By Haydn Davis
© Haydn Davis 2011
Much has been said about Newport’s ‘rich’ heritage but, if the truth be known, there is little evidence of it before the commencement of the 19th Century when about 700 years of little consequence came to an end. Certainly there were no memorable characters and, as is well known, heritage is the child of its creators. The few who deserve a place in the town’s hall of fame do not comprise a very long list.
In the late 18th Century, early surveys began to reveal that the mountains and valleys of west Monmouthshire were rich in iron ore and coal. All that was needed was the expertise to win these valuable resources from the earth and process them. This soon came to hand.
Experienced ironmasters began to arrive from the Midlands and the North. Among them was one, Francis Homfray of Wollaston Hall Worcester, who in 1782 brought his two sons Jeremiah and Samuel, both skilled ironmasters, to take leases on old forges at Cyfartha and to build a new works at Penydarren, Merthyr.
It was not long before the Homfrays negotiated 3,000 acres of the mountain lands from the principal landowner, Charles Morgan of Tredegar and soon afterwards they built the new Tredegar and Ebbw Vale steelworks.
Samuel Homfray, the younger son, owned the Tredegar Ironworks. Becoming very friendly with Charles Morgan, he was soon close enough in 1800 to marry the baronet’s daughter, Jane. From then on, working as one, father-in-law’s shrewd financial motivation combined with son-in-law’s engineering expertise to give added impetus to Monmouthshire’s entry into the Industrial Revolution with Newport as the major beneficiary.
The extremely poor access from the Heads of the Valleys to the wharfs of the River Usk became vastly improved. Sam Homfray allowed his workshops to be used by the Cornish steam pioneer, Richard Trevithick, whose experiments resulted in the old, often impassable horse tram roads being transformed into much more efficient railways for steam-driven wagon trains. In the early course of these experiments, in 1804, Trevethick’s primitive locomotive performed the first recorded example of moving a line of trucks, carrying both freight and passengers, on a nine mile trip down from the valleys.
Between 1796 and 1815 Sam Homfray was deeply involved with Sir Charles Morgan in the introduction of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal which revolutionised the speed with which the products of the remote ironworks reached the jetties of the River Usk.
Sir Charles Morgan died in 1806 and his son, also named Charles and now Sam Homfray’s brother-in-law, took the place of his father in the pioneering partnership with even more vigour. The pair established the Tredegar Wharf Company to which the Tredegar Estate immediately granted a lease of 200 acres of the hitherto useless Pillgwenlly Marshes. Here, once all the shares had been allotted and the full investment assured, the engineers under the supervision of Sam Homfray, moved in and the building of the new suburb of Pillgwenlly began!
It was to be a long, arduous business. The great basin of low-lying marshland, in places as much as nine feet below high tide level, had first to be stabilised by the dumping of heavy ballast before any permanent building could be contemplated. It was to take many years before the levels were considered satisfactory for flood-fee building and it was not until 1832 that the area became a an official part of the town of Newport, almost trebling at a stroke the acreage within the town boundaries!
Samuel Homfray senior died in 1822 and his son, 27 year old and also named Samuel, immediately stepped into his shoes. The old Baronet, Sir Charles Gould Morgan, had died in 1806 so now the new partnership began working together as vigorously as ever their parents had done. Under their able administration Newport thrived in ways that few other places in the early 19th Century were able to achieve, and what had been a shabby, deprived, 18th Century village began its climb into the upper echelons of major, 19th Century, British seaports.
By the 1830s, the new Homfray-inspired tram roads were jammed with steam-drawn trucks carrying iron and coal from the iron works and mines of the Monmouthshire valleys. The canals too were carrying many more thousands of tons of these materials than they were at their inception. A single barge could bring a 25 ton load in a day from Pontypool to Newport – something that once took a week by wagon train!
It all ended up at the River Usk where the wharfage was becoming totally inadequate to cope and the unpredictable tides created havoc with docking schedules.
