According to legend the first reported Irish person in Newport was St. Gwladus the wife of St. Gwynllyw. Gwladus was the daughter of Brychain Brycheiniog, who had come from Ireland and made his kingdom in the area that now bears his name, ‘Brycheiniog’ (‘Brecon’). We can read about this in the lives of the Welsh saints, which were written by monks in the twelfth century.
According to these accounts Gwynllyw had heard about Gwladus’s beauty and, having been refused her hand by Brychain, decided to carry her off. Brychain’s men pursued Gwynllyw but, with the help of King Arthur and Cai, who just happened to be in the area at the time, Gwynllyw and his men managed to defeat Brychain’s army and the abduction was successful.
Gwynllyw, having been converted to Christianity by his son Cadoc, then went on to found his church on the top of Stow Hill in Newport and a small settlement grew up around it. (2)
The story should not be taken literally as these chronicles seem to have been written as propaganda exercises rather than as history, nevertheless, it is an attractive legend and there is no doubt an element of truth in it. There definitely was Irish settlement of this type from the West as far as Breconshire in the fifth century, after the departure of the Roman legions, and it is quite likely that there would have been intermarriage between the rulers in the east and the new settlers in the West. As we shall see, intermarriage also played a part in the process of settlement and integration in the nineteenth century.
For the next thirteen hundred years after Gwynllyw’s death there appears to be no evidence of Irish settlement in Newport although some migrant Irish people would have come here in the eighteenth century, particularly in the summer months, to help with harvests. By the beginning of the 19th century there were very few, if any, Irish people settled in Newport, but, as the century progressed, the number of settlers started to increase, at first slowly and then in the 1840s and 1850s in considerable numbers. Nearly all of the immigrants came from the southern counties of Waterford, Wexford and Cork. Most were unskilled labourers, but there were others, some from different parts of Ireland, who, although fewer in number, were well-educated and belonged to the professional classes.
As South Wales began to become industrialised at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries close trading links between Newport and southern Ireland were established. Paul O’Leary has shown that the Tredegar Iron Company, which was part-owned by Charles Morgan of Tredegar, not only sold iron in Cork but also advertised for workers from there to work in their ironworks. South Wales at the beginning of the nineteenth century was undergoing rapid industrial growth and there was a severe shortage of labour. In 1804, Henry Brown, agent to the Morgans of Tredegar, bemoaned the fact that agricultural workers were demanding more pay as they could easily leave the land and obtain far higher wages in the ironworks.
The total population of Newport in 1801, according to the first census, was 1135. This figure should be seen as approximate as there were numerous inns in Newport and some of those counted are likely to have been visitors. In the next ten years the population more than doubled to 2346. In the following decade it almost doubled again to 4000. By 1831 it had reached 7062 and by 1841, 10492. However it was this decade, coincidentally the decade of the famine, that showed the greatest increase with a near doubling again to a total of 19,323 in 1851. In the decade 1851 to 1861 the population increase was of a lesser order. The number of individuals increased by under 4000 to 23,249.
The 1840’s were boom years in South Wales and particularly for Newport and there was plenty of work about. The Town Dock was opened in 1842, the Ynys y Fro reservoir in 1848 and the South Wales railway in 1850. It would have needed a great deal of labour to excavate these great works and the majority of those involved in the labouring work were Irishmen.
It is difficult to know exactly when the first Irish immigrants arrived in Newport. By the time of the 1851 census there were a number of well-established Irish families. This is clear because they are registered as having grown-up children who were born in Newport, indeed two of these children who were still living with their parents were in their forties. The majority of children of Irish descent recorded to be living with their parents were young which suggest fairly recent immigration, despite the fact that people will tend to leave home anyway once they can support themselves. Irish families usually stuck together, partly because few people could afford to marry young.
In 1851 there were only twelve children born in Newport of Irish parents who were over 21 years of age, however there were 35 aged between 16 and 20, 72 aged between 11 and 15 years, 170 between the ages of 6 and 10 and 260 aged five and under. This indicates a pattern of increasing immigration as the century progressed. To put this into perspective we can see that out of a total of nearly 549 children born of Irish parents in Newport, as recorded in the 1851 census, over three quarters were born after 1840 and less than 2% were born before 1830.
Some graves in the old St Woolos churchyard show that there were Irish people in Newport in the 1820s and 30s: “Sacred to the memory of Patrick Murray of Dungarvan, county of Waterford in Ireland, who died Nov 27th 1820 aged 50 years. May he rest in peace, Amen.”
“Sacred to the memory of John the son of James and Mary Cogan of the city of Cork, Ireland, who died the 4th of March Anno Domini 1825 aged 2 years 4 months.”
