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On this day 4/11/1839: The Newport Rising

Gareth Beynon looks at the last significant armed uprising to take place on the British mainland.

The Newport Rising was the last large scale armed uprising in the history of mainland Britain. Several thousand (estimates of the exact numbers vary widely) marched on Newport, South Wales from the valley towns to the north and west, where they attempted to storm the Westgate hotel as part of what they believed to be a nationwide insurrection. They were swiftly defeated by a contingent of 60 soldiers stationed inside the building. What made them believe that their small scale operation was capable of overthrowing the British state?

The People’s Charter had been launched in the spring of 1838 to demand universal male suffrage and other egalitarian electoral reforms. Supporters saw it as a way to achieve economic change too, as a worker’s parliament would surely pass legislation to redistribute wealth and end the inequities of Nineteenth Century British Capitalism.  It quickly gathered mass support amongst the working class the length and breadth of Britain. Fiery public meetings and rallies were held and the Charter gathered signatures and support rapidly. Debates arose about how best to proceed with getting the Charter enacted. It was agreed that the charter should be presented to parliament but some believed that the emphasis should be on persuading MPs of the virtues of their argument while others saw it as a stunt which could be used as a springboard for more militant action.

The elected leadership, the National Convention, contained a disproportionate number of middle class, liberal minded moderate delegate. They tended to be better educated and more articulate than the majority of Chartists but did not really represent the mood amongst the majority of members. They rapidly became deadlocked and failed to agree on a course of action beyond presenting the petition to parliament. Certainly there was a mood for revolution amongst significant sections of the movement, especially in the North of England. Military style training was carried out in some of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East; in Tyne and Wear alone 60000 pikes were made in the autumn of 1838. The state stepped up its military presence in these areas in response.

Inevitably parliament rejected the petition when it was presented in June of 1839. It had garnered 1.5 million signatures but the government refused to even hear it. It was clear that the powers that be would not be persuaded by force of argument alone but the Chartist leaders could still not agree on a course of action.  It was at this juncture that a successful uprising would have been possible. Parliament had been shown to be completely bankrupt and there was palpable anger amongst a large section of the working class. Fury over low pay, poor working conditions and the cruelty of the workhouses had been stirred anew. As it was, no action was called and the moment passed.

It was in this context that, with a huge dose of optimism that the political mood of the summer could be reignited and desperation to strike before the last vestiges of revolutionary sentiment ebbed away, that the Newport Rising was planned. The conviction and imprisonment of Chartist leader and eloquent public speaker Henry Vincent, well known locally for his speaking tour of South Wales a year earlier, on 2 August all of 20 miles away in Monmouth appears to have been an immediate trigger for the rebellion. Rumours of a widespread uprising were rife and may have convinced John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones, the leaders of the rising, and their supporters that their actions would be part of, or at least be the trigger for, something much larger.

Armed with pikes, bludgeons and some firearms they marched through the rain and dark early in the morning on 4 November arriving outside the Westgate Hotel, where they believed some of their comrades were being held, at around 9.30 in the morning. What they seemed not to have reckoned with was a small military presence, gathered there due to rumours of a riot in the town, inside the hotel. The small band of soldiers had military training far in advance of that held by the Chartists and they held an easily defendable position. Shots were exchanged but the Chartists quickly disbanded. 24 of their number had been killed and over 50 more were wounded.

The authorities charged more than twenty Chartists in relation to the rising. Frost, Williams and Jones were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered; a barbaric sentence which caused outrage. As a result of a national campaign this was commuted to transportation. While petitioning and lobbying undoubtedly played a role in convincing the authorities that these sentences were unpopular and inflammatory, of greater significance was the fear that carrying out such brutal public executions could cause another armed rebellion. Plans were being made for just that in Bradford, Sheffield and East London. The defeat of the Newport Rising did not end the Chartist movement: it rose again, peaking in 1842 and 1848.

Our rulers don’t much like the Newport Rising. The image they wish to present of the Chartist movement, if it must be remembered at all, is one of principled liberals arguing for universal suffrage who might have found success had they not been ‘discredited’ by a violent minority. This is a farcical misrepresentation of what happened. I believe that it is as a result of the success of the neoliberal assault on the working class over the last three decades that has emboldened the council in Newport to commit an unforgivable act of vandalism. A beautiful mural (pictured above) depicting four scenes from the Newport Rising, located in a pedestrian underpass in the city, was destroyed last month to make way for a shopping centre. When our rulers censor and destroy our history it is up to us to celebrate it anew. Frost, Williams, Jones and their comrades must be remembered.

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