Magazine Archives Links Forum Home

EXCERPTS from Ivor Wilks, South Wales and the Rising of 1839 (1984)


Compiled by Les James


Chapter 7: The Arming of the Classes is an instructive chapter for anyone dubious about the revolutionary intentions described by Zephaniah Williams in his ‘Confession Letter’ (5 May 1840)


Wilks page 126 "The correspondent of The Times put the matter as well as anyone. This was ‘no momentary outbreak’, he wrote, ‘but a long-planned insurrection, deeply organised, managed with a secrecy truly astonishing....If we need proof that the plan had been long matured, the quantity of arms of all description possessed by the deluded men of the hills give sufficient evidence of the state of preparation.’ The correspondent referred to ‘the secret Chartist lodge.... with its sections, captains and companies’. It was in fact only at the time of the rising that it was realised that under cover of the working men’s associations the militants had built up a different organisation dedicated to armed struggle. Paradoxically, it was the rhetorical threat of force, articulated openly at the lodge level, that provided the screen behind which those committed to the actual use of physical violence could put together the clandestine movement.”


Wilks page 130 "The arming of the middle classes was an overt operation; that of the workers necessarily covert”.... ....“The information on the latter that became available to the authorities was scant and episodic. In the nature of the case it was in the interests of both buyers and sellers to preserve secrecy. There was apparently a brisk trade in firearms in April (1839) ..... On 27 April Joseph Johnson, an iron merchant from Liverpool, visited the Newport firm of Townsend and Co. He met William Townsend jr. (who was to be arrested soon after). Johnson remarked that his firm could have made much money from the chartists for it had been dealing in muskets, pistols, cutlasses and matchets in the African and West Indian trades. Townsend said he was the treasurer for the chartists in the district and would pay cash for arms delivered in Newport. Johnson gave a price list and Townsend said he would take 200 to 300 muskets and 500 to 600 cutlasses."


Wilks also relates how two workers from the Victoria works (Monmouthshire Iron and Coal Company), south of Ebbw Vale visited Bristol pawnshops and were stopped and searched, revealing nine pistols and three powder flasks they had purchased. One also had a copy of the chartist Western Vindicator. At the works, a hundred men had joined a gun club.


David J.V. Jones (The Last Rising 1985, p205) estimated that “Perhaps five or six hundred of the marchers had guns”. This is a difficult figure to accurately compute, as evidence is so imprecise, but expressed as one-fifth of the marchers who descended Stow Hill, it seems a reasonable guesstimate. It’s unlikely to have been higher. We know that at the Courtybella weighing machine, ‘Jack the Fifer’ and ‘Dai the Tinker’ attempted to maximise the limited firepower available by placing gunmen at the front and sides. This figure does not include the arsenal accumulated by the thousands of men from the Eastern valley, who never reached the Westgate, but were positioned north of Newport castle and strategically placed along the turnpike to the Pontypool race course and on the Usk road. Also there were weapons held in Glamorganshire and others cached at the heads of the valleys, awaiting use in stage 2 of the plan. Ease of acquisition, meant pikes greatly outnumbered the guns carried.


Wilks describes (p132) "two pike manufactories tracked down by the authorities - one at Pillgwenlly (then) on the outskirts of Newport and the other at Cwm in Ebbw Vale below Victoria. The Pillgwenlly enterprise was run by John Gibby, a smith at William Evans foundry, and William Stephens, who worked his own smithy. One witness said that pikes were already being made there ‘a good bit after Vincent was taken’, a somewhat unhelpful remark. A police search of Gibby’s house after the Rising turned up his accounts and a set of drawings of pike heads..... Gibby was committed for trial on charges of high treason for having made and delivered 50 pikes ..... The Cwm manufactory operated on a larger scale than at Pillgwenlly. It was run by John Owen, who was also to be committed to trial for high treason. His smithy lay near the Ebbw Vale tramroad at Cwm, and he was believed to have appropriated iron from the passing wagons bound for Newport. One of the principal distributors for the Cwm pikes was John Hopkins , a carpenter at the Victoria works. A week before the rising John Owen left his smithy in charge of an assistant. He delivered 53 pikes to the Rassau lodge, near Beaufort, charging 1s 0d each. On the first day of the rising, 3 November, Owen was at Llangynidr in the Usk Valley. He was still on duty, for on a table in the Lion beershop he had drawings of three kinds of pike, and he was evidently anticipating going to Brecon as soon as the rebels occupied it. His movements must have had something to do with the ‘chartist caves’ to which reference is still made in local tradition. "


Wilks ruled out the idea that the caves were used as a forge, arguing that " It is more likely that the caves were used to store arms, and particularly those intended for the attack on Brecon, which lay only ten miles to the northwest.” Cached arms are known elsewhere “1,500 pikes and many guns and pistols, for example, were said to be concealed in the cellars of the Royal Oak at Coalbrookvale on the eve of the rising."


