The town of Neath developed around the castle and the church.  Bridge Street was the road in and Water Street the road out.  For centuries the main streets forming the town were High Street (now Old Market Street), Cattle Street, Wind Street and (from c1600) New Street.

In the early eighteenth century things started to change.  The Mackworths had arrived!  Their entrepreneurial schemes meant an influx of workers and the town expanded, initially along Water Street towards the Mera and along the Latt towards Llantwit.  The Mackworths brought with them many new industries which were mainly based in the Melincrythan area.  They also expanded the coal workings.  Coal was known to have been worked in the Neath area from at least the thirteenth century but not on the same scale.  The Abbey had developed pits and the Evans family of the Gnoll had held a monopoly of the trade near the town.  Now, under the Mackworths, new pits were opened.

                                           A Coal Mine near Neath c.1798                       British Library

Henry Penruddock Wyndham, a topographer from Salisbury, visited Neath on his second tour of Wales in 1777.  He was delighted with the industry he could see on either side of the River Neath and extending inland.  He espied copper works, tin works, iron works and coal pits and was very impressed.  However, his excitement was nullified by the appearance of Neath town.  He said that, unlike other new industrial towns that he had seen, such as Manchester and Liverpool, Neath had not built broad streets and grand buildings.  Instead, he commented that the housing for the most part consisted of 'miserable hovels' which compared unfavourably with those in the poorest English village.

Neath constricted by the river, church, castle and valley sides was never going to be a Manchester or a Liverpool, although the Mackworths no doubt played their part by supplying their workers with cheap housing and not investing in the structure of the town.

The river by 1781 when 'CG' visited the area was spanned by a single arch bridge described by him as 'perhaps one of the first pieces of architecture in the Kingdom.'  Another anonymous author, 'CC' just eight years later said that 'The bridge over Neath River has one half of its length built of wood, and the other half of stone….. It is in an infirm state and will probably soon be replaced by a new one.'

'CC' commented that the streets of Neath were well paved, but narrow. Fourteen years later when the Reverend John Evans of Bristol arrived (1803) the town was still described as having 'narrow and dirty streets with houses blackened by smoke.'  In fact, he went further and said that, 'a more uncomfortable or disgusting place, perhaps, can not be imagined.'  The Reverend Richard Warner of Bath (1798) spoke of houses which were 'ill-built and incommodious' and John Thomas Barber, a miniature portrait artist, arriving also in 1803 commented on the 'soil blackened with coal-works and rail-ways' (sic. tramways).

The Reverend Sir Thomas Gery Cullum’s remark (1811) about Neath about sums up the opinion of tourists.  He talked about the dismal smoking town of Neath and adds, 'I could have shut my eyes with pleasure when passing thro’ this Headquarters of Vulcan.'

The smoke from the manufactories was a huge problem.  It descended on the town and its environs for two-thirds of the year and must have had much the same effect as the London smog of the last century.  The smoke didn’t just stay for a few years – it must have been present for the best part of a century.  Margaret Martineau on her tour of Wales in 1824 wrote that at Neath comes 'the end of the beauties.  A thick smoke closed the scene and we drew in copper at every breath.'  Writing in 1861, Samuel Carter Hall, a London journalist and author, said that, 'Neath is now a town of smoke through which its rare and valuable antiquaries are all to often but barely seen.'


Samuel Carter Hall

Accommodation in the town varied.  The Mackworth Arms seems to have been the most popular although in 1801 a botanist, Thomas Martyn, said that 'the ceilings are low and most of the furniture old and dirty.'  On the other hand, Michael Faraday (1819) had no complaints and said that 'our Host … was very attentive.' Thomas Mytton and his sons, Henry and Thomas, stayed at the Ship and Castle in 1776 and stated that there was a very elegant assembly room.  Twenty years later, the Reverend Warner (1798) stayed commented that he was, 'attracted by the good-humoured face of the little fat landlord, Mr. Roteley.'  However, the ups and downs of these hostelries may be noted in the comments of two anonymous women from Norfolk (probably Mrs. Judith Beecroft and her daughter Laura) who were not impressed in 1827 when they wrote that the Ship and Castle 'did not promise much but it was the best inn.'  They also added that it was 'humble, dirty and dear.'

The wealth of Neath was due, not only to its industries but also to its position as a river port.  Colonel John Byng [a nephew of Admiral Byng] arrived in August 1787 and was taken on a tour of the shipbuilding yards, rope walks, iron forges and to Sir Herbert Mackworth’s shops and water engines.  Coal was king even in the eighteenth century and nearly every other industry depended on its availability.  The botanist Edward Donavon (1805) remarked that the works had received a temporary check due to the war but were now reviving.  He said that coal, apart from being exported and used in the works, was also sold locally in 'strikes' which he said was a measure peculiar to the area.  He also advocated stone coal which was sold in great quantities.  Stone coal burnt slow with little smoke and was used successfully for drying malt.


