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BRIAN DAVIES - REVISITS HIS 1985 REVIEW of the historians, Wilks and Jones, and the Rising

(copyright © Brian Davies 2018)



"The Newport Chartists Revisited"

- first published in Planet 51, June/July 1985 - considers the two seminal books of 1984 (Wilks) and 1985 (Jones) that changed the historiography of ‘South Wales Chartism’


In the wake of the Miners’ Strike, Brian wrote


It is nearly twelve months since that Saturday morning when thousands of south Wales miners with their families and supporters marched into Newport to demonstrate their opposition to pit closures. Emlyn Williams, their President, reminded them of their forebears, the Chartists, who had marched into the same town 145 years earlier. But he was drawing a political parallel, not indulging in the rhetoric of historical commemoration.


Something remarkably similar happened half a century ago. On August 30th 1933, 500 unemployed workers from the valleys of Monmouthshire marched to Newport to place their demands before the Monmouthshire County Council. Lewis Jones, organiser of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in south Wales, wrote that they “have a tradition to maintain. Ninety years ago the Monmouthshire Chartists had also marched to Newport. Everyone knew this and every participator in the campaign was inspired with this recollection...The Chartists were fighting for bread and life: so were the modern Monmouthshire men....”


All movements have their rituals of remembrance, and rightly so, but organised commemorations of whatever sort are generally attended only by a hard core of the faithful. Few moments of history remain so significant in popular memory that large numbers of ordinary people engaged in their own difficult struggles readily see a connection with the experience and aspirations of their forefathers. When this happens it is of more than passing significance.


The Chartist movement made a unique impression in the industrial towns and villages of Monmouthshire. Local histories still devote an obligatory chapter to the Newport Rising, with varying sympathies. People know which pubs were used as Chartist meeting places. Relics occasionally come to light, or are said to have been thrown away within living memory. A few years ago a rusty pike blade was found stuck between the stones of the wall along the Varteg road, where tradition has it that Blaenavon men assembled to march to Newport but then dispersed, deterred by torrential rain.


Because the events of November 3rd - 4th 1839 are still alive in popular memory it is particularly important that we know what happened, and why. This is, in the nature of the case, peculiarly difficult. We have every reason to believe that a significant number of the men and women who organised themselves into Working Men's Associations and Female Associations in 1838-9 were articulate and literate. They had behind them many years' experience of participation in friendly societies, chapels, and even trade unions. They read, and wrote to, radical newspapers. They would certainly have kept some record of their own activities; but in the face of the wide-ranging investigations by the authorities in the weeks after the rising all of this had to be destroyed.


Brian Davies returns to his discussion of the surviving evidence, and reflects --


We therefore have to rely mainly on the evidence accumulated by the Special Commission, which was set up to try the Chartist prisoners. This was the last mass treason trial in British history, and it has left a great deal of documentation. Twenty-five volumes of depositions and related papers, kept at the Newport Library, have recently been digitised by Gwent Archives (Ebbw Vale) and made available on-line. Further depositions and correspondence between the authorities in south Wales and central government can be found in the Home Office papers and the Treasury Solicitors' papers, both in the National Archives at Kew. Files of a number of newspapers carry full reports of the trials and the preliminary proceedings. The bulk of this information, of course, consists of evidence collected for the purposes of prosecution, from witnesses some of whom had been hostile to Chartism all along, while others turned Queen's evidence to save their own skins, and yet others had an interest in holding back as much information as they could.


To set against all this, information available directly from those who participated in the events at Newport is very slight. John Frost, the key figure in many respects, died before writing his promised account. Zephaniah Williams and Dr. William Price, both centrally involved, made important but controversial statements which are difficult to corroborate. Reminiscences by English Chartists are of limited value as they generally rely on second hand information.


