As preparation for writing a new history of Newport, one of our members, Dave Hodson, has fully researched the yards of Newport. Dave was interested in finding out more about his great grandparents who lived in Cock Yard alley and Bellman’s yard and so the search started there.
If we take Newport’s High Street from Lower Bar in the north to Upper Bar in the south, including St Mary’s Street, we can see strips of land, as laid out in medieval times, called burgage plots. They lay in long narrow stretches behind the properties. Originally, these plots were both for doing their trades and presumably growing food. At the back of the plots was always a back lane so that, usually, people could access their plot from the back and the front. In Newport, these are Water lane and Beaumaris Road.
The word ‘yard’ could describe a variety of situations: a long narrow alley stretching from behind the line of the High Street, such as Cock Yard and Red Lion/ Barclays Bank Yard, both of which ran right down to Beaumaris Road. However, some the yards were little more than rear accommodation of an inn or shop. Often these became called a ‘Court’ and, until fairly recently, you could still see court numbers above alley ways. The owners of the frontage properties would often be crafts people: butchers, bakers, saddlers, tailors etc. Up until the 20th century each town was pretty much self sufficient. These are all documented in Newport trade directories of the period; of which Newport History Society has an almost complete set from 1791. These businesses built workshops, sheds, stables and small cottages down the strips of land, both to accommodate their business premises and staff, but also to supplement their income from the business. Nearly all the names of the yards have been taken down today, which is a pity because there are many interesting stories and families associated with them. Yards such as Star Gardens, Watkin’s Yard, Adam’s Yard and Sherry’s Yard all have a story to tell.
Where did the names come from and who owned them?
We have identified around thirty yards and courts in the 19th century. Although looking at the overhead aerial view, we believe there must have been many more. If we look at maps of 1841and the 1910 (Lloyd George Finance Act), we are given the names of the owners and can see exactly where the yards were.
How many People lived in the yards, and how many houses where there?
The peak year for occupancy was 1851, when around 544 people lived in yards. In Bellman’s Yard, for example, 130 people lived in 22 cottages, but we can see that in more than one house, there were over twenty people. This was an exception though, since in Bellman’s Yard there was a ‘common lodging house’.
If we look at the total population figures for Newport, in 1851 out of a total population of 2906, 544 lived in the yards, almost 20% of the population.
Who were these people?
Between 1841 to1851 the majority of the people living in the yards were local labourers and trades people. After the potato famine in Ireland, there was a major change when an Influx of Irish agricultural labourers helped to increase the Yard inhabitants from 360 in 1841 to 544 in 1851; an increase of over 60%. It should be noted that, as well as there being fleers from the famine, there were always Irish agricultural labourers who had travelled into Newport for seasonal work anyway.
Although labourers dominated the occupations in the yards, other occupations varied from actors (presumably on tour) to a collector of bones. The most common occupations of the yard people were labourers, shoe & bootmakers, bricklayers and many charwomen and laundresses, for whom a breakdown in marriage or becoming a widow resulted in wives and mothers suddenly having to find an income from somewhere. The ladies were wives and mothers and often never had to earn an income, and it was hard to find a trade themselves.
The properties were chiefly cottages. It appears that the majority of the houses were of the one up, one down, with communal outside cold water taps, outside toilets and a washroom with laundry copper.
Here is a typical plan of such a cottage . This is a cottage which was at Court 3; at the back of where Taste of Paradise is now located.
Here at Court No3, children slept on the landing . Some housing may have been two up two down, and some would have been disused workshops and outbuildings.
The Decline of the Yards
The occupancy of the yards fell from a peak in1851 of 544 people to 161 people in 1901 and some yards were still in use into the 1950s. Why the decline? Chiefly we think it resulted from legislation on housing conditions. Sanitation could not, or would not, be met by the landlords. So, as properties became empty and fell into decay, they were eventually demolished. One example is a 1909 Newport Urban District Council report which said that: “The Inspector reports the premises in the Dun Cow Yard have been closed.” and there were “Proceedings against Mr J Downes the owner of the premises in Bellman’s Yard”. The year after, Alfred Massey, Newport’s Sanitary Inspector on Bellman’s Yard said that a “house was in a group scheduled as unfit for human habitation, belonged to an old man named Downes. ..[The] tenant was George Norton. Two rooms, 1 up and down. Livlng there was husband and wife and 8 children”. The court declared this to be ‘a nuisance’ and a fine of 10s. a day to be imposed after 28 days. This was quite a severe fine for an owner in 1910. The fact is that this poor quality housing stock would never benefit from a landlord’s extra investment.
The yards gradually deteriorated and were mostly demolished by the 1950s. A few became garages, shops and storage spaces. Today one or two can still be seen if you walk slowly down the High Street and look at the alleys, if the gates happen to be open.