The Newport Rising was the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in mainland Britain, when on 4 November 1839, somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 Chartist sympathisers, including many coal-miners, most with home-made arms, led by John Frost, marched on the town of Newport, Monmouthshire, intent on liberating fellow Chartists who were reported to have been taken prisoner in the town's Westgate Hotel.
Among the factors that precipitated the rising were the House of Commons' rejection of the first Chartist petition on 12 July 1839 and the conviction of the Chartist Henry Vincent for illegal assembly and conspiracy on 2 August.
Some kind of rising had been in preparation for a few months and the march had been gathering momentum over the course of the whole weekend, as Frost and his associates led the protesters down from the industrialised valley towns above Newport. Some of the miners who joined the march had armed themselves with home-made pikes, bludgeons and firearms.
The march was headed by John Frost leading a column into Newport from the west, Zephaniah Williams leading a column from Blackwood to the north-west and William Jones leading a column from Pontypool to the north.
The exact rationale for the 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. The Chartist movement in south east Wales was chaotic in this period and the feelings of the workers were running extremely high.
Events leading up to the Rising
Heavy rainfall delayed the marchers and there were delays in the planned meeting of each contingent at the Welsh Oak in Rogerstone. Jones and his men from Pontypool in fact never arrived, delaying the final march into Newport into the daylight hours and thus contributing to its defeat. As the march progressed down the valleys on the Sunday morning, even one entire chapel congregation was pressed into swelling the ranks of the marchers.
After spending Sunday night mostly out of doors in the rain, the commitment of many of the marchers was lukewarm. Many had been ambivalent to the Chartist cause in the first place, more concerned with the immediate problems of their own employment conditions. Thus many marchers did not participate in the final assault on Newport and simply waited in the outskirts of the town.
Rumours of a possible Chartist rising and previous violence elsewhere, following the earlier arrest of Chartist leader Henry Vincent and his imprisonment at the gaol in Monmouth, meant that the authorities had suspected there might be a riot. The sheer scale of the rising, however was not fully appreciated until November 3, the day before the riot. The authorities then quickly started to prepare. The Mayor of Newport Sir Thomas Phillips had sworn in 500 Special Constables and asked for more troops to be sent. There were about 60 soldiers stationed in Newport already, and he gathered 32 soldiers of the 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot in the Westgate Hotel where the Chartist prisoners were held.
Climax of the Rising
The Chartists were convinced that some of their fellows had been imprisoned at the Westgate Hotel. Filing quickly down the steep Stow Hill, the Chartists arrived at the small square in front of the hotel at about 9.30 a.m. The flash point came when the crowd demanded the release of the imprisoned Chartists. A brief, violent and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, contemporary accounts indicating that the Chartists attacked first. But the soldiers defending the hotel despite being greatly outnumbered by the large and very angry crowd, had vastly superior fire-power, training and discipline, all of which soon broke the crowd. The Chartists did manage to enter the building temporarily, but were forced to retreat in disarray. After a fiercely fought battle, lasting approximately half an hour, between 10 and 24 of their number (a fair estimate is 22) had been killed by the troops and upwards of 50 had been wounded.
Amongst the defenders of the hotel, Mayor Thomas Phillips was badly wounded and one soldier was seriously hurt, along with two of the special constables. As the chartists fled they abandoned many of their weapons, a selection of which can still be seen in Newport Museum.
An eye-witness report spoke of one man, wounded with gunshot, lying on the ground, pleading for help until he died an hour later.
Some of the Chartist dead were buried in Cathedral Church of St Woolos in the town where there is still a plaque to their memory. Some of the bullet holes from the skirmish remained in the masonry of the hotel entrance porch until well into modern times.
In the aftermath 200 or more Chartists were arrested for being involved and twenty-one were charged with high treason. All three main leaders of the march, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at the Shire Hall in Monmouth.
After a nationwide petitioning campaign and, extraordinarily, direct lobbying of the Home Secretary by the Lord Chief Justice, Viscount Melbourne, the government eventually commuted the sentences of each to transportation for life. Others chartists involved in some way included James Stephens, John Lovell, John Rees and William Price, and according to some accounts Allan Pinkerton.
Testimonies exist from contemporaries, such as the Yorkshire Chartist Ben Wilson[disambiguation needed ], that a successful rising at Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising. Older histories suggested that Chartism slipped into a period of internal division after Newport. In fact the movement was remarkably buoyant (and remained so until late 1842). Initially, while the majority of Chartists, under the leadership of Feargus O'Connor, concentrated on petitioning for Frost, Williams and Jones to be pardoned, significant minorities in Sheffield, East End of London and Bradford planned their own risings in response. Samuel Holberry led an aborted rising in Sheffield on 12 January; police action thwarted a major disturbance in the East End of London on 14 January, and on 26 January a few hundred Bradford Chartists staged a rising in the hope of precipitating a domino effect across the country. After this Chartism turned to a process of internal renewal and more systematic organisation, but the transported and imprisoned Newport Chartists were regarded as heroes and martyrs amongst workers.
Meanwhile The Establishment and middle classes became convinced that the rising meant all Chartists were dangerously violent. Newport Mayor Thomas Phillips was proclaimed a national hero for his part in crushing the rising and was knighted by Queen Victoria barely six weeks later.
Frost himself was eventually given an unconditional pardon in 1856 and allowed to return to Britain, receiving a triumphant welcome in Newport. But he never lived in Newport again, settling instead in Stapleton near Bristol, where he continued to publish articles advocating reform until his death, aged 93, in 1877.
Today the Chartist-inspired murals in Newport and "John Frost Square" at the centre of the city, proudly commemorate the rising and local activities are often held to mark the anniversary.
- Harrison, David J. Monmouth and the Chartists
Footnotes & Citations
- ^ The Welsh Academy Encyclopædia of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press 2008.
- ^ Everett, Glen (1987). "Chartism or The Chartist Movement". National University of Singapore. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/hist3.html. Retrieved 2006-11-03.
- ^ Malcolm Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester UP, 2007), pp. 137-40.
- ^ Chase, Chartism, pp. 135-8, 152-7.
- ^ Williams, David. John Frost: A Study in Chartism. 1939. p.318
- ^ The Newport Chartist Rising – Anniversary Events 2007
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