“In memory of Callan McArthy gent who departed this life the 3rd ...ember 1831 aged 59.”
In 1847 257 Irish vessels sailed into Newport with a total tonnage of 19,409. This represented about one sixth of the total number of ships sailing into Newport that year and between a third and a quarter of the tonnage. The most important cargo for Newport was the export of coal, on the return journey these ships may have contained some agricultural produce, possibly live cattle, or just ballast. Most emigrants from Ireland would have travelled on these cargo ships. Sometimes they were unkindly referred to as human ballast. Frank Neal has calculated that an upper limit of 19,275 immigrants arrived in Newport from Irish ports between 1849 and 1853. Many of these would have moved on but a number would have settled in the town.(3)
The building of the docks, roads, railways, the market and other buildings in Pillgwenlly in the early 1840s would have increased the demand for labourers and nearly every labourer in Newport was Irish and nearly every Irishman, who was not a soldier in the Barracks, was a labourer. The general pattern of settlement seems to have been that the men came over to find work and once established their wives, sisters or girlfriends came over to join them. A number of Irish men would also have married local girls.
The situation at the time with the poor law was that the local parish was only responsible for looking after people who had been born within the locality or who had been resident there for more than five years. However all parishes had a duty to make sure that nobody starved to death. Ireland of course was at that time part of the United Kingdom and there was nothing to stop Irish people travelling to what we rather arrogantly tend to call the mainland. However if Irish people here lost their means of livelihood and applied to the parish they could be sent home. An arrangement which possibly suited some people. Eventually the cost and difficulty involved in sending them home caused the policy to change and they were sent to the local workhouse, which was cheaper and considered to be a deterrent against those who sought a free passage home.
Whilst a few individuals may have attempted to exploit the system of relief it was generally grossly unfair to people who became poor through no fault of their own and when they, or their families, had been working and had helped to create much of the wealth of the town.
There survive some of the depositions of these poor Irish people, who threw themselves on the mercy of the parish, in the year 1839. Interestingly the person who heard their cases was Thomas Phillips, the mayor who later the same year was shot by the Chartists in the Westgate Hotel. These people had become destitute either through loss of employment, illness, desertion by their husbands, old age, widowhood (sometimes caused by accidents), or because they had set out in the hope of finding either a relation who could support them or a job, but had not managed to find whatever or whoever it was that they were seeking. The following are extracts from one hearing on 7 January:
“I left Ireland 17 or 18 years ago and have lived and worked in Newport about 12 years, I have a wife named Mary, to whom I married about two years. I have no child. I am unable to obtain my livelihood on account of sickness. I can’t tell my age.”
“I am a single woman. I am a native of Ireland. I came from Ireland about two months ago and went to Bristol to look for service. I staid at Bristol about a week and then came to this town where I have been about seven weeks. I sold my clothes to find me the means of subsistence. The cloak I have now on my back is not my own, I borrowed it to come here.”
“I am a native of Ireland. I came into this town about four weeks ago. I slept one night. I went from here to Tredegar Ironworks. I remained there four nights and four days, I then came back here and went to Bristol. I returned from Bristol to this town and remained here 3 days and 3 nights. I again went up to Tredegar Iron Works. I have been all the time in search of my husband. I came here today for the last time.”
“I am a native of Ireland. I am a married man, my wife’s name is Catherine, she is now in an advanced state of pregnancy. I have been in this town six or seven weeks. I have been absent from Ireland ten years, with the exception of 8 or 9 months of the ten years which I have worked in this town. I have lived and worked in London. I want to be relieved, my wife is in a bad state, my little things are in pledge and I want something to get them out of pledge. I want my wife to be confined here at the expense of this Parish, if I cannot get out of it, I am chargeable to this Borough. I never gained any settlement in England.” (4)
After the Chartist riots in 1839 a barracks was built in Newport. At the time of the 1851 census an Irish regiment was serving in the barracks. The soldiers and their wives, unlike the majority Irish population, came from all over Ireland. It is interesting to trace where the regiment had been by looking at the places of birth of the soldiers’ children, many of whom were born overseas.
One factor to be borne in mind when considering the general Irish population is that they were quite mobile. The fact that they were prepared to move in order to support themselves was a great advantage from an employer’s point of view. Once one building project was finished the whole labour force would move to the next one. We have some idea of this mobility when we look at the places of birth of the wives and children of Irishmen (apart from the soldiers). Five were born in Africa, 2 in America, one at sea, one in Austria, one in Canada, one in East India, one in France, one in Italy, one in Poland, one in Scotland and 107 in England. However the majority, 682, were born in Wales. (5)
Unfortunately the census does not give details of where in Ireland most people came from. Usually only the word “Ireland” appears. However details are given for 218 individuals and over a half of them came from Cork, about a quarter came from Waterford, nine each from Dublin and Tipperary, 8 from Kerry and just 4 from Wexford, the remaining 14 came from several different counties.
