MONMOUTHSHIRE - History and Description, 1868


The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

The National Gazetteer (1868)

"MONMOUTHSHIRE, a maritime county in the W. of England, extending from 51° 29' to 51° 59' N. lat., and from 2° 40' to 3° 17' W. long. It is bounded on the N. by Brecknockshire and Herefordshire; on the E. by Gloucestershire, from which it is separated by the river Wye; on the S. and S.E. by the estuary of the Severn and the Bristol Channel; and on the W. by Glamorganshire and part of Brecknockshire. Its greatest length from the mouth of the Romney in the N.N.E. to the Monnow in the S.W. is 32 miles, and its greatest breadth 29 miles, with a circuit of 124 miles.

It comprises an area of about 500 square miles, or 368,399 acres, of which 290,000 are under cultivation, and the remainder mountain, uncultivated, or under water. There are 23 miles of coast line, which is generally low and marshy, with several creeks or pills along it, extending from the mouths of the Wye and Rumney along the estuary of the Severn and part of the Bristol Channel. The high spring tides run up the Severn from the Bristol Channel, and rise at Chepstow to 60 feet, the highest tidal altitude reached in Great Britain.

The principal points along the coast, commencing from the mouth of the Rumney, are St. Bride's light at the mouth of the Usk which leads up to Newport, Goldcliff Point, the Welsh Grounds sands, and Black Rock ferry, about 2½ miles to New Passage, and the estuary of the Wye leading to Chepstow.

At the time of the second Roman invasion Monmouthshire, with Glamorgan, Brecknock, Radnor, and Hereford, formed the territory of the Silures, whose capital was Caerwent. In the reign of the Emperor Claudius it was unsuccessfully invaded by Ostorius Scapula, but was reduced by Julius Frontinus, in the reign of Vespasian, when it became part of the Roman province Britannia Prima. So difficult, however, was the work of subjugation that the Romans were obliged to erect five stations in that part of Siluria alone, now known as Monmouthshire, viz: at Abergavenny, Caerwent, Caerleon, Usk, and Monmouth. It remained in the hands of the Romans till A.D. 408, a period of 330 years.

Monmouthshire, together with the rest of the country W. of the Severn, continued free from the Anglo-Saxon dominion long after the rest of the island had submitted, and Caerleon became one of the most flourishing cities of the Britons. Wales then included three regions or principalities, namely, Gwynedd, Powysland, and Dehenbarth, or Gwent, in the last of which the whole of Monmouthshire was included. Between the Welsh and the Saxons war was almost continual, till in 1034 Canute entered Gwent with a large army and defeated the Prince of South Wales, Harold, in the reign of the Confessor, made an incursion into the country and overran North and South Wales, but it does not appear that they were ever completely conquered during the Anglo-Saxon period.#

The Norman kings, after their conquest of England, having no troops to spare for the conquest of Wales, permitted the barons to make incursions on their own account, and to hold the lands they conquered as fiefs of the crown. These tenures became in time petty royalties, the barons assuming independent sovereignty, and daring to resist even the reigning monarch. In 1535 Henry VIII. put an end to these petty sovereignties by dividing Wales into twelve counties and joining Monmouthshire to England. But as regards the administration of justice, Monmouthshire was not considered an English county till the reign of Charles II., when it was first included within the Oxford circuit.

In 1645 Chepstow Castle surrendered to the Parliamentarians, and in 1648 Ragland Castle surrendered to Sir Thomas Fairfax, being the last castle in England that held out for the king. The latest political event in the history of this county was the rising of the Chartists in November, 1839, to the number of 10,000 men, headed by an ex-magistrate, Mr. John Frost, and his son. The disturbance, however, was soon quelled, and the two Frosts transported.