A partial remedy came with the Newport Dock Bill in 1835, promulgated by a consortium led by Samuel Homfray (now the junior). A grand, new, inland dock, at the time the largest stretch of man-made water in the world, was opened in Pillgwenlly with safe loading and unloading facilities unaffected by the huge tides that had previously so badly influenced turn-around times.
And so it went on, with Sam Homfray the driving force, both as chairman of the Tredegar Wharf Company and long-serving alderman on Newport Borough Council. For the first time, the town acquired a fine, purpose built town hall, the finest cattle market in Britain, dozens of new wharfs on the River Usk, the completion of the new suburb of Pillgwenlly and finally, in 1875, the opening of what was then billed as the as world famous Alexandra Dock.
Samuel Homfray died in 1882 aged 87. Properly regarded as the architect of Newport’s 19th Century good fortune, no plaque or statue has ever been raised to commemorate his life!
In many cases there is only a fine line to be drawn between celebrity and notoriety and it is difficult to say on which side of this line John Frost stands. He is undoubtedly the most well known of Newport’s historic characters if only because he led a riot that brought pain, anger and death to his home town and all but destroyed the genuine cause in which so many believed.
Personal opinions which are many and varied can only be based on the reading of numerous books in which eminent Chartist authors give almost the same forthright opinions.
Born in 1784 at the Royal Oak public house, Thomas Street, Newport, he was brought up by his grandfather, and his informative years were spent in educational apprenticeships in Bristol and London where, in the inns and coffee shops, he listened to the rants of many rebellious students in their attacks on authority and its appalling attitude to the working classes. Many aspects of the recent French Revolution were spoken of with admiration and when young John Frost came home to Newport, he was not prepared to settle down merely as a humble shopkeeper. He put his militant nature fully at the disposal of the poor and downtrodden and often vented his spleen in violent attacks in speech or broadsheet on those that he considered to be oppressors of the ordinary working man.
His rashness drove him to make accusations that he could not substantiate but which earned him heavy fines for libel and one six month jail sentence. Being the popular choice for town councillor (and mayor in 1836) gave him a powerful pulpit from which to spread his seditious activities. He contributed nothing constructive to Newport’s heritage but by some strange quirk of fate he has gone down in the town’s annals as a heroic martyr!
But like most reactionaries he eventually went too far and his career ended in the bloody disaster that he brought down on his home town!
It was inevitable that with his rebellious views and skilled rhetoric he should be drawn into the heart of the great Chartist movement and it was just as inevitable that he should have become accepted as the leader of the Monmouthshire protestors. But from then – from the moment that his insolent bravado caused his name to be struck from the list of justices of the peace – things began to go dangerously wrong!
John Frost was no general. Maybe with his fiery oratory, he could sway a hundred men in the back room of a public house, or even a thousand on a hillside in a valley town, but conduct an army campaign – never! So, under his direction, the planned mass protest by the men of the valleys was on shaky ground right from the start! Leaving aside the effects that the dreadful weather on that fateful night were to have, the whole sorry debacle was a chapter of errors of judgement with John Frost in the forefront of those to blame.
First of all, he and his co-conspirator lieutenants were said to be confidently expecting as many as 20,000 marchers to make the journey down to Newport. In the event, only about 5,000 did so, after a large number deserted and the men of the Merthyr Valley and the colliers of the Forest of Dean refused the invitation to co-operate.
He also had a misguided belief that many soldiers of the British Army were in sympathy with the cause and would treat the demonstration with great restraint. This idea was widely spread among the Chartists.
Finally, he was responsible for halting his section of the marchers for nearly six hours at the Cefn, Rogerstone , thus disrupting carefully laid plans, causing such late arrival at the Westgate Hotel in Newport, destroying the element of surprise and causing his fifth column, already in the town, not to receive the signal to take vital action!