The Irish tended to settle in certain areas of the town. As we shall see these areas were invariably overcrowded and unsanitary. In 1851 the main streets where Irish people lived were as follows: in Fothergill Street there were 472 Irish men, women and children in 28 houses (an average of just under 17 per house, one house contained 30 people ), Castle Street 245, Mellon Street 172, Friar’s Fields 167, Cross Street 139, Ebenezer Terrace 133 this included four families living in one house totalling 26 people, Globe Cottages 103, Courtybella Terrace 96, Mellon Bank 94, Rees Street 86, Canal Parade 83, High Street 59, Commercial Wharf 52, Club Row 49, Potter Street 47, King’s Parade 46, Charles Street 43, Wedlake’s Court 35, in Water’s lane there were 19 which does not sound many but 14 of them were in two rooms. There were also 9 in the workhouse and 20 in the hospital.
The famine of 1847 greatly accelerated the numbers of Irish immigrants to Newport. At first there was considerable sympathy in Newport for their plight. Large sums of money were raised to send over to Southern Ireland in order to alleviate the effects of the famine. The most prominent citizens of Newport, including the Morgans of Tredegar were amongst those making generous contributions. When the ship the ‘Wanderer’ arrived in Newport in February 1847 after a journey lasting five weeks the 113 passengers were in an appalling state. It was the Misses Homfray, granddaughters of Sir Charles Morgan of Tredegar, who were foremost in administering aid to them. (6)
However after some time there was increasing resentment to the “flood” of immigrants (the reaction being similar to today’s asylum seekers). It was made illegal to bring in immigrants by ship and so it became the practice to allow some of them ashore at the mouths of the rivers Usk and Ebbw. Many immigrants were not charged for their passage. It was actually philanthropists in Ireland who paid for them as this was seen as the only practical way of solving the problem of the famine. So many were dying in the county of Cork that coffins were regularly reused and for many the only alternative to emigration overseas was emigration to heaven.
The Irish population before 1847 were fairly well-organised and self-supporting. There were friendly societies, a very active Catholic church and regular St Patrick’s Day parades. The Irish were also strongly represented in the main events in Newport such as the opening of the Old Town Dock. However the large numbers of immigrants caused by the famine undoubtedly put a huge burden on the existing social structure. Despite the hard-working character and uprightness of the majority of Irish immigrants, there were some problems of criminality and drunkenness as well as vagrancy, prostitution and begging, which although widespread, were often blamed on the Irish alone. On top of this the cost of keeping people in the workhouse, paying for medical expenses and even the costs of burial fell on the ratepayers of Newport amongst whom there were many who began to resent this financial burden.
The rapid growth of the town far exceeded its ability to provide healthy living conditions for the large immigrant population. The housing conditions in which the Irish poor lived were appalling. The reports of the medical officer of health give a vivid picture of the squalor in which many people were forced to live. Like many immigrant communities today they were forced in to the cheapest housing and tended to congregate in certain parts of the town. The system of sub-letting, the keeping of animals, the almost non-existence of drainage and the absence of piped water, made living conditions intolerable, especially to the eye of the middle class Newport doctor and his attendants who compiled these reports.
In 1853, Robert Woollett, the Chief Medical Officer wrote in his report (7):
“Our present state is this: we are a large and rapidly-increasing population, already numbering as many as 20,000 souls. Our majority consists of the mechanic and the labourer, who, with their numerous families, make up, indeed, the large bulk of the population, and most of the houses are built of such a character and in localities that are best suited to persons of this description.
“With a large number their first, and with some, even their only thought is, how to get through the basic battle of life unscathed by poverty; and from the description of lodgings some have selected for a residence, it may be asserted that their idea of a house scarcely extends beyond a covering over their heads, and a protection from the inclemencies of the weather, a place to eat their meals, and lay their heads at night: for the rest, they seem to have some mysterious belief that disease can never arise except through the immediate and direct interference of the Almighty and that poison cannot lurk on the surface of cesspools, or vitiated air in the confined and unventilated rooms of crowded lodgings.
