The First Capital
by R M Golding
The Old Town hall at Newtown once stood in the centre of a thriving town and port with the everyday life of the community revilving round it, now it is in the midst of country, in a field, but still displaying its inherant dignity - 'ichabod, ichabod, thy glory is departed'
IF YOU DRIVE, between Yarmouth and Newport you will see a signpost to Newtown. Not normally visited by tourists, this would, without a doubt, have grown to become what Newport is today, had it not been for one fatal flaw in its location: it was too vulnerable to attack from the sea.
Now a small residential collection of 17th century cottages, Newtown is situated half a mile inland from the Solent, wedged amongst the flat, marshy lagoons and sea-water creeks which run inland, like veins, from Newtown Bay. Here in earlier days, proud tall ships ladened up to 500 tons entered the calm natural harbour to trade. Now pleasure sailing has taken their place. Recorded history began in 826 AD; before this time there is no evidence to suggest the town had any significance. At that time the surrounding lands were granted by King Egbert to the Bishop of Winchester. A further record dated 1256 is entered in the Domesday Book, which shows the lands to be owned by Aymer de Valence, Elect of Winchester. We may suspect that the connection with Winchester can be attributed to the fact that the Island was only cut off from the mainland at high tide, enabling easy crossing by foot at low tide. So trade grew; allied to its sheltered harbour foreign trade also flourished.
Throughout this period Newtown evolved under the name of Franchville, which is a Norman word meaning a village or town that pays a fixed rent, but is free from any service to the Lord of the Manor.
During recorded history, the Isle of Wight has paid a heavy price for its isolation from the mainland, and many a marauding enemy has taken full advantage of it. Franchville, being of prime importance and a profitable victim, bore the brunt of these frequent attacks from the sea. The first major attack led by Sweyn, father of King Canute, destroyed most of the town in 1001. But for the following three centuries the inhabitants enjoyed a more peaceful life and settled down to build up the town's commercial importance. During this period, in the mid- 13th century, the descendants of the once notoriously staunch Lord of the Island Baldwin de Redvers gave considerable amounts of land, including Franchville itself, to abbeys in Normandy and as a result the Abbey of Lire became the new landlord. In time the monks arrived to supervise the cultivation of their lands and to collect revenues. Perhaps today an arrangement of this kind would prove unpopular, but since at that time the holy men brought order and prosperity to the community they were both respected and welcomed. Industry began to flourish. As the monks also had the secret of extracting salt from seawater, salterns were constructed and the lengthy separation process began as a commercial proposition. The salt harvest took place in the height of the summer when the sun was strongest to enable the seawater to evaporate, and as a result, merchant ships arrived continually to trade and replenish their stocks since it was such an essential preservative for foodstuffs at sea. Oyster beds were farmed too to supplement the local economy.
Then the dark clouds of invasion and the threat of war with Europe again descended on Franchville, which at about this time took its present name of Newtown. The French finally came in 1377 and in one devastating swoop destroyed Yarmouth, Newport and in particular Newtown, with its fatal vulnerability to sea attack. So bad was the wound that when the Black Death took its toll later in the same year it proved to be the final blow to the town's further growth and prosperity. The continual threat of further sea invasion, and the lack of resources to rebuild the town and its economy, gave rise to an understandable migration inland. Although the port retained some of its earlier importance, its place began to be rapidly superseded by Newport. From a village of no more than fifty houses, Newport grew in size largely due to its advantage of being sheltered from the open seas. After the French threat passed, a period of calm returned to the Island. Newtown's importance partly revived and in 1410 it was appointed the first borough to the Wight. One Thomas Martyn was elected the first mayor. A nomination of this kind was an early attempt at democratic election and usually resulted in the post being filled by the most influential member of the community. The electorate consisted of men of substance, whose only qualification was the ownership of land. Never more than 25 burgesses were eligible at any time and these men became the self-elected council. However this seal of respectability failed to achieve a permanent return to the town's pre-fourteenth century prosperity as a commercial centre and seat of government.
Gradually it slipped back into decline and decay once more. In 1559 things became so bad that a commission of enquiry was formed to look into the matter. The findings of the commission attributed the cause to the continual sackings by the French and other invaders.
In 1584 a concerted effort was made to reconstitute the area by Queen Elizabeth I when she issued a royal parliamentary franchise to elect two members to represent the town in London. This royal assent continued for 250 years and during the period many eminent politicians were to start their public life representing the Newtown constituency The list reads like a political 'who's who', including many interesting and influential characters such as Robert Cotton, the illustrious antiquarian; John Churchill later to become the first Duke of Marlborough; Richard, Earl of Ranelugh who was later Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1668 to 1674. An admiral, a viscount and a Foreign Secretary who later became Prime Minister — George Canning.
Most of the legislative affairs during the parliamentary period were conducted in the town hall. Built by public subscription late in the seventeenth century the recently restored hall is the only remaining evidence of past eminence. This delightful little piece of municipal architecture stands alone on a country lane on the outskirts of the town and consists of a courtroom, south entrance hall and two retiring rooms at the north. The foundations probably date from the fifteenth century. At the north end the original entrance has been closed and a very noticeable four columned period portico was added late in the seventeenth century. One of the last acts before the corporation was dissolved in 1813 was to restore the hall at a cost of £443.The building is now a museum open to the public during the summer months and is worth visiting. Many records can be seen, including some photographs taken before 1933 showing the hall in a considerable state of decay. Looking at these pictures it is evident that major structural repairs had been required. Luckily a group of anonymous enthusiasts called the 'Furguson Gang' bought the property, financed the rebuilding and presented it to the National Trust; today it may well be one of the best preserved of its kind in England. In the basement local enthusiasts have compiled a natural history museum with many interesting exhibits including prehistoric mammal remains found on the marshes of Newtown Bay.
In 1961 the marshes were presented to the National Parks Commission along with much of the surrounding land, to be preserved for their natural beauty. It is now a wild life sanctuary, where a public 'hide' can be used to view many different species of birds. These marshes were largely formed by impervious clay called 'Blue Slipper' which forms the basic stratum of the Island. In this low lying part the clay is perpetually wet and the sands continually shifting over its surface. Indeed it was this which eventually caused the port to silt up. However, the inlet is still navigable for small boats.
Newtown has a fine history. If you visit the town today you may not see much visual evidence of it but after viewing the hall, walk around the narrow streets, then follow the path to the marshes where the ancient saltems and oyster beds can still be seen. It is here that you will sense that perhaps without the cruel events of the past, those tall ships might still be sailing into the bay.