a wall, and selectively peeled back to reveal various colours. The only church in Monmouthshire having frescos is St Mary’s, Llanfair Kilgedden.

These were commissioned by the vicar, Rev Lindsay, in memory of his late wife. The whole church was decorated in similar fashion by artist Heywood Sumner.The scenes depicted in the frescos are all from the New Testament, but the backgrounds show the Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and Blorenge.

The church was restored using a grant from the estate of the late Roy Jenkins, Member of Parliament, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The church has not been used for worship in 30 years, but does have open days.

The Green Man
The Green Man is a pre-Christian image of a male person having foliage sprouting from his mouth, representing new life, growth, nurture and creation. Monmouthshire is a county particularly rich in these symbols, several local churches having the image somewhere in their stonework.

The masons who built the early churches were Christian, but were probably aware of the pre-Christian symbols and traditions. Examples can be seen in Abergavenny, Chepstow, Llangwm Isaf, Llantilio Croesenny, Magor and Redwick. When the name appears on a pub sign, there is usually a church nearby which contains a carving of a green man.

James Hughes
James Hughes was a blacksmith in Llanfihangel Crucorney near the Skirrid Mountain Inn. His tombstone bears the epitaph
My sledge and hammer lie reclined,
My bellows too has lost its wind,
My fires extinct, my force delayed
And in the dust my vices laid.
My coal is spent, my iron is gone,
My nails are drove, my work is done.

Inscriptions can be found everywhere, but those on church bells are difficult to see, if not impossible. An inscription can be a prayer, a dedication to a person or to an event. The tiny hamlet of Penyclawdd near Raglan has a church dedicated to St Martin. The inscription on the church bell says that it was made by William Evans of Chepstow in 1739.

It bears the inscription ‘Prosperity to This City’; however the ‘City’ for which the bell was intended is unknown; similarly the reason for its installation at Penyclawdd is not known. Whether it was surplus at the foundry, rejected by the intended customer, or reused for some other reason will never be known.

In 1937, the church at Llanfrechfa had two bells made in commemoration of the coronation of Edward VIII, an event which did not take place, since he abdicated and his brother George was crowned instead. After the event, the inscriptions on the bells were changed in a very amateurish fashion.

Thomas James
Llanvetherine is a little place between Abergavenny and Monmouth, near White Castle. Thomas James was a very famous son of Monmouthshire. In the church is a very modern screen, above which is a small golden ship. It is believed that the ship is connected with Thomas James, explorer and navigator. He was born in 1593 in Llanvetherine.

At the time Bristol was a major port and second city of the kingdom, and a start point for exploration and navigation. In 1631 Thomas James was sponsored by wealthy Bristol merchants to explore the east coast of Canada and (hopefully) find a north-west passage to the Pacific Ocean. He sailed out of Bristol in his vessel the Henrietta Maria; it is known that he spent the winter on Charleton Island in James Bay, an inlet named in his honour, then continued his quest in 1632. He returned to England in 1633, and wrote about his travels. He did not find the hoped-for sea route, but it is claimed that his account inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write the poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Llanellen, near Abergavenny, was the home of Sir Thomas Phillips, a reluctant participant in the Chartist Uprising. Since he was the mayor of Newport who gave the order for the troops to fire on the Chartists at the Westgate, he is sometimes regarded as the villain. However this is unfair, as there was much more to Sir Thomas Phillips than his actions on that day.

He was from Llanellen, he was a lawyer, a businessman and a politician; he became mayor of Newport in 1839. He was a rich man in his own right; he acquired coal mines, and large tracts of land. He was a prominent member of King’s College London, the Anglican Church, the Society of Arts, the National Society, which was involved in education and the building of schools.

He was also a great benefactor, playing a major part in the foundation of Christ’s College, Brecon. He financed schools and provided facilities for the local coalminers and their families at Cwrt-y-Bella, near Blackwood. He was a champion of the Welsh language, Welsh education and social and moral improvement. He died in 1867 and was buried at Llanellen. He never married and had no family, but when he died he was penniless – he had given it all away.

Organs are now present in all churches, but were sufficiently valuable in former times to be recycled. When Gloucester Cathedral acquired a new organ in 1720, the old one was moved to St Mary’s Church, Chepstow. Similarly Usk Church was given the magnificent instrument from Llandaff when that was replaced.

Most church buildings are entered via a porch. In former times, church porches were used for many different purposes, such as schoolrooms. Sometimes a porch had an upper room used as a priest’s room, some had little chantry chapels in them, they were also involved in liturgy and worship. St Cattwg’s Church, Cwmcavarn (near Trellech) has two porches, resulting from antagonism between two influential local families, each of which refused to enter by the same door as the other.

Cwmcavarn is also famous because it was the site of a battle in 1403, between Owain Glyndwr and the English army; Glyndwr won convincingly and forced the English troops to retreat into the Forest of Dean and beyond Monmouth.

Charles Rolls
The Hon. Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) lived at The Hendre in the parish of Llangattock-Vibon-Awel, near Abergavenny. He is most famous as being one of the founders of Rolls Royce, but he was also an early pioneer of flying hot air balloons. He has the dubious honour of being the first person to die in an air crash in this country, flying at the air show in Bournemouth in 1910.

World War I
In 1915 the Monmouthshire Regiment took part in the second battle of Ypres, and were decimated. The war was not confined to the continent of Europe; however the war also changed lives here. Most of the population of Belgium were evacuated to Britain – the king stayed but the people left.

Large numbers of Belgium refugees stayed here for the duration of the war, and many never went back. They stayed in Britain, married local people and settled here. For this reason there are things around us which are not war memorials in the usual sense, but they were created during the war, often by refugees.

One example can be found in Penallt Old Church, which has a wooden altar carved by a Belgian refugee, as his gift to the people of Penallt. Even more remarkable, it is an exact copy of the great high stone altar at Malines Cathedral in Belgium, carved completely from memory. It was a reminder of home, as well as a gift to Penallt.

Infant Mortality
Until the First World War, to die in childhood was not unusual. There are several places in Monmouthshire which have poignant memorials to children. Anyone who reads the epitaphs in Caldicot Churchyard will get a snapshot of social history for the area. In the early nineteenth century, the country was changing and more people were coming into the area. However hygiene standards did not kept pace, and disease spread rapidly when it came.

A local example can be seen at Caldicot – in 1859 Charles Hill’s three children died of scarlet fever within three days. In 1870 two of the three children of James Watkins died of convulsions on the same day. In 1873 the bite of an adder caused the death of a young girl while gathering flowers. In the interior of Caerwent Church is a memorial in rhyme: ‘to a child who peeped and uttered faint cries, disliked the scene and shut their eyes.’

Zephaniah Williams
Zephaniah Williams was a leader of the Chartist Uprising in 1839. He was one of the three Chartist leaders, each leading a cohort of men from the valleys down to Newport. He is less well known than John Frost, but is still a very interesting character.

He grew up at Argoed in the Sirhowy Valley, and spent time in Caerphilly and Nantyglo. He was different to the majority of the other Charists in that he got a formal schooling; he was literate in both Welsh and English, and educated himself in theology, later claiming that he was an atheist.

At the age of 33, he returns to the Sirhowy Valley as a coalminer with strong radical views. He met John Frost, and together they organised the protest in Newport. As leaders of the rebellion, they were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation to Tasmania.

These events took place against a background of instability – the French Revolution had been successful 50 years before, other European monarchies had been overthrown and Britain was in a state of unrest. The authorities were in fear of Britain following the continental example, and any riot or rebellion was dealt with harshly.

In a letter, he wrote ‘When prejudice has shut the eye of the mind the brightest rays of truth shine in vain. When men are thus incapacitated for the reception of truth they become liable to become guilty of injustice, ill-nature, and ill manners to others; and insensible of what is properly owing to themselves.

He was pardoned in 1854, stayed in Tasmania, brought his family out from Britain, discovered coal there and made a huge fortune. He died in 1874, a very prosperous man. To this day he is a hero in the history of Tasmania.

Dave Edwards



History of European Music

In the absence of the scheduled speaker, the History Group had a talk entitled ‘History of European Music’, given by Jan Potter.

No-one has any idea when music started, but it does figure in much of classical mythology – there was Pan with his pipes, Orpheus charming he gods with his lyre, there is evidence of it in places like Egypt, Pompeii, Ephesus, it is mentioned extensively in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and there is a lot of evidence to show that instruments, particularly horns and drums, were used to convey orders during military engagements.

From archaeological examination of the instruments, we can make educated guesses about the sort of noise they made, but what we do not know is what the music sounded like as there was no universally recognised system for writing music. The oldest attempt at making a written record of music comes from 1400BC. It was found on the shore of Syria in the 1970s, and is known as the Holier Hymn Number 6. The ‘hymn’ is recorded on a clay tablet – on the top is one set of symbols said to be the words, and underneath is another set said to be the music. That music looks like a different language, having nothing in common with modern notation. Since it was found there have been at least six attempts to transcribe the music but they all sound different, confirming that we do not know what it sounded like.

The first music that we can be reasonably certain about is that for Gregorian chant, which is for human voices rather than instruments. That was named after Pope Gregory I, though he does seem to have much to do with it. It came to Britain in the 6th or 7th Centuries, the time when Christian missionaries came here from continental Europe.

Some of the earliest music which is well known is 13th century French secular music, associated with minstrels. We might think of them as medieval buskers, but they were the premier musicians of their day, performing love songs, and responding to whatever was happening at court, be it Christmas, a marriage, the visit of an important person, etc. They almost exclusively composed the music they played and many made their own instruments as well.

In spite of being servants and always being employed by a master, the minstrels did get quite close to their bosses. Well known is the tale of Blondel, who was a minstrel to Richard I (Richard the Lionheart). It is known that on his way back from the Third Crusade, Richard upset King Leopold of Austria and was imprisoned, without anyone in England knowing where he was. Legend has it that Blondel toured all the castles of the area, singing a song that he and Richard had composed together. When he heard it being sung back to him, he knew in which castle Richard was imprisoned. Whether or not the story is true, Richard’s mother certainly paid a large ransom for his release.

Moving on several centuries to the court of Henry VIII, minstrel Mark Smeaton was tortured and eventually executed for so-called inappropriate relations with Anne Boleyn, implying that he must have been intimately connected with her, figuratively as well as physically. In this country it was during early Tudor times that a universal way of writing down music was developed. The musicians of the day experimented with everything from four lines to seven before settling on five. Once a method of writing down music was agreed, it was used in Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. From that point onward, composers’ names were written on pieces of music, enabling the names to be handed down. One such was Thomas Tallis. A gentleman of the Chapel Royal, he was responsible for composing church and ceremonial music for the monarch. He worked through the turbulent reigns of four monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. The fact that he kept his job and his head through all these religious changes suggests that he had considerable political sense, as well as musical ability.

Tallis became better known in the twentieth century when Ralf Vaughan Williams wrote a fantasy based on a theme of his. About 4 years ago one piece by Thomas Tallis got the top of the classical hit parade, based on downloads rather than purchased CDs. It transpired that this piece, Spem in Alium is mentioned extensively in the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, and people were downloading it to find out what it was like. As Tudor times turned to Stuart, the English composers in vogue included William Byrd, Henry Purcell, and Jeremiah Clarke.

It was not just in England that changes were afoot – the same was happening in continental Europe. Successful composers needed to be employed by the church, the royal court or members of the aristocracy. One exception to this was Antonio Vivaldi; he was born in Venice in 1678, the son of a violinist in St Mark’s Church. He was ordained as a priest in his early twenties, known as ‘the red priest’ because of his red hair, apparently very unusual in Italy. He became a successful music teacher in a school for girls in Venice, writing over 500 concertos for them.

When Vivaldi reached 60, he decided to move to Vienna. The timing of his decision was appalling – as he arrived there, the music-loving emperor died, and Vienna was under siege from the Prussians. He died there a few months later, and was buried as a pauper, his music fading into obscurity. No writings on music in the nineteenth century included anything on Vivaldi. His music only survived because Bach had written some variations on a theme of Vivaldi.

He remained obscure until 1926, when a monastery in Turin decided to sell part of its library. In a dusty old chest in one corner were hundreds of Vivaldi manuscripts, letters, and various other documents. People realised that it represented a substantial find, and other places produced Vivaldi manuscripts that they had not considered important until then. It was really in the 1920s and 1930s that the Vivaldi story came together. In 1938 a concert of Vivaldi’s music was given, the first since his death. It had taken him 250 years to get the acclaim he so richly deserved.

It should also be mentioned that during the eighteenth century, it was common for people on a grand tour to buy pieces of sheet music as souvenirs of the places that they visited – certainly better than plastic gondolas made in China. Consequently when a piece of original sheet music written by a well-known composer turns up in some obscure place, we are probably seeing the result of somebody’s grand tour.

One category of music associated primarily with Italy is opera. The word ‘opera’ is merely the plural of the Latin word ‘opus’. In Renaissance Florence there was a group of gentlemen who called themselves the ‘the Camerata’. They were poets, writers, musicians, all with enough money to have time on their hands. They decided that it would be nice to recreate Greek drama. They knew the Greek plays about gods and mythical beings, which included music and song. They included tragic plays, and the first efforts were variable in quality. However something caught on, maybe due to publicity and marketing, and after many experiments it evolved into what we know today as opera.

Moving on to Germany, we can compare two great figures of the Baroque Era – George Frederick Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, both of them born in 1685. Handel became the great secular composer and Bach the religious composer. Handel did write some wonderful religious pieces, they were never meant to be part of church services; they were always meant as stand-alone performance pieces for a secular audience.

Bach on the other hand wrote cantatas and anthems for use within the church service. There were always exceptions, but as far as their ‘day jobs’ were concerned, Bach wrote for congregations, whereas Handel wrote for audiences. Bach spent almost all of his life in Germany, the last 23 years in Leipzig as head of music at the cathedral. It appears that he became dissatisfied. The majority of his letters were burnt by his children after his death, but enough survived to show that he became very disillusioned with his lot. He considered the pros and cons of moving away or staying in his prestigious, secure well-paid job. He actually stayed, his main preoccupation being to earn a living for his family. In retrospect we put such people on pedestals, but very few achieved fame in their own lifetime. Bach also complained that by the time he fulfilled the demands of his boss, he did not have time for the things that he wanted to do. However he did have some free time, since he got married twice and fathered 20 children.

Handel seems to have had the ability to be in the right place at the right time. When he was in his mid-twenties he moved to London. Within four years of his arrival Queen Anne died, and Prince George of Hanover became King George of England. Handel had worked for George while in Germany, so he was ideally placed to become court composer. At this time, England itself was changing. The middle classes were becoming more prominent; they had substantial disposable incomes, and liked to attend concerts. Their ‘concerts’ were social occasions. Audiences would take food and drink with them, chat with their friends, play cards, flirt – whatever they fancied. It was a measure of a composer’s success if the audience actually listened to his music.

As concerts became popular, the British public acquired a taste for opera. At first they were all Italian imports, but public opinion slowly turned against the underlying Catholic sympathies in them, and audiences demanded words that they could understand. The reaction produced the first truly English opera, The Beggars’ Opera, put together by John Gay. It had none of the merits associated with Italian opera; it was about a highwayman and the low life of London, but it reflected people’s everyday lives. It included a number of London street songs, some of them quite bawdy, but it was an instant success.

The Beggar’s Opera was revived in the 1920s, with music by Kurt Weill and words by Bertholt Brecht. It was re-titled The Threepenny Opera, its most popular aria being Mack the Knife. When we listen to that tune, we are hearing something that had its origins in 1720s London, written as a reaction against Italian opera.

George I died, George II came to the throne, and Handel wrote four anthems for his coronation. The most popular one, which has been performed at every coronation since, was Zadok the Priest.

In 1750 the Foundling Hospital in London was having financial difficulties. Handel staged a charity performance of the Messiah to raise funds for it. It seems to be the first major charity concert in Britain, possibly in Europe. There might have been smaller, more parochial ones, but this seems to have been the first major one. Bach had died in 1750 and Handel died in 1759; with them the Baroque Era really came to an end. All the rules and restrictions that had initially beset Vivaldi, Bach and Handel had been pushed aside.

Something had to change; when it did change, it gave rise to the Classical Era. Classical is now used as a genre for the type of music we have dicussed, but the Classical Era in its original sense only lasted from about 1750 to the 1830s. The great innovation of that era was the symphony, the great exponent of which was Josef Haydn. He worked for the Esterhazy family, an incredibly wealthy dynasty who belonged to the Austrian nobility. Haydn was virtually given a free hand to write music, as long as he produced what the family liked. The family liked symphonies, and Haydn wrote at least 104 of them. As compositions became more complicated and orchestras got bigger, composers would stand in front of the players, instructing them in how they should play. As this became more formal, conductors became essential parts of orchestras. The baton, so familiar now, did not emerge until about 1820 (the earlier conductors just waved their arms around).

The other great name of the Classical era was baptised Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, which he changed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was the most talented, gifted, complete musician of his era. He was composing by the age of 5, and writing operas and symphonies by the time he was 12. His father Leopold took the young Wolfgang around Europe, performing for influential people in prestigious venues. However when the time came to get a secure and lucrative post, Mozart’s reputation as uncooperative and unreliable was to his detriment.

Wolfgang stayed in Vienna, hoping for commissions, but he got very few. It was an expensive place to live, but that was where musicians had to be if they wanted success. He taught, published, performed, took short term jobs, took commissions, married, and had a family. His output was prodigious, but illness and debt were a constant strain on his health. In 1791 a few weeks before his thirty-fifth birthday, he died.

It may be hard to believe now, but Mozart was not that popular in Vienna; he was more popular in Prague, where several of his major works were first performed. Certainly his death left his wife Constantia in debt, and she did a sterling job of marketing his music to anyone and everyone – performers, entrepreneurs, theatre managers, and publishers. It is thanks to her efforts that so much of his work is available to us today.

Our grieving for Mozart should not be too long; in the same month that Mozart died, Beethoven celebrated his 21st birthday. Like Bach, he was born in Bonn, and went to Vienna in his early twenties, where he made his name as a performer, playing his own as well as other people’s works.

Though popular with audiences Beethoven, was going deaf. He consulted several doctors, one of whom suggested that fresh air, rest and quiet might restore his hearing. In the summer of 1802 he went to a village called Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. His self-imposed exile did not help and he came to terms with the fact that he was becoming deaf. He wrote what became known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, addressed to his brothers, but not found until after his death. In it he talked of the professional and social problems of going deaf. It was clear that he contemplated suicide, but he said that such was the power of music within him that he could not leave this earth until he had released it.

He returned to Vienna, a few months before his 32nd birthday, knowing that his life had to change. He was not one to mope, and he embarked on the most prolific 10 years of his life. The mature and major part of his output was during those 10 years.

After 10 years he was engaged in a legal wrangle which stopped him composing for 7 or 8 years. When he returned to composing he was completely deaf, but he produced two of his greatest works – the Missa Solemnis (solemn mass) and the Ninth Symphony, in which he set Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ to music in the final movement. Both used soloists, a large choir, and in the case of the symphony a very large orchestra as well.

Beethoven died in 1827 aged 56. He died of liver failure after years of heavy drinking. Though his death was a rather undignified affair, at his funeral 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to pay their respects. The difference between his funeral and that of Mozart was less a comparison of the two composers and more an indication of the extent to which music had moved on. Beethoven was the leader of that group that had made music popular and his death left a void.

By the Victorian era, music was no longer the artisan trade that it had been – it was a much wider subject. This was the start of the music academy, the conservatoire. Music also came into the home, with families singing around the piano. The advent of recording at the end of the nineteenth century meant that the sound of great voices could be saved for future generations. During the twentieth century films became ‘talkies’, and people began to writing music especially for the cinema. Also the advent of broadcasting made other types of music available to the general public; this applied particularly to America, which produced the blues, jazz, country, Latin American music. Even ‘classical’ music was not always behaving itself; a fellow called John Cage wrote a piece called Four Minutes Thirty-three Seconds, which consisted of 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence. A film made of a performance shows a pianist walking onto the stage, sitting at the piano, and then doing nothing for the duration of the piece.

Another American, Stephen Reich, suspended microphones above amplifiers, and swung them to and fro to produce sounds. To ask, ‘Is that music?’ is like asking, ‘Is a cow in formaldehyde or an unmade bed to be considered as art?’

This talk started with the statement that nobody knows where music came from, and it ends by saying that no-one knows where it is going.

Dave Edwards


Caerwent (by John Barnard, chairman of the Friends Group)

Most people in this area are aware of Caerwent, now a village of some 1,200 people. However during the Roman occupation of Wales it was called Venta Silurium (‘market place of the Silures’) and was the regional capital of south east Wales.

The Roman town was established in AD75, when the Romans persuaded some of the Silures tribe to move to Venta Silurium from Llanmelin Hillfort. By 100AD they had adopted a Roman livestyle.

After another 100 years soldiers started to retire from army & live in Caerwent. In the church is an altar stone dedicated to Mars and Ocelus. It was set up by an optio  (second in command to the centurion), as a thanks for looking after him during his military service. It appears to be a portable version which could be set up anywhere, suggesting that worshippers might have taken their own altars to the temple.

Besides being a market town for the immediate area, Venta Silurium was an important junction of several Roman roads and staging post for the cursus publicus (the Roman courier system).

2,000 years ago, before the Nedern Brook became clogged with silt, it was navigable as far as Caerwent, facilitating the import of goods such as wine, oil and pottery. In part the river changed due to the building of a weir (at Deepweir).The invasion formalised trade links that the Romans already had with Britannia, having come for many years to buy iron ore, copper, and even gold.

In the centre of Caerwent were a marketplace and basilica; the marketplace was a venue for public meetings, while the basilica acted as council chamber, law court, treasury, and venue for regional governor’s meetings.

The Silures were eventually granted their own city state, the right to govern themselves, by Tiberius Claudius Paulinus. The Silures in turn erected a statue to him in the forum; the base of that statue, with dedicatory inscription, survives and stands in the porch of Caerwent Church. The Silures had progressed from troublesome tribe to civilised society; they now had the right to raise taxes and revenue for their town.

Adjoining the main east-west road running through the town was a blacksmith’s shop. Excavation showed that the front contained the commercial premises, with the living quarters at the rear. The smith would have made the tools and artefacts needed by an agricultural community, and in doing so became wealthy himself. He probably had a mosaic floor constructed in his living area.

The walls and towers enclosing Caerwent were the last things constructed there. The walls now stand to a height of 17 feet (5 metres) in places, but would have originally been 25 feet high (7 metres).Some reconstructive illustrations show the walls topped with castellation, but there is no evidence that the walls were built that way. Also, no evidence of Roman construction outside the walls has been found.

Once the Roman army was withdrawn (traditionally in 410AD) Caerwent could not sustain the prestige it had accumulated. As it began to lose its influence and wealth, a lot of the buildings would have been systematically demolished. The south gate was probably blocked up at around that time. The land became farmland belonging to the priory, and the previous wealth was lost.

There is evidence to suggest that a Christian priory was established at Caerwent by 550AD, and that pilgrims visited.

The land finally fell into the hands of the Morgan family, one member of which became Lord Tredegar. When they renovated the village cross at Caerwent, they turned over a large stone slab and discovered that it was the base of the statue dedicated to Paulinus, mentioned earlier. The people who found it assumed that since Caerleon could be translated as ‘fortress of the legions’, then Caerwent must be ‘fortress of the woods’, the idea that this was a fortress being supported by the presence of the enclosing walls. However further investigation showed that Caerwent was a civilian settlement.

They set up an exploration fund, most of the money being donated by Lord Tredegar, and proceeded to systematically excavate the site over a period of 15 years. They found and mapped the foundations of the various buildings, producing the plan of Caerwent which is still used today.

At various points the interior of the walls are exposed, showing the strength of their construction, and the reason that they have survived for 2,000 years.

To the north of Caerwent village, is the Royal Ordnance Factory; that factory was sited there because it was close to a river, a railway, and far away from a large population. Also all the stone used in the construction of Roman Caerwent had been quarried out of the surrounding hills, leaving natural bunkers which could be used as blast bunkers, essential for keeping possible explosions as localised as possible.

Within the Royal Ordnance Factory perimeter is a small hill called Whitewall Brake, north east of Caerwent village. On it is a large villa dating back to the late Roman period. This was excavated as part of Operation Nightingale, a project to involve and rehabilitate injured ex-service personnel. Phil Harding, well known member of the Channel 4’s Time Team programme, has become a patron of Operation Nightingale.

On the north side of the town, near the A48, the enclosing walls have been robbed almost to ground level, the material being used to build Chepstow Castle, and many a stone church between Caerwent and Chepstow.

Dave Edwards


The Newport Ship, by Phil Cox (Chairman, Friends of the Newport Ship)

During 2002 contractors were preparing the foundations f

or the Newport Theatre and Arts Centre on the bank of the River Usk. Deep in the mud they found some ancient wood. When the archaeologists were called in they declared it to be the remains of an ancient ship, possibly fifteenth century.

They could not be certain about the reason for her being abandoned at Newport, they did not even know her name, but examination of the timbers, artefacts and discarded rubbish gave clues to where she was built, and the ports between which she traded.

Dendrochronology (tree ring dating) indicated that she was built in the Basque country of northern Spain using trees cut in 1449 and that she was repaired with British-grown trees in about 1465. The mast step (a notch in the keel timber intended to take the bottom of the mast) was split, so she might have come to Newport in 1468 to repair a broken mast. She is a late example of the clinker system of building ships, under which each timber overlaps the one below it, the timbers being secured with rivets.

The craft appears to have been 35.5 metres long, nearly 9 metres beam, with a draught of 3.8 metres and a cargo capacity of 200 tons. Besides the main mast, she must have had two other masts for directional stability.

This was quite a large vessel for its time - over 1,700 timbers and 1,000 artefacts were recovered, all beautifully preserved by the Newport mud. She was big enough and strong enough to have crossed the Atlantic – she was bigger than the Santa Maria (Columbus’ ship), which was constructed in the same yard but later.

Moving forward 70 years to the Mary Rose, ships were built using the carvel method, under which each timber was designed to be flush with those above and below it. This meant that the framework of the ship could be built first, and the outer planks applied after. The advantage of carvel building is that holes can be cut in the hull for guns, etc., something that cannot be done with a clinker-built vessel.

We know that the Newport ship traded with Portugal, came into Newport for repair in late spring 1468, when she was put in a side pill (tributary stream) at high tide. Whatever support she was given as the tide went out was inadequate, because she fell over. For reasons unknown she was then abandoned – everything worthwhile was removed and the rest was allowed to sink into the mud.
The name ‘Newport’ indicates that it was a ‘new port’, the old one being Caerleon, which had been in use since Roman times. Caerleon probably fell out of use due to silting of the River Usk over the centuries.

When the site was opened to the public, they had 17,000 visitors in 11 hours, spread over 2 days. Another open afternoon a week later had 5,000 visitors from all over the world.

The Welsh government provided a grant to disassemble the ship, recover the timbers and put them in storage. Most of it was taken to Llanwern steelworks and stored in cold water pending further decisions. Over 3,000 timbers were recovered in total, some of the pieces weighing over a ton. 92 piles had already been put in by the contractors, 17 of which pierced the ship’s hull.

A plan of the surviving part of the hull shows its structure. The one side is very neatly cut off, possibly because in Victorian times a new wharf was put in and the ship’s timbers cut back to accommodate it. Bits of timber were scavenged from it, and what is left constitutes the world’s largest jigsaw, especially as there are some pieces missing and there is no overall picture.

At the and time she was built, the squared off design was starting to become popular, and the shape of the timbers in front of the stern section suggests that she had the ‘modern’ square stern. The timbers were laboriously washed by volunteers from nine different countries. Also the pieces were marked, measured and fitted into an overall 3-dimensional picture of the ship. The drawings were given to Cardiff University and they produced a model. The timbers are now in such excellent condition that the carpenters’ marks can be seen.

Looking briefly at the methods used by the medieval shipbuilders, they would take logs and split them down to make planks, using an adze to shape the surface.
The tools used were mainly adzes and axes; on the timbers there were very few saw marks, suggesting that saws were little used. Saws were limited in use, whereas craftsmen had the skills to use adzes and axes in shaping timber.

It was only 4 years ago that dendrochronology (tree ring dating) identified exactly where the timbers came from. That analysis indicates that the trees were cut before 1450, and that they came from the forests behind San Sebastian and Bilbao, in the Basque country. Traditional skills were used in constructing the craft – a carpenter cut and shaped the numerous pieces of timber and a blacksmith fashioned the 27,000 rivets which held them together. A small drill was used to make holes for the rivets and a larger one was used to bore holes for the tree nails (the wooden ‘nails’ which attached the planks to the frame). Those treenails had become locked in place and had to be cut by the archaeologists before the ship could be taken apart.

In a hole cut into the fore part of the keel, a Betty Blum, (a French silver coin) was found. The style, shape and design of the coin indicate that it was minted during a 3 months in 1447. The coin had been placed in the hole and covered with tallow to preserve it, presumably to bring luck to the ship.

Also found in the bilge were two Portuguese coins from the reign of Alfonso V (1438-1481), plus merchants’ tokens. A merchant’s token was given in change for money paid for goods, encouraging the buyer to return to the same merchant.

The remains of wood-boring pests were found. One beetle found was common in central and southern Europe; it is the first time it has been known in Britain, suggesting that the ship spent most of its time in the Mediterranean. Some human fleas were found, along with bark beetles. Since the shipboard environment contained dog fleas, lice, flies and other vermin, it was not an ideal place to be.

We know what the crew ate because we found the bones – chicken, fish, etc. The victuals carried and caught had to be enough to feed the crew of 30 people. The chicken bones contained the marks where the cook chopped up the chicken before throwing them into the pot, and the marks where the sailors scraped the meat from the bones with their knives; then there were marks on the bones where the rats had their share; then marks on the rat bones showed that had been gnawed by dogs.

Pilgrimages were in vogue at that time, one of the most popular being to ‘walk the way of St James’, which went from France through the western Pyrenees, across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the purpose being to visit the remains of St James. That trip can still be done today, but by coach. Those who had made the journey signified this by hanging a scallop shell around their necks, suspended by a leather lace. One excavation featured on the Time Team programme was of a leper’s grave; one of the objects found was a scallop shell, showing that he had made that journey.

The seeds and leaves found show the cargo carried to Britain – nuts, grapes, apples, herbs, pomegranates, dates, mustard – all left traces in the ship’s hold. On return to the Iberian Peninsula she carried pilgrims and good British cloth. Over 50% of the detritus in the hold was made up of juniper gorse seeds; the gorse would have been used in Portugal to line the ship’s hold before the barrels were stored.

Over 500 shards of pottery were found, all Portuguese. No complete pots were found because she had been scavenged before being abandoned. A small wooden bowl – only 5 inches across – was one of the artefacts discovered; each man on the ship would have had his own bowl, with a mark identifying it as his personal bowl.

Shoe parts were found, including ‘long-toed’ shoes. On board ship, the sailors would have gone barefoot, but worn the shoes on land. Moss was found in the toes, believed to produce an upward curl in the toes.

The handle of a knife was found and a complete knife has been reconstructed, showing how it might have been. This was the typical sailor’s knife, with which he would have used for cutting up his food, cutting the rigging, etc. It is almost exactly the same as the knife used by more modern sailors.

It was a leaky old ship, as clinker-built craft were. No matter how much oakum was put between the planks, water still came through, so pumps were used to expel water from the bilges; pieces of the bilge pumps were found in the hold.

One of the features of the Newport Ship Project is that it is the most completely documented project ever, and the archive is the most complete archive ever. Everything that has been written about it is available on-line. Also two articles about the ship, by Nigel Neyland and Toby Jones, have been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

The Newport ship (1460) fills a gap in the sequence: the Bremen Cob 1380, Cabot’s Matthew from 1497 (though a rebuild) and the Mary Rose 1545 - there is no surviving ship from the fourteenth century that is comparable.

A business plan has been prepared and is being critically appraised. It seeks to demonstrate that a museum in private hands could be viable. By charging £8 or £9 entry fee to 55,000 visitors per year, it could pay its way. By comparison, the SS Great Britain in Bristol attracts 120,000 visitors. If a museum gets 55,000 visitors it is a local museum but becomes a national museum if it attracts 100,000 people, increasing its ability to raise even more funds.

The arts centre is now complete and has a plaque indicating where the ship was found. A diorama of the scene as it may have been in 1470 is being prepared, the Heritage Lottery Fund providing the money.

Dave Edwards



Gwent 1915 (by Peter Strong)

This talk is divided into three main parts – how Monmouthshire army units fared on land, how the war at sea progressed, and the effects on the home front.

An article published in the South Wales Argus in 1914 said, “On the surface there appears to be little change. No stranger who walks through the streets of Newport would guess that we were at war, if it were not for the newsboys who shout out the news. So far, the town has not been hard hit; we have felt no real pinch.”

This was almost certainly something of an understatement. The war might have been only a few months old, but already by the end of 1914, half of the regular soldiers of the British expeditionary force in Flanders had been killed or wounded. Prices were rising rapidly, causing problems for poorer families; many people had lost their jobs or suffered other hardships as a result of the economic disruption caused by the war.

