The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
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Gwent Local History No. 39, Spring 1975
The Jenkins Story
by Eija Kennerley
THE description of Caerleon, given about fifteen or eighteen years before John Jenkins came to live there, is not inspiring. Donovan, before 1805, writes: "There is nothing also (sic!) in the appearance of the place to denote respectability, except the houses of some few gentlemen, resident in the town". (1) Reverend Evans writes, before 1809: " the number of inhabitants not amounting to more than 667, including those of the village Ultra Pontem and the houses to 148." (2) John Jenkins was to play a part in the development of this hamlet which was encouraged by the growing trade in the Tin Works and Caerleon Forge. This was the period when the influx of people from Somerset, the Midlands and from the west had a great effect socially.
In 1819, 1821 and 1822, a John Jenkins appears as a Church-warden of St. Cadoc's church. (3) At first sight this seems a strange occupation for a staunch Baptist, but there are explanations. The first explanation could be that this is not our John Jenkins at all. There was at least one other person in Caerleon with the same name: a John Jenkins was sent back to his original parish of Whitchurch, Glamorgan, in 1826, because he could not pay his debts. (4) But, being a Churchwarden was compulsory once you were chosen and to be chosen, you had to be a trustworthy person and generally respected. That is why the unfortunate John Jenkins from Glamorgan cannot have been the one. Also, the Baptists still had no independent legal rights, before the Repeal of the Tests Acts (1828) and in fact had to submit to the organisation and ceremonies of the Established Church. [Canon E. T. Davies has pointed out to the writer that a non-conformist (Baptist) could serve as churchwarden until 1868 when the church rate, paid by churchmen and non-conformists alike, was imposed on the parish. Also, that after the Toleration Act of 1689 the non-conformists had already many concessions, although in many places great confusion still existed about these matters.] Later we shall see how John Jenkins took part in the struggle for the rights of the Baptists.
John Jenkins conducted his business diligently, getting more and more prosperous. Perhaps he was very lucky. He lived at a period when the Napoleonic Wars boosted British industry, especially those industries which supplied the Army and the Navy, from about 1790 to 1815. Afterwards came a slump, but those who had been farsighted enough, had been able to invest their money in different ways. John Jenkins had another house in Caerleon, in Mill Street, called Brodawel. (5) He also had land, perhaps a farm, in Penhow, as well as nearer, in the neighbourhood of Caerleon. At the Land Tax Assessment in 1831 he had "in hand, House and land, Stables, office and warehouse etc., £1 l0s. l0d.". The sum was "exonerated", paid in a lump sum.
Visible signs of John Jenkins's social rise can be seen in the directories of the time. In the Directory for Monmouthshire, 1830: "Jenkins, John & Co., Ponthea Works near Caerleon"; Pigot's Directory 1835: "Jenkins, John, Esquire, Caerleon". In 1830 he still was placed among "Tin-plate manufacturers" (of whom there were only two in Caerleon, Fothergill being the other one). In 1835 his name is placed under the heading, "Nobility, Gentry and Clergy".
John Jenkins certainly was capable of taking responsibility in a wider area. In 1825, 11th July, he swore the oath on his appointment as Deputy Lieutenant of Monmouthshire, (6) and qualified as a Magistrate in 1829. (7) He seems to have been able to take advantage of the repeal of the Test Acts (1828) which had prevented non-conformists having any office. There were plenty of loopholes, however, and John Jenkins was able to "jump the queue". Some years later the Dissenters were still fighting for their rights. However, the battle was not so much against the law of the land and the government, it 'was against the Established Church.
On the 18th of January 1834, The Monmouthshire Merlin
gives "a report on a public meeting of the Ministers, Deacons and
Members of the Protestant Dissenting Churches, and Congregations of
the Independent and Baptist Denominations - within the district bounded
by Blaenavon, Usk and Caerleon - at Pontypool, 15th January 1834".
The meeting made a resolution on eight points altogether, as objections
against the state of affairs: "1st: The necessity of conforming
to the rites and ceremonies prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer,
in the celebration of marriage, 2nd:
There were similar meetings in Abergavenny and Newport, but the Pontypool meeting was the first. In a letter to the Editor, 8th March 1834, the size of the Caerleon Dissenting congregation is given as 430 which is comparatively very large.
