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Henry Vincent and Chartist Women LES JAMES

“I explained the principles of the Charter... and appealed to the ladies for assistance, encouragement, and support .....The Newport ladies are progressing with great spirit to the terror of the Aristocrats of the town and neighbourhood”

Henry Vincent in his Rambles (Western Vindicator), describing what had happened at a very lively meeting held Monday 25 March 1839.

 

Several of the Chartist leaders, such as Henry Vincent welcomed women to the movement. He supported votes for women as well as for all men. In awe of his mother, barely aged 26 when he came to Monmouthshire, Vincent saw and consequently preached the importance of women in family life and recognised that the women who came to Chartist meetings were the potential harbingers of social change. A believer in the possibility of Progress, (with an upper case P), Vincent recognised that women were key to the education of the next generation.

 

It is tempting to imagine how the Chartist movement in south Wales would have developed late Summer and Autumn 1839 if Vincent and three of his Newport associates – Edwards, Dickenson and Townshend – had not been arrested in May and sentenced to imprisonment at the August Assizes for organising illegal meetings and making seditious speeches. Their presence at Monmouth gaol gave the movement grievance, a cause célèbre. The violent treatment of unarmed protesters at Newport on May 9th created grudge and justification for arming. Above all, the magistrates removed a popular leader, who could have very likely kept the rank and file united and in-line. The eruption that occurred in November was probably unavoidable, but its timing might have been more propitious and its nature, and therefore its outcome, could have been different, if Vincent had been its leader.

 

Women played a significant role in the Chartist movement from 1838 to 1848, when it was a mass movement. Women attended meetings, marched in rallies, gathered signatures for petitions and even named their children after the Chartist heroes. It can be argued that the movement lost momentum, as and where women ceased activism.

 

In the towns of Monmouthshire, several nonconformist ministers were strong supporters of the anti-slavery cause, notably Rev. Benjamin Byron of the Hope Chapel, Newport. Many ministers of religion around the country were proactive in encouraging the middle class women in their congregations to participate in the Anti-slavery campaign. That agitation climaxed with the passing of the 1833 Act abolishing slavery in the British Empire, five years before the launch of the People’s Charter. There’s every reason to think that a number of the older ‘ladies", whom Vincent claimed were terrorising the ‘Aristocrats of the town’, had already acquired political confidence through involvement in the Anti-slavery movement, long before Vincent arrived in early 1839.

 

Vincent made four speaking tours through Gwent. In the first week of January, he visited Pontypool, Newport, Caerleon and the eastern valley, where at Pontnewynydd on New Year’s Day, family audiences of men, women and children enjoyed his singing and mimicry and warmed to his politics.

 

In March, he toured Gloucestershire arriving at Monmouth and thence via the Wye Valley and Chepstow to Newport on Tuesday 19th at 3 o’clock at Friars Field, near the river wharves. The Newport meeting was held out-of-doors that afternoon. Several hundred people attended, among whom were a great number of ladies... In the evening at seven o'clock 3000 to 4000 persons assembled upon the same spot.

 

On the following day Wednesday 20 March. . .

 

Vincent — Convened a meeting for the ladies of Newport in the Bush Inn. The meeting was well attended by the wives and daughters of the respectable middle and working classes. Miss Dickenson, the daughter of our excellent Radical friend Dickenson, was called to the chair. [Thomas and Vincent spoke]

 

At the conclusion of the ladies meeting, in consequence of the night being wet, a large meeting of the men took place in the same room, and was addressed at great length by Burns, Payne of Bristol, and myself.

 

When the meeting was over the people would make me sing “The Democrat” — they joining in the chorus with great spirit. I never witnessed more enthusiasm. The people swear they will have the Charter.

 

The next day he took the steam packet to Bristol and spoke to the miners at Kingswood.

 

On the 25th, he was back for his third visit and keen to fuse the indoor with the outdoor meetings and unite the male and female wings of the movement. Militancy was proving not to be a male prerogative. . .

 

Monday 25 March —Left Bristol at two o'clock in the steam-packet for Newport, in South Wales. Had a very rough passage.... Arrived in Newport at half-past five. Several excellent Radical friends met me at the landing place. The amiable Radical ladies of Newport had got up a tea meeting to me. I went to the place of meeting, and was very enthusiastically received. I found from 4 to 500 people assembled, 300 of whom were ladies. Many who had obtained tickets were unable to procure tea, such was the anxiety of the ladies to be present at the first Democratic tea meeting. As soon as the tea-things were removed — Mr. Edward Thomas was called to the chair..... [He read an ode to Vincent that he penned himself for the occasion. Vincent responded with a lengthy speech, during which ....] When drawing a figure of the Chartist plough passing over the bad soil of the Aristocracy and ploughing it up — a lady exclaimed, with great earnestness and solemnity, "GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH!" This sentiment was responded to by the loud plaudits of the ladies. ..

