The Port of Caerleon
by Colin Green


The early incursions into Wales by the Roman army left them with a fortress at Usk and, indeed, at numerous other locations to the West and North. Usk was established in the mid 50s and was garrisoned by the Legio XX originally based at Gloucester. Although Usk was situated on the river of the same name it could not be supplied by the river because it was not tidal this far inland and, indeed, the site was subject to flooding; a rare example of a badly sited Roman settlement.

The period of the 60s was a difficult one for the Roman occupation of Wales with numerous occurrences of guerrilla attacks by the native Siluran forces and Usk was finally abandoned in the late 60s, the garrison retiring to Wroxeter in the North.

When they came again it was to a better site at Caerleon, more easily supplied from the river and safe from flooding. The Legio II Augusta, having been the replacement garrison at Gloucester, moved West in AD 74 and arrived at Caerleon which may well have been earmarked for their new base from the time of abandonment of Usk. Although the site chosen for the construction of their new base was a good one it was overlooked by Lodge Hill which was the site, in the third century BC, of Bellinstock, the fortress of King Bellinus. By the time the Romans arrived at Caerleon this camp had been abandoned by the retreating Silures and, indeed, is said to have been utilised as a training ground and Summer camp for the Second Legion. Had the Silures still been in control of the camp life for the Romans would have been difficult with a hostile presence peering down upon them.

One of the main reasons for the choice of Caerleon was, of course, the fact that it lay upon the tidal Usk, only about five miles above the mouth of the river, with easy access across the Bristol Channel to the Western end of the Via Julia at Sea Mills. Ships from Rome itself could also make their way around Cornwall and into the Severn Sea. It is not entirely clear where the first wharf was situated but it was probably close to the modern bridge and the quays built in that vicinity in the seventeenth century. Exploration some 600 yards further downstream has also indicated the possible remains of a quay close to the bend in the river. That bend, in Roman times, was much sharper than it is today with the right bank of the river being situated some 300 yards closer to the town than currently. Over the years the Usk has migrated across the valley floor to a point where it has met with a rock cliff and cannot migrate any more. The right bank has silted up as part of this process. In the early part of the third century a stone quay was constructed within a small inlet on this bank, situated in line with a road striking Southwest from the walls of the fortress which falls from the higher level of the settlement about ten feet to the riverside meadows. This quay was later extended, presumably to provide additional loading space.

The quay was excavated in 1963 and numerous artifacts were discovered demonstrating its use for a period of some hundred years until Caerleon was finally evacuated in the mid fourth century. Actually, the time of construction is somewhat curious since the Second Legion had been moved out of the fort in the mid second century to assist with the construction of the Antonine Wall in the Borders and later were involved in fighting in Scotland. By the early third century, though, they were back and there appears to have been much work in the town to rebuild facilities such as the bath house. The quay actually appears to have been used as much to embark troops as to bring in sustenance for the garrison since the excavation revealed large quantities of fragmented Prescelly slate which was probably used as ballast in troop ships returning from West Wales. At about this time, the piratical Desi people from Ireland were casting their sights on the products of the gold mines of Dolaucothi and it became essential to provide guards for the shipments. Soldiers were shipped down to Carmarthen for this purpose from Caerleon and later at least a part of the Second Legion was sent across to the East coast to guard the Saxon shore.

After the turn of the third century there was little military activity at Caerleon, the main population being administrators who were, presumably, considered safe from attack by that time. They would have still required some supplies, if only from other parts of Britain and the use of the quay probably continued for a while. The end was in sight for the Romans in Caerleon, though, and most of the outward traffic on the river was made up of worked stone from some of the buildings which were being dismantled. Much of this material was taken to Cardiff where one of the last fortresses of the Roman occupation was built in an attempt to stave off the Irish invaders. In this period, too, it appears that the quay was beginning to silt up for some later work of timber piles seems to indicate that they were trying to extend the structure into deeper water. By the time the last of the Roman occupation left the town it is probable that the quay was no longer usable.

Rome did not just abandon Britain completely: over the years of occupation native leaders had become of use to the occupying force and had been given more freedom to run their own affairs once they demonstrated that they had given up ambitions to oppose Roman rule. From the fourth century, then, those leaders were left with the task of governing the native population and Caerleon was surely taken over by that population. Although the Romans had taken away much of the fine stonework there remained a lot of usable buildings, both outside the walls, where the civilian inhabitants had traditionally dwelt, and within the Roman city.

The period is poorly documented, however, and conjecture must be used to tell a story of this time. Undoubtedly, though, the river would have remained in use for the purposes of trade which must have continued to some extent. Agricultural produce would have been traded largely and it is possible that the small scale industrial processes of iron and brick making operated by the Romans were carried on. Roman industry locally was centred around iron production from the mines of the lower Ebbw and Rhymney valleys with lead being mined near Lower Machen where there was a substantial smelting industry. The refined products were sent across to Bath to be used for armament production, with some of the lead, at least, being used for pipes which brought the water supply to Caerleon from mountain streams North of the town.

