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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. 47, 1979

River Trade and Shipping in Caerleon
from the 16th to the 19th Century

by Eija Kennerley

There is archaeological evidence that the river Usk has changed its course since the Roman period. (1) It is fairly certain, however, that this change occurred below Caerleon bridge. The wharfs of the Middle Ages and later periods were certainly situated where the remains of them still can be seen: between Hanbury Arms and a few yards below the present bridge.

Dorothy Sylvester thinks the positions of medieval Chester and Caerleon are comparable. They both "opened on to an estuary which in turn gave access to the western seas of Britain and although, in the Middle Ages, it was Bristol which ranked with Chester as a major western port, the sea trade of Monmouthshire was by no means insignificant and many of its minor ports long continued in use." (2)

The river, the depth of which at Caerleon is about 38 ft at a 45 ft tide, has many bends. According to Nash-Williams there was a weir at St. Julians in the Middle Ages and in 1580 a customs official in Cardiff said that "carriage could not be had at all times" from Caerleon because of several weirs. (3) In addition to the weirs, another difficulty was presented by Newport bridge which Leland in 1537 says was "a lette", that is, an impediment. But, we must not think of the ships which came to Caerleon as comparable to modern ships. They were very small, carrying about 20-30 tons and looking more like barges, especially when their masts were down - which probably had to happen at Newport bridge at least. Many of them were called "trows" and were indeed like those on the river Wye. Even much later, prints of the end of the 18th century and of the first half of the 19th, show very small ships indeed.

No matter how small the ships, they managed to do quite a lot of trading, mainly between Caerleon and Bristol, although there were a few which ventured further out.

It is of course quite possible that the ships, the names of which appear in documents and which are said to be "of Caerleon," did not all actually load and unload at Caerleon wharf but traded from Newport or from the creeks on the coast, or even did their exchange of cargoes at sea, as was the case with those avoiding customs duties.

Although no names of medieval ships are known, there is some evidence of trade in Caerleon at that period. During the excavations in 1964-66 Mr. George Boon found a medieval well or pit in the centre of Caerleon (behind the vicarage) and in it remains of pottery of the late 13th or early 14th century. They indicate that the "pattern of trade and industrial contacts" were mainly directed towards Bristol and the West Country. (4)
There is an early piece of evidence of trade in the 14th century. In the spring of 1387 some persons were appointed to enquire into customs evasion by English ships which had discharged their goods and offered them for sale at Chepstow, Newport and Karlion. (5) Of course this was not legal trading but the goods were smuggled to the mentioned towns.

The monks of Caerleon (i.e. Llantarnam) Abbey did not pay any toll in Bristol. (6) They had sheep and must have sent both wool and skins from Caerleon or Newport. Skins and hides, both tanned and untanned belonged for centuries to the main items of export from the Caerleon area. Dairy produce, especially butter, was sent via Bristol as far as Ireland at the end of the 16th century and during the 17th. A. H. Dodd points out that till the middle of the 16th century the south-eastern counties of South Wales were the stronghold of the Welsh weavers. (7) In 1370 a fulling mill was indeed working in Caerleon (8) and there probably was at least one other fulling mill attached to Llantarnam Abbey. In the shipping and customs documents there is no evidence of cloth being sent from Caerleon. Only one name of a weaver in the 16th century has been found by the writer of this study: in the recusant rolls of 1592 is a David Williams "alias Weaver," of Llanhennock. (9)

Glanmor Williams is of the opinion that in South Wales the local families, e.g. Herberts, based their fortune on the wool, leather and clothing trades. (10) The early Tudor period saw the rapid rise of many families which indeed considered it no shame to be merchants or tradesmen, at the same time being sheriffs or members of Parliament etc. Only about 200 years later the aversion to the trades began among the upper and middle classes. Other families like this in our area were the Morgans of Llantarnam, Williams, Seys and Byrd of Caerleon.

There is little specific information about ships in mid-l6th century and no names of vessels are known before 1565. The "Trinity of Caerleon" that Dawson mentions, was not a merchant ship but a naval one, "to serve the king." (11) Trade went on, as e.g. a report made by Dr. Thomas Paher indicates. He visited the ports of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire in 1552 or 1553 and tells that a lot of leather and tallow was exported from those counties without licence, being put aboard Bristol ships out in the Channel. The report shows that there was substantial export trade from the ports of the South Wales coast in hides and other animal products. (12)

Caerleon men were found out committing offences in this secret trade:

10 Oct. 1565, James Rosser, yeoman… Import into Newport 9 tuns of Gascon wine worth £9.
24 Oct. 1566, Thomas James, tanner… 'Portingale' (wine?). Thomas Jayne Heere… Salt.

