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[watercolour painting of Newtown by R.G. Salter in 1878]

To modern eyes, this pastoral scene, with cattle grazing on the slopes, might appear quaint, offering a glimpse of a ‘lost’ Newtown. However, to the Victorian viewer, it was more likely to represent an optimistic forward-looking vista of the recent changes within the town. For, in truth, most of the prominent features evident in this watercolour painting had been created within the previous thirty years.

In the left foreground, a passenger train of the Cambrian Railway passes the Severn Valley Woollen Mills, one of three new steam-driven mills built in the town in the 1860s and 70s. The train is about to stop at Newtown Station, built in 1863. The Cambrian Railway Company had been formed in 1864 from several smaller companies that had been active in constructing short rail stretches, such as between Llanidloes and Newtown, since the 1850s. By 1878 these lines were connected to what was becoming a national rail network.

St David’s Church, which dominates the central foreground of the painting, had in the 1840s, replaced the flood-damaged church of St Mary's which had stood on the banks of the River Severn for centuries. The tower of the former parish church can be seen just to the right of the new church tower. To the left of centre, the United Reformed Church (or, as it was known at the time, the English Congregational Church) rises behind a row of terraced workers ’houses. The church opened its doors for the first time in the same year as this painting was created.

The right-hand side of the painting shows the other two newly constructed steam-powered woollen mills. The multi-storeyed Cambrian mill, which would become the largest of its kind in Wales, is prominent whilst in the far distance on the extreme right can be discerned the chimney of the Commercial Mill (also known as the Cymric). Both mills were situated close to the canal, but it was the railway which, in 1878, represented the future, and one man, more than any other clearly understood its potential.

Pryce Jones had opened his first mail-order premises in 1859. His business quickly flourished and provided a welcome boost to the sale of Welsh flannel, the staple product of Newtown. Within a decade he could boast Florence Nightingale and even Queen Victoria among his customers. Success soon led him to look for larger premises and just as the paint was drying on Salter’s view of Newtown, so too Pryce Jones’s Royal Welsh Warehouse was nearing completion. It can be seen in the extreme right foreground, built alongside the railway, from where his goods were sent to all parts of the country and beyond.

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