Whilst always preaching the virtues of pacific protest and his dislike of violence to gain a point, he eventually led a great civilian army, armed to the teeth, against the forces of the Crown. By his actions on that catastrophic day, he confuted his committed beliefs when on his arrest he was found to be in possession of three pistols and a large amount of ammunition!
So what were the highlights, if any, of John Frost’s career?
Well, he spent all his early life campaigning against the wrongs inflicted on the working classes by their greedy, wealthy employers. His constant agitation and growing frustration at his lack of success caused him to make erratic decisions, the worst of which was to lead a number of innocent men of the valleys to their deaths, severe injury or imprisonment.
Many of his contemporaries believed that he brought shame on the town. He was blamed for blacking the reputation of the otherwise worthy Chartist movement. Most vociferous in attacking him and the rising that he led, was a large proportion of Newport’s 19th Century citizenry, most of the English Chartist lodges, the main Chartist newspaper, ‘The Western Vindicator’ and all the senior members of the London Workingmen’s Association who, from the very founding of their organisation, had always condemned violence.
It is a fact that five of the six points of the People’s Charter did become statutory within the next 80 years but most of today’s researchers into 19th Century Chartism – not, may I add, many of those in Wales where a certain amount of bias must be expected -- have reached the conclusion that the Monmouthshire Chartist Riot, mainly described as a ‘minor skirmish’, was an unmitigated disaster that did untold damage to the national cause!
Whether John Frost’s thoughtless, headstrong participation at the roots of the South Wales rebellion was a helpful or damaging factor in Newport’s ambitions; it certainly had the effect of putting the town on the 19th Century map, but for all the wrong reasons!
Today he is without doubt, the most well known of Newport’s historic characters but whether this entitles him to a place of honour or ignominy is the subject of much discussion. The strange thing is that whilst John Frost and his Chartist Riot received such severe disapprobation during the rest of the 19th Century, his reputation has experienced a remarkably but unaccountably sanctified renaissance from the 20th Century onwards!
(Author’s note) It does seem rather odd that no one of my ancient generation, that I have ever met, appears to have been taught about John Frost or this period of Chartist history at school and that his name was unfamiliar to most until it was given to the main square of the town in the 1970s! One can only suppose that suddenly, about 40 years ago, it occurred to a town preparing itself for a city status campaign, that historical colour was sadly lacking and needed some unusual occasion to ginger it up. Consequently, a terrible calamity was the choice and John Frost was transformed from mainly forgotten, agitator and rebel into a jolly good chap!
Take your pick..........saint or sinner?
Margaret Haig Thomas, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda was born in 1883, the only child of David Alfred Thomas and Sybil Haig. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, colliery owner and Member of Parliament for the Merthyr Valleys.
Growing up, she proved to be a headstrong girl and, having a mother and two aunts who were ardent members of the suffragette movement, it seemed only natural for her to follow suit. She became one of the most militant of members.
In 1908 she married Sir Humphrey, 7th Baronet, Mackworth going to live with him at Glen Usk House, Caerleon. Sir Humphrey’s old fashioned brand of liberalism did not take kindly to his wife’s extreme political beliefs and actions which caused him continuous, acute embarrassment!
Margaret Thomas Mackworth, now Lady Mackworth, fell foul of the law on several occasions. In 1913, she was arrested in Newport and charged with ‘setting fire to a pillar box at Risca Road and burning all the letters’. For this she was fined ten pounds. Refusing to pay, she was sent to Usk Jail for one month and immediately went on a hunger strike. After four days and in a very weak condition, she was released, her fine being paid anonymously! A year later, in 1914, she was sentenced in London to one day in the cells for holding an unruly meeting outside the House of Commons!
