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CHARTISM IN WALES

(1) MID WALES

Background

The main industry in 19th century Mid-Wales was the woollen mills. There were three main towns involved, Newtown, Llanidloes and Welshpool. The conditions of the wollen workers were poor. It was common for workers to work 14 hours per day and on occasions they would work 36 hour continuous shifts. Childrren were employed as feeders (feeding the wool into the machines) and horrific accidents to the children were not infrequent, with losses of limbs. Wages, living conditions and public health were poor in the towns. Poverty was rife, unemployment high and there were outbreaks of Cholera in the 1830s & 1840s. Although there were no trade unions the Friendly Societies acted as a type of union to which most workers belonged. In 1819 there was a march of Friendly Society members at Newtown to demonstrate against reductions in wages and this saw outbreaks of violence and damage to property. At Llanidloes in 1830 there was a five week strike by woollen workers which succeeded in winning higher wages. During the Reform Crisis of 1831-32, whilst the riots were taking place in Merthyr Tydfil, Political Unions were being formed in Mid- Wales. Expecting violence the authorities swore in 300 Special Constables, but there was no trouble. However, the Poor Law Amemdment Act of 1834 did occasion violence and troops were required to restore order in Llanfair Caereinion in 1837 when a Relieving Officer was attacked.

The Mid-Wales Chartist Movement

One of the Radical Groups which had set up the national Chartist movement was the Birmingham Political Union. It was with their help that a Chartist branch was set up in Newtown in 1837 and held its first public meeting in April that year to protest against the Poor Law. Further Chartist groups were set up in Llanidloes and Welshpool in 1838 (though the latter did not survive for long). In October 1838 the first Chartist demonstration in Wales was held in Mid-Wales. At tis meeting the Chartist Petition was approved and Charles Jones of Welshpool was chosen as delegate to the Chartist National Convention. Jones had lived in Birmingham and been a member of the Birmingham Political Union prior to returning home to Welshpool. Another local leader was Thomas Powell, originally from Newtown but, after training in London as an ironmonger, had set up in business at Llanidloes. Both of these men and most of the Mid-Wales leaders were responsible reformers who supported peaceful methods to achieve their aims. Not so, however, Henry Hetherington, a Birmingham Chartist who came to Mid-Wales in 1839 and advocated the taking up of firearms for "self-defence". Unfortunately Hetherington's views appealed to the younger fanatics amongst the Mid- Wales Chartists who proceeded to arm themselves, obtaining guns from local farmers, drilling under an ex-militiaman,making pikes, grenades and bombs.

The Mayor of Llanidloes requested the Givernment for support. As a result three Metroploitan Policemen were sent from London ! This only made matters worse, as the policemen were useless in Mid-Wales and caused even greater irritation to the young hot-heads. The Mayor swore in 300 Special Constables and prepared to arrest the Chartist leaders. When the police arrested three Chartists near the Trewythen Arms in Llanidloes, a meeting of Chartists which was taking place at the Long Bridge determined to go and rescue them. The crowd marched to the Trewythen Arms and , seeing the police and Special Constables drwan up outside, withdrew to arm themselves andthen attacked throwing stones and firing their guns. They broke into the Inn and rescued their colleagues, who were handcuffed in the kitchen, savagely beat the London policemen. It appears, though, that most of the people involved in this affray were not Chartists but teenage labourers and other known troublemakers. Thomas Powell, the Chartist leader, was now in charge of the town of Llanidloes and he tried to act responsibly, being concerned to maintain the peace and appointing watchmen to ensure it.

T.E.Marsh, the Mayor of Llanidloes, however, was determined to take action and he again requested assistance from the Govenment, and this time they sent a contingent of the 14th Light Infantry from Brecon plus a troop of Cavalry. The Chartists were not prepared to take on the army and fled, mostly to the South Wales ironworks where they considered they would be safe from apprehension. However 32 local Chartists were arrested, including Thomas Powell. They were tried At Montgomery Assizes on 15 July 1839 where they were defended by Hugh Williams, the Carmarthen Lawyer and radical. All were found guilty. Thomas Powell was sent to prison for 12 months and was charged to find sureties of 400 after his release to keep the peace for a further 5 years. James Morris was transported for 15 years for stabbibg with intent to do bodily harm; Abraham Owen (Weaver) and Lewis Humphreys were transported for 7 years for drilling in the use of arms; John Evans (Tailor), Joh Lewis (Tatw) andJohn Lewis (Crippplegate) were each sent to prison for 12 months with hard labour; others were sent to prison for 6 months with or without hard labour; and others lesser sentences of imprisonment.