Thinking in terms of past battles, (‘Peterloo’ 1819 and Bristol 1831), the Chartists faith in the pike, designed for street fighting against cavalry, did not fade. Wilks (p131) highlights the ‘textbook’ attack of Alexander Somerville’s tract Warnings to the People on Street Warfare against placing dependence upon pikes as promoted by Col. Macerone’s Defensive Instructions on Street Warfare. Despite Somerville’s open public discussion concerning the uselessness of pikes against artillery or infantry firepower, neither John Frost nor Zephaniah Williams gave thought to the matter. Nor did they take seriously the tactical advice of Waterloo veteran David Davies (Abersychan) – shoot the officers and the soldiers will come over. Naively, they both believed that confrontation with the troops was avoidable; their grievance was with the Mayor, magistrates and special constables, not the military. Frost seems not to anticipate that his supporters could be enticed into firing on the Queen’s army – a treasonable offence. He failed to recognise that he was not in control, that an army had been assembled with its own structures of command and allegiance.


Wilks (p134-5) supports his judgement that the men of the rising were organised along military lines with three major pieces of evidence:


1. Copy of Memorandum seized by the Magistrates from amongst papers belonging to Samuel Etheridge. Etheridge had been Secretary of the Newport Working Men’s Association until summer 1839, when he was replaced by Charles Waters. It outlined a rebel organisation:


“Let us form into sections by choosing a good staunch indefatigable brother at the head of each section, that is to say each section to be composed of 10 men who is known to him to be sincere so that the head of each section will know his men the five sections will compose 55 men with officers from those 5 officers such as corporals will choose a Head so that he may give his 5 officers notice so those 50 men is to be called a bye name then three 50 will compose a company and the three officers will choose a proper person to command the 165 in the Company officers and all such as Captain then the three companies will compose 495 men and officers which officer will be such as a Brigade General so three Brigades will chose a Chief will be 1485 men and officers which chief officer is to be in the style of a conventional General so by these means the signal W-r can be given in two hours notice within 7 miles by the Head noticing every officer under him till it comes to the Deacon or Corporals to notice his 10 men the officers to have by name and not a military [sic] name to prevent the law.”


Lecturing at the Westgate Hotel, Newport on November 1st, 1989 (see item 4, CHARTISM e-Mag no 14), Wilks argued that this organisation was the legacy of the Scotch Cattle. Sections of ten, gunmen and pikemen, led by their captain, were making plans under the cover of the politically ‘legal’ lodges.


The structure of this organisation was built on military principles:

5 Sections = a Troop;

3 Troops = a Company;

3 Companies = a Brigade


Wilkes said that a plan existed to bring together 15 Brigades by October of 1839 – approximately 7,500 men.


2. Blaina List of Ten


The Section of ten was the essential building block for this elaborate edifice. “So critical to the whole operation were the section leaders that they became commonly known as captains – ‘captains of ten’. It appears to have been usual to supply a new section with an amount of basic documentation, and specifically with what was always known as its ‘list’. These were highly incriminating papers, and most were destroyed along with other records. At least one list , however, did fall into the hands of the magistrates. It was for Section No. 11 at Blaina, which went into action at Newport where one of its members, Abraham Thomas, was killed.”


William Davies was the ‘captain’ and all laboured in the same colliery at the Coalbrookdale works and with the one exception of Wlliam Davies, they worked the same level/adit.


No. 11

89 James James, collier

161 William James, miner

177 Benjamin Jonathan, collier

178 David Jonathan, ditto

206 John Davis Jonathan, ditto

210 William Jenkins, haulier

257 Abraham Thomas, collier

312 Thomas Bowen, ditto

416 David Davis, ditto

482 John Davis, ditto


484 William Davies, collier (See pp135-6)


3. Memorandum from informer ‘AB’ - Secret Arming at Merthyr

(Bute Papers xx/2: delivered by Mr Hutchins to Swansea Quarter Sessions 1839)


“all the Chartists in Merthyr and elsewhere (but not yet in Dowlais) are divided into Pickets of eleven and the Eleventh Man communicates to the other Ten the orders from the Head Committee.”


