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Why are there no Welsh Chartist Banners?


Matthew Roberts

 

As far as we know, no Welsh Chartist banners have survived. But no English ones have either, so there is nothing surprising in that respect. Chartist banners were often quite makeshift and not very durable. They could also be incriminating – some Chartists who found themselves in the dock for sedition were confronted with banner inscriptions as evidence against them, so many were hidden and possibly destroyed.

The premise of my question is, in another, very obvious sense, clearly false: Chartists in Wales produced and displayed banners on various occasions throughout the principality, the details of which can be found in numerous newspapers. But the question does have some validity in that no evidence has been found, as far as I’m aware, of Chartist banners with inscriptions written in the Welsh language. I should point out that I do not read or speak Welsh, so it is quite possible that there are references to banners in Welsh-language sources.

Until quite recently, historians of Chartism have paid very little attention to visual and material culture. Historians have, understandably, drawn their conclusions from the rich print-based culture, mostly in the form of newspapers. When they have paid any attention to visual images, it has been to illustrate conclusions already arrived at via the study of the printed word. But I want to suggest that visual and material culture can be used to illuminate, and not just illustrate; that it can shed new and unique light on the past. As the work of historians like James Epstein and Paul Pickering and more recently Paul O’Leary has shown, it is important to realise that popular movements communicate in a variety of ways, not just the printed and spoken word.

To that end, over the past few years I have been putting together a database of Chartist banners, recording not only the inscriptions but, where given, the dimensions, colours, materials from which they were made, where they were displayed, who displayed them, who made them. We are very fortunate that the Chartist and hostile press recorded in some considerable detail the banners displayed by Chartists – an indication of the importance that was attached to image as well as text; and also, for the historian, an example of how even conventional text-based sources like newspapers can be used to recreate, if only virtually, visual and material culture.

 

Displaying banners gave the rank and file an opportunity to reflect to the leadership their grievances and to stamp something of their identity on to the Chartist movement. Similarly, banners could be used to give voice to those for whom conventional but privileged access (oratory and the printed word) to the public sphere may have been limited, even in a democratic movement like Chartism. Making banners, especially in textile districts, was an opportunity to demonstrate and celebrate the skills of the working men and women who made them.

 

Banners were not just stand-alone message boards, but part of a wider field of communication. Chartists invariably displayed banners in one of two ways: at outdoor processions/meetings and as indoor decorations, by, for example, adoring the walls of their meeting places – and we might note that over the course of Chartism’s existence there was a shift from the former to the latter.

 

When we join up all of these elements – the messages on the banners, text and image, the context in which they were displayed, Chartist communication takes on complexity and ambiguity, and this may have been deliberate. Scholars of material culture have shown how objects can be used to convey ‘silent messages’; objects can be very useful when it is necessary to adopt a style of communication that is oblique, symbolic and indefinite as a way of minimising the risk of prosecution for sedition and treason – real dangers for Chartists. Visual and material culture afforded a greater degree of license than either the spoken or written word.

 

Take one Welsh example. What did it mean when the Chartists of Coalbrooke Vale processed through the streets in July 1839 with a great calico banner bearing the inscription ‘The Queen and Charter’, followed by tri-coloured silk flags – the ensigns of the French Revolution? Was the Queen been reminded of the fate of Louis XVI who had betrayed the democratic cause? The more threatening banners were often arrayed alongside ones that professed loyalty, peace, and order (and it is worth remembering that some banners had fronts and backs, which could easily convey ambiguous messages).

 

I find it hard to believe that there were no Chartist banners in Welsh. The fact that the press, so far as I can tell, contains no references should alert us to the adage that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Unlike the Chartists of northern England, the Welsh Chartists did not have their own newspapers, in which columns could be devoted to reporting their activities (it is worth remembering that titles like Henry Vincent’s Western Vindicator, or the short-lived Advocate and Merthyr Free Press were not newspapers but periodicals). All of which is to say that clearly a lot of Welsh Chartism happened below the radar, and a good deal of it went unreported.

 

I was struck when recently combing through the Welsh-English language press just how much it ignored the Chartists, the flashpoint of the Newport Rising excepted. There may be more references to banners in the Home Office files, which often contain detailed descriptions of Chartist meetings sent in by anxious, busy-body magistrates and civic worthies. But even in the absence of evidence, I’m still convinced there must have been at least some banners in Welsh. This is not just because the Chartists were active in areas that we now associate as heavily Welsh-speaking, such as the upper Severn Valley in Mid-Wales, but also because there many workers in South Wales whose first language was Welsh.

 

It may be, of course, that as a movement that began in England and then spread to Wales, Chartism was an English import, at least initially, not that Welsh radicals needed their English brethren to teach them about radicalism! Nevertheless, we should not be surprised that the lingua franca of much Welsh Chartism was English. But we know that there was Welsh-language Chartism: at Chartist meetings, some of the speeches were in Welsh, there were articles written in Welsh in the radical press, and the Chartist petition was translated into Welsh.

 

Given that the enemies of the movement in Wales tended to be English-speaking, the Chartists may have adopted Welsh as a way of covering their tracks and creating an impenetrable Chartist underground, out of which the Newport rising arose. But if this was the case, then the absence of Welsh-language Chartist banners appears all the more puzzling, unless they were destroyed or the reporters attending the meetings were unable to translate the inscriptions. So, where are the Welsh Chartist banners? If anyone knows, please get in touch!

 

CHARTISM e-MAG would like to hear from anyone who has knowledge of Chartist banners made in Wales in Welsh or English.  Dr. Matthew Roberts (Sheffield Hallam University) is speaking at this year’s Convention about Chartist iconography and is looking for evidence of banner slogans written in Welsh.

 

Dr. Roberts attended a workshop at Newport Museum and Art Gallery in 2014 run by Christabel Gilbert, quilter, where she demonstrated the stitching techniques used in making banners.   For the 175th Anniversary of the Rising, Christabel Gilbert made a replica of a banner that was carried in 1841 at Newport.  She based it on evidence found in the Northern Star newspaper by local Chartist expert Dr. David Osmond.   The banner has been displayed at every Convention since 2014 and this year will be no exception.  There will be more about our banner in CHARTISM e-MAG no. 16.

 

Read article in this edition of CHARTISM e-MAG about Banners at the Chartist Rally at Coalbrookvale 1st July 1839 - snippet from the Monmouthshire Merlin 13 July 1839