The Development of Cwmbran
Cwmbrân is a new town established in 1949 to provide new employment opportunities in the south eastern portion of the South Wales Coalfield; though there is evidence that Neolithic and Bronze Age people used the area, with the Iron Age Silures tribe also occupying the region before being subdued by the Roman legions based at nearby Usk and Caerleon.
Around 1179, Hywel, Lord of Caerleon gave a gift of money and land to found the Cistercian Abbey at Llantarnam in Cwmbrân. After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII the Abbey was closed and was bought by a succession of wealthy landowners. By the 18th century the Abbey had passed into the ownership of the Blewitt family, who were to become key figures in the early industrialisation of Cwmbrân. Brickmaking, lime kilns, iron oremining, quarrying and coal mining were established during this period along with a canal to transport goods to the docks at Newport. In 1833 theOrdnance Survey map of Monmouthshire shows Cwmbrân as a farm situated in the area now known as Upper Cwmbrân, in the valley named Cwm Brân. Cwmbrân now covers approximately 3,000 acres (12 km2) and has a population of around 50,000.
Following some investigation by local residents Richard Davies and Mike Price, the Ancient Cwmbran & The Cistercian project was created and a £48,000 grant has been provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore some previously unrecorded sites of interest in the Greenmeadow and Thornhill, Cwmbran areas.
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, Cwmbran was the site of heavy industrial development. Coal and iron ore was extracted on Mynydd Maen, and were moved by inclined planes and tramways into the Eastern Valley for use in factories such as the Patent Nut and Bolt Company (which became Guest Keen and Nettlefolds in 1900), various tin plate works and brickworks. This industry drove the creation of the Monmouthshire Canal, the Newport and Pontypool Railway and the Pontypool, Caerleon and Newport Railway. Very little of this industrial heritage remains today, though many of today’s light industrial or retail estates were created on the sites.
Even when the town was being built, evidence of this history was apparent. In 1971, whilst doing groundwork for the new Fairwater Comprehensive School, workmen uncovered a Palaeolithic axe head. This dates back as far as 8500 BC, and is the oldest dated artefact found in Cwmbran so far.
Other artefacts which have been found in the Cwmbran area come from the Bronze Age and are tools made of flint. Flint tools come under the general heading of ‘lithics’, which are any man-made tool from a variety of types of stone. One of the volunteers of the Project described how, when digging a fish-pond in the 1980s, he had discovered a bracelet with a ‘twisted’ design, which was then sent for testing at Cardiff museum. The results confirmed that the bracelet dated to the Bronze Age. The bracelet, a few thousand years old today, was found in one of the housing estates in Cwmbran. Not bad for a ‘new’ town after all!
The Ancient Cwmbran and Cistercians Project was born out of a desire to uncover this history, and to show that there is more to Cwmbran than the new town and that the heritage of the area is something to be proud of and celebrated.
As a landscape painter, Richard Davies developed a keen interest in the names of the places he was painting. It was noticed that throughout Cwmbran and the immediate vicinity, there is a combination of ancient and modern place names. Whilst understanding that place names are not an exact science, he started to investigate some of the older features in the landscape by taking into account their names, for example forests, brooks and hills, regarding these as older and more reliable indicators of history. After many years of investigation into the landscape, it became apparent that there were several sites of archaeological interest in Cwmbran, which needed to be explored in order to uncover more about the local history.
Three of these sites were incorporated within the Ancient Cwmbran and the Cistercians Project, which was initiated by Michael Price, then Chairman of Cwmbran Historical Society, Lead Councillor Bob Wellington and Richard Davies.