Jailbird's view of old Newtown

The women are generally sober, and the residents are remarkably civil to strangers.

This is Newtown – but the Newtown of nearly 200 years ago as revealed in the latest publication by the Mid Wales town's local history group.

"A Sketch of Newtown" was written by Francis Nicholls in 1830 and a copy of it was discovered in Cardiff Library, and it is that transcription by T.W. Hancock dating from 1846 that the group has republished, with the library's permission.

Nicholls arrived in Newtown in 1786 when he would have been in his mid-20s. He married Ann and had five known children.

"At the present inhabitants of Newtown are Natives of almost every County in the Principality, and also many from different countries in England besides some Scotch and Irish, and a few Foreigners, consequently there is a considerable difference in their Character, Habits, and Manners, but, as the major part of them are Natives of Wales, they, generally speaking, retain that simplicity of manners and integrity of conduct, for which the Cambrians have always been so honourably distinguished, and taking the whole population, as it now is, they with a very few exceptions may be justly termed an honest, sober and industrious set of people and remarkably civil to strangers," Nicholls writes.

"The women, in particular, are almost generally sober, industrious and frugal, and much to the credit of the sex it may truly be said that there is scarcely a drunken woman in the town."

However, what Nicholls does not let on is that he seems to have spent time in jail himself.

The history group's researches point to him spending almost exactly 20 weeks in the county jail in Montgomery in 1806 and 1807, accompanied by debtors and petty criminals. He may have been a bankrupt, although the group has been unable to establish for certain why he did jail time.

He says in his account that "the ancient Inhabitants and their descendants are easily distinguished from the new comers, they are, for the most part, very respectable, and speak nothing but English, whereas those Persons who have come from remote parts in Wales, still speak the Welsh Language, yet their children if brought up here, generally speak English."

Newtown was going places, as he tells how it was first lit by gas towards the close of 1827, and the Montgomeryshire Canal had been extended from Garthmyl into the town, with the first boat brought up it to Newtown on May 1, 1819, amid great fanfare.

The principal roads, which had been extremely bad, were now as good as any in the kingdom.

Nicholls, a schoolmaster who died in 1832, rates the surrounding countryside as pleasant, rather than beautiful.

"Of the Salubrity of the air, no better proof need be adduced, than that no contageous (sic) distemper (except the small pox and measles) have ever visited the Town or neighbourhood in the memory of any person living, and that the Ague is scarcely ever known in the country, numerous instances of longevity might be quoted if necessary."

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