GAER House, Newport, the residence of 'Powell of the Gaer', stood in splendid isolation perched at the top of the long muddy track which led steeply downwards to the Cardiff road.

Tendrils of Virginia creeper grasped in all directions like gnarled fingers grasping at the exterior walls trying to block sunlight from entering the windows. A huge monkey puzzle tree imported from the Andes towered over the garden like a colossus to accentuate the wealth and power of the owner of Gaer House.

This was the home of Thomas Powell, Newport coal baron, aka 'Powell of the Gaer', who could look southwards from his garden towards Tredegar Park where he might catch a glimpse of Sir Charles Morgan and his family walking in their park or boating on their lake. Looking west, nestling below the brow of the hill was Powell’s Gaer Farm (now the Gaer Inn) which supplied meat, milk, cheese and fish for the main house.

Then beyond the farm, Powell’s estate encompassed the ramparts of Gaer Fort where on a stormy night it is said that you could hear the war cries of the ancient Britons defending their fortress against the Romans.

Today, of Gaer House itself, only the memories remain, since it was demolished to make way for what is now Lansdowne Road.

South Wales Argus: Gaer House is long gone

The former site of Gaer House

Back in 1839, Thomas Powell and his family were living in the lap of luxury, enjoying the high life at Gaer House.

However, Powell’s colliers and their families lived in squalid poverty, oppressed by cruel working conditions.

On the edges of towns like Newport and Merthyr Tydfil, the Industrial Revolution had spawned overcrowded, insanitary, disease-riven slums. This squalor was compounded by the artificially high price of bread, the poverty wages Powell and the other industrialists paid their workers, harsh working conditions, bribery and corruption, the cost of using turnpike roads.

And hanging over whole families like the sword of Damocles was the threat of unemployment and the Workhouse.

All these issues were thorns in the side of working people who felt exploited and powerless, so many of them became Chartists hoping for change.

The People’s Charter promised voting reforms to bring about the decent living and working conditions that they hoped for, schools for their children and a green and safe environment.

But a new breed of entrepreneur was driving the Industrial Revolution ever onwards.

These “tycoons” or “tyrants” controlled the materials, especially coal and iron, that fuelled the Industrial Revolution.

Some, like Powell of the Gaer, became infamous for their unscrupulous pursuit of wealth and power. Powell had inherited his father’s timber business at the age of 14, and purchased a small piece of land at Llanhilleth, where he gained first-hand mining experience digging out what was his first colliery.

Between 1810 and 1830, he expanded his holdings, opening collieries at Gelligaer, Blackwood, Deep Dyffryn and at other locations. He recognised the opportunity that his superior Welsh coal offered and exploited this by winning contracts to supply both the British and French navies.

South Wales Argus: Gaer House

Gaer House

Coal was hewn from the rock deep underground and transported on the Sirhowy tramroad to Powell’s wharves on the River Usk in Newport where the “black gold” was shipped worldwide.

Yet, not content with the wealth he had already amassed, with Thomas Prothero and Thomas Latch, he set up the Newport coal cartel (1833) to artificially inflate the price of coal and so generate even more money.

Fixated solely on increasing his wealth and power, he frequently quarrelled with most of his business partners and associates.

When he wanted to work a seam of coal under Sir Charles Morgan’s Plas Bedwellty farm, adjoining his own colliery at Buttery Hatch, no agreement between them could be reached and a long feud between Powell and Morgan began which ended in a court case in 1841 that Powell lost.

Thomas Powell was first and foremost a coal baron - one of the wealthiest in the country. And he would certainly have considered the Chartists a threat to his burgeoning wealth and perhaps an even greater threat to his power.

South Wales Argus: Gaer House

Gaer House

Powell would have made sure that no Chartists were ever employed at the Gaer yet he must have known that many of the colliers he employed in his pits were already Chartists and that there were already many Chartists living nearby like John Lovell who lived on Cardiff Road near Gaer House.

There’s little doubt that Powell of the Gaer would have had nothing but contempt for the Chartists. But perhaps to ease his conscience, he might have contented himself with the tokens of his largesse indicated by this newspaper article in the Monmouthshire Merlin 16th Jan 1836:

“On Wednesday last being Old Christmas Day, Thomas Powell Esq. of the Gaer House, Newport, with the liberality and charitable feeling he has always evinced in the alleviation of distress, distributed, to the poor of the Borough and Parish of St. Woolos, one ton four hundred weight of bread, affording a liberal supply to a great many poor families.