"Complainant Henry Morgan, H.M. Customer of the ports and creeks of counties of Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire, Defendant George Herbert, Esq. (and also some glovers, shoemakers etc.). Wrongfully importing from overseas to divers ports and creeks in the said cos. of Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, merchandise to the value of 2000 marks, without paying duty on same. Alleged menacing of complainant by first defendant, when required to pay duty on certain wines imported by him." (13)

The following ships existed in Caerleon in 1565-66:
Le Jesus - 17 tons
Le George - 18 tons
Le Trynnetie -10 tons
Le Marye
Le Marye Catheryne. (14)

The masters' names are known but do not reveal anything special.

In 1579-80 Le Griffine (35 tons) de Caerleon was piloted by her Master William Morris from Lisbon (Luxbourne, Lishbourne) to Caerleon, with 18 tons of salt (15) but she was the only recorded one to cover that distance although there were some Newport ships from Rochelle, a slightly shorter distance. Dawson expresses an opinion that Le Griffine may have belonged to the Morgan family of Llantarnam, as gryphon was their symbol.

The war in Ireland went on during the last decade of the 16th century and in 1599 the "Joseph" of Caerleon carried butter to Bristol, to be sent for the troops fighting in Ireland, altogether 1260 kilderkins. "Joseph" also took wheat, oatmeal, peas and cheese with her on her fourteen trips to Bristol, from December to the end of August. Engaged in the same business was the "Margarett" and the "Dolphin". The latter carried 500 bushels of wool to Bristol. (16) Out of 70 cargoes shipped from Cardiff - which may mean any port under Cardiff - in 1600, no fewer than 25 were destined to Ireland, as compared with 21 for Bristol. (17)

At this period the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol were trading with the Continent. In 1577 the Crown had granted to the Spanish Company the sole right to trade with Spain and Portugal. The earliest entry in the first Merchant Venturers' Treasurer's Book is an account for 1583, and it includes two men of Caerleon:

- Alexander Lewis of Carlion for his fine, £1

- Thomas James of Carlion for his fine, £1,

the pounds having been "disinborsed to the yowse of the company of marchantes of by (sic!) Bristoll Tradinge Spayne and Portingall." (18) "Le Griffine", mentioned above, was perhaps another ship trading for the Spanish Company.

The carrying of butter to Ireland was imposed on the ships by the State. Otherwise butter was not to be exported. The Merchant Venturers of Bristol obtained a share in the patent in 1619, permitting export of a limited quantity of butter. This state of affairs existed until the Restoration. The price of butter at that time (1619) was 3d. per pound in Cardiff, Newport and Caerleon (19) and strangely did not change for a long time. The letters of John Byrd, the Collector of Customs for the Port of Cardiff 1647-1662, show that the price was still the same in 1650. (20) Two Caerleon men, George Langley and Roger Jones, yeomen, had bonds with the Merchant Venturers, permitting them to buy butter to be exported by the Company. (21)

The "Guift" of Carlion was probably one of those licensed, as it carried 24 kilderkins of Welsh butter to be put aboard the "Campson" of Horne, for Rochelle, in 1627. (22) This was a period when the "Barbary" pirates attacked butter ships. (23) The "Guift" continued trading, however, between Caerleon and Bristol for a long time, if indeed it was the same vessel. In 1656 a ship of that name made 28 trips from Bristol to Caerleon. Her master was David Lewis, although he seems to have taken "Mary Constant" across the Channel as well. During the same year another Caerleon ship, "John", made eight voyages, "Mary Constant" making only three. In addition there was another "John" from Gloucester, "Cha[rity?]" of Tewkesbury and "Martha and Jane" of Bristol, which means that altogether 43 voyages were made that year, 1656, at least. What went on unrecorded on top of that, can not even be guessed.

The main cargoes these ships brought to Caerleon were: salt, about 50 tons; wine, nearly 100 gallons; and tobacco, about 600 cwt. In addition, they carried linen, "grocery and saltery," soap, ironmongers' wares, sackcloth, "trayne" (whale fat), whalebone, etc. And, to be able to smoke their tobacco, the gentlemen of Caerleon and district had to have pipes, of which six boxes were brought from Bristol during 1656. (24)

Salt and wine from France were brought fairly regularly. "The Endevour" of Carlion brought in 1686 and 1687 a lot of salt and wine from "Avry", i.e. Le Havre, and from "Croisicke", i.e. Croisic. (25)

In 1695 the Hanbury family of Pontypool showed interest in the shipping at Caerleon. John Hanbury purchased a ship called "Phillipp and Mary" from Phillipp Gwynn. (26) In 1698 the "Gwyn Trowe" carried iron for Caple [Capel] Hanbury. (27)

All this trading activity of course provided employment for many more people than just the merchant, master and crew. Workmen and women were needed for loading and unloading, for carting and sorting, for storing and distributing. (28)

The names of the ships alone do not tell us much and it is very difficult to find out much more, even by reading the names of their Masters, or merchants, either of Bristol or Caerleon.