The principal rivers of Monmouthshire are the Wye, the Usk, the Rumney, the Ebbwy, the Sirhowy, the Afon-Llwyd, and the Monnow. The Wye enters the county in the parish of Welsh Bicknor, and then separating the counties of Hereford and Gloucester, it re-enters Monmouthshire in the parish of English Newton, and flows past Monmouth, till at Redbrook it again becomes the boundary of the county, continuing so to its mouth at the estuary of the Severn. Ships work up the river as far as Chepstow bridge, the tides being felt 5 or 6 miles higher, but above the bridge the river is only navigable for barges and trows. On its banks is the Wyndcliff, a hill about 800 feet high, commanding a view unrivalled for beauty and variety; and a little higher up, the far-famed Tintern Abbey, one of the finest ecclesiastical ruins in England.

The Usk rises in Brecknockshire, and enters Monmouthshire on the N.W., 3 miles W. of Abergavenny, flowing through the middle of the county, and passing the towns of Usk, Caerleon, and Newport, falls into the Bristol Channel. It is navigable for ships of large size as high as Newport, where it forms an estuary to the S. of the town. Its principal tributaries are the Kebby, the Kevenny, the Afon-Llwyd, and the Alwy. The valley of the Usk is almost as famous for its beauty as the valley of the Wye. The Rumney enters Monmouthshire on the W., and flows in a S.S.E. direction, dividing this county from Glamorganshire, till it falls into the Bristol Channel.

The Ebbwy rises in Brecknockshire, flows through Monmouthshire in a south-easterly direction past Crumlin and Newbridge to its junction with the Sirhowy, whence it flows S.E. past Bassaleg and Tredegar Park, through the Wentllooge level into the estuary of the Usk. The Sirhowy also rises in Brecknockshire and takes a south-easterly direction till it joins the Ebbwy. The Afon-Llwyd, or Torvain, rises to the N. of Aberystwith, flows S.S.E. through the iron works to Pontypool; thence it flows past Llantarnan Abbey to Caerleon, where it joins the Usk.

The Monnow rises near the village of Dorston in Herefordshire; it enters Monmouthshire 3 miles N.W. of Monmouth, and then falls into the Wye. The Trothy and the Honddu join the Monnow. In all these streams there is good fishing, the Wye and the Usk being noted for their salmon. The Monmouth and Brecknock canal, which traverses the county in a N.W. direction, was cut in 1792, and goes from Newport past Malpas up to Pontypool, joining the Crumlin canal a little above Newport, and having a rise of 447 feet. The latter canal follows the valley of the Usk, terminating a little above Crumlin Bridge.

The highest peaks in the W. part of the county are the Sugar Loaf, 1,852 feet above the level of the sea, Blorenge, 1,720 feet, Mynydd Maen, 1,563 feet, Skyrrid Vawr, 1,498 feet, and the Black Mountains; in the E. are Beacon Hill, 1,000 feet, and Kymin and Wyndcliff, famous for the views to be seen from their summits.

In an agricultural point of view Monmouthshire may be divided into three districts, of which the first comprises the southern portion, consisting partly of large tracts of moor and marsh land, including the greater part of the hundreds of Wentllooge and Caldicott, where sea walls have been constructed at vast expense to prevent the sea from overflowing the extensive marshes originally drained by the monks of Goldcliff: The second district comprises the eastern portion of the county, including the valleys of the Severn, Wye, and Usk, which possess such natural advantages and fertility of soil that the whole country wears the appearance of a garden; and the third district comprises the mountainous region towards the W., where the soil upon the hills is generally shallow, and occasionally entirely sterile, affording scanty pasture to the flocks of small sheep which number about 170,000, yielding 2,000 wool packs.

The arable land lies mostly towards the E., and rich loam, mixed with peat, is the soil of the level lands along the Newe. The large Hereford and other cattle are used for labour. Barley and oats form the principal crops in the N. and N.W.; but in the more sheltered valleys of Usk and Wye, wheat, potatoes, peas, beans, and turnips are largely grown. Apple orchards are plentiful in favoured situations, especially adjoining the Herefordshire border, and oak coppice abounds. Besides smaller forests of oak and ash, Wentwood Forest alone comprises 2,170 acres, and was formerly much larger when it took in the castles of Dinham, Lanvaches, Llanvair, Penhow, Pencoed, and Striguil, or Troggy. There are also 5,000 acres of common at Greensnore.

