Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Newport's West End

Newport owes a lot to it's 19th Century master mariners. They built many of the big houses around Newport and the Parrog which are so sort after today. The house in the photograph is West End, Feidr Brenin, set back behind the Parrog and commanding wonderful views of both the bay and the mountain. A master mariner lived here for many years but it's open to debate whether he was responsible for building this house.

Originally there were three cottages here, probably simple, single storey dwellings, inhabited by three separate families. By the 1870's, the Rev Benjamin Shadrach, Rector of Llanllawer and Llanychilwydog and his wife and daughter were living at West End. They were wealthy enough to send their daughter, Elizabeth Anne away to Hill House in Haverfordwest to be educated, along with 13 other girl boarders, aged between 12 and 19, in a school run by three unmarried sisters, the Misses Pilpott. The Shadrachs could also afford to keep a live in general domestic servant but did they have this particular house built or were they living in an earlier dwelling on the same site?

With it's large windows and pale brick chimneys, West End has the look of a late Victorian House, brick chimneys were a late nineteenth century feature in the area, earlier chimneys were made of stone. Benjamin Shadrach had died by 1880. His widow and daughter continued living at West End. In 1887, Elizabeth Anne became the second wife of a master mariner, James Thomas, from Dinas and West End became their family home. James Thomas certainly would have had the resources to rebuild or update the building. He was a particularly successful mariner, captaining the large barque the West Australian on voyages to Australia.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to take photos inside West End before the builders moved in to renovate it. What was particularly interesting was that the main building was flanked by two smaller cottages/ outbuildings which had not been touched for many many years. They looked much older than the main house. Walking into the small cottage which opened on to the road at the lefthand side of the house, was like stepping back a hundred years, an exciting but also a very poignant feeling:-

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most cottages would have had a large fireplace like this, a simne fawr , providing cooking facilities as well as heat. Cooking would have originally taken place over an open fire, often in a suspended cauldron. Simple stews would have been kept simmering with extra ingredients being thrown in to stretch the contents for a second or third meal. This was the origin of the meat and vegetable cawl, a chunky, meal-sized soup which can still be sampled in the area. These days it is usually served with bread and a chunk of cheese. Cast iron griddles were used over the open fire for much of the baking and that too has left its legacy in the Welsh Cake, flat, fruit-studded and irresistible when eaten warm with a little salty Welsh butter.

By the end of the nineteenth century, domestic fires were fuelled by culm, an economical mixture of coal dust and clay which would have been landed from vessels down at the Parrog. The cast iron range seen in the picture was probably an Edwardian introduction. Some ranges incorporated hobs, a boiler and a bread oven. More details can be found in Saving the last of the magic. Traditional Qualities of the West Wales Cottage, Martin Davies (1991). The range in the cottage at West End looked very basic:-

The simne fawr itself was built like an inverted funnel and it's possible to look straight up it towards the chimney pot:-

The front room of this side cottage was equally simple with an uneven, flagstone floor:-

A wooden staircase led up into a crug loft above where the floor was sagging at an alarming angle and plants were trailing in through the roof:-

Around the back of the main house was another cottage/outbuilding which may have at one time housed a dairy:-

Arrangements in the main house were definitely more sophisticated:-

Everywhere in this empty house there was a sense of the past. A hand twitching a curtain in one of the cottages:-

Or someone coming back from sea with the large conch shell, which was perched on a wall in the garden. Elsewhere, there were a couple of old trunks, one supporting the water tank. The romantic in me would like to think that they had once been sea chests and had travelled the world. But there was certainly
very little romance in the kind of life James Thomas of West End led at sea, as this newspaper report from 25th June 1890, when he was captain of the West Australian, shows:-


The captain of the Barque West Australian which reached Hobson’s Bay on Sunday afternoon from Mauritius, tells of the loss of one of his crew, a tale which has peculiarly sad features, says the Daily Telegraph. Benjamin Lorne (sic. a misprint for Larne), the captain’s nephew, a youth of 17, who had served two years as an ordinary seaman, was the last of the three sons of his widowed mother, who lives in Pembrokeshire. Each of his brothers had been drowned at sea at about his age when completing apprenticeship and he has met with the same fate during the West Australian’s voyage from Port Louis. When the ship was in 89 58 degrees S and 99 56 degrees E, the weather was very stormy and the vessel was rolling a good deal. The lad had been sent aloft to overhaul the maintopgallant buntlines. He had just reached the masthead when he lost his hold, and fell headlong into the troubled sea. The captain instantly threw a lifebuoy towards him, but as he could not swim and was moreover hampered by his oilskins it is scarcely likely that he reached it. The ship was brought to as soon as possible and a boat was got into readiness. Then the captain wore the ship round, and sailed to the west for an hour and a half, with men on the mainroyal yard and mizzenmasthead to keep a lookout but nothing could be seen of the boy. The barque then tacked to the north east, but as darkness was coming on, the search had to be given up as hopeless. Everyone on board felt the loss deeply as the lad was a general favourite.

The boy concerned was my great great grandmother's nephew too so I feel a sympathy with any of these sad memories which might still haunt this house. Deep sea voyages brought the kind of wealth which made Newport the town it is today but that wealth came at a hard price and I think it's sad these men and their often uncomfortable stories have been forgotten.

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