THE extreme wealth of the Morgan family at the luxurious Tredegar House was a far cry from the desolate conditions of the workhouse in Newport. BECKY CARR looks at how people lived in days gone by.
BEAUTIFUL, wealthy and witty, Gwyneth Morgan seemed to have it all.
Her father, colonel Courtenay Charles Morgan, was a Welsh coal baron and her mother, lady Katharine Morgan, was from an aristocratic Scottish family, with close links to the British royal family.
The Morgan’s occupied various mansions, castles and villas in Wales, with her grandfather Freddie living at Ruperra Castle near Newport.
But Gwyneth was to pay the ultimate sacrifice for maintaining her family’s place in high society.
Gwyneth was born on January 5, 1895 in London. She spent much of her childhood between homes and would have been raised by domestic staff.
She was launched as a debutante in September 1913 at the Northern Meeting in Inverness, which set her up for a number of public appearances in her late teens including meeting the King and Queen in June 1914.
After the presentation at Buckingham Palace, Gwyneth and her chaperones attended a number of engagements in search for a husband but with the onset of the First World War, and therefore a shortage of men, the task was becoming more difficult.
Throughout the war, Gwyneth and her mother carried out charity work in aid of the armed services and in 1917, inspired by her aunt Violet Mundy, she took a course to learn how to repair vehicles.
Aged 23 she was given a job as a motor driver but having collected her kit in September 1918, she fell ill and was discharged.
Gwyneth was known to play pranks and be childish, which did not sit well with potential suitors.
She was also prone to be highly-strung and depressive, something she had inherited from her mother.
Gwyneth also became involved in London’s drug culture and fell under the influence of restaurant proprietor Billy Change, a dealer, and became something of a bohemian.
Change eventually cast Gwyneth out which gave her time to try to overcome her drug addiction.
Her father rented a house for Gwyneth in South West London in a bid to settle her but she was a virtual prisoner who was watched over by hired help.
On Thursday, December 11, 1924, Gwyneth vanished. A missing person’s report was filed with police and Lord Tredegar spoke to the press.
The Argus reported on January 19, 1925 that Gwyneth is described as “being 5 ft 8 in height, of medium build, with large blue eyes, dark hair and thin features. She has an attractive personality”.
Gwyneth’s body was not found until five months later on May 25, 1925 when it was dragged out of the Thames in a terrible condition.
Lord Tredegar decided not to dignify Gwyneth’s death with a private or public funeral in Newport but instead to bury her in an anonymous grave in South London.
The inquest into Gwyneth’s death gave an open verdict but confirmed she had died by drowning, meaning the case is still unsolved.
A report written by George Thomas Clark in 1850 showed that urgent action was needed to improve the public health of Newport.
The comprehensive document highlighted the terrible living conditions at the time, diseases such as Typhus, Smallpox and Cholera were becoming endemic and death rates were high.
The Clark report states: "The [water] supply is very insufficient for the wants of the town, and the cottages suffer materially from the scarcity. For ordinary purposes they have recourse to the canal, the water of which is very dirty, many of the houses draining into it."
It also deals with individual properties and land such as the Tabernacle Chapel yard burial ground. It says: "This ground is crowded, loathsome and offensive. surrounded by a populous and respectable neighbourhood.
"The average depth of the graves I understand is from 4 ft 6 to 5 feet, the soil wet. Consequently the graves, to a certain extent contain water."
Clark also recorded: "In Charles Street are 30 houses, most of them connected with the culvert in the street. Six are low lodging houses, sublet into different apartments, and are very much overcrowded, as, for instance, the house inhabited by 30 persons, each room used for all domestic purposes during the day and as a sleeping room at night.
"Most of these lodgers are collectors of old rags or bones, which are heaped up in the rooms. In some of the lodging houses large quantities of dried fish are kept until they are often in a putrified state. In others are vegetables, such as remain unsold during the day."
The report recommended that every house should have a water supply connected to main drainage, that a local health board should be created and that sewers should be repaired and replaced.
The council took immediate action in regard to the recommendations except the demolition of Friars' Fields. It was not until a decade later that the citizens were removed from the properties and the area was cleared.
THE 1834 Poor Law Act made the Newport Board of Guardians responsible for poor relief and public health. Sir Charles Morgan took up the role as the first chairman with the board including MP Reginald Blewitt, Major Mackworth and John Frost.
A board meeting in 1836 decided that a new workhouse should be build in Newport. Sir Charles Morgan donated land on Stow Hill for the workhouse, which cost £3,000 to build and could accommodate 200 paupers. It was extended in 1868 at a cost of £10,000 to increase capacity to 500.
Admission to the workhouse required an interview, undertaken by a relieving officer, to establish the applicant's circumstances. Upon entering the workhouse, paupers were stripped, bathed and issued with an often poor quality workhouse uniform.
Meals often consisted of bread, broth and porridge with special diets given to children, the old or infirm. The Monmouthshire Merlin on January 29, 1860, reported that the inmate's Christmas Day meal was a treat.
It reports: "On Christmas Day at the workhouse, the poor of the Union were regaled with roast beef and plum pudding, the result of a subscription raised for the purpose.
"The Master and the Matron did all within their power towards the comfort of the inmates on the occasion.
"In the evening a very nicely decorated Christmas tree was introduced, from the branches of which were suspended little articles of use and interest, which were distributed to the poor inmates, who were much pleased with the manner in which the Master and Matron had endeavoured to amuse them."
Life was hard in the workhouse with inmates being given a variety of tasks to help run the institution.
Women mostly did domestic jobs such as cleaning or sewing and men would help with carpentry, shoemaking, bricklaying and plumbing.
Workhouses were not prisons and inmates were there on a voluntary basis meaning they were occasionally entitled to leave.
The Star of Gwent reported on November 15, 1889: "As is well known to our readers, the first Monday of each month, or Mabon's Day, as it is now known by, is given as a holiday to those inmates of the Newport Workhouse who care to leave the institutions for a few hours for the purpose of visiting friends and relatives.
"Unfortunately the day very rarely arrives without witnessing the return of many of these inmates in a state of intoxication. It is therefore, a frequent sight to see them reeling back to the workhouse intoxicated.
"For this they are of course reprimanded and punished by being deprived of the holiday for a certain period of time. It will thus be seen, that it is mistaken kindness to ply those unfortunates with drink."
JAMES Cordes, a wealthy industrialist from the Midlands, owned the Dos nailworks factory near the Mill Street gas works.
His family was influential in Newport in the 19th century and were known for treating their workers fairly.
Mr Cordes was aware of his wealth and the poverty surrounding him so made an effort to help his workers bring up their children by building a school and insisting that the children spent part of each day learning from the Bible.
The factory was called the Dos works, meaning two in Spanish, as the family were of Spanish and American descent and Mr Cordes already had a factory in the Midlands.
The works employed more than 1,000 people and was the largest nail factory in the country at the time.
It was said that at 10pm each night a gun was fired to tell Mr Cordes that everything was fine.
On his death in 1867, his wife inherited their home, Brynglas House. Their son Thomas Cordes later became an MP for Newport from 1874 to 1880. He had inherited his father's attitude towards education and built the National School in Malpas in 1869.