The castle at Neath was described by one topographer as 'the remains of the remains of a castle.'  Warner visited and remarked that 'one narrow piece of wall, which rises to a great height, and being unsupported by other parts of the building, threatens to crush the surrounding cottages on the first hurricane that shall happen.'   Henry Wigstead who came a year earlier than Warner noted that the castle was 'in a very ruinous state and at present appropriated to confine hogs and fatten in.'


Journal of a Tour Thro’ Part of South Wales 1776 - Thomas Mytton (Shropshire RO 1037/27/41)

A Tour through Monmouthshire and Wales 1777 - Henry Penruddock Wyndham

A Tour in South Wales 1781 - C.G   (NLW MS 14978B)

The Torrington Diaries - 1787. ed C.B.Edwards (1954)  - Colonel John Byng             

CCs Tour in Glamorgan (Gentleman’s Magazine) - (Glamorgan Historian Vol.2) (1789)      

Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales in the year 1797 - Henry Wigstead   (Cardiff Library)

Second Tour through Wales 1798 - Reverend Richard Warner   

Diary of Thomas Martyn 1801 - (NLW MS 1340C)         

Letters Written During a Tour of South Wales 1803 - Rev. John Evans (Cardiff Ref. L:942.986(045)EVA)

Descriptive Excursions through South Wales in the year1804 & the Four Preceding Summers (vol 2). - Edward Donovan                  

Journals of Reverend Sir Thomas Gery Cullum 1811- (NLW)

Michael Faraday 1819(Michael Faraday in Wales) 1972

Travel diary of Margaret Martineau 1824 - Hampshire R.O. Ref. 83M93/21

Two anonymous women from Norfolk - 1827 (Cardiff CL 2.325)

The Book of South Wales and the Wye - Samuel Carter Hall (1860)


01 September 2021Another VC with Neath connections


Martyn J Griffiths


Allan Leonard Lewis (1895-1918) is generally regarded as the only person connected with Neath to win this country’s premier military honour.  Born in Hereford, he came to Neath seeking work, shortly before the outbreak of war.  He joined up and paid the ultimate sacrifice.  He is remembered in Neath by the public house (formerly the Constitutional Club but commonly referred to as the Conservative or 'Con' Club) which bears his name.

Very few people are aware that Neath has its own Victoria Cross winner and this was nearly half a century earlier.

The awarding of the Victoria Cross was established in February 1856, the medals being backdated to the start of the Crimean War.  On 26th June 1857 at Hyde Park, sixty two VCs were presented by Queen Victoria at the first such ceremony which was witnessed by a crowd of over 100,000 people.  One of those recipients was Gronow Davis.

Presentation Ceremony at Hyde Park 1857

Gronow Davis was the grandson of William Gronow of Court Herbert.  His grandfather married twice and by his first wife, Mary Howells [who was one of 36 children – but that is another story!] had just one child, a daughter, Mary.  On 9th October 1826 Mary Morgan Gronow married John Davis of Bristol at Cadoxton church. 

John Davis was also born in Neath.  He joined the Royal Navy, seeing active service during the wears against France serving as a surgeon.  Being listed as unfit for service in August 1812, he consequently settled into civilian life at St. Paul’s in Bristol where he died in 1864.  He and Mary had only one child, Gronow who was born in Bristol on 16th May 1828 but was christened in Cadoxton church on 9th February 1829.

Gronow joined the Royal Artillery and was stationed at Woolwich for the early part of his career.  By 1848 he had risen to the rank of captain which saw him on active service in Crimea.  He served at most of the major battles, including the siege and fall of Sebastopol.

On the 8th September 1855 during the major battle of the Great Redan, he commanded the spiking party. In the midst of the attack, Captain Davis saved the life of Lieutenant Sanders of the 39th Regiment of Foot by jumping over the parapet of a sap [a tunnel or trench to conceal an assailant's approach to a fortified place] and proceeding some distance across open ground under a horrific fire to assist in conveying Sanders (whose leg was broken and otherwise severely wounded) under cover.  He repeated this act in the conveyance of other wounded soldiers from the same exposed position.

