The History Of Newtown
Newtown's origin as a market town can be dated quite precisely. On 16th January 1279 King Edward I granted the Norman Baron Roger de Montgomery a charter to hold a market on Tuesdays, the day of the week upon which markets have been held in the town ever since.
At the time there was only a small settlement by the Old Church of St Mary whose remains stand by the riverside below the Longbridge. This hamlet was named Llanfair yng Nghedewain, the church of St Mary in Cedewain
Up until about two years before the granting of the charter, the lands of Cedewain had been in the hands of Llewellyn ap Gruffydd who had established a castle at Dolforwyn, near Abermule. In 1277 Dolforwyn Castle fell to the Mortimers who occupied Montgomery Castle, across the valley. Dolforwyn was destroyed and it is likely that the new market town was established to replace a market held outside the walls of the castle. Thus it became Newtown or, in Welsh, Y Drenewydd.
The new town was protected by a motte and bailey fortification, the remains of which can be seen near the County Council Offices in The Park. From this stronghold it is thought that defensive banks extended to the north and east to meet the river, a bend of which completed the protective enclosure.
For over 500 years the town remained within these boundaries, presided over by the area's most prominent family, the Pryces of Newtown Hall. During those years it was the Pryces who, for various reasons, brought this quiet market town to wider notice.
For a while, in the middle of the fifteenth century, one of their ancestors, Dafydd Llwyd, made Newtown a great bardic centre. Bardic contests lasting up to two months attracted thousands of people to Newtown Hall Grounds, now The Park.
It was Dafydd Llwyd's grandsons, Thomas and Meredydd ap Rhys who anglicised the family name to Pryce.
The family came to wider notice again during the Civil War when the then Sir John Pryce first supported the Royalists and then changed sides to the Parliamentarians. Later, King Charles I arrived on his doorstep supported by an armed force. Fortunately Sir John was by then once again a Royalist and the King stayed overnight at Newtown Hall. By 1654 Sir John was back with Parliament, being elected MP for the County of Montgomery.
Not surprisingly there were doubts about his loyalties, giving rise to objections to his taking his seat.
Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of the Pryces was the fifth baronet, again Sir John. He married three times. The first two wives had died young. Following the death of the second he made daily visits to the vault where both ladies lay entombed.
After a while, either to be able to spend more time near them, or to save himself the trouble of his daily journey, he had them both embalmed and placed either side of his bed. When Sir John married yet again, the third Lady Pryce decreed that her predecessors be returned to the privacy of the tomb.
The next two generations of Pryces managed to squander the once great family fortunes and before the end of the eighteenth century Newtown Hall and its park had been sold to pay off its mortgage. Some years later it was bought back into the family by the nephew of the last baronet, the Rev George Arthur Evors, who, in the nineteenth century, did much to restore the Newtown Hall Estate.
But it was in the nineteenth century that the affairs of Newtown Hall were overshadowed by much greater changes in the obscure market town.
For centuries there had been a woollen industry in Mid Wales, but it had been essentially a cottage industry, undertaken mainly in the winter months by farm labourers and their families. Technological advances were to change this. First there was the carding engine, which combed the wool and then advances in spinning, such as the jenny.
Factories were established, using the river as motive power, either in new buildings or converted corn mills. In this first phase of development weaving was still done by hand and Newtown quickly became a major centre of handloom weaving.
The small town that had for centuries stayed within its Norman boundaries began to expand. To the south, weavers' cottages and workrooms were built on recently enclosed land alongside the Green Brook. Also, following the completion of the Longbridge in about 1827, Penygloddfa was quickly developed on the north side of the river. It is Penygloddfa that some of the last remaining handloom factory buildings can be seen, along with the traditional back-to-back cottages with weaving rooms above.
Between 1801 and 1841 the population of the town rose from under a thousand to over four and a half thousand. When Newtown's most famous son, Robert Owen, the social reformer, returned to the town shortly before his death in 1858 he can hardly have recognised the little market town he had left in 1781.
The increase in trade had been such that a large flannel exchange was built by local businessmen. (Although the flannel is long gone the building remains, The Regent Centre). As well as the industrial buildings, new commercial premises, banks, a new church, St David's, and numerous chapels had been established.