Faced with such problems it is a tribute to the authors of both of the recent studies of the Newport rising (Ivor Wilks, South Wales and the Rising of 1839, Croom Helm, 1984; and D.J.V. Jones, The Last Rising, Clarendon Press, 1985) that in matters of factual reconstruction their work is often in close agreement. They both assess the number of men involved in the attack on Newport as around 5,000. They agree that the Chartists' intention was to seize the town, and then take control of the whole of south-east Wales as part of a general insurrection. They estimate that at least two dozen Chartists were killed in the conflict at the Westgate Hotel; and although they often choose different evidence their accounts frequently complement each other in fascinating detail.


Here, however, their agreement ends, for history is not just about facts. As E.H. Carr once argued - “It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls upon them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context....” (What is History? 1961)


Although the factual material available on the Newport rising is limited, there is still room for significant choices to be made by the historian. Even more importantly, the event has to be placed in context before it makes sense; and it is in their choice of context that these two historians differ most obviously. A parallel reading of their books, therefore, will be an extremely interesting experience for anyone curious about the process of writing history. For those seriously interested in nineteenth-century Welsh history this exercise will become compulsory.


Both authors begin by describing the society in which Chartism took root. The outline history of the industrialisation of south Wales is by now well known (see, in particular, A.H. John, The Industrial Development of South Wales, UWP, Cardiff, 1950). The iron industry and the communities which it created grew with extraordinary rapidity between 1790 and 1840: class conflict began early and took acute forms. David Jones paints a convincing picture of these frontier towns along the heads of the valleys and the smaller settlements around the sale-coal collieries. He expands upon points which have only been touched upon by previous writers, such as the craft divisions within the iron industry, and the role of the beer house as a meeting-place. His account of the multifarious systems of social control used by the ironmasters is particularly good, and his use of the concept “industrial feudalism” should help to clarify the nature of society in the iron towns.


Ivor Wilks' anticipates this description, and adds some detail. Even more importantly, Wilks asks how this singular development took place. His answer involves a challenging analysis of the whole of Welsh history since the Edwardian conquest. Crucially, he argues, Wales did not produce its own bourgeoisie with sufficient capital to meet the needs of the expanding iron industry of the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The consequent immigration of capital was graphically described by John Lloyd, the first historian of the iron industry in South Wales: “A whole troupe of English ironmasters invaded the Welsh hills, the indigenous Welsh inhabitants being either lookers-on or hewers and drawers...” Wales was first industrialised by men who had access to England's mercantile empire. Class distinctions were therefore greatly exacerbated by national distinctions, and the conflict between capitalist and worker was sharpened. This point has been made before, though generally rather quietly. It is here a central element of a well-substantiated analysis. Ivor Wilks has therefore opened a new debate in Welsh historiography.


When the two authors move closer to their subject there is again a significant difference in their choice of context. David Jones sets the development of the Chartist movement in south Wales against the background of radical politics in the area over the previous two decades. His emphasis is on Newport, where the political activity of the group of men who were to become the local leaders of Chartism can be traced in detail. Here he follows David Williams in establishing for the reader the political credentials of John Frost, then supplements this by a sympathetic explanation of the essentially anti-aristocratic ideology of the radical artisans who provided the first generation of Chartist leaders. These were the men who were invited to speak to the lodges which were formed in the valley towns from late 1838 onwards; and it is only at this point that David Jones's attention shifts to the political developments taking place on the coalfield itself. This is strange for someone who has written extensively on the Scotch Cattle and on the Merthyr Rising of 1831.


While this essential background to South Wales Chartism is indicated only briefly by David Jones, it is central to the argument of Ivor Wilks. David Jones follows the Chartist leaders from Newport as they begin their political tours of the valleys. Ivor Wilks is there already, having grounded his analysis in an account of the development of the Welsh working-class and radical movements over the previous quarter of a century, through bread riots, Scotch Cattle, short-lived trade unions and Political Unions. His argument is therefore dialectical; Chartism gave new direction to a working-class movement which had already passed through several important stages of development: “conversely...Chartism in Wales was to be mutated from a popular front for the reform of Parliament into an armed movement for the creation of a workers' republic.”


