Issue 235 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
On the night Of 3 November 1839 the capitalist class in South Wales was in a blind panic. Mine owners hid themselves down their own pits. 'Men of property took to their heels' and fled to the fields with their families. One minister of religion spent the night in a pond. They had been told that 'the Chartists are coming'.
Several thousand armed miners were marching on Newport. They planned to free the political prisoners held in the Westgate Hotel and proclaim a republic. Victory at Newport would be the signal for a nationwide uprising.
However, after a hard fought battle lasting 25 minutes the Chartists were driven off. Over 20 Chartists had been killed by the troops guarding the hotel. In the aftermath some 200 people were arrested for taking part in the rising. Three leaders--John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones--were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, though because of public pressure they were transported for life.
Terrible social conditions led to the revolt. As one historian of Chartism put it, 'Since the 1790s the industrial valleys had been a culture of alienation, sedition and violent protests', and the workers had plenty to protest about.
Across Britain men, women and children worked 14 hours a day for little reward. For a time workers looked to the Radicals in parliament, but the much talked about Reform Act Of 1832 only gave votes to the rich. John Frost said that the working man should 'look to no one but himself, for if he depends on those who are in superior situations, he will always be disappointed.' Chartism was about the working class looking to itself.
Chartism was the result of increasing class consciousness in the working class, as this extract from a leaflet issued by the South Wales Chartists in 1839 shows: 'The wealth producer is made the slave to the possessors of wealth that he has laboured to create; power is transferred from labour to capital and the producer sinks into a mere instrument to be used as needed, and thrown aside as soon as a more efficient one is presented.'
Chartism is often dismissed as only being about reform of the polling system, but it was much, much more. Workers thought that when the Charter was law their lives would be transformed for the better. They believed that 'children would no longer labour... men and women would only work for six hours a day... the distinctions between rich and poor would be swept away.' After the government turned down the mass petition for the Charter, leaders like John Frost and Henry Vincent called for 'physical force' to obtain the Charter. South Wales was to be the storm centre.
Months of painstaking work went into preparing for the planned insurrection. Leaders like John Forest and Henry Vincent travelled all over England and Wales calling on workers to 'look to yourselves to get the Charter'. It has been estimated that Vincent travelled 5,000 miles in one year speaking at meetings. Sometimes only a few people would turn up to a meeting, but as the year 1839 went on, the figures attending meetings grew in their thousands. For example in March 1839 1,000 women turned up to hear John Frost and others speak on why women should support the Charter, and Zephaniah Williams got as much laughter as cheers when he 'called upon those as yet unmarried to choose only Chartist husbands'!
In a charged political atmosphere, the Chartist organisation experienced explosive growth--there were 1,600 members in the Aberyschan branch alone, and 1,200 had been trained in the use of arms. The arming of whole working class communities took place. However, the rising's chances of success were harmed by poor communication with other Chartist groups in England, and the obsessive secrecy of the leadership.
Insurrections that are defeated are soon forgotten and the march on Newport is dismissed by most historians as a fiasco. One recent tourist guide to Wales described the Newport Rising as the work of 'a drunken rabble'. However, these myths are blown away in a classic account of the rising which has been reprinted to mark the 160th anniversary of the march. The Last Rising: The Newport Insurrection by David J V Jones is a good way to begin a study of Chartism, as the Newport events were only the opening act in the history of the Chartist movement. There were many other great events in the 1840s such as the General Strike of 1842.
In 1856 John Frost was allowed to return to Britain. Several thousand people gave him a hero's welcome when he arrived in Newport and he told them that one day not only would they have the Charter but they would also have 'something more'--a better world where those who make the wealth would enjoy it to the full.
Today in Newport there is a wonderful mural depicting John Frost wearing his top hat as he leads the attack on the Westgate Hotel. However, the real way to honour the Chartists is not with paint or stone. It is in building a revolutionary working class organisation which can turn the Chartists' dreams of a better society into a reality.