There had been an immediate rush to join up at the start of the war in 1914, but this enthusiasm had faded by 1915. However there was still a steady stream of volunteers for the services. The Monmouthshire Regiment comprised three battalions, known as the First, Second and Third Mons.

The First Mons was drawn mainly from the Severnside villages between Newport and Chepstow, but also from the area around Blackwood; the Second Mons was recruited from the eastern valley and Pontypool, while the Third Mons had its headquarters in Abergavenny and was drawn mostly from Blaenau Gwent. By February 1915, all three battalion were in Flanders, where the men’s skills as miners were very quickly put to good use, tunnelling under German lines.

In the spring of 1915, troops were landed at Gallipoli in Turkey, in an attempt to outflank the enemy. Outnumbered, they were quickly pinned down by enemy forces, confined to a small beachhead.

In Gwent the Gallipoli Campaign is also known for its first Victoria Cross of the war, awarded to Able Seaman William Williams of Chepstow. A sailor on board a troopship, he stood in the water for many hours, accompanied by an officer, holding a rope to stabilise small boats forming a disembarkation bridge. Though Williams himself was killed, his steadfastness under heavy fire undoubtedly saved many lives. He was the first naval rating to be awarded the Victoria Cross for 50 years.

By May 1915 the three battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment found themselves in same vicinity, defending the lines during the second Battle of Ypres. Starting on 22nd of April, the battle is remembered for the first use of poison gas. The 2nd Mons played their part, but it was the 1st and 3rd Mons who bore the brunt of the fighting. On 8th May, long known as Monmouthshire’s black day, both of those battalions were decimated. The 3rd Mons had been in the line at Ypres for some time, and had suffered quite badly throughout that first week of May, having had several days of heavy shelling leading to a mounting casualty rate.

However for the 3rd Mons there was worse to come. On May 8th, they were at a salient (or bulge) in the front line, when Germans infantry launched 3 separate attacks on the British trenches. The battalion fought heroically but was heavily outnumbered, and suffered appalling casualties. They were in an impossible position, and were ordered to withdraw 400 yards and stabilise the line. Even then some refused to obey and fought on until totally overwhelmed.

Meanwhile several miles to the north, the first Mons was suffering a similar fate. The Germans had launched a massive artillery attack at 4.00am supported by gas, followed by wave after wave of infantry. The battalion put up a stout resistance, but the trenches were only makeshift, the barbed wire was inadequate, and at that stage of the war they did not even have steel helmets, they had little artillery support and their position became untenable.

By noon, the Germans were beginning to outflank the Monmouthshires and they were in grave danger of being surrounded. The Germans called on Captain Harold Edwards to surrender; he replied, ”Surrender be damned!” a quote which has become part of battalion mythology. They did manage to organise a fighting retreat, consolidating the line half a mile back.

In both places ground had been conceded, but the line had not been broken, something that was crucially important. Had the Germans broken through at that point, they would have captured Ypres, the road to the channel ports would have been open, and our ability to fight the war in Flanders would have been severely impaired. That was done at tremendous cost in lives. All in all, according to the official reports, 211 members of the Mons died on that one day, with several more dying in the following few days. Since the start of the war, the regiment had lost 500 men.

On top of that many more were taken prisoner. Of the 83 officers and 1,000 men who had arrived at Ypres, only 4 officers and 131 men were left unscathed at the end of May 8th. During the course of the battle, all three battalions lost their commanding officers. Col Robinson (first Mons) while trying to rally his men, Col Cuthbertson (second Mons), Col Wolsey-Gough (third Mons) who was wounded and sent back to Britain.

In spite of the wartime censorship, a lot of the horror of what had happened that day was conveyed to the people of Gwent through soldiers’ letters, published in the local press. One example was a letter from Rifleman Robert Dixon of Newport, who wrote, “I believe our battalion is about wiped out. The first Mons opposed a strong attack, and as the Germans broke through on our right, we had to retire. We were mown down like corn.” For weeks after May 8th, the local newspapers were full of lists of dead, wounded and missing, with photographs of those who had lost their lives. As a result of those heavy losses, from May until July, those three battalions of the regiment were combined into a single, under-strength battalion. Fortunately, they were sent to relatively quiet parts of the line, or sent back to the rest and recuperation areas.

After the regiment was strengthened with recruits and reformed into three battalions, the first Mons was transferred to northern France, where it suffered another black day. On October 13th during the final stages of the Battle of Loos, the battalion lost 30 men, all but 3 having no known grave.

At sea, there were no major engagements between opposing fleets, but the Germans intensified their submarine attacks on allied and neutral ships. They declared that the area around British waters was now a war zone, and that ships would be likely to be attacked. Most infamous incident was the sinking of the British passenger liner ‘Lusitania’ on May 7th 1915. More than 1,000 civilians drowned, including many women and children.

Among the survivors were coal-owner DA Thomas, who lived at Llanwern House, and his daughter Margaret Lady Mackworth. After the ship was struck by a torpedo, Margaret went on deck, expecting to see an orderly evacuation, but instead saw a scene of utter chaos, with some 2,000 people milling around trying to get on lifeboats. After some hours in the water, DA and his daughter both reached the Irish port of Queenstown.

When the ship sank Margaret stayed silent, but in her memoirs years later she was less diplomatic. She criticised the ship’s company for their lack of organisation, but her main venom was directed at the British government for not giving the vessel enough protection and not providing an alternative course for the ship, avoiding the main area of danger.

On a lighter note, a poster for the Cardiff Evening Express read ‘Great National Disaster – DA Thomas Saved’. DA was quite amused by this, and kept a copy with his personal papers.

The campaigns by local communities to assist the war effort had got under way in 1914, and continued throughout the war. The Newbridge bandage brigade collected 10,000 bandages for the military hospitals, there were Belgian flag days, Russian flag days, Serbian flag days, rather unfortunately named ‘pansy days’ for sailors, and many others. There was a even a friendly rugby match between Abertillery and Pontypool, a conflict which is hard to imagine as ‘friendly’.

Children also played their part; in September 1915 the girls at Newbridge School collected 80 eggs for the soldiers, while one girl, Sarah Hopkins, single-handedly knitted 15 pairs of socks for the troops. She might have been so keen had she known that the troops were so overwhelmed with socks that they used them as rags to clean their rifles.

During the course of 1915, there were new opportunities opening up for women; the secretary of the Newport branch of the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks reflected this in the membership figures he published for the Newport branch. The number of men was greatly reduced by the number who had gone off to war, but this was more than compensated by the number of women employed. Prior to 1914, shop assistant was largely a man’s job, involving a lot of heavy lifting and carrying heavy goods. During the war, it increasingly became a female occupation. The same applied to a typist, which previously been a male profession, but became female orientated during the war.

The loss of men to the forces meant that labour was becoming short, especially in agriculture. However the farmers, as in the Second World War, were very reluctant to take on women. As the harvest approached in 1915, the speaker in the Monmouthshire Chamber of Agriculture said that women labour had not yet been touched. Instead the farmers urged the county council to release boys from school at the age of 12 so that they could help with the harvest. The county council refused this request, but did allow some boys over 13 to help on farms, considered on a case by case basis.

Price rises had been a feature of the early months of the war, and continued to be so into 1915, leading to serious industrial unrest. By April 1915 it was clear that miners were not prepared to accept price rises without a corresponding increase in their wages. Miners had received no increase in their wages for two years, even though coal owners’ profits had trebled.

One issue that seemed to exercise the authorities on the home front was the consumption of alcohol. The Defence of the Realm Act was invoked to restrict drinking for munitions workers, including Sunday closure within a 3-mile radius of a factory. When the law took effect, drinkers caught a train to Magor, causing mayhem in that normally quiet village. After several similar incidents, Magor’s licensing hours were restricted, restoring some rural tranquillity. Similar problems were encountered in other parts of the county.

By mid-1915 it had become very clear that the war was unlikely to end in the near future; casualties were averaging 5,000 a day for the country as a whole, and there was a mounting campaign in support of conscription. In an attempt to preserve national unity in the face of mounting opposition, the government introduced, a series of steps which progressively eroded the voluntary system, and what was labelled ‘creeping conscription’. Men aged 19 and 42 (I.e. military age) were asked to attest that they would come forward and volunteer for military service if required. They were told that no married men would be called up until all bachelors had been considered. As it turned out, nowhere near enough men attested to meet the demands of the army. Partly as a result, conscription was introduced in March 1916.

The year 1915 did indeed represent the death of innocence, the end of the dream that the war could be won by young enthusiastic volunteers. That naïve enthusiasm of August 1914 had been dissipated by 17 months of slaughter.

Dave Edwards


A Tinpot Idea – History of the Tinplate Industry (by Don Wood)

Tin was used in the ancient world to make bronze by mixing it with copper, bronze being the metal of choice for making weapons and armour. Tin has been known for about three thousand years. Cornwall has been a famous tin-mining centre, the Phoenicians even sailed from the eastern Mediterranean to trade in it.

Tin is a soft white metal which has a very low melting point and it coats other metals very successfully, particularly iron and steel. In coating them it provides them with a shiny surface which is resistant to both rust and attack by fruit acids. These properties make it very useful to the canning industry.

The first tinplate sheets were made by hammering iron into flat sheets or plates by hand or using water-powered hammer mills.

In the fourteenth century, tinplate was used to create bowls for use with food. It was made mainly in Bohemia, and used by ‘whitesmiths’ to decorate metal items.

In the sixteenth century another use was found for tin-coated metal – wealthy people in the towns and cities were required to hang tinplate lanterns outside their doors to deter footpads, the first form of street lighting.

When the Thirty Years War started in 1618, tinplate could not be imported from Bohemia, and Britain had to make its own. The traditional method of making sheet for tinplating by pounding with a hammer proved to be difficult, and the result was often not level enough or thin enough.

The solution proposed by the tinplate manufacturers was to use a rolling mill to reduce the thickness of the plate, putting it through while it was hot. It did not retard the rate at which the metal cooled, so once the plate had been put through the rollers once it was doubled over and put through again. This was repeated several times, ending up with several thin layers of sheet metal. By this means tinplate manufacture was improved tremendously.

During the nineteenth century the iron was replaced by steel. Henry Bessemer had developed a process of blowing air through molten iron to produce steel, this being stronger and more workable than iron of equivalent weight. However Bessemer’s process did not remove phosphorus from the iron. Gilchrist and Thomas modified the Bessemer converter; lining it with dolomite (a lime-rich rock) instead of sand. The iron produced by this process was so pure that it was very easy to roll into the very thin sheets required for making tinplate, and gave a much superior product to that originally imported from Bohemia.

Between 1870 and 1900 tinplate sold for three times the cost of making it, and many people invested money this burgeoning industry. The result was a boom in tinplate manufacture, and small works proliferated. Inevitably the industry expanded until the market was saturated, prices fell and many investors lost money. This gave rise to the phrase ‘A Tinpot Idea’.

The canning of foodstuffs, now the principal use of tinplate, started when Napoleon Bonaparte offered a prize for a method of preserving food for his troops. Nicolas Appert put forward the idea of heating up the food in glass jars and then sealing them (known today as Kilner jars). The system worked very well, but glass is not the ideal material to be carried in large quantities by troops on campaign.

Several years later, Peter Durand and Phillippe de Girard took the idea a stage further and proposed using tin cans instead of glass jars. These were iron containers coated with tin inside and outside, with lids on top. Those early tins were much larger than those used today, and were opened with hammer and chisel! However they were a big improvement on previous attempts at preserving food.

There was one unexpected drawback with the method. The food was cooked in the cans with small holes in the lids to allow the steam to escape. At the end of cooking the holes were sealed with solder, which contained poisonous lead.

Messrs Durand and Girard sold the patent to Bryan Donkin and John Hall, who developed the business and started producing canned food in large quantities. The major difficulty they had was cooking time - it took 6 hours. Their solution was to reduce the size of the cans. Their main markets were the army, the navy and explorers. However by 1850 tinned food had been adopted as a status symbol by the middle class.

During the 1914-18 War, an enormous amount of canned food was produced, giving such delicacies to the troops as bully beef (corned beef to us), and Maconochie’s Irish Stew.

Just before the war, in 1900, a new type of can had been invented; this did not have to be sealed using solder. Instead the tinplate was double folded, making a solder-free container which was much healthier for customers.

At that time Caldicot had its own tinplate works, situated at Caldicot Pill near the railway level crossing. It first operated as a wireworks, an offshoot of the one at Tintern. Eventually the wireworks closed and it reopened some ten years later to make tinplate, with its own ‘tinpot’ for dipping the steel.

It was in operation as a tinplate works by 1853; that was confirmed by the records of Portskewett School, since 6 children were withdrawn from the school due to the closure of the tinplate works. It seems that the works was in use intermittently, depending on receipt of orders. It was certainly in operation again between 1889 and 1898, since many Caldicot weddings involved tinplate workers. Those workers were living at Caldicot Pill, which was something of a shanty town.

The house at the Pill had been built to house some of the workers who built the Severn Tunnel; they were owned by absentee landlords – who collected the rents but never did repairs – and four families in each house was commonplace. The Pill was known as ‘Bees Ditch’; it had a pub (the Pill House), a tin church (St Michael’s).and its own shop (Britton’s).

A map of the area dated 1901 shows Caldicot Pill as a small self-contained group of houses, separate from the rest of Caldicot. After about 1910, no tinplate was produced there, but it still made and decorated articles from tinplate, the material being bought from elsewhere. They made such thing as biscuit boxes and tin trays, decorated with printed designs. Later they made such things from aluminium instead, producing articles such as pots and pans.

The tinplate industry barely survived the Second World War because the pack rolling system they had used was not as efficient as an American system installed at Ebbw Vale Works. The American system differed from the traditional method in that a six inch steel slab was heated until it was yellow-hot, then passed through several sets of rolls, rather than being passed many times through one set. Consequently what went into the mill as a six-inch slab came out as sheet which was maybe a twentieth of an inch thick. A side effect of this was that if the material entered the mill at three miles an hour, then it emerged at thirty miles an hour, and had to be caught and coiled. Having made the coil, it became a lot easier to coat it with tin, especially if the coating was applied when the coil made its final pass through the mill.

Another development in the process resulted in a much thinner and more controlled coating, by using an electric current to transfer tin from a sold block of tin, called an anode, to the surface of the steel strip. Also they found that the thickness of the coating applied depended on the strength of the electric current. Another advantage was that coatings of different thicknesses could be applied to the top and bottom surfaces. When the coated strip came out of the mill, it was then put through a furnace to ‘flow’ the tin, then quenched and coiled up again.

That process operated at Ebbw Vale towards the end of the Secord World War and immediately afterwards, and led eventually to the establishment of two specialist works – one at Velindre outside Swansea, and one at Trostre near Llanelly. Now that Ebbw Vale and Velindre have closed, Trostre is the only works still producing tinplate.

Dave Edwards



Atlantis – Myth or Fact (a Talk by Dr Dorothy Whitcombe)

Atlantis has been a matter of controversy for a long time – people have been discussing for more than 2,000 years as to whether it was a real place or fiction. On a Greek holiday, Dr Dorothy Whitcombe read a book on the subject, entitled ‘The End of Atlantis’ by J.V. Luce, and wanted to explore some of the locations mentioned. The talk includes a description of how the story came about, an examination of possible locations, and an attempt answer the question, “What happened to the people?”

In 590 BC an Athenian named Solon visited various places around the Mediterranean, including the city of Sais in Egypt. There a local historian told him the story of Atlantis, a land and a people who used to trade with Egypt, but who disappeared very suddenly.

Solon was intrigued by this story. He made notes, with the intention of writing a saga on his return to Athens. Unfortunately he never did. The legend was retold verbally until Plato go to know of it, nearly 100 years after Solon first heard the story. The account does not say whether Solon had passed on his notes, but the level of detail suggests that he did. When Plato published his works,he had to think of a name for the land, so he called it ‘Atlantis’ believing it to be in the Atlantic Ocean.

Reactions from Plato’s contemporaries were not favourable. Aristotle cynically observed, “The man who dreamed it up made it vanish.” Plato himself was not sure whether it was true or not.

Crantor, who edited Plato’s work, decided to check the evidence in Egypt. There, he was told that Atlantis was an empire, being an island group centred around one main island.

Plato created a diagram of what the city looked like. It was roughly circular; within that circle of land was an area of water which contained harbours, and within that was a hill which had a palace and a temple. Access to the sea was via a canal.

He was also told that the people were extremely wealthy, they had a land which was rich in minerals, metals and timber, they were traders, they had elephants and dolphins, they wore blue robes and they hunted bulls in the temple.

The Egyptians had told Solon that to get to Atlantis, one went from the small sea through the strait into the large sea. Plato interpreted this as ‘to find Atlantis, go from the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and into the Atlantic Ocean’.

A lot of people have looked for Atlantis out in the Atlantic Ocean, or in Mexico. There is a submarine ridge of volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Islands do appear and disappear, especially around Iceland. However the portion near the Straits of Gibraltar is a mile below the surface, making the idea of Atlantis sinking in the Atlantic unlikely. Also there are no traces of buildings on or near that mid-Atlantic ridge. The concept that Atlantis was in Mexico is even more unlikely, since it depends on the idea that seafarers would cross 3,000 miles of ocean and the length of the Mediterranean to trade with the Egyptians.

Another suggestion depends on the confusion between two Greek words: meson and mezon. One of them means ‘larger than’ and the other means ‘between’. If Plato confused these two words, then his description ‘larger than Libya and Asia’ becomes ‘midway between Libya and Asia’, which in this context makes a lot more sense. Midway between Libya and Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) are several islands. Also the instruction to ‘go from the small sea through the strait into the large sea’ could mean ‘go from Athens through the straits into the Aegean Sea’. In that area is the volcanic island of Santorini or Thira, a possible site for Atlantis.

The central portion of the Santorini is an active volcano, but until recently little was known about its ancient history. It appears that there was a huge eruption in about 1500BC, and the island contains ruins from that era. Plato had said that Atlantis sank in a day and a night, consistent with a volcanic activity.

The eruption must have come suddenly; in one of the shops they were doing some building work. There was a bedroom, the end of which was being partitioned off to create a bathroom. The bath had been installed and men had come to render the walls. They had mixed the plaster, left the bowl containing it on the window sill and a cat had trodden in it. All this suggests that people departed in great haste. However, no bodies, precious things, jewellery or money were found during excavation, so the population probably had time gather a few possessions before they escaped. The evidence does not support any conjecture about the sequence of events or the fate of the populace, but it does fit with the Egyptians’ tale of the city vanishing in a day and a night. That eruption caused a tsunami, producing waves 200 feet high on the coast of Crete, seventy miles to the south.

Crete and Santorini had very similar civilizations, and there is a lot of evidence that they were trading over a wide area, even going into Africa. A range of exotic goods was available in both islands.

Legends associated with bulls seem to occur in both islands. The palace of Knossos is known for bull-fighting (or bull leaping). The story of Theseus recounts how the Greeks had to pay a tribute of twelve young people to the Cretans. These young people had to learn how to do the bull leaping, and could be released if they managed it well enough. Bulls were mentioned in Solon’s account, and wall paintings show illustrations of bulls and bull leaping.

The only clue as to what happened to the people is a short quotation from the Bible, in the Book of Amos: the Lord God said ‘I brought the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete)’. The Philistines gave their name to the country in which they eventually settled (Palestine). Therefore the Palestinians may have descended from the people of Atlantis!

Dave Edwards



Caerleon Amphitheatre and the First Christian Martyrs

  1. The July session of the History Group had a tour of Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre, conducted by Dr Mark Lewis, museum curator. The talk emphasized its connection with Julius and Aaron, the first Christian martyrs in Britain.
  2. An amphitheatre is a ‘theatre in the round’, since amphi- means on both sides or all around. Caerleon is one of the most completely excavated and best understood amphitheatres in Britain.
  3. Until 1926 the amphitheatre was just an oval sloping bowl structure, none of the walls of the amphitheatre being visible. This was just a field on the outskirts of Caerleon. It had become famous over the previous 800 years because a monk in Oxford named Galfridus Monemutensis (Geoffrey of Monmouth) had in 1135AD written a history of the kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae). In this work, he mentions Caerleon a total of 13 times; one of these being a reference to King Arthur holding court and games at Caerleon at Whitsuntide.
  4. Significantly the games were held outside the city walls, supporting the idea that Caerleon was the venue. There is no provable link between Caerleon and King Arthur, but that literary quote meant that this field became known as The Round Table Field, and was even marked on old maps as such. References to Caerleon were also made by Geraldus Cambrensis and William Camden.
  5. In the 1920s Caerleon was a suburb of Newport and was coming under threat of development within the area of the fortress itself. Consequently Mortimer Wheeler, then Keeper of Archaeology at the University of Wales and later Sir Mortimer Wheeler, was asked to excavate and preserve the archaeology before it was destroyed by the housing planned for the centre of the town.
  6. Wherever possible they purchased the land in advance of the developers and kept it open, transferring it to the Ministry of Works in its existing state. It is thanks to their efforts that we have about a third of the fortress preserved under grass, now in the care of Cadw.
    The amphitheatre was not affected by that development, but when Wheeler put out the plea for funds to excavate the areas under threat, the Daily Mail offered to sponsor the digs and print reports on the progress made.
  7. When the Daily Mail was first approached they sent their man to Cardiff and by midnight the same day, they had thrashed out a deal – the paper would purchase the field and fund its excavation to the tune of £1,000, a considerable sum in 1926. The excavators then laid railway tracks and tramlines through much of the field and moved material totalling 30,000 tons from the arena. By the completion of the dig, the total sum spent was more than £3,000.
  8. Wheeler felt that the Mail had been so generous that they deserved a discrete project which they could call the ‘Daily Mail Project’. Wheeler’s biographer said that he gave two reasons for choosing the amphitheatre: firstly it was free from later building, and secondly he thought that this site was likely to attract the funding necessary for a long term excavation.
  9. The biographer interpreted this as an intention to ‘milk’ the link with Arthur’s Round Table to maximise the funds available for the project. He added that Wheeler was sponsored by the Knights of the Round Table of America, who produced a publication called Excalibur, which contained reports on the excavation.
  10. Wheeler’s statements only mention the Roman amphitheatre, and stressed that no trace of Arthur was ever found. Subsequent analysis of Wheeler’s reports suggest that he did not attempt to mislead his American benefactors – he merely stated that he wished to excavate ‘Arthur’s Round Table Field’, and allowed their imaginations to do the rest. Wheeler could be viewed as the first media archaeologist, who could publicise as well as dig.
  11. From later accounts, it appears that if they had several days when nothing of significance was discovered, they would take something from the museum collection that had come from another site in Caerleon, or even Caerwent, and say that it had been found in the amphitheatre.
    Wheeler had already taken a job in London, having decided it was time to move on, so it was left to his wife Tessa Verney Wheeler to undertake the excavation.
  12. She was an archaeologist in her own right and she directed this excavation. Such was her commitment that she would not leave the project even though her home had moved to London. It is to the Daily Mail’s credit that they bought the field, funded the excavation and gifted the field to the nation via the Ministry of Works once the excavation had finished.
  13. Back in the 3rd century AD, Julius and Aaron were two Roman soldiers who adopted Christianity and therefore refused to worship the pantheon of Roman gods, including the emperor. For their crime they would have been tried at Caerwent by the regional governor, sentenced to death and returned to Caerleon for execution.
  14. Their names first enter our literary record in the sixth century, not long after the Roman period, when a monk called Gildas wrote his De Excidio Britanniae (‘the Ruin of Britain’). A quote from his book says, ‘in the year 301AD two saints, Julius and Aaron were martyred for their Christian faith in the city of the legions.’
  15. At that time there were three places accorded the title ‘city of the legions’ – Caerleon, Chester and York. The latter two, unlike Caerleon, have no literary connection with Julius or Aaron.
  16. Moving forward a century and a half to 731AD the Venerable Bede, in his ‘History of the English Church and People’, says, under the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, in the same persecution as Saint Alban was martyred suffered Julius and Aaron, citizens of the city of legions and many others throughout this land. When the storm of persecution had come to an end, shrines to the martyrs were founded and completed, and openly displayed everywhere as tokens of victory .
  17. It is plain that Bede was cognisant with Gildas’ work and well aware that under the persecution of Diocletian, there had been a martyrdom of two Roman citizens, and that martyr churches had been erected over their graves. Sites of other known martyr churches include Merthyr Tydfil (Tydfil the Martyr) and Mathern (Merthyr Tewdrig in Welsh). These shrines might have been timber originally, but seem to have survived long enough to be replaced in stone.
  18. About the time that Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing in 1135AD, the monks at Llandaff Cathedral were looking for paperwork which showed what land they owned and why they owned it. The diocese was being pillaged by the Diocese of Hereford and the Priory in Gloucester, now Gloucester Cathedral, all part of the marcher politics of the time.
  19. Those two did not recognise Llandaff as being important, so they attempted to acquire their tithes and tenants’ incomes. Consequently Llandaff had to defend itself and produce documents to support its ownership claims. By 1150AD these documents were written down in what became known as The Book of Llandaff, now in the National Library of Wales.
  20. In this work there is a section called The Life of Saint Dubricius (Dyfrig in Welsh). It records that Dubricius had once been Archbishop of Caerleon, and that he crowned the celebrated Arthur in the fifteenth year of his age. It then says that in later years Dubricius resigned his primacy of Llandaff to Saint Teilo, who credited the honours of the Archbishop of Caerleon to Saint David. Saint David then removed the archiepiscopal see to Menevia (now St David’s in Pembrokeshire).
  21. Until the nineteenth century, when the Church in Wales was disestablished, there was no separate Church of Wales. Instead Welsh churches were associated with two sees – those of York and Canterbury. There is no independent evidence that there ever was an archbishop of Caerleon, in spite of the reference in the Book of Llangaff.
  22. However the wandering minstrels of the medieval period used to recite poetry based on the venues mentioned in Geoffrey’s History of Britain – everything Celtic was in vogue. This suggests that in the Middle Ages, Caerleon and Caerwent were ‘places of legend’ – the whole of Europe knew not where they were, but they knew the ballads.
  23. Geoffrey of Monmouth had written: when the feast of Whitsuntide began to draw near, Arthur was quite overjoyed by great successes and decided to hold a plenary court at that season and place the crown of the kingdom upon his head.
  24. He summoned to the feast leaders who owed him homage and he would celebrate Whitsun with reverence, renewing the closest possible pact s with his chieftains. He explained to the court what he planned to do, and they said that should carry out his plans in the city of the legions, situated in south Wales on the River Usk, not being far from the Severn Sea in a most pleasant position, and being richer in material wealth than other townships, the city was eminently suitable for such a ceremony.
  25. The city that I have named was flanked by meadows and wooded groves and the Romans had adorned the city with royal palaces and by the gold-painted gables of its roofs it was a match for Rome itself. Therefore at that time it was a legendary place, an entirely suitable venue for holding Arthur’s court.
  26. In 1610 William Camden quotes from Geoffrey and Geraldus Cambrensis: two very eminent and chief proto-martyrs of Britannia Major lie entombed here. They are called Julius and Aaron; each of whom has a church dedicated to him in this city. In ancient times there were three noble churches in Caerleon: one of Julius the Martyr graced with a choir of nuns, another dedicated to St Aaron his companion, ennobled with a famous order of canons, and the third honoured with the metropolitan see of Wales (i.e. the archbishopric). Amphibalus, the teacher of St Albans who instructed him in the faith, was born here, This city is excellently seated on the River Usk and beautified with meadows and woods. Here the Roman ambassadors received their audience at the illustrious court of the great King Arthur, and here also Archbishop Dubricius resigned that honour to St David of Menevia, translating the archbishopric and the archiepiscopal see to there.
  27. Even as late as 1610, this was regarded as history, and recorded as such. Also not only does the Book of Llandaff record in its charters these churches of Julius and Aaron as actual buildings, but we know that Goldcliff Priory was still getting income from the Church of Saints Julius and Aaron in 1495, before the dissolution of the monasteries. Place name evidence suggests that the Martyr Church of Saint Aaron lies on a hill outside Caerleon. An old Welsh field name there is the graveyard field, which may be a guide to its former use. The site is currently being excavated, and may yield some relevant results. The Church of St Julius was at St Julians, probably part of the medieval manor complex on the outskirts of Newport.
  28. There is enough evidence to suggest that these churches existed, and that they were built over the tombs. There is also an early medieval cross, now in the National Museum of Wales, which came from the base of that slope and was probably related to the religious establishment at that site.
  29. There is an issue with date. The persecution of Christianity by Diocletion was one of the most severe in Roman history. Nero had ordered the first one in the first century, there had been many since and Diocletion tried to finish the task in 303AD (according our calendar). Diocletion had already split the running of the empire in two, keeping the sunny half for himself and allowing fellow army officer Maximian to run the wet and windy western half.
  30. However Maximian did not pursue Christians with any vigour, leading scholars to believe that Julius and Aaron did not die at that time. That also fits with the dates as Caerleon had been largely abandoned by 300AD. Current opinion suggests that they were martyred in the persecution of Trajan Decius in 252AD, which fits with the dates the soldiers were at Caerleon.
  31. Julius and Aaron were two soldiers would not sacrifice to the emperor as part of their duties because, being Christian, they did not recognise him as divine. As traitors to the empire, their fate was inevitable.
  32. They could not have been tried at Caerleon, since the death penalty could only have been handed out by the regional governor or the emperor and the trial had to take place at one of the regional capitals. The governor had to travel around the country to hear cases, like the assize court judges in more recent times.
  33. The only place in south Wales where that trial could have taken place is in the basilica at Caerwent. After the trial they would have been brought back to Caerleon for execution. If they had been common criminals they would have been executed in the amphitheatre as entertainment.
  34. However Julius and Aaron were citizens, being in the army, so they would not have suffered the disgrace of dying in the arena. They may well have been presented to the crowd and their punishment announced, but they would have been accorded the ‘dignity’ of being executed just outside one of the main entrances.
  35. The bodies would then have been taken by their relatives or the community for burial ‘a safe distance away’. The cemetery used then goes along the ridge; it appears that Aaron was buried at one end of it and Julius at the other end. It is interesting that in this way the extent of the territory was marked out by placing these grave churches at opposite ends. Excavation now taking place may shed some light on the fate of these early martyrs.
  36. The word ‘arena’ comes from the Spanish word for sand. That was a useful surface in Roman times, since it could easily be replaced if it became messy. The interior walls surrounding the arena would not have been much higher than they are today, and there is not much missing. The great arches were pulled down in the medieval period – they had stood for 1,100 years, until the Norman lords of Chepstow finally threw out the last Welsh lord of Caerleon (Howell the Weak) and took it over.
  37. They were incensed because the bath-house was still standing, with its roof on after 1,100 years; a great triumphal arch was still standing in the middle of Caerleon, and the amphitheatre was still standing. The Normans were not only ethnically cleansing the people by getting rid of the Welsh lord, but also removing the imperial Roman architecture that they had enjoyed for generations that had become associated with the lordship of Caerleon.
  38. Therefore the Normans destroyed it all and put it under the motte (‘mound’) of Caerleon Castle, now called ‘The Mynd’.
    As well as the smooth plaster rendering on the walls of the arena, the walls were topped with coping stones with a 45 degree overhang, so anything or anyone managing to climb the smooth walls would fall back into the arena. All other gaps were gated, so anything and anyone put in the arena stayed there.
  39. The two gates for triumphal entry would allow parades through the arena, the cavalry could ride through and the great festivals in the Roman period could be celebrated there. If someone stands in the middle then everyone can see and hear them; it is possible for a person to address 6,000 people by merely raising their voice, something that could not be done on a parade ground.
  40. Thus this was the venue for celebrating the birthday of the emperor, the anniversary of the legion and the other great Roman religious festivals. Games would follow.
    The first three Christian martyrs of Britain were Julius and Aaron, martyred at Caerleon, and Alban, martyred at Verulamium. It is sad that Alban has an enormous cathedral and shrine dedicated to him, while Aaron got nothing and Julius (or Julian) got his name on an M4 motorway junction.
  41. Dave Edwards




History of Jazz (by Roy Davies) plus Roy’s Stories

Jazz started in New Orleans; and its street names feature in the names of some the best known jazz melodies: Canal Street, South Rampart Street, Basin Street, etc. Some of the jazz music still popular now has roots that go right back to the early days.

The roots of jazz lay in slavery and the blues, but it was the infant recording industry that spread its tunes across USA. Black and white musicians got involved, but not necessarily together.

Established by French settlers, New Orleans became part of the United States when Louisiana was bought by the American government. Thus jazz became American rather than French.

Drummers are the butt of jokes these days, but were less so in the early years of jazz because drummers were not allowed to be members of the musicians’ union. They were sneered at as not being real musicians and defined ‘people who hung around with musicians’.

The funeral parades in New Orleans were and are legendary. The mourners (plus band) would march to the person’s last resting place, playing a hymn tune or sad melody. Having interred the body, they would march back to a different tune, celebrating the person’s previous life and playing rip-roaring jazz, especially when the deceased was a jazz musician.

One of the first recordings was made for Columbia by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They used a line-up of trumpet, trombone and clarinet in front, with banjo, drums and bass behind. This became the standard line-up for all jazz bands.

