In the fifteenth century Newport was not a customs port, and information on its early maritime history is scarce.
The core of the medieval town was split in two by the town pill, and a map of 1752 by Thomas Thorpe shows the ‘key’ at the entrance of the pill, on its south bank. The pill may even have been navigable for small boats up to the High Street, since in 1928 part of what were thought to be a rudder and a rib from a barge, together with fourteenth century pottery were found during building work for the National Provincial Bank (now NatWest). [ 1 ]
The River Usk has a large tidal variation and ships would have moored at the town quay on the town pill (or by the riverbank or in the tidal creeks) on the high tide. There they would remain stranded until the following high tide. The Usk served not only the port of Newport but also the medieval port of Caerleon, four miles upriver. The Cistercian Abbey at Llantarnam also had its own landing stage at Pill Mawr, between Newport and Caerleon, where it could export wool or other goods. At one time the river was navigable beyond the town of Usk and as late as 1801 William Coxe refers to the tide flowing to Tredunnoc, where timber was conveyed in barges to Caerleon and Newport.
Much more is known about medieval maritime trade in South Wales as a whole. Trade in the Severn would have been dominated by Bristol. Many of the Welsh ports, including Newport and Caerleon, sent wool, hides and cloth to Bristol in small boats. ‘Staple ports’ such as Bristol and Carmarthen were responsible for the collection of custom dues on the export of certain goods, including wool. These goods were known as ‘staples’. The Abbot of Tintern was a member of the staple in Bristol and ‘Welsh cloth’ provided russet for poor folk in Bristol. Chepstow was included in the headport of Bristol from September 1346 and Chepstow merchants exported cloth to Spain and Portugal during the reign of Richard II. In 1386 wheat from Newport, Bristol and Chepstow was exported ‘in a Spanish ship’ to support John of Gaunt in an expedition to Castille. The major import during the autumn was the wine trade from Bordeaux and Gascony. However with the loss of Bordeaux as an English possession in 1453 this trade suffered severely. [ 2 ]
For the rest of South Wales, apart from Chepstow, the staple port for the collection of customs was at Carmarthen, which was made the sole staple for Wales in 1353. In 1397 John Banham, burgess of Newport-on-Usk, was shipping wool through the Carmarthen staple. Some Newport ships are known. In 1440 a ship called ‘the Swan’ had its home port at Newport. In 1461 ‘the Trinity’ of Newport was taking cloth from Bristol to Ireland, and in 1480 ‘the Christopher’ of Newport was carrying fish from Ireland to Bristol. [ 3 ]
Jeremy Knight refers to the accounts for the repairs to Newport Castle. In 1447 stone was shipped to Newport from Bristol and Penarth. The accounts show that the stone was landed at ‘the south end of the Shirehall’. The location of the medieval Shirehall may have been near the town quay, although as already mentioned the Hundred House is described as being built above the West Gate in 1444.
There are other references to the ‘Cinderhill’, and Cinderhill Wharf was still in existence in the twentieth century, close to where the medieval quay once was. Iron slag was found on the river bed beneath the Newport Medieval Ship. This ship has been discussed elsewhere, but there is no evidence it ever traded with Newport, and it was probably towed to Newport in 1468/9 for an attempted repair. [ 4 ]
1. Newport Museum accession number NPTMG 1984.34
2. Carus-Wilson, E. ‘The Overseas Trade of Bristol’ in Power & Poston (editors), English Trade in the Fifteenth Century gives a general summary. (1933). See also Reeves 1979 for further references.
3. Carus-Wilson, E. The Overseas Trade of Bristol In the later Middle Ages (Bristol 1937) 209 and 256
Bob Trett 2010