There’s quite a buzz around Newport at the moment. Friars Walk, the long awaited commercial development, has just opened. However, development and redevelopment is nothing new to the site. There has been activity here for quite some time. The development of the nearby Riverfront Arts Centre uncovered not only a Medieval ship, but an Iron Age skeleton beneath it. Roman pottery and tesserae have been found here – sadly with no context.
What we do know about the site on which Friars Walk now stands, is that Friars did walk here. Friars Field belonged to the Austin Friary. This is the area between Corn Street and Newport Museum, by the way, not The Friars house, once home to Thomas Prothero and then Octavius Morgan and now part of St Woolos hospital.
The Austin Friary is thought to have been founded in 1377 on land granted by Hugh, Second Earl of Stafford. There may have been an earlier chapel here too – dedicated to St Nicholas possibly. It has been said that Owain Glyndwr’s forces destroyed much of the Friary in 1402, but he does seem to get blamed for quite a bit in Newport. Some records do exist and we know that in 1495 Jasper Tudor, uncle of the newly crowned Henry VII, gave 20 shillings to the Austin Friars.
When John Leland came travelling through the town in around 1535 he spoke of “a house of religion by the key beneath the bridge”. Shortly after this Henry VIII commenced the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.
The King sold the Friars in 1543 to a Giles Morgan, the property being described as “all the house of the Friar Preachers at Newport in the county of Monmouthshire, one close of arable land called Friars Close containing six acres in the parish of Newport”.
There are references too of a ‘spittlehouse’ in 1567 and 1570 near Corn Lane. However, by the time Archdeacon Cox visited at the very end of the Eighteenth Century things seem to be quite different. “The remains consist of several detached buildings containing comfortable apartments and a spacious hall with gothic windows neatly finished in free stone; the body of the church is dilapidated, but the northern transept is a small and elegant example of gothic architecture. It is now occupied by a cider mill and the press is placed in a small recess which was once a small chapel. The gardens are enclosed within the original walls”.
And it gets worse. The 1790s saw a huge amount of change in Newport. The Monmouthshire Canal & Tramroads were bringing the Industrial Revolution to town. TheMonmouthshire Canal had been completed by 1796 and an extension stretched to the Town Pill by 1799 ending at Friars Field.
In 1801 the Borough of Newport had 221 houses with a population of 1,057, but within forty years this had exploded into a town of 2230 houses and a population of 13,737.
The field where the Friars had once walked was now unrecognisable. Housing was being thrown up with little thought to amenities for the inhabitants. Many of the new houses were erected on land owned by John Jones of Llanarth Estate and then sub-let to landlords to tenants.
There was little or no planning for this development; buildings were damp and had little daylight. Much of it was made up of tenement blocks or courts with one landlord of a 20 tenement court housing over 400 people.
Entrance to Friars Field was through two small lanes from Commercial Street (now Austin Friars and Friars Street) while from the other side access was via Canal Parade.
There were some attempts to improve conditions for the residents of Friars Field, but redevelopment was not exactly on anyone’s mind. In 1826 the“Newport Improvement Act” was triumphantly announced. This would set up a Commission to examine the needs of the slum areas of Newport (Friars Field being probably the worst), but it had no powers to enforce improvements it would recommend.
The Commission had asked John Jones of Llanarth to provide a drain in Friars Field, but he did nothing. In 1834 a Drainage Scheme was initiated by Commissioners, however, as it relied on contributions by landlords and landowners it was never finished at all!!
In 1839 the Medical Officer for the Eastern Division of Newport Union reported that 116 deaths out of 216 that year were down to fever adding:
“A great many of these cases of fever have occurred in Friars’ Field, which is situate in the lowest part of the town. It consists of two or three rows, and several courts of miserable dwellings, which are generally the resort of beggars, prostitutes and, and Irish vagrants. The whole neighbourhood is in the most unhealthy state, and accumulations of filth present themselves on every hand”.
