John Frost (Chartist)

John Frost (25 May 1784, Newport, Monmouthshire27 July 1877, Stapleton, Bristol) was a prominent leader of the British Chartist movement in the Newport Rising.

Early life

John Frost's father, also John, kept the Royal Oak Inn in Newport. His mother Sarah died early in his childhood and he was brought up by his grandparents. He was apprenticed as a bootmaker to his grandfather and left home at the age of sixteen to become a draper's apprentice and tailor, first in Cardiff, then Bristol and later London. He returned to Newport in 1806 to start his own business, which became prosperous. He married Mary Geach, a widow, in 1812 and, over the course of eleven years, they had eight children.

Political career

In 1821, Frost became embroiled in a dispute with a Newport solicitor, Thomas Prothero, who was also Town Clerk, over his late uncle's will. In a letter Frost accused Prothero of being responsible for the former's exclusion from the will. Prothero sued for libel and Frost was ordered to pay £1,000. Frost then accused Prothero of malpractice. Again, Prothero sued for libel and again won. In February 1823, Frost was imprisoned for six months and told in no uncertain terms that further accusations against Prothero would lead to a longer sentence.

After his release Frost turned his anger against Prothero's friends and business partners, notably Sir Charles Morgan Baron Tredegar of Tredegar House and Park, a major Newport and South Wales landowner and industrialist. In a pamphlet of 1830, he accused Morgan of mistreating his many tenants and advocated electoral reform as a means of bringing Morgan and others like him to account.

An appreciation both of Frost's literary skill and his mounting exasperation can be gained easily from a consideration of his early letters, to Sir Charles Morgan himself amongst many others [ [ Letter to Sir Charles Morgan, Bart. (Abridged) 1926] ]

Establishing himself as a prominent Chartist, in 1835 he was elected as a town councillor in Newport and appointed as a magistrate. He also became an Improvement Commissioner and Poor Law Guardian. The following year, he rose to be Mayor of Newport. His aggressive behaviour and election as a delegate to the Chartist Convention in 1838 was not stomached for long by his old enemies and he was forced to stand down as mayor the year after. The Home Secretary also removed his title of magistrate.

The Newport Rising

On 4 March 1839, Frost led a Chartist march on the Westgate Hotel in Newport. The rationale for the set piece confrontation remains opaque, although it may have its origins in Frost's ambivalence towards the more violent attitudes of some of the Chartists, and the personal animus he bore towards some of the Newport establishment who were ensconced in the hotel along with sixty armed soldiers. The Chartist movement in south east Wales was chaotic in this period, after the arrest of Henry Vincent a leading agitator, who was imprisoned nearby in Monmouth gaol and the feelings of the workers were running extremely high, too high for Frost to reason with and control. One of his contemporaries, William Price described Frost's stance at the time of the Newport Rising as being akin to "putting a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck."

The march, which had been gathering momentum over the course of the whole weekend, as Frost and his associates led the protestors down from the valley towns above Newport, numbered some 3,000 when it entered the town. Filing quickly down the steep Stow Hill, the Chartists arrived at the tiny square in front of the Westgate Hotel at about 9.30 a.m. The flash point came when the crowd demanded the release of fellow Chartists who, they claimed, had been imprisoned in the hotel. The battle of the Westgate lasted only about 25 minutes, but at its close some 22 people lay dead or dying and upwards of 50 had been injured. An eye witness report spoke of one man, wounded with gunshot, lying on the ground, pleading for help until he died an hour later. Bullet holes remained in the masonry of the hotel entrance porch until well into modern times.

Trial and sentencing

He was arrested and charged with high treason. Found guilty, along with William Jones and Zephaniah Williams, Frost was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but a huge public outcry led to these sentences being discussed by the Cabinet.On 1st February the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, announced that the executions would be commuted to transportation for life.

On reaching Van Diemans Land, modern Tasmania, Frost was immediately sentenced to two years hard labour for making a disparaging remark about Lord John Russell, the Colonial Secretary there. Frost was indentured to a local storekeeper, spent three years working as a clerk, before becoming a school teacher for eight years when he was granted his ticket of leave.

Chartists in Britain continued to campaign for the release of Frost. Thomas Duncombe pleaded Frost's case in the House of Commons but his attempt to secure a pardon in 1846 was unsuccessful. Duncombe refused to be defeated and in 1854 he persuaded the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, to grant Frost a pardon on the condition that he never returned to Britain. Rather than stay in Australia Frost immediately left for United States, with his daughter, Catherine, who had joined him in Tasmania, and toured the country lecturing on the unfairness of the British system of government.

Later life

In 1856, when the residency condition was lifted, Frost was given an unconditional pardon and he straightaway sailed for Bristol, retiring to Stapleton. He continued to publish articles advocating reform until his death, aged 93, in 1877.

John Frost Square, in the centre of Newport, is named in his honour.

John Frost is buried in the churchyard of the Church of the Holy Trinity with St Edmund, Horfield, Bristol. A head stone was recently re-erected on the site.

External links

* [ A contemporary watercolour of Frost on trial in the dock]
* [ Frost at 100 Welsh Heroes]
* [ The Chartists of South East Wales]


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