Contrary to popular belief, and some recent Merthyr history publications, the rank and file Chartists at Merthyr were obviously just as militant and militarily organised as the men of the Monmouthshire coalfield. David J.V Jones concurs with Wilks on this point, claiming “Observers as different in character” as Henry Scale, ironmaster, of Aberaman House and Seymour Tremenhere, Government Inspector, “believed that had the soldiers been defeated on 4 November, the Glamorgan ironworkers and colliers would have gone about their revolutionary role with a will”. (The Last Rising, 1985, p162 citing Bute Papers, xx.56, Parliamentary Papers 1840, XI & Tremenhere’s report, 208).


“There is evidence that the authorities in 1831 regained control of Merthyr just in time. Left any longer, what started as a local outbreak arising from local grievances, could have rapidly spread across the heads of the valleys and have become a ‘Rising’. The idea took hold in the 1830s that to avoid failure next time, organise a regional ‘outbreak’ from the beginning. Since 1816, striking ironworkers had on numerous occasions, attempted to close down the furnaces from Hirwaun to Blaenavon. Now the principle was being discussed for insurrectionary purpose and it appeared that with some fifty lodges springing into existence across south Wales around a common cause that ‘consequently in a few days we should have from 80 to 100,000 Men well armed” - Such was the boast of Zephaniah Williams.

 (pp26-7 from Les James, ‘The Confession of Zephaniah Williams and the 1839 Rising’, Gwent Local History Journal, 2014, no.116, pp3-32.)


Zephaniah Williams confirmed in his ‘confession’ that the inaction of the Merthyr men on Sunday night 3rd November was Frost’s decision. They were kept in reserve for the next stage of the rebellion.


Wilks (p136) considers that although the Memorandum gave no name to the unit that was intermediate between the section and the company. This unit is presumably the ‘troop’, a term used by other witnesses, such as Edward Jenkins, who describes as such, the 40 to 50 men under David Howell’s command (see Silurian 28 March 1840).


Wilks thinks that Henry Scale was probably describing such troop officers when he said that they met weekly and sent representatives to still higher councils – these would comprise the company commands, each controlling three troops (ie fifteen sections in total). Higher again was the body described by another witness to the magistrates as ‘a committee which meets at Cyfarthfa who are very particular in excluding common Members from their deliberations’. (Bute papers xx/72: Scale to Bute15 Nov 1839; xx/2: evidence of Thomas George, ‘said to know the lower classes well’, memorandum 1839)


In Chapter 6, the military structures identified by Wilks offer fresh insights into the dynamics of the 1839 Rising that have yet to be fully explored. However, it is equally important not to run away with the idea that a full and effective command structure had been created, except on paper. ‘The Directorate’, which according to Wilks determined and directed the plan, was not a credible entity. In reality, Wilks was talking about a very fluid body of lodge delegates, who lacked permanency and continuity. Leadership was inchoate. They were not able to deliver the chain of command outlined in Etheridge’s Memorandum. The sections of ten certainly existed and on the night, the captains led their men into action. The Newport and Pillgwenlly men were at their designated posts. The Llanfabon men were loyal to the call, but the numbers from the Blackwood area were disappointing. In the eastern valleys, the assembly and movement of distinctive brigades was very definitely attempted and the turnout here was the largest, but overall the top-down chain of command was patchy. There was confusion in the units at the heads of the valleys as to their objective and consequently Williams was late in getting his troops to move south and join the forces led by Frost at the Welsh Oak. The plan kept changing, as Frost vied with Jones in the decision making during the night.


After 6pm, as they approached Newport, Frost and Williams were hard pressed dealing with John Rees (‘Jack the Fifer’) and ‘Dai the Tinker’ whose authority over ‘Frost’s men’ had clearly been established during Frost’s prolonged absences. Their authority was bolstered by the Pontypool contingent that Jones sent to join the march into Newport; it was headed by George Shell and John Davies, both of whom died at the Westgate Inn. With good reason, Wilks believes these were the leaders who determined what happened.