Another, this time a political upheaval, occurred at the beginning of the 1830's. It was the demand of parliamentary reform. Again John Jenkins's name appears among the signers of petitions and among those who attended meetings. The Merlin gives generally quite a lot of space for the reports of political meetings. On the 1st of October 1831 there was a report of a petition sent, via the Sheriff of Monmouthshire, to the House of Lords. It was signed, among others, by Capel Hanbury Leigh, Thomas Salusbury, John H. Pritchard, Thomas and Richard Fothergill and John Jenkins, all connected with Caerleon in one way or another.
If he at all wanted to make speeches at the meetings, John Jenkins had hardly a chance for it as there were speakers more illustrious and in higher positions than he was, so far at least. Capel Hanbury Leigh, on his part, had to wait until the applause had ended before he could even start his speeches.
After the House of Lords had rejected the Bill, there was a mysterious Letter to the Editor in the Merlin, on the 15th of October 1831, signed at Caerleon, by "A Constitutional Renovator and a Lover of Good Order". Thomas Fothergill could be the sender - or John Jenkins.
When, after a long and arduous battle, the Reform Bill finally was passed, Caerleon celebrated its passing with a dinner party on the 4th of August 1832. The Merlin gives a long report of it. Apparently the day was a comparatively noisy one, as the church bells started ringing at three in the morning already. The town was decorated with flower garlands and flags. Banners with political mottoes were marched along. The final high point came with the toasts drunk at the dinner and one of them was called by the people present, "for John Jenkins, junior, Esquire". The son had perhaps worked hard for the festivities and, being young - 21 years - had been energetic and seen by everybody. Later in the evening "a large number of gentlemen" went to continue celebrations at the Hanbury Arms, but The Merlin does not give the names of those who went - which may be just as well.
One of John Jenkins senior's social duties was the trusteeship of the National School which was opened in Caerleon in l831. (8)
John Jenkins senior was a very busy man. The work of a magistrate called him to Usk to the Quarter Sessions and the local petty sessions in Caerleon occurred quite often as well. The latter were held, at least sometimes, at Hanbury Arms Inn, as The Merlin reports e.g. on 20th September 1834. The Merlin gives the names of the following men at the Epiphany Sessions at Monmouth in 1830: "before the Right Hon. Lord Granville Somerset, M.P., Sir Thomas R. Salusbury, Bart., John H. Pritchard, John Jenkins, Thomas Fothergill, Digby Mackworth and Octavius Morgan, Esquires". This was indeed the "cream" of Monmouthshire.
The crimes the magistrates had to deal with, although mostly petty ones, led to severe punishments. An eleven years old boy was released when his father undertook to "inflict corporal chastisement", but another, a thirteen years old boy for the same offence of stealing coal was sent to two months imprisonment in Monmouth Gaol, "and to be privately whipped". A man who had stolen a gold seal from John Jenkins the younger's office, was sent to Australia.
We can only try to guess what thoughts and feelings John Jenkins the elder had when the magistrates came to these severe conclusions. He was a religious man - at least he publicly belonged to the Dissenting community and worked for it - and he was a socially conscious man. But, he was a man of his period, with its prejudices and bound by its laws and restrictions. He could not alter the laws even if he disapproved of them.
The peak of John Jenkins's career came in 1838, when he was appointed Sheriff for the county.
Although the appointment to be a Sheriff still was a great honour, it was not as strenuous a task as it had been earlier. Since Tudor times the Justices of the Peace had become more and more important and taken over many of the Sheriff's duties. John Jenkins probably worked much harder as a magistrate than as a Sheriff. In 1833 an Act decreed that the Sheriffs were no longer required to take out a Patent on appointment. They would receive a warrant from the Clerk of the Privy Council authorising them to start their duties. The Oath could be taken before a Justice of the Peace. (9) In spite of these changes, the Sheriff's Office still was one of the highest an ordinary commoner could reach in his home region.
