A SHORT HISTORY OF CALDICOT
IN THE BEGINNING
People have lived, worked and worshipped in the Caldicot area since at least the Neolithic period. The earliest inhabitants probably lived close to the banks of the Severn, to the south of the present-day village, augmenting any agricultural activity with hunting wild fowl in the Severnside marshes and fishing in the river itself. The remains of a Neolithic long barrow overlooking the Severn at Heston Brake, near Black Rock Portskewett, indicates the importance of the area at that time.
There was considerable activity in the area during the Bronze Age. Excavations near the Nedern Brook in Caldicot Castle Country Park revealed a plank from a Bronze Age boat and complex wooden structures in the former river bed. The boat almost certainly plied its trade across the Severn with the farmers and traders of North Somerset.
During the Iron Age, the major settlements in the area were the promontory fort at Sudbrook, two miles to the east of Caldicot, and at Llanmelin, four miles to the north. These forts were centers of trade for the farmers who lived in small communities on the fertile low land of the Severn valley. Farmers from the Caldicot area will have visited these forts trading animals and crops for pottery and iron goods.
THE ROMANS AND AFTER
With the Roman Conquest the center of local activity shifted from Llanmelin and Sudbrook to the Roman town of Venta Silurum - Caerwent. At that time the Neddern was quite a substantial waterway and it is likely that Roman trading vessels sailed up the river to Caerwent. Caldicot itself would, as in the Iron Age, have been a small agricultural and fishing community trading with the larger local settlement. Not all manufactured goods had to be obtained from outside, however. The discovery of a number of kilns near the site of Durand School, shows that coarse, gray and black pottery was produced in the village during Roman times.
With the departure of the Romans, Gwent, particularly eastern Gwent, became 'border country' disputed between the Saxons and the Welsh. A recent theory even argues that Llanmelin was the true site of Camelot, the center of King Arthur's Celtic resistance to the Saxon invaders.
In 1065, the Saxon Earl Harold of Wessex made incursions into the district and, according to the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', began to build a hunting lodge at Portskewett. The lodge was promptly attacked by the Welsh, under Caradog, King of Gwent. The builders were slain and the building materials carried away. Earl Harold was never able to avenge the defeat. Having become king in January 1066, he met his death at the Battle of Hastings in October.
The Normans were soon able to establish control over the lowland parts of Gwent, including Caldicot. These lands were held by William Fitzosbern, King William's cousin. However, William Fitzosbern died in 1071 and his possessions in Gwent were inherited by his son, Roger. When, in 1074, Roger joined a rebellion against the King his lands were confiscated. The manor of Caldicot was given to Durand, the Sheriff of Gloucester.
The Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, records, 'Durand the Sheriff holds of the King, one land, in Caerwent, called Caldicot. He has in demesne there 3 ploughs, and 15 half villeins, and 4 bondmen, and one knight. All these have twelve ploughs. There is a mill worth ten shillings.'
The Domesday Book makes no specific reference to a castle at Caldicot, although it is likely that a wooden 'Motte and Bailey' structure had been constructed. Slight remains which exist to this day indicate that this may have been near Crick rather than on the present site
In 1158 the manor of Caldicot passed to Humphrey de Bohun III, Earl of Hereford. He was responsible for building the stone keep and curtain walls of the present-day Castle. The de Bohun family held Caldicot for over two centuries. In 1376 the manor, along with 70 others, passed to Thomas Woodstock, third son of King Edward III, when he married Alianore de Bohun.
With the death of Edward III the throne passed to his grandson, the nine year old Richard II. As the new king's uncle, Thomas played an important role advising him. He was created Constable of England. He rarely visited Caldicot, his main estates being at Pleshy in Essex, close to the seat of power.
In 1381, however, Essex was convulsed by the Peasants' Revolt. This may be why Thomas decided to spend part of that year in Caldicot. During his stay he gave orders for major new work to be done on the castle. A new gatehouse and drawbridge were constructed. At the rear of the castle a dovecote was replaced by a new tower with private chambers, now known as the Woodstock tower. At the foot of the Woodstock tower two carved stones were to be placed, one marked 'Thomas' the other 'Alianore'.
As time passed relations between Thomas and King Richard grew increasingly strained. In 1391, on the orders of the King, Thomas was kidnapped and murdered. His property was confiscated and passed into the hands of the Crown.
THE MEDIEVAL VILLAGE
During the Middle Ages Caldicot was more typical of English villages that of Welsh settlements. The villagers' huts were centered on the preaching cross in the middle of the village. They were surrounded by a series of arable open fields, the main ones being Church Field, Mill Field and Great Field (also known as West Field), each being divided into a large number of strips.
Further from the village were the commons, including Rogiet Moor, Ballan Moor, Simers Hill (now Highmoor Hill) and Black Marl Pits (now Five Lanes). These areas of rough grazing supported the cattle and sheep owned by the villagers.
Animals which strayed on to the crops would be taken to one of the village pounds, one being situated at the top of what is now Station Road and the other on Church Road, by the entrance to the Castle. Grain was taken to the village water mill at the Pill, on a site now occupied by Linpac Metal Decorators.
