A Legacy from Newport's Victorian Era

A Legacy from Newport’s Victorian Era
by Mary Evans

Copyright Newport Museum and Art Gallery, Percy Scannel's archive,  Ref. 1906, 96.469.1. Postcard dated 1906. For more postcards click here

Access to green spaces became a valued part of our lives during lockdown and public parks played a major role in many areas. As I have been walking through Belle Vue Park and Tredegar House Parkland over the past few months it has struck me how their reopening during lockdown was carrying on the tradition of the public park movement of the late 19th Century. Newport reopened its parks on the 18 May this year when initially visitors were limited to a 5 mile radius. The oldest of its parks, Belle Vue, is a legacy of the public park movement which was such a success in the later part of the 19th Century and depended on funding from town and city corporations across Britain.

In the early part of the Victorian era access to public open green spaces would have been a dream for the majority who lived and worked in the dire conditions of the rapidly growing industrialised towns. That is until the 1830s when out of concern for the moral and physical health of the population the public park movement began. Harriet Jordan in the Garden History Journal explains the theory behind the movement was that parks would make the working classes happier and therefore better citizens. This movement reached its peak between 1885 and 1914 when more public parks were built than at any other time before or since.[1] 

Copyright Mary Evans (M.E.)

Copyright Christabel Hutchings
Newport was no exception to the aspiration to provide a public park for its population. Belle Vue Park was opened in September 1894 at the cost of £19,500 on 23 acres of land presented in 1891 to Newport Corporation by Godfrey, 2nd Lord Tredegar (1831-1913). On his charger, Sir Briggs, he was one of Tennyson’s ‘six hundred’ who rode into ‘the valley of death’ and survived the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Known locally as Godfrey the Good, he believed that with great personal wealth came social obligation. He donated land for the establishment of the Athletic Ground, (named Rodney Parade after his elder brother Charles Rodney, heir apparent who died aged 25), the Free Library and the Technical Institute. He not only benefitted Newport but endowed Cardiff with many of its green spaces donating land for Cardiff Royal Infirmary, the University College and £3000 towards the building of the Welsh National Museum and Library. In 1909 he was presented with a portrait by the county of Monmouth and awarded the freedom of both Cardiff and Newport. A statue of him on his war horse Sir Briggs, by the Welsh artist Goscombe John still stands today in front of Cardiff City Hall.

A competition for the design of Belle Vue Park was launched In1892 and 25 entries were received. Thomas Mawson (1861-1933), who would become a world renowned English landscape architect, won the first prize of £50. The design was Mawson's first win in an open competition and he would go on to have numerous commissions in Britain, Europe and Canada.  One of his most prestigious is the Gardens of the Peace Palace in the Hague, home of the United Nations’ International Courts of Justice.  We are fortunate to see his work nearer to home, Belle Vue Park is the only public park in Wales designed by Mawson. It now boasts a Blue Plaque to him and Lord Tredegar.

(M.E.) Dyffryn Gardens, April 2019

Belle Vue Park is not the only example of Mawson’s work on our doorstep. Mawson also designed and constructed Dyffryn Gardens in 1906 for its owner the coal magnate Reginald Cory. Dyffryn Gardens is considered to be the finest example of an Edwardian garden. As seen above the gardens feature a wealth of daffodils.  In 2008 they received hundreds of specially bred bulbs donated by the Netherlands to commemorate the centenary of Mawson’s design of the Gardens of The Peace Palace in the Hague. The bulb was named the Peace Daffodil and will be blooming at Dyffryn next Spring. Mawson’s influence also inspired Lawrence Johnston who designed  Hidcote, the world famous garden in the Cotswolds also owned by the National Trust and is famous for its series of outdoor rooms. Johnsons’s design was inspired by his visit to Dyffryn Gardens and his reading of The Art & Craft of Garden Making by Thomas H. Mawson.

During the height of the Victorian public parks’ movement more attractions were provided such as music, sports facilities and horticultural display to encourage people to visit the parks.  Gwent historian Dr Wendy Taylor notes that Mawson’s design for Belle Vue Park included tennis courts, beautiful walks, shrubbery and trees, a pavilion with terraces, ornamental lodges, and stone steps. She also explains how much work this construction provided for Newport’s unemployed who carried out the heavy manual labour. [2].

The minutes from Newport County Borough Council Parks Committee describe the pavilion, terraces and two conservatories as the dominating features of Mawson’s design. [3] He added two decorative lodges located at the Friars Road entrance and the other on Cardiff Road. No public park was complete without a bandstand and one was added in November 1894 at the cost of £238-16-10.

(M.E.) The Bandstand, June 2020

The present day bandstand is a replica of the original, said to have been recreated from 
archive photographsBowling greens were opened in 1904, tennis courts were constructed in 1907 and a rustic tea house added in 1910 in response to increased demand for refreshments. The minutes also record that Mrs Bevan provided the refreshments in the pavilion at a yearly tenancy of £10 per annum and was allowed to extend her service to the tea house for the additional rent of £5. In 2000 the tea house was given listed grade II status.

