Blink and you could miss Newtown, so approach carefully down the spider’s web of country lanes that surround this ancient ‘town’ that sits within the fingers of Newtown creek, as it’s a jewel for the finding.
Entering from either side, the first building you see is likely to be the Old Town Hall, a building of some notoriety that sits alone in the centre of what was Broad Street. But now half of the road has grassed over through lack of use, like many of the other roads in the town.
It’s hard to believe but Newtown was once our capital town, our principal port and at one time it returned two members of parliament. A hothouse for those with political ambitions, one of Newtown’s MPs was George Canning who was first elected in 1793 and became Prime Minister in 1827. Quite an easy vote to rig when you consider that in 1831 the town had a population of 68 with only 39 qualified voters.
After it was declared a ‘rotten borough’ in 1832 and disenfranchised, the Town Hall was used as a school for a while and then left to rot until the Ferguson Gang came to its rescue.
With names like ‘Bill Stickers’, ‘Sister Agatha’ and ‘See Me Run’ the Ferguson Gang were a group of young people united against the ‘Octopus’ – the sprawling development of the countryside as put forward by Clough Williams-Ellis in his book ‘England and the Octopus’.
The gang were known for turning up wearing masks and with sacks of money and one can only imagine them appearing on the Island in this guise to buy the Old Town Hall for the princely sum of £5. After restoring it at a cost of £1,000 the ‘gang’ then gave it to the National Trust who now care for it, the town and the nature reserve.
‘Sister Agatha’ even returned in 1989 to see the building she had helped to save. Without her mask, but refusing to give her real name, she said they’d done what they’d done because they were young and it was fun.
It was serendipitous that the Town Hall was saved as it is the only remaining evidence to the one-time importance of Newtown. The small yet imposing structure, built of brick with stone dressings, was rebuilt in around 1699 on the foundations of an earlier building. The Gothic fenestration and four columned portico on the North front were probably added around the end of the l8th century.
Newtown was the oldest borough on the Island and originally named Francheville, and is likely to have been in existence before the Norman conquest. The first charter of which any record remains is that of Aymer de Valanee, Bishop Elect of Winchester, who founded this ‘New Town’ in 1256, but the oldest charter still in existence is one granted by Edward II in 1318.
By the early fourteenth century, Newtown was a thriving community with sixty families in residence and in 1344 the borough was assessed at twice the value of Newport. Its busy and important harbour, which is now just a mud flat at the end of a woodland walk, was regarded as the safest in the Island. You can still see the great salterns where the seawater was evaporated in the prosperous salt works, and the estuary had famous oyster beds.
But the town did suffer a number of attacks, primarily from the French who burnt it to the ground in 1377. Only partially rebuilt after this raid the town gradually declined and by 1559 a survey stated that there was no longer a market, nor any good house standing.
In an attempt to revitalise the borough Queen Elizabeth I gave parliamentary representation to the borough in 1584 and Newtown continued to elect two members of parliament during the next 250 years, even though there were very few people living there. Much of the history of this time can be traced in an exhibition within the Old Town Hall.
Walk northwards from the Old Town Hall and you will come across Newtown Arms or Noah’s Ark, which is identifiable from the Newtown/Francheville crest of arms above the door. This building is now owned by the National Trust too.
Opposite this building on the corner of the High Street is the National Trust Visitor Centre, which has an exhibition and tour guides to the area along with a useful car park and the only public toilets.
Then walk on down the High Street, passing the old village pump, the pretty Victorian church (rebuilt in 1837) and make sure you visit the nature reserve on the outskirts of the town. This is one of the loveliest locations on the Island, so make sure you don’t miss it.
The Old Town Hall is open from 2pm to 5pm on Tues, Wed, Thurs and Sun until October 11. From July 3 till August 31 it also opens on Mondays from 2pm till 5pm.