For some years she had worked closely as her father’s secretary. As Minister for Food in Lloyd George’s war time government, David Thomas went to the USA in 1916 to negotiate munition supplies and to oversee his coal interests in Pennsylvania.. Margaret accompanied him and on the way back their ship, the Lusitania, was sunk by a German U-boat with the loss of over 1400 passengers and crew. The Thomases, father and daughter, survived - she after spending several hours in the water clinging to a wicker chair - until being picked up by the steamer ‘Bluebell’. (See also this article)
That same year, David Thomas was ennobled as First Baron Rhondda and, as in those days females could not inherit titles, special arrangements were made by Lloyd George for his old friend’s only daughter to succeed her father as baroness in her own right. In 1918, Baron Rhondda was elevated to the rank of viscount with the same terms of heredity for his daughter. Only two weeks afterwards he died and Margaret succeeded him as Second Viscountess Rhondda.
As the law stood in those days, women were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords so Margaret was refused a seat.
So far, her life of continuous confrontation with authority and her hard-headed approach to her own life had stretched her relations with her husband (and most of the rest of the male hierarchy) to breaking point. On one occasion she brought home Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter, Christabel, Sir Humphrey ordered her from his house! In 1922 she and her husband, the couple were divorced and from there on she forged a very successful life for herself in the business world.
In 1920, Margaret, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, founded the magazine ‘Time and Tide’ of which she remained managing editor for the next 38 years. Eventually she was a director on the boards of over 40 companies!
She campaigned unceasingly for women peeresses to have the right to a seat in the House of Lords but when the law was finally changed in 1958 it came too late for her, for that was the year in which she died. Her remains were interred at Llanwern Church.
In 1943 she had offered her stately residence, Llanwern House, Llanwern , to the National Trust but the offer was refused. She no longer lived there (she owned two other houses at Guildford and in London) and Llanwern House was costly and difficult to maintain and steadily deteriorating into a decaying state. In the late 1950s, it was demolished by the simple expedient of allowing the Territorial Army Royal Engineers to use it as an exercise in demolition!
Not so well known in today’s Newport, David Llewellyn Harding was born in 1867 at the Church House Inn, St Brides Wentloog – not in those days within the Borough of Newport although it is today. He was destined to become one of Newport’s few offspring to achieve international recognition in a career that spanned stage, silent screen, talking pictures and radio.
When he left the village school, he was apprenticed to Robert Little, a Newport draper in whose shop he performed his duties quite adequately, but it was for his extra-mural activities in poetry and recitation that he became better known.
His parents fully expected him to become a preacher and were bitterly disappointed when he chose the stage. After seeing him perform, his father was heard to remark: ‘I have been in Hell tonight!’
Later, he went to work in Cardiff, still in the drapery business, but found better use for his vocal prowess in a drama club where he learned enough stagecraft at the age of 23 to become a professional actor with the Bristol Theatre Royal Company. The year was 1890!
Taking the stage name, ‘Lynn Harding’, he went from strength to strength until he was featuring regularly in the famous theatres of the West End, sharing stages with such greats as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Anthony Quayle. He seemed to favour villainous roles to which his deep, resounding voice was particularly suited. He played Svengali, Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes, Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist on Broadway and when he was nearly 80 years of age he played Owain Glyndwr in Shakespeare’s Henry VII on BBC Radio.
Lyn Harding often returned to his home village of St Brides, even at the height of his career, giving short performances in aid of various village affairs and local charities, especially those for poor children.
He died in 1952 at the age of 85 after a long illness.
They both lived in the same generation, were brought up in identically named public houses (although miles apart) and eventually both became leaders in their own artistic fields but there was absolutely no other similarity between the early lives of Lyn Harding and William Henry Davies. The former was brought up by loving, church-going parents in the pleasant surroundings of a tiny rural hamlet while the latter had to almost fend for himself in the very tough, shabby, dockyard area of a growing town.
WH Davies was born at No 6 Portland Street Newport on 3rd July 1871. His father died just two years later, his mother remarried and left young William, his older brother and younger sister in the care of their maternal grandparents who ran the nearby Church House Inn at 14 Portland Street.
