18th Century in St Arvans
Valentine Morris (1727-82)
It is said that tourism in the UK began here in the Wye Valley when visitors came to see the beautiful landscape, laid out in a natural and minimalist way, in the 18th century. This 'Picturesque' style of landscaping was seen at its best in the walks along the Wye laid out by Valentine Morris who inherited Piercefield House from his father in 1742. It was 10 years later that he moved there with his new wife, Mary and started laying out the estate in a style quite different from most of the other large houses of that time.
Walkers were led along narrow paths, through woods, over slopes and along sharp ridges. Viewpoints with interesting name like ''Lovers' Leap'' , 'Giants Cave' and 'The 'Grotto' gave visitors beautiful views over the surrounding countryside with an element of surprise and thrill that added enormously to the whole experience. For example, ''Lovers' Leap'' is at the top of a high, sheer cliff and was designed with only low railings to increase the feelings of fear!
Morris built some structures at the actual view points but left the surrounding countryside as natural as possible. At the southern end of the walks is the 'Alcove'. Now a modern seat, it was originally a small stone building with a coved ceiling and dramatic view of Chepstow castle. Another interesting structure was the 'Cold Bath', most probably reserved for the male visitors. This small stone building, with a fireplace, had a large, tiled, sunken bath which was fed from a stream.
Morris encouraged the public to visit and walk along his paths and was said to be an extremely hospitable and generous host. Visitors taking the waters at Bath could extend their journey to take in the Piercefield estate and perhaps take a boat up the Wye. It became fashionable take this 'tour' in a similar way to the Grand Tour of Europe.
The income from 4 large sugar plantations in the West Indies helped support Morris's lavish lifestyle. Besides developing and managing the estate and entertaining his many visitors, Morris also spent some of his considerable wealth building turnpike roads, standardizing weights and measures and charitable giving to poor people. Unfortunately, after losing an expensive parliamentary election and far more on the unsuccessful defense of St Vincent against the French, he was committed to debtor's prison in 1772 and was forced to sell his Piercefield estate.
However, his legacy stays with us today. Modern visitors are following in the footsteps of many an eighteenth century traveller, sketchbook in hand, eagerly pursuing the British equivalent of the European Grand Tour.
Reverend William Gilpin
Another man who popularised the Wye Tour, also promoting the area for its 'Picturesque' beauty, and contributing to its reputation as the birthplace of British Tourism, was the Reverend William Gilpin. His description of the the landscape was 'expressive of that peculiar beauty which is agreeable in a picture.'
His writings influenced the remarkable popularity of English landscape painting during the last decade of the 18th Century, and inspired the Romantic poets. Gilpin’s ‘Observations on the River Wye’ appeared in print in 1782. Arguably the first tour guide to be published in Britain, it was one of a series of illustrated guidebooks to help travelers to locate and enjoy the most ‘Picturesque’ aspects of the countryside. In fact, it was many years earlier, in 1745 that the true originator of the 'Wye Tour', Dr John Egerton, started taking friends on boat trips down the Valley from the rectory at Ross-on-Wye. Little did he know that he had started a trend, and once Gilpin’s guidebook was published, demand grew so much that by 1808 there were eight boats winding their way down the Wye.
By 1850 more than 20 of the more literate 'tourists' had published their own accounts of the Wye Tour. Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of Gilpin’s day made the pilgrimage to the great sights of Goodrich, Tintern and Chepstow - among them Pope, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thackeray and Turner. The many guidebooks, engravings and paintings ensured a continuing steady stream of visitors. Some of these works are today held in the collections at Chepstow and Monmouth Museums.
19th Century in St Arvans
The intriguing story of Piercefield House and its link with the West Indies continues into the 19th century when it was bought by Nathaniel Wells.
Nathaniel was the son of William Wells, who emigrated from a rich Cardiff family to St. Kitts where he was a successful slave trader and a wealthy plantation owner. After his British wife died, William began fathering children (at least 6) by his slaves. Wells looked after both the children and their mothers, giving them their freedom and sums of money to live on. Nathaniel's mother Juggy appeared to be a particular favourite. He left the bulk of his estate to Nathaniel.
