Newport: Mystery of hotel's 184-year-old bullet holes

The Westgate Hotel in Newport
The Westgate Hotel, pictured during this year's Newport Rising march, holds huge historical significance for the city

You would usually expect to find a forensic expert a crime scene dealing with fresh evidence.

But Andre Horne has been looking at something a little older - 184-year-old bullet holes.

The firearm expert has been tasked with investigating these holes in stone pillars at Newport's historic Westgate Hotel.

His aim is to confirm the holes were from muskets fired in the 1839 Newport Chartist Rising.

"It's a welcome change," said Andre.

"It was very interesting to find out about these stories and try to see what potentially happened here."

Typically at crime scenes, Andre analyses the impact marks, ejection patterns and determined trajectories of bullets to try and understand where the shooter might have been standing.

But because the pillars at the Westgate Hotel have moved since 1839, this complicates matters.

The building, which saw the battle between the Welsh Chartists and the soldiers of Queen Victoria, had been demolished in 1884 - only to be rebuilt two years later.

The pillars which used to stand by the entrance of the old hotel are now ensconced within the building.

Forensic expert Andre Horne at work
Forensic expert Andre Horne examines the holes in the hotel's pillars

As the Westgate is currently closed to the public, people are no longer able to go and see the bullet holes for themselves.

For decades speculation has been rife about whether the pillars do actually bear the scars of the musket balls from nearly two hundred years ago.

Some doubters have even circulated rumours that the holes were the result of the pillars being drilled at some point in order to attach posts or gates.

One person trying to put an end to those rumours is Oliver Blackmore, collections manager at Newport Museum.

Oliver, who joined Newport Museum in 2010, said: "I'd never seen the bullet holes and I accepted as fact what I'd been told about them being created simply to house railings.

"However, when we visited the pillars questions started to arise because they actually did look like bullet holes to us."

Oliver Blackmore - collections manager at Newport Museum
Oliver Blackmore says the holes were made by bullets

The team at the Newport Museum then enlisted Andre's forensic expertise to test the holes.

Oliver said: "When Andre went back to the lab there was very limited evidence of bullet residue - probably because thousands of enquiring fingers have been shoved into the holes over time.

"But the historical evidence is pretty definitive, making any physical or forensic evidence just icing on the cake.

"I think we can confidently say that the holes in the Westgate pillars are actually bullet holes".

David Daniel is the Project Director of Our Chartist Heritage, the charity behind the Newport Rising festival.

It commemorates that fateful day in 1839 when more than 20 protesters were killed fighting for the democratic rights of the working classes.

And this year's festival saw the highest ever turnout for the torch-lit march, as hundreds marched to Westgate Square to mark the occasion.

David Daniel
David Daniel helped reopen the Westgate Hotel after it had stood empty for years

David helped reopen the doors of the Westgate Hotel in 2019 after it had laid derelict for years.

Initially resurrected to host a small event, it birthed an ambitious plan to regenerate the hotel into a community space.

David said the Westgate Hotel and its bullet holes were of key historical importance to Newport.

"To see the bullet holes, the real effects of the rising and that fight for democratic rights is what makes the building really special, along with our part in it.

"I think the idea that they weren't bullet holes came about because the building was empty for so long and people couldn't see them up close and personal.

"That they are bullet holes is really the only real explanation that makes any sense.

"So opening those doors and being able to show people was so powerful."

David added the hotel's recent closure was a big loss to the city.

"I think that the Westgate Hotel is a key venue in Newport, which is a struggling city," he said.

"It's right in the centre, this piece of history - there's nothing that compares to it.

"Its locked doors are a huge missed opportunity, both for Newport and Wales as a whole, in terms of how we remember our heritage."

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