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The Coming of Age 1870 - 1880
Into the seventies with a proposal by the Mayor, Mr. T. Beynon for a free library to be established in Newport. The suggestion that the Athenaeum premises should be used for this purpose caused a rumpus amongst the members of that august institution. In April 1870 however a free library was opened -in the Athenaeum.
The Reverend A.R. Blundell, curate of St. Woolos, was creating a stir about the rental of pews in that church, whereas in the new church at Gold Tops, later to be known as St. Mark's, it had been decided to ignore pew rents entirely and leave all the seats free. The Reverend gentleman lamented that the sittings at St. Woolos were mainly in the hands of the rich. Ecclesiastical Law enabled holders to exercise exclusive rights of property even in a place designed for public worship. It was explained to him that some years previously money was raised for the renovation of the church, and that commitments relating to the pews entered into at that time should be honoured. However, he was somewhat mollified to learn that a Parliamentary Bill was being prepared making seats in all parish churches free.
The great Alexandra Dock was now under construction and many of the navvies connected with this project were at the moment out of work and destitute. An appeal was therefore raised by the Rev. J. Tinson Wrenford, Vicar of St. Paul's for more money for the soup kitchens which his helpers were operating. He stated that in the last two weeks 170 navvies had received relief to the tune of 2000 quarts of soup and 1000 pounds of bread.
A letter to the Star of Gwent by a nineteenth century eccentric suggested that to lessen the distance by steamship from Newport to London, a canal should be cut from Burnham-on-Sea to Exeter and thus avoid the long haul around Land's End. Another letter in the same paper by a man whose opinion can only be admired deserves to be quoted in full:
I am a voter in the West Ward and a very nervous man. I do not see why I should be bothered by the solicitations of canvassers. I was at my dinner on Thursday last when two gentlemen called upon me on behalf of Mr. Spittle. My gastronomics were disturbed by that call; the liver itself - ay, the liver, Sir, was put out of order in consequence; bile actually overflowed and my dinner was spoilt. Why should these canvassers call on me with pencil poised. We must agitate against canvassers altogether, we must get rid of this ogre of electioneering."
The Council were informed that a man named Rees of No.11 Friars' Fields had refused to give up his house for demolition as the lease on it had another three months to run but he was prepared to sell it for £5. The Borough Surveyor was instructed to offer him a reasonable compensation and if he wouldn't accept it then he would be liable for delapidations. Dens were being cleared from this notorious area as the leases fell in. It was stated that it was the finest building site in the town and a suggestion was made to put the main Post Office there. Most of the area had by now been cleared and was used for preaching, without fear of being molested.
A leading article in the Star of Gwent related to the Stow Fair which had been an annual event in Newport for many years but had recently been abolished by the Council:
"Stow Fair in its prime was simply an abomination. It was the carnival of Newport; it was the den where the unsuspecting were tempted and perchance drawn to destruction. Stow Fair had a character of its own and there was no use in perpetuating an institution, the only effect of which was to contaminate the morality of the whole district. Stow Fair is dead."
Henry Vincent was back in town. This one-time Chartist was lecturing on the Franco-Prussian War. As an eminent orator he was much sought after. He spoke in the Victoria Hall which was filled to capacity with an enthusiastic audience, many of whom were too young to remember his incarceration in Monmouth Gaol before the Chartist Insurrection.
The grocers of Newport were highly indignant about their hours of work. Not being allowed to shut shop at 3 p.m. on Thursday, they were complaining that they had little leisure time. They opened at 7.30 a.m. and closed at 6.30 p.m., a total working week of eighty hours.
One day in 1874 a train arrived at the station on board which were Mr. Thomas Phillips and his family who were moving to Newport. One of his sons was carrying a rugby football - the first ever seen in the town. Although the Welsh Football Union, the forerunners of the W.R.U., had just been formed, Newportonians had no idea what the game of rugby was about, and were not particularly interested in this oval leather football. It was fortunate that some enterprising men, having heard that Swansea and Llanelly had already formed clubs, decided to hold a meeting in the Dock Street Brewery to discuss the matter of a town football team. It was decided to apply to the Football Association for fixtures but these proved impossible to obtain. However, towards the end of the season a fixture was obtained with the Glamorgan Rugby Football Club and on April 5th 1815 the game was played at Cardiff. The match was drawn, for though the Glamorgan team scored a try and a touch down to nothing, at that time a goal had to be scored or a match was drawn. From that date was the beginning of Newport Rugby Football Club and the fame of the name of Newport for evermore in the annals of Rugby Football.
Once they had turned to Rugby the Newport Club commenced to build a team and obtain fixtures. Home games were played on the Marshes (now Shaftesbury Park) but when the pitch was flooded, as was often the case, the matches were transferred to a field at Maindee. This was a most unsatisfactory situation and a new permanent ground was sought. Meanwhile the 1875-76 season was underway and the continued success of the team aroused such great public interest, that towards the end of the season, the last match against Cardiff attracted four hundred spectators. This was the first of Newport's four invincible seasons in the seventies, the others being 1876-77, 77-78 and 78-79. The first year of the South Wales Challenge Cup was 1877-78. This competition did a great deal to make the game popular in the Principality and Newport were the first winners of the cup.