"As the worthy donor has been elected one of the council and has since been chosen one of the Aldermen of the Borough, it may be a good inducement for other members of the Corporation to do likewise.”

Over the decades, washing and slag from collieries and ironworks profoundly changed the green and pleasant South Wales valleys into profane, ravaged wastelands.

South Wales Argus: Sir Charles Morgan

Sir Charles Morgan

Alexander Cordell described the devastation like this in his book Rape of the Fair Country: “I thought of my river, the Afon Llwyd, ….but no salmon leap in that river now for it is black with furnace washings and slag, and the great silver fish have been beaten back to the sea or gasped out their lives on sands of coal.

"Even the mountains are shells, groaning in their hollows of emptiness trembling to the arrows of the pit-props in their sides, bellowing down the old workings that collapse in unseen dust five hundred feet below. Plundered is my country. Violated. Raped.”

A campaign against industrial and environmental injustice, led by Chartist leader John Frost, a former Mayor of Newport, and Henry Vincent, a Chartist “missionary”, held many meetings throughout South Wales and the West of England to promote The People’s Charter which promised reform through its Six Points. These Chartist meetings, which would have unsettled Powell, were often held in the open air and attended by vast crowds.

On April 25, 1839, at Pentonville Fields, Newport, thousands of people gathered at a huge Chartist rally, listening to speeches by Frost and Vincent. Even though the meeting proceeded peacefully, Thomas Prothero, the Newport Town Clerk, sent in special constables with truncheons to break up the gathering. Later, Prothero advised the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell to strip John Frost of his office of magistrate.

At another event, speaking in Welsh, John Frost persuaded many miners to become Chartists. He said: “It’s wholly wrong and it makes my blood boil that children are taken into coal mines to work as young as four years of age and are excluded from light and are always without companions.

South Wales Argus: The then new housing development at the Gaer, Newport, in 1957

The then-new housing development at the Gaer, Newport, in 1957

"A coal mine is a dark, satanic place, dangerous even for adults, so it is no surprise that many children are badly injured underground and some are killed. We are called free men. But I ask 'What is freedom - if our children get treated like this?' This is like a prison for them.”

The 1842 Children’s Employment Commission tells us that Thomas Powell employed many children in his mines. It tells us their names and even how they felt. Perhaps Powell of the Gaer was haunted by the clanking chains of the children struggling to pull drams deep underground in the pitch blackness of his coal mines.

Children like seven-year-old William Richards (No. 193), who worked as an air-door boy in Powell’s Gelligroes colliery. The boy said: “I have been down about three years. I don’t know my own age. When I first went down I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I don’t fall asleep now, I smoke my pipe. I earn eight pence a day. I have never been to school.”

The inspector wrote: “This little fellow was intelligent and good humoured. His cap was furnished with the usual collier candlestick and his pipe was stuck firmly in his button-hole.”

Even the steward of Powell’s Buttery Hatch Colliery, Mr John Jeremiah (No.192), complained to the Commissioners about child labour: “Colliers in this part take their children down [the pit] earlier than formerly and the consequence is that few read neither Welsh nor English. It is a practice in this quarter to have what may be called 'Company’s Shops.'

"The men are not well satisfied with them. They certainly prevent the men from having any reserve funds. The colliers hereabouts are pretty sober, in fact they have no money to spend and many last summer were absolutely without food and now the price of food is so very high that children are carried down to work in the mines almost from the cradle.”

Throughout his whole life, Powell of the Gaer was obsessive about the pursuit of money and power and perhaps it was fitting that he died suddenly at Gaer House, the centre of his empire.

Yet what followed shortly afterwards caused something of a sensation.

Thomas Powell’s last will and testament mysteriously disappeared from a safe in the house and so the reading of the will could not take place. Bad luck perhaps, or was this the work of the ghosts of the child miners who toiled in Powell’s pits playing one final trick on him?

Despite eventually owning 16 coal mines, and being the largest coal exporter in the world, bad luck certainly followed Powell of the Gaer, and the circumstances surrounding the death of his eldest son and his family in Ethiopia in 1869 are particularly tragic and gruesome. Then in 1881 his youngest son, Walter disappeared in a hot air balloon over the English Channel and a few years later his middle son died after receiving a fatal kick from a horse.

However, all the ghosts that might have inhabited Gaer House to haunt Powell of the Gaer would certainly have been exorcised by the joy and laughter of the children who lived a century later on the newly-built estate of orange-roofed “allied houses” and who spent their endless summers playing on the “Gollas”.