The period following the fifth century was, of course, marked by the upheaval brought by the arrival of the first group of invaders from the Northern continent, the Saxons. Once the Romans gave up and returned to Rome where the very heart of their Empire was under threat from the Visigoths, the Saxon hordes had a free hand to take over large parts of Eastern Britain and gradually encroached further West. They met little resistance for the population had not been used to fighting for centuries, having been largely gentrified by the occupying Romans. Although this process had also taken place in Wales, there were still men who were able to resist and the Saxons found the British of these parts harder to conquer. This may have been due, in part, to the need for the peoples of South Wales to resist the Irish marauders against whom the late Roman fort at Cardiff had been built. In the middle of the fourth century the defences of the civilian city of Caerwent were heavily strengthened in anticipation of raids up the Severn. The Saxon advance on Wales was, therefore, more or less halted after many years of fitful battles, including the reputed twelve engagements involving King Arthur from the year 512 to 518. Three of these are said to have taken place in Gwent and on each occasion the Saxons were defeated. Arthur's armies, of course, were far better equipped than the Saxons; they had armour similar to that of the Romans and many of them were mounted cavalry whereas the Saxon had no tradition of mounted conflict. This advantage was only of use in the right conditions although it did make it possible for the British to travel long distances along the remaining Roman roads to meet or pursue their foes.

What has this to do with the port of Caerleon? Well, the generally successful British resistance to the English (as the Saxons became later known) in the West did allow them to continue their own way of life which undoubtedly included trade of greater or lesser degree. Moving on some years, when the Mercian King Offa built his Dyke from the Dee to the Severn, commencing in the year 784, the Kings of Gwent were able to induce him to move the Dyke away from the Wye downstream of Redbrook. This allowed the Welsh to maintain navigation and fishing rights on the river to the mouth. In addition, part of the Beachley peninsula was retained in Welsh hands giving access to the ferry crossing to Aust. These arrangements clearly imply that trade was flourishing at this time, despite the periodic military confrontations, and this was almost certainly also the case with other rivers such as the Usk.

Since the English never reached Caerleon the town and port remained much as they had been before the Roman departure three hundred years before with continuing trade, largely in agricultural produce and animals. It is possible that, even in these times of turmoil, there may have been some import of luxuries for the gentry, such as wine, oils and exotic fruits from the Mediterranean although the fall of the Roman empire would have cut off this source of supply.

Caerleon was to suffer the attentions of the Danish and Viking raiders who entered the Bristol Channel and Severn during the ninth century. They came and went, though, not colonising but pillaging and making off with their booty. They did not have things all their own way, however, for the wreck of a Danish vessel was found near the mouth of the River Usk during the building of the Alexandra Dock in 1878 and it appears likely that it was left after the defeat of a band of Danes in the mid tenth century. It is believed that they came up the Usk to Caerleon on at least one occasion and destroyed part of the town. Curiously, though, in 1190 Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) came to Caerleon and described it thus "an ancient and authentic ci~y, excellently and well built in olden times by the Romans. Many vestiges of its former splendour may yet be seen, mighty and huge palaces with gilded roofs in imitation of Roman magnificence. . . a town prodigious in size, wonderful bath buildings, the remains of temples and theatres, all enclosed within fine walls, which are yet partly standing. You will find on all sides, both within and without the circuit of the walls, subterraneous buildings, water pipes, and underground passages, and, more remarkable than all, stoves contrived with wonderful art to transmit the heat insensibly through the narrow flues up the side of the walls." Since this was some two hundred years after the apparent destruction of the town, perhaps some reconstruction had taken place.

Throughout this period there is no belief of significant trade at Newport itself and Caerleon continued as the port of the Usk until the Norman Conquest. From that time, the building of a castle at Newport and, later, a bridge gave the place more importance and trade began here although Caerleon continued to function for a long time after this. The formation of the New Burgh or Newport after 1090 was quickly consolidated by the replacement of the original timber castle by one of stone, by the mid twelfth century and then by town walls. Within these walls trade was encouraged by the Normans as the best way to ensure the control of the local population. Part of this trade was, clearly, the coming and going of ships on the river and early quays were built in the vicinity of the bridge.

Back at Caerleon, the great earthen mound raised above a Roman building just outside the town walls by the Welsh Kings was used as the basis for a Norman castle built by the Earl of Pembroke in the early thirteenth century. This was, almost certainly, built of wood and was destroyed within ten years by the local Welsh King, Morgan ap Hywel. It was never rebuilt, the Normans presumably relying on the more secure structure at Newport for control of the neighbourhood. The mound can still be seen towering above the grounds of several houses within a walled enclosure and it is said that a stone passage was found leading towards the centre of the mound (called The Mynde) late in the nineteenth century. Legend speaks of the mound as marking the burial place of King Arthur; this is only one of the many such supposed sites throughout the country.