Having made the recording, Columbia listened to the result and decided that it was rubbish that no-one would listen to and did not release it. Two years later the Original Dixieland Jazz Band came to England and was very successful, so Columbia released the record that they had already made.

These early recordings were made by white bands, but the coloured bands soon started to record – people such as Kid Ory, who made such famous recordings as Creole Trombones, King Oliver, who had a very young Louis Armstrong playing second cornet with him. Armstrong was later to earn the nickname ‘Satchmo’, short for ‘satchel mouth’.

Soon after that the big band era started. Paul Whiteman was the reputed King of White Jazz; he had 26 musicians on stage and used predetermined harmonies and arrangements, rather than playing impromptu. There was still a lot of prejudice about, with any black people in the band having to stay in the background.

Another well-known name was Duke Ellington, who started with a five-piece band. When the Cotton Club opened Ellington became resident bandleader. He became very successful and toured extensively.

Jazz came across the Atlantic when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band came to do a show called ‘Joy Bells’ in a London theatre. The show starred George Robey, popular comedian of the time. He refused to appear with the band, so they performed at the Palladium instead and made a fortune.

A Belgian Romany called Django Reinhardt was a wonderful guitar player, even more so because he had lost the use of two fingers in a fire. He is best known for his collaboration with French violinist Stefane Grappelli, playing at the Hot Club of Paris.

Next came the Swing Era, lasting from 1935 to 1946. Popular bands included Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

Many bands started to use vocalists, including Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald.

When Duke Ellington brought his band to this country, people were very impressed by this band of thirty black musicians, all in smart suits, all playing sophisticated arrangements in harmony.

During the 1940s and ‘50s some American musicians started to develop a new kind of jazz – bebop, the fore-runner to modern jazz. It was strange to non-musicians as the level of improvisation made it difficult to pick out the tune; also people found dancing to it very difficult. One of the exponents was Charlie Parker (alto sax).

Next came the development of ‘cool’ music. One notable player was Miles Davis.

An instrument ideally suited to ‘cool’ jazz was the vibraphone, an instrument which started to become popular at that time,

Dave Brubeck was someone who experimented with jazz. He experimented with timing, having five beats to the bar. His record ‘Take Five’ was the first jazz record to sell a million copies.
After that the big bands started to come back – bands like Ted Heath and Johnny Dankworth, along with clubs like Ronnie Scott’s.

Female singers included Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday,

Roy’s Stories In traditional jazz, the banjo seems to bear the brunt of most humour. One well-known quip is, “What is the difference between a banjo and an onion?” The answer: “When you chop up a banjo, you don’t cry.”

Another story regarding the banjo, the chosen instrument of the unsociable. After one engagement Roy and his fellow band members stopped at a public house. While there someone came into the bar and announced that a vehicle in the car park had been broken into.

The banjo player paled and whispered that he had left his instrument on the back seat. On returning to his friends, he said that his banjo was intact, but someone had thrown another four through the broken window.
On returning from one engagement, Roy stopped at a roadside food van. One of their offerings was advertised as a ‘banjo roll’. On enquiring about the name, he was told, “Try one – you’ll find out.”

The proprietor sliced open a large baguette, inserted a fried egg, bacon, some other ingredients of an English breakfast and a large dollop of tomato sauce. As Roy bit into one end, tomato, while holding the other end up in the air, sauce squirted out onto his shirt. As he brushed it off with his free hand, he realised that his stance was exactly that of a banjo player.

A television programme called ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ had members of the public appear as their idols, with suitable make-up and attire. Each one would announce their idol to Matthew Kelly, disappear into the stage mist and reappear as their idol. One fellah came on and said he wanted to be Glen Miller; he went into the fog and they never saw him again.

On another occasion, two people came on, one in a wheelchair. The wheelchair occupant was asked how he got his injury. He said that he was doing some glazing when a piece of glass came down and cut his legs off. Matthew Kelly expressed his sadness about the accident and asked Simon, the able-bodied member who they were going to be. The reply was, “We are going to be Simon and half uncle.”


For the May meeting the History Group had a talk by Richard Jones entitled ‘Vanishing Churches’, describing the changing nature of churches in the landscape.

The Church is the single largest custodian of historic buildings by a huge margin – more than all the others put together. Church buildings are valued by many people purely for their architectural or social value. In Great Britain there are 47,600 churches; an enormous number in terms of the medieval population. However we must remember that it catered for everyone, since everyone went to church. The Anglican Church is the largest custodian of historic buildings in the country, with 16,000 churches in England and 1,500 in Wales. These figures do not include non-conformist chapels, Quaker meeting houses or synagogues, all of which have a rich and varied cultural history and play significant roles within the story of the community.

There are a few differences between Wales and England. In England the church plays a parish role and a state role, whereas in Wales the church has no state role. Also the conventional image of the centre of an English village would have church, inn and possibly manor house together; a Welsh village might have none of these at its centre – the village might well be sparse and spread out, the church might be at the edge of the village, the inn and manor house might not be there at all. In some Welsh communities the native Welsh and immigrant English worshipped separately – another difference between the two countries.

The Welsh part of the Anglican Church in is still seen as the English Church in Wales, not as the Welsh Church. This is ironic, as the Celtic Church in Wales, originating from Ireland and France, is far older than the English equivalent. The Bangor Diocese for example dates from AD 671.

Early Welsh church architecture was very plain, and churches were built in the same style as houses. This lack of decoration could be attributed to lack of suitable building stone, or to a shortage of experienced masons in contemporary Wales.

Another consideration is cost. Churches constructed in the style common in the 14th century required substantial funds. Income in the fourteenth century was derived almost entirely from land and productivity of land. For example many churches in Gloucester and Somerset were funded by the wool trade. Many stately homes have a church in the grounds, which served as a parish church, but may have been constructed as a chapel for the family which owned the estate.

One well-known church is at Shobdon in Herefordshire; its ornate style and colouring have earned it the nickname ‘the wedding cake church’. It was built by the lord of the manor in the Rococo style during the 18th century to replace an older edifice when he decided that a new construction was more suitable to his wealth and position. He then had some arches from the original building reconstructed on the top of a nearby hill as a folly. That folly, still in its hilltop position, is now enclosed in a see-through glass pyramid to preserve it.

Heritage can be an asset or a liability. Since the maintenance of its historic buildings is not the church’s core work, the liability option can loom large. Each generation can add to that which is left for future generations. As the result of ecclesiastical improvements made during the 20th and 21st century, we may be remembered for central heating, speaker systems and toilets. Changes in church use reflect changes in society at large – population movement, age profile, prosperity, etc.

In the south Monmouthshire area the population has increased as the building of railways, motorways and steelworks have increased employment and prosperity. Correspondingly the population in the areas from which those people came has decreased. Those areas now have challenges of infrastructure, dereliction and employment.

Another significant factor is disease. The major pestilences of the medieval period are well known, but there were lesser ones every 10-15 years. They were a constant challenge, and places perceived as unhealthy rapidly became depopulated. One omnipresent cause of disease was contaminated drinking water. Before the discovery of bacteria and the importance of hygiene, sanctity was considered to have a greater role than cleanliness.

Llanvihangel Rogiet, Runston, St Brides Netherwent and Wilcrick are all depopulated villages. In each case the church (or its ruins) remains even though the village has disappeared. In many such cases local tradition attributes the depopulation to plague. Llanvihangel Rogiet was forcibly reformed by the landlord, who decided to have fewer tenants and larger farms, a deliberate policy of depopulation. As tenant farmers died, he merged farms with adjacent ones until he had two large farms.

The challenges are in the towns and cities as well as the countryside. Many town and city churches were not built to serve a resident population, but were financed and maintained by trade guilds. Each guild church acted as a meeting point for its activities. For example, in the square mile area of the city of London there are 26 churches, but the city has very few residents and no working population at weekends, so services are held at lunchtimes mid-week.

In Newport the Church of St Luke, Bridge Street closed in about 1980 and has since been demolished to make way for a car park. St Luke’s Church had a splendid stained glass window which had a notable First World War memorial. When the church was demolished the window was taken out and put in a safe place, so safe that no-one now knows where it is!

The church at Victoria in Ebbw Vale was established to cater for a large centre of population who came for the steelworks. It closed when the mines and steelworks closed. It became derelict after 30 years of not being used, and is now used as storage for a local business. In recent years an increase in new housing, schools and amenities has increased the local population, resulting in calls for a new church in Victoria. The decision on whether or not a new church should be built be will be based not on what is needed now, but on what will be needed in 20 or 30 years’ time.

An example from the Swansea area is at Pontardulais. The river changed its course, leaving the church isolated from the community. When a new church was built to serve the expanding community, the old one declined and was eventually abandoned. Known as the Church of Llandeilo Talybont, it has been dismantled and reconstructed at St Fagan’s Folk Museum.

According to legend, the first church 'on the move' was the church of St Tewdric at Mathern. The legend says that when the locals tried to build Mathern Church in honour of martyr and warrior King Tewdric, who gave his life defending local people and his faith, possibly at Tintern, the stones they placed were moved. The site they had chosen was not where the church is now, at the end of Mathern village, but much nearer to Pwllmeyric. However each time that the builders constructed something, they would return next morning to find that the devil had torn it all down and moved the stones. This continued until the builders gave up and chose the site where the church is now.

Being next to the sea is a factor in population movement. Erosion is not such a big deal in this part of the country, but in Dunwich in East Anglia (one of the area's principal towns in medieval times) it was. Dunwich was so important in medieval times that it had nine churches. East Anglia was a rich area in terms of agriculture and Dunwich was a significant port. The town no longer exists, due to encroachment by the sea. In 1736, the church was intact; in 1750 it had no roof and must therefore have been abandoned; in 1780 it was a ruin, in 1903 the ruin was somewhat smaller and the sea was closer, by 1910 half the church had fallen into the sea, by 1912 the tower was on the edge of the cliff and by 1930 the last wall had fallen into the sea.

Erosion is still a problem today in large parts of Norfolk and Suffolk; some local councils are considering making plans for abandoning attempts at stopping encroachment by the sea, on the basis that it is a lost cause. That would mean that there are whole communities and historic buildings that will be lost to the sea within our lifetime.

More locally we have a similar scenario at Sudbrook. The medieval hamlet was founded within the confines of the Iron Age fort. The chapel was largely intact until about 1700, and there are records of its use. Certainly there are records of a legacy to it in about 1500,and a record of a burial in about 1757, a sea captain named Bleddyn Smith. He declared that he wanted to be buried at sea, but his family buried him at Sudbrook instead. Now of course the sea has encroached, so he probably got his last wish fulfilled after all. The surviving ruin is supposedly in the care of Cadw, but the remains show no indication of any care whatsoever having been given to it.

Another local scene on the coast is Goldcliff. In medieval times there was a priory at Goldcliff; nothing remains of the buildings, but very dry summers show outlines of the foundations quite clearly. The priory was there in the 12th and 13th centuries, but by the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century thre were only 3 or 4 incumbents. The stones from the priory were probably used in the nearby houses. The church which is now at Goldcliff was probably originally a barn. The stone used to build the tower in the 1700s probably came from the priory.

A natural disaster of a different kind is landslip. The church at Cwmyoy has been badly affected by subsidence. A landslip very early in its has had a drastic effect on the church, in that the tower leans one way and the nave leans the other. It is amazing that the church was not completely destroyed. Its claim to fame is that its tower leans at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa.

In Cardiff the site of a former church is marked on the side of a building on the corner of St Mary Street and Wood Street, near the main railway station. The former Prince of Wales Theatre (now a public house) has the outline of a church on one side of the building. Before the River Taff was artificially enbanked to allow expansion of the town centre, it ran very near to St Mary's Street. The river broke its banks many times during the Middle Ages and gradually took away the parish church of Cardiff - St Mary's.

During that period there were many incidents recorded of dogs stealing bones from the churchyard as they were uncovered. St Mary's finally succumbed during the Great Flood of 1606, when the tidal surge destroyed what was left of it. St John's Church in The Hayes was designated the parish church instead. The outline on the building is all that we have left to remind us of the site of St Mary's Church.

Some chapels were built to be all alone - they were never meant to have people living around them. They were possibly built by early saints (i.e. hermits), they had a holy well, they were on pilgrimage routes, or were simply places for quiet prayer.

In Victorian times it was possible to buy a building made from corrugated iron sheets from a catalogue. Many were bought and constructed but very few are left now. Due to their rarity, some have become listed buildings. One such was sited at Caldicot Pill, and called the Church of St Michael and All Angels. In 1923 the church was no longer required as the population in that area declined, so the building was moved to a site on Church Road and used as a church hall.

There is a ruined chapel on the Skirrid Mountain dedicated to St Michael, reputedly used by Roman Catholics during the years of persecution to hold mass. There was a church at Ifton, Rogiet dedicated to St James, demolished in 1755. A church dedicated to St David was built at Dewstow (the name itself tells us so) though no trace remains of the ecclesiastical building. It was probably incorporated into the farm buildings in some way.

The conclusion must be that we have too many church buildings for the faith and worship needs of the UK today. Some claim that in days gone by 'the churches were full'. The attendance figures from those years suggest otherwise. It seems that the church constructors made buildings too big to allow for expansion of the congregation.

The implication of all this is that we need to find uses for these redundant buildings. Demolition is one option, conservation is another. Churches have been converted to houses, but they were never designed to be used for habitation, so that re-use is seldom completely successful.

Of course that need not be the end of a church. There are conservation trusts around that take on redundant churches. In England that is the Churches Conservation Trust, in Wales it is the Friends of Friendless Churches; they own churches such as Llanvihangel Rogiet, and Llangeview. These places are heritage assets, they are open to the public each and every day. The larger church at Llangwm will shortly be joining these redundant churches, while he smaller church will continue as a place of worship. That larger church is being restored, and contains one of the finest medieval rood screens in Wales. There are other local trusts, such as the one that maintains Gilgal Chapel above Llanvaches.

Llanfair Kilgedden, between Abergavenny and Usk, contains sgraffitio work, which is plaster-based work, layered and coloured, etched as it is drying. It is a technique that is rarely used in this country. Biblical scenes are depicted, though the rivers and mountains shown in the background are actually scenes of Monmouthshire; in particular the Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and Blorenge Moutains, masquerading as the Holy Land. It was done by priest Heywood Sumner in memory of his wife.

Dave Edwards.



The April meeting of the History Group had a talk by Dr Naylor Firth on the Chepstow Ships of World War I.


An old picture of Chepstow shows Brunel’s railway bridge of the Wye, Garden City, the town wall (or what was left of it), the River Wye and the Wyndcliffe. That was the extent of Chepstow before the First World War. By the end of that war, It went from being an agricultural town with a little shipbuilding to become an industrial one, with a 65% increase in population. Some would claim that it has never recovered.

Rivers have been used as communication channels from earliest times – nature’s motorways. In more recent times Man has complicated matters by building canals, roads and railways. In continental Europe there are many rivers which are navigable by sizeable ships.

The Wye is a deep navigable river having a twice daily tide which is the second highest in the world. If and when the Severn Barrage is built, then the lower Wye Valley could become a miniature Rhine Gorge, since Chepstow will no longer see the river rise and fall by 40 feet. The implications of that are far reaching.

Besides the ships using the river; there are industries which depend on it for their raw materials and getting their products out. For example, at Redbrook there were furnaces producing copper, in production from 1660 to 1740. The furnace owners cast the waste from this process into moulds and sold it as building material. There are buildings in Chepstow, Crick, Whitebrook, as well as Redbrook itself which contain this durable construction material. Transport of course was via the river.

Chepstow in 1835 was a thriving maritime centre, engaged in building and equipping ships. It was also a bustling port; exports included oak bark from the Forest of Dean and imports included wine from Spain and Portugal. When the leaders of the Chartist insurrection were transported to Australia, they embarked at Chepstow.

As well as Chepstow itself, several other places in the Wye Valley were involved in shipbuilding. Brockweir for example was a major centre and built ships up to 650 tons, the craft being rigged and masted at Chepstow. With such limited space available in the river, craft built at Brockweir had to be launched with care – it was impossible to turn them around once they were in the water. The logistics of transferring a ship down the Wye to Chepstow with neither engine nor sails can only be imagined.

One Brockweir vessel was the ‘Eliza Stewart’, a craft of 524 tons launched in 1845. She went on to do 21 years’ service, sailing between UK and Calcutta, Singapore and Hong Kong. 5 days after being launched she was being masted at Chepstow; two weeks later she was taking a cargo of coal from Newport to Colombo and Calcutta.

When Brunel was constructing a railway from Gloucester to Swansea, he employed engineer Edward Finch of Liverpool to build a bridge to his design across the Wye. Finch established a suitable yard on the riverside at Chepstow, employing 76 men and more than 40 boys. He expanded his business, and set about building ships as well as bridges. He stayed in Chepstow until his death in 1873.

By now Chepstow became a centre for ship servicing, victualing and shipbuilding, and Finch’s company had become a significant concern. After Finch’s death it continued to prosper under the leadership of managing director Mr Rowe, constructing bridges piers, dock gates, caissons, colliery ironwork, pithead frames, steel ships and barges. In those days, it was entrepreneurs in heavy industry who really revolutionized the economics of Victorian Britain.

In Edwardian times Chepstow indulged in a variety of activities, including allowing paddle steamers to moor in the river, taking passengers on day trips to Ilfracombe, Clevedon, Bristol, and Swansea.

During the First World War, Germany U-boats were sinking allied ships faster than they could be replaced, the aim being to starve Britain into surrender. As a solution the British government proposed to build many more ships to replace the ones lost. With this in mind small shipyards were encouraged to expand and construct larger vessels.

In 1916 ship repairer John Henry Silley bought out Edward Finch & Co. and formed the Standard Shipbuilding Company. He proposed to build ships using prefabrication methods, similar to Henry Ford’s production line technique for building cars. Silley had started his career as an apprentice in Finch’s drawing office, so his return was welcomed.

Silley bought a 45-acre site adjacent to the river, known as ‘The Meads’, demolished that part of the Port Wall which ran through it and prepared to build ships. He realised that he would need a larger workforce, so he built the Garden City suburb to house the extra men.

However in August 1917 the British Government took over Silley’s venture without compensation, citing wartime necessity. They renamed Chepstow as Shipyard No. 1 and built Shipyard No. 2 on the Beachley Peninsular. The population of Beachley were evicted, and it was more than a year before anyone got compensation. They had plans to make Shipyard No. 3 at Portishead; but these were never implemented.

As part of the expansion on The Meads, Silley had created six slipways for launching larger vessels – these were the facilities taken over by the government. The problem was that there was a shortage of skilled men who could man it. At this stage of World War I, one in three men of eligible age were either dead or wounded. The solution was to replace the missing men with women. Contemporary photographs of female workers always show a male foreman, demonstrating that even then complete equality had not arrived! There was a realization that women were more than capable of doing the work previously done by men. This was a social change never to be reversed; ladies had found their feet during Edwardian times, and vowed that they would never go back to the old times.

By 1918 Chepstow had the capacity to build large ships, but demand had decreased. The U-boat threat had diminished and the war was drawing to a close. Only three ships were built at Chepstow before the hostilities ended; the rest were planned and laid down, but not completed. These latter vessels, though surplus to requirements in 1918, were used in the inter-war years and during Second World War.

The Chepstow ships launched between 1918 and 1939 had a chequered history. Some sank before 1939, some were shelled by the German navy and sank, and some were sold to countries such as Italy, commandeered by Germany and sank by the Royal Navy. Such are the fortunes of war.

As well as cargo ships, Chepstow was building ships to haul things. The first was a twin-funnelled tug called the ‘Dainty’. She was the first ship acquired by the Irish Free State, in 1922, and she went on to do all sorts of exotic things, including being instrumental in building the port of Churchill in Hudson Bay, Canada. Later she was owned by the French, requisitioned by the Germans, and sunk by a British motor torpedo boat off Cap Gris Nez. She was salvaged and then sunk again off Bordeaux.

Hospital facilities for the shipyard workers were provided at Mount Pleasant Hospital. From 1921 onwards it was used to house gas victims and wounded soldiers from the war. Those wounded soldiers were known as ‘blue boys’ because of their blue serge uniforms. Some of them were resident for many years after, horribly handicapped, Mount Pleasant was demolished in 1998, and the site is now occupied by Chepstow Hospital.

In February 1920, National Shipyard No. 1 at Chepstow was bought by Cardiff ship-owner Lord Glanely and his colleagues of the Monmouthshire Shipbuilding Company Limited for the princely sum of £600,000. By now, 475 houses had been completed at Bulwark, Hardwick and Pennsylvania near Sedbury. Lord Glanely had great plans for the area – he had made a big investment (£600,000) in the shipyard at Chepstow, and saw the River Wye as having great potential. He thought that he could put successful industries into the Wye Valley. His vision was to establish power stations on the banks of the river, providing energy for factories for many miles around – indeed an attractive prospect. Therefore the Wye Valley almost became an industrial area comparable with Sheffield or Rotherham. However the plans did not win approval and the scheme was dropped.

Examination of contemporary photographs shows another, smaller ship being built in 1921 - the Cynthiana, a tanker designed to carry petroleum. She was launched in 1923, the last of those in the World War I period. This was the start of another major change – the end of coal-powered ships and the beginning of the oil era. That meant bunkering stations were no longer required at Colombo, Valparaiso, etc.

In 1925 the whole yard was acquired by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. Having said that they would build ships, they instead built bridges and lock-gates, becoming a major Chepstow employer during a major part of the 20th century.

By 1929 there was nothing in the shipyard – the cranes had gone, the slipways were vacant, Chepstow was licking its wounds, reflecting on the busy years during World War I. When World War II started, Chepstow had a renewal of activity – it built about 76 tank landing craft and five huge floating cranes, the last real shipbuilding activity in the town.

During the past 30 years the company has changed from Fairfield Engineering to Fairfield-Mabey; more recently it has changed from building bridges to constructing wind turbines, and relocated its premises from Chepstow to a warehouse at Mathern. The site of the shipyard is now scheduled for housing.

Dave Edwards



For the March meeting, the History Group had a talk on
Dylan Thomas (by David Harrison)

Dylan Thomas is Wales’ most famous poet, and the second most quoted poet in the English language, after Shakespeare.

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the Uplands, Swansea on October 27th 1914; the house now carries a plaque in his honour. The property afforded a glorious view of Swansea Bay, from Mumbles Head to the docks, a magnificent prospect of the sea.

When he went to school, he was no good at it and didn’t like it. Most of his learning probably came from the collection of books owned by his father, head of the English department at Swansea Grammar School.

One day while at Swansea Grammar he wandered across the schoolyard towards the gate when the headmaster’s window opened; the master demanded that young Thomas tell him where he was going. Dylan replied, “To play snooker.” The headmaster then shouted, “Be careful you don’t get caught!”

Once he was of age, Dylan’s usual haunt was the Uplands Hotel, consuming his favourite tipple. His words on beer are “I like the taste of beer, its live white lather, its brass bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass.” That one sentence encapsulates so much.

His best known works are Under Milk Wood (a play for voices) and poems Fern Hill, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night and Death Shall Have No Dominion. His short life produced a body of poems, plays, scripts and journalism which is without compare.

In Cwmdonkin Park, opposite his parents’ house, is the Dylan Thomas stone. It is inscribed with an extract from Fern Hill:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.
The sound is wonderful, the meaning obscure.

Under Milk Wood was essentially a radio play, some of the characters being based on people he knew in Swansea, Laugharne and Newquay. The play explores a day in the life of a small Welsh town – the postman, the preacher, the fancy woman, the milkman, they all have their parts. Its genius was and is its ability to evoke characters that listeners could recognize.

Swansea Marina has several statues, including one of Dylan himself and one of Captain Cat, the blind narrator who can see nothing, yet understands so much. Dylan himself said that Captain Cat was based on Captain Tom Polly of Gomer House, Newquay.

In the play, the captain knows all the sounds of the town, recognizes everyone’s footsteps, and judges their characters accordingly. The captain’s primary preoccupation is with the dead - his dead shipmates rise from the deep and come to visit him. One scene of the play allows the audience to wander around the bedrooms of sleeping people, who are being watched by the ‘dicky-bird pictures of the dead’. Sex gets a brief mention in the play, but the main concern is death.

Dylan died in New York on November 9th 1953. His last words were reputedly "I've had 18 straight whiskies; I think that is a record." His passing was mourned by many a pub landlord in south-west Wales.

He was a drunkard and a sponger who would borrow from anyone. For several years he lived in the summerhouse of historian A.J.P.Tayor in Oxford, whose wife Margaret was his patron. Parts of his later years were spent in a boathouse at Laugharne, which she had bought for him. Today pilgrims come from many parts of the world to see the boathouse and the shed where he worked.

He was a genius in pursuit of innocence and self-destruction, a lover of home who couldn't stay at home. He was a cult figure in his own time, a suburban boy who loved to play the enfante terrible. He was also a poet for all time and attracted a new mass audience.

His poem Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night is reputed to have been written after the death of his father.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One verse of his poem Fern Hill runs:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Death Shall Have No Dominion (part):

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales (extract):

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-
town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the
voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never
remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was
twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I
was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and
headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop
at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in
the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that
wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-
singing sea, and out came Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs.
Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It
was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as
Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient,
cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the
cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and
snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and
the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers
from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at
the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.

We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence
of the eternal snows - eternal, ever since Wednesday - that we never
heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden.
Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our
enemy and prey, the neighbor's polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.
"Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.

And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the
house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the
gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town
crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on
the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and
stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.

Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always
slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he
was standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A fine Christmas!" and
smacking at the smoke with a slipper.

"Call the fire brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
"There won't be there," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero
standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were

"Do something," he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke -
I think we missed Mr. Prothero - and ran out of the house to the
telephone box.

"Let's call the police as well," Jim said. "and the ambulance, and Ernie
Jenkins, he likes fires."

Dave Edwards



For the February meeting, the History Group had a talk on
Caerleon & Caerwent by Mark Lewis

This talk spans the period in which we use both history and archaeology. The Romans had a written language and provided us with a recorded history. the native Celts had no written language and we therefore rely on archaeology to supplement the Roman version of contemporary British history.

There are a number of important Roman sites in and around Caldicot. If we go back to the time of Jesus Christ, the geographer Strabo wrote about a place he called Pretannica; a strange island off northern Europe. He considered this to be a very useful place and had been since before Julius Caesar’s time. He said that we were a source of gold (Dolaucothi), silver (Mendips and Machen), iron (Forest of Dean), animal hides, cattle, corn (a surplus of grain was already being exported to the Roman world), hunting dogs, and slaves. These were the things that made us interesting to the Roman world, why Britain was worth invading.

Moving forward to the year AD37, the third emperor Gaius (better known by his nickname ‘Caligula’) had just ascended the throne. He was a very young when he took office and the pressures of being emperor weighed heavily on him. Whether he was disposed to paranoia or developed it during his short reign is impossible to tell, but he certainly persecuted the people around him, while claiming that he was himself being persecuted. He named himself ‘the living sun god’, causing anger among Romans who were opposed to changes in their religion.

In AD40 he marched several legions to the northern coast of Gaul (now France), with the intention of invading Britain and adding it the empire. Historians tell us that on arriving there, the emperor ordered the soldiers to gather shells from the seashore and take them back to Rome. He announced to the senate and the people that he had scored a victory over Neptune, displaying the seashells as proof. The army could not stomach the shame that his ludicrous actions brought to them and the Pretorian Guard, his personal bodyguard, murdered him;

In the aftermath of this, the senate wanted to go back to being a republic. However the all-powerful Praetorian Guard, not wishing to be redundant, sought out Caligula’s Uncle Claudius and proclaimed him emperor. This was something of a problem for Claudius, who shook uncontrollably, had no control over his body movements, dribbled from the nose and mouth and was renowned for his very bad stammer. His own mother did not understand his condition; she said that he was not a product of nature, which had completely passed him by. He was ostracised by the imperial family because of his affliction, which is now believed to have been cerebral palsy.

Claudius knew that someone with his problems would not last long as emperor unless he brought a victory and wealth to the senate and people of Rome. Therefore, very early in his reign, he dusted off the plans drawn up during Caligula’s time for the invasion of ‘Pretannia’. Consequently four legions crossed the channel in AD43. Commemorative coins were issued, showing the emperor in his quadriga (four horse chariot).

After landing in Kent, the Roman army very quickly took over the whole of southern England. The Second Augustan Legion made their way along the south coast under their commander Vespasian, taking the Isle of Wight, Maiden Castle and ending up in Exeter. Within three years they had conquered all tribes from the Severn to the Wash, but things slowed down when they reached Wales.

Vespasian was highly experienced, having already dealt with the Jewish revolt. It is claimed that he wished to test the assertion that no-one could sink in the Dead Sea in Israel. He had the Essenes (a Jewish sect troublesome to the Romans) thrown into the salty water, complete with chains. For his victims, he chose only those who could not swim, so that there would be no cheating! They floated.

The course of events in south Wales were recorded in the works of historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus. He tells us about the Silures tribe that lived between the River Wye and the Lougher Estuary, and as far north as Brecon. Their swarthy faces, the tendency of their hair to curl, and the fact that Spain lay opposite led him to believe that Spaniards crossed over and occupied this land in ancient times. They were painted people – like some other tribes, they went into battle naked, painted with woad. This also gives us the origin of the Roman name for this country, since Pretanni is an ancient Greek word meaning ‘painted people’.

As far as we can tell the Roman army crossed the Severn and landed at Sudbrook. In recent months the outline of a Roman marching camp (I.e. overnight stop) has been found in the Park Wall/St Pierre area. This was probably established during that initial invasion of Wales in about AD47. Such camps were created by the legionaries themselves, since the men carried the entrenching tools required, together with two stakes. As ditches were dug, the earth was piled up to form ridges. The stakes were then erected on the tops of the ridges to form barricades. While on the march, each group of 8 men occupied a tent and 10 tents made up a century, making a total of 80 fighting men.

The invasion slowed down due in part to the landscape – the area was mountainous and heavily wooded, not suited to the Roman style of warfare. Also the Silures proved to be a formidable enemy, on whom ‘neither terror nor mercy had the least effect’ (Tacitus). They used guerrilla tactics, attacking suddenly from ambush and then disappearing.

It was not until Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed commander in AD74 that the conflict in Wales reached its final stages. First Frontinus moved the Second Augustan Legion from Exeter to a new 50-acres fortress at Caerleon, where it could subdue the natives and then police the region. Tacitus hinted that the troublesome Silures would be annihilated if they refused to co-operate. That was no idle threat – the Romans would have cleared the land, burnt everything and possibly even poisoned the ground with salt so that none could return.

At Caerleon, besides the fortress there was an amphitheatre, a civilian settlement and a port. The aim of this complex of buildings was to act as administrative base, winter quarters and supply depot for the 6,000 men in the legion. The legion consisted of 10 cohorts; the first cohort being double strength, each of the 6 centuries in that cohort having 160 men instead of the usual 80. On the march 8 men would occupy a tent and in barracks the same 8 men would live in one room.

Under Roman rule, the native Brits became a landless people with no voting rights and the Romans could treat them just as they wished. Even selling them into slavery was considered to be part of army pay. To police this militarised zone, the Romans established a road network; with forts at strategic points. These forts were less than 20 miles apart, so that forts could support each other in times of stress.

However an army of occupation is expensive to maintain and after a period of oppression the Roman administration encouraged the local population to become self-governing, especially in regard to law and order. The Roman model of government was based upon a city (civitas) from which it could be ruled. The word civilization is derived from the Latin civis, meaningcitizen. In Iron Age (i.e. pre-Roman) Wales there were hill forts but no urban centres, so the Romans founded one at Isca Silurium (‘market town of the Silures’) now Caerwent.

By AD120, about three generations after the Romans had conquered Wales, memory of the Roman invasion would have faded and the native population would have got used to the comforts of a Roman style of living – daily baths, indoor heating, coinage, glass tableware and ornaments. The Romans were then able to devolve power and withdraw the army.

The newly-established capital had a basilica (combined town hall, council chamber and law courts), a forum (market place for commerce and public meetings), a temple, public baths and an indoor gymnasium. Also the main street through the town would have been lined with small shops, all jostling for trade. Birth certificates would have been kept at the basilica on little clay tablets, each citizen receiving a clay tablet copy.

Caerleon remained the military base for 200 years. The interior had a standard layout, repeated throughout the empire. In the central area was the headquarters building and legate’s house. The fort was designed to be self-sufficient, having granaries, workshops and hospital within the perimeter. Nearby was the bath house; its hot, tepid and cold rooms being much like a Turkish bath.

Most of the area within the fortress was occupied by barrack blocks. They were arranged in rows, next to the walls. There were little bread ovens and cookhouses, and four communal latrines, one in each corner. Each barrack block housed 80 legionaries plus the centurion and his support staff. Each of ten rooms accommodated eight bunk beds, with equipment for the eight men in the adjacent room. At the end of each block was the centurion’s suite; he was paid 20 times as much as rhe legionaries.

