The history of a village is not told only in written history in county and church records; indeed, the familiar topography of the village, the stories told over a pint, or memories recalled while waiting for a bus are all just as important a part of the tale as the words discovered in the dusty papers researched in libraries and record offices. So now we continue the “background” to our village history with some of the evidence to be seen and talked about in everyday life.
Topographically, our parish consists of a plateau, most of which was enclosed after the Enclosure Act of the early 19th century – Common Farm, for example, was once common land – and steep hillsides dropping down to the Wye and Whitebrook valleys, wherein lie most of the smaller farms and holdings. The land has many stony outcrops of sandstone and the well-known “pudding-stone” or quartz conglomerate. This abundance of easily obtainable stone meant fields could be protected by dry stone walls and steep slopes shored up. In some parts of the parish these walls are massive and are thought to date back to Roman times. A quarry on the Argoed estate was reopened early this century to provide stone for repairs to Raglan castle tower, as the original tower was build of Argoed stone.
The best pudding-stone from the quarries was used by the stone-masons who carved out millstones and cider mill wheels for use in this area and many were exported via the Wye to France. Stones were cut at the Generals by a family called Potter, and millstones were also quarried in the Barberry woods, Penygarn and Graig woods. Now the old millstones and troughs are expensive and highly prized garden ornaments! The grist mills which used the stones for grinding corn, were located on Blackbrook and Whitebrook, powered by the force of falling water, and were used until they were replaced by steam-driven iron rollers in the 19th century, thus causing the local village mills to fall into disuse by the turn of the century. The grist mill at new Mills was built in 1649, and one of the last millers was Mr Robbins.
The hedger was a familiar worker in the winter months, maintaining boundaries by laying the hedges to keep them thick and stock-proof. Many mature trees in the parish with “laid over” bases mark the line of long-gone hedges.
In addition to the crafts of stone-mason, hedger and miller, many parishioners can recall relatives who in the 19th century practised the crafts of blacksmith, wheelwright and carpenter. Wheels were one of the earliest pieces of technology devised by man and the first people in Europe to make fourteen-spoke wheels with metal rims were the Celts – this craft was probably practised in the village until the early 20th century by the grandfathers of some of our parishioners. The blacksmith was a Mr Thomas of Lydart forge, now a private house, and Mr Thompson was the carpenter who also made coffins. One of the bus stops on the Lydart is still known as “Carpenter’s Shop”, although Thompson’s workshop there has not been used as such since the early years of this century.
Penallt had a cooper, John Reynolds who died in 1888; Mrs Cooper’s house, “The Reynolds”, is names after his family who lived there for at least five generations. On common land at what is now the home of Jim and Olive Saunders, limestone was dug and burnt in kilns to produce lime for improving the land. It is possible that at some time in the past Penallt also had a potter who would have used the locally available red clay for making coarse earthenware plates and bowls – but no evidence of shards or a kiln site has yet been found, although remains of kilns have been ploughed up in several surrounding villages. Potters were sometimes itinerant workers who moved into an area for a few months, built a kiln and used the local clay for pottery and then moved on to another village when they had satisfied local demand for pots.
Regular employment in and around Penallt was limited, but men were needed on the land in great numbers at certain times of the year before the coming of tractors and combines. Whitebrook paper mills, of which there were four by 1816, employed many Penallt people; in 1860 the wages for men for a 12-hour day were 1s 4d to 3s 6d. Weekly wages for women were 2s 3d. to 6s., for they were paid on a piece-work basis, receiving 9d per hundredweight for cutting rags, and 1s per 20 reams for sorting paper, and even children were given a penny a day for the rags they collected for paper-making. Whitebrook was famous for its choirs who practised as they shredded the rags. “Penny readings” were held in the drying sheds by candle and lamp-light on winter evenings. Manufacture of paper continued until 1888, twelve years after the coming of the railway, by which time cheap water transport had declined and the mills were no longer economically viable. The Whitebrook paper, held in high regards for its quality, was used for bank-notes and the wallpaper which had become so popular by the 1850s. Some of the wooden wallpaper blocks were rescued after the mills were sold and are now to be seen on the façade of some of the houses in Drybridge Street, Monmouth. Various metal works were established in Redbrook in the 17th century and the people of Penallt walked down to the Wye to cross on the ferry to work in the tinplate industry. The Redbrook Tinplate Works was renowned for its fine sheets of foil which was used for perishable goods conveyed to all parts of the world. These industries were finally closed in 1961; several of the workers then went to work at the Llanwern Steel Works – a long journey before and after a hard day’s work.
