Where Friars Walked

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.friars walk

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:

Bob Trett article on NewportPast

Gwent local history 2002 The Walfords

Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (Vol 5)

James Matthews ‘Historic Newport’



Lord Tredegar’s War

In 1913 Courtenay Morgan succeeded his uncle Godfery as Baron Tredegar. Very much the country gentleman, he also took to messing about in boats and bought himself a large ocean going steam yacht called the Liberty. 

When the new lock for the Alexandra Docks was opened in July, the ceremony was conducted on the Liberty by Prince Arthur of Connaught. Even Courtenay’s son Evan was on board for it. Just a few weeks later the Liberty would be handed over to the Admiralty.

The Liberty
The Liberty


Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August.  Courtenay offered his 1600 tonnes yacht for use as a hospital ship and it was accepted on the 10th of August.  Courtenay was made a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and was allowed to command her to begin with. He paid for the Liberty to be fitted for its new role and initially provided the crew.  Within four weeks, he was granted two months sick leave and made his way to Scotland.  On the 14th of December he was given the rank of Commander.

Lord Tredegar, Royal Naval Division

Lord Tredegar, Royal Naval Division

In February 1915, Lord Tredegar was transferred from his RNVR post and command of the Liberty and was attached to the Royal Naval Division, where he was put in charge of recruitment for Wales. Under his command and supervision new recruits were trained at the Crystal Palace, and then served in France and Gallipoli and on the seas. In 1916, The Liberty was sent to the Mediterranean with a full naval and medical crew.

In London, 37 Bryanston Square had become Lady Katharine Tredegar’s town house for some time. She loaned the property to The Royal Flying Corps who opened a Hospital opened in May 1916.  In June 1916 the King sent a gift of wine for the use of the wounded officers there.  The Hospital was the second to open in London specifically for members of the Corps.

After a visit by the King and Queen in 1917, Lady Tredegar, who already had had a ward named after her for her generosity in allowing the use of her house, contributed £375 to cover maintenance of the Hospital for six months and one additional bed.  Before this Lady Tredegar had been a fundraiser for a wide range of causes and often attended galas, concerts and exhibitions in the company of her daughter Gwyneth. 

Gwyneth had entered the war briefly too. The creation of the Wrens attracted her as a modern woman. And she signed up to be an Admiralty driver on the 16th of September 1918. She went on sick leave on the 28th and was discharged as medically unfit on the 6th of November. Five days later the War was over. 

His son and heir, Evan, was in North Africa and had been promoted to full Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. His War had been particularly bizarre, and a flavour of it can be read about here

Lord Tredegar’s time with the Royal Naval Division had come to an end and there were cadet training weekends at Tredegar Park, and inspections of naval recruitment activities, but basically his war was over by the beginning of 1918.


Ruperra Castle


Ruperra Castle is a Grade II* listed building, built for Sir Thomas Morgan in 1626. The site originally belonged to the Lewis family. Mary Lewis married  the up and coming Thomas Morgan who was descended from the Morgan Dynasty of the area.  He became the Earl of Pembroke’s Steward and during James I’s visit to Pembroke’s residence of Wilton in 1623 Thomas was knighted.

Ruperra circa 1684

Ruperra circa 1684

Sir Thomas  decided that his new status required a new residence for himself too. Many of Thomas Morgan’s duties involved representing the Earl in his Welsh interests and he remained at Ruperra. Thomas must have been influenced by the grandeur of Wilton and it is not inconceivable that his duties took him to Lulworth which is very similar to to Ruperra in look and design.

Thomas’ grandson was master of the estate when King Charles I visited in 1645. When the male line failed, Ruperra passed through marriage to the Thomas family of Wenvoe and again into the hands of Sir Charles Kemeys.  During the Duke of Beaufort’s Progress in 1684, Thomas Dinley drew the above, which is the earliest depiction of Ruperra in existence.

John “the Merchant” Morgan was a junior member of the Tredegar House Morgans and had amassed a considerable fortune in London. His purchase of the Ruperra Estate was a demonstration of his influence and power. The local boy having made good returned home to retire at Ruperra.  He bought the Manor and  Lordship of Gwynllwg making him a major figure in South Wales politics and a reminder to all that the Morgans were a still a major force. On his death John’s estate passed to his nephew. In 1763 the two estates of Ruperra and Tredegar had been united again. By the 1780s Ruperra had changed hands several times following a spate of premature deaths.

