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Ivor Wilks: Chartism in Newport


150th Anniversary Lecture at the Westgate Hotel 1st November 1989 (Organised by the Newport Local History Society)


Five years earlier, Wilks published his book South Wales and the Rising of 1839: Class Struggle as Armed Struggle (Croom Helm: London & Sydney 1984) ISBN 0-7099-2772-X


IVOR WILKS was “unassuming in manner, a good listener, and a very persuasive lecturer. He spoke with only the bare minimum of notes but had complete command of his material and chose his key themes in an original way.” (Brian Davies)


In 1989, the Westgate was a grand hotel, used for large and important events.


Ray Stroud was there, taking notes (editor’s explanatory additions are in red):



The events of 1839 have been described as ‘the Newport Riots’, but this is a poor description. It was far more than a riot, and it was not merely a story about Newport; the people of Newport were not the actors on this stage. Rather, it is a story of the organisation of the colliers and ironworkers in the South Wales coalfield.


South Wales had experienced rapid industrialisation during the second half of the eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth century:


1788 – 15 furnaces on the coalfield (12,800 tons produced)


1839 - 122 furnaces on the coalfield (450,000 tons produced)


Population growth, for example, in the Monmouthshire parish of Bedwellty:


Census 1801 – 1434 people


Census 1841 – 22,413 people


This was a population polarised between a small entrepreneurial class and a large, industrial working class. It was a society that both gave workers a livelihood and owners large profits. While Karl Marx was still a 21 year-old student writing his doctoral thesis, south Wales had become the ‘Cockpit of the Kingdom’. (quoting W.E.Adams) It was armed and violent in character.


The spring of 1839 became a watershed; both sides were arming themselves. The middle classes were forming associations of property and were approved by the Home Office. The workers, who had developed a violent tradition of the Scotch Cattle during the 1820s, were organising themselves into Working Men’s Association lodges. By the autumn of 1839 there were 50 of these lodges on the coalfield, attracting radical speakers to their meetings. A larger Chartist lodge could contain as many as 700 members, and was typically run by artisans such as watchmakers and innkeepers.



Wilks argued that this organisation was the legacy of the Scotch Cattle. Were they independent of the Scotch Cattle? Ten men, together with their captain, were making plans under the umbrella cover of the lodges. There were gunmen and pike men – such as those making pikes in Pill. He makes the case that this organisation pre-dates Chartism and was concerned less about the political demands of the People’s Charter, and more on the economic dimension of wages, working conditions and hours of employment. We know that at Blaina, for example, a Section was formed underground. (This list was obtained by the magistrates: Section No.11- ten coal workers, led by William Davies, collier. See pp135-6) Abraham Thomas of Blaina Section 11 was killed at the Westgate


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.




He agreed with David Jones here, that the plan was to seize the towns of Brecon, Abergavenny, Usk, Newport and Cardiff and to hold the bridges in each of these locations as a defensive wall against the influx of soldiers. The original date set for the Rising was the 4th into the 5th November.


There were three important stages in this plan:


1. To create a general strike within the coalfield – this was successful at Abersychan, for example.


2. To take leading local figures as hostages – e.g. the capture of a Pontypool brewer.(Barnabas Brough)


3. Revolution (a rolling revolution) by partnership with English Chartists. Frost was the key man to liaise with the English and Scottish Chartists. When he realised that there were not going to be any English risings it was too late. He couldn’t hold back events. The rank and file began to get suspicious of Frost, and he was taken, by armed escort, to Blackwood. Newport was a key location – it was to become the capital of a South Wales Republic with Frost as its president. Tredegar House was to be a barracks and Malpas Court a house for the poor. Frost eventually managed to persuade the leadership to modify its plans, by taking Newport first. The other towns were to follow the next day.


EVENTS OF 3rd & 4th NOVEMBER 1839

It is difficult to get an accurate view of what took place. Between three and five thousand men went past the Tredegar Park gate. Of the 45th Regiment of Foot, half were placed in the workhouse and half in the Westgate. It was an option to have simply left them there unchallenged. In Newport, the Chartist lodges were politically active, persuading soldiers to desert. In May 1839, the 29th Regiment of Foot had been sent to Newport and in October it was withdrawn. There had been 13 desertions, including John Williams, who effectively deserted twice. He would become a drill sergeant for the rebels and was one of the first killed at the Westgate. (Records in the War Office papers)


In Pillgwenly, an Irish Section was led by Patrick Hickey. Another to head a Section was Jenkin Morgan, a milkman in Pill. There was a pike-making order book too, and the role of this Section in the Rising was to ‘mow them down like grass’. Its orders came from Charles Waters, who had bought land in Pontypool and become a ship’s carpenter. At between 1 and 2 am they expected the valley men to have reached Newport. Jenkin Morgan and his men were to go into action and were to send rockets up. Moving to Christchurch they were to take the Rev. R. Roberts (manager of the Newport and Caerleon Savings Bank) as a prisoner. They were also to take control of gunpowder at Cinderford Wharf to blow up the Newport Bridge, and all the bridges on the River Usk were to be blown up. Zephaniah Williams said that that would sink a lot of boats. Jenkin Morgan waited, but the valley men didn’t arrive. He then went home.



The Rising came so close to being successful. This was nothing to do with Frost. These men were not a rabble but a well-organised ‘army’. They were drilled and directed in the assault on the Westgate by John Rees (‘Jack the Fifer’). He had migrated to America in 1835. He went to New Orleans and joined the 2nd New Orleans Greys, helping the white Texans to create a liberation movement. At the storming of San Antonio they achieved success over the Mexicans, after five days of tunnelling. Rees received a commendation for his bravery, and later near the Alamo, he was captured. At Goliad the Mexicans murdered 340 Texan prisoners but Rees was protected by a German officer, who looked after him. He was eventually released and then sold land grants (twice over).


Wilks believes that when Rees looked at the Westgate, he knew that he didn’t have to take it. He saw it as a propaganda exercise, as a symbol. He thought it was possible to take it. He had seen San Antonio taken, and he knew that he had the expertise to do something similar. But outside the Westgate, as more than 22 men died and more lay dying of their wounds, Jack the Fifer got away. He rejoined the Texan republican army and, in 1852, retired to take possession of 1,200 acres of Indian lands.



Wilks said that the Chartists were well organised and disciplined. Merthyr had the biggest group of Chartists, (and the Pontypool Chartists also had two Battalions) – why didn’t they arrive? [NB A large number congregated north of Mill Street tollhouse; others located on Pontypool and Usk roads ] The Dowlais men intended to come but the Merthyr Chartists were meant to take Brecon, not Newport. There was also a store for weapons (not a manufacturing centre) in a cave on the Llangattock moors. There is much more to be discovered. The Russian soviet leaders (who had great interest in the Chartists) saw the Chartists as forerunners of political revolution, but that they lacked the military leadership. Lodge lists were kept by Zephaniah Williams and 1,300 pikes were stored in his cellar at the Royal Oak, Blaina. He held the Blaina men for three hours on the mountain waiting for the Tredegar men. This meant they lost the possibility of a night time entry into Newport. Wilks discussed in detail how William Jones was scurrying about on horseback on the Sunday telling men that the date of the Rising had been changed to next day and that they were to go to Newport first.


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