(M,E.) The Tea House, July 2020

A hundred years after it opened Belle Vue Park was in urgent need of repair due to general deterioration and vandalism. 
The Belle Vue conservation area was designated on 12 January 1976. In 1996 CADW gave the pavilion, conservatories and terracing Grade II listed status and extended this to the gates, gate piers, lodges and tea house in 2000. In 2002 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £1.5 million towards the restoration of Belle Vue Park and the new facilities were formally opened on 8 September 2006.

(M.E.) The Gorsedd Circle Belle Vue Park 2019

Newport is only a handful of towns and cities to have two Gorsedd circles. One circle was erected in Belle Vue Park ready for the Proclamation ceremony of 1896 and the Eisteddfod which took place the following year. This was the first time the Eisteddfod had taken place in Newport. The other circle was erected in Tredegar House parkland where the Eisteddfod was held in 1988 and 2004.

(M.E.) The Gorsedd Circle Tredegar Park, May 2020

Tredegar House was the ancestral home of the Morgans for over 500 years, and its 90 acres parkland was bought by Newport Council in 1974 from the Sisters of St Joseph at Llantarnam Abbey. They had purchased it in 1951 from the last Lord Tredegar to use as a Catholic girls' boarding and day school. In 1967 St Joseph’s Roman Catholic High School was established when the school at Tredegar House merged with two other Catholic secondary schools in Newport. Phase 1 of a new building started in 1968, the second in 1972 with the final phase completed in 1976.

The purchase of Tredegar House by Newport Council rescued it from transformation into a conference centre and sports complex, which was the initial offer considered by the Sisters of St Joseph when they placed it on the market. At the time Newport Council was criticised for wasting ratepayers’ money. Last month the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW) in a youtube video hailed Tredegar House as a Welsh masterpiece.Click below.

In 2012 Newport City Council transferred the management of the Tredegar House Estate to the National Trust on a 50 year lease.
(M.E.) Parkland, May 2020
(M.E.) Mansion & Orangery 2019


Newport still owns the Mansion and formal gardens and the transferral to the National Trust stipulated that the 90 acre parkland remained open for free access to the public. Consequently the parkland was the only part of any Welsh National Trust property to give access to the public when lockdown in Wales was eased on the 18 May. The formal gardens reopened from the 2nd August with advance booking online.

Belle Vue Park was part of my childhood growing up on the west side of Newport in the 1950s. I remember ice cream in the pavilion, conservatories packed with exotic plants and monster ferns and brass bands playing from the bandstand. One conservatory is now a café and the other is a meeting room. Last summer you could have a cream tea on the Terrace and listen to a brass band playing below in the bandstand.

 (M.E.)The Pavilion and Terrace, July 2020

From the terrace there is a view over the Bristol Channel and when the trees are not in leaf you can see three of Newport’s five bridges. The nearest is the Transporter Bridge which was built on land donated by Godfrey, Lord Tredegar. Click here to see Lord Tredegar officially opening the Newport Transporter Bridge in 1906. In the bottom left of this picture is a glimpse of the Royal Gwent Hospital also built on land donated by Godfrey. 

(M.E.) May 2020

The latest addition to the park is the Friary Garden which opened in 2008. 

(M.E.) The Friary Garden, May 2020

In 2008/09 John Woods, then the Park Development Manager for Newport City Council, commented on Bellevue Park in 'The Bulletin' no. 53, published by The Welsh Historic Gardens Trust that: 

'the garden provides the perfect haven for quiet reflection and it is to be hoped that if Thomas Mawson were to sit here today, he would be pleased to see that his original design for a public park has been faithfully and sensitively restored, providing an important leisure facility for both residents and visitors to Newport alike for many more years to come.' [4].

Mary Evans, May 2020

1. Jordan, Harriet. “Public Parks, 1885-1914.” Garden History, vol. 22, no. 1, 1994, pp. 85–113. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1587004

2. A history of Newport's Belle Vue Park as it celebrates its 125th birthday. https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/17874358.history-newport-39-s-belle-vue-park-celebrates 39-s-125th-birthday/

3. Newport County Borough Council Parks and Cemeteries Committees

4. 'The restoration of Belle Vue Park, Newport' by John Woods, Park Development Manager, Newport City Council http://whgt.wales/documents/bulletin/bulletin53.pdf

See also Christabel Hutchings 'Welsh Artist William Goscombe John (1860-1952)  in The Friends of  National Museum Wales, Newsletter and Magazine p4. Click on link and scroll down. -http://friendsmuseumwales.org.uk/Magazine/2016%20April%20.pdf

Editors’ note: The Friends of Newport Museum and Art Gallery have been planning a visit to Belle Vue Park which has been postponed due to the lockdown but we hope to be able to plan a visit for a limited number of members in the future.
In the meantime note that the Museum and Art Gallery are open on certain days to those who book. See http://www.newport.gov.uk/heritage/Museum--Art-Gallery/Visiting.aspx


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