The climate in the southern part of the county is very temperate and salubrious, but in the N. and W. among the hills it is colder and more damp on account of the greater quantity of rain that falls, the passing clouds from the Channel being attracted by the hills. The estates are in general large, but the farms of moderate size, varying from 100 to 300 acres of arable, mostly held by the farmers at will. The county is traversed for about 23 miles by the South Wales line of railway, which, passing by Chepstow, Portscuett, Newport, and Rumney, follows the bank of the Severn to Cardiff, and communicates by steam ferry across the estuary of the Severn with Bristol.

A line of railway has also been recently constructed along the bank of the Monmouthshire canal, from Newport past Pontypool and Abergavenny to Hereford. These two main lines are connected by numerous branch lines with the Vale of Neath railway, besides local branches to most of the large manufacturing villages, and tramways to the coal and iron mines.

The turnpike roads are numerous and well kept, traversing the county in various directions. The principal lines from Monmouth are through Llantillio, Cresseny, Abergavenny, and Tredegar, to Merthyr Tydfil in Brecknockshire, 25 miles; another line through Ragland, Usk, and Caerleon, to Newport, 21 miles, with a fork from Usk to Pontypool and over the hills to Caerphilly, 32 miles; a third line of road leads by Trellech and Tintern Abbey, down the Wye to Wyndcliff, and so to Chepstow, 13 miles; a fourth by St. Weonards up the valley of the Wye to Whitchurch, and so to Ross, 10 miles; a fifth by St. Weonards to Hereford, 18 miles; and a sixth line of road from Monmouth through the Forest of Dean to Gloucester, 25 miles. Besides these there are numerous branch roads connecting most of the important villages and hamlets, which have recently been springing up in every part of the country, owing to the vast development of the mining and manufacturing interest in this county, the mineral wealth of which seems to be almost inexhaustible.

Besides the malleable iron, tin-plate, and smelting works mentioned above, a considerable manufacturing industry is maintained by the weaving of flannel, coarse cloths, woollen stockings, and caps, for which last manufacture Monmouthshire was formerly celebrated, though it has now become almost obsolete. It was enacted in the 13th Elizabeth, c.19, that Monmouth caps should be worn by all persons, except a few of worship and quality, on Sabbaths and holydays, on the pain of forfeiting 10 groats for the omission, and Fuller says that in his time "thousands of people were maintained thereby"; but this trade was subsequently removed to Bewdley, in Worcestershire.

Near the town of Monmouth there are also several paper and corn mills. The county is studded with numerous gentlemen's seats, as Troy House and Wentwood Lodge of the Duke of Beaufort, Llanvihangel Court of Lord Rodney, Pontypool House of Lord Sudeley, Abercarne and Llanover of Lord Llanover, Llanwern of Salusbury, Bart., Tredegar of Morgan, Bart., Trostrey of Fludyer, Bart., Wynastow of Pilkington, Bart., besides many residences of private families. The Monmouthshire hounds are kennelled at Llanfoist, and the Llangibby hounds, belonging to the Duke of Beaufort, meet at Wentwood Forest.

The antiquities include important British, Roman, Welsh, and Saxon remains, the county being traversed by the two great highways of South Wales, the Via Julia Maritima, which follows the line of the coast from Caerwent, the ancient Yenta Silurum, towards Cardiff., and the Via Julia Montana, going from Caerleon, the ancient Isca Silurum, and the metropolis of the early British Church, to Brecon. Roman remains are also found at Usk, the ancient Burrium, or Bullaeum, at Abergavenny, anciently Gobanium, and at Monmouth, occupying the site of the ancient Blestium. Traces of Roman and British camps are also met with at Campston Hill, Chepstow, Craig-y-Saesson, Craig-y-Gaereyd, Cwrt-y-Gaer, near Caerleon, Gaer, Sudbrooke, near Portscuett and Taliurum.