James Matthews in ‘Historic Newport-
“Hereupon arose that insalubrious, badly-lighted, badly drained ‘plague spot’, ‘vile rookery’ and that ‘delightful’ neighbourhood of Friars’ Field. Here, for a long period, thousands were enticed into that man-trap where they were taken in and ‘done for’, the wind having got into their pockets, they were relieved of all their money, their banknotes, cheques watches and valuables as if by magic. The fraternity that once resided in this humble suburb of Newport were those masculine, ungainly shaped, unprepossessing, Amazonian denizens and smiling nymphs of the pavement, who went about generally with their eyes in ‘mourning’ which spoke volumes as to the gentleness of their lives, some of them having earned for themselves aliases such as – the Duchess; Nancy Bwlch; Mary the Cripple; Ann the Doctor; Annie the Sawyer, who was the ‘sawbones’ to the doctor aforesaid; Julia the Slattern; Amelia the Smut; and Mary the Pickaxe.
The other members of this community were the prison cropped looking gentlemen – crackfiles, bullies, leaders of rows and fights in the Fields and rogues who plundered, henroosts, broke into warehouses and waylaid honests travellers, chief among whom were – Dick Cochin, Bill the Fighter, Bill the Drummer, and Evan the Milkman with the broken beak. All the above resided here when they were not temporarily lodging either at ‘The Hole in the Wall’ (Carpenters Arms Lane lock up) or in the Clock-us (Mill Street) or performing healthy exercises at, or residing in the Stone Jug (Usk Jail).
By 1849 letters were appearing in the Monmouthshire Merlin speaking of “the want of sewerage in Friars’ Fields, where stagnant and fetid pools and decomposing vegetable and animal matter threaten a pestilence”. and that “The poor of Friars Fields chiefly subsist on vegetables, the refuse of which was added daily to other offensive matter on the streets”.
There were many Typhus outbreaks and no wonder. Of 96 houses in Friars Fields 55 of them had no privies at all and even those that had privies were without drains. Although a culvert from Irish Row led down to the canal. The Sanitary Board provided the area with a cesspool (and a drain!) with the excess ending up in the canal.
From Union Row there was a long open ditch running through the Friars Field Garden into which residents emptied their chamber pots. Unsurprisingly, in June 1849 Cholera retuned to Friars Field.
The Clark Report 1850. The Report points out that the damning remarks made by the Newport Union medical officer in 1835 still applied as there had been little or no change to the conditions of squalor and disease in Friars Field area.
The Clark Report said: “Friars’ Fields include a considerable tract of land between Commercial Street and the river, and though low, quite capable of being drained. This ground has been built on many years. The Sanitary Board called on the proprietor, Mr. Herbert, to make a drain; a difficulty presenting itself as to getting under the canal …..”
Another part of the report stated: “The Fields are neither paved nor macadamized; the rain water stands in pools on the surface …………….. one of the chief evils is the keeping of pigs in small confined yards with no drainage”.
In 1860 12,000 square yards of Friars Fields was bought by Newport Corporation and the much needed development began to finally become a reality. This area contained some of the worst tenements in the Newport area. The demolition of the slum housing soon began and by the time the 1882 OS map was published Friars Field had been redeveloped.
Many of the buildings were demolished by Newport Corporation in 1860 after buying the land for over £7,000. It is believed that the last few buildings were demolished in 1883 (maybe later) when much of the area became a timber yard and other industrial buildings.
In 1933 the area became a car park and was in use until the construction of the Bus Station and the Kingsway Shopping Centre in the 1960s.
This blog post was put together from some notes I made for a short talk for Newport Museum’s Down Your Local project. The subject was “Friars Field: Newport Slum” and was held in the Murenger pub in High Street, Newport. I thought it a pity to waste the notes, hence this post.
My main sources were:
Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (Vol 5)
James Matthews ‘Historic Newport’