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The Chartist Rising Retold.

2014 April 1
by lucinda matthews-jones

David R. Howell (University of South Wales and Cyfarwydd)

Politics is boring, we are often told. Every party, apart from the colour of their rosettes, seems to offer pretty much the same thing when it comes to policy and personality. So disconnected are voters with the modern breed of candidates, that in recent decades, some 30 percent of the electorate have seemingly disenfranchised themselves by just not bothering to vote at all, and that’s on a good day. Yet, 175 years ago, on November 4th, people fought and died for that very opportunity. The candidates may have been disliked no less than they are today, perhaps more so, but the right to have a say was something that thousands would knowingly risk their lives for. Debate over the relative success of the Chartist movement continues, but success or failure, it retains a striking legacy that remains a potent symbol for political reformers today.

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The events surrounding the 4th of November, 1839, focused around the Westgate Hotel, a structure still prominent, if unused, in the city centre of Newport today. The circumstances surrounding the event though are perhaps less certain. In the months leading up to the Rising, the cause of the People’s Charter had been championed across the country. Arguing in favour of political reform which would enfranchise working men, around 1.3 million signatures of support were obtained, presented to but ultimately rejected by Parliament, only a few months before the events which took place in Newport. While other influencing factors could certainly be considered, the rejection of so many voices by the theoretically representative Parliament of the day, was surely a spark to the powder keg.

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It cannot be said with confidence how many people marched on the Westgate Hotel that day, though around 4000 would not seem an exaggerated total. Equally it cannot be said with confidence what the true intentions were of those who marched. Was this a show of strength in support of the Charter? Or was this always intended as something more violent, after all, weapons had been stockpiled by supporters for months in advance. The reality was probably something in between, with some intent on a fight for the sake of fighting, others there truly believing they marched in an attempt to change the country for the better. Regardless, inside the Hotel were stationed troops of the 45th Regiment, there at the request of the intimidated local Mayor. With tensions raised and firearms loaded on both sides, the outbreak of violence seemed inevitable. The loss of life though, still came as a shock to all.

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Among those to die during the rising, it is perhaps George Shell who is most frequently cited. On the body of the teenager was reportedly found a letter addressed to his parents, in which he wrote: ‘I shall this night be engaged in a struggle for freedom and should it please God to spare my life, I shall see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me, I shall fall in a noble cause.’ Should Shell’s letter be taken on face value, the violence was perhaps predicted, yet the cause was undoubtedly political. Shell was one of several to die that night, whose bodies were hastily buried in unmarked graves by the authorities, presumably to avoid the creation of martyrs. To this day, there are only estimates regarding the total number to die on the day, or in the days following due to injuries sustained.

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It is this event with which Newport has become synonymous, and gradually the cultural landscape of the city has come to reflect this. In 1978 a significant mural was created in commemoration of the Rising, followed in 1991 by a prominent sculpture honouring those who died, located directly in front of the Westgate Hotel. In 2010, Newport Museum and Art Gallery established a first permanent exhibition to explore the Rising and it’s political and social context. It was perhaps though the controversial circumstances surrounding, and public response to the destruction of the 1978 mural, which serves as a greater illustration of the value placed on this historical chapter in Newport today. Public protest, while on a much smaller scale to that of 1839, can still be found in this city.

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For several years though, a wider cultural response to the Chartist Rising has been developed in Newport. The Chartist anniversary commission has been actively pursuing avenues of engagement between community, academia and the Chartist story. Re-enactment events take place in front of the Westgate Hotel, including a procession led by local school groups, annual commemorative services are held at St Woolos Cathedral where a plaque is kept commemorating those Chartists to die during the Rising, and musical theatre responses to the event, are just of the ways in which this story has been kept alive.

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The year 2014 marks the 175th anniversary of the Chartist Rising, and south Wales (for the story reached much further than just Newport) will again be celebrating one of the most significant moments of British political protest history. While the programme of events leading up to the November commemorations are still in the planning stages, one project that is currently leading the way is the Chartists Live twitter feed.

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Launched in March 2014, @ChartistsLive is a live historical feed, following the events leading up to and surrounding the Chartist Rising. The ‘real time’ tweet model has been put to good use for several historical events, but lends itself particularly well to those of 1839. Chartist resources are in no short supply. The turbulent political climate of the day certainly caught the attention of the media, with newspapers from 1839 providing detailed overviews of political meetings. Coupled with the diary entries of Chartist ‘celebrity’ Henry Vincent, it is possible to develop a near day by day overview of the events that led up to November 4th, 1839.

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Far from being a one sided celebration of Chartist figure heads, @ChartistsLive aims to represent attitudes from both sides of the political debate. While the feed will focus in some detail on the thoughts and activities of key Chartist figures such as John Frost and Vincent, liberal use will also be made of the highly anti Chartist/reform media of the day. With print media describing the Chartists as ‘madmen … rebels and assassins’, it is possible to develop both a picture of the growth of support for the Chartists, and illuminate the negative and fear gripped response of the establishment to the movement. There are also a series of highly significant events which will take place during the year of 1839, that act as precursors to the Rising in November. Riots breaking out in Devizes, more than once, have already been covered in March and April, while the storming of an Inn in Llanidloes in order to break out Chartists imprisoned there in late April and the arrest of the political prisoner Henry Vincent in May, all contribute to the wider narrative of social and political unrest which gripped parts of the country during 1839.

If nothing else, this feed should serve to remind us that there was a time when politics was vibrant, engaging and something that people in Britain thought was worth fighting and dying for. While all sorts of motivations can be attributed to those who led and joined the Chartist movement during this period, it is inescapable that a right to vote was a major unifying cause. @ChartistsLive creates an opportunity to revisit this period, and will do so through to the Rising on November 4th, and the consequences, fallout and recrimination to follow.

 

David R. Howell is a Lecturer in Heritage Studies within the History department at the University of South Wales. His core research looks at the impacts of political devolution in Wales on the museum and heritage sectors. In 2014, he co-launched ‘Cyfarwydd’, an independent heritage organisation, which is currently overseeing development of the Chartist Live feed, and related projects. He can be contacted at david.howell2@southwales.ac.uk, davidrhowell@outlook.com or via twitter.

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