Parliament versus the People: the Newport rising of 1839

Today marks the 180th anniversary of the Newport rising when government forces and Welsh Chartists clashed in the town of Newport. Here’s Dr Philip Salmon, editor of our House of Commons 1832-68 project, with more…

The Newport rising ranks alongside the Peterloo massacre as an iconic episode in the struggle for popular political rights in pre-democratic Britain. In November 1839 around 10,000 disaffected and poorly paid workers, mainly Monmouthshire miners and ironworkers, marched on Newport hoping to free local Chartist leaders from arrest and, according to some, take over the town as a prelude to ‘revolution’. Their actions followed Parliament’s refusal to consider a Chartist petition signed by 1.3 million people demanding workers’ political rights – the so-called ‘People’s Charter’.

Unlike those who had marched at Peterloo twenty years earlier, however, many of the Newport protesters were armed – most with pikes and makeshift weapons, but some with muskets and shotguns. They were led by John Frost (1784-1877), a Newport tailor who had served as the town’s mayor from 1836-7 and as a magistrate until 1838, when the Home Office dismissed him for his rabble-rousing activities.

John Frost (1784-1877)

As a recent episode of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ programme revealed, Frost was deeply critical of the system established by the 1832 Reform Act. This widely hailed ‘reform’ of Britain’s political system had not only failed to enfranchise most workers, but also disfranchised many poor citizens who already had an existing ‘ancient-right’ vote. (In addition, for the first time the Act formally restricted the franchise to male persons.) Worst of all, the new voter registration system was heavily biased against all poorer classes of electors, as the success of Monmouth’s Tories in striking their working-class opponents off the electoral rolls soon made abundantly clear.

Frost’s grievances were widely shared. They help to explain why the original ‘People’s Charter’ of 1838, rather than just being confined to the ‘six points’ that appear in most text books, was also concerned with the business of voter registration. As a seminal article by Prof Miles Taylor made clear a number of years ago, over half the original charter was actually devoted to improving voter registration and the recording of votes. It was Parliament’s refusal to consider these issues – enshrined in the first Chartist petition of June 1839 – that helped trigger nationwide protests, including the march at Newport.

On learning about the protest, Newport’s magistrates swore in hundreds of special constables and stationed a small company of infantry at the Westgate Hotel where the Chartists thought their imprisoned leaders were being held. The diaries of Charlotte Guest, the wife of a Merthyr ironmaster and Liberal MP, describe what happened next. Offering a rare female perspective on an event dominated by the accounts of men, her entry for 4 Nov. records how the protesters:

The attack on the Westgate Hotel

“attacked the military in the Westgate Inn at Newport in order to release some prisoners. The soldiers did not fire upon them until they had received one or two volleys from them, and until they had broken into the inn … When they came into the passage the soldiers fired, and nine men were killed on the spot and many were wounded, three of whom died almost immediately. The Mayor of Newport and two other gentlemen were slightly wounded … After this firing had taken place, the whole of these poor deluded creatures took to flight. It appears they had buoyed themselves up with the idea that the military were favourable to them … It is said to have been lamentable to see the droves of these poor tired and defeated men returning from their ill-fated expedition … The scene … was equally distressing owing to the wailing of the women, among whom were many Irish, all ignorant of who had suffered and fearful … The ringleader and ex-magistrate Frost … has been, with many others, arrested; it is also said that some of the poor men, who died of their wounds, showered execrations upon Frost with their last breath, as the instigator of their crime and the cause of their destruction”.

In total, around 22 protesters were killed and 50 wounded. Five officials were injured, including the mayor Thomas Phillips, who later received a knighthood. Frost and 20 other Chartists were convicted for high treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. In the event, however, their punishment was commuted to transportation. Significantly, such a sentence was never issued by a British court again. Frost was eventually allowed to return to the UK in 1856. He remains an iconic figure in the history of working-class activism and the long struggle for democratic rights.

Further reading:

  • D. Williams, John Frost. A Study in Chartism (1939)
  • M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in O. Ashton, R. Fyson and S. Robert (eds.), The Chartist Legacy (1999), 1-23
  • P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW
  • M. Chase, Chartism: a New History (2007)
  • P. Salmon and K. Rix, ‘Who should have the vote? What electoral rights did Britons have in the century before 1918’, History Today, lxviii. (August 2018), 24-35  VIEW

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