Here is the source of a disagreement which becomes even clearer later, and its origin, interestingly, is not in the different interpretation of the same information but in a different assessment of what is the relevant context – of what to include and what to leave out. To quote Carr again: “The historian will, by and large, get the facts that he wants.” David Jones sees Chartism in South Wales as part of a national (i.e. British) movement; to him the role of the “English” leaders from Newport is central. Ivor Wilks emphasises the autonomous nature of the working-class movement in south Wales, and focuses on the role played by the “Welsh” leaders. To him John Frost is, at first anyway, an outsider. Both authors get a little carried away with these schemes, with the result that William Edwards, Newport radical of many years' standing, becomes “English” for David Jones but “Welsh” for Ivor Wilks. There are of course important questions here: to what extent was the movement in South Wales following its own path independently of developments in England? What exactly was the role of Frost, President of the Chartist Convention, and leading figure in south Wales, who does seem to have hesitated on several occasions? A reading of both of these books will take us a long way towards solving these problems, but both authors sometimes oversimplify, and the reader will be best advised to proceed with due care.


It is also appropriate to consider another methodological question. Historians now frequently focus their attention on the economic circumstances which provoke workers to take action. David Jones and Ivor Wilks agree that the Newport rising cannot be explained in simple economic terms. The ironworkers and colliers of south Wales were relatively highly paid, and 1839 was not a year of depression. However, Ivor Wilks is also tempted to offer a schema according to which the movements of the iron trade “dictated the particular forms which the working-class struggle took in earlier years.” Although there is undoubtedly a connection, there is also a danger of over-simplification. Marxist historians have sometimes over-reacted, understandably, to the kind of Cold War historiography which has sought to deny any connection between economics and politics. This over-reaction brought the interesting comment some years ago from the Soviet historian Boris Porshnev that “what we get in lieu of historical materialism is a sort of behaviourism...Historians are behind in their study of the psychological and subjective aspects of mass acts.” Both of our authors in fact make valuable contributions towards such a study of popular psychology. David Jones is particularly good on artisan radicalism, and Ivor Wilks on the almost millenarian expectations of many of those who took part in the rising. However, it seems to me that it would also be useful to set developments in South Wales more firmly in the context of the Chartist movement in Britain in 1838-9. People here knew what was happening elsewhere, and what others were doing and arguing about. This knowledge formed an important part of the mental world of a Welsh Chartist “militant”; but unfortunately the reader unfamiliar with this background will have to turn to earlier works, e.g. Frank F. Rosenblatt, The Chartist Movement in its Social and Economic Aspects (Cass, 1967) to obtain this essential context.


It is in their description of the rising itself that both authors really show what can be done with the Special Commission material, and transcend the account given by David Williams. Both are concerned to present an account “from below”. Not only can they identify a significant proportion of the leading figures in many of the lodges, and some lodge members, but they give us enough detail for a number of these “small people” of history – John Rees of Tredegar, Solomon Britton of Garndiffaith, John Lewis Llewellyn of Pontnewynydd – to emerge as interesting individuals in their own right. Incidentally D.J.V. Jones misplaces a few of these individuals. Israel Firman was originally from Philadelphia, and had been pressed into the Royal Navy in Antigua; Solomon Britton lived at Garndiffaith, a mining village closely associated with the Varteg and British ironworks, not at Pontypool; John Lewis Llewellyn lived at Pontnewynydd, not Pontnewydd – Dr. Jones here confuses two villages which are several miles apart.