The Merlin reports on the Monmouthshire Summer Assizes 1838, "on which day John Jenkins, Esquire, the High Sheriff, proceeded to Monmouth for the purpose of escorting the Judges into the county town. About three o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Justice Patterson arrived, and immediately opened the commissions and soon after attended divine service, when an excellent sermon was preached by the High Sheriff's Chaplain, the rev, vicar of Caerleon, [Daniel Jones, the Grandfather of Arthur Machen] from the 119th Psalm, verse 158 - suggesting means for the prevention and amelioration of sin in the world ". There were 18 prisoners for trial and Messrs. Blewitt, Butler, Rolls, James Jenkins were among the jury. Lord Abinger was presiding and poor Hannah Hopkins, 20 years old, was charged for the murder of her infant child which was found in the river near Tintern. Fortunately Hannah was pronounced not guilty, as the crime could not be proven.
The year of John Jenkin's office as the Sheriff of Monmouthshire was remarkable for being the first year in the long reign of Queen Victoria. The coronation was celebrated in Caerleon. Again, "by the kindness of Mr. Hooper, King Arthur's far-famed Round Table [the Roman amphitheatre was known by that name locally, Mr. Hooper was then the owner of the Priory, behind which the amphitheatre is situated] was prepared for the occasion" and a multitude of people attended. A few gentlemen, including Mr. Fothergill, Mr. Hooper and Mr. Butler had "liberally subscribed" the feast. A flag-staff stood in the centre, from which radiated several long tables, at the termination of which other tables were placed. The day terminated "in a dance on the green".
The year 1838 was troublesome in one respect. The Chartist movement was at its most restless phase; events were gathering momentum and rolling towards the crash in Newport, November the following year. Caerleon saw the leaders of the movement now and then, as they came to speak at meetings. The Merlin reports on the 17th November 1838 the first rumblings of unrest among the working men: "On Monday evening last, a meeting (was held) in the large room at the George Inn, Caerleon, for the purpose of forming a Working Mens Association. Mr. John Alcott was in the chair. The speakers: Mr. Edwards, baker (Newport), Mr. Etheridge, Mr. Edward Davies etc. Thirty-five men joined the Association". And, in The Merlin of the 5th of January 1839: "On Thursday evening, a Chartist meeting was held at Caerleon". Mr. Vincent and Mr. Frost were speaking. Caerleon seems to have been important enough for these men, as there were several meetings which they attended.
Some men with money were beginning to get afraid and
formed associations of their own to combat Chartism. In his position
John Jenkins had to be firm and show he was against disturbance of any
kind. But, did he not actually in his secret mind understand the workers,
perhaps better than he understood the employers? He was aware of the
working conditions, at least. On the other hand, as an employer and
belonging to the gentry, he appeared to be on the other side of the
Neither do we know what the last years of John Jenkins's life were like. His health was probably fairly good, as he was still acting as a magistrate in November 1858, two years before his death.
Finally: he succumbed, too. The Merlin has a notice among the Deaths: "On the 11th inst., at Caerleon, John Jenkins, Esq., aged 83 years". That was 11th of May 1860.
On the 26th of May there were Petty Sessions held in Caerleon, hut The Merlin does not mention the Sheriff's death in that connection. In "Local Intelligence" we find the following: "The Late John Jenkins, Esquire. We regret to have to notice the death of John Jenkins, Esquire, which took place at his residence, Caerleon, just previously to our last publication. As a gentleman of affluent means - largely interested in the extensive Tin Works at Pontheer, influentially connected with our local railway and dock companies, and more or less identified with other important undertakings - Mr. Jenkins occupied a position of considerable influence, and wielded that influence in a manner which secured him the utmost esteem and respect among those by whom he was known. Mr. Jenkins was also a magistrate for the county. His demise has cast a gloom over the neighbourhood which was the scene of his long and useful life. The funeral took place on Thursday last, at the Baptist Chapel, Pontheer, and was attended, in addition to the relatives and more immediate friends of the deceased, by a large number of agents and workmen from the tin works. The impressive ceremony was conducted amid general manifestations of respect for the deceased, and of regret at his removal".
The tone of this notice is a little disturbing in parts: "wielded that influence in a manner"; "those by whom he was known". Was he an aloof person, a man who could not make real personal friends?
After the Sheriff died, the Jenkins family ceased to have any important part to play in Caerleon. Most of the younger generation married away from the area. The family of William Jenkins, the brother of the Sheriff continued to live in Ponthir, but it seems they remained obscure in the sense that they did not rise up from their situation and class.