By 1877 negotiations were well under way with Lord Tredegar for the rental of land on the east side of the river, and were successfully concluded by Christmas of that year, when the Club entered into possession on a yearly tenancy, which was increased to a full lease about ten years later. While these negotiations had been in hand the first match was played on the new ground against the Glamorgan Rifles on 13th October 1877, being the opening match of the season 1877-78, during which Newport played sixteen matches, winning fifteen and drawing one.
On 27th July 1877 the news reached Newport that the old Chartist, John Frost, had died at his daughter's home in Bristol at the grand old age of 93. After sixteen years exile in Van Diemen's Land, he had returned to his native country a changed man in many respects from the man who, at the age of fifty six, had stood in the dock at Monmouth. In spite of his sentence he was remarkably vigorous for his age. He was changed both in his moral and religious condition, having been sceptical in early life, he had now turned his attention to the Scriptures and on his return he avowed himself a believer in Christ and lived the remainder of his life in that faith. It is interesting to note that he outlived all the principal personages at his trial, including Lord Chief Justice Tindal, the jury and the advocates for the defence and prosecution. He also outlived his arch enemy Thomas Prothero and also Sir Charles Morgan, both of whom had predeceased him by many years.
Thus ended the life of a famous son of Newport, a humane and kindly man, who fought for the under-privileged with the pen, but was useless with the sword. A man who against his better judgement was persuaded to lead an uncontrollable mob into his home town and at the first sound of firing fled. A man who chose the wrong course and in the process committed High treason against the Queen.
The winter of 78-79 was one of the worst on record; snow still lay heavily on the ground in late February when Newport played Clifton at home, winning by one goal and a try to the visitors' nil. The victory was marred by an outbreak of hooliganism after the game. According to the Star of Gwent: "Roughs and cultured mingling together pelted with snowballs old and young alike; Magistrates sober and staid; policemen officious and bumptious; the Clifton boys stalwart and muscular; children young and tender; all fell in for a share of the uncouth and unpleasant treatment. Snowballing may be invigorating and to some a pleasing pastime but those unfortunate to be on the receiving end cannot be said to view it with much favour. The Magistrates and policemen in question did not admire the play, while the Clifton lads did not consider it a kindly welcome to Newport."
At this time of year the town was bleak and uninviting; much unemployment and poverty caused great distress to many of the inhabitants. The Mayor established a Newport Relief Fund and soup kitchens were provided for the needy. There were complaints that every hundred yards or so one was accosted by men, women and children soliciting alms. Coal stealing was on the increase and many children were involved. Magistrates looking at the youth of the culprits before them, invariably treated them leniently and merely ordered them to undergo a short imprisonment in the cells and a whipping.
Magistrates fined Susannah Harrhy, a grocer in business in Commercial Road, the sum of fifteen pounds for selling an abominable compound called "butterine". The Borough Analyst said that it contained only five per cent butter and the remaining ninety five parts consisted of varieties of grease and other deleterious materials.
On the 11th July 1879 Lieutenant Barton and a party of men, who were engaged in correcting the ordnance survey map of Christchurch, were waiting at the top of Fairoak Avenue for the arrival of the last of their number, ex-sergeant John Byrnes, a man between forty and fifty years of age who had been awarded the Victoria Cross while serving with the Durham Light Infantry. He left his lodgings at No.7 Crown Street at 8 a.m. and on joining the survey party put down some implements he had been carrying, took a six chamber revolver from his pocket pointed it at John Watts aged 19, another member of the party, and shot him. The bullet merely grazed the young man' s shoulder causing a slight flesh wound. Byrnes then placed the revolver close to his own right ear and pulled the trigger but the chamber failed to fire. No one attempted to touch him and he turned on his heels and coolly walked back to his lodgings with the gun still in his hands. The police having been informed, Sergeant McGrath and P.C. Conway went to Byrnes' abode where he was seen standing in the passage and threatening to shoot the first man who advanced near him. Wisely the policemen retreated into the street where a considerable crowd had gathered. At 7.30 p.m. the police made a second attempt to arrest him. They burst open the front door but as they advanced to seize Byrnes he calmly put the revolver in his mouth and blew his head off. An inquiry was made of his fellow workers who declared that they knew of no reason for this dispute between Byrnes and Watts. Later at the inquest it was stated that Byrnes had gained the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Inkerman, during the Crimean War, when he rescued a comrade while under intense fire. He was known to be illiterate. The jury came to the conclusion that he had been insane.
In the Star of Gwent of the 14th November 1879 the death
was announced of Major General Edward William Deddington Bell V.C. in
Dublin. It may be recalled that at the election riots in Newport of 1868
this gentleman, then a colonel, ordered the soldiers under his command
to charge the rioters with fixed bayonets and that a woman called Mary
Grant was killed, a number of others being injured. This incident does
not appear to have blighted the Major General's career for he had been
in command of the army in Ireland for some years. He won his V.C. in the
Crimea when he captured a Russian gun single handed with an empty revolver.
The gun is now in Swansea Museum.
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