Significant differences appear at several points. For David Jones the “rising” is the attack on Newport; for Ivor Wilks, however, the term has a wider meaning, with millenarian overtones - “Y cyfodiad – the 'rise'... carries more the sense of 'a beginning, a start...” There is still some disagreement about the role of John Frost, although there is also some convergence of opinion. Ivor Wilks places much more emphasis on the military organisation of the “rebels” than does David Jones, and arguably pushes his argument about the divergent “trajectories” of Welsh and English working-class history too far. Indeed, there is a consistent difference of style and temperament. Where the evidence is weak or confusing Ivor Wilks will make up his mind about what he thinks happened, and risk saying so. David Jones, on the other hand, will present several alternatives and make a cautious choice. The reader will benefit from both approaches.


However, there is one point at which complementary statements give way to flatly contradictory ones. For Ivor Wilks the Newport rising was much more than “a violent phase in the Chartist agitation for parliamentary reform....The aims of the rebels...went far beyond bargaining for better wages or improved working conditions....The matter of the very ownership of the means of production was at stake.” David Jones, however, concludes that “I have been unable to find Welsh Chartists who wished to use the occasion to take over the means of production. Their main objective was to obtain the political rights which were denied them.”


Here there can be no synthesis. One is right and the other is wrong. For me, Ivor Wilks produces enough evidence to make his case; but David Jones has worked through the same evidence, and he clearly doesn't feel that it is sufficient to bear the weight of such an interpretation. After such a thorough search of the records immediately relating to Newport it is unlikely that anyone else will find additional evidence there to clinch the argument. But perhaps, to paraphrase E.H. Carr, if we cast our net elsewhere we will find the fish we are looking for?


Working men often wrote to English Chartist newspapers requesting articles on capital and labour. When Bronterre O'Brien, the movement's leading political educator, complied by writing an article for the Northern Star that issue achieved a record sale. Welsh Chartists did not have their own newspaper until after the Newport rising, but the Northern Star was read here, and the Western Vindicator printed in Bristol functioned as a Chartist paper for the West of England and South Wales until its suppression in December 1840. The Vindicator serialised the writings of Thomas Paine with emphasis upon his attacks on “ill-gotten” aristocratic property, as well as repeatedly explaining that labour was the source of all wealth and carrying articles on the origin of capital.


This of course does not mean that all Chartists were socialists. It is important to remember that popular movements are motivated by broad aspirations, while sophisticated political analysis generally remains the property of a minority. However it is significant that in south Wales this minority may have included some of the members of “Y Dynolwyr” in Nantyglo, who had published in 1829 a pamphlet Cymdeithas y Dynolwyr yn Nantyglo which advocated industrial and scientific education through the medium of Welsh and the establishment of a fund to enable Welsh working men to open their own works rather than work for the English ironmasters. It is not a long step from this kind of thinking to the advocacy of the need for the workers to take over the existing works. No Welsh Chartist wrote a political tract on precisely this subject, but this sort of conviction is clear on many occasions. The Vindicator of August 24th 1839 carried a letter by Dr. William Price in which he expressed the hope, in characteristically flowery language, that “before the time shall have arrived for electing your next seven years' Parliament the people will have taught you – no doubt against your will – that real wealth is industry. That they...will have...reduced you to their own level, and your just dimensions, to toil together...” At a lodge meeting at the “Royal Oak”, Blaina, just before the rising, one of the speakers explained that they “meant to join together and make the Gentlemen work for their living as they did.”


Opponents of Chartism well understood these inchoate aspirations. A writer in the Annual Register just before the rising knew that “The hostility of the Chartists is directed less against the privileged condition of society, which up to the present was the particular object of democratic indignation, than against capitalists in general....A violent change in the system of government is demanded by the Chartists not for the purpose of receiving more power and privileges, but – so far as their aim permits of any definition – for the purpose of producing a hitherto non-existent state of society, in which wage labour and capital do not exist at all.”


It is this aspiration, though perhaps only half-understood, - not the demand for a series of limited and specific reforms - , which ensures that the memory of the Chartist movement and of the Newport rising will be kept alive by working people, and not only in Wales.


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