By the 1830's Newtown was meeting stiff competition from elsewhere, particularly Rochdale, and workers' wages were being driven down. The town became a centre of discontent. The first Chartist meeting in Wales was held in Newtown in October 1838. Unrest reached the stage that for some years it was felt necessary to have a military presence in the town.
In the second half of the eighteenth century the woollen trade in the town was revived by further technological advances in spinning and weaving. Large factories were established, using power driven looms. This effectively destroyed the livelihood of the handloom weavers who petitioned against the new machinery. The Cambrian Mill, near the Canal Basin, was for some time said to be the largest woollen mill in Wales.
The completion of the railway from Oswestry gave a further impetus to trade as it made more distant markets accessible. A local draper exploited this new form of communication by dealing with his customers for woollen goods, not over the counter, but by post.
Thus did Pryce Jones establish the first mail order firm in the world. He met with huge success, as the large Royal Welsh Warehouse and nearby factory by the railway station testify. Even Queen Victoria wore Welsh flannel from Newtown.
Despite these advances, by the end of the nineteenth century, the woollen mills were again failing to overcome their remoteness from their markets. The primary source of power was now coal. That also had to be transported long distances. Competition from Lancashire and Yorkshire could not be fought off.
Eventually much of the "Welsh Flannel" sold by Pryce-Jones (he had become hyphenated when he was knighted in 1887) actually had been made in Rochdale.
Some of the mills struggled on, but the catastrophic fire at the Cambrian Mills in 1912 effectively marked the end of wool as a major industry in Newtown. It was a time of mass emigration. Many woollen workers went to other towns such as Huddersfield. Others went further afield to America and South Africa.
The Great War brought a revival in the town's trade, particularly in the timber industry and in garment manufacture, but then the twenties and thirties brought further decline and depopulation in the town and throughout Mid Wales.
The outbreak of the Second World War brought a halt Newtown's decline.
A large military presence was established in the town, the remaining redundant mills making ideal barracks. The first men to arrive were the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Then came the Royal Artillery, who established a training battery in the town.
To this were added hundreds of children evacuated from Merseyside. Once they had all been billeted there was further demand for the accommodation of hundreds of munitions workers who had been brought in to work in the factory that had been built, under conditions of great secrecy, on the Pool Road (now the Lion Works).
Despite all this activity, the end of the war left the town with a serious housing shortage. Very few new houses had been built since the heyday of the woollen industry. The cottages that had been so hastily built in the nineteenth century had degenerated into slums.
Some of the returning servicemen took their families and occupied the huts left by the army on the Lucky Fields (now the site of the High School.) The local authority got to work and in 1946/47 built a new estate of council houses. They named it Garth Owen, after Robert Owen.
A vigorous programme of slum clearance got under way. More council houses were put up on the fields of Maesyrhandir Farm. Nevertheless, despite the wartime factory being turned over to the manufacture of bicycles, the underlying problems of unemployment and consequent depopulation remained.
A government report in 1964 made it clear that unless something was done the decline in the economy of Mid Wales would continue. Also, at the end of that year Newtown was hit by the second of two disastrous floods. The first, in 1960 had been considered a freak and unlikely to re-occur.
But, 1964 disproved this view. On both occasions the river cut across its loop round the town and rushed through the town centre. Untold damage was done. Shops had their entire stock carried away in the torrent. There had been a proposal around for some time to build an entirely new town on land to the north of Caersws.
Some thought this should be the way ahead. The new town would be built on higher ground and Newtown could be left to decay. Instead, the government decided to protect the town with a major flood prevention scheme and then to make it a new town under the 1965 New Towns Act.
The Mid Wales New Town Development Corporation was set up. In 1968 they produced a plan to double the population of the town. Large new housing estates were established at Trehafren, Treowen and Vaynor and factories were built on the Dyffryn, Vastre and Mochdre Industrial Estates.
Thousands of people moved to the town to work in a multiplicity of new businesses. Not all the new ventures survived but two, Laura Ashley and Control Techniques, have grown to be major multinational companies.
By the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century the population of the town had exceeded 10,000, more even than at the height of the woollen industry in the nineteen hundreds.
The work of the New Town Corporation was taken over by the Development Board for Rural Wales in 1977 and in 1998 that body was subsumed into the Welsh Development Agency, who now have the responsibility, in partnership with the local authorities and the new community, of carrying Newtown into the future.
Information courtesy of Newtown Town Council