On the 3rd of October, 2013, the Chartist Mural was demolished. A familiar presence in the city of Newport since 1978, the mural had become firmly established as arguably the best known tribute to the political rising of 1839. Yet, despite its prized position within the affections of locals, the mural was torn down in an act of clandestine cultural vandalism.
The Chartist movement has long maintained a position of significance in south east Wales, and Newport in particular. Historically, the rising retains some sense of the enigmatic, with question marks still hovering over who was responsible for the first shots fired on that day. Regardless of whether it was the establishment soldiers, or the marching Chartists, roughly twenty men were left dead during the course of the violence, and it is perhaps the loss of life in the pursuit of a political ideal which resonates most today in contemporary tellings of the Chartist narrative.
In telling the story of the Chartist rising, artist Kenneth Budd created a vast 35m long mural, depicting key aspects of the day’s events, including the text of the People’s Charter, the march and the final bloody shootout on the steps of the Westgate Hotel. But more than being an historical interpretation, the mural also became an archive of 1970s Newport, for every face included in the mural was based on that of a prominent member of the community in Newport at that time. This was a People’s Charter, manifest in a people’s mural.
Despite the collective significance of the artwork, its existence was threatened, first in 2007, then again in 2012, in light of proposed development work. The name of progress has seen to the demise of much of Newport’s historic landscape over the years. Only around a decade before the Chartist Mural was created, the Lyceum Theatre, one of Newport’s most significant and beautiful Victorian buildings, was demolished. Before that, the medieval castle was severely compromised for traffic systems. Little, if anything, of the heritage landscape in Newport can be considered sacred.
On this occasion however, people in Newport made a stand. Perhaps a long way from everyone in the city, but enough people to be heard began a campaign, petition and planned protest, all in order to save the mural. A listed buildings appeal by the Twentieth Century Society was turned down by Cadw, despite English Heritage having listed comparable examples across the border. Newport City Council announced that the mural would cost the city in excess of £600,000 to relocated, and that the building in which the mural was situated, was too unstable to allow access. The protest group organised a gathering in support of the mural, due to take place on the 5th of October. Yet with no word of warning, the council pressed the red button, and two days before a potentially embarrassing public display of support, the mural was removed.
The cold nature of the mural’s destruction upset many. Video footage revealed the total disregard for the mural during demolition, with no attempts made to preserve any sections of the display. Official statements suggested the building was unsafe for the general public, yet the sight of a mechanical digger slamming into the supposedly fragile wall, raised eyebrows all round. Further statements indicating that the mural was fused to an adjoining wall, a major factor in the £600,000 costing for ‘safe’ removal’, were also called into question as great segments of the mural appeared to ‘peel’ from the walls. The demolition crew succeeded in showing that, parts at least, of the mural could have be saved, for very little money and for the loss of very little time. By this stage in proceedings however, little could be done, the mural was gone.
The protest went ahead though, and some two hundred people (other sources suggest the number to be around three hundred) assembled on the 5th in a display of ‘mourning’ for the mural. A lamented petition in favour of saving the mural was presented to the council, while banners were lofted and cries of ‘shame’ and ‘resign’ were yelled when certain elected officials were mentioned by name. Despite the voices of the people having been so callously trampled on during that week, the spirit of protest at least was shown to be alive, and will no doubt surface again, one imagines when the local council authorities would least welcome it.
For this particular memorial to the Chartist movement, the story to all practical purposes ends here. There is talk of establishing a new memorial or public work of art, but whether the new commission will capture the hearts of the local community in the same way is questionable. Perhaps of greater concern is one of precedent. For Newport City Council, and the Welsh heritage agency Cadw, it would appear that any discussion over whether public works of art from this time period should be considered as ‘heritage’ or not, have been firmly answered. What of Chartist heritage more generally? It might be contested that the mural, as a 1970s artistic interpretation, is something that has no real tangible connection with the uprising, but what of the Westgate Hotel?
The hotel, from which authorities fired down upon the assembled Chartists, has an iconic position in the telling of late nineteenth century political developments. The building though remains empty, ruinous and is considered to be in a position of increasing vulnerability. How long until this building is saved? Perhaps the more appropriate question would be how long until this building is deemed too unstable and too costly to be saved? How long until the Westgate Hotel is demolished in the name of progress? It might seem utterly implausible to think such a fate might await this edifice, but a building left to rot will do only that. Time is no friend to such structures, and precedent in Newport is not on the Westgate’s side.
It is a very easy thing to voice support, and plenty of politicians in Wales did just that. To say that something is significant or important can be achieved in a single breath, or a minutes typing at a keyboard. To do something meaningful that might serve to save that which we say and think is important, is another challenge altogether. Even when that support is forthcoming, as it was through the presence of so many in Newport days after the loss of the Chartist Mural, nothing is guaranteed. What is certain though, is that without displays of public support, these forms of heritage, be they twentieth century murals, or nineteenth century buildings, will be lost. The Chartist Mural is gone, and will never be seen again. The clearest depiction and reminder that Newport had some role to play in one of the most important developments to occur in British political history, is no more. This can only be considered as lamentable. Worse would be for such losses to the heritage landscape happen again. What is criminal though is that history suggests that the next heritage loss is only one development inclined decision away. When that danger presents, will it be voices of support, or actions of intent, that seal the fate of the next threatened heritage site?
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. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, on twitter and at academia.edu.