The River Wye has always been an important route for trade because of the poor road system on the steep hills. Between 1763 and 1852, 64 ships were registered as having been built on the Wye. Boats of all sizes and nationalities travelled up and down the river. Passenger boats carrying wealthy Victorians ran from Chepstow to Ross-on-Wye and stopped at various places for the tourists to see the sights, such as Tintern Abbey and Symonds Yat. Barges filled with bricks, iron, coal and timber were hauled by human labour. It took five men to tow an empty barge upstream, but when they were fully laden, 15 men were needed per 25 tons. Heath, writing in 1804, said “The rapidity of the current renders this employment a great labour particularly in dry seasons. In passing the different weirs they are then obliged to fall, with all their force flat on the ground, which is done at the shout of “Yo ho!”, in which position they continue for a short space when another shout being given, they rise up and, securing their step, fall down a second time and so on, till they gain a more peaceful and greater depth of water”. Foreign sailors patronised the waterside inns and smoke and noise characterised the river, vastly different from the Wye with which we are familiar today. Now we enjoy its peace and tranquillity, disturbed only by occasional fishermen and canoeists – and low-flying jets!
The skills of the cottage dwellers and farm workers in the past were more varied than today, for a farming community needed a great variety of tools and equipment for use on the farms and in the home, and many of these were made in the village itself. Baskets were needed, and were made from split oak, hazel or the willows which grow by the Wye, and a mesh made of cleft willow was a good sieve for the miller. Rushes, collected and dried in the summer months, were then soaked in fat for simple lighting in the cottages; candles of tallow were also made at home. Wool was spun and garments made and repaired by the mothers; boot repairs were undertaken by the father of the family, for the more durable clogs had disappeared by early Victorian times. He must have spent much of his spare time at this task, considering the size of many families!
Some of the old cottages had beehive-shaped ovens in which bread was baked in the residual heat after the fire was raked out. Food was simple fare, but plentiful and wholesome, consisting of home-grown vegetables, bread, eggs and occasional meat from the farm when a beast was slaughtered. Butter and cheese were bought from the farm and milk from a man with a horse and trap, who had a pint and half-pint ladle with which to fill the housewife’s jug. But this fresh dairy produce used to have a sting in the tail, for tuberculosis was common until pasteurisation and the mass X-ray vans made the rounds in the 1950s.
People grew their own food, and the three shops in the village provided whatever else they might need. Children bought apples from a special “brandy tree” for a ha’penny each; their parents bought elvers, which were delicious cooked with salt bacon, from a man who visited the village once a year. In the parish there were about 40 wells which were shared by neighbours, but in 1957 many houses were connected to the mains, although The Generals, Church Farm and, presumably, Spring Farm, still used their springs. Electricity arrived in 1955, but some people preferred oil lamps and were reluctant to be “connected”. The Argoed was the first house to have the telephone in 1913, and this was operated manually via the exchange in Trellech, kept by Miss Davies and her brother, and a wonderful source of information! A council refuse collection started in 1960; previously people burnt or buried rubbish – and occasionally just dumped it in the woods. There was no street lighting and no pavements, but rates were low at seven and sixpence in the pound, and if one paid within three months, there was a 15% discount!
Births in the village were catered for by Mrs England and Mrs Meredith’s grandmother acting as midwives. There was always a good attendance at funerals, with coffins being carried by bearers all the way to the Old Church – a long haul up a steep hill, necessitating a rest at the Vermin Oak on the way. Mr Chatfield, from the Argoed, requested that he should be carried by wagon, which was adorned with laurel leaves. The journeys back from weddings, much happier occasions, used to be interrupted by a group of children holding a rope across the lane, demanding pennies from the new bride and groom before they were allowed past. This happened at the wedding of Rosemary Potter, and the custom has been re-enacted in recent times at the weddings of Giselle Sanger, Denise Gleed and Suzanne Evans.
Social life in the “old Days” revolved around the church, school and Pelham Hall, with flower shows, church outings, dances, cricket and football matches, and a day off from work or school each year to visit the Monmouth Mop Fair on the first Monday in May. People thought nothing of walking to Monmouth to a dance. There was a winter club, Christmas parties and a nativity play which was taken “on Tour” to Monmouth. A Boxing Day concert was a regular event to benefit the church organists. Any other free time in the winter could be spent in skating or sliding on the Argoed pond, which always seemed to freeze every winter. There were magic lantern shows, moral lectures and needlework classes. Nobody needed a television in those days!
Our life-long residents supplied a wealth of reminiscences and colourful anecdotes, some of which appear in this book; the conversation of Mrs Dolly Davies, Miss Dorothy Jones, Mrs Billy Jones, Mrs Nora Meredith, Mrs Lilian Boycott, miss Bertha Vaughan and Mrs Freda Parker were of particular assistance. Without their good memories, so much of interest and value in the history of our village would have been lost for ever.
[from: Penallt – A Village Miscellany]
The Paper Mills of Whitebrook by D.G.Tucker D.Sc