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black and white print
Henry Vincent
by and printed by George Dawe
mezzotint, 1842 or after, NPG D39256
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Ever heard of a man from London town prepared to travel the length and breadth of Britain hoping to inspire the working classes from Hull and back to stand up and be counted?

He was the Cockney Chartist, Henry Vincent the nearest thing the movement had to a cult hero.

Blessed with an innate gift to hold a crowd’s attention and leave them awestruck. Supporters hung on his every mighty word, and, in this blog, I shall be assessing the extreme highs and lows of a truly momentous period. As Vincent himself did reflectively say,

‘All that’s bright must fade’.


Printed booklet
Thomas Paine – Age of Reason Pamphlet, 19th Century, Parliamentary Archives, PAN/3/16



A capacity-filled audience assembled at the Strand’s Crown & Anchor on a winter’s evening in 1837 to hear some more of the Chartist clarion call. One of their leading luminaries William Lovett topped the bill, yet he was to be upstaged by a young tyro beginning to make serious waves on the political soapbox circuit. As people left the event the only name on their lips was that of Henry Vincent. An engaging speaker heavily influenced by the teachings of Anglo-American philosopher Thomas Paine whose speech was described by a journalist in attendance as containing ‘all the best maxims’.

Born in nearby Holborn a few decades before, due to his father’s goldsmith business going bankrupt, Vincent’s family relocated to Humberside. He remained there till his late teens then returned to the capital finding employment at Spottiswoode part of a burgeoning printing sector. Renowned as the King’s own printers he instantly rustled senior management feathers by assuming the mantle of ‘voice’ of the workers. After joining the London Working Men’s Association, he caught the eye of Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor who was notably impressed by his charismatic personality that bordered on the magnetic and he was fast-tracked to the frontline.


Universal Suffrage Petition (Chartist People’s Charter) – Printed, June 1839, HC/CL/JO/6/196, Parliamentary Archives



In the summer of 1838, Vincent hit the road with like-minded contemporaries such as John Burns and William Edwards. A designated patch was assigned that traversed from the Cotswolds to the Welsh Collieries. Spreading the gospel to a demographic ripe for change while adding signatures to the all-encompassing People's Charter that demanded electoral reform amongst other points. His methods waived aside intellectualism and metropolitan aloofness to communicate from the gut in a vitriolic language that seemed to embolden the listener. For example, in Bath, he said, ‘Any man who denies me the vote is a knave’.

If you missed the opportunity of seeing him address a meeting an alternative was to purchase his paper, The Western Indicator. This tome filled with songs, poems and the odd polemical became essential reading for the budding agitator, hitting peak weekly sales of 3500 by August 1839. His growing profile attracted a sizeable section of female followers and triggered the groundbreaking concept of staging women-friendly gatherings that proved extremely popular. Vincent didn’t just play to the gallery, he encouraged this fraternity to join radical groups and be fully conscious of how important they’ll be in igniting a social revolution.


Newport Riots, petition from London, February 1840, HC/CL/JO/6/202, Parliamentary Archives



At the annual London Convention, a generational divide began to appear within Chartist ranks. Lovett and O’Connor both advocates for Vincent were increasingly concerned by his overt militancy as he questioned whether presenting the People’s Charter to Parliament was a real statement of intent. His plan of radicalisation soon became clearer, writing in the Western Indicator he stated, ‘fine fertile hills rising in all directions I couldn’t help thinking of the defensible nature of the country. Wales would make a great republic’. Collaborators like Monmouthshire natives John Frost and Zephaniah Williams were willing and able to act on Vincent’s command.

Fuelled by tales of 18th Century French revolutionaries mutiny was in the air across the region. Home Secretary, Lord John Russell had received information of continuing unrest from Thomas Phillips, Mayor of Newport and they hastily decided to have Vincent arrested for seditious incitement. Sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, those early months of incarceration saw the Bullring Riots in Birmingham take place and a quite underwhelming Parliamentary response to the 1.2 million signature strong People’s Charter. Meanwhile, the ‘Free Henry Vincent’ campaign grew in strength culminating in the bloody tumult of the 4th November 1839 popularly known as The Rising.


An Act for preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the Rioters. [The Riot Act], 1714, HL/PO/PU/1/1714/1G1s2n7, Parliamentary Archives


As rumours of a planned mass rebellion reached fever pitch the authorities called up the cavalry. This confrontational course of action led the Newport Chartists to take up arms to liberate Vincent from the gaol by any means necessary. The Times Newspaper reported that 7000 protestors took an ‘eternal possession of the town’. Mayor Phillips tried to lay down the law by reading the 1714 Riot Act from the steps of the Westgate Hotel, unsurprisingly to no avail. An incredibly tense standoff was broken by the sound of sudden gunshots and an exchange of fire proceeded leaving twenty-two people dead.

Inside his heavily guarded cell, Vincent learned that John Frost and Zephaniah Williams alongside former travelling actor William Jones were identified as the key conspirators behind the disorder. Though powerless to provide any aid or assistance for his fellow operatives, he did manage to draft and circulate via the Western Indicator influential messages of support. Initially sentenced to death on charges of high treason this was reduced following much petitioning to transportation destined for Australia. In February 1840 the three men boarded a convict ship at Portsmouth docks and sailed away on an arduous five-month journey to Van Diemen’s Land.


Henry Vincent, by Henry Joseph Whitlock, albumen carte-de-visite, 1863,
NPG Ax18259



When it comes to legacies Vincent wasn’t dealt the fairest of hands. The martyrdom attached to the ‘Newport Three’ failed to be replicated for someone who served a two-year sentence. Upon release, he realised that his glory days being ‘darling’ of the Chartists had met a premature end. Instead, Vincent now sought to attain conventional life goals. He started to court Lucy Chappel, daughter of infamous Fleet Street pamphleteer John Cleave. Post marriage, the couple settled in Bath, which was a hot bed for the newly established Complete Suffrage Union that promoted a ‘Temperance Chartism’ appealing to his changing world view.

Unfortunately, his dream of entering Parliament was never to be despite numerous attempts over ten years in constituencies from Plymouth to Kilmarnock. The Times Newspaper noted Vincent’s appearance at an 1842 Ipswich by-election remarking that his shirt collar was turned down in a ‘John Wesley’ evangelical style. Feargus O’Connor did make it as a Parliamentarian unfortunately that period was hindered by mental health issues. Vincent moved into a new area of public participation by embracing religion and ordaining as a lay preacher where at the pulpit the old magic shone.

Thankfully this undoubted star wouldn’t fade away too quick.



1839: The Chartist Insurrection by David Black

Chartists by Dorothy Thompson

Last Rising by David Jones

Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Henry Vincent extract written by Henry John Whitlock

Hansard Parliamentary Debates

Times Digital Archive

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