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Chartism in Wales

Last updated: 13 October 2009

Chartism was a movement for democratic rights, started in London in 1838 with the publication of the 'People's Charter'.

The Charter demanded the reform of parliament. At that time very few people were qualified to vote - around one in twenty of the population of England and Wales; voting was done in public and votes were often bought. Chartists demanded votes for all men over the age of 21 (some wanted votes for women, but it was felt that this would make the movement a laughing stock) and annual elections to ensure that MPs were instantly answerable to their constituents. They also wanted the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies redrawn so that each seat would have an equal population. To allow anyone, whatever their background, to become an MP, they demanded the end of the law which said that an MP had to have a large amount of land and MPs were to be paid. Secret voting was asked for to ensure that people could not be victimised for voting for their favoured candidate, and to prevent votes being bought. The Chartists wanted a sudden change which amounted to a political revolution.

The London Working Men's Association, which had drawn up the Charter, sent out 'missionaries' to spread the ideas. There was also a Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, which was read by many people. Many Chartist demands were familiar as radical groups had advocated these causes for decades but none had produced such a complete package of reform before. The missionary who had most effect in south Wales was Henry Vincent. He was a compelling public speaker and published a newspaper, The Western Vindicator, which gave news of the movement and especially of Vincent's travels and meetings. He was a good looking man of 25 and was said to be a favourite of the miners' and ironworkers' wives and daughters in south Wales. There were many active female political societies supporting the cause in the Gwent valleys. Henry Hetherington was the missionary who toured mid Wales.

Chartism appealed mainly to working class people; the landowners, the middle classes, and the industrialists, already had the vote and feared that wider political rights would be a threat to their property.

Chartism appealed mainly to working class people; the landowners, the middle classes, and the industrialists, already had the vote and feared that wider political rights would be a threat to their property. The first working men's association (which is what the Chartists called their local groups) in Wales was established in Carmarthen in 1837. Its support came from the hat makers and tinplate workers of the town whose industries were declining. There was also much support from the workers in the declining woollen industry in mid-Wales, in towns like Llanidloes, Rhayader and Newtown. But the bulk of support came from the ironworkers and colliers in south Wales. Workers thought they could use control of parliament to pass legislation to improve their working conditions and reform the poor laws. Small groups of supporters existed throughout Wales but most of the movement was in south and mid Wales.

The Chartists tried to demonstrate the strength of support for the movement by holding massive outdoor meetings where speeches in support of the cause were given and by collecting signatures on petitions. The first petition was presented to parliament in July 1839 but rejected without discussion. The Chartists quarrelled about what to do next with some advocating a general strike to try to bring down the government and others arguing that an armed rising was the only response which would work.

In the early morning of Monday 4th November, 1839, around 5,000 workers, drenched to the skin after the night's march, from a wide area of the Gwent Valleys arrived at Newport. They were led by John Frost, a draper, former mayor of Newport and a Justice of the Peace; by Zephaniah Williams, a publican from Blaina; and William Jones, a watchmaker, from Pontypool.

From that time until today there has been controversy about their aims. Vincent had been locked up in jail in Monmouth as his speeches were seen as undermining the government. Were they demonstrating in his favour? But many carried guns and pikes. Was that just to defend themselves in case they were attacked by troops? The killing of peaceful demonstrators in Manchester twenty years (the 'Peterloo massacre') before was well remembered and many radicals asserted their right to defend themselves - but not to start violence. Or were they seeking to start a revolution to overthrow the government and produce the new democracy which the Chartists advocated? Amongst the marchers there were all these motives, perhaps, and some were forced to attend while others were unclear about the objective. But there is little doubt that the leaders saw it as a signal to start the revolution, beginning in Newport and spreading to adjacent areas. Their plans for this have been discovered by historians. When the mail failed to get to big towns like Birmingham and Manchester Chartists there would rise themselves.

The authorities in Newport were well informed and well-prepared. Troops had been stationed in the Westgate Hotel at the bottom of Stow Hill. Around 9.20am there was firing. It is not known who fired the first shot. The gun battle went on for the next twenty five minutes. At least 22 marchers died, fifty were wounded and two soldiers were seriously wounded. Frost, Williams and Jones were arrested and tried for high treason. They were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the gruesome and excruciatingly painful penalty for treason. In the event they were not executed but transported to the penal colonies in Australia for life.

This is sometimes seen as the end of the Chartist movement in Wales. But clearly this was not the case. It picked up again in the slump of 1842 and in 1847-8 and many signatures were placed on petitions, meetings held and money collected. In 1842, there were attempts at a general strike to gain the Charter and workers in Merthyr Tydfil came out in support for a week. Chartists continued to be active in many parts of Wales into the 1850s, including in the woollen towns of mid-Wales. Llanidloes had been the scene of a disturbance on 30 April 1839; workers had gathered arms here, too, but the conflict arose because members of the Metropolitan Police, arrested some of the leaders and took them to the Trewythyn Arms Hotel. A crowd attacked it and released them causing some damage in the process. The local authorities over-reacted and took the opportunity to transport prominent local Chartists for their part in the affray.

While there were many Chartists in Wales in the 1850s, there was nothing like the mass movement which had existed at times between 1838 and 1848. Most of the supporters became active Liberals in the 1860s. When Henry Richard, the first middle class Liberal Nonconformist to be elected to a parliamentary seat in Wales, stood for Merthyr in 1868, he was careful to place prominent local Chartist leaders on his election platforms to attract working class support. By then, at least, the better off sections of the working class had gained the vote.

By 1918, most of the Chartist demands had been gained and women over the age of 30 were entitled to vote. Ten years later all women over the age of 21 could vote. But the Chartists had wanted all their demands at once (that was what had made them Chartists in the first place) and the important demand for annual elections was not gained. Only a reduction in the term of parliament from seven years to five was passed. But Chartism was one of the vital ingredients of Welsh Liberalism and of early socialism. The events at Newport are now celebrated each year as a symbolic step towards winning democratic rights.

By Neil Evans, Honorary Research Fellow, School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University.

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