Newport, the commercial capital of the Island and the chief railway centre up to the early 1960’s, also has a large residential population.
As the Roman Meda the town is of considerably antiquity, and is worthy of note that several of its central streets still bear names of Latin derivation. The borough received its first charter from Richard de Redvers, in the reign of Henry II. It was then, as its name signifies, the “new port”. Carisbrooke being at that time the seat of government for the whole of the Island. For upwards of three centuries it sent two representatives to Parliament, among them the great Duke of Wellington, George Canning, and Lord Palmerston.
The layout of the town is very much influenced by the Roman street layout, but planned by Richard de Redvers the First Earl of Devon before 1135. The principle streets being High Street running from the base of Snook’s Hill to Carisbrooke Road or Mall, Pyle Street running in parallel, the two main squares being St. Thomas’ and St. James’ together at right-angles is St. James’ Street.
The town lies low, surrounded by high ground, and consists of six main streets—High Street, South Street (formerly called Cosham Street), Pyle Street, Crocker Street, Lugley Street and Sea Street, running east and west, crossed by three others— Quay Street, Holyrood Street, St. James’s Street—running north and south.
The names of these streets occur in corporation documents: High Street, 13th and 14th centuries; South Street— also called Cosham Street—14th and 15th centuries; Pyle Street, 13th and 14th centuries; Crocker Street, 14th century; Lugley Street, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries; Sea Street, 13th and 14th centuries; Holyrood Street, 15th century. Quay Street does not occur before the 16th century, and is marked on Speed’s map of 1611, in which the western part of Sea Street is termed Shospole Street.
In Aug. 1377 the French landed on the north shore of the Island, and after sacking Yarmouth and Newtown proceeded, in the words of the records of the Exchequer, to the ‘entire burning, wasting and destroying of the town of Newport so that no tenants were there resident’ for upwards of two years.
The burial-ground to the south of the town, with its 16th–17th-century entrance, was the outcome of the plague visitation of 1582–3. It was consecrated on 23 October 1583, and was the first step towards throwing off the supremacy of Carisbrooke.
The Tudor town evidently comprised three squares or open spaces for assembly and trade, the principal of which, St. Thomas’s, was the Corn Market place. In the centre stood the church with, to the north of it, formerly known as Butchers’ Row, and later converted into dwelling-houses. The fish shambles evidently formed the eastern portion of the block or shops, forming an island between it and High Street, while to the south, adjoining Pyle Street, was a row of standings or retail shops. At the west side, opposite the church, was the market house, used as such up to the 19th century, when it was turned into an inn called the ‘Newport Arms.’ [‘a tenement … called the falcons —which yearly a gluff which the Sergeants are to set up at the booth at Whitsuntide in the time of the Fayer which booth is called the Pavillion where the Bailiffs in times past kept their Court of Pi Powder for the fayer time’ (Corp. MSS. Rental Bks. 1653). The gloves—mounted on poles—are still in existence, and were duly set up at the ‘Newport Arms’ till the middle of the 19th century. The house with its classic portico.]
St. Thomas’s Church dominated the town. It is modern (1854-6), but somehow suggests antiquity. The building which was formerly on the site dated from the time of Henry II, and was dedicated to the martyred saint of Canterbury, Thomas-a-Becket. In St. Thomas’s Square is the tall Cross forming the local War Memorial. It is also surrounded by many Grade II listed buildings.
At the north-east angle stood the Cheese Cross, [The position of the Cheese Cross is pretty well determined by an entry in the Corp. Rental Bks. 24 Oct. 1567, a corner shop on the north side of the fish shambles ‘against the south west side of the Cheese Cross.’] forming a connecting link with the square or space at the junction of Quay, High and Holyrood Streets, in the middle of which, facing east and west, was the town hall with the audit house, and probably the Knighten Court House, in close proximity.
The Market Square or St. James’s Square formally known as the beast market present a most interesting sight on market days, when cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits, fowl, etc., are brought from all parts of the Island and it is probable that here stood the ring for the bull-baiting. It was certainly used as the place for public punishment, a poor woman in the reign of Elizabeth being burnt here as a witch.
There is a corn exchange in St. James Square, built in 1891, and, at the north-east angle of the square, a building erected in 1810 as the Isle of Wight Institution, and now occupied by the County Club. Also stands a Memorial of Queen Victoria, erected “To Victoria, the Queen,” by the people of the Wight.
The town hall stands at the intersection of High Street and Quay Street, and apparently occupies nearly its original position. [Its position is clearly shown on Speed’s map, where it stands as an isolated building. In 1405–6 the bailiffs let a piece of waste ground called the Little Falcon in High Street to build two shops with a solar for a new Court House for the bailiffs and commonalty to hold their Courts (Corp. MSS. Add. MS. 24789, fol. 122 d., 287, 287 d.). This Little Falcon stood on the north side of the High Street between Watchbell Lane and Holyrood Street. In 1687 a lease was granted of the shop under the ‘Loft sometime being the Town Hall …’ on the north side of the High Street (ibid.). The ancient Audit House occupied a portion of the site of the present town hall, but by 1618 had to be repaired, and in 1638 it was taken down and rebuilt the next year.]
The Guildhall, where the corporation business is transacted and the petty sessions and county court held, was built in 1814-16. It replaced the ancient guildhall with all its memories of Charles I. There is a statue of Lord Chief Justice Fleming, who was a native of the Island. The clock-tower commemorates the first of Queen Victoria’s Jubilees.
In Quay Street, opposite the Guildhall, was the Literary Institute and Reading Room together with Calvert’s Hotel. Alongside this is a small lane known as Watchbell and in olden times had a bell hanging to notify residents of a fire.
The old Grammar School, a stone structure, high gabled with mullioned windows, at the corner of St. James’s Street and Lugley Street, a few yards west of the Station, was erected in 1614, and is substantially perfect, but the interior has been sadly misused. The building is interesting as having been the lodging of Charles I at the time of the Conference with the Parliamentary Commissioners, which resulted in the abortive Treaty of Newport. The King’s bedroom looked into St. James’s Street, and the old school-room was used as the presence chamber, where during the negotiations with the fifteen Commissioners of the Parliament which ended in the farcical treaty, having taken place on 27 November 1647. The Parliamentary Commissioners lodged at the Bugle Inn, the conference taking place in the old Town Hall.
Among other interesting old houses in the town are God’s Providence House (1701), the Chantry House in Pyle Street, Hazard’s House (1684) in Lower High Street, and Castle Inn (1684) at the top end of High Street or Castlehold.
In Upper St. James’s Street, running southward the Isle of Wight County Secondary School and the Seely Library with reading-room, this was formally the Technical College.
Many of the buildings mention above will be found in the following articles.
Source: A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912. (Pages 253-265)
Isle of Wight by Ward Lock & Co. Ltd. 21st Edition.