The latrines were communal affairs, the waste being carried away by water. In front of the bench seating was a channel containing water, with a bucket of vinegar and a sponge on a stick nearby. The stick and sponge were used instead of toilet paper, after which the sponge was swilled in vinegar and rinsed in the water. Junior visitors to Caerleon are usually told that this is the origin of the saying ‘getting the wrong end of the stick’. It is not true, but still a source of hilarity.

Outside the fortress walls was the great amphitheatre, the most completely investigated example in Britain. Before excavation it was wrongly thought to be the site of King Arthur’s round table. It was dug up in the 1940s by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and others. From Trajan’s Column and other carvings, we now know that it is reasonably complete it is clear that the upper structure was timber-framed anyway.

As regards the stonework, what we see is virtually complete; it is only the arches that have gone. They would have used it mainly for games and religious ceremonies. There were little chambers where beasts were penned and gladiators waited for their turn for combat. Gladiatorial combat and fights with beasts would both have taken place in the arena.

For the excavation of Caerwent, we must thank the Edwardians, in particular Lord Tredegar. During the period 1899-1914 he sponsored the systematic excavation of most of the land he owned in Caerwent. It is thanks to them that we have a plan of two-thirds of the Roman town.

The layout was the standard Roman grid pattern, having forum, basilica and shops along the main street. There were east and west gates, plus minor gates to north and south. Geophysical investigation has shown that the south gate led nowhere, so it was presumably used for getting animals in and out of the town. The parts that cannot be excavated are the church and churchyard. That plan enabled Nash-Williams to build up a view of Caerwent: the basilica, forum, temple, bath-house, gymnasium, courtyard houses for the wealthy, and the shops along the main street.

The most important thing in Caerwent is in the church porch; it is the base for a statue. It has an inscription dedicated to Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, the one-time legate (commander) of the legion at Caerleon. When erected in the basilica, it would have had a statue on top, painted in bright colours.

After being legate, he was made proconsul of Narbonnensis in Gaul and then proconsul of Lugdunensis. The importance of the inscription  to us is that it shows that it was set up by order of the local ordo (the senate chamber) at the civitas at Venta Silurium Therefore by then it was a self-governing city state within the Roman Empire, with its own governing council, operating under Roman law and Roman taxation. The law courts were in the basilica, with the tribunal at one end, and a town hall behind it.

The forum (market place) had shops around three sides and covered walkways for protection against the weather. Trestle tables were put up as market stalls. One stall at Caerwent sold seafood, since a large pile of oyster shells were found alongside. Presumably people bought their oyster snacks then entered the basilica to watch criminals being sentenced to death. Incidentally this was the only place in south Wales where people could be sentenced to death under Roman law.

Illustrations of the Venta Silurium forum show columns around the outside. In fact the columns were like the pictures since fragments of them can be seen in the church, built into the inside wall on the south aisle. The market would have sold pottery, incense burners, toilet sets, nail clippers, games and gaming counters, jewellery, cooking pots, brooches, hairpins, glassware and many more items.

Inside the basilica the roof was supported by columns. A reconstruction of the Caerwent basilica shows the same layout as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, since that was originally a Roman building. Inside the Roman law court at Caerwent was a dais for the two presiding officers, a mosaic down the middle, and timbers which supported raised benches for 108 decurions (representitives).

Near the basilica stood the temple, of which only the foundations remain. This consisted of a small building having an inner sanctum (the cella), and sacrifices would have been offered the sacred garden (the temenos) around it.

The outside walls at Caerwent were constructed in about AD330, and are now the best preserved in Roman Britain, the towers being added in AD349. The outside walls and towers at Cardiff Castle were built in the 19th century to mimic the original fort built on that site, and the walls at Caerwent were probably the sameas Cardiff, having been built in response to local emergencies, e.g. incursions by Irish pirates.

The standard Roman courtyard house was designed to give visitors a view through the house into the garden beyond. Most had underfloor heating, with a furnace providing the heat. This type of dwelling was intended primarily for Mediterranean use – it does not work well in this country.

The Pound Lane shops fought for the prime vending sites bordering the main road through the town. This style of architecture was unknown in Iron Age Wales, but familiar to us today. To the people of Caldicot there might be a particular resonance, because Caldicot town centre was modelled on Caerwent – a covered walkway supported by a colonnade.

Dave Edwards




For the January meeting, the History Group had a talk on Belle Vue Park, Newport, given by John Wood, Park Development Manager.

Belle Vue Park was created in the 1890s on land donated by Lord Tredegar. The council organized a competition, inviting people to submit a design for the park. The winning entry was submitted by Thomas Mawson of Windemere. A relatively unknown landscape architect, he went on to design gardens for many large properties. When Lord Tredegar donated the land, conditions were imposed; the main one prevented any major commercial activity within the park. This influenced decisions regarding the refurbishment of the park in 2001 onwards.

The first sod was cut in 1892 and the completed park was officially opened in 1894. At the end of Mawson’s involvement the complete project had cost £19,500 – cheap by comparison with today’s values. To put this into context, when the park was refurbished in 2006, the bandstand alone cost £120,000.

In 1896 the Gorsedd Circle was erected in preparation for the National Eisteddfod the following year, the first of the three occasions that the eisteddfod has been held in Newport. In 1904 a bowling club was established and in 1910 a rustic tea house was built to provide more space for refreshments. In the period 1890-1910 the park was a very popular venue, far more than today.

In 1953 Belle Vue House was demolished and its 11 acres of grounds absorbed into the park. In 1986 CADW listed several features within the park as grade II: the pavilion and the conservatories. They came back in 2000 and listed the gates, the gate piers, the lodges and the tea house.

When a refurbishment was planned, Newport Council applied for a lottery grant to cover the major part of the cost. As part of the grant application, newspaper files were examined to investigate the history of the park. It was found that an aviary was built in 1913 after someone donated four myna birds. However passing schoolchildren talk one of these birds to utter various profanities; it shared its newly acquired vocabulary with the other birds, to the horror of the older park users. Inevitably, the end result was their removal to a venue less public.

A story that emerged from archives of council meetings was the tale of a monkey which had been donated to the borough. The council had a debate and agreed that the monkey could go to Belle Vue Park, but would have to go to Beechwood Park instead if it misbehaved!

During the refurbishment of the park in 2001, every effort was made to restore the original 1894 layout of the park. The grant of lottery money was dependant on changes being supervised by an independent person or group who had experience in landscape design. Appointment of such a person or group was another major exercise; an advertisement was inserted in professional journals and interest was expressed by 50 or so groups who wished to do the work. From these a Surrey-based company was selected. In the spring of 2002 £1,564,000 was allocated for the restoration work; 70% of the cost was provided by the lottery and the council funded the rest. Also, people were employed to look through many pages of minutes and old documents, showing that a grant comes with many strings attached.

The council considered allowing Wetherspoons to hire the pavilion for commercial use, on the understanding that they would restore the premises concerned. However Lord Tredegar’s covenant prevented such a development.

The original gates for the park were made in Birmingham in the 1890s; they were restored by a Yorkshire-based firm called Dorothea, each set taking 6-8 weeks of effort. When one of the gates was lifted off, someone noticed that old pennies had been used as spacers to get the two gates absolutely level with each other. When the gates were reinstalled, old pennies were again used.

The eventual total cost of the scheme was £2,216.000 and the council paid £652,000 over 5 financial years. Since then the lottery has changed the rules so that money must be paid back over 3 years, making it even tougher.

The tennis courts and new multi-use games area were opened June 2005. These facilities have proved to the best value in terms of what was spent, since many people, including youngsters were able to try the sports available. When taster sessions were held, they tried out 5-a-side football, basketball, netball and even bowls - not the old man's game that many expected it to be.

Replacement wooden bridges were installed, at a cost of £9,000 each, 16 general benches costing £900 were put on the terrace area, 31 park benches with the ‘Newport cherub’ on the end were installed, at a cost of £700 each.

Ten years on there are a lot more people in the park. The aim of the scheme was to restore and enhance but not to make radical changes and the pavilion was the centre point of the plan.

An architect’s drawing of the original pavilion shows two conservatories either side of it with an undercroft beneath them. That undercroft contained a large boiler which heated the conservatories via a network of pipes, providing a heated environment for the plants. As part of the restoration, the boiler was removed, complete with its asbestos lagging.

The undercroft now houses facilities for those who work in the park. The buildings on each end (originally toilets) have been converted – one to a store and the other to a kitchen for the café. Also the area surrounding the Pavilion has a lot of terra cotta balustrading; it is very nice to look at but can be difficult to repair if damaged. The current installation is held together with stainless steel pins in an attempt to preserve it.

The walls inside the pavilion were covered with lime plaster using yak hair as a binder. CADW and the lottery board insisted that the refurbishment use yak hair for binding the replacement plaster.

In order to get people to understand what the project was aiming at, some artists’ impressions were commissioned, including one of the pavilion.

The company built the conservatory to be nearly an exact copy of the original; when they wished to produce a new catalogue; they wanted some photographs of their work at Belle Vue to impress potential customers (mainly people with large houses who wanted large conservatories). They particularly wanted a night shot.

Mr Wood arranged for a member of staff to turn all the lights on late one June evening, and a photographer from Newcastle came to take the pictures. When the council leader decided to include a view of Belle Vue Park on his Christmas card, that night shot was the one used.

There are still some seasonal floral displays, but the lottery people made them take a lot out, in keeping with Thomas Mawson’s original design.

One well known feature is the rustic teahouse. It was first built in 1910 and restored in 2006. It is a timber lattice building with terra cotta roof tiles. The tiles, particularly the hip tiles which run along the ridges, were very difficult to obtain. A fire on Friday 13th destroyed the building, but it has been rebuilt, at a cost of £60,000.

Pictures of the original bandstand show it as having a pitch pine frame with a copper roof. The replacement has a zinc roof, which was made in Glasgow and constructed in two sections.

Delivery on a low loader was scheduled for the week prior to the 2006 bank holiday weekend, but complicated by a restriction that a vehicle of that size should not travel by night.

Glasgow police had provided the haulage contractor with a route which avoided major obstacles, but it did not highlight the low bridge at Maesglas in Newport, where the clearance was miniscule but just adequate.

Next challenge was unloading the roof. A hired crane was used to lift the sections over the wall onto the grass, as the vehicle could not enter the park with load intact, all traffic was stopped on Cardiff Road and the lorry and trailer were manoeuvred through the lodge gates. The comments of people held up in the weekend traffic can be imagined, but not repeated in polite company.

This was also a good exercise in using the local press. The Argus had been given the press release several days beforehand, to minimize working over the bank holiday itself. A photographer took pictures on the Saturday morning; a picture plus the write-up appeared on the bank holiday Monday. There was little other news, so the installation of the bandstand had good coverage. The materials used in the construction of the bandstand have changed, but the appearance (and in particular the roof profile) are very similar.

Copies of the South Wales Argus from the date of the original opening have been made into a tabloid newspaper, largely for the benefit of visiting schoolchildren.

A pergola was also installed – a feature of many Mawson gardens. There is also a sculpture called ‘The Gardener’s Calendar’, which has representations of the months through the year, arranged as a clock face. Constructed from four pieces of stone, it was made by a sculptor from Monmouth and cost about £12,000.

There has been a lot of media coverage; some scenes filmed in the park were used in one episode of the Doctor Who series. Also an episode of ‘The Big Book for Boys’ TV series was filmed there.

More recently the park has a wedding license, and about fifteen have been done to date. These extra uses for the park have an insurance aspect; the ordinary everyday things that people do in the park are insured (covered for £10 million). However the new activities include such things as weddings using horse-drawn vehicles, fireworks, glass-blowing and reindeer at Christmastime, all of which require extra cover. The park also had some decorated fibreglass dragons from when the city had them in various locations.

There are four main places in Newport where exotic trees can be found, plus fine examples of native trees – Beechwood Park, Belle Vue Park, Tredegar Park and the old part of St Woolos Cemetery.

There some rare trees in the park, such as a magnolia from the Himalayas. To see another one in flower, with the exception of Duffryn Gardens, we would have to go to Devon, Cornwall, or the west of Scotland. This one took 20 years before it first flowered. The park has had the Green Flag Award (the equivalent of the Blue Flag for beaches) since 2008. This is awarded to parks which have a welcoming atmosphere, a safe, secure, clean, well-maintained environment, no graffiti, maintained in a sustainable manner, have a place for conservation heritage, community involvement, and good general management and safeguarding the park for future generations.

The park has a blue plaque made by Ned Heywood of Chepstow. He is one of only three or four potters in the whole of Britain who can make these plaques. He has made such artefacts for places all over the country, some in the city of London.

Belle Vue Park is an important resource not just for Newport, but for the whole of south Gwent.

Dave Edwards



History Group November 2013

For the November meeting he History Group had a talk by Don Wood entitled ‘History of the Wireless’.

The growth of communication has a long history. The first communications were by word of mouth. For example, when the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, one man took the message to Athens; he ran the 26 miles and delivered the news. At that time this was the fastest way of communicating.

When writing was developed, a message could be written on a clay tablet and carried by a relay of runners, making the journey a little quicker, since a series of messengers could be used. This was taken a stage further in nineteenth century America using relays of horses – the famous pony express. Under that scheme, a rider would change horses at regular intervals, making the journey time even shorter. Even then the time required to take a message across the United States was measured in days. In contrast to that, taking a message from UK to India took two months, since the fastest method of long-distance travel was sailing ship.

There were other methods of sending messages overland; a familiar one is by using beacons. However the interpretation of a flaming beacon had to be arranged in advance; it might say ‘the enemy is coming’ but not how many and possibly not from which direction.

The French developed a system called semaphore. That consisted of a tower with a pattern of shutters which opened and closed; from the patterns of the shutters a message could be relayed by line of sight – the shutters and relay stations had to be visible to each other. The operators of the system might be equipped with telescopes, but still had to be able to see each other. This system could be used to send some quite elaborate messages.

At sea the Royal Navy used signalling flags. For example at the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson hoisted his famous signal ‘this day, England expects that every man will do his duty’. There was a multitude of different flags available and some quite complicated signals could be sent between ships.

The first really fast method of communication was the electric telegraph. This was invented by Mr Wheatstone. His system had two wires which frequently ran alongside railway lines. In the receiving area there would be a large box with two needles; the behaviour of those needles was watched to interpret the letters that made up the message. Its weakness was its short range – the whole apparatus had to be duplicated at intervals. However it was reasonably fast and messages could be relayed from one side of America to the other in a few hours.

The telegraph was improved when Samuel Morse invented the code which bears his name. A system was developed whereby a spark at the sender (a small key) would go down the wire (a single wire as the system used the earth as a return wire) and would come to a machine which would spark onto a piece of paper. That would leave a mark on the paper – either a long dash or a short dot – making a permanent record on the paper.

Someone realized that if a spark was generated in one place, then with suitable apparatus, it was possible to hear the spark somewhere else. That system given the name ‘wireless telegraphy’ and was eventually termed radio. One of the primary originators of this technology was Guglielmo Marconi, who became famous for his invention of radio. He did much of his early work in south Wales, first transmitting from Lavernock Point near Penarth to Brean Down near Weston. Marconi realised that if he increased the power used, he could transmit the signal over far greater distances. The armed forces were particularly interested in this, since it would facilitate communication with ships at sea, armies in the field and even aircraft. Marconi eventually equipped his apparatus with enough power to transmit to America.

However all of these systems were ‘point-to-point’ systems; only where someone had a receiver could they pick up the message being sent. It was some years after that that true ‘broadcast’ radio was invented. The term broadcast comes from the old idea of spreading seed, casting it by hand. The signal was broadcast; not sent out to a particular place, but sent out so that anyone who had a receiver could tune in to that particular signal and receive it. Speech broadcast required a number of inventions to come together. As an inventor rather than a scientist, Marconi took other people’s creations and put them together to produce something new. He utilised the ideas behind Bell’s telephone, the spark gap that caused the signal, the microphone and earpiece out of the loudspeaker and used them in conjunction with increased power which made the whole thing possible.

The Americans started speech broadcasting before anyone else, the first commercial radio stations being in Dallas and Detroit. In Britain the first radio station was ‘2LO’, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company. They transmitted from Alexandra Palace, at first experimentally. At first broadcasting was done for only one or two hours a day, but gradually it built up to a full day’s service. Then they went into two different programmes; one was the broadcast from London (the national programme on 2LO), which contained national news and output that they thought was suitable for everyone in the country to hear. At the same time there were regional programmes, based in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; these contained local news and programmes considered suitable for those regions. During World War II the regional programmes were shut down for fear that the Germans would use the various transmitters as location devices for planning their bombing raids. The regional programmes were brought back into use at the end of the war.

During the war separate channels were used to transmit secret messages to agents in enemy territory.

After the war the BBC started to separate the national programme into different interests. One of the first was the light programme (light entertainment). Some classical music was played, but as a minority interest. Also the regional programmes were brought back as the home service. During the day a schools service was broadcast; most people remember loudspeakers being used for the whole class or whole school to listen. In 1957 a third network was introduced (evenings only) for classical music. This was intended for intellectuals as it was considered to be of less interest to the majority of people.

In 1967 the names of the programmes changed; Radio 1 was brought in as an extra service, the light programme became Radio 2, Radio 3 was the new name for the Third Programme and the Home Service became Radio 4. Since then the advent of digital radio has given us even more channels.

We should not assume that the BBC was the only broadcaster. The Corporation was very conservative, and would not countenance 'all this pop music' - they thought that it would deprave the youngsters. During the 1940s a radio programme had been broadcast from Luxemburg. This station was delighted to broadcast pop music, and it was the primary reason that the BBC introduced Radio 1. They realised that they were losing a lot of their younger listeners to Radio Luxemburg. Radio Luxemburg did something else naughty as well - they had advertisements!

The programmes on the radio at that time included the news, followed on a Saturday night by the all-important football results. As these were read out, many men checked their pools coupons, hoping to win a fortune. Very few did. Also broadcast were important speeches by politicians, the King (George V and afterwards George VI) and others. Also there were Sunday services, plays and of course serials. These included Dick Barton Special Agent, Mrs Dale's Diary and most famous of all The Archers, which is still running and is now the longest running serial anywhere.

Other favourite programmes included Woman's Hour, Twenty Questions, Two-way Family Favourites, Workers' Playtime and Children’s Hour. Later came comedy programmes such as Life with the Lyons, Variety Bandbox, The Navy Lark, Much Binding in the Marsh, Welsh Rarebit, Round the Horn, the Goon Show, Take It From Here, ITMA (It’s That Man Again), the Billy Cotton Band Show. Other popular programmes included Henry Hall's Guest Night, the strict tempo dancing of Victor Sylvester. Popular with younger children was Listen with Mother, the only respite for harassed mothers in some households. The strangest of all must be Educating Archie - who would have thought that a ventriloquist could become a hit on radio? However it encouraged new talent and many famous names made their first appearance on that programme – Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Tony Hancock, etc.

Dave Edwards



History October Meeting

For the October meeting, the History Group had a talk by Ernie Bee entitled 'Valiant, Victor and Vulcan – the V-bombers'.

At the end of the Second World War, in 1946, it was suddenly realised that Russia was establishing an ‘Iron Curtain’ between itself and Western Europe. From the Baltic to the Adriatic, there was a continuous chain of countries which acted as a buffer zone. The cold war had started. The weak point was to the north, in that no buffer zone could be created along Russia's northern coast.

The first aircraft intended to combat any Russian threat was the Avro Lincoln, developed from the Lancaster. However it was realised that such old designs would not do for very long. Therefore in 1946 the Air Ministry decided that we needed a long-range bomber which could strike at Russia if necessary, initially using conventional weapons but eventually leading to nuclear weapons. Therefore they issued a specification for a four engine bomber which could fly higher and faster than any hostile missile or fighter aircraft.

When the specifications were distributed to aircraft manufacturers, Avro submitted a design for a delta wing craft (the Vulcan), and Handley Page submitted a design using a crescent wing craft (the Victor). The ministry also issued a lower specification in case the above designs were not delivered within the time frame envisaged. For this lesser spec, Vickers submitted the Valiant design.

The Vulcan and Victor were designed for very rapid reaction. In the event the emergency alarm being sounded, they were expected to take off within 4 minutes and go to a dispersal airfield which was quite independent of the main airfield; there they wait for instructions.

There were states of readiness that built up as the political situation worsened. For example during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the state of alert for the V-force was such that the crews were at their main bases, sat at the side of their aircraft in full kit, aircraft fired up and ready to go within those 15 minutes. Frankly, they expected to be going to war that October. Macmillan was prime minister, and he refused to allow the aircraft to disperse to the smaller airfields because the sight of the mass take off might cause panic.

Macmillan had a lot of influence with John Kennedy; Macmillan’s wife was American, Macmillan himself had been like a surrogate son General (later President) Eisenhower and the Macmillan had a similar paternal relationship with Kennedy. It is possible that long conversations they had at the time calmed down Kennedy. He in turn pacified his chiefs of staff, who were very keen to go to war. Had that not happened, we would probably not be here today.

Ernie Bee grew up near RAF Finningley in Yorkshire, to the sound of bombers flying overhead. He joined the ATC and got his glider license aged fourteen. The skill he acquired in gliding proved to be useful, and even critical, in later years.

He applied to the RAF and got in as a pilot. He did several months officer training, followed by flying training on a Jet Provost. This involved low level flying, formation flying, and aerobatics. A beginner usually took eight to ten flying hours to go solo; if someone was still not ready after twelve hours flying hours, the training staff began to get concerned about the person’s ability to be a competent pilot.

Ernie did his first solo when he had between 8 and 10 hours flying in Jet Provosts, he. He took off, with instructions to do one circuit and then land. Once in the aircraft he was told to climb out and away from the airfield and maintain heading because he had to practice emergency approach and landing. However there was also a camouflaged V-bomber coming in and that had to be observed and avoided. Ernie saw to V-bomber pass beneath him and land. He decided that he had better descend and land, but could not get a word in on the intercom because of the amount of chatter being exchanged.

At that point the decision was taken out of his hands; there was a clatter and a bang and the engine stopped. He went through the checks then called in ‘Mayday’ back to base; there was a stunned silence at the other end, followed by ‘repeat message’. The message was repeated, plus call sign and ‘returning to base’. His instructor came on the radio, having grabbed the mike from the controller, and made sure that Ernie knew what to do. Ernie realized that he could not restart the engine and did not have the height or control to do another circuit. Recruits practiced landing in such circumstances, but the engine was throttled back rather than stopped. When the engine is stopped, the drag on the aircraft was greater and the controls a lot heavier. Ernie also realized that he was much higher than should be, but could not use the engine to reduce height and still land safely.

His proposed solution was to sideslip. The accepted theory says that you do not sideslip jets because that alters the airflow going into the engine and does not do it any good – usually it stops. Therefore people are never trained to sideslip jets. However Ernie’s gliding experience had taught him how to sideslip. Ernie side-slipped the jet, which was now a glider; this involved having the aerilons one way and the rudder the other.

The aircraft was then turned into the airstream, which meant that it took on the profile of a brick rather than a plane. That immediate drag meant that the aircraft lost height rapidly. The people on the ground thought that he was lost control and was crashing. They fired a red flare from a Very pistol, an action of dubious benefit, so Ernie side-slipped again, straightened up and landed. He was immediately surrounded by ambulances and fire engines, they dragged him off to the hospital, but all he wanted to do was go for a beer.

He was at one airshow, something that was expected of all aircrew, accompanied by his instructor. They were watched a Lightning aerobatic team doing their stuff, while the majority of spectators watched a Royal Signals motorcycle team doing a crossover manoeuvre. He thought, “This is all wrong – they should be watching the aircraft; maybe the aircraft could do similar things to the motorcycles. Consequently, Ernie and the two instructors decided they would do a little aerobatic display.

Several weeks later there was an internal RAF show for the local air commodore and his wife, along with a few other high-ranking officers; such events were usually boring for the onlookers. The three intrepid flyers had gone to a satellite airfield and practiced manoeuvres which the audience would not previously have seen. The plan was that the two instructors would fly one above the other, while Ernie would be on the other runway, flying in the opposite direction. From the spectator area it would appear that he was flying between them.

On the day, this was intended to be the last item in the show. The guy doing the commentating in the tower for the people on the ground said, “It seems that the student has fallen away from the two instructors; he did very well but it looks as though he is coming around to land. Oh, the problem is that the other two are coming the other way, and they are going to do a flypast.

I hope the student realizes what is happening.” The aircraft did their manoeuvre as intended, but it caused total bedlam on the ground – people were running for cover, expecting bits of aircraft to be flying around. The pilots landed, laughing and giggling at the chaos they had caused. However when they saw the reaction of the senior officers present, they thought that were going to be dismissed from the service.

However the air commodore’s wife thought it was the funniest thing she had seen in years. She said she got dragged around many boring airshows and was highly entertained by this. She made everyone laugh, invited the three pilots to dinner that evening, pooh-poohed any criticism and described the proceedings as ‘great fun which should be done more often’.

This being the early sixties, there was no internet, no tweeting; all the instructors had been in the war and knew what was required, knew what type of people they needed so many such escapades were accepted.

Ernie went on to advanced flying using Folland Gnats; its small size meant than it was less like an aeroplane and more like a 500 mph motorbike. A pilot would put it on rather than get into it. The pilots were encouraged ‘to go and play with these toys, flying up and down the north Wales valleys. The pilots organized a one-way system to avoid meeting a mate going in the opposite direction.

Some of the antics included flying over Snowden really low, hugging the side of the mountain and then flipping upside down as they reached the top, and down the other side. Another one was flying over a big lake with yachts. They found that if they flew low enough, they could get a shock wave akin to  the wake of a motor torpedo boat. If this was done during a yacht race, the boats would be left in utter chaos. It was possible to fly quite low in a Gnat – they found that they could fly over the sea if it was calm enough.

When Ernie was on Gnats, the Red Arrows were just being formed, and one of Ernie’s friends became one of the Red Arrow pilots, and later the leader. Ernie was one of a number of pilots who had spent 6 months flying Gnats and were lined up to join the Red Arrows. However the Ministry of Defence had other ideas.

The Valiant  was the first of the ‘V-Bombers’ to be brought into service in 1955. It saw active service using conventional bombs during the Suez crisis in 1956. In 1956 the Vulcan came into service. Initially the Vulcan and Valiant were painted in anti-flash white, intended to protect aircraft from exploding bombs just released. Later the aircraft were painted in camouflage colours, above and below.

Vulcans and Victors were very manoeuverable aircraft; they could do loops and barrel rolls if required. They were intended to be subsonic, but the aircrew knew that they were capable of traveling at supersonic speeds. Victors did not glide well (i.e without power) so an extra little engine was provided to allow for failure of the four main ones, enabling the pilot to restart them.

A parachute was deployed to land a Victor; strictly speaking it was not required, but using it saved on brakes and tyres. The crew of each aircraft had to be capable of maintaining it if they away from main base, including repacking the parachute if it was deployed. This was quite an undertaking and crew members were given responsibility for different parts. Standard crew on Victors and Vulcans was 5 people – 2 pilots, 2 navigators and 1 electronics officer.

There was an occasion in Australia when one of these aircraft had a failure in the airspeed system, and went into a spin. They could not get out of the spin, so the captain released the parachute, which slowed down the aircraft and stabilized it. The captain then got rid of the parachute and landed – an amazing bit of ingenuity.

When the Russians developed the ability to shoot down aircraft such as Victor and Vulcan using ground-to-air missiles, tactics changed – any attacks would be made at low level, which required extra fuel, which required external fuel tanks to be bolted onto the wings. Also extra strain (i.e. metal fatigue) would be put on the aircraft through low-level flying at high speed.

The V-force was intended as a national deterrent but also as a NATO deterrent; in the latter capacity it would be deployed first, in that the Brits could get to Russia two hours before the Americans. The theory was that we knock out all the defences or make them ineffective using electronic countermeasures, so the fleet of American bombers and ICBMs would meet little resistance when they reached their targets.

If a V-bomber had a problem, the two pilots had ejector seats. The two navigators and electronics officer had expanding cushions which threw them towards the door. On reaching the door, they had to dive out, avoiding the engine intakes. To ensure that the pilots did not eject while the other crew members were still aboard, the safety pins for the pilots’ ejector seats were removed by the last man leaving via the door.

Ernie was usually co-pilot when flying Victors. One of his responsibilities was managing the fuel system. There were no computers in those days – calculations were done on calculators or in one’s head. There was a bank of switches controlling the various fuel tanks scattered around the aircraft. If the tank in one wing was emptied and the one in the other wing left full, the aircraft would fall over to one side since the centre of gravity would move. The balance between the various tanks had to be maintained, otherwise the aircraft could become impossible to fly.
Forward vision on the Victor was limited, which was something of a handicap. On one occasion Ernie was on a practice run over the North Sea when he overheard a comment in his headphones with his aircraft’s call-sign, which sounded like ‘another aircraft on an opposite course’.

Ernie looked out of the window, could see nothing but sky, but then spotted a little dot in the distance, coming towards them. He immediately pushed the stick forward, putting the aircraft into a steep dive. In a fraction of a second, a Canberra went over the top of them; it was so close that Ernie thought that it had hit their tailplane. It hadn’t, and they were able to level out and continue. However the craft was subject to negative G-force, so the navigators in the back literally hit the roof and then fell down and hit the floor. They gave Ernie an uncomplimentary character reference and cursed his offspring to the fourth generation, until the captain told them what had happened.

About 1968 many of the Victors were converted to become refueling tankers, as Polaris submarines took over the nuclear role. The refueling point provided on the Victor (for accepting fuel from another aircraft) was rarely used; when it was tried out, the cockpit filled up with fumes, putting the crew right off the idea. When the decision was made to send aircraft to the Falkland Islands, they suddenly had to find the parts necessary for mid-air refueling.

One was found in an officers’ mess being used as an ashtray. There were several raids carried out, and each one used 1.1 million gallons of fuel. If an enemy radar system scanned an attacking aircraft, then that aircraft fired a missile which home in on the radar signal and destroy the installation sending it. Some of the Harrier jets sent to the Falklands flew down, accompanied by a Victor tanker; they each had to be refueled nine times. The flight took about nine hours in total.

Before the task force reached the Falklands, a Vulcan was sent down on a bombing raid, its objective being to make Port Stanley airport unusable by the Argentinian fast jets; this gave the British task force some protection as it reached the vicinity of the islands. Since the Vulcan could not land after it had left Ascension Island, Victor tankers were used for mid-air refueling; eleven tankers were required in all. This involved Victors refueling Victors, something that hadn’t been done in twenty years.

When the Vulcan bombed the runway, it flew over diagonally; had it flown along the runway and dropped the bombs from 10,000 feet, the bombs could have been blown off course and missed the runway altogether. The objective was achieved, the runway was damaged and fast jets could not use it.

Another effect of the Vulcan raid was to make the Argentinians realize that they were vulnerable to attack, since they were closer to Britain than were the Falkland Islands. As a result they brought many of their jets back to the mainland, making the job of the British task force a little easier. The Argentinians filled in the craters in the runway with rubble, so they were able to use large transport aircraft, but not the jet fighters. Also the firing of missiles at the radar installations by the Vulcans helped the Harrier pilots.

Dave Edwards


The Magic Lantern by David Bailey

For the September meeting the History Group had a talk by Mr & Mrs David Bailey entitled ‘The Magic Lantern’.

As far as we know the magic lantern was invented about 1660, possibly by Christian Huygens, a Dutch inventor of note. He was certainly the first to produce a working model. In essence the invention was a source of light, a lens and a screen.

At the time the lens was often put behind the screen (back projection), increasing the illusion of 'magic'. For the first 100 years or so, the light sources used were very poor, consisting of oil lamps or even candles. The lights were so poor that slides could only be shown in small rooms. In the 1780s better oil lamps were produced, so making the lanterns useable in larger rooms and increasing audience sizes.

http://ts2.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4701040463642837&pid=15.1The other difficult part if the operation was making the slides. Consequently for a hundred years it was a secret activity; stories went out that they were horror shows, which indeed many of them were – grisly horror shows in small darkened rooms for select groups of people.
They got a bad reputation and were even looked on as witchcraft, with which decent people should not be associated. More and better slides were produced, but it was still essentially a horror show, a ‘phantasmagoria’ as it was labelled. During the nineteenth century, kits were available which contained squares of glass and paints, enabling people to produce their own slides. They began to be shown in quite big halls, but light sources were still poor compared to what came later.

Someone realised that a brighter light could be produced by heating lime. During the 1830s this ‘limelight’ was adapted for the stage, in that the footlights consisted of pieces of hot lime burning away; within a year or so, it was adapted for the magic lantern. Soon after that photography was developed, making more realistic but less colourful slides available.

By then travel had become much easier and groups of itinerant ‘magic lanternists’ travelled the countryside, exhibiting their slides in small halls, inns, public places at night time, street corners, even people’s homes. Wherever they were required they would do a show – partly horror, partly topical events.