It appears that in some way Davies was related to the famous Victorian actor, Sir Henry Irving, referred to in the Davies family as ‘Cousin Brodrib’ (Irving’s family birth name).
As a boy growing up in the riverfront environs of Pillgwenlly, he was no better than most and, if all the stories are to be believed, often a considerably worse denizen of the rough and notorious suburb. He was an habitual truant from school, a ringleader who always had a gang with which to plague the streets, a thief and no mean stand-up fighter. Shoplifting seemed to be his speciality and he left school in disgrace after being given twelve strokes of the birch for that same offence!
At the age of 15, his grandmother placed him as an apprentice to a local maker of picture frames but he could not apply himself to such mundane work. Another job in ironmongery affected him in the same way. His path in life led elsewhere and he soon came to realise it.
If there was one thing that William Henry’s rough and ready education had given him, it was a remarkable eloquence in the use of words. He read many books on many subjects well into each night, always polishing his own eager style. He discovered that he had a natural aptitude for sketching and this, in turn, made him seek places of peace and colour where nature provided ideal backcloths against which to outline his subjects. The grey lacklustre of Pillgwenlly was often abandoned for the greener and sunnier places with which other suburbs abounded. Alltyryn was his particular favourite.
He became much travelled within the county but eventually even the wider horizons of Gwent became too confining driving him, in 1893 at the age of 22, to set his cap at the world and by way of the Port of Bristol, he commenced the journeying that was to earn him the name as Britain’s ‘Supertramp’ poet!
It is not generally known that, working on cattle boats, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times!
He travelled widely in the United States and it is doubtful that he would have survived in some of the desolate regions and such desperate company where his wanderings led him had he not retained some of that ruffianly quality acquired during his early youth. He became one of the great tide of down-and-outs that washed back and forth on the North American continent. He was a hobo and a bum and as uncouth and drunken as any!
Finally, back home in Britain, reading about the Klondike Gold Rush and the riches to be made there, he decided to seek his fortune and he was off again!
His quest was short-lived! Attempting to ride the rails one day in 1899 at Renfrew Ontario, he missed his footing and fell. A wheel passed over his right leg which had to be amputated below the knee. This put paid to his prospecting days and returned him prematurely to home pastures.
He had not enhanced his personal fortune one iota – in fact he was now totally broke – but he was enriched by the thousands of thoughts and visions conveyed to grubby, curled-up notebook in the loneliness and awesome splendour of the great North West.
Once he had got himself home, with a false leg fitted, he continued his nomadic way of life earning his crust by hawking, sometimes selling one or two of his own creations – a sketch here, a piece of verse there! He came back to Monmouthshire on many occasions but rarely to Newport as he had apparently offended his relations or they him!
For some time he led a very rough life in the doss houses of London, all the while trying to gain some prestige from his writings, but growing more angry and frustrated by many rejections. He used what little he had in savings, and borrowed cash to obtain private publication; he sent copies of all his works right to the doorsteps of some of the great literary names of the day.
In 1907, George Bernard Shaw wrote the preface to Davies’ most famous work: ‘The Diary of a Super Tramp’ and from that moment on things began to look up, leading to many more successful publications and close association with most of the leading artists and literati of the day.
From 1905 through to the 1930s, Davies lived at places in Kent and London, mostly poor, run-down properties – one a vermin-ridden apartment in Bloomsbury in a house once occupied by Charles Dickens – but eventually, as his prospects improved, so did the quality of his residences. After moving away from Newport, he returned for only a few fleeting visits and the last of these was in 1938 for the unveiling of a ceramic plaque on the wall of the Church House Inn – wrongly stating it to be his birthplace although thought to be of little consequence at the time.
Over the next two years, already suffering sorely from acute rheumatism and other ailments he suffered two heart attacks, no doubt as a result of the weakening caused over the years by dragging his wooden leg up hill and down dale.
