A brief history

For a while, in the middle of the fifteenth century, Newtown became a cultural centre for Wales. Dafydd Llwyd, who lived at Newtown Hall, held bardic contests lasting up to two months attracting thousands of people Newtown. At the time of the Civil War the occupant of Newtown Hall was Sir John Pryce, who first supported the Royalists and then changed sides to the Parliamentarians. Later, King Charles I arrived on his doorstep supported by an armed force. Fortunately, Sir John was by then once again a Royalist and the King stayed overnight at Newtown Hall.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of the Pryces was the fifth baronet, who lived in the early eighteenth century, again a Sir John Pryce. He married three times. The first two wives had died young. He had them both embalmed and then placed either side of his bed. When Sir John married yet again, the third Lady Pryce decreed that her predecessors be returned to the privacy of the tomb.

The next two generations of Pryces managed to squander the once great family fortunes and before the end of the eighteenth-century Newtown Hall and its park had been sold to pay off its mortgage.

Great changes in the town

But it was in the nineteenth century that the affairs of Newtown Hall were overshadowed by much greater changes in the obscure market town.

For centuries there had been a woollen industry in Mid Wales, but it had been essentially a cottage industry. Technological advances changed it to an urban industry. Factories were established, using the river as motive power. In this first phase of development weaving was still done by hand and Newtown quickly became a major centre of handloom weaving. The small town that had for centuries stayed within its Norman boundaries began to expand, first to the south along Park Street, and then, following the opening of the canal in 1819 over the river in Penygloddfa.. Between 1801 and 1841 the population of the town rose from under a thousand to over four and a half thousand.

Newtown’s most famous son, Robert Owen was born in a shop in Broad Street in 1771.When he returned to the town shortly before his death in 1858, he can hardly have recognised the little market town he had left as a boy in 1781.

By the 1830s Newtown was meeting stiff competition from elsewhere, particularly Rochdale, and workers’ wages were being driven down. The town became a centre of discontent. The first Chartist meeting in Wales was held in Newtown in October 1838. Unrest reached the stage that for some years it was felt necessary to have a military presence in the town.

The introduction of steam power in large new woollen mills gave new impetus to trade. Also, local draper, Pryce Jones, exploited this new form of communication by creating the mail-order system of selling, dealing with his customers for woollen goods, not over the counter, but by post. Thus, did Pryce Jones establish the first mail order firm in the world. He met with huge success, as the large Royal Welsh Warehouse opposite the railway station was opened in 1879. Even Queen Victoria wore Welsh flannel from Newtown.

However, it was not to last. Competition from the great centres of Lanchasire and Yorkshire caused Newtown’s industry, eventually to collapse. In 1912 a catastrophic fire at the huge Cambrian Mills effectively marked the end of woollen cloth manufacture as a major industry in Newtown.

Although both World Wars caused a temporary reversal of the decline, it continued into the 1960s. A government report in 1964 made it clear that unless something was done the decline in the economy of Mid Wales would continue.

Matters were made worse by two disastrous floods that raged through the town in 1960 and 1964. So it was that The Mid Wales New Town Development Corporation was set up in 1968. Their task was to double the size of the town by building new houses and factories. By 1988 the job was done, and the town had become to look much as it does now.

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