CONCLUSION

Chartism in Mid-Wales did not end, of course, but there was no further violence, and insted the Chartists presented Petitions to Parliament, gaining wide support through their non-violent policies. T.E.Marsh, the Mayor of Llanidloes, however, was persecuted by many local people for the rest of his life for having stirred up the violence by his actions to put the movement down.

(2) MONMOUTHSHIRE

Background

By the early 19th century the Heads of the Monmouthshire Valleys had become highly industrialised, with ironworks and some collieries. In addition ironworks, tinplate works and collieries were being established in the Monmouthshire Valleys themselves, especially in the area between Pontypool and Caerleon (just outside Newport). Glamorgan and Monmouthshire were now amongst the major industrial areas of Great Britain.

Most of the Ironmasters and Colliery owners in Monmouthshire were Englishmen who had come there to use the County's resources. For the most part they did not live in the areas where their works were, employing managers to run them for them, but because of their land holdings and importance locally they often held office in the county and had great power over their workers.

Conditions were poor for workers in the area who often lived in cramped, insanitary housing. with poor roads, and worked long hours for poor pay. Many of the workers, of course, like their masters, were not from the areas where they worked, having come into the area for work. Many were from the rural areas of Wales and were Welsh speaking. The centres of Social Life were the public houses and beer shops (in Dukestown there were 15 houses, 5 pubs and 28 beer shops and education was generally provided by the Non-Conformist Chapels.

Politics in Monmouthshire, as elsewhere, in the country were dominated by the great landowning familes. In Monmouthshire the Somersets and the Morgans of Treegar House, Newport were the major families concerned. They controlled the two Monmouthshire seats in the House of Commons and the Borough seat. Generally their candidates were returned unopposed. From 1816, however, they did come in for oppostion in the Newport seat, from John Hodder Moggridge and Thomas Prothero, both industrialists, and from John Frost of Newport, a tailor and a Radical.

Commencement of unrest

In 1822 there had been a strike by Monmouthshire colliers and in 1831 the Merthyr Tydfil rioters had sought and gained some assistance from the Monmouthshire ironworkers and colliers. In 1823 Joh Frost had been imprisoned for libel after attacking his opponents in print. In 1831 he was oneof the main Newport supporters of the Reform Bill. In the 1831 General Election the Borough seat (covering Newport, Monmouth & Usk) was won by Benjamin Hall, an ironmaster, against the Marquis of Worcester (brother of the Duke of Beaufort of the Somerset family). In the next elections in 1835 and 1837 the landowners failed to win back the seat, Hall winning again in 1835 and Reginald Blewett, another industrialist taking over in 1837.

In the meantime in 1831 a Political Union had been formed in Newport with John Frost as one of its leading members. A much greater involvement of working people in politics was being actively sought. In 1836 Frost was elected Mayor of Newport and a Justice of the Peace. In 1837 he was replaced as Mayor by one of his greatest opponents, Thomas Phillips. Frost seems to have lost faith in reforming politics by local action and by 1838 he had played an active part in setting up a Chartist Group in Newort following the esrtablishment of the first such group in Monmouthshire the year before in Pontypool.

The first Newport Chartist Meeting was held in October n1838 and later in the year Frost was chosen as the Monmouthshire representaive to the Chartist National Convention.. Chartism was now spreading rapidly in Newport and in the iron and coal towns & villages of the county. Originally the Chartist movement had begun with tradesmen and skilled workers but as it spread to the valleys areas it recruited more and more from the working men. Public Houses were often used as centres for Chartist meetings and many of the publicans were Chartists.

The Chartist cause in Monmouthshire was assisted by frequent visits by Henry Vincent, a very popular speaker from outside the county. However his last meeting at Blaina in 1839 in which he seemed tio threaten violent revolution caused him to be banned from returning to Newport. However, he defied the ban and the magistrates decided to take action against him and the other Chartists. Employers started to refuse to employ known Chartists, some publicans and shopkeepers refused to serve them and the magistrates banned Chartist meetings. Thomas Phillips, Mayor of Newport, formed an anti-Chartist organisation which not only campaigned against the movement but also trained people in the use of arms in case they should be needed if there was a Chartist uprising.

As part of the movement against the Chartists the magistrates ordered the arrest on 9 May 1839 of Henry Vincent and three well known local Chartists, William Edwards, John Dickenson & William Townsend. When the arrested men appeared outside the Newport court crowds of Chartists attacked the Special Constables who were guarding the court and seemed to be about to free the arrested men, but John Frost persuaded them against such action. Vincent and the others were tried at the Monmouth Assizes on 2 August and found guilty of conspiracy and illegal assembly. Vincent was sentenced to 12 months in prison, Edwards 9 months and Dickenson & Townsend six months. The sentences enraged the Chartists to such an extent that they now started (if they had not already done so) to prepare for a rising. To add fuel to the fire Parliament rejected the first Chartist Petition. The Monmouthshire Chartists now organised themselves into secret cells and began obtaining and storing arms. The use of the Welsh language amongst the Chartists made it particularly difficult for the authorities who were largely unable to speak the language.

The Attack on Newport

The Monmouthshire Chartists were not alone in preparing for rising. The Chartist National Convention of 14 September 1839 decided that Monmouthshire Chartists should march on Newport as a part of a National rising. Frost on his return to Wales advised the other Monmouthshire Chartist leaders of the plan. On 1 November 1839 the Chartist leaders met at the Coach & Horses Public House in Blackwood to make their final plans, which included arming themselves with guns, pikes and sticks.

On the weekend before the Monmouthshire rising was planned to take place, Charles Jones of Welshpool met John Frost at Blackwood to advise him to put off the rising as the other areas of Britain were not yet ready, but Frost said that South Wales would go it alone and the other areas should follow when they were ready. Over that weekend the Monmouthshire Chartists prepared themselves for the rising, whilst many of those who did not want to be involved fled the area. Although the Glamorgan Chartists were supposed to also be preparing, in fact, there seems little evidence that they were prepared to support their "brothers" from Monmouthshire.

Frost and his supporters started off from Blackwood at 7pm on 3 November and collected further supporters at Newbridge, Abercarn & Risca, reaching the Welsh Oak at Cefn with about 2000 men at 2 am. Zephaniah Williams set off from Blaina at 9pm on 3 November with 4000 men and met Frost at the Welsh Oak. They waited for the arrival of William Jones from Pontypool. Jones marched his men to Malpas but the returned to Pontypool to collect more recruits. Eventually Frost & Williams gave up hope of meeting up with Jones and decided to move on to Newport without him. It is likely that Jones was deliberately holding back his men so that they could attack Monmouth and Abergavenny.

By this time the Newport authorities were aware of the impending arrival of the marchers and Thomas Phillips had sworn in 500 Special Constables and had asked for troops to be sent. The Westgate Hotel in Newport was chosen as Headquarters by Phillips and many of the Special Constables plus 30 soldiers installed themselves there. Frost heard of this and decided to concentrate his attack on the Hotel. At about 9 o'clock the occupants of the Westgate heard the approach of the 5000 or more Chartists who then drew themselves up outside the Hotel. One of the Chartist leaders told the occupants to deliver their prisoners and then shots were fired at the windows of the building. The soldiers within then fired on the crowd outside and on some who had managed to enter the passageway of the building. Panic then set in amongst the besiegers and they fled.

There was a great deal of secrecy about the numbers of casualties of the action but it is thought that over 20 Chartists were killed and perhaps 50 injured. Two soldiers were also seriously injured.

The Aftermath of the Newport Rising

The authorities then set about rounding up the Chartist leaders and within a few days had arrested John Frost and had found Zephaniah Williams hiding on a boat at Cardiff and arrested him also. Hundreds of Chartista did escape by fleeing from South Wales and some never returned. A Special Court under three High Court Judges was set up at Monmouth to hear the cases of about 60 of those arrested at Newport. Frost, Williams and Jones were all found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering, the standard penalty for high treason. A major campaign started across Britain to have the sentences reduced, but the South wales authorities, with Government support would not agree. Suddenly, however, on 31 January 1840 the Cainet decided to comute the sentences to transportation for life. On 18 February 1841 the three Chartist leaders left on their journey to Australia. Jones and Williams never returned, but John Frost returned to Newport in 1856, having been pardoned. He was given a hero's welcome in the towns and valleys of Monmouthshire by many who still supported Chartism. In fact the movement continued into the 1850s but was never as strong as in 1839, and was a generally peaceful organisation for reform. Even as late as 1868 there were still individual Chartists giving support to Radical politicians at Elections.