Monday, October 07, 2013

Newport Pride

NEWPORT'S HERITAGE.   Lost but not forgotten, part of Kenneth Budd's mural commemorating events of 1839.

TWO rival demonstrations kept apart by police took place outside Lunar House, in Croydon, the headquarters of the UK Border Agency, on Saturday. About 20 British National Party supporters hoping to boost their far-Right party by blaming immigrants for the country's problems were opposed by four times that number of trade unionists mobilised by Croydon Trade Union Council.

Two different demonstrations far apart across the country but separated only by geography took place on Saturday and Sunday, in Newport, Gwent and Kensington, London, respectively. In the second demonstration people were protesting outside the Daily Mail office over that Tory paper's attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband which smeared his late father Ralph Miliband's views, calling him the "Man who hated Britain". Half the demonstrators carried placards proudly saying they were "Hated by the Daily Mail", while the other half's placards simply said "We hate the Daily Mail!"

Leaving my friends to argue which was the more appropriate slogan (a debate which Jonathan Swift would have enjoyed recording better than I can), I remain focused on the Mail's defence for its "hated Britain" headline, claiming that despite serving in the Royal Navy during the war, Ralph Miliband retained "nothing but hatred for the values, traditions and institutions — including our great schools, the Church, the Army and even the Sunday papers — that made Britain the safe and free nation in which he and his family flourished."

You could not make it up.

There is another narrative about those to whom we owe our freedom, and the traditions they have bequeathed us, and it was because they know and value their history that the people in Newport, Gwent, were demonstrating on Saturday.  

In 1832, after huge agitation which had grown throughout Britain, Parliament passed the Reform Act, which extended the vote to the property-owning middle class, but left working people outside with nothing. Feeling used and betrayed, the awakened working class and those who wanted radical change and democracy started to organise in support of a 6-point charter aimed at making parliament work for the people. But parliament, used to serving vested interests under the Crown resisted. The Chartists' petition, signed by 1,280,958 people, and brought to London to be carried in procession on May 7, 1839, was delivered to parliament after the Whitsun recess on June 14. But on July 12, when it was moved by the Birmingham MP Attwood, to be considered by a committee of the whole House, the motion was rejected by 235 votes to 46.   

The Chartists had tried doing things the constitutional way and been answered. They had to discuss what to do next. The government and its spies were watching, and preparing. "The spirit of revolution is strong and increasing," General Sir Charles Napier warned the Home Secretary Lord Russell on 16 July, 1839. There was trouble in Newcastle and Birmingham, and three days of fighting around Bolton. In August the miners of the North East began what they hoped would become a general strike. But on September 14 the Chartists' national convention broke up having reversed its support for a "National Holiday", as delegates called their strike plan.

In Monmouthshire, where more than 15,000 people had signed the petition, including over 1,000 women, people were angry over the arrest of a Chartist called Henry Vincent, who had been charged with making "inflammatory speeches" and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment by the Monmouth Assizes.  

Wales had already seen an earlier rising at Merthyr, and the miners and ironworkers, hardened by their own work conditions and struggles, were in no mood for passivity. In Newport, too, while wealth accumulated for a few, there was desperate poverty. John Frost, a Newport councillor and magistrate who was forced to stand down as mayor after attending the Chartist Convention, toured Wales urging people not to break the law with acts of violence. He called instead for people to march on Newport for a mass protest demanding the release of Henry Vincent.

Whatever Frost intended, this was not destined to be a peaceful protest. As the Chartists set out, Frost leading a column from the west, Zephaniah Williams leading those from Blackwood to the north-west, and William Jones bringing up a column from Pontypool to the north, they were joined by many miners who had armed themselves as best they could expecting a clash. On the other hand witnesses who saw the marchers pass remarked on the number with crutches or artificial limbs, a reminder of the dangerous conditions in the mines. Altogether as many as 5,000 people may have taken part in the march, including an entire chapel congregation that joined them on the Sunday morning. But not all made it into Newport.

Meanwhile the authorities in Newport had been preparing. The Mayor had sworn in 500 Special Constables and asked for more troops to be sent. There were about 60 soldiers stationed in Newport already, and he gathered 32 soldiers of the Nottinghamshire Foot in the Westgate Hotel where Vincent and other Chartist prisoners were being held.

By the time the marchers arrived in the town they were exhausted and bedraggled after their overnight marching and soaking in rain. Seeing the police and specials outside the hotel, and hearing that more Chartists had been arrested, the first marchers tried to rush it, but according to a witness they were "no match for the police and specials, armed with their staves of office. They accordingly withdrew for a few moments to procure whatever they could lay their hands on in the form of weapons - guns, staves, pikes, hay forks, sickles, and even spades were hastily seized by the excited and turbulent mob!

"Some of the women who had joined the crowd kept instigating the men to attack the hotel - one old virago vowing that she would fight till she was knee-deep in blood, sooner than the Cockneys should take their prisoners out of the town. She, with others of her sex, gathered large heaps of stones, which they subsequently used in defacing and injuring the building which contained the prisoners. When the mob had thus armed themselves, the word 'Forward!' was given, and as soon as they were within hearing of the police, they imperatively demanded the release of their friends, which demand was of course refused".
Though the angry crowd did storm the hotel, and briefly got into the building to try and free their comrades, they were soon forced to retreat by the trained and better armed soldiers. By the time the fighting ended a couple of dozen Chartists had been shot and killed, and more than 50 were wounded. The others withdrew from Newport. This was the last rising of its kind in Great Britain, though it was not the end of the Chartists.

Two hundred people were arrested for their part in the Newport events, and 21 were charged with high treason. John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were found guilty on the charge of high treason and sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered. After a nationwide petitioning campaign and, extraordinarily, direct lobbying of the Home Secretary by the Lord Chief Justice, Viscount Melbourne, this was commuted to transportation to Van Diemens Land for life. John Frost was pardoned in 1856 and allowed to return to Britain, receiving a triumphant welcome in Newport, though he settled instead near Bristol, and continued to write articles calling for reform.

 Some years ago, on holiday with friends at
 St.Briavel's Castle, we paid a visit to Newport, and by
the spot on the bank of the River Usk from which the
three Chartists were deported, I took a picture of this
plaque in their memory.
It was originally unveiled by the author Alexander Cordell,
whose novel Rape of the Fair Country was inspired by the
events of the Newport rising. 

But in 1978 a far more impressive and colourful memorial to the Newport Chartists was set up in an underpass, in the form of a 35m (115ft) mural mosaic created by artist Kenneth Budd, using 200,000 pieces of tile and glass to depict the insurrection. It became a favourite of both visitors and local people, who could take their children to see it, and tell them about their stirring history.

Alas now no one can see it, because on Thursday the Newport council's bulldozers brought it down, as part of clearing the way for a £100m shopping centre development. The council had said it would  cost £600,000 to save and move the mural. The Welsh heritage body Cadw declined to list the 1970s mosaic which was in a city centre subway off John Frost Square.

Some 4,000 signatures had been collected to save the mural, to no avail. So on Saturday, mixing sadness and anger, people gathered for a rally in Newport centre and hundreds marched to hand in a letter to sympathetic councillors, and tell the council how they felt about what it had done to Newport's pride.

PHOTOS - Lloyd David Miller

And on a side note:


David Jones    The Last Rising  OUP (1983)

Ivor Wilkes     South Wales and the Rising of 1839  Gomer (1989)

David Black and Chris Ford   1839: the Chartist Insurrection (2012)

Alexander Cordell - Rape of the Fair Country (novel) Victor Golancz (1959)

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