Approaching later times, Monmouthshire boasts of the ruins of the once magnificent abbeys of Llanthony and Tintern; also of numerous old castles, some of which are celebrated in history, as Usk Castle, where Edward IV. and Richard III. were born; Monmouth, where Henry V. was born; and Ragland Castle, a moated fortress built by the Herberts and Somersets, and garrisoned by the famous Marquis of Worcester during the Parliamentary war, being the last fortress in England to surrender to parliament, and that after a long siege. There are also numerous other baronial castles, as Caerleon, Caldecot, Castell Glas, Abergavenny, Chepstow, still partially inhabited, Cresseny, Dinham, Grosmont, Llanfair, Llangibby, Llanvaches, Newport, Pencoed, Pencow, and Tregreg. At Sudbrooke, near Portscuett, Harold is said to have had a palace, of which however there are no remains.

For purposes of civil jurisdiction it consists of six hundreds: Abergavenny in the N.W., Caldicott in the S.E., Ragland, E., Skenfreth, N.E., Usk near the middle, and Wentlooge in the S.W. and W.; each of these is subdivided into upper and lower, and together comprise 116 parishes, besides parts of three others, and three extra parochial liberties. It contains the county town of Monmouth, which is also a parliamentary borough and market town; the borough, market, and seaport town of Newport; the borough, quarter sessions, and market town of Usk; the market and seaport town of Chepstow; and the market towns of Abergavenny, Caerleon, Pontypool, and Tredegar, besides upwards of 166 villages or hamlets.

It returns three members to parliament - two for the county and one for Monmouth and its contributory boroughs. It is governed by a lord lieutenant and custos rotulorum, assisted by 47 deputy-lieutenants, a high sheriff, and about 170 magistrates. The county is included in the home military district, and in the Oxford circuit. For ecclesiastical purposes it forms an archdeaconry in the diocese of Llandaff and province of Canterbury, except the borough of Monmouth and a small district towards the N.E., which are in the diocese of Hereford. The population in 1851 was 157,418, and in 1861 was 174,633, and the number of inhabited houses in 1861 was 33,077, besides 2,021 uninhabited, and 226 building.

The general aspect of the county is diversified, some portions being hilly and even mountainous, while the valleys are luxuriantly rich, and the slopes of the hills chequered with woods and pastures. The geological formation of the county belongs to the carboniferous series of rocks forming part of the great South Wales coal basin, superimposed on carboniferous limestone, which shows itself in the hills to the E. and S.E., along the Wye and near Wentwood. In the neighbourhood of Pontypool Old Red sandstone prevails, while about Usk, and at various points on the border, strips of silurian and slaty rocks crop up.

The most important mineral productions are - coal, which is of the variety called anthracite, and occurs in strata from 3 to 9 feet thick; ironstone, which yields 30 per cent. of metal, and is extensively wrought both into pig and bar iron; lead ore is found, and limestone of the finest kind is obtained in almost every part of the county. There are several quarries of breccia for millstones, also mica slate and other valuable kinds of stone.

The extensive coal, iron, tin, and other works, which have chiefly sprung into operation since the latter part of the last century, now furnish employment to as many people as are engaged in agriculture or in trade. The chief works are Mynyddyslwyn, Nantyglo, and Beaufort coal mines, which employ near 5,500 hands; Pontypool and Caerleon blasting tin and iron works, which above 2,000; Aberyschan, Blaenavon and Clydach, Pentwyan and Galynos, Rumney or Rhymney, Sirhowy and Ebbwyvale, and Tredegar iron works, which together yield above 2,000,000 tons of iron yearly. In addition to the manufacture of iron there are at Caerleon, Panteague, and Rogerstone extensive tin-plate works."


[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]