KEITH Richards of Newport recognised last week’s Now & Then photographs as the elegant, late Victorian or early Edwardian villas on Stow Park Avenue, Newport.

“These substantial, three-storey (with cellar) properties were built to accommodate the well-off, with in excess of six bedrooms and servants housed on the top floor.

At the time of their construction the town of Newport was expanding rapidly, with the town’s docks rated the third largest in South Wales, after Cardiff and Barry.

Millions of tons of coal passed through Newport docks on their way to all parts of the world, and the ‘steam coal’ pits in the Monmouthshire valleys provided coal for the Royal Navy.

In the rear they would have overlooked probably the most feared building in Newport. It was Woolaston House, – known as The Newport Workhouse.

Most of it still stands today, known as St Woolos Hospital. The gatehouse to the northern entrance to Woolaston House on Stow Hill can still be seen, and the wall alongside the main road was lowered in the early 1950s. Until then it enclosed the old workhouse.

In 1834 the Newport Poor Law Union was formed and encompassed 43 parishes and a population of around 24,000. The Board of Guardians met every Saturday at noon to discuss the past, and next, week’s business.

Woolaston House was built on land donated by Sir Charles Morgan, later 1st Lord Tredegar, at a cost of £4,000, initially to house 200 inmates. The original building was designed by TH Wyatt on a classical Victorian layout, similar to a prison, with the workhouse, hospital, infirmary and chapel; and enclosed by high, substantial walls, which extended along the modern Friars Road southwards to the lower Friars Gatehouse.

Woolaston House was greatly extended and altered in 1868-9 to increase the capacity to 500. It was further extended in 1902-3, when a number of the old buildings were demolished at the phenomenal cost of £60,000 [several million in today’s money] with only the small hospital, infirmary and chapel surviving.

In 1909, a report by the Board of Guardians to Parliament said that the current population of inmates was 479, and their ages varied between one day, and a lady by the name of Eliza Abbott whose age was recorded as 97 years and eight months, and she had been an inmate since 1837, at the age of 25.

I can recall, back in the early 1970s, I was in the waiting room at St Woolos Hospital, and sitting by an elderly gentleman. He turned to me and said, in a very emotional voice, “I never thought I would ever enter this place in my life time.”

Nearby, on Friars Road, opposite Belle Vue Park, are the Burton Almshouses, where, to this day, older residents of Newport can apply to be housed, when vacancies occur. Much more could be written on the nearby St Woolos Cathedral and ‘The Friars’, which was a priory until the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century.