This blog was written by Katie Widdowson, Assistant Archives Officer.
From July 2019, the Parliamentary Archives’ exhibition will be on the Newport Rising. You can view this display as part of a tour of the UK Parliament, find out more at https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/tours-of-parliament/
In the early hours of 4th November 1839, thousands of Welsh Chartists marched towards Newport. They reached the Westgate Hotel, where the mayor and his soldiers were detaining fellow marchers and gathered outside. They called on the occupants to release the prisoners, before trying to gain access through the main door. This led to a pitched skirmish, with the Chartists storming into the hotel and attacking those inside, while the soldiers fired back into the crowd. Within twenty-five minutes, it was all over as the Chartists who could, fled and the injured and dying lay in front of the hotel. Contemporary newspapers estimated that twenty-two Chartists were killed.
Chartism was a political movement which began in 1838. In that year, the People’s Charter was published. This Charter laid out the six main demands of the Chartist Movement. These were:
1. Votes for all men over the age of 21
2. Secret ballots in elections
3. No property qualification for MPs
4. Wages for MPs
5. Equal constituencies and
6. Annual Parliamentary elections.
Parliament had rejected a petition by the Chartists in July 1839 while in August 1839, Henry Vincent, a leading Chartist, was arrested and imprisoned in Monmouth County gaol. Both factors contributed to the Newport Rising.
The three leaders of the Newport Rising were John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones. Frost was a draper from Newport who rose to local political prominence in 1835 when he was elected as a town councillor for Newport and was appointed as a magistrate. By 1836, he had been appointed as Mayor of Newport however, his close association with the Chartist movement meant that he was forced to stand down in 1839. Williams hailed from Monmouthshire, working as a coal miner and an innkeeper. His standing in the Monmouthshire area, particularly the fact that he hosted Working Men’s Association meetings in his home, made him a natural choice for leader. Jones was a watchmaker and innkeeper, responsible for leading the third column of men into Newport.
Following the Rising, all three were captured, arrested and convicted of High Treason. This was a capital offence and so all three were sentenced to death. These sentences were eventually commuted to transportation for life thanks to a nationwide petitioning campaign and a personal plea from the Lord Chief Justice. The case came to the attention of members and was discussed in the House of Lords.
Despite them being spared the death penalty, many felt that the punishment of the leaders of the Newport Rising was unfair. They petitioned Parliament to demand their pardon, with one stating that ‘it is as clear as the sun at noon-day that they should be pardoned!’
However, these petitions fell on deaf ears and all three were transported to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania, Australia) in 1840. They were eventually granted a conditional pardon in 1854, which did not allow them to return to Britain, and were only fully pardoned in 1856.
William Jones decided to remain in Australia and ply his trade as a watchmaker. He died there in 1873. Zephaniah Williams also decided to remain in Tasmania, and his wife and children joined him there from Wales. He made a fortune having discovered coal on Tasmania and founding their coal trade. He died in Tasmania in 1874. John Frost moved to America following the conditional pardon of 1854. He returned to Britain, specifically Bristol, in 1856. He remained active, publishing articles advocating reform until his death in 1877.
This event failed to achieve the Chartists’ demands in the short term however, five of the six demands of the People’s Charter have since been met. In some cases, the law went even further than the People’s Charter with the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, providing votes for all men and women over the age of 21. The events of 4th November 1839 have been commemorated in Newport with the naming of John Frost Square and the erection of three sculptures outside the Westgate Hotel.