Over the years the apparatus for displaying slides became ever more sophisticated, some of the devices having two or even three sets of lenses. Such sophistication could give a crude illusion of moving pictures. However complicated designs needed several people to operate them, and there were also dangers associated with the gases generated as the light was produced. The gases in common use were hydrogen and oxygen, always a dangerous combination unless stringent safety precautions are observed. Accidents were common, and horrific in their consequences. The invention of electricity in the 1890s eliminated many of these dangers. The invention of the incandescent filament bulb improved things even more, because it was safer, brighter and more reliable. Electric-powered models were manufactured until the mid 1930s. Other versions made in the nineteenth century used paraffin, acetylene and even carbide burners to provide light.
Slides tended to reflect the fashions of their times; in the early years of the twentieth century, sets of slides were available showing photographs of the monarchs (Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and George V), street scenes, motor cars and aircraft, British battleships (the ‘dreadnoughts’), domestic scenes, the sinking of the Titanic, Mrs Pankhurst and the suffragettes, Baden Powell and the boy scout movement, sports and pastimes, the London Fire Brigade and children’s stories.

During the nineteenth century advertising slides were quite common, purveying potions, powders and pills which cured everything from dyspepsia to dropsy. Some of them even claimed to cure every problem encountered by Man, from wind to gallstones. Many of these dubious medicines contained such things as arsenic, then thought to have health benefits.

A narrative story could be told through a series of slides, whether those slides were created from a series of staged photographs, or painted by hand. When accompanied by a phonograph recording, the combination could be evocative of a music hall or concert hall.

During its heyday the magic lantern was very much an educational medium, showing travel, historical stories, humorous stories, morality fables and especially temperance lectures.

Temperance lectures often started with some musical entertainment, whether vocal or instrumental, followed by a lecture on the evils of drink. The magic lantern was used to illustrate the talk, and reinforce the message. The most famous story of that type from the Victorian era was called ‘The Bottle’ by George Cruikshank, an expert engraver, powerful satirist and probably the best known caricaturist of the nineteenth century.

He was His father had died of alcoholism following a drinking bout, possibly providing his temperance cruikshank bottle alcohol family slide08inspiration. The slides show the degradation of a middle class family, beginning with the head of the family imbibing a glass of wine and ending his days in a workhouse, having already served a prison sentence for murdering his wife.

Something in a lighter vein was ‘Jack the Giant Killer’. Hero Jack was sent to attack the giant in any way he could. The giant made several attempts to catch or kill Jack, always without success. The story ended with Jack killing the giant and winning the fair lady.
Some slides, called slipping slides, were the nearest thing that the magic lantern ever got to moving pictures. They worked by masking selective parts of another slide. Then in 1895 the moving picture was invented; making the demise of the magic lantern inevitable.

Dave Edwards




The Roman Potteries of Caldicot (by Mark Lewis PhD)

In June Caldicot U3A monthly meeting had a talk by Mark Lewis, Curator of Caerleon Legionary Museum, entitled ‘The Roman Potteries of Caldicot’.

In Roman times Caldicot was an important rural facility, being a local centre for the production of pottery.

In 1965 builders were preparing the ground in the area of the Greenmeadow Estate, in the triangle bounded by Mill Lane, Woodstock Way and Caldicot Bypass. As they bulldozed the ground for Cobb Crescent and Stafford Road, they found six Roman pottery kilns.

At the time archaeology was not as organized as it is today, so Cefni Barnett (then keeper of Newport Museum) had to try to recover as much of the archaeology as he could after the damage had been done. In 1966 when houses were built in Nightingale Close, he was able to watch the diggers as they worked and recover the information much more carefully than had been possible earlier.

The pots produced in these kilns were made from local clay and their design resembled some from Poole in Dorset. Some of the examples were misshapen, suggesting unsuccessful firing. One university researcher labelled these rejected pots as ‘odd-shaped wasters’, a term that could have a much wider interpretation than just pottery. Many of the items had a relatively high silica content to make them heat-resistant, implying that they were for cooking rather than storage. The pots made were very fine vessels, including some wonderful flagons, cooking pots and jars with a characteristic zig-zag decoration on the necks.

Examination of the various known kilns shows how they worked. A fire on one end supplied the heat, a chimney or aperture above the kiln drew the hot gases through, and the heat of those gases fired the pots. Various methods were used for keeping the pots free of ash from the fire.

The wares made in Caldicot were sold in markets at Caerwent and further afield. For example, when a coin hoard was discovered at Thornbury several years ago, the containing pot earned the comment ‘it might have been made at Caldicot’. Other pots were discovered by Derek Upton, one of the best local archaeologists. He found the pot shards among the debris left after the archaeologists had finished at the two sites mentioned above.

The origin of the name ‘Caldicot’ is a bone of contention for many people. The name is pre-Norman, since it was already in use when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086. The accepted derivation is ‘cold cottage’, being an unheated shelter for use by wayfarers (travellers on foot). However the only roads in existence at that time were those created by the Romans a thousand years earlier, and there was certainly no Roman road through Caldicot. Consequently “travellers’ shelter” is an unlikely explanation for the name Caldicot.

An examination of places called 'Caldicot' or ‘Caldecote’ shows a grouping around the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, confirming an Anglo-Saxon origin. However the settlements so-named are not near a Roman road, so the idea that any of them could be a shelter for travellers is unlikely. Note also that none are near the known settlements of the time – they are always at the edges of counties, the edges of shires, and they are a long way from known existing settlements. Could the name have been used to indicate places where people were ‘cold-shouldered’, i.e. places of banishment?

Another possibility arises from the presence of Roman pottery kilns. If the words caldus or calidus are looked up in a Latin dictionary, they mean warm, hot or fiery. Therefore a 'fiery cot' could indicate the presence of a kiln. Given that so many of the ‘Caldecote’s in Britain have apparently been locations for the manufacture of Roman pottery, a folk memory may have led to the association of the name with kiln sites.

Dave Edwards


History Group July 2013

The July meeting of the History Group was a field trip to Usk Castle and Llangeview Church.

Usk Castle

Usk was first settled by Celtic farmers who cultivated the land near the river, and grazed their animals on higher ground nearby. When the Romans invaded Wales, they marched west from Gloucester and established their first fort at Usk. Their activity was interrupted by the rebellion of the Iceni tribe in eastern England, and it was more than ten years before they resumed their conquest of the Celts. At that point they decided that Caerleon was a better base for the legion, and Usk was largely abandoned.

After 1066, the Normans established a series of castles on and near the Welsh border, including one at Usk, to protect their newly acquired lands. The  fortress at Usk had a much contested history, being successively captured and recaptured by Welsh and English forces, spread over many years. Usk eventually became stabilized under Davy Gam, a Monmouth ally of both Henry IV and Henry V. The castle was then owned by the Duchy of Lancaster, but gradually fell into decay. It survived the Civil War with just some minor slighting.

The gatehouse was refashioned as a dwelling in 1680, and has been lived in ever since. The garden was created by Rudge and Anne Humphreys from the 1930s until she died in1991. It is still privately owned and maintained as an historic monument.

Llangeview Church

St David’s Church, Llangeview lies a mile west of Usk, adjacent to the  junction of the A472 with the A449. It was originally dedicated to St Cyfyw, but later re-dedicated to St David. The present building is mostly 18th century with 15th century roodscreen and loft.

However its circular churchyard suggests a Celtic origin often associated with monastic foundations of an early date. The interior has pre-Victorian box pews with an extra-large one for the local squire. Having been declared redundant some years ago, the building is now in the care of The Friends of Friendless Churches.

Our thanks go to Don Wood for arranging the afternoon.

Dave Edwards



History Group June 2013

For the June meeting, the History Group had a talk by Peter Strong, entitled 'Welsh Trade Unions 1815-1900’.

To many people the words 'trade unions’ evoke memories of the 1970s and 1980s, but the movement has a much longer history. There is some evidence of such activity in the sixteenth century, but it was during the years following the Napoleonic War that trade unions (or ‘combinations’ as they were originally known) really became active. The cessation of hostilities in 1815 saw a sudden drop in the demand for iron, and as most of the coal mined in south Wales was used for iron smelting, the coal and iron industries were both affected.

In 1816 the employers announced wage cuts, consequent on the reduction in iron production. The coal and iron workers from Tredegar responded by marching to neighbouring places of work, hoping to pressurize the employers by stopping production altogether and increasing the number of people on the march. The men eventually returned to work, but underlying bad feeling remained. Such was the hostility in Nantyglo during one period of serious unrest that the local mine owner built several fortified towers as refuges for his family if feelings got worse. There were more strikes, lockouts, marches and general disturbances, some requiring the reading of the Riot Act.

Many of the larger disputes were in the coal and iron industries, with unions in dispute with each other and well as the employers. Such was the loyalty received from their members that unions could continue to operate without fear of arrest. Some men took direct action, blackening their faces, calling themselves ‘Scotch Cattle’ and attacking those people who opposed or hindered them. Huge rewards were offered for information about the leaders, but drew little response, partly through loyalty, partly due to intimidation. Particular targets for their anger were the truck shops, company-owned establishments selling goods on credit at inflated prices.

Some of the more serious disturbances necessitated the involvement of military forces. Best known was the Chartists’ Uprising in 1839, a civil rather than a union disturbance, since the demands centred on electoral reform rather working conditions. However wage-associated confrontations in Tredegar during the 1820s resulted in intervention by the Scots Greys and Chepstow Cavalry.

The nineteenth century saw the growth of organized unions in the coal and iron industries, both locally and nationally. In some cases small purely local ‘societies’ grew into country-wide trade unions, having formal rule books, elected officials and reluctant recognition from employers. In other cases local unions came into being as breakaways from national unions.

In 1869 the Amalgamated Miners Association had been formed in Lancashire, but it was unpopular and weak, partly due to decisions forced on it by circumstance. Miners reluctantly agreed to the adoption of a sliding scale, whereby wages were linked to the price of coal. Some unions continued to resist this erosion of their influence, particularly the Cambrian Miners Association led by William Abraham, better known under his eisteddfod name ‘Mabon’. He dominated trade unionism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A supporter of the Sliding Scale, he portrayed it as a way forward based on arbitration and conciliation rather than industrial conflict.

After much conflict between several miners’ unions, some of them Welsh, the South Wales Miners’ Federation was formed in 1898. Known as ‘The Fed’, this union was created by amalgamating seven different groups, with Mabon as its chairman and William Brace as vice-chairman. Brace was head of one of the seven constituent unions and Mabon’s biggest critic. Support grew rapidly and by 1913, 70% of Welsh miners were union members.

As workers’ influence extended into other industries and membership grew, national unions were in some cases formed from local groups. For example the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, formed in 1851, was derived from 120 separate local unions. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, trade unions had extended into trades and professions that had until then eschewed such things. This included clerical trades, some professions and self-employed craftsmen. Also, employers began to work with unions, realizing that a good relationship was of benefit to both groups. From such beginnings grew the trade unions of today.

Dave Edwards


History Group May 2013

For the May meeting, the History Group had a talk by Richard Jones, entitled ‘The Villages of the Caldicot Levels’.

A journey through the Caldicot Levels passes through some very old communities; some have a thousand years of history, some are older. Many of these villages were affected by the Great Flood of 1607 and some still have reminders of the level reached by the water.

The flood was made worse than it might have been by the fact that much of the land is below sea level. The first significant efforts in converting sea marsh (which it originally was) into agricultural land was done by the monks, the main drainage channel being called, appropriately enough, Monks’ Ditch.

The village of Goldcliff will forever be associated with the Flood, partly because of the brass plaque inside the church which records the level reached by the flood water. Note that the inscription first lists the value of property lost and then the number of people drowned.

A lesser known link between Goldcliff and the River Severn was smuggling. An entry of 1320 records that the vicars of Caldicot and Goldcliff removed a cargo of wine from a wrecked ship.
The village of Magor (meaning ‘walls’) may mark the division between high ground (permanent pasture) and low-lying ground used only during the summer months, the ‘walls’ being the difference in height between the two.
A prominent feature on the horizon is Wilcrick Hill, an Iron Age hillfort which was occupied many times by different groups, mainly because it gives superb views over the Severn Estuary, giving early warning of invaders.
Magor Church is now St Mary’s, but until 1868 it was dedicated to St Leonard. A fair (St Leonard’s Fair) was held in Magor until the 17th century.

Magor owes its existence to St Brides Brook; this rises in Wentwood, flows down the St Brides Valley, and into the estuary near Magor. The brook irrigated the land, provided the power for a mill (now Morgan’s Garage) and marks the dividing line between Magor and Undy.

Rogiet, next village to the east, used to consist of three parishes – Rogiet Llanvihangel, Rogiet and Ifton. The derivation of the name is uncertain, but may mean ‘gate for a roe deer’. Rogiet became the dominant community when the Severn Tunnel was built. Also a major railway junction and marshalling yard were constructed at Rogiet.

Caldicot grew up as a port, ships being able to navigate part of the Nedern Brook. Old records describe a mill and an approach for ships at the mouth at the brook. There were also fisheries and associated trades. Today that part of the stream below Caldicot Castle is an artificial waterway, in that Thomas Walker diverted its course when he built the Severn Tunnel.
At the nearby village of Llanvaches, William Wroth was vicar 1611-1639, after which he was expelled by the Bishop of Llandaff. He then established the first nonconformist chapel in Wales at Carrow Hill, later relocating to its current site on the main A48 road.

A church at Sudbrook, called Holy Trinity, was built in the 1600s alongside the Bronze Age earthworks, but abandoned in the 1790s, possibly due to encroachment by the sea. The last burial there was Captain Bleddyn Smith in 1757. He had asked his family to bury him at sea, but instead his widow had him interred at Sudbrook. She was heard to comment that her husband would eventually get his way, as the sea would come and get him.
During the Civil War, King Charles I crossed the Severn to Black Rock, with the pursuing roundheads but a few hours behind him. When the boatman returned to the other side the parliamentary troops were waiting for him. They demanded at sword point that he take them across. He landed them on the English Stones, a rocky outcrop mid-channel, and informed them that they had reached the other side. When the tide rose, they drowned.

In the nineteenth century a branch railway line brought passengers to Black Rock, where they could board a ferry across the Severn. The pier there was built in 1863, burnt down in 1879 and was never replaced, the tunnel being already under construction.

Dave Edwards



History April 2013

The April session of the History Group had a talk entitled ‘Medieval Medicine’, given by Adrianne Jones.

Life in Medieval Britain was hard and short; life expectancy was 28 for men and 29 for women. Clean water and sanitation  were unknown, infection and disease were ever present, and safeguards were few.

The medical profession of the day was populated with physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. The physicians were university educated, versed in the theories of the day and prescribed medicines and therapies for the rich. Surgeons were also barbers, were self-taught and were used mainly for ‘blood-letting’ for those deemed by physicians to have too much! Apothecaries sold medicines, potions and charms to the sick, the love-lorn and the superstitious. Many of their wares were of their own devising, some based on traditional herbal remedies, some toxic.

Common folk who could afford none of these things relied on monasteries (when they existed) and wise women, whose lore had been handed down through generations. Investigation of some of these herbal medicines shows that they contain substances recognisable as chemicals in use today, things which can cure or improve health.

Some herbal preparations have been used for thousands of years and in many different countries. Their success is their greatest advertisement. Many of the medieval concoctions administered by physicians were given on the basis that ‘if it is horrible then it must be doing good’, but the majority of herbs were more benign. Such are the beginnings of 21st century medicine.

Dave Edwards


Website www.caldicotu3a.org.uk News

This month we have two slideshows for you on our website.

One is on our Gardening page it is the slideshow Pat and Pam made for us of their trip to South Africa. The other one is of Llanthony Secunda Manor of Caldicot, that is under Information tab on the Home page.

There are also photos from other group on their pages and I would like to thank you all for sending them with their write-ups to me.

Happy Browsing
Regards Ron




History March 2013

The March meeting of the History Group had a talk on Llanthony Secunda Priory
by Ron Lapthorn.

When Milo FitzWalter was appointed Sheriff of Gloucester in 1123, his estates included an agricultural holding at Caldicot. At that time only the keep of today’s castle existed, having been constructed sometime before 1127 by Milo’s father.

During the turbulent reigns of Empress Maud and King Stephen, the monks of Llanthony Priory near Abergavenny, were being oppressed and pillaged by the natives of the Brecon Mountains, and the Bishop of Hereford asked Milo to assist. He granted them land in Gloucester to build a new priory, and they named it Llanthony Secunda. He further endowed it with two parts of the tithes of Caldicot.

Llanthony Secunda Manor the Story

Please click on the image below to access a slideshow story about Llanthony Secunda Manor

Slideshow story about Llanthony Secunda Manor

Researched and Produced By Ron Lapthorn


Calecote (‘warm shelter’) is the most westerly parish mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086. As the new priory near Gloucester grew in opulence and splendour, substantial development of Caldicot took place forming the Priory Manor. During that time Augustinian canons from the Gloucester foundation built Llanthony Secunda manor in Church Road as their priory. Also Caldicot Church was built to replace the earlier Church of St Bride that stood on the site before 900. Milo improved the castle and Caldicot became an established farming settlement. The Llanthony Monks held and farmed the manor until 1536, when process of dissolving the abbeys, priories and monasteries began.

During the following 400 years, the priory passed through the hands of several owners, until the land was sold off in the 1970s to build the Hall Park housing development. In 1972 the house was scheduled for demolition, but it was preserved by an emergency listing as an historic building.

In 1978 an American lady, Mrs S. McLeod, purchased the Manor. She took on the restoration including saving the barns and gardens from further development. She had 7 husbands and was known to keep a powder compact in a hole in an outside wall in case of unexpected visitors.

The house is now used as a holiday home for visitors.

Dave Edwards


History February 2013

For the February meeting, the group had a talk on the History of the Harp, given by John L. Thomas, harpist and teacher.

The history of the harp goes back thousands of years; it is possible that the first such instrument was derived from a bow and arrow. There are pictures of ancient Egyptian harps, found in Egyptian tombs, with the form of a multi-stringed bow. The first harps probably developed from these very basic instruments. Harps are mentioned in the Bible, including David the shepherd boy playing for King Saul and the captive Hebrews in Babylon 'hanging their harps upon the willows' because they no longer had the enthusiasm to play them.

The modern harps developed over centuries from these beginnings. A modern harp has a ‘column' to replace the string that joined the two bow ends. Another important part of the modern instrument is the sound board, which amplifies the sound produced by the strings.

The earlier harps were small to make them portable. However that lack of size made it harder to get a full range of notes from the instrument. Over the years, people have devised various ways of getting the desired range from a harp. A harp can be tuned by adjusting the tension of strings, something which is usually done before beforehand, rather than while playing! Today we use a standard ‘Western’ scale, which is much the same when played on any instrument. However different cultures in the past have tuned strings to produce other variations of the scales.

During the middle ages, music was often provided by wandering troubadours; they would travel from one great house to another, entertaining the owner, his family and guests with music, poetry and traditional tales. They were welcome in most of the places they visited, since their presence was an attraction to guests – they were the pop stars of their day.

The wealthier people would have their own resident harpists, who would be entertaining nightly. The harpists became quite important within that society. They had to look after their harps, and probably had to make them as well. They had an exalted status within the household, so they did not have to work in he fields. Their status is illustrated by the fact that they were allowed to 'sit above the salt', away from the servants and lesser members of the household. The harpist was expected to play a suitable melody when the salt was ceremoniously brought into the hall.

The smaller harp has levers on each string; moving a lever lengthens or shortens the string, and so changes the note produced by a semitone. The early harps had levers for the strings needing frequent change, rather than for every note.

Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) was a distinguished Irish harpist and composer. A child of an estate tenant, he was blind from birth but taught to play music. He was given a harp and a horse and sent forth to earn a living. He travelled throughout Ireland, entertaining and composing, feted wherever he went.

Just a few years later in north Wales, lived another blind harpist, called John Parry (1710-1782). His parents were tenants of the wealthy Griffiths family; they took the young Parry under their wing, and paid for his tuition on the harp, which enabled him to earn a living, and he became a virtuoso on the instrument. He became a member of the Williams-Wynn family, then the largest landowners in North Wales.

Sir William Williams-Wynn was an MP, and so the family travelled extensively between London and Ruabon, near Wrexham, where the family lived. The fact that John Parry had his portrait painted in oils is an indication of his status. He also played for royalty.

At about this time Handel was living in England and composing music. He produced a concerto which some claimed was written for the harp, and it is sometimes known as the harp concerto. It was claimed that John Parry played that concerto in London. Parry also wrote a lot of music for the harp, most of which has been transcribed into modern type and survives to this day. Parry played a triple harp, similar to the larger instruments in use today. To create all the notes required on such a large harp, another set of strings was added. The two outer sets were tuned to the key for the melody, while the centre set were a semitone higher, and harpists had to push their fingers through the outer strings to reach the centre ones. The triple harp was invented in Italy, and became quite popular since it was more versatile than a blade (or lever) harp.

Another player of the triple harp was Edward Jones (1752-1824). Born into a wealthy family, he settled in London, and became harpist to George, Prince of Wales; when George ascended the throne, Edward Jones became the king's bard. He wrote variations on traditional melodies, and also composed many original pieces.

The pedal harp was developed about 1800 when harpists wanted to change the notes (as with the levers) without taking their fingers off the strings. The pedal controlled the C-strings and pressing it caused discs to move, which changed C to C-sharp, etc., a great step forward in harp design. The first ones were limited in what they could do, but later ones gave greater flexibility and range of notes.

The main manufacturer was a French firm called Erard, and playing the harp became a very fashionable; and many kings and queens of France could play, one notable player being Marie Antoinette. Erard moved from Paris to London in 1792, largely as the result of the French Revolution.

Queen Victoria had a royal harpist named John Thomas (1926-1913). Within harp circles, our speaker, John L. Thomas insists that there is an 'L' of a difference between himself and the royal harpist. The nineteenth century version wrote several original pieces as well as arranging many traditional Welsh melodies. One of these was 'The Minstrel's Goodbye to His Native Land', which he wrote when his brother went to America.

There were no further royal harpists until Prince Charles appointed Catrin Finch. Today it is a post which is renewed every two or three years.

The various melodies played by John showed the range, versatility and enchanting quality of the modern harp. Our thanks go to John for an entertaining and informative talk.

Dave Edwards


History January 2013

In the absence of the scheduled speaker, the History Group had a talk entitled 'The Roman Legions', given by Tom West.

The army of Rome was an efficient, highly organised war machine. They were divided into legions, the legions into cohorts, and the cohorts into centuries. A century was made up of eighty fighting men, plus officers and support staff. There were six centuries in a cohort, and ten cohorts in a legion. The centuries in the first cohort were double strength (160 men) as they were front line troops. In practice however, the centuries were usually under strength. The shortage of recruits might account for the 'century' being 80 men rather than 100.

However the common legionary was more than just a soldier, since he was expected to help erect the camp at the end of a day's march. When a permanent fortress was established, the legionaries had to dig the ditches and build the walls.

The army had started a civilian army, and it was considered an honour to be invited to join. Those eligible were Roman citizens who owned property of a certain value, usually farmland. The campaign season was usually during summer, so farmers could sow corn in the spring, and be home for the harvest in the autumn.

As the legions were asked to go further afield and stay away from home longer periods, these citizens were less keen to enlist, so soldiers had to be recruited from the lower ranks of Roman citizens, and paid.

The standard pay was a denarius a day, but they were only paid twice a year. Incidentally the names of Roman currency (librae, solidae, denarii) survived into the 20th century in abbreviated form (L.s.d), libra being the value of a pound weight of silver.

New recruits joined the army at 18, and served for 25 years. They had to be between 5ft 6in and 5ft 8in tall, and physically fit. They were given their kit, but had to pay for it over a period of months or years. During their training, they used weapons which were heavier than the standard issue to build up their muscles. Their main weapon was the 'gladius', a short heavy sword.

Legionaries wore clothes suitable for the conditions in which they served. Standard issue was body armour worn over a woolen tunic, but in Britain these were supplemented by leather breeches, with boots instead of sandals. Also the red cloaks worn by all were impregnated with lanolin, which made them nigh on waterproof.

On a route march, their standard pace enabled them to do 20 Roman miles (18 imperial miles) in 5 hours, in full kit. When travelling, each man carried his weapons, his cooking utensils, food for several days, and some wooden stakes. When they camped for the night, those stakes were used to construct a palisade around the tents. The camp was built to a standard layout, so that every man knew where everything and everyone was. On the march each group of 8 men occupied a tent, and when a permanent fortress was established, the same 8 men occupied one room in a barrack block. Each barrack block contained 10 rooms for legionaries, another 10 for their equipment, plus space for the centurion and support staff.

Each century also had a centurion, an optio (second-in-command to the centurion), a coricen (trumpeter), a signifier (standard-bearer) and tesserarius (guard commander).

The centurion carried a vine stick; this was his badge of authority and instrument of punishment. The optio carried a staff; in battle he used it to push forward reluctant soldiers. The cornicen made various trumpet calls to give signals, as required by the centurion. The signifer carried a staff with battle honours for the century attached. He also kept accounts for those legionaries who could not read, write and reckon for themselves. The tesserarius supervised the sentries on guard duty.

The senior centurion in a legion was granted the title 'Primus Pilus' (first spear).This was a post he held for one year only; after that he retired or became praefectus praetorium (legate at the legion headquarters).

Other posts included tribunum laticlavus, praefectus castrorum and tribunum angistrate. The last of these were junior officers given little responsibility - they were appointments made for political reasons, and usually given to young members of noble families. Typical term of service was 6 months.

The Boudicca rebellion in 60 or 61AD very nearly succeeded, in that she overran much of the southern part of Roman Britain. However in her final conflict she allowed the Roman commander to choose the site of the battle. Understandably he chose a venue on which his army could use traditional Roman tactics, and Boudicca's army was destroyed.

An elite part of the army was the Praetorian Guard. Their primary role was personal bodyguard for the emperor. Over time their status and power increased to the point that they were able to appoint the emperor, and they proved this on at least one occasion by auctioning the post to the highest bidder.

Dave Edwards



For the October 2012 meeting the History Group had a talk The Bear Facts (by Don Wood)
Arctophile: lover of bears

Wild bears were found in most of Britain until the 11th century. From that date until the nineteenth century, the bears that most people would have seen were dancing bears and those involved in bear baiting.

Models of bears have been made for centuries in areas where bears lived, especially in Germany and the Black Forest. Many were carved from wood. Later furry stuffed examples were made by Richard Steiff, and were very ‘bear-like’.

In 1901, Edward (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt became vice-president of United States to William McKinley, having led the ‘Rough Riders’ in the Cuban War of 1898. In November of that year McKinley was assassinated, and Roosevelt became president.

In 1902 he was called on to settle a border dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana. He was asked to ‘draw a new line’ between the two. During a break in the proceedings, he was invited to go hunting in the Mississippi Delta.

The trip organisers had tethered a small bear ensure that their guest would have a trophy kill. However Roosevelt refused to shoot unfortunate creature, i.e. he ‘drew the line’ at doing so. The press soon learned of his exploit, and Clifford K. Berryman published a newspaper cartoon, entitled ‘Drawing the Line in Mississippi’ showed Roosevelt with a particularly cuddly baby bear.

Shortly after, some stuffed toy bears were produced in USA by Robert and Rose Mightom which they called ‘Teddy’s Bear’. By 1906 they were called teddy bears, and Steiff received an order to make a large number. This led to an explosion in their popularity, and Roosevelt adopted the teddy bear as mascot for his re-election campaign.

Even though he did much good work (initiated work on the Panama Canal, mediated between Russia and Japan and settled their conflict, broke up monopolies), it is for teddy bears that he is best remembered.

The popularity of teddy bears led to their use for newspaper cartoons, books, picture postcards, greetings cards (for Christmas, birthdays, New Year, Valentines, and Fourth of July), card models, paper dolls, product labels, cigarette cards and playing cards.

The ‘teddy’ even made it into popular music – over 400 tunes with ‘teddy bear’ in the title were composed and distributed as sheet music. Of these only one lasted (‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’); the music was composed by John Walter Bratton in 1907, and the lyrics were added by Jimmy Kennedy in 1932. Also a parody called ‘The Teddy Boys’ Picnic’ was written in the late 1950s.

A recording of it was made by Henry Hall in 1932, and was used by BBC audio engineers to calibrate the frequency response of audio equipment until the early1960s.

Bears have featured many times in popular fiction (especially for children) – Baloo, Rupert, Winnie the Pooh, Biffo, Sooty, Paddington, Yogi, Superted and Fozzie, most of them created since teddy bears were introduced.

However the teddy theme did not stop there. Elvis Presley had a chart hit with ‘I Want to be Your Teddy Bear’ in 1957.

Today, just over a century after their first appearance, there is even a term to describe lovers of teddy bears (‘arctophiles’).

Dave Edwards



For the October 2012 meeting the History Group had a talk on Caldey Island by
Pauline Hayward.

Caldey is a small island near Tenby in west Wales. For the past 60 years it has been home to a community of Cistercian monks. To many holidaymakers Caldey is just another day trip from Tenby, but for some visitors it is a respite from a busy world, a ‘little piece of heaven on earth’.

Caldey has been occupied since the sixth century, sometimes by lone hermits and sometimes by small groups of monks. The first monastery was established by St Samson as a Benedictine foundation, which it remained until 1536 when Henry VIII closed abbeys, convents and monasteries.

Following this, the land became part of an secular agricultural holding, and remained so until the early twentieth century when a new (Cistercian) monastery was built. Since the island has very little pollution, the building has never needed a new coat of paint

The fourteen monks who now live and work on Caldey are largely self-sufficient, growing most of their own crops and keeping a few animals. Each member of this group has many tasks in his daily schedule, together with a full programme of church services, prayer and study.

They do however maintain daily contact with Tenby via a small boat; this brings such as they need from the mainland, and takes the perfume and chocolate made on the island to retail outlets in Tenby.

Day visitors are expected to leave the island by 4.30pm; if anyone if there after that time, then the boat is called back to fetch them, at a cost of £50 per person.

There is a guesthouse for those who make reservations for stays of a week or more. Accommodation is sparse but adequate, food is good and wholesome, the scenery is glorious, and an aura of peace and complete safety reigns supreme.

Dave Edwards

Interesting website link



The Mounton Valley Paper Mills, by Ivor Cavill

The talk was based on a book of the same name by Ivor Waters,
local historian and founder member of the Chepstow Society.

Mounton in the 21st century is a small rural community, the loudest sounds being those produced by tractors and farm animals. However if centuries past Mounton Brook was a hive of industrial activity – there were nine mills which at various times made woollen cloth and paper.

The valley was probably chosen for its fast flowing stream (powering waterwheels), and pure water (ideal for washing wool and making good quality paper). The district had its heyday during the early nineteenth century, producing 20 percent of all the 'first class' paper made in Wales.

The science of paper-making came to Britain during the sixteenth century. At first the product was inferior, but quality improved with new manufacturing techniques. The method of making cloth included scouring, beating and flattening (‘fulling’ or ‘tucking’). Besides that some mill operators walked on the cloth to flatten it. These trade activities give rise to the surnames Fuller, Tucker and Walker.

The manufacture of paper involved breaking the raw materials (mostly rags and old rope) into their constituent fibres. These ‘beating’ engines played a crucial part in the process; the size of a mill was gauged by the number of beating engines it had, and therefore the quantity of fibre it could produce. The mixture of water and fibres produced by the water-powered beating engines was allowed to settle in large pans, and the water drained off. The resultant sheets of paper were dried and stored.

Starting from the top of the valley, the first mill encountered is Little Mill. This is fairly common as a house or place name, but nowhere is a ‘Big Mill’ to be found. Moving downstream, next are White Mill, Tuck Mill and Dyer’s Mill. The dyer was a man of importance in the cloth trade; his knowledge was crucial for extracting dyes and mordants from common plants, etc.

Last in this group were Itton Court Mill and Pandy Mill; ‘pandy’ was the Welsh equivalent of ‘fulling mill’. Beyond that mill the brook enters a limestone gorge; it disappears and reappears several times, and could not be used to drive a watermill. The gorge forms part of the cave and spring system, of which the Great Spring at Severn Tunnel is also a part.

The lower group of Lady Mill, Lark Mill and Linnet Mill are near Mounton village. A 1940s photograph of Linnet Mill shows a roof supported by pillars, with wooden slatted walls allowing a free flow of air for drying paper.

By 1851, industrial Mounton started to decline as cheaper cloth was imported from abroad, and steam driven mills were replacing the water-powered versions. By 1876 Mounton Brook supported only three working mills out of a total of 18 in Wales, and those 18 were a smaller proportion of the world’s total than had been previously.

Some of the mill buildings still exist, though converted to other uses; some have been demolished. If a current resident of Mounton asked, “How industrial was my valley?” the answer would be “Very!”

Dave Edwards


For the July session of the History Group, a group of intrepid explorers ventured into the heart of darkest Monmouthshire.

*Please click on photos below to access larger images

The purpose was a visit to the three castles (Grosmont, Skenfrith and White Castle). Theywere constructed in the twelfth century by William FitzOsbern Earl of Hereford, to guard his border with south Wales.

First port of call was White Castle near Llantilio Croesenny. This has extensive fortifications considering the small area enclosed.

It is unusual in that the community that grew up alongside the castle was within the outer wall (or bailey). This was good for security in twelfth century rural Wales, but when the castle became disused the village died with it.

Unlike Skenfrith and Grosmont, it could not be supplied by water, so it had to be reasonably self-contained.