Apart from the Castle and Church the major building in the village was Llanthony Secunda Manor, a huge farmhouse occupied by monks from Llanthony Secunda Abbey in Gloucester. The house, built in about 1120, is still standing and is one of the oldest occupied houses in Wales.
In 1349 and again in 1361 the Black Death hit Caldicot, decimating the village. The manor accounts record that nobody could be found to serve as reeve (village headman) since all the villeins were dead.
AFTER THE MIDDLE AGES
The centuries passed. Caldicot changed, but only slowly.
During Tudor times Britain became more stable and prosperous. This led to a period known as 'the Great Rebuilding' during which time the more wealthy farmers replaced their old Medieval homes with grander more comfortable farmhouses. Some of Caldicot's finest surviving buildings, including Court House, Upper House and the Tippling Philosopher Inn belong to this period.
At the same time, however, the Castle and the water mill began to fall into ruins.
The Medieval system of agriculture, with its arable strips and common grazing, continued, although a small amount of common land at Caldicot Pill was enclosed and a few farmers swapped strips in order to create enclosed fields within the larger open fields.
In 1606 terrible floods swamped the Caldicot Levels. Many people were drowned. Although Caldicot itself escaped the worst of the flooding, many of the villagers' animals were drowned on the Moors.
Farming remained the way of life for the great majority of the population. Towards the end of the 18th century, however, a small shipbuilding industry developed at the Pill, owned by the Wise family who had come to Caldicot from Bristol.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Caldicot had a population of around 450, virtually all of whom were engaged in farming or in trades serving the agricultural community. In many ways the village retained its Medieval character, being dominated by the Castle and the Church. A tithe barn stood behind the Church.
There was no school, the only formal education being provided by a widow in her cottage. She was paid by a local charity to teach poor children to write and to read the Bible. In 1847, however, St Mary's Church School opened, largely as a result of the efforts of the vicar, Edmund Turberville Williams.
In 1850 Caldicot entered the 'Railway Age', a development which was to fundamentally change the nature of the village and to form its character for the next century and more. The opening of the South Wales Railway brought London, Cardiff, even Ireland within relatively easy reach, although the nearest station was at Portskewett (Caldicot station was not opened until 1936).
The railway attracted industry. In 1862 Henry Hughes of Tintern opened a wireworks next to the railway at Caldicot Pill. It soon became the village's major employer, attracting many new workers. Some of these were housed in a row of cottages built next to the factory, known as Forge Row. Others lodged with local families, causing some overcrowding.
In 1877 the Wireworks was sold and in 1880 it reopened as a Tinplate Works, producing tinplate for the canning industry.
In the meantime, improvements had been made to the railway network. In 1863, a branch line from the South Wales Railway to Black Rock, near Sudbrook, was opened. Passengers travelling from South Wales to Bristol no longer needed to travel via Gloucester. They could catch the train to Black Rock, where the railway ran out onto a pier. Here they got off and climbed onto a steam ferry, which took them across the Severn to New Passage, where they boarded a separate train for Bristol and London.
In 1879 work began on the shaft for the Severn Tunnel, which was built primarily to transport coal from South Wales to England, particularly to the Royal Navy dockyards at Portsmouth. The tunnel was opened in 1886. The construction work brought hundreds of navies to the village. After it was completed, many of them left, but the presence of the marshalling yards at Severn Tunnel Junction meant that Caldicot was now firmly a railway village. In the thirty years between 1851 and 1881 its population had more than doubled, from 661 to 1,401.
Thus, by the late Victorian period, Caldicot was no longer the purely agricultural community it had been for centuries. It now had a three-fold character, being made-up overwhelmingly of railwaymen, tinplate workers and agricultural workers. This character remained largely unchanged until beyond the middle of the 20th century.
A NEW TOWN
During the first half of the 20th century Caldicot continued to grow steadily, but unspectacularly, reaching a population of 1,770 in 1951. Early in the 1950s, however, Chepstow Rural District Council decided that the village should be allowed to expand to approximately 3,000. Shortly after this decision, the government decided to build a new steelworks at Llanwern. Caldicot was designated as a suitable home for the thousands of steelworkers. Expansion plans were revised upwards. Llanwern steelworks opened in 1962 and by the end of the decade Caldicot was occupied by over 7,000 people and was still growing. The village was fast becoming a town.
The growth of the community was furthered by the opening of the Severn Bridge in 1966, strengthening the ties between Caldicot and the Bristol region which have always been so important to the well being of the area.
With Caldicot now being part of the 'M4 Corridor' new industries such as Mitel Telecom came to the town, compensating for the contraction of the steel industry and the railways.
With the construction of the Second Severn Crossing, Caldicot appears to be destined to continue its growth.
In earlier years growth was achieved at the expense of the destruction of some of Caldicot's historic buildings. It is to be hoped that future development will take place in a more enlightened way, remembering that Caldicot has a proud past as well as a bright future.