“The poorer Irish form a large item in the number of the population; they have brought with them all their peculiarities in favour of huddling together like so many sheep in a pen, and their prejudices against the ingress of fresh air, by closing their windows, blocking up their chimney places, and filling their rooms almost to suffocation, placing implicit confidence in the adage of ‘The more the merrier.’ “With such an item in the population, it becomes the bounden duty of those who are placed in a better position of life, and who really do know that the mass of the people are surrounded by circumstances so inimical to their own health, and so generally hurtful to the community, to devise some plan which should relieve them from these grievances.”
The Health Report of 1850, describes the conditions of life in Fothergill Street as follows:
“There are 21 houses in this street, several consisting of four or five rooms, occupied by separate families, and again sublet by them to eight or ten or sometimes twelve to fourteen persons, nearly all Irish, having but the limited accommodation of one room, in which they all sleep in beds made of shavings and rags, on the floor, with windows closed and the fire-places stopped up, breathing the same atmosphere over and over again; this very room having been used for all household purposes during the day, and in some instances having had wet clothes hung up to dry in it.
“Previous to the institution of the Sanitary Board, I seldom visited these houses unless in search of bad characters. Since then I have had recent experience of the misery, disease and death generated by these ill-regulated and over-crowded dwellings
“I found in one room, six men in each bed, three with their heads in one direction, and three with their heads in the other, one had fever; these are mostly Irish lodging-houses of the worst class. In one instance I found 42 human beings sleeping in a room of 12 feet by 12 feet. The atmosphere was insufferable.
“It is no uncommon occurrence to find old women or children sleeping in cupboards with the doors closed, and in one case the straw bed had not been changed for two years, and in another the mother of the tenant was found with three grandchildren sleeping in a small cupboard 20 inches wide and 4 feet long.
“The tenants are willing to pay 2d or 3d a week for water, but the landlord refuses to make the necessary outlay for fittings, &c., although offered by the Water Company at a reduced rate.
“This street has no drains or surface gutters, and is always in a filthy state, as all slops and refuse are thrown into the highway. One side of the street is in the new and the other side in the old borough, and this may account for the neglected state of the place.
“There is a slaughter-house here, lately erected adding to the impurities of the place. These cottages are let by the week, and pay no rates, although a valuable property to the landlord. For example, Margaret Holland’s house is divided into four compartments, each of which lets at 2s 6d a week, being £26 per annum to the landlord (perhaps £5000 in today’s money), and no poor rates to be deducted”.
However. despite being forced to live in such conditions the Irish managed to keep their spirits up as is shown from this extract from a Health Report of 1857:
“Redding’s house is filthy, and of itself sufficiently bad to generate disease, and yet in one of the small rooms were found huddled together no less than twelve individuals, apparently happy and enjoying themselves, amidst so much dirt, overcrowding, and wretchedness”.
It is a tribute to the character of the Irish that they managed to stay cheerful despite the most adverse conditions. As the century progressed slums were cleared, water and drainage was provided and the general health and living conditions of the population improved. The Irish community continued to play a major role in building the town and in taking part in its day-to-day life. There were few reported instances of anti-Irish feeling, as happened elsewhere in South Wales, and generally the Irish, whilst keeping their identity, integrated happily into the life of an increasingly prosperous town.
It was no doubt fortunate for the South Wales economy that at a time when labour was most needed there was a reserve army of people in Ireland who were desperate to come here. Conversel0y, it was fortunate for the rural poor in Ireland faced with heart-rending difficulties, particularly in the years of the famine, that there was somewhere for them to go. Not, as we have remarked, that these poor souls were always made welcome. However, despite the problems associated with the early immigration, Newport should be proud of its industrious and cheerful Irish population who played such an important role in creating its prosperity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (8)
(1) The title is inspired by Paul O’Leary’s excellent book, Immigration and Integration, The Irish in Wales, 1798-1922, UWP, Cardiff, 2000.
(2) The Life of St Gwynllyw and The Life of St Cadoc in the Lives of the Welsh Saints.
(3) Frank Neal, Black ‘47, Britain and the Famine Irish, Macmillan, London, 1998.
(4) Thanks to Gwent Record Office for this information.
(5) Extracted from the 1851 Census.
(6) See The Green Dragon No.1, p 14.
(7) There are a number of these reports in Newport Reference Library.
(8) I am indebted to Dr Chris Williams for allowing me to read a copy of a soon-to-be published article: Decorous and Creditable: The Irish in Newport.
©: Martin Culliford, a secondary school tea0cher and local historian from England who has settled in Newport where he has acquired an enviable fluency in the language of Wales. The above is his own English version of his lecture in Welsh delivered during the National Eisteddfod of Wales at Llanelli in early August 2000 as part of the Mae ‘na Wyddyl yn y Dre (‘There are Irish in the Town’) series of lectures arranged by The Wales Famine Forum.
Published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002
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