By this time there was about 3 or 4000 persons blocking up the street begging for an adjournment. After consulting the ladies, they unanimously consented to give up the pleasure of a social meeting to enable the men to receive political instruction. Previous to the adjournment, the ladies requested me to sing "The Democrat". Bless their kind little hearts! Of course I accommodated them. We then adjourned; the ladies falling in procession four abreast, and an immense procession of men following in the rear. Three hearty cheers were given for Mrs. Frost on passing the house. A wagon was placed in the street, from which I addressed the meeting above an hour.

 

We should not necessarily read Vincent’s language as patriarchal or belittling; this is live and risky journalism. His comments may be patronising and inane –‘bless their little hearts’ casts the women as naive – but his purpose was to protect his hosts from authoritarian legal action. Everybody involved knew that gatherings of fifty or more persons in a public place without permission from the magistrates constituted an illegal meeting. Carefully not named, it must have been Miss Dickenson who took the initiative urging three hundred women to follow Vincent out into Newport High Street for an impromptu procession and public meeting. The men followed behind this well choreographed performance. The wagon was conveniently in place. Importantly, the special constables on duty did not dare to break up the female shield created and the night passed on without arrests or disorder. It’s not surprising that Vincent wrote that the Newport ladies are progressing with great spirit to the terror of the Aristocrats of the town and neighbourhood.

 

TUESDAY, March 26. — Took a chaise in company with friend Edwards for Pontlanvraith, over the Monmouth hills. The morning fine. The scenery is very picturesque. Fine fertile hills rising in all directions..... . We arrived at the Greyhound, Pontlanvraith, at twelve o'clock... the Radicals met us about a mile from the Greyhound, and conducted us into the village.

 

The working men hold their meetings in the house. A hustings was erected at the side of the buildings. After partaking of a good repast we went to the meeting and found above 1000 sturdy men and women assembled..... On ascending the hustings I was loudly cheered... [After speeches] Took tea, and walked on to Blackwood, a small village about a mile from the Greyhound. The evening mild. Within half a mile from Blackwood we were met by about 100 little girls, dressed very neatly, carrying in the front of them a pretty device made up of flowers and three handsome flags upon the top. On meeting us they curtsied, and then preceded us to Blackwood, singing a Radical song with great skill; the chorus of which was thus —

 

"Here's a health to Radical boys, Here's a health to Radical boys

,May tyranny fall, and freedom prevail, That millions may share its joys."

It was a pleasing sight to see young children assembled to pray for the success of a cause upon which their future happiness and freedom depended... Our little conductors halted at the Coach and Horses, the landlord and landlady of which are good out-and-out Radicals. The meeting was held in front of the house... The numbers present were about 1500, amongst whom were a great amount of females.... returned to the Greyhound, and spent the remainder of the evening in conversation, enlivened by a few Welch airs on the harp, and two or three songs from our male friends.

 

The mood changed in April by the time of his fourth visit. In Vincent’s own words, the authorities at Devizes allowed ‘a police riot’ to break up his meeting in the town square on April 1st. He sustained a blow to the head from a special constable and the Chartists had to flee for their lives. The Home Office was encouraging magistrates to be more proactive. Provocatively on April 12th, the Monmouthshire Yeomanry mustered at Christchurch for the first time in several years, at the instigation of Thomas Phillips, Mayor of Newport. By the 18th, Vincent had recovered and was back in Newport, putting women at the forefront in the street protests. Banned by the magistrates from holding meetings in public houses, crowds defied the Mayor, Thomas Phillips or ‘Mr. Gag’ as they preferred to call him and thronged the streets, gathering to hear Vincent.

 

On Sunday 21st, ever innovative, Vincent led his supporters to Divine Service at St. Paul’s Church, Newport and they stoically sat in the pews during a two hour sermon given by the minister, Rev. James Francis who denounced Chartism. Later in the summer when Vincent was in prison, church pews in many places, including Newport, were filled by defiant Chartists. Churches became a contested space

 

That April, the streets of Newport were contested space. The magistrates meeting at the Kings Head on April 24th declared these mass protests illegal. That night, Vincent defied the authorities with a mass rally at Pentonville, where he called the people to action, quoting biblical verse from the Book of Kings, ‘To your tents, O Israel’!