Next stop was Skenfrith, where the castle’s forbidding walls still dominate the village. In Norman England, most small castles were held on a knight’s fee, or ‘knight’s service’.

This meant that in the event of war the holder was expected to provide an armed and mounted knight (and his retainers) for forty days a year.

Over time this obligation was replaced with payment of scutage (‘shield money’). Parts of Skenfrith Castle were rebuilt in 1219 after flooding, and a new central tower constructed on a gravel mound raised well above river level.

Last castle for the day was Grosmont, the most northerly of the three, and the closest to the English border.

Its design suggests that it was less castle and more manor house than White Castle. The group also visited Grosmont Church, where the arcade of Early English rounded pillars showed that it was contemporary with the castle.

In the fourteenth century all three castles became part of the Duchy of Lancaster, were sold to the Duke of Beaufort in 1825, and passed into state ownership in 1923.

The group is indebted to Don Wood for providing an interesting day out.

Dave Edwards

Interesting website links
White Castle: www.wyenot.com/whitecastle.htm
Skenfrith Castle: www.castlewales.com/sknfrth.html
Grosmont Castle: www.castlewales.com/grosmnt.html



For the June meeting, the History Group had a talk entitled ‘Victorian Writers’, by Beth Butler of Chepstow U3A and vice-president of the U3A Trust.

The Victorian age is a source of fascination for many. Collectively they were enthusiastic in everything that they did, and were able to convey that enthusiasm to the following generations. This passion runs through their contemporary literature, especially the novels.

The improvement in living standards saw an improvement in education and an expansion of the middle classes, resulting in an increase in the number of people with the time to read and the money to buy books.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote several popular stories, including ‘Cranford’, ‘North and South and ‘Middlemarch’, basing her characters and storylines on people and events that she saw in Manchester.

The most important of these was ‘Middlemarch’. The heroine, Dorothea, is a highly intelligent woman who desperately wanted to use her brain. When wooed by a clergyman, she anticipated with eagerness the prospect of helping him in his work, but he regarded a wife as little more than a servant.



Men also wrote novels of course; Wilkie Collins wrote ‘The Woman in White’, the first amateur detective story in the English language, and ‘The Moonstone’, the first police detective story in English.

Another area of literature started and developed by the Victorians was children’s literature. The idea that children’s education could affect their rest of their lives was unknown before 1690, but it was the Victorians who developed the genre. Behind many of the tales was the philanthropic principle – the rich should look after the poor.

In 1865 Lewis Carroll began new section of literature (fantasy and imagination) when he wrote ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, and ‘Alice Through the Looking-Glass’. When his original stories were expanded in preparation for publication, he added characterisations of well-known contemporary figures such as Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Huxley.


Dave Edwards



The May meeting of the History Group had a talk entitled
‘Nelson in south Wales’ by David Harrison.

Horatio Nelson was and is a great naval hero, as famous in his own day as he is now. However he was also an adulterer who deserted his wife to conduct an affair with the wife of his friend Sir William Hamilton.

Sir William was a diplomat based in Naples when his nephew Richard Greville arranged for his mistress Emma to visit Sir William. In spite of the difference in their ages and social standing, they married. Nelson met the Hamiltons when recuperating in Naples after the Battle of the Nile. Soon after he and Emma became lovers.

In 1802 the trio travelled from London to south west Wales; the main purpose was to visit the Pembrokeshire estates that Sir William had inherited from his first wife, but Nelson used the trip to make reports for the Admiralty on possible sources of timber for shipbuilding (‘the wooden walls of England’).

Everywhere they went, from Hounslow to Haverfordwest, they were feted as celebrities by townsfolk, though shunned by the aristocracy. After an evening in the hostelry of Woodstock, they suddenly decided that they would visit the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace. The duke refused to receive them, offering instead cold refreshments out in the park; they just as coldly refused. The duke’s attitude was understandable, since he was already denying gossip regarding his son’s affair with the wife of an MP, and had no wish to be associated with this infamous ménage-a-trois.

Nelson’s reputation preceded him wherever he went; however in some cases people burst into tears on seeing this weather-beaten, diminutive figure with multiple disfigurements, the epitome of a battle-scarred warrior. He is unusual among national heroes in that his reputation has never been revised.


Dave Edwards




The talk for April was, entitled ‘Shopping in Old Caldicot
by Richard Jones, author of the book
‘Caldicot and the Villages of the Moor in Old Photographs’.

History is record of change, and the Caldicot has certainly altered in the past century or so. This tour through the retail trade used old photographs taken between 1870 and 1963.

The period between these dates has seen great changes in people, places and lifestyles, with the advent of new industry, new inventions, new methods of transport, etc.

This was reflected in changes in local government, social life, and local business folk. In 1891 there were seventy local trades people: craftsmen, shopkeepers and innkeepers.

In !900 there were three beer retailers, six grocers, five pubs, two butchers, two cobblers, a coal merchant, a saddler, a post office and a flour dealer. Having all these facilities locally meant that people did not need to travel far, and many did not.

By 1963, twenty-three of the twenty-six businesses were still locally owned, passed from father to son, mother to daughter. 1963 was significant because it marks the time when the unofficial new town development began, and many of the old villages businesses were relocated or swept away.

During the period 1850-1880 photography became very popular and cheaper.

By 1910 photographs reproduced as postcards were sent in their thousands.

They depicted street scenes, notable local buildings, and even people (provided they remained still).

As a result many photographs of obscure places and things still survive today, including some of Caldicot.

One very early photograph, taken in the 1860s, shows the Cross Inn, adjacent to the site of a medieval wayside cross (hence the name) with Mrs Dally’s sweetshop (with its divided stable door) on the right.

Sandy Lane was just a lane, ending some hundred yards from the Cross, and Chepstow Road was the only road going eastwards to Chepstow.

Residents of those days would see the same outlines of some buildings, but they could not stand in the road in today’s Caldicot!

Dave Edwards


The March meeting of the group had a talk entitled ‘History from Old Wills’,
given by Annette Burton.

Wills go back to Anglo-Saxon times, and were originally ecclesiastical documents with no legal input. The making of a will was a practice confined to the few and not widely adopted by the middle classes until Tudor times. Women and minors could make wills, but with conditions.

A useful introduction to historical wills is ‘Monmouthshire Wills Proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1560-1601’, by Judith Jones. In her book, Ms Jones says, ‘The fascination of wills is that they are the most human of the documents that survive in any quantity. They reveal intriguing aspects of people’s lives, are often the only written record that a person might make during their lifetime, and are a potent expression of their last thoughts and wishes. Few other documents bring us so directly to the people of the time.’

Most people are familiar with the wording of modern wills, covering bequests to family members, friends, church charities, etc.  During the sixteenth century, these would be preceded by a declaration of faith, such as ‘first I recommend my precious and immortal soul to the hands of Almighty God my Creator, hoping through the all sufficient merits of Jesus Christ my saviour to receive full remission and forgiveness of all my sins’.

From the mid sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, ecclesiastical courts insisted that wills should be accompanied by inventories. An inventory was filed with the will, or in the case of someone dying intestate, with the letters of administration. They were compiled by men of some standing in their communities, and were intended to aid in the settling of an estate.

If a person was unable to write due to age or infirmity, then a nuncupativewill (‘declared orally’) would be prepared. The person concerned would be lying on their sickbed or deathbed; someone would ask questions as to how they wished to dispose of their property and write down the responses.

Dave Edwards



Royal Naval Propellant Factory

For the February meeting, Don Waring (Chepstow U3A) gave a talk on the Royal Naval Propellant Factory at Dinham, near Caerwent.

His first contact with this government facility was in 1970, when he arranged to buy a house in Llanvair Discoed. One day the estate agent phoned him in London and said, “I hope you realise that you are buying a house which is less than a mile from one of the biggest arms dumps in Europe?” Fortunately, the sale went ahead without interruption.

The nearest village to the factory was Dinham, and it was usually known as ‘The Dinham Factory’ or just ‘Dinham’. It occupied an area of approximately 1,500 acres.

Cordite is a volatile mixture of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose, together with additives to give the compound certain properties (e.g. non-flash, solventless, etc.) For a while, nitro-glycerine itself was banned in this country – it was known as a ‘capricious material’, as it would explode for no discernible reason.

It had replaced gunpowder about 1900, but variations in quality of the product obtained from other sources prompted the Admiralty to make its own. The first such plant was built during the First World War at Holton Heath near Poole. In the 1930’s the need to increase production was anticipated and a decision was taken to build another facility at Caerwent.

The site was chosen from a list of 25, as Caerwent met more of Admiralty’s requirements than the others. In their search they had specified that a copious supply of suitable water should be available (at least 3 million gallons per day), the site should not be in an industrial area but have a labour pool of at least 6,000 people available, have good transport links but not be vulnerable to air attack, and adjacent to the public electricity supply (as back-up for in-house power generation).

Other sites considered included Aust and Berkeley (in Gloucestershire), Blackrock (near Sudbrook).and Dowlais Top (near Merthyr Tydfil). When Caerwent was chosen in 1937, there was a lot of discontent in the area. The area had some of the best agricultural land in Monmouthshire, and its use for munitions was resented by the local farming community. For example, the owners of Shirenewton Hall complained that the requisition of the land at Dinham would spoil their pheasant shooting! Caerwent Parish Council met, and rejected the proposal for an ammunition factory. However the required area was acquired by compulsory purchase, and some units were in production by 1941.

The hamlets of Dinham, Little Dinham and Kilpale were vacated and the inhabitants were relocated. Some of the buildings were demolished but most were allowed to become derelict. An old water pump from one house is now in Usk Rural Life Museum, a sandstone font and a stone coffin lid from the church are now in Caerwent Church. At Llanmelin there was an unusual antique door, which is now in St Fagans Museum.

The plant units were duplicated, with similar units at opposite ends of the site. Thus destruction of one unit would still leave another working. The main areas of production were acids, nitrocellulose, nitroglycerine and cordite press houses. People who worked in one section were almost totally ignorant of the operation of any other unit, presumably for security reasons. The cordite was pressed through dies; the diameter of the die depended on the requirement, varying from very thin strands (for small arms) to 22-inch for use by rockets. In the middle of the site were the buildings common to both sets of production units: the hospital, engineering workshops, electrician’s shop. Access to the site was via one of the 3 main gates on the east, north and west sides.

Approximately 250 tons of cordite was produced each week; during the 1950’s this tailed off to about 10 tons per week. The plant had originally been designed to make about 150 tons each week (75 tons from each production strand), but during the Battle of Britain 24-hour working meant that 250 tons/week were made.

At Caerwent nitrocellulose was made from wood cellulose, replacing the cotton waste previously used. Paper was used as the source of wood cellulose, it being crimped and corrugated by machine to ensure that the acid used penetrated all parts. Large quantities of water were used in the process, normally about 3 million gallons a day.

During Caerwent’s period of operation, there were no explosions which caused deaths, whereas at Holton Heath ‘accidental fatalities’ seem to have been a regular occurrence. For example in 1931 a nitration house blew up at Holton Heath killing 10 people.

The process used had been invented in Germany; in 1939, after the war had started, there was much discussion about whether or not royalties should be paid!

The plant was nearly closed during the 1950s, but the decision to have a British rocket programme changed things. Many rocket motors were produced at Caerwent in the ‘J-buildings’, with a test area at the back of the site. Production ceased at Caerwent when it was transferred to Bishopton in Glasgow.

At Caerwent some new workers in the nitro-glycerine plant used to suffer headaches, which dispersed after a while, but returned with greater severity if they went on holiday. To alleviate these withdrawal symptoms, some workers took pieces of cordite with them on holiday, and licked them. During the First World War, some workers escaped conscription by licking pieces of cordite just before the army medical, causing rapid heartbeat and rejection on medical grounds.

The temperature at which the process was conducted had to be strictly controlled. At some similar plants, an operator was detailed to maintain a constant watch on a thermometer. To ensure that he remained vigilant during this extremely boring task, he sat on a one-legged stool, and would fall over if he dozed off. The glycerine came in at a temperature of about 40 degrees Celsius, and the whole tank had to be kept cool by circulating brine. The reaction was exothermic (i.e. generated heat), and the aim was to keep mixing vessels below 20 degrees Celsius; if the temperature exceeded 30 degrees, then the contents of the vessel had to dumped into a drowning tank to prevent an explosion.

In the 20th century, nitroglycerine was found to have properties beneficial to some heart patients, and today many people take tiny quantities of the substance for medical reasons.

One problem encountered at Caerwent was the presence of sink holes, particularly where lots of water was used in production. These were less of a problem in the central area where the offices stood, but more at the two ends where the production units lay. It so happened that there was a geological fault at one end of the site, and another at the other end. There must have been a chemical reaction between the acids used in the process and the limestone underlying the site. The result was a series of holes in the ground, some a few inches deep and others appearing to be bottomless.

At different times the site has been in the possession of all three armed services: it began as an Admiralty cordite factory, it then passed to the Americans for storage of ammunition (under the control of the RAF), and is now used for training army personnel prior to their deployment to Afghanistan.

Dave Edwards


Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The January meeting had a talk by David Harrison on Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Some claim that Brunel was the greatest engineer of his age; he accomplished works that others refused to even contemplate undertaking.  The Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge, not completed until after his death, is a wonderful piece of engineering. It is worthy of admiration now;  when it was constructed it was viewed with awe.

He tunnelled through two miles of solid rock at Box in Wiltshire for the Great Western Railway. He constructed the first ship to be constructed entirely of iron.

He designed and built the Tamar Bridge, a masterpiece of precision engineering, using tools of a previous age.  During its construction, communication between different parts of the bridge was effected using semaphore flags. Such was the care taken that the two halves of the bridge were joined to an accuracy of one-eighth of an inch. This was long before any modern conception of accuracy, or the means of achieving it, was devised.

He saw things on a much larger scale than ordinary men, in short he thought big. He and his father were very fond of the adjective ‘great’; the word ‘great’ appears in lots of the names because that is what he thinks of. For example the Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built up until that time. The Great Western Railway, with its broad gauge of 7 ft ½ inch, provided the most stable rail travel of its time.

He had his failures, such as the Atmospheric Railway; it would have been possible to make it work, but the technology of the time was inadequate for the task of making it reliable. Tragically Brunel died before the Clifton Suspension Bridge was completed, and before the Great Eastern proved its worth. In every sense Brunel was a man who lived before his time.

Marc Brunel, his father, was a great engineer in his own right; he had an outstanding imagination and an incredible attention to detail. Isambard was born in 1806, and by the age of six had mastered the principles of geometry.

Educated in England and France, he started work at the age of 16in his father’s office. By the time he was 18, he was assisting with the boring of the great tunnel under the Thames. For digging the tunnel his father had devised a wooden frame which would enable many men, working at several levels, to hew rock and earth from the face before them, the frame being periodically moved forward.

Progress was not easy and they had to overcome many obstacles: quicksand, slime, and leaks. Some portions were easy, some were arduous, and the occasional incidents of water breaking through made it very risky. These inundations were mostly caused by traffic on the river above dropping anchors, etc. and damaging the lining of the tunnel. Brunel junior solved this by placing bags of sand on the river bed over the tunnel, using a large bell suspended from a boat to access the sites of the leaks.

Work started in November 1825, was suspended in 1828, and was finally completed in 1843. To part fund the enterprise, certificates were sold stating that the holders had ‘eaten their dinner under Father Thames’. The tunnel is now in use for the London Underground between Wapping and Rotherhithe.

If we view the Thames Tunnel as his apprenticeship, Brunel was then prepared for greater things. The Clifton Suspension Bridge (his next project) had to span the Avon Gorge (a distance of 630 feet) at a height of 230 feet above high water level. Construction started in 1835, but was not completed until 1864, after his death.

During that time Brunel did some work on Bristol Docks, which brought him into contact with the promoters of the London to Bristol Railway. Impressed by his energy and vision, they appointed him an engineer for the line in 1833. He then spent his days surveying the proposed course of the line, travelling on horseback, for up to 20 hours a day.

His intention was to transport people from London to Bristol in comfort, choosing the optimum gradients and a seven-foot gauge for stability. Starting at the Paddington end of the Great Western Railway, he travelled with two horses fitted with panniers containing his maps, papers, slide rules and provisions. He surveyed the probable course of the line starting with Berkshire, and continued day by day until he reached Bristol.

In the course of this, his reputation and prestige increased, and in 1836 he married into London society. His wife was Mary Horsley, a beautiful and talented lady. They set up home at 18 Duke Street, and had three children in the years following. While performing a conjuring trick for his offspring, he got a coin lodged in his throat. He immediately summoned his servants and instructed them to attach him to a round table, and spin him around at great speed; the coin was ejected from his throat by centrifugal force.

When construction of the Great Western Railway began, the first section to be built was from Paddington to Taplow. Nearby at Maidenhead a bridge was constructed which was then the largest brick-built span in the world.

At the time critics claimed that it was too low for its span, and would not carry the weight of railway traffic. This was opened on 4th June 1838, and is still in use today.

Another GWR feature which was a marvel of its day was the Box Tunnel. The construction of this cost the lives of more than 100 men. It took 2½ years to excavate; they used one ton of gunpowder and one ton of candles each week. 

This tunnel was a great achievement, being one of the greatest projects since the construction of the pyramids.  Building it required 4,000 men and 300 horses employed around the clock. By June 1841 the Great Western Railway had been built as far as Bristol, at the cost of £6½ million.

Another engineering marvel was the bridge over the River Tamar; it is 1,100 feet wide, and the river is 70 feet deep. There are only two spans, each one of 455 feet, supported by a single deep water pier in the middle. The work started in 1854 and ended in 1857. In the absence of radio for communication, they used boards bearing numbers, or semaphore flags. The two bridge sections were floated into the river on pontoons and then raised into place. It was opened in May 1859, and named The Albert Bridge after the prince consort. The parts fitted together to an accuracy of an eighth of an inch.

Brunel became interested in steam navigation. One of his ambitions was to build a ship which could carry enough fuel to complete a journey without having to refuel en route and if possible to complete the return journey as well without refuelling. Brunel’s solution was to build bigger ships.

His first attempt was The Great Western, a paddle steamer made of oak. In 1838 it completed the trip to New York in record time, but the boiler lagging ignited, causing a fire in which Brunel sustained injury. A vessel named Sirius, in competition with The Great Western, took 19 days at sea and on completed the journey with 15 tons of fuel left in the bunkers. When the Great Western arrived it had taken 15 days and there were 200 tons left in the bunkers. Consequently the Great Western won the contract, and during the following eight years crossed the Atlantic 67 times.

The Great Britain was his next venture into maritime transport. It was 289 feet long, 51 feet broad, built of iron and weighed 3,270 tons. It was driven by screw propellers, and in spite of the gloomy predictions it floated.

On its fifth voyage it left Liverpool with 180 passengers, and in foggy conditions it ran aground on the coast of southern Ireland. It was refloated several months later, and made many more voyages. It took people to Australia, it was used on the bullion run, and it took soldiers to various foreign climes including the Crimea and India.

When it went out of service, it was used in the Falkland Islands for storing coal. In 1970 it was transported back to Bristol, to the dry dock where it was originally built, refurbished and is now run as a museum.

Brunel’s most ambitious venture, and subsequently his greatest failure, was the Great Eastern. This was part of his dream to bring all of Australia’s exports for a year back to Britain in one voyage.

The Great Eastern was built in Milwall in the Isle of Dogs, east of London. It was to be launched sideways into the Thames, since it was too large to be floated in the conventional manner. Its progress down the slipway controlled by massive drums holding heavy chains; it was intended that these be let out slowly as the drums turned, allowing the vessel to progress towards the water.

The scheduled launch date came, but the massive hull did not move. It was several months before it entered the river. A craft this size had never been built before – besides the construction, the launch itself required new technology. It was another forty years before a larger ship was built.

The discovery of gold in Australia, and the increasing emigration traffic, prompted a boom in the Australian shipping trade. Brunel’s notebooks reveal that he had a dream of building a gigantic steamship. As his obsession grew, he met a man that he thought would be the perfect partner to make his drawings a reality: John Scott Russell.

Russell was a practical marine engineer; he had his own yard on the Isle of Dogs at Millwall. Brunel’s estimate for the cost of this great ship was £½ million, and the contract was signed in December 1853. It provided for the construction, trial, launch and delivery with the general dimensions of 680 feet long, 83 feet in beam and 53 feet deep.

Brunel was in charge of the paperwork, Russell the hardware, and a controlled sideways launch was agreed. The keel was laid down in July 1854, and the hull as to be built from the ground up, consisting of 30,000 iron plates, each plate weighing about ⅓ of a ton, the plates to be hammered together by 3 million rivets.

The screw engines were built by Watt in Birmingham, and the paddle engines by Russell at Millwall. Russell however dragged his feet; by February 1856 the yard fell silent, and the workers discharged. In May 1856 Brunel took over, and the leviathan continued to grow. It represented 12,000 inert tons, the largest dead weight that man had ever tried to move. In October 1857, when it was ready for launching, the Great Eastern lay 330 feet from the surface of the water at high tide.

The ad hoc slipways were ready and one of the great retarding drums revolved. An inattentive workman was caught by a rotating handle, throwing him into the air and causing his death. The fame of this ship spread throughout the East End, and on 3rd November 1857, thousands of tickets having been sold, people came to see the launch. However the leviathan moved but little, and it was January 1858 before it finally reached the water, having inched forward day by day.

Members of the public were asked to write in and suggest ways of completing the launch. The ideas submitted varied from impractical to impossible. One such proposed that a barrier be constructed across the Thames, allowing the water level to rise until the ship would float. While theoretically feasible, it would have the unfortunate side effect of flooding large parts of Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex; also millions of people in London would drown, but that is a mere technicality. On a more realistic level, engineer Robert Stephenson arranged for a number of large presses to be assembled at Millwall. These machines could provide a total force of 5,500 tons, and eventually, on 31st January 1858, the Great Eastern floated on the tide, and moored safely on the other side of the river at Deptford.

The site of King Henry VIII’s dockyard, it was also known as West Greenwich. Brunel and his family were on board for the launch – he had gone without sleep for sixty hours. His company was in ruins, the ship had cost £732,000 instead of £500,000 and his health was broken. The ship was just a hull – the engines, cabins and all other fittings were yet to be done.

The hull alone weighed 12,000 tons. It was an uncompleted masterpiece, so on the day the cheers were mingled with jeers. Brunel was forced to take a holiday for the sake of his health, while company tried to raise the £172,000 needed to fit out the Great Eastern. John Scott Russell, to everybody’s amazement, acquired the contract for fitting out the ship. Brunel was not pleased; his health deteriorated, but he worked on. He installed the engines, checking every detail, and on her maiden voyage on 5th September 1859 he collapsed with a stroke and was carried home as the Great Eastern steamed out into the English Channel.

As the vessel passed the Dungeness lighthouse, there was an explosion, caused by excess steam pressure in the paddle wheel boilers, so it was laid up for repairs at Weymouth. Brunel died on 15th September. The Great Eastern went on to work for 30 years. As transatlantic passenger ship it was a failure – it did not carry enough passengers to be profitable. Instead it was used to lay cable across the Atlantic, and later became a showboat.

The Suez Canal opened in 1869, making the run to Australia much easier, and making vessels the size of the Great Eastern unnecessary.

He lived before the era of electricity, the telephone, the motor car, the aeroplane and the computer, yet his vision went far beyond his own time. He was truly a man ahead of his time.

Dave Edwards


HISTORY GROUP November 2011

For the November meeting, the History Group had a talk by Don Wood, on the History of Christmas Carols. The assembled audience had a mini carol service as well as an interesting talk, with Dorothy Bee providing musical accompaniment on the keyboard.

The original carols could be defined as ‘songs accompanied by music and dancing’. If we start to look back, then we can make an educated guess as to the day and month of the first carols, but not the year.

This is because the first carols were sung to commemorate the winter solstice on 21st or 22nd December (the shortest day of the year), and on that day there was singing, dancing and general celebrations, including bonfires etc. to encourage the sun to recover; the people did not want to have any shorter days.

This then is the presumed origin of the first song, dance and instrumental carols. These were not Christian celebrations since the era concerned was 2000 BC. Coming forward to about 650 BC, the Greek theatre in ancient Greece was in progress.

In the Greek theatre, there were actors and actresses wearing masks, there was a chorus and there were instrumentalists. The chorus spoke and sang in conjunction with the actors and actresses, and the instrumentalists played on stringed instruments that we would recognise as lyres. This continued for a 100 years or so, and then a piped instrument called an ‘aulos’ was introduced in 55 BC.

It was a double-reed instrument, one reed for the low notes and one for the high. One Greek philosopher was quoted as saying that ‘he could not stand this modern music, with its screechy pipes’, a complaint still common in the 21st century. The chorus and ‘aulos’ were together referred to as ‘choraulos’ which over time became ‘carols’.

Moving forward to the 11th century AD, the French decided that they would replace the musicians with voices, but they kept the dancing.

Many carols were pagan (e.g. the winter solstice carols and the Greek theatre carols). For example a carol familiar to all is one which starts ‘The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown’; the original wording for that was ‘Now at last the old year passes’, and was sung on New Year’s Eve. The sentiments expressed were associated with the old year dying and the new year starting.

It was Christianized to ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’. Another one which was quite famous in its time was the ‘Agincourt Carol’; this was composed for the victory of Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, and includes the refrain (in Latin) ‘England give thanks to God for victory’. The sentiments expressed were of course political rather than religious. Another one popular in medieval times was a food carol, sung when a boar’s head was ceremoniously borne into a feast – this dates from Anglo-Saxon times.

Until comparatively recent times, dance was always associated with carols; the tempo associated with the majority of today’s carols is much slower than the original tunes, just as the link between carols and dancing has been lost.

It was only when the printing press was invented that the verses in carols became standardized. Prior to that, the small variations crept in as words were transmitted orally from person to person. During the fifteenth century, song sheets for carols were printed out, but even then there were variations for different parts of the country.

A well known carol is ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’. The tune currently associated with it was taken from Handel’s opera ‘Sireo’ but the original was a folk tune, now associated with the Yorkshire dialect ditty ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah Tat’.

Carols and the established church have had a difficult relationship; the church banned them until 1443 and they were banned again between 1520 and 1540 (the period of Henry VIII’s quarrel with the pope over his intended divorce from Catherine of Aragon). Carols and Christmas were banned entirely by Oliver Cromwell and his son at the time of the Commonwealth.  However carols survived, as ordinary people sang and celebrated in the confines of their own homes.

A very early carol is ‘The Angels’ Hymn’. Neither its words nor its tune are known, but we know of it because a pope referred to it in 129 AD. He wrote that ‘the Angels’ Hymn should be used as part of the midnight mass celebrations at Christmas’. By the fourth century Prudentias wrote two carols; some of them are still used today, but are not well known. One of them is called ‘Bethlehem oh Noblest Cities’.

In the seventh century was written a carol called ‘Oh Great and Mighty Wonder’. These early carols were written in Latin. The language issue was not as big a problem as it would be later on. In those days Latin was the common second tongue of all the areas that had been conquered by Rome Empire.

In south Wales for example, the Silures would have spoken their own native tongue, but they would also have spoken Latin, so that they could carry on trading with the Roman town at Caerwent and the legionary fort at Caerleon. However after the Romans retreated from this country and the fall of the western Roman Empire, Latin dropped out of use apart from church and scholars.

Scholars still wrote in Latin until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was only in the last century that doctors did not have to learn Latin as part of their training; until then they had to be conversant with Latin as well. The question arises, “How did the ordinary folk manage once they had lost the use of Latin?” They could go into the church, they could hear the Latin chants going on, they could hear Latin music, and they could hear the service itself in Latin.

They relied on the stained glass windows and the wall paintings that they saw inside the church. During the thirteenth century St Francis of Assisi invented the nativity play; he would stage a play in a real stable, using real animals, and actors to play the various parts, and the words were spoken in the language of the people. There were of course songs associated with the plays. At about the same time, there were groups of people running what were called ‘mystery plays’.



The mystery plays were initially done in Latin, with tableau of people dressed up in costumes in posed positions, while verses from the Bible were read explaining what was going on. After a while the players involved tired of this and introduced some dialogue and movement. Thus they became more like ordinary plays. The church took exception, and objected to the clergy being involved in such vulgar activities. When the church withdrew its patronage, the staging of the plays was taken over by the guilds of craftsmen in the various cities.

The consequence of this was that the action of the plays was conducted in the language of the people, not in Latin; they therefore became very popular. They were mounted on wheeled vehicles called ‘pageants’ and a play could be performed many times, at various locations in a town or city. Various plays were performed at religious festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. Also various Bible stories were illustrated, a famous one being Noah’s Flood and the Ark. Main areas of the country where they were performed were York, Coventry, Wakefield and Chester. Songs and carols accompanied some of the plays.

A song which accompanied the play of the shearmen and tailors of Coventry became known as ‘The Coventry Carol’, and is one of the saddest of Christmas carols. These touring plays, these pageants and mystery plays, developed into passion plays (still performed at Eastertide in Oberammegau) and nativity plays (as presented in so many primary schools today). However apart from these special occasions, these were not the only occasions on which carols were sung.

A number of different groups used to sing carols. The first of these were called ‘waites’ (town musicians); some time after the Norman Conquest in 1066, a curfew was imposed on all towns. Therefore after sunset, no-one was allowed out on the streets. This was relaxed after about forty years, and the footpads and robbers came out on the streets again, along with the honest people. As a result King Henry II introduced town watchmen; these were employed to walk the streets crying ‘Ten o’clock and all’s well’, repeating the walk each hour. The watchmen were often accompanied by musicians, who would sing as they walked. If they serenaded the streets during the hours of darkness then their efforts were probably not appreciated. Over time town bands were developed; these performed carols and other music.

Other groups who sang were choirs (original spelling ‘quires’). These were the church musicians who led worship from the gallery above the rood screen. This group consisted of players of various instruments together with singers, and their function was to lead the singing in the church. This was of course long before the introduction of the church organ. At Christmastime the choir would go out into the town or village to the homes of the gentry and various farmers, etc. and would sing carols, probably expecting contributions to church funds in return, together with liquid lubrication for their throats.

Similar groups, though not necessarily connected with the church, were the ‘wassailers’. The first type was a good luck or good health wassailer, who danced and sang in the orchard and beat the trees with a wooden stick to promote a fruitful harvest. Another type was the home wassailer, who would dance in front of a house and call down a blessing on the house, on the people who lived there and the cattle kept there.

The wassailers, usually seen in groups, would then produce a large wassail bowl, and expect the householder to contribute some ale. The wassailers’ part of the bargain was to empty it. The wassailers were regarded as luck bringers, and people really looked forward to having them visit and sing the carols. Wassailing could be regarded as a form of legalised begging, but a group accompanied by a local official such as a mayor might expect to avoid penalty.

Another sub-group known to most people are the ‘mummers’ or ‘guisers’. These would have blackened faces, fancy costumes and therefore be ‘in disguise’. They would come around particularly at Christmas and perform a drama, always taking the same form.

There was a hero, sometimes St George, sometimes a white knight, who fought with a villain such as a Turkish or black knight.

These protagonists fought with wooden swords, resulting in the death of one of the combatants. A doctor would arrive and perform a miraculous cure, involving strings of sausages emerging from the patient.

When the patient had been brought back to life, there would be general celebration with song and dance, the advent of Father Christmas, and everyone being wished a happy Christmas. They also performed on Halloween, All Souls Day, New Year and Easter.

From those different groups – waites, quires, wassailers, and mummers – we get today’s carol singers. There are official carol singers in the form of groups raising money for charity, and there are ‘little urchins’ who provide little entertainment but expect generous reward.

The songs that we know as Christmas carols are not in fact confined to Christmas. One of the earliest feasts for which there is a carol is the 25th March, which is the Annunciation. The carol concerned is Gabriel’s Message (‘The Angel Gabriel to Mary Came’). The next carol comes from the season of Advent (‘O come O come Immanuel’). There are a whole group of carols intended to be sung on Christmas day itself. A carol intended for Boxing Day (or St Stephen’s Day) is Good King Wenceslas. The Coventry Carol mentioned earlier is intended for Holy Innocents Day (three days after Christmas). Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly is a New Year carol, as is ‘Here We Come A-wassailing Among the Leaves so Green’. ‘We Three Kings’ is a carol for the 6th of January.

The carol ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night’, written by Nahum Tate in 1700, was introduced after the Reformation, and it was allowed because the words are taken almost entirely from the gospel according to St Luke.

The carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was written in 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander. It was published in a book titled ‘Hymns for Little Children’; she produced the book in response to her own children’s complaints about the dreary catechism that they had to learn in church as part of their Sunday school teaching. Two other hymns written by her are amongst the best known today, namely ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’ and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.

The carol ‘Joy to the World’ was written by the Rev. William Holford. The tune is thought to have been ‘borrowed’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah’, being very similar to that for ‘Lift up Your Heads’.

The hymn ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ was written by Charles Wesley, using a tune by Mendelssohn. A hymn for Christmas Day, it was written in 1830.

‘Away in a Manger ‘ is an American carol which came across to this country between 1880 and 1890, when revivalists Moody and Sankey were active. It originally appeared in a booklet called ‘Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses’. The UK and USA have different tunes for the carol.