Ruperra was damaged substantially in 1785 when the castle caught fire. Repairs were made and there were some alterations to the property.

In 1792, the Morgan male line failed and the entire Estate passed to Jane Gould.(nee Morgan) whose husband Charles Gould inherited after agreeing to change his name to Morgan by Royal License.  The role of Ruperra then became  a lesser one. Tredegar House was the main seat of the Morgans and Ruperra tended to be the home of the next in line.

In 1859 the Morgans finally made it into the Upper House, when Charles Morgan Robinson Morgan was made Baron Tredegar.Ruperra 2 He was succeeded by Godfrey who was to remain a bachelor all his life. By the end of the Nineteenth Century although many changes had been made to Tredegar House, little was done to the structure and layout of Ruperra which had become the home of his brother Frederick and his family. The castle was in need of repair and a fire severely damaged the stable block at this time.

RuperraFrederick died in 1909 and Ruperra went to his son Courtenay. Courtenay who had married Lady Katharine Carnegie, daughter of the Earl of Southesk. She doesn’t seem to have taken to Ruperra at all. Some changes were made to try and entice her there; a new entrance and porch on the east side and the stable block was rebuilt,  but all was to no avail.  In 1913 Courtenay’s Uncle Godfrey, Viscount Tredegar, died and he inherited everything. Renovations and modernisations were made to Ruperra, but it was to cease to be a family home as the new Lord Tredegar moved into the family seat. Courtenay died in 1934. His son and heir had little interest in the site.

Ruperra went up for sale in 1935, but no buyer could be found. The House was emptied and the contents were sold off or moved down to Tredegar House or the London residences. During the Second World War Ruperra was billeted and in December 1941 a fire gutted the place. It became a shell and has never been used as a house or home since. In 1962, the year the last Lord Tredegar died, Ruperra Castle was sold to a Mrs Coles for £16,000. It has changed hands several times since then. For a while it became a dairy farm and was bought by the current owner, Mr. Ashraf Barakat, in  1998.

Ruperra 2012The condition of Ruperra had worsened drastically in 1981 when most of the south east tower collapsed. The other towers are in danger of a similar fate too. Something needs to be done to save this important part of our heritage before it disappears completely.

But what is the answer? Mr Barakat had originally purchased with the view to developing the site for housing and other accommodation.  This met with considerable opposition. His application for planning permission was turned down and an appeal was also rejected following a lengthy Inquiry. In 2010 the estate went back on the market for £1.5 million. So far no buyer has been found.

However, Ruperra needs to be used in some way. If it remains as the empty shell we see today it will simply crumble away. However, although it feels as if it is hidden away from view, it is certainly not forgotten. The Ruperra Castle Conservation Trust was set up in 1996 to protect the Castle, its associated buildings and the surrounding estate land, including Coed Craig Ruperra. This is an ancient woodland, surrounding a hill that has been an Iron Age hill fort, a Norman motte & bailey and Ruperra’s Summerhouse.Arboreum at Coed Craig Ruperra

In 2000 the Trust became the Ruperra Conservation Trust in order to help facilitate acquiring Coed Craig Ruperra.  Here is the link for the Trust’s website with news and information on the work the Trust carries out and the story of the site.  http://www.ruperra.org.uk/


There is now also an associated Trust, established in 2008,  which concentrates more on the Castle and associated buildings. The Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust has a website packed with news and information here: http://www.ruperratrust.co.uk

Recently a new website appeared, which may indicate a new direction in the intentions of the owners. The Ruperra Castle Estate website can be found at http://www.ruperra.co.uk/  Whilst applauding any move to take on the improvement and resurrection of the site, there does seem to be a lack of substance to the venture so far. The Preservation Trust also seem to be somewhat sceptical. Time will tell perhaps, but how much time does Ruperra have?

There is more information about the Morgans and Tredegar House on my other Blog at tredegarhouse.wordpress.com

Newport’s Chartist Murals

On the night of the third through to the fourth of November 1839, thousands of workers marched down the Gwent Valleys towards Newport. They were Chartists, fighting for the Peoples Charter which they believed would bring Parliamentary Democracy within the grasp of working men. Others were intent on a wider agenda. Many were armed and they made their way towards Newport’s Westgate Hotel where they believed Chartist prisoners were held. The Hotel also held a detachment of soldiers and special constables. The result was the tragedy that saw troops firing on workers leaving at least twenty two dead and many more wounded. The event has never been forgotten in Newport.

