On November 4th, 1839, 20 people were shot dead and around 50 were left injured during the last major revolt on the British mainland. A small, concealed battalion of infantry had opened fire on a crowd of around 5,000 men, many of whom were carrying improvised weapons, marching to demand the right to vote. The insurgence was the Chartist Uprising in Newport, South Wales. In a subway near the site of the original confrontation is a detailed and affecting piece of civic art. A 35-metre-long mural records the march and its bloody climax in a mosaic of hand painted tiles – it is now due for demolition. In its place the local authority are planning the sine qua non of all town hall council meetings: "a new city centre shopping experience".
Unsurprisingly, given its flair for boosterism, Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre of 1819 has long been fixed in the historical imagination as the key turning point in securing democratic representation for the working man (the working woman had to wait until 1928). The number of fatalities in the Newport Uprising is among the highest ever recorded in an incident of national unrest and lends the Chartists’ march on Newport a poignant significance all of its own.
Newport's main music venue Le Pub, which has just been saved by an online campaign
On November 12th, 2012 – almost 117 years later to the day of the Chartist Uprising – elections were held for the appointment of Police Chiefs in England and Wales. In Newport another democratic record was broken; not a single vote was registered at the electoral ward of Bettws. For the first time in British polling history a voting station registered no votes. From the Chartists marching on the town centre to the empty ballot box in Bettws. Within a three-mile radius it’s now possible to trace the birth of democracy to its end.
I was born in Newport and my family still live there. It’s the kind of dirty old town (it was granted city status to widespread disbelief in 2002) where the creative industries take place after chucking out time down by the docks and regeneration is something that happens in Cash Brokers. It has the second highest level of childhood poverty in Wales and has never recovered from the 1980s policies of hollowing out the industrial base. Two of the area’s biggest employers, the Passport Office and Corus Steel, have both issued large numbers of redundancies during the recession.
Nevertheless, it’s a place that rarely feels sorry for itself or enjoys distributing sympathy. Newport’s capacity for dark, bleak, absurdist humour – the kind that informed the young Manic Street Preachers to write the line: “I laughed when Lennon got shot" – is one of its defining characteristics. The town has also always had an eccentric and bohemian undercurrent and like most docks, a capacity to drink and scrap away its grievances.
In Britain, pubs are closing at an average of two a day but in South Wales the figure is significantly higher. When pubs disappear they leave more than empty buildings, they leave a gap where there was once a place for people to forget about their worries. In towns like Newport where feelings of entrenchment are particularly high, the loss of shared, familiar, spaces is acute. The workforce may have been shredded by 30 years of managed decline but the financial model of pubcos, the property development companies that own half of the UK’s pubs, is taking things further.
If you’ve lost any meaningful prospects you still need somewhere that offers a sense of escape, somewhere where anything goes, a place where you can lose yourself but still retain or perhaps even renew a sense of identity. Once such basic rights start being eroded the result is unintended consequences. Why would anyone bother to vote for a copper if there’s nowhere left to drink?
Towards the end of last year, I wandered around Newport with the photographer Luke Overin. We were there to visit some pubs. We started off at The Royal Mail, a pub that’s visible from the train as you arrive into town and one of many that are described as "hard". It sits in a cul-de-sac near the town’s Sorting Office. On a weekday lunchtime it was shut and To Let. Do you want to run this pub?
A mile and a half west from the Royal Mail takes you to the bourgeois uplands of Ridgeway and Alt-yr-ryn. There are well maintained Volvos and Passats on the quiet residential roads but the local pub The Ridgeway is closed. It was hard to establish whether or not it was still trading. At any rate, it no longer has a sign.
We then headed down into town. In its day The Engineers was a pub rich in bonhomie, the sort of place where you could find yourself in lively debates about Mingus during its Monday jazz nights. It’s been for sale, on and off, for almost four years. The first time it went bust in 2009 the then landlord staged a mock funeral, an expressive piece of New Orleans street theatre in South Wales.
We walked up a few quiet back streets to the Oddfellows and Foresters Arms. Although it was shut it was the first pub we found that didn’t have an estate agent’s sign fixed to its exterior. I’d once been in there and seen someone buy a dozen kilos of stewing steak from the deep freeze that took up the length of the back yard.
The landlord opened his reinforced door for us but wouldn’t let Luke take any photos inside. On the walls were some fading snaps of past good times: a fancy dress night, someone dressed as a banana and a certificate from a charity thanking The Oddfellows for a £156 donation. I asked the landlord how trade was: "This place won’t be open after Christmas," he said. The low winter light was shining through the windows and catching the dust. I wondered if he was prepared to tell me if it was freehold or brewery? "It’s neither mate," he said. "It’s in administration."
Newport has always had a culture of biker pubs. Two used to be across the water from the town centre in Maindee: The Carpenters Arms and The Hereford. Surprise, surprise: both are now shut. The Carpenters had a wood-burning stove and an excellent jukebox. It often used to fill up with prams and buggies during the day, becoming a makeshift crèche with progressive ideas about health and safety and CRB checks. Over the road, The Hereford had the cheapest pool table in town – 5p a game – and offered bunkhouse accommodation by request. Some of those requests must have been quite colourful.
Rather than stunning waterside developments, Newport docks still has a few dockers walking around. The area closest to the Old Town Dock is Pill, an abbreviation of Pillgwenlly, "pill" meaning "pool" or "harbour" in Welsh, and Gwenlly from "Gwynllyw", the patron saint of Newport who was himself a smuggler-cum-pirate according to medieval history. There’s more than a fair amount of hardship in Pill, it’s an area that the Welsh Government worry about at senior level and regularly suggest frameworks and schemes to lift it out of poverty. You can see the former confidence and wealth of the port in the width of Commercial Road, Pill’s main drag and in the architectural detail of pubs like The Kings Arms. In Pill there’s a demolition-ready pub on more or less every street corner.
The landlord at The Handpost: "Running a pub these days is like writing your own death sentence."
There are still a handful of pubs that are open in the town centre, among the most successful are the four run by the JD Wetherspoon Company. The chain has a policy of naming its pubs after local folk heroes. One is called the Tom Toya Lewis, named after a 12-year-old paperboy who rescued dozens of dockers trapped in a collapsed construction trench. The building in which the Tom Toya Lewis sits was originally the Newport YMCA.
Another Wetherspoon we called in on was the John Wallace Linton. Linton was a naval war hero who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross after he died in action in 1943. It was the busiest pub we visited all day. Unravelling the layers of irony in why the John Wallace Linton has the brightest prospects of any pub in Newport would lead you to the root cause of most of the long-term socio-economic problems of South Wales.
Just around the corner from the John Wallace Linton is The Greyhound.
As we approached, one of the regulars standing outside immediately started showing us his tattoos.
He told us why he liked drinking in The Greyhound: "This is a fighting man's pub," he said. And then he pulled out his teeth.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @richard_king
Richard King is the author of How Soon Is Now, the Madmen & Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005 (Faber & Faber).
He is currently co-writing a book about Wales and being Welsh with Robin Turner.
Find more of Luke's photography here.