An important development, post Conquest, was the creation of numerous places of religion, monasteries, priories and abbeys and such an institution was established not far from Caerleon, at Llantarnam, shortly after the arrival of the Normans. Actually, the Cistercian abbey was founded by a local lord, Hywel ap Iowerth in about 1179, an earlier institution having existed in Caerleon itself. Llantarnam was a daughter house of the great Strata Florida abbey in West Wales the prosperity of which was based upon wool produced by the many sheep cropping the vast areas of mountainside near the abbey. Llantarnam also produced much wool and it was this that provided a major component of cargoes out of the port of Caerleon in the early Middle Ages. The wool and, indeed, fells (sheepskins complete with wool) were shipped across to Bristol from whence the products were carried across to the Low Countries where the cloth trade flourished in the thirteenth century. British wool was much sought after by the weavers of Antwerp and Bruges and, in particular, they much appreciated the short fine wool of Welsh border sheep from which fine cloth could be produced.

The religious houses which sprang up in Gwent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were an important element in the local economy. They needed income, not only to support themselves, but to do their work of providing spiritual guidance to the local population, some of whom had only recently embraced Christianity. Monastic orders seemed to possess a degree of business acumen and organisational ability which enabled them to run their secular arrangements as well as their spiritual ones. Indeed, many of the houses and their incumbents seem to have embraced business almost to the exclusion of their other life.

Llantarnam had, in 1291, 588 sheep which were kept almost exclusively for their wool, together with 130 cattle. The output from these animals was shipped out from Caerleon in the form of dairy products, again for Bristol and the coastal communities of the Bristol Channel. The trade of Caerleon received a boost in 1324 when a charter was granted to the burgesses of Kerdiff, Usk, Newport and Karlion by Edward II exempting them from tolls on goods other than wool, woolfells, hides, leather and wine. The duty, which was the earliest form of customs levy, was set at 6s 3d per sack in 1303 under the Carta Mercatoria which also set the levels for the other dutiable goods. Given the level of wool exports and wine imports at this time, the King was probably well in pocket even though appearing to make a magnanimous gesture to his supporters in South Wales. There appears to be no evidence of customs dues being collected at Caerleon and in 1348 a Custom House or Tollbooth was erected at the Westgate of the burgeoning town of Newport. This continued to do the business of both Newport and Caerleon until the early fifteenth century when it was decreed that customs business should be discharged at a "great port". Cardiff became the head port for the South Wales coast from Chepstow to Swansea which must have been very inconvenient for vessels trading at these outlying ports. This was to remain the situation for many years, however and, indeed, the Collector for the port in Stuart times lived in Caerleon. John Byrd must have spent much time travelling the miry ways of the South Wales seaboard in the twenty seven years that he held the office.

Byrd was a good and faithful servant of the Crown for those years but appears to have been badly treated and deprived of the support that he needed to discharge his office properly. He finally gave it all up in 1662 after the Restoration, having been wrongfully accused of petitioning for the death of Charles I. It is true that he served the Commonwealth, but then many other officials did and he does appear, from the records, to have been an extraordinarily faithful servant of the State.

It appears that trade continued at both Caerleon and Newport in the seventeenth century with records showing local vessels carrying cargoes across to Bristol and coastwise to other South Wales and Somerset ports. It was in the late eighteenth century, however, that the commerce of industry began to develop.

In 1770 a tramway was built from forges at Cwmbran to the quayside at Caerleon. The tramway also picked up the products of a forge at Caerleon and a tinplate works at Ponthir. By this means it was hoped that the port of Caerleon would continue to thrive, handling the increasing output of developing industry in Monmouthshire. This was not to be, however, because in 1791 a proposal was put forward to construct a canal from above Pontypool down to the River Usk at Newport with a branch from Crumlin joining it just North of Newport. This was a function of the strongly increasing output of the collieries and iron works in the North of the county which desperately needed a more efficient outlet for their products.

The Monmouthshire Canal, completed in 1796 with its proprietors drawn from the ranks of the iron and coal interests, was the one reason for the astonishing expansion of the port of Newport and the virtual extinguishment of the old port of Caerleon. The old quays at Caerleon did continue to handle some trade for many years, with the tramway being extended to new quays below the new bridge built in 1808. The vessel "Iron and Tin Trader" continued to carry away the products of the tinplate works for a number of years and a weekly market boat, run by the Gething family who came from Brockweir, continued to operate until the late nineteenth century. The Gethings then threw in the towel and moved to Newport where they continued in the maritime trade for a number of years.

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