Wlliam sent him to London to be educated. On completing this, Nathaniel stayed in Britain and was accepted, despite his colour and illegitimacy, by members of high society. He became a highly respected land owner and magistrate. He sat in judgement over white people at a time when most black people in Britain's colonies, including on Wells' own estates, would have had no rights to such a court hearing. He remained an owner of land and slaves until emancipation was enacted in St Kitts in 1833, when he was compensated financially by the Government.
By 1801, Nathaniel had property worth an estimated £200,000 and was married to the only daughter of Charles Este, a former chaplain to King George II. In 1802, after a conversation over dinner with the owner, Colonel Mark Wood, he bought Piercefield House for £90,000. At the time, Colonel Wood said that "Mr Wells is a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro”
Nathaniel seems to have taken a full part in local society. In 1804 he was appointed a churchwarden of St Arvans Church, a position he held for forty years. In 1806 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace. On 24 January 1818 he became Britain's first black high sheriff when he was appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire by the Prince Regent, and the Deputy Lieutenant of the county.
Eventually and in light of his failing health, he sold Piercefield to John Russell in 1850. Nathaniel had been married twice (his second wife was called Esther), and he had 22 children. He died in Bath in 1852 at the age of 72, worth an estimated £100,000. No picture of Nathaniel exists. His wife and daughter, Georgina, and other family members are buried in a crypt inside St. Arvans Church. Georgina's husband is buried in the graveyard just outside.
This memorial tablet can be seen at St Arvans Church, the distinctive octagonal tower of the church was added in 1820, the gift of Nathaniel Wells. There is also a memorial tablet to one of his daughters Georgina and living relatives have recently visited the church.
Piercefield was purchased in 1861 by Henry Clay who had three children, Henry Hastings Clay who went on to live at Oak Grove, Charles Clay whose home was Wyndcliff Court and Louisa Clay who lived at Golden Hill.
In the 19th century 37% of the villagers were listed as labourers, but as well as farm labouring they were probably also employed in short-time jobs in the building trade as masons and carpenters. Industrial activity in the nearby Angidy valley provided a secondary source of employment.
In 1871, St Arvans was described in official records as a parish comprising 370 people, in the two hamlets of Porthcasseg and St Lawrence. There was a farm called Rogerstone Grange and a church, said to be ‘sadly dilapidated’ with the remains of a Norman arch, belonging originally to the chancel door.
The register dated from 1686. All previous books having been destroyed by fire.
The living was a gift of the lord of the manor, Duke of Beaufort and was worth £54 per annum. The incumbent was William Francis Cromwell of Pembroke College, Oxford.
The village had the benefit of a weekly school for children over 3 years of age and a Sunday School supported by voluntary contribution.
There was also what was described as a ‘Dissenting Chapel’!
Besides the Duke of Beaufort, other landowners in the area included Mr. H. Clay, Mr. George Smedley, the Rev. J. Prosser, the Bishop of Llandaff and the Misses Rigden.
Agriculture was, of course, very important. Wheat was a major crop, as were barley and oats. The soil was good, productive loam and sand and the total acreage was 2,300 with a gross estimated rental of £3,400.
The vital job of postmaster fell to William Harris who was proud to proclaim that post arrived at 6.30am and was dispatched at 6.50am! However, if you wanted the services of a money order office, you had to go to Chepstow
Some local residents of the time:Blacksmiths:
Walter Howell & Alfred JonesShopkeepers:
William Harris & Charles BrookesBoot and Shoemakers:
Martin Smith, Isaac Williams & Mrs Amelia JonesCarpenter and Wheelwright:
William JonesBeer Retailers:
Thomas Howell & George FlowersHotel keeper:
James HyattIncumbent at Penterry:
Rev David JonesFarmers:
Bill Rowland, J & P Prosser, John Prickett & Bill Rowland & Charles HigginsAuctioneer:
John DaviesParish Clerk: