A Chartist Tour
4 November 2007
On Sunday 4 November 2007 I participated in a guided coach tour of chartist sites across south Wales, in commemoration of the 4 November 1839 Newport Chartist Rising. The following is a personal reflection.
View a video clip of the Chartist Tour here
The Sunday tour of Chartist sites followed the Chartist Ancestors event of Saturday, and many of the participants attended both days of Chartist Anniversary celebration. The presence of a number of Chartist descendants gave the Sunday tour a special poignancy therefore, as we visited sites such as the Nantyglo Roundtowers - built as a fortification by rutheless iron-master Crawshay Bailey - in the heart of the Hills of Monmouthshire iron district; and, most dramatically, we filled the Court Room of the Shire Hall. Monmouthsire, where the mass treason trial of John Frost and his fellow defendants was held.
"We have already mentioned that there was scarcely any town of importance in the manufacturing districts whose tranquility was not compromised by the chartists in the course of the year. | We have, however, now to relate the particulars of an insurrection even more alarming than the Birmingham outrage, which broke out at Newport in Monmouthire at the close of 1839. | This town is the capital of a tract of country called the Hill district, which forms a sort of triangle, the apex of which may be placed at Risca, five miles from Newport, the base at about a distance of fifteen or twenty miles. | The whole region is intersected by glens watered by streams, and maintains a mining population of nearly forty thousand persons in regions which fifty years ago exhibited nothing but the scattered dwellings of a few shepherds.| The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History and Politics of the Year 1839 (1840)
Convening at St Woolos Cathedral, Newport our journey re-traced a section of the final leg taken by the Chartist marchers into Newport - Stow Hill, The Friars and Tredegar Park - and then proceeded north into Chartist territory and further sections of the route of the Chartists' march to Newport.
Our journey commenced on the crest of Stow Hill, the site of the Union Poor House, where troops were billeted in preparation for the defence of the town against the armed insurgets. Thirty crack artillery were sent from the Union Poor House to defend the Westgate Hotel on the morning of the attack, as intelligence was received of the progress of the Chartists towards the town, aided by reconnaisance from look-outs on the Ridgeway with its expansive view north and its gateway position guarding the entry points into Newport.
For many sections our road trip literally re-traced the route taken by contingents of the Chartist march, and we noted the location of Chartist pubs, which were centres of chartist organisation and provided strategic meeting points for the marchers en route.
We then entered the valleys landscape and Chartist territory proper. We entered the architectural splendour of the town of Pontypool, with the conspicuous presence of the Hanbury Leigh estate (x), now Pontypool Park. The sleepy Sunday Autumn calm of Pontypool belied its history as a Chartist stronghold, for Pontypool was home of watchmaker and Chartist leader William Jones, who led the Pontypool contingent of Chartists on the march to Newport. Just to the north lies Abersychan, home of the British ironworks, which had attracted a few hundred Waterloo veterans who lent their professional soldier's skills to training the Chartists.
Travelling further north we passed through a more barren industrial landscape, with its narrowing valleys and imposing hills, arriving at Nantyglo in what was called the Hills district of Monmouthshire. Nantyglo had been a centre of the notorious Scotch Cattle disturbances; then a formidable Chartist stronghold and home of Chartist leader Zephaniah Williams, who led his contingent on the march to Newport from a rallying point on the mountain above Nantyglo, Beaufort and Ebbw Vale.
We visited the exhibition in the new Salem Chapel and Chartist Centre in Blaina, followed by a visit to the privately owned Chartist Round Towers at Nantyglo, a fortification bult by iron master Crawshay Bailey to protect his property. The imposing fortified towers survey the landscape, and provide a dramatic reminder of the preparedness of the iron masters to use arms to defend their property. In their shadow lay Crawshay Bailey's iron works and the neighbouring Nantyglo works (also known as Coalbrookvale, and represented in a well known painting of around 1829 here), so that the valley would have been a cacophony of activity far removed from today's post-industrial, almost "rural" landscape. .
Heading north, we viewed the pastoral charm of Malpas Court,set within a large open landscape with the backdrop of Mynydd Maen and Twm Barlwm, the new fashionable residence of Thomas Prothero (the building is currently being renovated, and is wrapped in scaffolding), Lord Tredegar's estate agent, Newport Town Clerk, and John Frosts's key antagonist.
Having passed through the narrow industrial valleys of Monmouthsire, we travelled east across the Head of the Valleys or Monmouthsire Hills and iron district, down the Clydach Gorge,moving out of the industrial frontier as we left the iron and coal resources. We now entered an agricultural landscape, and locus of the traditional landed aristocracy.
A picturesque spectacle, as we passed through the expansive landscape around Abergavenny, overlooked by the majestic Sugar Loaf and Skirrid mountains. Crawshays Bailey's Clock Tower and Bailey Park just visible in the distance as we took the road by-pass. Abergavenny was strongly garrisoned during in the aftermath of the Newport Rising, in fear of a widespread insurrection. We were now in the landscape of the traditional landed aristocracy, plus the estates of new contenders such as the Crawshays.
From Abergavenny we made our way to Monmouth, the County Town, its historic sway over the county announced by the unique fortified bridge protecting the town. Monmouth is home of the Shire Hall, the legal centre of the county, where the Quarter Sessions were held and where the model trial of the Chartists for High Treason was held under the eyes of the whole country.
Terry Frost Jones, descendant of Newport Mayor and Chartist Leader John Frost | Outside the Shire Hall, Monmouth, where the Court Room held the trial of John Frost and his fellow Chartist defendants for mass treason.
Alongside Glamorgan counterpart Merthyr Tydfil, Newport was the Chartist citadel for Monmouthshire, eloquent and riotous in the struggle for the democratic birthright of political enfranchisement and the People's Charter.
The Monmouthshire Chartists had marched from their frontier industrial communities to converge upon Newport, "the capital of the Hill district", entrepôt of this rich mineral district. A vital hub of industrial and maritime activity that left Cardiff in its shade in the 1830s, Newport was also a vital centre of Chartist activity. The Chartist cause had established a formidable presence within the burgeoning town, and the fledgling municipality - following adoption of the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act - provided a veritable theatre for the radical reformer John Frost, Magistrate, Mayor and National Chartist Convention President no less! Newport was therefore the obvious focal point for protest and a demonstration of working class strength, at once home of leading landowner, industrialists' and commercial interests and a locus for democratic political hopes.
Whilst the Chartists had struck at the very heart of the emergent capitalist order in their march on Newport, "the capital of the Hill district", the trial of John Frost for High Treason was held at the Shire Hall in the the County Town and traditional legal centre of Monmouth.
In this landscape of the landed estate, the traditional landed order and the new landowner-capitalists assumed the military and legal apparatus of the state and its parliamentary system of privilege. In terms of the democratic aspirations of the new industrial workers, this was was a world as far removed from everyday reality as Van Diemen's land itself.
Our chartist tour party entered the Shire Hall and made its way up the ceremonial staircase to the Court Room atop.
The popular judgement of history
| 4 November 2007 - Chartist descendants stand in the Judge's benches
at the Court Room, Shire Hall, Monmouth, to provide a testimony of
their ancestor's role in the Newport Chartist Insurrection of 4
November 1839, and celebrate the ultimate prevailing of the Chartist's
cause of Democracy.
The court room setting added high drama to the proceedings, as the
Chartist descendants occupied the judges platform en mass and each in
turn accounted for their ancestors role in the armed insurrection. The
performance demonstrated the final prevalence of the popular will, the
triumph of a democratic concept of justice, and a historical settling
of accounts. "I have been convicted and found guilty", to paraphrase one of the descendants' accounts of their Chartist forebear, "but I feel no guilt for my actions".
The final leg of our journey was from Monmouth to Chepstow through the picturesque Wye Valley, which for us was bathed in a golden Autumn dusk, reinforcing the pathos of that final leg of the journey for Frost, Williams and Jones.
For this was the route taken under cover of darkness to remove the Chartist conspirators from their south Wales stronghold, where they were vulnerable to being rescued by Chartist supporters, as the decision was taken by the authorities to commute their sentence from death to transportation to Van Diemen's Land, Australia, no doubt activated by the expediency of avoiding martyrdom for the Chartist leaders and the risk of further mass insurgency in south Wales and beyond.
On the bank of the Wye, near the magisterial Chepstow iron bridge, in the shadow of the limestone cliffs, a lone blue plaque commemorates the point from which Frost, Williams and Jones boarded a ship for the naval port of Portsmouth and thence by convict ship to Van Diemen's Land, Tasmania, Australia.
The hour of democracy is ever at hand.
The following morning, 5 November - the day of the aftermath of the Newport Chartist Rising, I took a morning walk around Caerphilly Castle and reflected upon the David Williams memorial, reaching skyward in the Autumn landscape. David Williams ( and x and x) was a central inspiration for the Chartists, through his radical writings, and he had drafted the first constitution of the French Revolution, no less! The Chartist's Six Points of the People's Charter had likewise enshrined the principles of modern democratic aspiration.
On Tuesday 6 November an Early Day motion for Democracy Bank Holiday was presented to Parliament by the MP for Newport West:
EDM 8 | DEMOCRACY BANK HOLIDAY | 06.11.2007 | Flynn, Paul
this House believes that the pioneering sacrifices of those who sowed
the seeds of British democracy should be celebrated with a new Bank
Holiday on the Monday nearest to 4th November, the anniversary of the
killing of more than 20 Chartist insurgents in Newport in 1839,
recalling other significant events in the history of the Suffragettes
(1903) and the Putney debates (1647); and calls for a fresh
appreciation of the value of the courage and vision of past generations
in order to defend, promote and develop Britain's democratic
institutions. [ Early Day Motion ]
One awaits an online petition for Democracy Day. For the unfisinshed work of parliamentary democracy in Britain, we may also note the recent Fixed Term Parliaments Bill (Oct 2007); for the sole unrealized Chartist demand of the Six Points of the People's Charter was for Annual Parliaments.