The carol ‘Silent Night’ was written by an Austrian priest Fr. Xavier Gruber and church organist Josef Mohr for a Christmas night mass, and was sung to a guitar. The legend that a guitar was used because the organ was broken down was added later.

‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ dates to about 1740. It was written by English Catholics at a time when they were being persecuted. It was developed from the ‘plain chant’ which was in use in the church at that time.

Memory songs were common in medieval England. One person might start, “I went to the market and bought a hen.” The next would say, “I went to the market and bought a hen and a bushel of corn.” The next player would repeat the first two items and add another, and the game would continue until missed an item or failed to add a new one.

The ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ developed from this idea. The song does have some unusual features. For example ‘partridge in a pear tree’ may originally have been ‘partridge or a perdrix’, as the French for ‘partridge’ is ‘perdrix’. ‘Four colley birds’ were ‘four coley birds’ (blackbirds). Five gold rings might refer to goldfinches or pheasants, which have narrow bands of golden feathers around their necks.

Dave Edwards



For the October meeting, the History Group had a talk by
Peter Strong entitled ‘the Four Ages of Sudbrook’.

The village of Sudbrook is best known for its association with the Severn Tunnel, but its history goes back a long time before the tunnel was built, and did not end after the tunnel was completed. The village is however closely associated with the Severn and its crossing points.

Part of the Silures tribe were living at Sudbrook over 2000 years ago in what is now known as Sudbrook Camp. Some of the early observers believed, quite incorrectly, that the earthwork had been built by the Romans. In fact the fort predated the Romans by several centuries; it was an Iron Age promontory fort, possibly contemporary with Maiden Castle in Dorset, and Llanmelin Hill near Caerwent.

The fort at Sudbrook and one at Worlebury near Weston-super-Mare have a similar design, making it likely that the tribes belonged to the same ethnic group.

The Silures were not the uncivilised, superstitious savages of popular myth. From artefacts excavated. we get a impression of farmers, craftsmen and traders..Indeed some of the items were widely traded, and have been found over a wide area of Europe.

Because of the strategic importance of Sudbrook the Romans occupied it throughout their stay in this area. It is unlikely that they lived there, but stationed guards there to cover the ferry point at Blackrock. It is likely that a ferry at Blackrock was used throughout the Roman period, something that is confirmed by the numerous coins found in the mud near Blackrock, thrown to propitiate the god of the waters, as the coins covered the whole period of Roman occupation.

Little is known about Sudbrook in the immediate post-Roman period (known as the Dark Ages). In the medieval period the village of Sudbrook (or Southbrook) was built very close to the Iron Age camp, on what was formerly known as Trinity Cliff, right on the edge of the Severn, but all that remains of that part of the settlement is the ruin of Holy Trinity Church. The name ‘Holy Trinity’ indicates that this was an English rather than a Welsh foundation, since the feast of the Holy Trinity, was celebrated at that time in England but not in Wales.
The nave walls of the church date back to the 12th century, but other parts are at least a hundred years older. The manor of Southbrook was mentioned in documents dated 1245, when John of Southbrook was listed as lord of the manor. It covered roughly the area south of the railway line today. It is believed that the dividing line between Sudbrook and the separate manor of Portskewett was marked by a series of boundary stones placed in the ground.

The church remained at the heart of the medieval settlement, which included a water mill, cottages, and a village green. It was very typical of the Saxon villages of southern England, and unlike the more isolated settlements common in Wales. For example the fields of the earlier village were divided into strips for cultivation. The fields had names such as Fern Acre, Head Acre, Mill Field, Trinity Field, etc.

Division between strips were marked by stones, some of which survived into the eighteenth century, since local people were by then insisting that they be replaced by something clearer such as sheep hurdles. Several cottages were built around the chapel, and part of the rampart was demolished to make room for settlement there. Also a number of cottages were built inside the camp itself. Within one such house artefacts and pottery from Gloucestershire were found, confirming the trade across the Severn during the middle ages.

The settlement flourished for a time, and additions were made to the church: the chancel was added in the fourteenth century and the south porch in the early fifteenth. This suggests a prosperous community during that period. Trade continued across the River Severn, one unusual example being the harvesting & sale of kelps (seaweed) to a soapmaker in Yate, south Gloucestershire.

One unusual feature of Sudbrook is the divided nature of the settlement; there was an area of settlement around Holy Trinity Church and another around the manor house. Nowadays Portskewett lays claim to this area, but it is quite possible that the people living in the area of Trinity Cliff moved inland as the cliff became unstable due to erosion. Therefore the lumps and bumps visible near Portskewett Church were probably due to that resettlement. However it seems that the village partially abandoned by late 15th century, and by 1720 the church was derelict. By that time much of the churchyard had been washed into River Severn, and bones were visible on the beach.

The decline of the local mill also demonstrates Sudbrook’s decline. The mill was in existence by 1280, in 1711 a new leat was cut, but in 1765 it was referred to as ‘the old mill’ and in 1766 was in ruins. One factor that may have hastened the decline of the community was the enclosure of the corn fields.

In 1858 when the Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association visited Trinity Cliff, they put in their report that there was not a single inhabited building for half a mile in either direction.

In spite of this, at Blackrock (less than a mile away) there was still a thriving ferry point; there being a regular ferry across the Severn from the mid-eighteenth century, access being via the turnpike road. By the mid-nineteenth century it was competing fiercely with the Aust-Beachley crossing for the Royal Mail contract, and in 1863 a branch line was built down to Blackrock, where passengers would alight from the train, embark on the ferry and board another train on the other side. The footings of the Blackrock Pier are still visible at low tide.

Next chapter in the history of Sudbrook covers the Thomas Walker years. A new community grew up around the construction work for the Severn Tunnel. The new community was originally known as Severn Tunnel Works, sometimes even Walker’s Town, until the opening of the post office in 1881, when it was given its official name of Sudbrook.

The nature of Sudbrook was very much a reflection of the personality and character of Thomas Walker himself. However it must be remembered that as the contractor who built the tunnel, Walker was not involved from the very beginning.

The work started in 1873 using direct labour from the Great Western Railway. For the first six years that was the case, and they built the first Victorian houses in what is now known as Old Row (near the camp) to house workers. Walker only became involved in 1879 after they hit the Great Spring, which discharged millions of gallons of water into the tunnel every day.

At this point the construction team nearly abandoned the project, but decided instead to employ a private contractor to complete the work. We must remember that the tunnel was built for transporting Welsh coal across the Severn, not for carrying people.

As the project progressed, more and more workers were required, and there was a problem of accommodation, as existing houses were rapidly becoming overcrowded. To solve the problem Walker bought land in Sudbrook from the St Pierre Estate, and arranged for houses to be built.

One of the first houses built, known as Cliff House, was allocated to the senior foreman Joe Talbot. In 1881 he built Post Office Row, added more houses to Camp Row, and some detached houses for his senior staff. Church Row was built in 1884, more houses were added in Sea View (some had been built earlier).

One interesting feature of the newer end of Sea View is that they were constructed by pouring concrete into moulds of wooden shuttering. It is claimed that these were the first concrete houses to be built in Britain.

In 3-4 years the village emerged from being not much more than a single row of houses to quite a populous community. Well known is the story of the first mission hall, which was well attended. The hall was gutted by fire on November 26th 1872, Walker instantly put plans for a replacement into operation. Construction of the new mission began next morning at 10 o’clock after clearing the debris, and they had completed the foundations by 1 pm the same day. Lighting was set up to enable twenty-four-hour working, and the mission hall, with room for a thousand people, opened on 17th December, just three weeks after the fire.

One of the foremen, interviewed some years later, reminisced with nostalgia about the rivalry and stand-up fights between workers. In light of this, it was probably appropriate that Walker invested money in a village hospital. The building now known as the Walker Flats was the original infirmary, and a Chepstow medical practitioner was hired to provide care for workers and their families.

Eleven tunnel workers died in accidents, five of these in a single accident in December 1882. However it is clear that compared with other construction sites of the time, the casualty rate was quite low.

Once the tunnel was completed, Walker departed for other projects: docks at Buenos Aires, docks at Barry, and the Manchester Ship Canal. It was only 4 years later that he died, and was buried in Caerwent churchyard. His wife died 2½ years after. With her death, Sudbrook passed into the hands of their four daughters, Mary, Elizabeth, Annie and Alice.

Their various properties were held in trust, in equal shares for their daughters, but it was Annie, married to ophthalmic surgeon John Cropper, who was to play the most important part in the future life of Sudbrook.

Thus began Sudbrook’s fourth age, the Cropper Age. The pumping station at Sudbrook had become the main employer, and in many ways dominated the life of the village. Employment there still had a paternalistic semi-feudal feel about it. If someone wanted a job there, the biggest factor in their favour was a father or uncle who already worked there.

Of course the pumping station did not just keep the local people fed and clothed; it also kept them warm and clean. It was said that Sudbrook people were the cleanest around. This was due in part to the presence at the pumping station of a pipe which discharged hot water into the Severn, in which local children would wash.

Another notable feature of Sudbrook people was their good teeth, since the pumping station supplied very hard water to the village. The boys in particular were very well groomed, largely due to the presence of an unofficial barber on the top floor of pumping station.
Under the terms of Thomas Walker’s will, his son-in-law Charles H. Walker was given the authority to carry on or wind up as he saw fit any businesses in which Walker Snr. had been engaged. One of these was the shipyard that Walker had established while building of the tunnel.

Charles Walker expended this business, and it became a significant employer in the village. Clearly the shipyard was doing well in its early days, and during the First World War it went on to build barges and tugs for the Admiralty. The largest (and last) ship built was the Frencham, a vessel of 739 tons launched in 1922, registered in Montevideo, Uruguay, and scrapped in 1973. The yard did not survive the depression, and closed in the 1920s.

Mrs Cropper was responsible for establishing orphanages in some of the village cottages. The village was also used to house orphans for the Chepstow Board of Guardians, the infants being placed there instead of in workhouses.  This was an early form of ‘care in the community’.

In pre-NHS the hospital relied on charitable donations, village collections and any happenings which might attract visitors, such as the presence of a dead whale on the foreshore.

It did become more a centre of activity during the Second World War when a gun crew was stationed at the camp. It was claimed locally that the guns were never fired except in practice, and when they were fired, they managed to crack all the windows in Old Row.

During the war, the Cropper age came to an end with the death of Charles H. Walker, when it was decided to sell the village. The only buildings that were not sold were the pumping station, Old Row, the mission hall and the manse. The sale of the village was reported in The Times as ‘whole village 180 houses, and village store for the tidy sum of £23,000. Then in 1949 houses were sold individually to the occupiers, usually at £200 each.

Since then Sudbrook has faced many changes. For example the removal of the steam engines at the pumping station in the 1960s resulted in the loss of many jobs. The shops, the post office and the mission hall were demolished in the early 1980s, the paper mill has come and gone, and now new housing developments threaten to swamp the village. However, for now at least Sudbrook does retain some of its unique character. The local history centre in Sudbrook contains much information about the tunnel, the camp and the village, and is well worth of a visit.

Dave Edwards

*Please click here to access our History of the Severn Tunnel


History Meeting September Caldicot Castle from the Begining

The September meeting of the History Group had a talk by Pat Hayward, entitled ‘Caldicot Castle from the Beginning’. Why would a castle be built in Caldicot? It was a small agricultural holding. Remains of a Bronze Age settlement have been discovered, but the area shows no indication of being anything other than agricultural.

However when William of Normandy took over England including part of what is now Gwent, he was anxious to secure his western flank – the border with Wales. He also wished to stamp his authority on the border area. Harold Godwinson (briefly king of England) had attempted the same when he established a hunting lodge at Portskewett.

After William was victorious at the Battle of Hastings, he kept a fifth of England for himself, and distributed the rest among his loyal followers. One of these was his cousin William Fitz Osbern, who was made Earl of Hereford and the Marches, and given the part of Gloucestershire between the rivers Severn and Wye. He was encouraged to fortify the border with Wales as a safeguard.

He built castles at Chepstow 1067, White Castle 1075, Abergavenny 1075, Cardiff 1091, Skenfrith, and Raglan. When Fitz Osbern was killed in 1071 he was succeeded by his two brothers, Durand and Roger. Roger implicated in rebellion against king, imprisoned, and his lands confiscated. However King William’s successor relented and restored the estates to the family.

Roger was succeeded by his son Walter Fitz Roger. A great builder, Walter constructed several castles, including those at Gloucester and Bristol. Caldicot castle must have been built between 1086 and 1127 because the Domesday Book entry for Caldicot (compiled 1086) contains no reference to one, and Walter died in 1127.

The castle lies close to the Nedern Brook, and could therefore be accessed by water, without the risks of travelling by land. That first castle was a single tower (top right-hand in this picture), with no attached bailey (surrounding wall).

Access was via a ladder to a door at second floor level, and even today the steps on the outside lead to the same doorway. The surrounding land was very marshy and that single tower was built on rocky ground at the highest point. However the builders also dug two layers below the entrance level, and threw up the mound around the outside, so the result is not a keep of traditional design.

The west side of the keep has a bulge, giving the impression of housing a stairway, with a window at the top to support this impression. However attackers could pound away all day without gaining entry, as it is solid stone. For extra security the keep was surrounded by a dry moat.

In 1854 historian Octavius Morgan suggested that there was a sluice system in the adjacent Nedern Brook, which would allow the moat and surrounding land to be flooded in the event of attack. The keep was self-sufficient, since there was a well inside the tower, and the garderobes (latrines) drained into the dry moat. However there is no record of the castle ever being attacked, so the defensive measures were probably never used.

Milo FitzWalter gave land to Augustinian monks to build Llanthony Secunda priory in Caldicot, and the first stone church. Milo had 5 sons and 3 daughters. Sons Roger and Walter both became monks, so died without heirs, Henry was slain in a fight with a Welsh prince, Mahel was killed by a falling stone at Bronllys Castle, and William was killed in as hunting accident.

Eldest daughter Margaret (heir to the estate) married Humphrey de Bohun II, second daughter Bertha married William de Braose, and youngest daughter Lucy married Herbert FitzHerbert. Having acquired the estate by marriage, Humphrey De Bohun and his successors managed it for the following 200 years; they were responsible for building most of the castle as we see it today.

Their efforts are still visible today in the de Bohun Gate and the curtain walls. Under that gate was a postern gate, accessed inside via a trapdoor; this small entrance would be used instead of opening the larger one. The curtain walls were accessed via sets of steps spaced around the inside of those walls. The de Bohuns also built the south east and south west towers, and a large banqueting hall (possibly wooden) near the south east tower. The windows in south wall are large, indicating that they were built in time of peace. Earlier windows would have been smaller, narrower, and easier to defend.

Thomas of Woodstock, youngest son of Edward III, married Alianore, elder daughter of Humphrey de Bohun X when he was 22 and she was 11, and so acquired the earldom of Hereford, the title Constable of England, and extensive estates. At Caldicot, Thomas built a tower (now known as the Woodstock Tower) with 3 floors, 3 fireplaces, and 3 garderobes at a cost of £57. He also built a larger entrance gate, which is still used as the main entrance.

On the east side there is a breach in the wall; it is possible that it was made during the Wars of the Roses, but more likely during the Civil War, to prevent the whole castle being ‘slighted’ by parliamentary troops.

When the main gate was excavated, a pit was discovered; this convinced Joseph Cobb (owner from 1885 to 1930s and restorer of the castle) that the castle had a drawbridge operated on the pit and pivot principle. When the main gate was rebuilt, a drawbridge operated it that way was included.

Another theory, proposed by Octavius Morgan in 1854, was that the pit was covered by wooden platform which could be withdrawn in the event of attack. Such an arrangement was used in some other castles.

The main entrance had doors, two portcullises, and ‘murder holes’ above, through which oil, boiling water or hot ashes could be thrown onto attackers. Also there may have been portcullises on other doors.

A record dated 1601 mentioned an ‘old ancient castle’ at Caldicot, but there is no record of it being lived in for nearly 400 years, until it was bought by Joseph Cobb in 1885.

During the intervening period the estate was owned or leased by various people, who farmed the land but ignored the fortification.
When bought by Cobb the inside of the castle was used as farmyard, and there is a drawing by his son showing it in that state. He initially restored the gatehouse as a summer residence, and left the rest in its ivy-covered state.

Two important figures in the later history of the castle were Anna Cobb and Percival Morgan. When Joseph Cobb died, the castle passed to Geoffrey Wheatley Cobb. He more interested in things seafaring, but his wife Anna, a wealthy lady in her own right, financed more work on the castle. Morgan was initially employed as groom at the age of 16, but later did much of the restoration work on the Woodstock Tower and the keep.

Mrs Cobb’s architect (Mr Forsyth) would tell Percival Morgan what was required, and he would then use a wooden frame to cast concrete blocks so that they resembled the existing stonework. Her husband had founded the Foudroyant Trust for training youths for the merchant navy, and when workmen were required in numbers (e.g. for digging out the moat) boys and men from the Foudroyant provided the labour.

After Anna Cobb died in 1943, parts of the castle were used as temporary accommodation for local people, until in 1963 it was sold to the local council for £12,500. It is now part of a country park, owned by Monmouthshire County Council.

Dave Edwards

*please click here to access our webpage with a photo slideshow of the Caldicot Castle and the Country Park


History Group meeting July

For July, the History Group had a talk and conducted tour entitled ‘Beautiful Barriers – Rood Screens in Some Monmouthshire Churches’.
Our guide was our new convenor, Don Wood.

First venue was St Jerome’s Church, Llangwm Uchaf.

The Church of St John at Llangwm Isaf (a mere hundred yards away) was rebuilt in Victorian times; but St Jerome’s is largely as it was constructed in the 14th century, though there are signs of an even older church.

During 19th century restoration, a stone artefact which may be a holy water stoup was found in the wall; this is a relic from earlier centuries. All of these early churches were built near something of spiritual significance, be it a stream, spring, well or ancient tree.

It is unusual to find two churches so close together, but they were in different parishes: Llangwm Uchaf (upper Llangwm) and Llangwm Isaf (lower Llangwm), though the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ do not refer to height above sea level. However both parishes are old, being mentioned in the Llandaff Scrolls of 1130.

Part of the lane giving access to the two churches was the original main road between Usk and Chepstow. The major road through Shirenewton was a toll road built in 1834 (note the toll house near St John’s Church).

Regarding the rood screen itself, ‘rood’ is a Saxon word for crucifix or cross and early screens were surmounted with crosses, often accompanied by figures of the Virgin Mary and St John. The rood screens were constructed to separate the chancel from the nave, and therefore to separate the clergy from lay folk.
The screen juts out a lot to accommodate a rood loft, the platform on which the church musicians sat, there being no organ to provide music. Faint colouring can be seen on the bottom of some of the panels; originally the whole screen would have been brightly coloured.

The body of a church is called the nave because of its resemblance to an upturned ship (navis in Latin). Medieval churches contained no pews, but there were benches running the length of the walls. The majority of the congregation were expected to stand, but the weak and infirm were allowed to sit on the benches, giving rise to the saying ‘weakest to the wall’. Much of the interior decoration was refurbished by J.P. Seddon between 1830 and 1860, rather sensitively done compared with some Victorian restoration.

Next stop for the party was Bettws Newydd. The name means ‘new oratory’, the first one having been established by St Aeddan or Aiden, and the replacement (dedicated to St Jerome) dating from the 15th century. An oratory is a chapel intended for private prayer. The font is a survivor from the earlier church, as is the outer door.

The rood screen is original in part, the remainder being 19th century. The churchyard contains several ancient yew trees. The largest of these could be 3,000 years old; it has a hollow trunk and a younger tree inside it, growing from the same root. These venerated yews could be the reason for church having been sited here.

Alongside the church is a preaching cross, which would have been used for preaching sermons in English, those given inside the church being in Latin. The base of the cross is original but the cross itself is a replacement.
The church survived the Civil War virtually unscathed, probably because the parliamentary forces never found it, or the village that adjoins it.

Final venue was St Mary’s Church Usk. As well as being the parish church, this was the place of worship for the nuns at Usk Priory, which was home for up to twelve incumbents. The main gate to the priory, which dates back to 1180, still stands, alongside the current entrance to the churchyard. Alongside the church door is a stone dedicated to Saint David Lewis, a 17th century martyr.

The rood screen at Usk was repainted in bright colours in the 1930s, and reflects the original appearance.

The carved and painted ceiling bosses are replacements, the originals having rotted away long since. Running through the centre of the nave is a stone arcade which divides the church in two; one half was reserved for the nuns and the other for the lay people.

In the nave is the original parish chest, which would have contained important church records. The chest has many locks, so opening it would require the consent of all key-holders.

The organ in Usk church is a rather grand instrument for a parish church. It originally sat in Llandaff Cathedral, and was moved to Usk when the cathedral acquired a new one.

The large protruding pipes, called Spanish trumpets, are a most unusual feature.

Our thanks go to Don Wood for a most unusual and informative afternoon.

Dave Edwards


History Group meeting June

The June meeting of the History Group had a talk by Beth Butler entitled
‘The Origin of Nursery Rhymes’.

The many rhymes that most of us remember from our childhood have been found all over the world, possibly with different words, but always with the same rhythm of syllables. Most can be put into categories such as counting songs, alphabet rhymes, singing games, riddles, street cries, drinking songs and rhymes based on historical events.

The counting songs such as One two three four five are designed to educate by repetition, as are alphabet rhymes and action songs.

The largest and best known examples of rhymes are based on historical characters or events. Examples are Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses (which mentions symptoms of those suffering from the Great Plague), Baa Baa Black Sheep (alluding to tax evasion, since black wool incurred less duty than white), Humpty Dumpty (possibly King Richard III), Little Boy Blue (Cardinal Wolsey, chancellor to Henry VIII), Ride A Cock Horse (possibly referring to Queen Elizabeth I, who made several royal progresses on horseback), Doctor Foster Went To Gloucester (a reference to King Edward I’s embarrassment when his horse became stuck in a very large puddle while on a visit to the city),

Little Jack Horner is a cynical comment on the distribution of estates after the dissolution of the monasteries. The Lion and the Unicorn Fighting for the Crown is an analogy for the friction between England and Scotland over the redesign of the royal arms after the Act of Union of 1707, Rock-a-bye Baby, in the Tree Top refers to Roman Catholic King James II and his precarious hold on the Protestant English crown.

Jack and Jill Went up the Hill is a reference to the collection of dew on midsummer morning. It was claimed that the moisture concerned had beneficial properties for those who drank or bathed in it. However young people who ascended the hillside on Midsummer Morn might well have intentions other than gathering dew.

Dave Edwards


In April the History Group had a talk entitled

‘A Walk in the Brecon Beacons’ by Chris Barber.

The Brecon Beacons National Park is one of the finest stretches of walking country in Britain. Travelling from east to west, the places encountered are many and varied, from the mountains around Abergavenny in the east (Blorenge, Skirrid Fawr and Sugar Loaf) to the Carmarthen Fan in the west.

Nestling in the shadow of the Blorenge, the village of Llanfoist was once a busy commercial centre, having an inclined tramway on the side of the mountain, a canal wharf for the loading and unloading of goods, and road links to Abergavenny.


The Skirrid Fawr mountain has a long and varied history, having been the site of an Iron Age fortress, a Roman Catholic chapel (now demolished), and a geology which gives rise to legends involving giants, the devil and others. The nearby Skirrid Inn is reputed to be one of the oldest in Wales, and is certainly one of the most haunted.

The Blorenge Mountain is a popular venue for walkers and hang-gliders. The north face of the mountain has a steep face which facilitates easy launching of a glider.


Several miles to the north-west of Abergavenny is the town of Crickhowell, birthplace of General Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India, after whom Mount Everest is named. The village of Llangattock (south of Crickhowell) has mountains with escapements, caves and spectacular views.

The Clydach Gorge (near Gilwern) was a highly-industrialised area in the nineteenth century, criss-crossed by tram lines and standard gauge railways. Near the village of Clydach is Devil’s Bridge, so called because a rock formation under the bridge reputedly shows the Devil in profile. A few metres upstream of the bridge is a deep pothole in the river, known as the drowning pool.




Blaenavon, across the mountain from Clydach, is also famous for its industrial history, mainly in the iron and steel trades. Further west is waterfall country, near Ystradfellte and Pont-Nedd-Fechan, full of spectacular cascades, river walks and birdsong.

Along one of those tributaries is Porth-yr-Ogof (‘entrance of the giant’) where the river disappears underground for several miles.

In the westernmost part of the beacons
are the Carmarthen Fan and Carreg Cennen Castle, sited atop the mountain ridge.

The highest peak in south Wales is Pen-y-Fan, near the Brecon Mountain Centre. Once upon a time, when taking a group up Pen-y-Fan, Chris Barber was told by a local that it was now possible to park on the mountain, since a group of students had ‘planted’ a London parking meter near the summit.

His party agreed to dig it up and bring it down. In transporting it, they realised that there were still coins inside, so they took it to the nearest police station. An officer then issued a receipt for the artefact, stating that it would be returned to the finder if not claimed within two weeks. Chris Barber claims to still have the receipt, but has never bothered to return to the police station.

On one occasion he and a friend were encamped in a wet field, sodden by two solid days of rain. When the despondent friend left, Chris decided to stay, until he realised that the airbed on which he lay was floating.

Dave Edwards


Jack the Ripper.

In March Roger Morgan gave the History Group a talk on Jack the Ripper.

image: The Illustrated Police News. Dramatic crime scenes were sketched on every front page.
(c) The Museum in Docklands

On a hot humid summer’s night in 1888, there was a murder in Whitechapel, east London. At that time Whitechapel was an overcrowded and poverty-stricken suburb of London, the home of criminal gangs, thieves and prostitutes, the venue of many atrocities, and an area where policemen did not venture forth singly. Since there were docks in the vicinity, there were many different nationalities in transit, often for short periods of time. Murder was commonplace, resulting from domestic disturbances, money lending, gambling, and many associated activities.

At 4 am on August 7th 1888 Martha Tabram was found murdered by a workman on his way home. When police examined the body, besides a severed throat, they found 39 stab wounds. Rumours abounded, tension increased, but there was no discernable clues to point to a particular person as murderer. Police increased patrols in the area, but having no evidence, they had no idea of who to look for.

On August 31st, there was another murder: Mary Ann Nichols was found with her throat cut in the same manner as the first victim. Police Sergeant Abberline was one of the investigating officers, and in later years his notes were used to support various theories.

On September 8th there was another murder; he victim was Annie Chapman, prostitute. Her throat had been cut, and she had been disembowelled, but there was very little blood. One curious feature was that the contents of her pockets had been very neatly arranged at her feet. Where were the members of the local constabulary? That day the heat wave had broken, and the police were occupied assisting the fire brigade in preventing a bonded warehouse, full of imported alcohol, from catching fire after being struck by lightning.

Vigilante groups were formed, mainly under the guidance of George Lusk, a prosperous businessman and aspiring politician who claimed that he could ‘clean up Whitechapel’. The area was flooded with leaflets, causing suspicion and mistrust between racial groups, but no new information was received, and no one was arrested.

One senior policeman had the original idea of dressing policemen as prostitutes; some of these were propositioned, but not by the murderer. Maybe the sight of burly six-foot female figures was a disincentive.

At the scene of Annie Chapman’s murder, the police found a leather apron, and presumed that it had been used to protect someone’s clothing while they committed the murder. That may have been so, but the owner of the apron proved to be innocent, and there was no evidence of who else might have used it.

The day after the murder, the Central News Agency received a letter signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. Certain facts relevant to the previous day’s horror were mentioned, things which could have been known only to the killer, so the letter was deemed genuine. At last the press had a label for the person responsible.

Post mortem examination of the body indicated that the knife used to cut her throat was a surgical instrument, since it was very thin and very sharp. Also the internal organs had been removed by someone with surgical expertise. These two facts suggested that a member (or past member) of the medical profession was responsible for these crimes.

On September 30th Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were murdered, and the tips of Eddowes’ ears had been cut off, as predicted in the letter sent to the news agency. That news agency received another letter supposedly from the Ripper, but the handwriting was different, so it was viewed with suspicion. Written on a wall near the Eddowes murder was ‘The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for nothing’. Police Commissioner Charles Warren insisted that it be removed to prevent an outbreak of inter-racial tension. A constable removed the graffito using a rag found at the scene, then realised that the rag was a piece of Eddowes’ apron used by the murderer to wipe the bloody knife.

Lusk again encouraged his vigilantes to ‘patrol’ the streets, but without result. Then he received a package; it contained a piece of human kidney and a letter, purportedly from the Ripper. In the absence of modern forensic techniques, they could not be certain that the organ had been taken from the latest victim. However the portion matched the piece that had been left in the body; also the kidney had the appearance of Bright’s Disease, from which Eddowes suffered.

On November 9th there was another murder. Mary Jane Kelly was found; her body had been dismembered. After that Whitechapel became relatively quiet, and the murders stopped.

The suspects were many, varying from a member of the royal family to Polish immigrants. Alas there were no arrests and no trials.

Part of the fascination with this affair is the amount of publicity that it was given. It was the first case to be fully investigated, documented and photographed. However the murders were not identical, and even now no one can be certain that all were committed by the same person. There are still no answers to many of the questions posed at the time.

Dave Edwards



‘The 1607 Flood – A Tsunami in the Bristol Channel?’

The February meeting of the History Group had a talk by Professor Simon Haslett entitled ‘The 1607 Flood – A Tsunami in the Bristol Channel?’

Simon Haslett and Ted Bryant Professor Haslett is dean of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

His area of specialization is the development of coastal areas since the last Ice Age.

In 2001 he published a scientific paper in the Journal of Geology, examining the theory that the Great Flood of 1607, which laid waste to coastal areas of Gwent, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and Somerset, was really a tsunami.

His co-author was Dr. Edward Bryant, an Australian geoscientist who had already examined evidence of similar occurrences in the southern hemisphere. Professor Haslett (left) and Dr. Bryant are pictured.

The term ‘tsunami’ means ‘harbour wave’, and was first coined by Japanese fishermen who found that their home port would occasionally be badly damaged while they themselves were unharmed out at sea.

Dr. Bryant is an expert on tsunami and their associated characteristics. Having concentrated on the prehistoric era (which in Australian terms was the period before the advent of Captain Cook), he found geological evidence, and heard Aboriginal legends, of the coastline being ravaged many times by extraordinary waves. He wrote a book on the subject, entitled ‘Tsunami – The Understated Hazard’.

The Pacific Ocean has an early warning system for such events, having suffered undersea earthquakes on previous occasions. However the Indian Ocean has none, so the 2004 tsunami in was a total surprise.

The funnel-shape of the Severn Estuary (which causes its high tidal range) could also be the reason that the Great Flood of 1607 caused so much damage, particular as arrival of this ‘wall of water’ coincided with high tide.

Another factor is that some of the coastal plains were reclaimed from the sea, first by the Romans, and again in the medieval period. In time those reclaimed areas became sub-sea level, since tidal action added to the shore line, but not to the portion inside the sea wall.

Evidence of the 1607 Flood:

Contemporary pamphlets give the date (adjusted to the modern calendar) as 30th January 1607, and the approximate time as 9 am. Using tide tables, it is possible to estimate the state of the tide on that day; calculations suggests that high tide at Burnham was 8.28 am. Therefore a high tide, together with the extra surge provided by a tsunami would inevitably cause extensive flooding.

An average storm may last many hours, but each surge of wind-driven water would last seconds and the pressure exerted would abate as the wind died temporarily. The distance between waves would be correspondingly short, a few metres at most.

However a tsunami in deep ocean can have several thousand metres between waves, giving a continuous surge of water, possibly metres in height.

Each wave could travel at a speed comparable with a jet aeroplane, and cross an ocean in a day. When a tsunami reaches land, the speed is reduced, but the wave height is enlarged, sometimes to more than 40 metres. In such a continuous torrent of water, most of the people caught would either drown or die of hypothermia. The effects in January 1607 can only be imagined.

The level reached by the 1607 Flood is recorded in several churches on both sides of the Bristol Channel. The Somerset Levels slope inland from the seawall, so inundation was unavoidable once water had got over that barrier, and it is claimed that the waters reached the foot of Glastonbury Tor.

The flood was particularly severe on the Welsh side, covering coastal areas from Laugharne to Chepstow, with Cardiff as the worst affected town. This event could be considered as the greatest natural disaster ever on British soil.

The Kingston Seymour plaque reads: "An inundation of the sea water by overflowing and breaking down the Sea banks; happened in this Parish of Kingstone-Seamore, and many others adjoining; by reason whereof many Persons were drown'd and much Cattle and Goods, were lost: the water in the Church was five feet high and the greatest part lay on the ground about ten days. WILLIAM BOWER"

Eye-witness accounts record phenomena associated with tsunami, such as the appearance of sparkling lights on the tops of the wave. This could be caused by the spontaneous combustion of methane gas released from the sea floor by the pressure of the wave, the generation of static electricity or by some phenomenon as yet unexplained.

Another tell-tale sign was the speed of the surge which was compared with the pace of a greyhound.

Near Newport, Gwent, a wealthy woman, Mistress Van, lived four miles from the sea and although she saw the wave approaching from her house she could not get upstairs before it rushed through and drowned her.