During his lifetime, he produced something like 800 written works and personally read many of them in a series of 14 broadcasts made on BBC Radio.
William Henry Davies, Newport’s little tramp poet, died on 26th September 1940.
Over 30 years after his death, he did get a monument to his memory. Standing prominently in the centre of Commercial Street, it does not do the city any favours and many think it is an insult to the man himself!
Discernible as a human being only from the waist down, the upper portion appears as a grotesque creature, its true identity hidden in the folds of a ghoulish shroud – certainly not the sort of memorial one expects from a city proud of one of its more gifted sons. Very few of its viewers seem to understand the message it is supposed to convey or what could have been going on in the warped minds of the members of the committee which foisted it on the city. It does however without doubt provide a topic of conversation, but only of the most adverse kind, carried on in an extreme air of perplexity. It is a great pity and to Newport’s eternal shame that the town’s greatest visionary and most brilliant wordsmith has been commemorated through the medium of a sculpture depicting a headless monster. Old William Henry must be turning in his grave! The most famous poem produced by WH Davies was ‘Leisure’ and with apologies to the great man, it is suggested that a new plate be attached to his statue, irreverently parodying the first and most often quoted two lines thus: “What is this life, if full of care, a blindfold means we cannot stare.”
Born September 13th 1890, John Michael Basham was a poor boy but as so often happens when fate chooses to endow a rare talent, it also adds the ingredients required to overcome adversity of background. This was certainly true of Johnny Basham!
While still a young ragamuffin, newspaper boy, he began to display some of the skills that were to lead him to a world of riches and nationwide acclaim. Larking about with his street pals and sparring playfully with future workmates proved to the astonished youngster that he could beat anyone who squared up to him. In a very short time he was looking for stronger opposition, and he found it initially in fairground boxing booths where he collected a few shillings, numerous bruises and, what was more important, a lot of valuable ring craft.
His physical appearance could not be said to be impressive: of medium height, slim, spindly armed and ribby might have been an apt description but hidden away in that innocuous looking frame was the most amazing agility and lightning punching power. No wonder then that he could produce a showy, entertaining style drawing large, admiring crowds at all his exhibitions and prize fights.
At age twenty four the First World War claimed him for the army and by then he had become a nationally recognised boxer with a long string of impressive successes to his name.
On December 14th 1914, at the National Sporting Club, Johnny Basham took the British Welterweight title from Johnny Summers. In 1915 he was victorious in defence of his title and the following year he defeated another challenger to retain the title and to become the first British boxer at his weight to win a Lonsdale Belt outright.
There was no doubt whatsoever in the minds of the boxing fraternity that, but for the war, Johnny would have earned far greater laurels becoming well known in the United States and seriously contending for world titles. However, his career had to take second place to his job as sergeant physical training officer in the British Expeditionary Force in France. Having fulfilled that duty his return to civilian life was marked by a long run of successes leading up to May 24th 1921 when he became British and European Middleweight Champion by beating Gus Platts in a 20 round thriller!
This should have been the zenith of his career but the cheering had hardly died away when he came up against the man he was never able to beat in several meetings, and the jinx lived on! On October 14th 1921 he was stopped by Ted Kid Lewis and his titles taken away from him.
From that time on the Basham story continued in a much more subdued manner but even if the bright lights were dimmed somewhat, the magic of his flashing fists and dancing feet remained in sufficient measure to enable him to give lessons to up and coming youngsters and to delight the crowds which for years afterwards flocked to see this boxing legend.
Sadly the story did not end in rich rewards. Johnny had earned a fortune in his time but lack of sound financial advice and an over-generous nature combined to drain away his resources. Charities benefitted extensively from his donations and he was the softest of touches to anyone who professed to have a problem curable only by the handing over of a pound note or a sovereign!