Gronow Davis also received the brevet of Major and the 5th Order of the Medjidie for his actions in the Crimea. His Victoria Cross was gazetted on 23rd June 1857 – just three days before the awards ceremony at Hyde Park. He became Major shortly afterwards in August 1857 and rose further through the ranks eventually reaching the rank of Major General on 29th October 1881. He retired from the Army later that year.

Major General Davis died suddenly at his home being 5 Royal Park, Clifton, Bristol aged 63 on Sunday 18th October 1891 and was buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol. His medals are held at the Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich.  Gronow Davis’ son, Gronow John Davis, also served in the Royal Artillery and became a Lieutenant Colonel in the First World War, receiving the DSO for his actions.


The grave of Gronow Davis VC

            Images by the VC & GC Association          

The London Gazette of 23rd June 1857, Numb. 22014, p. 2165 reported the actions of Gronow Davis thus;

'For great coolness and gallantry in the attack on the Redan, 8th September, 1855, on which occasion he commanded the spiking party, and after which he saved the life of Lieutenant Sanders, 30th Regiment, by jumping over the parapet of a sap, and proceeding twice some distance across the open, under a “murderous” fire, to assist in conveying that officer, whose leg was broken, and who was otherwise severely wounded, under cover; and repeated this act in the conveyance of other wounded soldiers from the same exposed position.'




11 August 2021Tonna Hospital


25 years in the planning!

Martyn J Griffiths

In April 2021 a new mother and baby unit was opened at Tonna Hospital.  It is the only unit of its kind in Wales and offers multidisciplinary mental health care for women.  This is the latest incarnation of the hospital which has seen lots of changes over the past one hundred years.

Thoughts turned to the provision of an Isolation Hospital for Neath as early as August 1912 when a committee was formed to provide such a facility for three council areas, Briton Ferry, Neath and Neath Rural.  It was not a problem that was easily solved.  Originally a site was found in Cimla but the outbreak of war and price rises scuppered those plans. It was also argued that Cimla was not central to the whole area and difficult to reach by public transport.  A hospital was built in the Cimla which opened in March 1914, but that was purely for patients suffering from tuberculosis.

In all twenty sites were discussed and discarded.  It took another fourteen years for the Neath Town Council, working with the Neath Rural District Council and the Welsh Board of Health, to narrow the list down to a few possibilities.  Sites were visited in April 1928 and the one which rose to the top of the list was a 43-acre plot at Tonna.  The plans were then for the two councils to formally suggest the site to the Ministry for approval, after which the land would be acquired.

Two years later, in April 1930, three sets of plans (at a cost of £800) were being discussed but there was very little progress.  Patients had to be sent to Swansea and this was costing eight guineas a week.  Things were getting fractious.  A councillor for the Rural District pointed out that “The hospital was first discussed before the War”, to which the sharp retort was, “What war?  The Crimea!”

A Neath Guardian headline a month later announced ‘New Isolation Hospital’, but it was only ‘contemplated’.  The estimated cost of the new building would be £27,400 and it was believed that there would be 52 beds for patients.  A number of plans had been drawn up and scrapped but now things were looking promising.  Delays caused by purchasing the land had been overcome and the report stated that plans would be forwarded to the Wales Board of Health and tenders advertised for as soon as the plans were approved.

One would have thought that matters would proceed with some alacrity thereafter, given the lack of such facilities in the area, but that was not to be.  Glamorgan County Council wished to erect hospitals at central points to cater for several districts.  One such proposal was that Neath should join with Ystradgynlais and Pontardawe with a hospital in that area.  This was declined by the Neath councils.

Seven years later, in June 1937, the joint councils advertised for a clerk of works to supervise the erection of the hospital “comprising Administration Block, Observation Block, Enteric Fever Block, Diphtheria Block, Scarlet Fever Block, Theatre Block, Laundry and Mortuary Block, Porters Lodge, Roads and Drainage Works etc..”

The Chairman of the Neath Joint Hospital Committee was J. Cook Rees OBE and the laying of the foundation stone on 22nd July 1937 was his last act of public service.  He was presented with a silver trowel by the builder, Lawford Gower of Briton Ferry.

The hospital cost had risen to £35,000 and was anticipated to be complete within 18 months.  The architect for the new building was Mr. H. Alex Clarke.  (He was the architect of Briton Ferry Library). The number of beds had risen to 64.  The hospital was finally opened in March 1939.

Tonna Uchaf in 1914 – before the building of a hospital, when the site was referred to as being ‘above Tonna Uchaf’.

Tonna Isolation Hospital - 1948

In 1948 the use of the hospital changed to become a children’s hospital and a generation of Neath children went there to have their tonsils removed.  The final change to a psychiatric unit took place about thirty years ago.






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