Newport historian and author Richard Frame, MBE, talks to Kath Skellon about his friendship with the late Alexander Cordell, sharing a flat with Joe Strummer and researching the lives of World War One Soldiers.
“I FIRST became aware of the late author Alexander Cordell when I moved to Wales as a young teenager. I remember reading The Rape of the Fair Country while at school in Cardiff and it having a profound effect on me.
It was 1966 when we moved from Guildford to Cardiff and three things that stuck in my head regarding that year: England won the World Cup, the Aberfan disaster and Cathy Come Home was on TV which I remember watching.
It led to the creation of lots of different homeless organisations because there was such a backlash as a result of what had happened to Cathy and I later ended up running an organisation for homeless people in Newport.
After reading Alexander Cordell’s book I persuaded my father to bring me to Newport to have a look at the Westgate and the so-called bullet holes and a friend took me to Blaenavon so I could see where the book was set.
It was a period of history that affected me and I felt very close to it.
I came to Newport in the 70s to study at the old art college in Clarence Place where I completed a three year course.
After finishing most students went home but I ended up staying.
As a student I used to share a flat with the late musician Joe Strummer. We used to live by the railway station.
He had been in Art College in London but left and followed a girl to Cardiff in the hope of them getting back together but it didn’t work out so he called into Newport on his way back to London to see a friend and decided to stay for about a year.
There’s now a plaque on the wall of the house we lived in that I had put up, which Joe’s widow unveiled for us.
It had been a terrible old place, full of art students, a bit like that TV programme The Young Ones.
My first job was running a children’s theatre company.
We travelled around Britain for three or four years but being on the road five days a week was really exhausting.
My next job was as a nursing assistant on the adolescent unit at St Cadoc’s Hospital.
I then trained and qualified as a psychiatric nurse where I stayed for seven years.
A job came up for director of a new organisation called Newport Action for the Single Homeless which I ran for 25 years before retiring.
Our office was on the corner of George Street and Lower Dock Street, Newport, where we built the very first purpose-built art centre for homeless people in Britain.
I’d always thought that everybody should get the benefit of going to art college.
I visited a number of different art centres and put together a project where we would have painting, cooking, music and poetry. I wanted to help people back into work and to give them a sense of dignity and self respect.
Sadly it’s closed now due to lack of money and the building has been turned into accommodation.
Going back to my interest in history and archaeology, I had become very friendly with recently-retired South Wales Argus journalist Mike Buckingham.
Not long after he joined the Argus we wrote a book together called The Haunted Ground which tells the stories of some of the people buried in St Woolos Cemetery.
It was while they were building John Frost Square that I began to wonder where the man himself was buried, after all he is one of the most important people from Newport’s past, but initially I couldn’t find anything out about it.
I eventually did discover his grave stone near Bristol, but there was nothing left of the wording, ironically it had been damaged by frost.
I asked Newport Council if they would provide some money to have a new head stone made, which they did and it was unveiled by Neil Kinnock in 1986.
As a result of that I wrote to Alexander Cordell’s publishers and out of the blue had a phone call from him.
He was in Abergavenny visiting friends and asked if I would take him to see the grave.
The three of us became great friends.
After his wife’s death we tried to encourage him to write again.
We found a book one day in his house about Owain Glyndwr by Ian Skidmore, who was a journalist, and he’d signed it and left his phone number.
We met up with him and he offered to give Alex his research papers on Owain.
Alex started work on a new novel but unfortunately his health deteriorated and he never finished it.
Mike and I eventually got round to writing his biography as he didn’t want it written while he was alive.
We gathered together lots of letters and documents and the book was published in 1999.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the birth of local writer Arthur Machen and we put on a series of events to celebrate this writer who few local people knew anything about.
Two friends and I got together and created a small publishing enterprise and called it The Three Imposters named after the title of one of his books.
We wanted to reprint his three autobiographies, part one was completed and is now on sale and we’re just about to release the next called The London Adventure.
I’d wanted to do archaeology when younger but I didn’t have the A-levels but a few years ago I studied it as a mature student in Bristol.
I’d jointly started the local history society in 1980 and recently helped to set up The Friends of Newport Museum Art Gallery which is quietly gathering steam.
I had been to the opening of the new Chartist exhibition opened by Newport-born Michael Sheen, who agreed to become our patron. He attended last year’s Chartist Convention which we hold every year.
This year is the 175th anniversary of the Chartist Rising. A friend discovered a description of a Chartist banner which was brought out in meetings in Newport in the 1840s . We’re now having a copy made which will be on show shortly.
I’m currently involved in a number of First World War projects, one with the museum, which involves an exhibition which starts in August.
Two of us have been been working on one particular Newport soldier Percy Scannell, who was killed in the Third Battle of Ypres. One of his family left photos, letters and artefacts to the museum which we have been recording and transcribing and I’ve have been preparing a lecture on him.
Through that we stumbled on the diary of Pontypool soldier Private Charles Heare who wrote a vivid and moving account of his experiences during the war.
An Argus appeal has now put me in touch with the family, as a result of that I came across another soldier from Pontypool, Lieutenant Hughes who was also in the 2nd Mons and whose daughter lent me his diary which I’ve transcribed.
This has led me back to St Woolos Cemetery where I have now become interested in the war graves of which there are around 200. These include many who returned wounded and died at St Woolos Hospital which was used by the military during the First World War.
An Argus article in 1916 reporting that even though the wounded were coming in at 11pm hundreds of people would turn up at the railway station applauding the wounded soldiers coming off the train. I eventually plan on doing tours where I want to be able to follow the various battles which the men had fought in.”