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Newport – City of Democracy

PAT DREWETT sets out OCH’s vision for the City’s Chartist Heritage


“Our Chartist Heritage (OCH) seeks to animate the authentic heritage stories of the South Wales Chartists and other nineteenth century reformers. We want to tell the stories of the people, who shaped British democracy with their epic struggle for justice through a campaign for universal suffrage.


OCH aims to build on the successes of the annual Newport Chartist Convention to develop partnerships with other heritage groups in Blackwood, Merthyr, Bristol and Stroud, and to engage with a range of groups including students from the University of South Wales, school students, members of the general public, youth groups such as Urban Circle, community groups including senior citizens and BME groups, AMs, MPs, MEPs, as well as tourists and visitors to the area.


We propose that Newport develops a plan for a Democracy Centre based around the experiences of places like Liverpool’s Museum of Slavery and Ireland’s National 1798 Rebellion Centre in Wexford. It’s important to learn what has worked for them and, just as importantly, what hasn’t worked. Broadening the scope of this Chartist project would not only provide a greater body of material upon which to build the story but would also enhance the reputation of the host city still further by positioning it as the custodian of a narrative which is relevant across the world.


The participation of Newport’s citizens in the Chartist project is crucial and should involve the type of celebrations which the Chartists enjoyed in places like Blackwood where many Chartists gathered together singing and dancing in festive mood to demand ‘Votes for all’ through the Six Points of the People’s Charter. During the 1830s and 1840s, when Chartism was at its most influential, outdoor gatherings and meetings to discuss 'constitutional reform' took place in towns and cities across Britain. It would further underpin Newport’s claim to be the custodian of the story of the vote if it were to hold an annual ‘Festival of the Vote’ which could take the form of a cultural gathering with folk and popular music, performances, games, presentations and discussions. Part of this might be a symbolic ‘People’s March’ down Stow Hill in which visitors and residents could re-enact the 1839 event, followed by symbolic performances in Westgate Square.


Part of this festival could explore the meaning of democracy as it applies to us today, and examine questions such as: Does democracy demand the active participation of citizens in elections?; Does democracy involve the protection of the human rights of all citizens and the consequent responsibilities of all citizens?; Does democracy give citizens a right to Justice, Fair Governance, Freedom of Speech, Education, Health, Employment, Art & Culture?; and Does democracy mean a rule of law applying equally to all citizens?


After their trial in 1840, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, William Jones and other Chartist prisoners were transported to Australia and at the end of their sentences were released into the local population. There appears to be a strong connection between the influence of the Chartists in the southern hemisphere after their release and the fact that New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902) were among the first countries in the world to introduce universal suffrage. A new trans-national partnership project, Conviction Politics, led by Australian Dr. Tony Moore, aims to investigate the emergence of collective resistance to exploitation of the 3,600 political prisoners transported to Australia and their integration back into society after their release from the penal colonies.


Newport - City of Democracy, proclaims the unique identity of the city underlining its involvement with the Welsh Chartist and Suffragette movements, and asserting that this identity is just as important to Newport’s future as to its past, allowing the city to develop sustainable assets that reinforce its heritage and raise its profile.


By providing a better appreciation of the city’s role in the ultimate achievement of Votes for All, many opportunities will be created for all residents. The reforming zeal of the 19th century Chartists encourages today’s citizens to have the same passion that will keep the eternal flame of justice alive, to allow the City to become more widely recognised locally, nationally and internationally as a beacon of democracy.


The Editors are interested in receiving readers’ ideas and comments re. the future direction of Our Chartist Heritage:


Contact les.james22@gmail.com