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The Electronic Telegraph Saturday 6 December 1997

How a town took its revenge

Once townsfolk dare not enter; now they can celebrate Christmas at Britain's biggest council house, says Byron Rogers

THE preparations for Christmas are underway, and it will be a Christmas in the old style, with mince-pies and mulled wine below stairs as shadows gather in the long passages. It is to be a family Christmas at Tredegar House, near Newport, except that for 50 years no family has lived there.

This is the story of a house and a town. The man who lived in the house created the town. He brought the docks and the cattle market, and after them the terraced streets to house the thousands who rushed here in the boom-time of the Industrial Revolution.

The townsfolk's world ended abruptly at the gates of his 1,000-acre park, beyond which they would not have gone, for his word was law, this little man with the big nose. Colonnades of trees led to a stable-block grander than any house they would have seen, and beyond this the house itself, in all its 17th-century brick glory. But it is the proximity of the two that makes this such a strange tale.

Privilege usually had its seat far from the source of the wealth that underwrote it. Here, that source of wealth was on its doorstep.

Nobody, not the people of Newport, nor the man who lived here - they in dreams, he in nightmare - could have foreseen what would happen, for it is their house now. The park gates are open so anyone can enter and, 150 years on, Tredegar is the biggest council house in Britain.

"It has to be the greatest irony in history, that the home of one of the greatest enemies the working class ever had is now the jewel in the crown of a Labour authority," said Alan Morris, Chairman of the Leisure Committee of Newport County Borough Council.

The name of the little man with the big nose was Sir Charles Morgan, and the people hated him. They hated him so much that when a statue was put up to him in the centre of Newport, they had it moved to a local park, which became known as the Old Man's Park - long after he was dead, they still could not bear to say his name.

John Frost, the Mayor of Newport, once wrote Sir Charles Morgan a letter. "When a great landowner treats his tenants as slaves, or suffers others to treat them as such, it naturally excites a spirit of inquiry . . ."

Pursuing that spirit, Frost led the Chartists into Newport in 1839. Soldiers shot them down, and he was sentenced to death, subsequently changed to transportation for life. The magistrates, Morgan's brother among them, also handed down savage sentences to the others. Such is the background to what follows.

In 1976, Newport Council bought Tredegar for 270,000. It built a school in Sir Charles's kitchen garden and council houses in his park. A supermarket and light-industrial development followed. It is more or less what you would expect, but the council did not stop there.

What do you think happened to the house? Did they pull it down, or convert it, or sell it off?

No, they restored it and made it as grand as it had been in Sir Charles Morgan's time. Only 90 acres of his park remain, but these they have cared for to the point where it was judged the Best Public Park in Britain, the first time the award was made.

The final twist came five years ago, when Morgan's statue was brought back, after 132 years, to Newport town centre, for Harry Jones, leader of a council on which just one Conservative sits, is a man who loves statues.

"As a boy I climbed all over him," said Mr Jones. Now anyone can, and over his house, his park and his walled garden.

It costs the council 500,000 a year to run, which is what most boroughs expect to pay for a town museum, and this is the shortfall after the 200,000 that admissions and special events bring in.

But nobody objects any more. In the beginning they did, when a hung council bitterly debated the matter, and there were headlines such as "Raze Tredegar to the Ground" in the local paper.

"This is Courtenay Morgan: he had the yacht," said Michael Hunter, the Curator at Tredegar. We had paused beside a portrait. "And just along here, this is Evan's Room."

Courtenay, who was Sir Charles's great-nephew, and his son Evan were the sort of men who appeared in the nightmares of family trustees. Evan had two wives, one a Russian princess, though his tastes ran elsewhere. His mother had thought herself a bird, and had built lifesize nests of sticks and mud.

Evan went around with a parrot on his shoulder and became a papal chamberlain, while dabbling in black magic with Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast, a regular house-guest. Seances were held at the house, owls materialised and rooms went abruptly cold, though not so cold as Evan's trustees.

The occult and the menagerie of strange animals, and even stranger people, did for Tredegar. Evan was the last of the family to live there. A cousin sold the house and most of its contents in 1951. It was bought by nuns who ran it as a girls' boarding-school until they sold it to the council.

At first, it had no idea what to do with the house, but then, after a working party report, it took the remarkable decision to furnish it and administer it as a family house. The rooms began to fill up again as the lost furniture came back, some of it on loan from museums; the paintings came from the last Lady Tredegar.

The servants' hall was opened up, and now, on the long tables, vegetables and game, some of it plastic, some ceramic, await the cooks who will never come.

Visitors move through the world of rigid hierarchy behind the green-baize doors, where the still room maids, a cut above the others, made jam by the gallon and had their own sitting-room, and the housekeeper, grander still, had a whole sitting-room to herself.

All this is now represented by Sue Davies, the housekeeper appointed by the council. Mrs Davies is conscious of the past at Tredegar, for it will keep calling on her. "I was in the cellar yesterday, and I was suddenly conscious of someone, of something, behind me. I said to myself, 'Do not look round, Sue, do not look round'. But the oddest thing was the morning I had fluffed up one of the feather mattresses in one of the bedrooms. I turned away for only a moment, but when I looked round there was an imprint of a bottom on the mattress." Mrs Davies paused. "A naked bottom."

The fine features of the exotic Evan, who gave nude-bathing parties and had a parrot which would crawl up his trouser leg and peer out of his fly-buttons, look out from photographs. Of his bedroom, the guidebook says, coyly: "Many a strange thing is said to have happened here."

Godfrey, son of Sir Charles and the first Viscount, who was at Balaclava, is also back on the walls - he lived long enough to be painted by Rolf Harris's grandfather, about as startling a historical footnote as you can get.

The Gilt Room is also back, its ceiling restored after a Vulcan bomber scraped over the house and brought it down. They leave its doors open when couples get married in the next room, so for a moment they can pose against its grandeur.

And now it is Christmas at Tredegar House, Christmas at 5 a head. You are advised to book early.

Over Christmas Tredegar House is open on four weekend afternoons, December 13, 14, 20, 21 (from 2pm, last admission 6pm) and three weekday evenings, December 17, 18, 19 (from 6.30pm, last admission 8.30pm). The house will be decorated as for a Victorian Christmas. There will be mulled wine and mince-pies, Santa's grotto in the basement, bellringers and a choir. To book, call 01633 815880. Admission: adults 5, children 3.50, family ticket 13.50.