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Neath - Extract from "A Topographical Dictionary of Wales"
by Samuel Lewis 1833

"NEATH (CASTELL NEDD), a borough, market town, and parish, in the hundred of NEATH, county of GLAMORGAN, SOUTH WALES, 35 miles (W. N. W.) from Cardiff, and 197 (W.) from London, on the road from Cardiff to Swansea, containing 4043 inhabitants.

This place, which is by all antiquaries allowed to have been the " Nidum' of the Romans, derives its name from the river on which it is situated, and of which the Welsh name, " Nidd," or " Nedd," is pronounced nearly as the English word Neath. In the twelfth Iter of Antoninus it is mentioned, under the above name, as being situated on the Roman road between Leucarum (Loughor) and Bovium, at or near the present village of Boverton to the south of Cowbridge. Though repeated and minute researches have been made at various times no military works have yet been discovered which mark out, with any degree of precision, the exact site of the station. The churchyard, which is of considerable extent and in the form of a parallelogram; with a small elevation at the western side, has with some degree of probability been considered the site of the original camp ; and, within the last few years, two Roman coins and a cameo are said to have been found in the garden adjoining the rectory-house, which is within twenty yards of the spot.

After the conquest of Glamorganshire by Fitz-Hamon, Richard de Granville, one of his knights, obtained a grant of the honour and lordship of Neath, with the privilege of exercising jura regalia, and all the other right, of a lordship marcher. The castle, of which only small portion is at present remaining, is said to have formed part of the possessions of  Iestyn ab Gwrgan, by whom it is supposed to have been originally built; but it is certain that Richard de Granville, if not the founder, materially improved it: the church, which is in its immediate vicinity, is supposed to have been originally a chapel for the accommodation of the garrison and to have been subsequently enlarged and appropriated to the use of the parishioners. The same Richard in the reign of Henry I., with the concurrence of his wife Constance, gave their chapel belonging to the castle, with all its endowments, a considerable tract of waste land in the neighbourhood, and other possessions to the abbot of the convent of Grey friars at Savigny near Lyons in France, for the erection and endowment of a similar monastery near the town of Neath. A magnificent abbey was consequently erected in the neighbourhood, from designs by a celebrated architect from Palestine, named Lalys, who also erected several churches and other public buildings in South Wales.

The abbey, which was at first dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was subsequently occupied by brethren of the Cistercian order ; but it does not appear to have been dependent upon any foreign religious establishment, or to have been regarded as an Alien priory, as it continued to flourish till the time of the general dissolution, when its revenue was 150. 4. 9. per annum. During the protracted warfare between the lords marcher and the native chieftains, however, one of the latter named Morgan ab Owain, burned this monastery, killing four of the servants and one of the monks, and committed great ravages on its lands. The ruins of this venerable pile, which once afforded an asylum to the uufortunate Edward of Carnarvon, are among the most interesting specimens of ancient ecclesiastical architecture in the principality, and are noticed under the article on CADOXTON, in which parish they are situated, Soon after the accession of Stephen, Grufydd ab Rhys, having laid waste the Norman possessions in Cardiganshire, advanced into the territory of Glamorgan ; and the Norman lords, rallying their forces in the neighbourhood of this town, were here attacked by the Welsh army, led on by the sons of Caradoc ab Iestyn, who were lords of the district between the rivers Tawe and Avon, and a sanguinary conflict ensued, in which three thousand men are said to have fallen by the sword : the Normans were completely routed, and the few that survived the battle were compelled to seek an asylum in the castles of Gower. About a century after this event, the town, which had been burnt to the ground in 1185, was again taken, and the inhabitants were nearly exterminated by Morgan Gam and Llewelyn, in 1231.

The town is pleasantly situated on the eastern bank of the navigable river Neath, over which is a bridge, and in the beautiful Vale of Neath, which abounds with rich and finely varied scenery. The vale, which expands to a considerable breadth at this place, and is open on both sides to the adjacent country, is remarkable for the salubrity of its air, and is finely sheltered from the colder winds by the lofty hills with which it is surrounded, without being at all confined. The town has recently undergone extensive improvement; preparations have been made for lighting it with gas, and several of the streets have been considerably widened and well paved : the houses, which have been modernized, are in general respectable, and there are some of handsome appearance. A reading-room, supported by public subscription, has been established ; and occasional concerts and balls take place at the Castle hotel, which affords excellent accommodation to the numerous visitors who are attracted to this place by the interesting scenery in the neighbourhood, and the beautiful cascades with which the Vale of Neath abounds, of which an account will be found in the articles on the parishes of Cadoxton, Ystradvelltey, Penderin, &c.