There was one family, however, who certainly owned ships in the 17th century and early 18th. That family was Gwyn or Gwynn [Gwin]. In her will of 1672 Mary Gwyn, daughter of merchant Philip Hughes and Mary Hughes, says: "to my two sons, William and Phillipp Gwyn… boat and barke called the Mary of Carlyon…" (29)

J. W. Dawson found the following records of the Piepowder Court of Bristol:

"3rd of Anno 1658, 9 of the clocke, forenoone
The barque called the "Mary" of Carlyon, burthen 18 tons, Master William Watkins, laden as followeth (to witt)

7 tons and 300 of iron, paid 3/6d.
6 packes of flryches
300 lbs of wooll
30 bushels of oatmeale
8 kinterkins and 8 firkins of butter
100 £ in money
paid for entry of the barque 2/4d. (30)

In her will Mary Gwyn sets the following condition: "…that they [i.e. her sons] pay her debt of £40 first." It seems that the condition was not fulfilled, because the "Mary" is not mentioned in the inventory of Mary Gwyn in 1673. Instead, a boat called "The five Brothers" is in the inventory as well as in the will. This probably was either a rowing boat or a boat with a sail but not able to carry any mentionable cargoes. (31)

"Phi Gwyn of Canyon Sailor" must be the one who owned the "Seaflower" in 1700. He is called master and merchant, and he seems to have had another ship called "Carlyon Merchant." The latter carried from Bristol tanned hides, linen, wool, mercery and haberdashery, herrings, oil, soap, whiskey, iron and tobacco etc. Philip's brother William, in the "Seaflower" a few days later, brought leather, tobacco pipe clay, soap etc. (32)

At the end of the 18th century a Caerleon ship is again found: "The Caerleon", whose Master was Thomas Gronow in the year 1785, and again in 1792 when its Master was Robert Gething. (33)

We have arrived at the period when South Wales industries started. Caerleon Forge with the Tin Plate Works in Ponthir were in existence and the Jenkins family owned the "Iron and Tin Trader" in 1797 and a little later "Carlion" (1806) which carried 62 tons. (34)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century a lot of coal was unloaded at the wharf and the tramroad carried tinplate as far as the spot just below the present bridge. But, in spite of the growing industry, Caerleon shipping was on the decline. The Monmouthshire Canal was opened in 1796 and Newport started planning its first dock. Cardiff also began to grow. Caerleon still had barges and a ferry that carried passengers to Bristol, owned by the Gething family. The "Carlion" of the Jenkinses continued its voyages until the 1840's (35) but all water traffic finally ceased in 1873.

This article was made possible with the financial assistance of The Cambrian Archaeological Association, for which the writer expresses her heartfelt thanks.

River Trade and Shipping-Sources

1. G. Boon, Isca.
2. Dorothy Sylvester. The Rural Landscape of the Welsh Borderland, p. 379.
3. Nash-Williams, Note on the site of the Roman Legionary Fortress at Caerleon. (Bulletin of Celtic Studies, Vol. XIV, part II.)
4. J. M. Lewis: Post-Roman finds from the Caerleon fortress baths excavation. The Mon. Antiquary, Vol. II, part II.
5. Cal. of Pat. Rolls, March 1387.
6. Cal. of Inq. Misc. Vol. I, 125 (1251-52).
7. A. H. Dodd, an article in History XLi, p. 63.
8. Cal. of Inq. Edw. III, Vol. XII, 332.
9. F. H. Pugh, Monmouthshire Recusants in S.W.Rec.Soc. publ. No. 4.
10. Glanmor Williams. The Welsh Church, p. 249, 250.
11. J. W. Dawson, Commerce and Customs in Newport and Caerleon.
12. W. R. B. Robinson, The Establishment of Royal Customs in Glam. and Mons. under Eliz. I. (Bull. of Celtic Stud. H & L, Vol. XXIII, Part IV. May 1970.)
13. Exchequer Proceedings, Henry VIII - Eliz. I, comp. by E. G. Jones. (BCS, H&L IV, 1939. 29/17.)
14. J. W. Dawson, Op. cit. pp. 5-6.
15. E. A. Lewis, Welsh Port Books, Cymrodorion Rec. Ser. 1927.
16. Id.
17. Glam. Co. Hist. IV, p. 64.
18. Bristol Record Soc. Publ. Vol. XVII, p. 83.
19. Id., p. 118.
20. John Byrd's Diary, 20 July 1650.
21. Bristol Rec. Soc. Publ. (as above) p. 123.
22. J. W. Dawson, Op. cit. p. 19.
23. Glam. Co. Hist. IV.
24. J. W. Dawson, Appendix I, Customs Port Books.
25. A Booke for Masters and Shipps Reports Inwards, Janry 1st, 1685. Cardiff City Library.
26. Hanbury documents preserved in Clytha House.
27. Gw.R.O. JCH 0118.
28. Glam. Co. Hist. IV.
29. Llandaff Probate Records, NLW.
30. J. W. Dawson, Op. cit. p. 20.
31. Llandaff Prob. Rec. NLW.
32. J. W. Dawson, Op. cit. pp. 39-40.
33. Id., p. 47. Ref. to Bristol Directory for 1785.
34. Bristol Waterbailiff's Fees and Emoluments, Bristol R.O.
35. Id.


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