Chartist mural 1

Kenneth Budd was commissioned in 1978 to create a mosaic depicting the Chartist march and battle. The mid-Seventies had seen considerable civic development and part of the plan was to construct a piazza style pedestrian area. This was the creation of John Frost Square (named after the Chartist leader) which was surrounded with concrete buildings of the style so popular at that time. At the southern end was the Newport Museum, Art Gallery and public library. At the northern end a pedestrian tunnel provided access to the Upper Dock Street area. The mural was to adorn the thirty five metre long wall of this tunnel. Budd’s work took the form of a tile mosaic and has become one of Newport’s iconic images, a much loved work of public art and a reminder of the struggle for democracy in Wales and the rest of the UK.

Chartist mural 2

Chartist mural 3

However, just as the mural was born out of urban renewal and redevelopment, it seems it will now be the victim of it. The threat began some years ago during an aborted development plan in 2009. The threat returned with the Friar’s Walk development which requires the demolition of the wall on which the mosaic mural was created.

Newport Council considers that the cost of removing and relocating the mosaic is far too excessive, and began a public consultation process looking at different options. The Council has put aside a £50,000 budget to deal with the problem. One idea is to ‘recreate’ the mural (or a portion of it) inside the Museum’s stairwell. However,  current concerns about that building’s future raises questions about the feasibility of this possibility. Kenneth Budd died in 1995, but the Council approached his son who is also an artist and had worked with his father. Oliver Budd, who holds the copyright to his father’s mosaic, has also been consulted about the possibility of recreating a section of the work himself.

Another idea is to create a piece of sculpture elsewhere in the City, reflecting the themes and message of the existing work. In other words, a different Chartist memorial altogether.

For some, the best option is thought to be the (partial) recreation in the Museum and Library stairwell. This also seems to be the cheapest option, at an estimated £22, 000.  Last Friday (February the 22nd) there was a demonstration calling for the destruction of the mural to be averted.

South Wales Argus Report: Protest is last bid to save Newport’s Chartist mural

It is probably too little too late. However, never say “never”. Those wishing to voice their protest, could do so via an on-line petition at https://www.change.org/en-GB/organisations/save_our_mural

If you want a better look at Newport’s Chartist Mural and can’t get there yourself, BBC Wales has a slideshow http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-17276428

Insole Court in Llandaff

Insole Court has been in the news quite a bit recently. There have been highs and lows, and fortunately the highs have begun to outnumber the lows. Last Summer came the news that Insole Court was to benefit from a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant to help renovate and restore the Court’s Stables for a centre for community activities. Celebrations about the award were marred by thefts at the property. Metal thieves struck several times in a short space of time. Most recently an attack on the roof of the porch would potentially cause rainwater to cause more damage to the property. The cost of theses repairs and replacing lead on the roof could have put restoration work in jeopardy. Then at the beginning of February came the fantastic news that the HLF were awarding a two million pound grant to Insole Court.


Insole Court is a Grade II* listed Victorian mansion, currently owned by Cardiff City Council. The site had been purchased by James Insole in 1855, an architect was engaged and within two years Ely Court (as it was originally called) had been completed. The house was further extended in 1875 and again in 1895.

Insole made his money from coal. He was succeeded by his son George Frederick Insole, who continued extending the house. Gothic styles and the influences of William Burges became more evident. However, this was the peak of the fortunes of the property and its inhabitants. The Great War saw family tragedies and the economic downturn in the inter-war period saw the estate’s gradual decline. The estate was bought by Cardiff Corporation to facilitate developments nearby on the Western Avenue dual carriageway. The remaining members of the Insole family gradually left Wales.

During the Second World War Ely Court was used by a variety of Home Defence bodies. When the war came to an end the property’s fortunes declined quite rapidly. Despite being used as offices and accommodation, the lack of maintenance took its toll and it was closed following Health & Safety Concerns in 1996. The name had already changed from Ely Court to its current  Insole Court.

The current good news is largely due to the efforts of the Friends of Insole Court and their supporters and the campaigning of the Insole Court Trust. Their websites carry information on the Estate and the work they do.



Details of current activities at Insole Court can be found at the Cardiff City Council’s web pages.