From its situation in a populous district surrounded by extensive copper, iron, tin, and chemical works, this town has been for some years increasing in importance as a place of commerce : the almost inexhaustible mines of coal being more than sufficient for the supply of the town and neighbourhood, and of the various works in the environs, great quantities are annually shipped off to the lower parts of Somersetshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall, and to Ireland. It is computed that one hundred thousand tons are brought down the vale by the Neath canal alone, for exportation.

At Neath abbey, about one mile from the town, are some iron-works, established in 1792, and conducted on a very extensive scale : they consist of two blast furnaces for the making of iron from the ore, an iron foundry for casting the various parts of engine and mill work, and an engine-manufactory. From this establishment most of the iron-works in the principality have been furnished with their powerful engines for blowing the furnaces used in the manufacture of iron, and for the rolling of that metal ; and the copper-works also have been supplied with rolling engines and with the requisite machinery for the manufacture of copper. Many of the large pumping engines now in operation in the mining districts of Cornwall were made in this establishment, which has also supplied the Anglo-Mexican and Real del Monte mining companies with steam-engines for draining their mines : engines for maritime uses, and locomotive engines on rail and tram roads, have likewise been made to a very considerable extent. The number of persons employed in these works and in the collieries and mines connected with them averages about four hundred.

The copper-works are situated to the south of Neath Abbey, on the western bank of the river, and form two establishments, called the Crown and the Mines Royal works; belonging respectively to the Crown and the Mines Royal copper companies. The tin-works are on the banks of the river and of the canal, about one mile and a half above the town ; and on the eastern side of the river, a little below the town, are some extensive chemical works.

This port is a creek to that of Swansea : the exports are coal, culm, copper, iron, iron castings, spelter, fire-bricks, oak timber, bark, and wool ; the imports are copper and iron ores, corn, flour, foreign timber, black jack, and groceries and other articles of general consumption. The trade is of considerable extent, although it sustained, in comparison with the two preceding years, a diminution in 1830. The amount of tonnage for the year 1828 was one hundred and eight thousand three hundred and ninety ; that for 1829 was one hundred and twenty-one thousand two hundred and sixty-five; and that for 1830 was ninety-eight thousand three hundred and seventeen. The number of vessels which cleared outwards, during the year 1830, including different departures of the same, was one thousand one hundred and forty-six ; and the number that entered inwards, reckoning as above, and exclusively of such as came in with ballast only, was four hundred and thirty-four : this year (1832) the trade has considerably increased.

The port is at Briton-Ferry, about two miles and a quarter below the bridge at Neath, by the course of the river : vessels of upwards of three hundred tons' burden can sail up to the town, but the trade of the port is generally carried on by means of barges communicating with Briton-Ferry. The construction of a floating harbour within the borough, on the left bank of the river, was once in contemplation, but the design has been abandoned. The harbour has been greatly improved at an expense of 3000, which was defrayed conjointly by the Neath Canal Company and the proprietors of the works in the neighbourhood; and the alterations that have been made have been productive of considerable benefit.

The Neath canal extends from Briton-Ferry to Abernant, near the head of the vale, a distance of thirteen miles : at Aberdulas, about one mile and a half above the town, it is united by a stone aqueduct of eleven arches with the Swansea and Neath junction canal, by means of which the mineral riches on either side of the vale may be conveyed to the port of Swansea: the latter canal is remarkable for being carried through a distance of nine miles without a lock.

The market, which is well supplied with corn and with provisions of every kind, is on Wednesday ; and the fairs are on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, July 31st, and September 12th.

Neath, having become united to the great lordship of Glamorgan, was one of the places which obtained from Edward II. a new charter, conferring upon it valuable immunities, and granted through the influence of that monarch's favourite, the younger Hugh Spencer, among whose possessions this lordship was included. It is nevertheless regarded as a borough by prescription, though it has a charter granted in the reign of James II., which is addressed to the " Recorder, Aldermen, and Burgesses : " the government is at present vested in a portreeve, twelve aldermen, and an indefinite number of burgesses. The portreeve is annually chosen by the aldermen, who nominate three of their body for that purpose, of whom the lord of the borough, or his officer, the constable of the castle, selects one : the aldermen fill up vacancies in their own body from the burgesses, who are elected by the corporation at large ; but in both cases the appointment is subject to the approval of the lord.

