The Newport Rising


The Newport Rising

Newport, South Wales The 4th of November 1839 AD

It is much debated whether the Newport Rising was intended to be a political demonstration, was a spontaneous reaction to the imprisonment of Chartist leader Henry Vincent, or even one part of an intended national uprising.
The Chartists were seen as dangerous revolutionaries in their day, their Charter demanding the democratic reform of Britain by universal (albeit male only) suffrage; paid MPs representing more or less equally sized constituencies; the end of property qualifications for MPs; and annual Parliaments elected by secret ballot.
Their programme would have meant an end to the domination of British politics by an aristocratic and upper middle class elite (some may feel we are waiting still), so it was fiercely resisted. The movement was rather chaotic, and although the Chartists presented mass petitions supporting their aims to the government, they were ignored; an attempted national strike in August 1839 fell through, and the leaders of the cause felt increasingly frustrated, leading to minor violence at flash points around the country.
The leading Chartist Henry Vincent was arrested and held in Monmouth just before the Newport Rising, indeed his seizure was probably the main spark for the events then.
On November 3 three bands of labourers and miners were marched towards Newport to free Vincent, reportedly held in the Westgate Hotel. The group from Pontypool headed by William Jones got lost and took no active part in the rising proper. But the next day, November 4, upwards of 1,000 men (some reports put the figure closer to 5,000) led by Zephaniah Williams and a former mayor of Newport, John Frost, stormed the Westgate Hotel. They injured the then mayor Thomas Phillips who defended it with troops hastily brought to the place, and maybe 500 special constables.
The authorities were hugely outnumbered, but the soldiers were well armed and led, and they held firm. It is known that 10 Chartists died at the scene, but the final death toll is thought to be nearer 24, as wounded Chartists expired later.
After the failed rising the leaders were arrested and tried, Jones Frost and Williams being sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, though all had their sentences commuted to transportation. Frost, sent to Tasmania, was given an unconditional pardon in 1856, but he chose never to live in Newport again after his homecoming.
Sadly for the cause of democracy in Britain the Chartist demands took some time longer to achieve, and to this day we do not have the annual parliaments that might prevent the regular pattern of promise and disappointment we face with our nominal five-year term.

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