Despite the rough nature of his calling and the tough implication of his surname, Johnny Basham was ever the gentleman of the mischievous sense of humour and the darling of the people of Newport. Who of those who were privileged to be present will ever fail to remember the scene on Newport Athletic’s rugby ground towards the end of the Second World War?
The Heavyweight of the World, the ‘Brown Bomber’, Joe Louis, then a member of the United States Army, had just finished an exhibition bout when a small cloth-capped figure clambered into the ring. It took but a second or two for recognition to dawn but as the glistening Lonsdale Belt was held aloft a huge roar rose from the packed crowd. This was one of those all-time, show-stopping moments and it was etched for posterity by the sight of the giant American holding aloft the hand of the aging, diminutive Newport boxer as a tribute from one great champion to another!
The pity of it all is that the most important, visible sign of the Basham triumphs, the Lonsdale Belt that he had owned for 33 years, had to be sold and was allowed to leave the town for some unknown destination instead of remaining as a permanent monument to one of Newport’s finest ambassadors!
John Michael Basham died on June 7th 1947.
Another of Newport’s sons was destined to reach heights far beyond the expectation of anyone born of humble origins. Like Johnny Basham, his contemporary although fourteen years his junior, he too was a Pill boy and knew the feel of cobbled paving under his bare feet. His achievement of fame and fortune came by following an entirely different route.
James Henry Thomas was born at 51 George Street on October 3rd 1875. At the age of five it cost a penny a week to send him to St Pauls National School, rising to twopence on his seventh birthday. Little Jimmy, so-called because of his lack of height and weedy build, was one of the poorer children, easily identified by his worn-out, multi-patched clothing and almost non-existing footwear.
At the age of nine he obtained a job as a part-time errand boy and sweeper-up at a chemist’s shop in Commercial Street where he worked from 7am to 9am, attending school until lunch time, doing another stintat the shop and then working after afternoon school until 6.30pm. On Saturdays he often worked a 16 hour day – all for four shillings a week!
Leaving school at age twelve he carried on for two years as dogsbody in a draper’s shop.
His father was a railwayman and as the family lived in a concentrated railway area, just across the tracks from Dock Street Station, engine sheds and freight yards, it was a natural progression for a fourteen-year-old Pill lad to follow.
Small and puny he may have been, but what he lacked in stature was more than made up for by a powerful voice, unbending determination or stubborn streak, call it what you will, and a modicum of belligerence – common enough traits in those whose size regularly made them the butt of jokes and targets for the bully.
It was only a question of time before Jimmy’s ability to defend himself led to his standing up fearlessly for others, and at fifteen years of age he brought all the engine cleaners out on a day’s strike over a management cut-back in the supply of cleaning materials. He won this dispute and was immediately earmarked as a spokesman for the workers, a role he easily assumed for the rest of his railway career.
James Thomas, active trade unionist and powerful orator, became the first General Secretary of of the National Union of Railwaymen when it was founded in 1918. He saw as his ultimate ambition nothing more than becoming an engine driver. Never in his wildest dreams could he have foreseen life beyond that much less the fairy tale that was about to unfold!
A job transfer to Swindon was seen by some as a ploy to remove a thorn from the side of the South Wales management, but it did no more than widen Jimmy Thomas’ interest and point him in the direction of local politics. In a very short space of time he was made a Freeman of Newport, Mayor of Swindon and, in 1924, Member of Parliament for Derby, entering the Cabinet as Colonial Secretary. The four shillings a week ragamuffin from George Street, Pill now held one of the highest positions in the land!
After the 1929 General Election which returned another Labour Government, he was once more a cabinet minister but now as Lord Privy Seal with special powers for reducing unemployment. In the 1931 National Government that followed he was Secretary of State for the Dominions and once more Colonial Secretary. His salary was in the region of £5,000 a year and he lived in a £15,000 luxury house at Ferring in Sussex.
His flamboyance, love of entertaining and the many official functions that demanded his attendance in the company of high ranking personages (kings, presidents etc) meant that most of his public appearances were made in evening dress – hence his nickname ‘Boiled Shirt Jimmy’!