Neath is one of eight contributory boroughs which returned one member to parliament : of these, the boroughs of Swansea, Aberavon, Kenvig, Loughor, and Neath, have, by the late act for amending the representation of the people, been constituted a separate district, with the privilege of returning a representative. The right of election was formerly in the burgesses at large, about one hundred in number, of whom about twenty reside within the borough : it is now, by the late act, vested in the resident burgesses only, or those within seven miles of the town, if duly qualified according to its provisions, and in every male person of full age occupying, either as owner or as tenant under the same landlord, a house or other premises of the annual value of ten pounds and upwards, provided he be capable of registering as the act directs: the present number of tenements of this value, within the limits of the borough, which have been altered by the late Boundary Act, and are miuutely described in the Appendix to this work, is about one hundred and eighty-five. The corporation claim, but do not exercise, the right of holding a court of pleas for the recovery of debts to any amount, before the constable of the castle and the portreeve : a court baron is held by the constable of the castle, for the recovery of debts under forty shillings. The Midsummer quarter sessions for the county, and the petty sessions for the hundred, are held at Neath, which has also been made a polling-place in the election of knights for the shire. The townhall is a neat and commodious edifice, in the Grecian style of architecture, with a handsome receding portico of the Ionic order ; but, being out of the line of the principal thoroughfare, it is not seen to advantage. The upper part of the building contains a spacious council-chamber, with a jury-room and apartments for the petty sessions and other business of the local magistracy ; and the lower part is appropriated to the use of the corn market.

The living is a rectory, with Lantwit annexed, in the archdeaconry and diocese of Llandaf, rated in the king's books at   16. 2. 3 1/2., and in the patronage of Henry Grant, Esq. The church, dedicated to St. Thomas the Apostle, is a spacious and ancient structure, of which the nave was rebuilt about a century since : the interior is handsomely and commodiously fitted up, and a fine-toned organ was presented by the late Sir R. H. Mackworth, Bart. There are two places of worship each for Independents and Wesleyan Methodists, and one each for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Calvinistic Methodists, and Unitarians.

Mr. John Davies, in 1719, bequeathed 200 to be laid out in the purchase of land for the erection and endowment of a free school : with this sum two tenements, called Bryndare and Ynyscoed, containing together about eighty-four acres, have been purchased; but the original intention of the testator has not yet been fully carried into effect. The interest of 500, which had been received in lieu of the accumulated rent of these farms, together with the interest of 100 left by the late Mr. Gwyn, has, in the interim, been appropriated in aid of a school upon Dr. Bell's plan, which is principally supported by subscription. The rental of the two farms, together with 100 left by William Cross, in 1785, and 30, its accumulated interest, is under the management of the rector, churchwardens, and overseers. In connexion with the iron-works at Neath Abbey are two schools on the Lancasterian plan, in one of which eighty boys, and in the other fifty girls, are gratuitously instructed. On an enquiry instituted a few years since, when the proprietors of the abbey estate were solicited to make a grant of timber for the erection of new school-houses, it was found that, for the thirty-five years during which these schools had been established, only one of the poor children educated in them had become chargeable on the parish. There is also an infant school supported by subscription, in which forty-five children are taught.

There are various charitable bequests for distribution among the poor, among which are 2 per annum left by Evan Leyson, in 1634 ; 1 per annum by William Cross, in 1785 ; the interest of 5 by Mary Jones, and 3. 16. per ann. paid out of the parish rates, as interest due upon a legacy bequeathed by J. Davies, which is supposed to have been appropriated to parochial uses.

Within this parish is Gnoll Castle, formerly the seat of Sir Herbert Mackworth, Bart., whose widow conveyed it by marriage to Capel Hanbury Leigh, Esq., of Pontypool Park, in the county of Monmouth, from whom it was purchased by Henry Grant, Esq., to whom, as proprietor of the estate, belongs also the custody of the castle and the lordship of the borough. The mansion, which possesses all the magnificence of a baronial residence, is a conspicuous object from all parts of the circumjacent country, and has been recently modernized : the principal front consists of a centre, with wings and two semicircular towers ; and the grounds, which are extensive, are laid out with great taste. Of the ancient castle of Neath only some small portions in the lower part of the town, near the river, are at present remaining; and of the walls which anciently encompassed the town there are no vestiges.

The average annual expenditure for the maintenance of the poor of the town and parish, from March 1824 to March 1829, amounted to 726. 4., but may now be estimated at upwards of 1000."

Neath - Lewis 1833
[Last Updated : 13 Oct 2002 - Gareth Hicks]

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