There are plenty of plaques to be seen on the streets of Caerleon – commemorating the novelist Arthur Machen, John Jenkins, opponent of the Chartists, and Basque children given refuge during the Spanish Civil War – but none, as far as I could see on a recent visit, to one of the town’s greatest sons, and pioneer archaeologist, John Edward Lee.
Without Lee the town would lack much of what makes it distinctive: its Roman heritage. And it would be without the National Roman Legion Museum, in which are kept most of the objects excavated from the fortress, home of the Second Augustan Legion between the first and third centuries AD.
Lee was born in Hull in 1808 and worked from the age of sixteen in his two uncles’ shipping office. He developed an early interest in geology, natural history and archaeology, and in accumulating and organising museum collections (he amassed a fine collection of over 21,000 geological specimens, presented to the British Museum in 1885).
He came to Caerleon in 1841, drawn by the opportunities offered by the industrial expansion of South Wales, and became a partner in the firm of J.J. Cordes & Co. of Newport, manufacturers of nails, spikes and rivets. He settled in The Priory in the centre of the town (it is now a hotel and restaurant) and married in 1846.
Caerleon came to dominate Lee’s life. His services to the town were many, including the provision of an adequate water supply, but his main interest proved to be the remains of the Roman fortress, within the walls of which The Priory lay.
Caerleon in the mid nineteenth century was still a small town, with fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, but it was expanding as a result of the growth of its close neighbour, Newport. New discoveries of Roman remains were constantly coming to light and entering the possession of private residents and landlords. Little effort was made to record them or to preserve newly exposed sites, and many antiquities had been lost or destroyed.
Lee was determined to remedy this. He started to record some of the objects discovered:
‘… the few leisure hours which I possess have been studiously devoted to making accurate drawings of all the unpublished inscriptions, and other antiquities, found either at Caerleon or in the neighbourhood.’
Many of these drawings he published in a book entitled Delineations of Roman antiquities found at Caerleon (the ancient Isca Silurum) and the neighbourhood (1845). In 1847 two excavations, one as a result of building a railway line, never completed, along the Usk valley, the other near the Castle Mound, unearthed Roman burials and a large bathhouse, and led to a feeling that the town needed to act to preserve its heritage – and to the foundation of the Caerleon Antiquarian Association, the earliest local archaeological society in Wales. The inaugural meeting of the Association was held at Lee’s house on 28 October 1847: he became Secretary and the local landlord, Sir Digby Mackworth, became President.
The first aim of the Association was ‘to form a museum of the antiquities found at Caerleon and in the neighbouring districts’. Sir Digby Mackworth offered temporary space in the old Town Hall, and objects began to be deposited there in exchange for free entry for their owners to the nascent museum.
Lee and his colleagues saw clearly that their first duty lay in preserving the numerous important Roman finds discovered in and around Caerleon, and that the only way of doing so successfully was to establish a local museum, properly administered by a voluntary organisation, which alone at the time had the continuity and means to maintain one. (The only alternative was a museum administered municipally, following the Museums Act of 1845, but Caerleon had too few inhabitants to qualify.)
Lee succeeded in enlisting as supporters of the new association many of the leading figures of local society, including John Jenkins, the opponent of the Chartists, and the way was clear to planning a new museum building. The temporary building was unsuitable as a permanent home, and plans were drawn up for a new building, a simple classical rectangular building fronted by a prostyle porch with Doric columns. An architect and builder were engaged, and work began in June 1848. Donations, though, were slow in arriving, and there were many difficulties in the course of construction. The museum was finally ready to be opened in 1850.
Among the objects the public could view were the contents of the temporary museum as well as the many objects discovered during and since the two 1847 excavations. By 1862 a large collection had been assembled, identified and organised – almost entirely by Lee himself. In that year he published his major book, Isca Silurum; or, an illustrated catalogue of the museum of antiquities at Caerleon. The descriptions of the objects are carefully written, and the illustrations, on 52 plates, are mostly drawn and reproduced by Lee himself. There are 31 inscriptions, 14 sculptured stones, 65 fragments of samian and course pottery, two mosaics, 21 glass objects, two ivory carvings and numerous objects of bone, bronze and iron. The volume also included papers by Lee and others on excavations and the early history of Caerleon.
Lee’s book received highly favourable reviews in the archaeological journals. One reviewer recommended its purchase ‘for the small price of fifteen shillings’ and commented ‘few places have been so fortunate as to obtain means for the erection of an appropriate building for the reception of the antiquities discovered at various times in the locality’. After 1862 no student of Roman Britain could afford to ignore the importance of Caerleon museum and its contents. In 1868 Lee issued a supplement to his catalogue, adding new accessions and new information on items already described.
The museum was not the only focus of Lee’s work on Roman Caerleon. He appears to have been responsible for overseeing the excavations at the Castle Baths, publishing a preliminary account of the dig in 1850 (Description of a Roman building and other remains lately discovered at Caerleon). He lacked the tools to interpret and date the finds with any accuracy, but his methods are as intelligent and diligent as comparable efforts by his contemporaries.
Lee left Caerleon for Devon in 1868 for the sake of his wife’s health and died in Torquay in 1887. The society failed to regain its early energy and it was left to Mortimer Wheeler, with his Daily Mail-sponsored excavation of the amphitheatre in 1926-27, to inject new life into the uncovering of Roman Caerleon. In 1930 the museum and its collection were given by the society (by now the Monmouthshire and Caerleon Antiquarian Association, today the Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association) to the National Museum of Wales, which has maintained and extended it to great effect ever since.
Without John Edward Lee, though, the museum would not have been established in the first place, and it’s unlikely that visitors to it today would be able to see all of the objects that together offer a vivid picture of life in south east Wales during the Roman period.
For more information on John Edward Lee see Gwenllian V. Jones, ‘John Edward Lee, a Monmouthshire antiquary’, Monmouthshire Antiquary, vol. 13 (1997),and Gwenllian V. Jones, ‘John Edward Lee and antiquarianism in nineteenth-century Caerleon’, Monmouthshire Antiquary, vol. 17 (2001).