Byng's Journal Of a Tour into South Wales, 1787


Colonel John Byng was formerly a lieutenant-colonel in the 1st Foot Guards (or Grenadier Guards) and, at the time of the travels, the holder of an official appointment in the Stamp Office. His journeys were made on horseback, it could take over seven hours to ride twenty miles --- the progress in Wales could be slower. These tours are considered a last picture of pre-industrial England and Wales.

Here is a small collection of 'extracts of interest' compiled by Steve Keates.

Part I

Tuesday July 31, 1787

Riding from Newport to Cardiff, part of his entry reads....

  • From the quantity of lime made in this country most houses are whiten'd, which gives a gay appearance, as also the very roofs of the houses and churches: dazzling the eyes and appearing like undissolv'd snow.

Wednesday, August 1, 1787

Following a description of the Cathedral at Landaff he writes....

  • at the back of which is the Welsh chapel, but such is the decline of that language (soon to extinguish like Cornish) that whereas within a few years the numbers were even, there are but seven or eight people in the Welsh congregation.
  • This change must necessarily happen from the great intercourse with England, and from their militia having dwelt in English camps. Harping is also in the wane; thro' there is one gentleman of this country, Mr Gwynne, who is a very fine performer, and draws all the harpers to his house.

He also makes the observation that....

  • Coals are sold at the interior pits of this country, at 2½ d. the sack, containing three bushels. The gentlemen send their workmen to their own pits, who for a few hours bring away a months fuel.

Part II

Cardiff to Newbridge

Thursday, August 2 1787...(Leaving Cardiff)

  • ......After passing the race ground, we ascended a long hill, from the summit of which is an unbounded view over the Bristol Channel and to the English land. Here we got amongst the coal-pits, into one of which I peep'd down; and soon met numbers of laden horses returning from others. All the smaller coals are burnt at the limekilns, and their lime is rekon'd so strong as to be sought for all buildings under water and was used in the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. Their haycarts, built upon shafts, are well adapted for steep descents and narrow bridges.
  • ...........Hence we rode a stony lane, for two miles, that led to the road towards Brecon and then by the beautiful bank of the rapid River Taff, which brawls its foaming stream over beds of rocks and [is] on both sides surrounded by high-wooded hills sprinkled by white cottages.
  • ........leaving our horses, we struck into a wooded path which brought us to the Falls of the Taff, where, seated on the shaded, broad rocks in the midst of the river, we survey'd the rapidity of the torrent, surrounded by woods and enliven'd by a brilliant sun. Parties are sometimes form'd to drink their wine and tea upon these flat rocks; and we saw, hanging from them, several simply made baskets to intercept salmon on their fall from the leaps. And now our keen appetites hastn'd us back to a small public house (call'd Newbridge) on the river's bank, where our orders and grandeurs had thrown the family into perplexity and delay. This little alehouse, close to the bridge over the River Rhondda, is only frequented by such stragglers as ourselves in summer and by woodcock-shooters in winter; as all these woods so abound with these birds that a good shot will easily kill ten couple in a morning. Here we gave a loose to our appetites,....

From Newbridge they return via Castle Coch and Byng makes an observation about the Welsh language.......

  • .....it certainly bears much affinity to the French; for Mr Traherne (one of his companions) says that during the late war , when he was captain of the militia on guard over French prisoners, the Welsh and French did converse and understand each other, as did the Welsh sailors in French prisons, with their guards.

Saturday, August 4 1787

  • But a few years since travellers were scarce in this country, and post-chaises unknown. Now the country in these southern parts is become an high road to Ireland; Newton and Swansea are bathing-places; and strolling players, with all other mischiefs, will get, nay have got, amongst them. Their language kept them innocent, and at home; that lost, they read, hear plays, debauch, and emigrate........
  • An unkind comment on the locals.......To me the Welsh appear'd as inferior to the common English in civility, as they are in stature and comeliness; particularly the women, who are very ugly and dwarfish.....[Byng does seem to be a bit of a bigot in other passages as well in that he makes reference to some squalor in various locations.]

However they ride on, coming to a copper works......

  • Two miles from Margam appear a grand display of buildings and cottages at the English company's copper works, which are furnsh'd with water in an aqueduct, and with fuel from the over-hanging hills, which abound with coal. From either cunning or shame of no business (I conjecture), they would not permit me to see inside of the building. The place, I believe is call'd Kenfig [Cynffig].

Sunday, August 5 1787

  • ......Neath Abbey lies in flat meadows, at high tides almost surrounded by water, and still exhibits much grandeur in the remains of the church. As for the mansion house, of much later date, that is, with the abbey, hourly dismantling by the colliers inhabiting all the odd corners.


Monday, August 6 1787

  • Just above the town is placed the house of Sir Herbert Mackworth, called the Gnoll, to which we rode accompanied by Mr Howell, and enterprising geniuses in this kingdom; ever employ'd and in the greatest works; he here surveys, beneath and around him, the wonderful works of his own indefatigableness: collieries digging, copper works smoking, a domain of parkish ground, cultivated from barrenness to rich fertility, woods of extent and beauty, and about 300 men in daily pay; and to all appearance and to my belief, he is gaining great wealth, altho' the envious and timorous deride his plans and prophesy downfall. He has six coalpits in his park at full work, whence fifty tons of coal are daily carried to his copper works, and several others that have been overflow'd but are now draining by fireengines**. At a mile from the house, in a deep wood, is a fall of water of 300 feet over great rocks, towards a root-house, where we sat. Sir Herbert Mackworth has glass houses, collieries, etc., etc,. in other counties; has establish'd three banking-houses in Wales; keeps all his own accounts; drives around the kingdom with a nightcap in his pocket; and to all his followers has diffused a spirit of zeal and confidence. **Steam Pumps, originally installed in the early 1700's by Sir Humphrey Mackworth.
  • The country around him was barren - now they are mowing three loads of hay from each acre! His mountains are planted with trees, and his valley's are covered by beeves. [Cattle]
  • An ingenious artist (retain'd by Sir Herbert) has invented a curious and simple borer of ground, which we survey'd. It is work'd by one horse, will pierce thro' fifty fathoms of rock in ten months, by an auger that brings up the soil, and by a scupper which carries off the water: the expense of working this easily constructed engine is about eight pounds per month. Now to me it appears strange that a gentleman of fortune in any county will not adventure with this machine; for tho' hatred and malice may deride, yet great discoveries at least might be made for the advancement of agriculture.

Tuesday, August 7  1787

  • Mr Howell then walk'd with me to the shipbuilding yards, rope walks, iron forges, and to Sir Herbert Mackworth's shops, water engines, etc., etc.
  • The colliers here do not earn more than 1s 4d. per diem, notwithstanding their labour and danger, many of them being frequently burnt to death by the foul air taking fire.

His tour continued up to Brecon where he discussed Mrs Siddons' place of birth (Brecon) with a landlord of that town.

Steve Keates Sept 2000


[Last Updated : 26 Sept 2002 - Gareth Hicks]