The idea was published in a journal ‘Archaeology in the Severn Estuary in 2002 under the title ‘Was the AD 1607 Coastal Flooding Event in the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel a Tsunami?’

Testing the theory became a matter of visiting key locations to gather samples, and conducting tests to support or negate the idea.

Several inland places which were reputedly inundated by water in 1607 have layers of sand, indicating a severe flood from the sea.

Nearly all the contemporary salt-marsh in the Severn Estuary was eroded.

At certain locations in the Severn Estuary rocky outcrops have been severely scoured, suggesting the river bed was reshaped, probably in the seventeenth century.

At various points along the shoreline of the Bristol Channel there are large boulders, which could have been repositioned by storm surges, or by a tsunami. Estimates of the wave power required to move them indicate that a storm surge would need to be four times as powerful as a tsunami to achieve the same result.

In the wake of the article, the BBC decided to make a television programme on the subject, and agreed to follow Dr Bryant and Professor Haslett on a field trip around the Severn Estuary. Also many days were spent at Shepperton Studios building a 17th century village in a dry water tank, and then filming it as it was flooded.

The programme was scheduled to be broadcast in January 2004 but nature intervened, providing a real tsunami on Boxing Day 2003. The broadcast was delayed in deference to the people who had died in that tragedy in the Indian Ocean, and shown in the following April instead.

Though a definite conclusion cannot be reached regarding the true cause of the Great Flood of 1607, a tsunami remains a strong possibility.

The flood was commemorated in a contemporary pamphlet entitled God’s Warning to his People of England. A transcript can be read on the following website:

The 2002 article from ‘Archaeology in the Severn Estuary’ can be found on:

*please click here to access an article about the TSUNAMI IN GWENT of 1607 on the archive pages of our science webpage.

Dave Edwards



In the January , Mark Lewis gave the History Group a talk entitled
‘Caerwent and its Region in Roman Times’.

Caerwent is 2 miles from Caldicot Town, Castle and Country Park.

The Romans invaded Britain, which they called ‘Britannia’, because the country was rich in mineral resources (lead, slver, copper and gold), and grain. The country was also famous for its hunting dogs and slaves.

There were several attempts at invasion, but the final one was the only successful one; Julius Caesar mounted two expeditions, in 55 BC and 54 BC but realised that he had insufficient troops to achieve very much. Gaius (nicknamed Caligula) and his army reached the northern shore of Gaul, but declined to cross the channel to Britain.

AD 41 Claudius had been declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard, but his reputation in Rome was poor. He was part of the ruling family, but they considered him to be a fool and an imbecile. To bolster his authority and improve his popularity, he needed a quick military victory which would bring glory and wealth to Rome.

As a result four legions invaded Britannia in AD 43, landing in Kent and working their way westwards to Exeter. Within four years troops had occupied and subdued the area of southern England south of a line from Gloucester to the Wash.

The Second Augustan Legion then marched westwards from Gloucester, expecting to achieve equal success in their campaign against the native Celts. Their first fortress in the area was built on the flood plain at Usk (which they called Burrium). However the difficult terrain and the obstinate natives made progress slow. The Celts preferred guerrilla warfare to pitched battles, since this made best use of their forces and terrain. Roman historian Tacitus describes the Silures as ‘changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency’.

However operations in Wales were interrupted in AD 60 or 61 by the Boudicca (or Boadicea) rebellion in eastern England; it was another 15 years before the Romans again turned their attention to Wales.

Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed governor of Britannia in AD 75, and he adopted an alternative approach for the Romanisation of the Celtic tribes – he encouraged tribal groups to dwell in lowland towns rather than hill forts. Also he established a chain of Roman forts, each within half a day’s march of another. In this way any minor disturbance could be dealt with before it became a major rebellion.

In many cases modern towns are located on the sites of those Roman forts, since the sites chosen were in most cases strategic. Also many modern railways follow the paths of the Roman roads, since both chose the simplest routes and the best gradients through mountainous countryside.

The ‘carrot and stick’ approach had been adopted in an attempt to reduce the number of troops in Britannia, and therefore reduce the cost of running this frontier province. However in Britannia it took about a hundred years (three generations) before it could be considered a success. By AD 122 there was limited trust between Roman and Briton, as grandchildren of the people who had first fought the invasion force adopted a Romanised style of living. Before the advent of the Romans, the indigenous Celts lived in hill or promontory forts, each group having only limited contact with adjacent ones. The Romans however preferred a centralized structure, with local groups controlled by regional capitals. As a result they established Venta Silurium (now Caerwent) as the capital for south east Wales.

At the centre of Venta Silurium (‘market place of the Silures’) were the forum and basilica; the forum was open, being a venue for public meetings, markets, etc., while the basilica served as town hall, law court, and local council. Adjacent to the basilica are the foundations of a pagan temple; analysis of excavation results have shown that it was built when the basilica was derelict, roofless, and used for metal-working. Since this was at a time when Christianity was gaining popularity throughout the Roman Empire, it suggests that there was a local sect who had reverted to an older form of worship. No effigy or inscriptions have been found to indicate the deity or deities worshipped there.

Outside the east wall at Caerwent, under the Burton Homes Almshouses, another, smaller temple has been discovered. This was octagonal in shape, and aligned on the main compass points – the door opened to the rising sun.

A major part of the excavation at Caerwent was conducted between 1900 and 1918 by the Caerwent Exploration Fund; most of the finance was provided by its president Viscount Tredegar, and most of the labour by the Clifton Antiquarian Club. This effort produced a plan of the Roman town, and showed that the area within the walls was divided into plots (termed ‘insulae’ by the Romans). Each insula was 275 Roman feet square (269 imperial feet, or 8.2 metres).

When some stones at the centre of Caerwent were examined, one was found to have a dedication to Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, a former commander of the Second Augustan Legion (which was stationed at Caerleon for many years), and who later became governor of Britannia. This inscription shows that at Caerwent the Silures were self-governing, and had their own senate.

The walls at Caerwent were built much later (AD 330) than the buildings they enclose. At that time, the fort at Cardiff had become the base for operations against sea-raiders from Hibernia (Ireland), and Caerleon had been reduced to cohort strength (800 men). The residents of Venta Silurium were understandably nervous, feeling that they were vulnerable to attack.

The towers attached to the north and south walls were constructed later still (AD 349-50). The north and south gates were probably blocked at about the same date. The towers were built so that the wall could be defended using a small number of men. Though irregularly spaced, the towers gave covering fire to the whole length of the wall. However there is no historical or archaeological record of the town being attacked, so the danger presumably passed without incident.

When Cardiff Castle was rebuilt in the 19th century, the outer walls were constructed on the foundations of the Roman fort, and the rear entrance was given a Roman appearance, with large towers flanking an arched gateway. The reconstruction iscredited as being reasonably accurate.

At Caerwent, In the ruins of a large courtyard house north-west of the temple, some food vessels were found. They had presumably been buried to hide them from thieves, but not recovered. The presence of a ‘Chi-Rho’ symbol on one suggests that they were used for ‘agape’ (a ceremonial meal held by members of the early Christian church). Besides items with a Christian association, some earlier objects were discovered scattered through the ruins: for example a figurine of a pagan fertility goddess was found in a pit eleven feet deep, obviously intended to be lost forever.

The basilica in the town centre was a law court amongst other things, but serious cases such as murder could be tried only by the governor of the province. He therefore travelled through a wide area, dispensing justice as he went. For example the trial of Julius and Aaron, during a religious persecution in AD 304, must have taken place at Vesta Silurium ,and the death sentence carried out at Caerleon. They are claimed to be the first British Christian martyrs.

One room in the basilica was a council chamber; this had tiered seats along the long sides of the room for the elected representatives (decurions), and two seats at one end for the presiding officials.

The legend St Patrick indicates that he was kidnapped from his home in Britannia and taken to Hibernia by pirates. His description could easily apply to the area around Caerwent, but there is no direct evidence to link him with this area.The accepted derivation of ’Caldicot’ is ‘cold cottage’, being an unheated shelter for use by wayfarers (travellers on foot) and herdsmen. However Caldicot in Monmouthshire was the site of six kilns, and together they must have produced pottery on a commercial scale. The area around the kilns must have been very hot, and the Latin word for hot is calidus. Since other places named ‘Caldicot’ or ‘Caldecote’ also had potteries in Roman times, could the name mean ‘hot place’?

Dave Edwards



A History of Nonconformity since 1500

In November, the history group had a talk by Ken Payne, entitled
‘A History of Nonconformity since 1500’.

The term ‘nonconformist’ was first used in England to describe one who would not conform to the Acts of the Clarendon Code, passed after the Restoration of Charles II. The principal item of contention was the Act of Uniformity, which came into force in August 1662, and which required all English and Welsh clergy to consent to the entire contents of the Book of Common Prayer. For refusing to conform, over 2,000 clergymen were ejected from their livings.

In Europe the movement had begun as dissatisfaction with the established (Roman Catholic) church and its practices. The early protagonists were Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. Erasmus provided the religious theory, and Luther voiced the criticism in populist terms. It has been said that Erasmus laid an egg, and Luther hatched it.

The church had been criticised in previous centuries, notably by Wycliffe, who advocated separation of church and state, simplicity of worship, and translation of the Bible into English. The church rejected his proposals, but his ideas influenced later reformers.

In 1526 Protestantism in England was given momentum when John Tyndale published the New Testament in English. Though he was burned as a heretic, his text survived, and was used in subsequent versions. Indeed, he was the originator of many English phrases in common use today.

In 1611, the first Baptist church was established in England. In 1727 groups of Moravian Brethren began missionary work, based on the teachings of 14th century reformer Jan Hus. In 1739 the Methodist movement was created, following the ideas of John Wesley, who was influenced by the Moravians. Other non-conformist groups include Anabaptists (‘self baptisers’) and Mennonites (followers of Menno Simons).

In Bristol the Broadmead Baptist Church was established in 1658 (the replacement building still survives today). The Horsefair in Bristol contains Wesley’s first Methodist chapel.

The first independent congregational chapel in Wales was established in 1639 by William Wroth, vicar of Llanvaches. His original chapel was replaced in the 1920s using the same site.

Dave Edwards

The Last Train

In October the group had a talk by Renate Collins (nee Kress), entitled
‘The Last Train’.

In June 1939, 5-year old Renate Kress was put on a train at Prague station by her mother. She then travelled to the Hook of Holland on the North Sea coast, by ferry to Harwich, and train to London. The children on that train were the last to leave Prague before war was declared.

Transport had been arrange by Nicholas Winton (now Sir Nicholas), a British businessman working briefly in Prague. He realised the danger to Jews posed by the German occupation of Bohemia and Slovakia (later Czechoslovakia), and persuaded the Prague authorities that children should be allowed to leave.

A further train of children, by then known as the ‘Kindertransporte’, was arranged for September 3rd, but as Britain declared war on Germany that day, no one was allowed to leave. The young people concerned did not survive.

The children who came to Britain were allocated places to live, many of them with families. Renate was taken in by a Baptist minister living in Porth, Rhondda Valley. He and his wife had no children of their own, and they treated her as their daughter, eventually adopting her.

By September 1939 Renate had learned enough English to start school. After grammar school, she attended commercial college, and worked for British Overseas Airways (BOAC) at their depot in Porth.

Some contact with her parents in Prague had been established by Nicholas Winton, and there was some correspondence between Czech and Welsh parents. Also, her cousin Liesl had travelled between London and Prague before the war, and had kept in touch with Renate’s parents. After 1945, Liesl brought some family photographs from Prague and death certificates for Renate’s parents. These documents were needed if she was to be formally adopted by her foster parents.

After seeing a television programme in 1988 about ‘The Last Train’, and hearing Esther Rantzen appeal for children who were on it, Renate contacted the producers, and took part in further radio and television programmes, and met Nicholas Winton.

Dave Edwards

History September 2010

In September, the first meeting of a new session, John Evans gave the history group a talk entitled ‘James Green of Llansantffraed, Spy’.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many wealthy people made their homes in Monmouthshire; one such was James Green. He was born in 1759 in Mortlake, Surrey, the son of a rich merchant. Green married several times, fathered a number of children, and established contact with influential families through arranged marriages. He became a member of parliament under the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk. He lived at Llansantffraed near Abergavenny, was involved in many activities in Monmouthshire, and was an officer in the local militia.

When Green’s business affairs became complicated and debts mounted, he fled to France, where he empathized with the revolutionaries, and voiced the opinion that the guillotine was an efficient way of removing aristocrats. Very soon he became acquainted with Napoleon, and was charmed.

However he was still in contact with Sir Benjamin Waddington, owner of the Llanover estate adjacent to Llansantffraed, and very soon agreed to provide information to the British Government in return for money. Green was writing to Waddington, informing him on French matters and Napoleon’s opinions. He was soon under suspicion, and departed secretly when the authorities tried to stop British people entering and leaving France, On his return to London, he gave a full account of the preparations being made on the north French coast for Napoleon’s intended invasion of England.

Deeply in debt, he died at Llansantffraed in 1814. A court case in regard to his will and associated affairs took 56 years to resolve.

Dave Edwards


Caldicot & District U3A Trip to Caerleon

On 23rd June a group of U3A members had a tour around some of the Roman remains at Caerleon, organised by Sue Shepherd. The guide was Dr Mark Lewis, curator of Caerleon Roman Museum.

These islands were famed in the ancient world for their grain production, mineral deposits, hunting dogs, and slaves. Roman traders were regular visitors, so tales of lucrative resources would have reached Rome, making it a target for invasion and Romanization.

The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, when Claudius was emperor. The preparatory work had already been done in the reign of his predecessor Caligula, but not put into action. Four legions were used for the campaign, and within 5 years, they had subdued the part of Britain south of a line from the Severn to the Wash.

The Romans’ next objective was Wales. They intended making a route west from Gloucester through Weston-under-Penyard and Abergavenny to mid Wales. With this in mind they established a fort at Usk (called Burrium). However the Boudicca (or Boadicea) rebellion in Norfolk in AD 61 changed priorities and all thoughts of invading Wales were abandoned.

On their return to Wales in about AD 75, the Romans adopted a different strategy; a small town was established at Venta Silurium (‘marketplace of the Silures’) and the Silures from Llanmelin hillfort were persuaded to resettle there. This greatly reduced the level of tribal unrest and attacks on the Romans; in time Venta Silurum (now Caerwent) was declared ‘tribal capital of the Silures’, and granted a degree of self-government.

Also Burrium (Usk) was abandoned and a new fortress created at Isca Silurium (Caerleon). The site chosen at Usk had been a mistake: it was liable to flood, and the river was navigable to that point only with difficulty. The site chosen at Caerleon could be reached by Roman sea-going craft, so it could easily be supplied via water.

After our short history lesson, Mark showed how some Roman tombstones could be used to assess the life expectancy and family relationships of those living at Isca Silurium and the adjoining civilian settlement.

High up on one wall of the museum is a large inscribed marble slab, made in Italy to commemorate some major reconstruction at Caerleon. It was probably first carved when Trajan was consul for the second time, and installed at Isca Silurium just before or just after he was elected consul for the third time; witness the crudely carved and unevenly spaced  third digit.

In a nearby display case is a hoard of 599 silver pennies (denarii) found at Llanvaches. This would have been a soldier’s life savings, his daily pay being slightly less than a denarius. The coin inscriptions covered more than a century, the latest being AD 160.

Another of the display cases contains a large number of inscribed gemstones, most of them recovered from the bathhouse drain. The intricate detail of the carving indicates to a high degree of skill by the craftsmen concerned.

The museum contains a stone coffin used for an inhumation, as well as several pots containing cremated remains. Roman burial practices varied: early ones were cremations, but other customs were adopted over time. The skeleton normally in the coffin has been removed, so that some tests can be done. It is hoped that analysis of a tooth will indicate his place of birth.

One of the major Roman sites in Caerleon is the amphitheatre, the best excavated in Britain. This was contemporary with the earliest fort, and was used for ceremonial parades, gatherings of the whole legion and gladiatorial contests. During the nineteenth century a museum was established at Caerleon to collect and conserve antiquities found in the area, and became part of the National Museum of Wales.

In the nineteen twenties Dr Mortimer Wheeler (director of the National Museum) agreed to excavate the site. Knowing that the museum was short of funds, and being aware that the field containing the amphitheatre was known as ‘The Round Table Field’ in local folklore. he exploited the reputed association with King Arthur to foster interest and raise sponsorship for the project.

After intense negotiation the Daily Mail newspaper agreed to buy the field and fund the dig, in return for exclusive daily reports. In the meantime Wheeler had been appointed director of the Museum of London, so his wife Tessa supervised the excavation and despatched daily reports to their benefactor for publication.

Dr Lewis also suggested an alternative derivation of ‘Caldicot’. The accepted meaning is ‘cold cottage’, being an unheated shelter for use by herdsmen and wayfarers. However there was a Roman pottery at Caldicot, so the area around the kiln would have been hot (calidus in Latin).

Dave Edwards

website link: www.caerleon.net/history/dig/2010

Public tours will be available twice daily during the excavation season, which runs from August 9th - September 17th 2010 (excluding Saturdays). A guide will meet visitors at the gate to Priory Field on The Broadway (next to the amphitheatre car park) at 11 am and 2.30 pm.


For the June meeting, the Judiciary: a History of the Magistrates’ Courts’.

The June meeting of the History Group had a talk by Ross Goff entitled ‘The Judiciary: a History of the Magistrates’ Courts’.

The office of Justice of the Peace was created by act of Parliament in 1361, and JPs have been involved in the court system since then. During the medieval period JPs had great powers, and could handle all cases with the exception of treason. Their other duties included raising taxes, raising armies, and prior to the creation of county councils, administration of the shires.

JPs are required to take two oaths – the judicial oath (to apply the law fairly), and the oath of allegiance (to the monarch). For many years a Book of Statutes has been prepared, listing new legislation. Originally a slim volume produced once every few years, it is now a far larger publication issued several times a year.

Until the late 20th century appointments were secret. Ross Goff for example received a letter informing him of his appointment, having had no indication that he was even being considered. He was sworn in by Peter Temple-Morris QC, whose advice to a new appointee making his first appearance in court was to ‘keep his eyes open, his ears open and his mouth shut’.

Jurisdiction of a magistrate is normally confined to a particular area, but can be overruled when necessary. For example Ross Goff’s area was Chepstow and Newport Quarter Sessions (when they were held there). When a high-profile case involving the Bishop of Llandaff was heard at Cardiff Quarter Sessions, Ross and other JPs from Chepstow were temporarily sworn in at Cardiff, since the bishop was well acquainted with their Cardiff equivalents.

In recent times magistrates have been expected to play a part in the wider community, and not just appear in court. Many sit on committees for the probation service, the police authority and various advisory bodies, as well that governing court administration.

Appointments now are completely open: candidates can apply themselves or be nominated. They are interviewed carefully, and given specimen cases to assess their judgement.

Dave Edwards


For the May meeting, the History Group had a talk by David Evans, entitled
‘My Father’s Secret Past’.

His father, Vincent Evans, was born in 1899, spent many years in the Church of Wales, first as a curate and then as a vicar, and died in 1992. David thought that was an accurate summary of his father’s life.

However in 2001 a newspaper article appeared, describing the activities of an underground wartime group in north Monmouthshire, including the Reverend Vincent Evans, vicar of Llanddewi Rhydderch.

The article was based on the reminiscences of another member of the group, George Vater. After some research, David found that has father had been part of a clandestine organization formed to operate secretly in the event of a German invasion.

The activities of the Home Guard are well known, but there was also a network of special duties agents. These were trained to maintain contact with the local community, gather and transmit information, create and equip subterranean hiding places, and if necessary act as saboteurs. These voluntary agents were told that if captured, they could be treated as spies, and shot.

The radio operator for the group was Rev. Richard Sluman, vicar of Llantillio Croesenny. The radio was hidden behind the church altar, with the aerial nestling behind the lightning conductor on the tower.

In 1944, the Rev. Cecil Gower-Rees, vicar of Llanarth, realised that he had very little information about American troops stationed in the area. Consequently he went to see their commanding officer, and invited them all to his Sunday services. The officer laughed and asked, “Do you realise how many men I have under my command?” He then proceeded to list the units, giving the strength of each one. The cleric then had data he could pass to the War Office.

As a result of that newspaper article, a radio programme, a television documentary, other newspaper features and several books were produced, with titles such as ‘Dad’s Underground Army’ and ‘The Mercian Maquis’. Fortunately these careful preparations were never needed in earnest.

Dave Edwards



For the April meeting, we had a talk by Stan Griffiths entitled ‘The Camera Never Lies, or Does It?’

In 1935 a London doctor known as Buck Ruxton murdered his wife Isabella, and their maid Mary Rogerson. Being a surgeon he expertly cut up the bodies to remove identification, and disposed of the remains in Scotland.

As no direct identification using fingerprints, dental records, etc. was possible, newly developed forensic methods were used. A technique called photographic superimposure provided evidence of critical importance. This involved comparing a photograph of Isabella with a photograph of one of the skulls found. The match was perfect – the camera could not lie. Ruxton was hanged.

In July 1917, two young girls in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley excused the untidy state of their clothes by claiming that they had been playing with the fairies in the beck. The father of one of the girls, suspicious of the explanation, gave them a camera, and asked them to take photographs of the ‘fairies’. Within an hour they returned, having taken a picture.

When developed, the photograph showed one of the girls surrounded by fairy figures. The girl’s parents viewed the picture as a possible fake, and it was put aside.

One of the parents was a member of the Theosophical Society, founded to explore the wisdom underlying all religions. It was after one of the society’s meetings in 1919 that the photograph, along with several others taken in the intervening period, was given a public airing.

Kodak examined the camera and negatives. They concluded that no camera trickery was involved, but were reluctant to draw any other conclusion.

The affair came to the notice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes). He published an article claiming that the pictures proved the existence of fairies.

Speculation and discussion continued for many years, but it was not until 1983 that the girls, now of advancing years, admitted that they had copied and cut out drawings from a book, hung them on bushes, and taken the photographs.

The camera never lies, or does it?

Dave Edwards



For the March meeting, John Evans gave a talk on The Quaker Self-help Movement in the South Wales Valleys in the 1930s.

In the period 1920-1935 much of Great Britain suffered greatly from the after-effects of the First World War. South Wales was one area which suffered more than most – a fall in the demand for coal when the war ended meant that many thousands of miners were suddenly unemployed.

Also an increase in bank rate to counteract inflation made the problem worse. Some newspapers speculated that the south Wales valleys would never recover. Another source of concern was the health of children. Tuberculosis, rickets and malnutrition were rife, and 80 percent were thought to be below an acceptable standard.

The Quakers came to the area, and established schemes to provide employment. Among other enterprises they set up a boot repair factory in the Rhondda valley, the resultant footwear being distributed to the poor.

As part of the impetus to find a solution, the Quakers came to Brynmawr (one of the unemployment blackspots), and were shocked by the living conditions they found. They organised a Christmas party for the children, and distributed 350 donated toys to them. For most children, these were the first toys they had ever had. They twinned valley towns with English towns such as Eastbourne, and some children had their first holiday as a result.

Activist Peter Scott, working with the Quakers, set up a series of clubs and work schemes. There were some small projects (e.g. building a swimming pool), but most were intended to provide full-time work, albeit on a subsistence basis.

There were allotments, a bakery, a butchery, a furniture factory, and men’s’ clubs (to repair boots).  Local people were however reluctant to accept what they saw as subsistence work provided by ‘Bloody Quakers’.

By 1938, things were improving, and the outbreak of war in 1939 saw an upturn in any industry connected with war effort, including coal and steel.

Dave Edwards


HISTORY GROUP February 2010

For the first session of the reformed History Group, we had a talk by Peter Strong, entitled ‘Ted Gill – a Working Class Hero’.

Edward Gill was born of Welsh parents at Leominster in 1879. They moved back to Abertillery, where the young Ted grew up. He left school at the age of 10, becoming a miner when he was 15. His powers of oratory soon made him a local representative of the South Wales Mineworkers Federation (‘The Fed’). His intelligence and oratory won him a place at Ruskin College, Oxford, where he met several influential figures, and a young miner named Aneurin Bevan. On leaving college Ted became a full time union official.

When war broke out Ted opposed it, and campaigned vehemently against it. However he changed his mind when German atrocities became known and he enlisted for the army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, a very unusual step for a working class recruit. He was first made recruiting officer for the Abertillery area, but sent to France with his battalion in 1915.

For his gallantry in rescuing a wounded comrade under heavy fire, he was awarded the Military Cross. He was wounded himself in 1916 when the battalion stormed Mametz Wood as part of the battle of the Somme, and he retired from the army. Ted stood as Labour Party candidate for Frome and fought elections there in 1919 and 1922, coming second in both.

In 1923 while campaigning at Blythe in Northumberland for another Labour Party candidate, he became ill and died, aged 44. When his body was brought from Blythe to Abertillery, miners lined much of the route, and his funeral was one of the largest ever seen there. Had he lived, he would probably have become MP for Frome in the 1923 General Election.

The church at Rogiet Llanvihangel has been restored by a group of local volunteers, and an exhibition is proposed for September. It is also open to groups for conducted tours.

The subject for the March talk will be ‘The Quakers in Monmouthshire in the 1920s, and their Social Work’, by John Evans.

Dave Edwards



Visit to Berkeley Castle

What a great day we had at Berkeley. Raining in the morning, by lunchtime it had cleared and we have a lovely afternoon.

There has been a defensive structure on this site since the Conqueror's time. Early in the 11th century, Henry II granted Berkeley to Robert Fitzhardinge, who is the forbear of the famkily which hasd owned the Castle until the present day.

*please click the image below to access a photo slideshow of the visit to Berkeley Castle

slideshow of the visit to Berkeley Castle

The photos were taken by John Sherrington

We are accustomed to great Norman structures partially in ruins. What we have here is a "home", albeit rather large but sophisticated, with rooms you could live in. What makes a tour so interesting are the little stories that the guide tells you.

For instance, the owner in l924 married an American heiress. He had to sell Berkeley Square - for £24M - I wonder what it is worth today - The first thing she said on arrival was "where's the central heating". She was a Lowell, the eflite family of Boston.

There was a saying at the time that the Cabots - another elite family in Boston - spoke only to the Lowells but the Lowells spoke only to God. Another story - when the family set off for London in medieval times, nearly all the land they travelled over belonged to them.

Many Americans visit the Castle as you can imagine. They always ask about the pronunciation; they say BURLEY, we say BARKLEY. They are always reassured that their's is the correct way!


The Edward Jenner Museum

Nearby is the house where Edward Jenner lived. Born in l749, he discovered the process of vaccination. Being a countryman he was particularly interested in cowpox It was accepted in then countryside that if you contracvtred cowpox, as many dairymaids did, you were immune to smallpox.

After many experiments over a number of years, he proved that this had a basis in fact and in l980 the World Health Organisation declared "smallpox is dead". In the grounds of the house is a thatchroofed stone building called the "Temple of Vaccinia", where he vaccinated the poor.

Jenner was also a naturalist. He discovered that a fledgling cuckoo throws its foster brothers, or the eggs of its foster parents, out of the nest. He also studied the migration of birds little of which was known at the time. He found that the same birds returned to the same place summer after summer.

At the age of 49 he was internationally famous. In the war with Napolean, two Englishmen were held in France and were suffering from the effects of confinement. It was suggested that Jenner should write a letter to Napolean asking for their release. Napolelan was about to refuse the request when the name on the letter was pointed out to him. "Jenner", said Napolean, "We can refuse nothing to that man".

Truly a remarkable man though a modest one, whose work with smallpox has saved countless millions of lives

And last but not least is the Butterfly House. A feast for the eyes! A tropical paradise but without all the creepy-crawlies!Warm, moist, with an abundance of tropical plants, the butterflies danced as in an unrehearsed ballet, showing jewelled colours as they alight on their source of nectar. A lovely experience reminding you that beautiful as man-made structures can be, nothing beats mother nature in its own glorious display.

I'm sure an enjoyable and interesting time was had by all and thanks to Iris and her team for taking us there.

Sheila Ford..


Berkeley Castle and Gardens

*please click the image below to access a photo slideshow of the visit to Berkeley Castle and Gardens

Photo slideshow of the visit to Berkeley Castle and Gardens

photo: Waiting for the bus to Berkeley Castle and Gardens

The photographs werer taken by Glenice and Adrian Dallow and Dorothy Witcomb

History of Berkeley Castle

Home of the Berkeley Family for 850 Years The most remarkable thing about the Castle is that for nine centuries, the building, the Berkeley family, the archives (which go back to the 12th Century), the contents, the estate and the town have all survived together.

Its place in history is significant, not just because it is still intact, but because the Berkeley family and their home have played an important part in the power struggles of so many centuries.

Built for War The Castle is one of the March Castles, built to keep out the Welsh.

It has all the trappings to match: trip steps designed to make the enemy stumble during an assault, arrow slits, murder holes, enormous barred doors, slots where the portcullis once fell, and worn stones where sentries stood guard.

It is also a fairytale Castle with its warm pink stone that glows in soft sunset light. Outside, the battlements drop some 60' to the Great Lawn below; but inside the Inner Courtyard, the building is on a human scale, with uneven battlements, small towers, doors and windows of every shape and size. The surrounding land would have been flooded for defence.

Where History is a Home The Family are one of only three families in England who can trace their ancestry from father to son back to Saxon times. English history has been lived out within these walls - and by this family. The Castle is the oldest building in the country to be inhabited by the same family who built it.

For centuries, the Berkeleys were close to the throne, able administrators and fighters who supported their king or queen (as long as they could), backed the winning side, and married well. The Castle, naturally enough, is full of stories.

The Archives housed in the Castle date back from the earliest part of the 12th Century and number around 20,000 documents, 6,000 of which relate to the mediaeval period. The latter are mainly manorial records which relate to every county in England, excepting two only.

Website Link: www.berkeley-castle.com


Iris Price with the bouquet of flowers presented to her by Alma Gaskell on the occasion of her retirement from the position of Convenor for the History Group.

Along with Iris are four of her helpers who have given her continued support throughout her term of office

Wells Cathedral

*please click the image below to access a photo slideshow of the visit to Wells Cathedral

Photo slideshow of the visit to Wells Cathedral

The Photographs were taken by Glenice and Adrian Dallow

In 909 the large diocese of Sherbourne was split and the minster church of St. Andrew became the first Wells Cathedral. Giso, the last Saxon bishop built both to the south, buildings for live-in priests, and north, a cloister. Pottery and animal bones were found to the south and a fine tomb cover of the tenth century with a pattern representing the Tree of Life to the north.

After the death of Giso in 1088, his successor John of Tours moved his seat to Bath Abbey and Wells was temporarily demoted. In the early 1100s Bishop Robert partially rebuilt the neglected church and carved stone fragments of the Norman period were recovered during the excavations.

By 1180 the foundations of an entirely new church were being laid to the north of the old one and on a better east-west alignment. Bishop Reginald, the then Bishop of Bath and a Norman by family, brought with him the exciting ideas of a new architectural style - the Gothic.

Probably by 1196 the demolition of the Saxon cathedral began as the new church was sufficiently advanced to be used for worship. Some stone was recycled for use in the new building. Out of respect for the ancient sacred site of the Roman mausoleum, the St. Mary Chapel was preserved and joined on to the new east cloister at a skewed angle. It became known as the "Lady Chapel by-the-Cloister".

In 1477 Bishop Robert Stillington embarked on a complete rebuilding of the chapel on a grand scale. The foundations of this cruciform building are what can be seen today in the Camery garden. This grand chapel did not last long and was blown up with gunpowder in 1552 because Edward VI had abolished Chantry chapels in the height of Reformation zeal.

Website Link: www.wellscathedral.org.uk



On 11th May 2009 members of the History and Science Groups visited the Dolaucothi Gold mines in Carmarthenshire where gold has been mined since Celtic times.

*please click the image below to access a photo slideshow of the visit
to Dolaucothi Gold mines in Carmarthenshire

photo: Rosa finds Gold

The Photographs were taken by Dorothy Witcomb, Glenice and Adrian Dallow

We were given a warm welcome by members of the National Trust and divided into to groups. One group went on a short walk along a Victorian adit (tunnel), the second climbed up the hill for an extensive tour of Roman and Victorian mines.

We then tried panning for gold and learnt to distinguish between fool's and red welsh gold. There was also time to see the exhibits, buy gold, and sample Irene's delicious home made deserts.

These unique gold mines are set amid wooded hillsides overlooking the beautiful Cothi Valley. The Romans who exploited the site almost 2,000 years ago left behind a complex of pits, channels, adits and tanks. Mining resumed in the 19th century and continued through the 20th century, reaching a peak in 1938.

Guided tours take visitors through the Roman and the more recent underground workings. The main mine yard contains a collection of 1930s mining machinery, an exhibition about the history of gold and gold mining, video and interpretation.

Gold panning gives visitors the opportunity to experience the frustrations of the search for gold. Other attractions include waymarked walks and picnic areas. There is fishing and accommodation on the estate, including a 35-pitch touring caravan site.

Website link: www.nationaltrust.org.uk


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