 

Mayor Phillips had been given the green light by Lord John Russell, Home Secretary. The Government had switched course; no longer prepared to parry with Chartism, the prime minister Lord Melbourne sought ‘decapitation’ of the Chartist leadership. May 2nd saw a company of the 29th Regiment arrive at Newport and others billeted at Abergavenny and Monmouth. On May 7th the arrests began. Vincent was taken in London. Two days later he appeared with three associates before the Newport magistrates at the King’s Head. This was his fifth and final visit to Newport - until 1849, when he gave three lectures at the town hall attended by the mayor! But that’s another story. See Article by Peter Strong in eMag

 

Using Vincent’s tactics, a crowd of unarmed women, men and children swarmed into High Street, swamping the space. The hotel and magistrates were protected by a recently recruited volunteer force of special constables from town and country. Women as well as men attempted to free the four prisoners from the wagon as they were taken away handcuffed, from the court. They were beaten off by the specials wielding their wooden staves. The prisoners’ wagon, escorted by Lancers, made its way to Monmouth. An angry crowd forced the specials back into the building, but several protestors were taken prisoner. Frost, just returned from London, appealed for calm from the upstairs window of a building opposite the King’s Head, whilst he negotiated with the magistrates. Once the Chartist ’hostages’ were released without charge, he successfully urged the crowd to go home.

 

A watershed had been crossed. Vincent’s call ‘Keep the Peace’ was still the Chartist watchword, but the action of the magistrates confirmed their fears, they were living under a ‘Tyranny’. New watch words gained credence – ‘Peacefully if we may, Forcibly if we must’. Amongst the people released under Frost’s amnesty arrangements were the Newport Chartists, Charles Waters and John Lovell. The following month, these militants were elected Chair and Secretary of the Newport Working Men’s Association. The ‘Chartist Spring’ in south Wales had ended.

 

Miss Dickenson, who gave piano recitals at middle class radical gatherings, was very much the leading figure in the Newport Female Patriotic Association during Vincent’s visits. He charmed Mrs Mary Frost, wife of his comrade in arms, a regular at Hope Chapel and an acolyte of the worthy Rev. Byron – and also Frost’s daughters.

 

At Blaina, he stayed at the Royal Oak Inn, home to a thriving Chartist lodge and female society organised by Zephaniah and Joan Williams. There were similar associations in Blackwood, Pontllanfraith, Pontypool, Abersychan and Merthyr Tydfil. The Monmouthshire Merlin dismissed the females in his audiences as women of ill repute. He undoubtedly appealed across class barriers and gained adherents in the most unlikely quarters.

 

That summer Miss Dickenson’s Chartist activities were curtailed when her father, John Dickenson, a butcher born in Lancashire, was one of the three Chartists imprisoned with Vincent. But others stepped forward. Mary Brewer was one who came to the forefront, following the imprisonment of her brother, William Edwards, another of the Newport three, tried alongside Vincent. She collected lodge subscriptions and sold Chartist newspapers. As did the wives of several men arrested during the November Rising, such as Mrs Jenkin Morgan, Pillgwenlly, who assisted her husband, a ‘captain’ in the Rising, to fix pikes to handles. Also Mrs James Aust of Malpas, who kept money and membership cards hidden in their Malpas cottage.

 

Little is known of such militant women as the authorities generally over the years have preferred to peddle the myth that wives of Chartists disapproved of their husbands’ activities. Given that one of the popular motivating factors in bringing about the ‘Rising’ was popular sympathy for the plight of Vincent and the three Newport Chartist leaders, languishing in Monmouth gaol, it is strange that such a myth has taken hold. At the time, several in authority actually placed the blame for Chartist activities firmly on women, urging their men folk on. Notoriously, the press reported that late on Monday 4th November, women gathered in Pontypool to march on Newport, expectantly planning plunder. There is every reason to presume that most wives were behind their husbands; the authorities made much then and after of the few who expressed discontent, notably the wife of William Ferriday.

 

Over a thousand Monmouthshire women signed the National Petition to Parliament in 1839. Counted separately, women contributed one in five of all signatures, even though the charter would not get them the vote.  Chartism in south Wales developed as a family movement and many of the mass Chartist meetings of the summer of 1839 were family affairs with a carnival atmosphere.

 

Biographical details

Henry Vincent (1813-1878) was born in High Holborn, London, where he lived until the age of 8, when his gold /silversmith father was bankrupted by the economic crisis in 1821. His mother took the family to Hull, where she played an active role in Anti-slavery politics, and consequently so did her family. She schooled Vincent for political activism and in 1828 he was apprenticed as a printer.

 

When Thomas, his father died a year later, Vincent found himself the breadwinner for five younger siblings. His resourceful mother used her Anti-slavery contacts to get a position for her son at the prestigious Spottiswoode print shop and moved the whole family back to London in 1833. She encouraged Vincent to take up political lecturing. A founder member of the London Working Men’ Association (1836), he supported the secretary William Lovett’s attempt to include votes for women as well as men in the first draft of the People’s Charter (1838), which proved a step too far for the handful of MPs toying with supporting the LWMA’s proposed Parliamentary Bill.