By 1936, James H Thomas had reached a pinnacle denied to most men. But overnight his world crumbled about him.
A short time before Budget Day (April 21st) the Chancellor of the Exchequer briefed the Cabinet on the provisions of the Budget and somehow information was leaked from these top secret meetings.
A tribunal was set up to seek the source of the leak. At the hearings it was established that two millionaire business men, both close friends of Jimmy Thomas, had, only a short time before, taken out insurances against a rise of 3d in the pound of income tax and 2d in tax on the price of tea. Furthermore it emerged on questiong that the Thomas house in Sussex had been purchased outright by means of a huge loan made by one of the friendly millionaires whereby it did not require repayment! No connection was proved between these events but inevitably conclusions were drawn.
The Tribunal had not reported by 22nd May but on that day Jimmy Thomas resigned his post as Colonial Secretary and so ended eight successive years in the Cabinet and his membership of five Cabinets in all!
Ten days later the Tribunal announced that it had exonerated every member of the Cabinet except Jimmy Thomas. Its findings were ‘that unauthorised disclosures on Budget secrets were made by Mr J. H. Thomas, ex Colonial Secretary, to both Sir Alfred Butt and Mr Alfred Bates who both made use of the information for their private gain’.
On 11th June 1936 the great dream ended. He who had had within his grasp more power than any other Newport man in history and was looked upon by some as a future prime minister, stood and announced to a deathly silent House, his resignation from the Government. Then bowing to the Speaker, Jimmy Thomas, his career in ruins, left the floor of the House which for so many years had been the scene of so many of his greatest achievements, and passed quietly into anonymous retirement.
He died in 1949 at Dulwich in London.
So there you have it: the sum total of Newport’s notable celebrities appears to be no more than five and all of them Victorians! Of course, there may have been others in the dim and more distant past. In any case, they would only have been well known parochially and then, as far as we can gather, only for their violence, cruelty or corruption.
But is that a voice somewhere calling out “What about Sir Henry Morgan?”
Well, he has been deliberately excluded because, strictly speaking he was not of Newport! And he was not really a pirate or buccaneer: he only achieved this reputation for a short period by accident!
For most of his seagoing career, he was a privateer which meant that he was privately contracted by the Crown to raid and capture ships belonging to enemies of the King. As during most of the 17th Century Britain was at war with Spain, Henry Morgan’s actions against that country’s vessels were legally carried out. On one brief occasion a peace treaty was signed but the news failed to reach the Caribbean in time to stop Morgan carrying out a further series of attacks which were technically acts of piracy on the high seas and thus, as already mentioned, Henry Morgan became a buccaneer!
Spain protested and Morgan was recalled to England for punishment. He was given a mild rebuke and returned to the Caribbean with a knighthood and promotion as Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. The Spanish King was not amused!
Much of his early history has the mark of legend about it. The only thing that is certain is that he was born at Llanrumney, a small village nearer to Cardiff than Newport and today actually in Cardiff itself. There is no firm evidence that he was related in any way to local nobility, in fact many historians hold the opinion that he was merely a son of one of the Tredegar Estate’s Llanrumney smallholders. Morgan was, after all, among the more common names to be found in South Monmouthshire! That he left home at about 17 years of age and made his way to Bristol to seek his fortune, would seem to add weight to the idea of humble beginnings.
The ruffianly portrait of him, hanging in Tredegar House, was only purchased in 1960 and the claim made in one of Newport’s town guides in the 1990s, that he sailed his ship up the River Usk in order to visit his family, at Tredegar House, is probably the most preposterous claim of all!
So he was not really a buccaneer, he was not born in Newport, there is no reliable evidence that he was related to local nobility or that he ever set foot in South Wales again after he left. Any connections with the area that he may have originally had were tenuous indeed and that is why he does not feature in this list of local celebrities!