FIVE GOOD READS for the 2016



1. David Mills, William Foster Geach

(Gelligaer 2015) ISBN: 9780957042636

Available from 153 Electra House, Celestia, Falcon Drive, Cardiff CF10 4RD Price: £9 (inc. p&p UK); cheques payable to ‘David Mills’



Annie Owen, (Gelligaer Historical Society, Nov 2015):

While historians and many general readers are familiar with the story of John Frost, the Chartist leader, few have much, if any, knowledge of the life of his stepson, William Foster Geach. But, this is no longer the case because, written in the charming and distinctive style we have seen in his previous publications, David Mills’ latest book takes his readers through the twists and turns of the life of William Foster Geach.

David starts by explaining what ignited his interest in this amazing life story before moving on to present the results of his meticulous research. His narrative, supported by well-chosen extracts from a variety of both primary and secondary sources and illustrated by appropriate scenes and portraits, takes his readers through a life that started in early nineteenth century Newport and ended on the other side of the world.

Having lost his father, William Foster Geach was still a child when his widowed mother married John Frost in 1812. By the 1830s, he was a Pontypool solicitor, and, as that decade gave way to the next, he was John Frost’s solicitor at the trial for High Treason under a Special Commission held at Monmouth December 1839 and January 1840. In the following August, William Foster Geach was convicted for forgery and sentenced to transportation. But, the story does not stop there, as David has uncovered so much fascinating information about William Foster Geach in the Antipodes.

A long-standing and valued member of Gelligaer Historical Society, David has every reason to be proud of this volume in which, using his knowledge of legal procedure, he offers a remarkable insight into the life of William Foster Geach and the nature of contemporary society.


Comment by Les James (Nov 2015): David Mills demonstrates that Geach’s problems started in 1837, when the rival partnership of Thomas Prothero and Thomas Phillips attempted to close him down.

Failing to get his removal through the Law Society, his rivals began court proceedings alleging forgery. Geach lived an extravagant life style and his financial speculations proved disastrous. Despite successfully warding off a succession of court actions, he was declared bankrupt and on the very day his step father was found guilty of Treason on January 8th 1840, another charge of forgery was laid against him, this time at the ‘Old Bailey’.

Like Frost, Geach was now destined for Van Diemens Land (Tasmania). Although the case in London withered without a result, further charges brought in Monmouthshire resulted in his transportation. He arrived there on a convict ship in February 1841, eight months after Frost.

David Mills’ has used his own court room experience to unravel the numerous and complicated cases that determined Geach’s fate. Mills’ reveals that whilst Frost’s political enemies had an obvious hand in Geach’s demise, he was much the victim of his own cavalier handling of other people’s money. His activities in Australia and later in New Zealand show he could not apparently stop himself forging documents and cheating people out of money.


His ability to mask his nefarious activities through deception and self publicity gives credence to Peter Strong’s claim (see lecture at Newport Chartist Convention 2015) that the Monmouth solicitor J.G.H. Owen, rather than Geach, was “the man who saved the Chartists”.



2. Les James, Render the Chartists Defenceless: John Frost’s voyage with Dr McKechnie to Van Diemen’s Land 1840,
(Three Impostors, Newport 2015)

ISBN: 978-1-78461-232-0 £10 (p&p UK)

Direct mailing from - see price for Europe/World delivery Cheques accepted: contact publisher.



Stephen Roberts writes “Ah, the Newport Rising ... one of the key moments in the long years of the Chartist struggle. We will never really know all that happened in South Wales in the later months of 1839 - or indeed in that other great centre of Chartist organisation, the West Riding. Men planning insurrection don’t write letters that might later incriminate them, or, if they do, they see that they are destroyed. So, in spite of such painstaking and thoughtful enquiries as that of David Jones, there will always be questions.


Les James has immersed himself in these events, and his hard work and depth of knowledge are evident both in his writing and the public commemorations that he organizes in Newport. Though he more than once declared that he would write an autobiography, John Frost, transported along with William Jones and Zephaniah Williams, in the months of high drama that followed the rising, never told his side of the story. After his return he chose to talk publicly instead about the convict system, and his new interest in spiritualism. Disappointing for the historians of Chartism perhaps,but understandable from Frost’s perspective.


James concentrates on Frost’s voyage to Van Diemen’s Land. Central to this story is Alexander McKechnie, the convict ship’s doctor. At first McKechnie seemed to be sympathetic to the Chartist prisoners, but, as time passed, Frost was not so sure. I will not reveal all that I learned from this book because I think all of those who have an interest in Chartism should ensure they read it. I found it an absorbing read.


It comes with a foreword from the actor Michael Sheen, who was drawn into the Chartist story after the demolition of the mural in Newport in 2013. Congratulations should also go to Three Imposters, the publishers. They have ensured that this splendid book is beautifully produced.”


Publishers THREE IMPOSTORS identify their most recent publication as “an explosive new twist in the story of the Newport Rising which was the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in Great Britain”. Render the Chartists Defenceless is the fullest account to date of the voyage of Frost, Williams and Jones to Van Diemen’s Land in 1840. For the first time too, Dr. Alexander McKechnie, surgeon superintendent aboard the Mandarin, has gained a biographical identikit, albeit no visual portrait. Les James pieces together evidence from correspondence written during the voyage, McKechnie’s medical journals, records of the penal colony in Tasmania, the lectures and writings by Frost following his release in 1854, official government sources, Tredegar estate papers with newspapers, naval and family history records that have only become easily accessible within the past decade.

 He weaves a set of overlapping, puzzling stories for the reader to ponder. Were Frost’s suspicions of McKechnie justified? How did Octavius Morgan, MP for Monmouthshire and brother of the first Lord Tredegar (1858) acquire the only known copy of Zephaniah Williams’ confession letter written aboard the Mandarin and addressed to Dr. McKechnie?



3. Dorothy Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism, edited by Stephen Roberts,

(Verso, June 2015), ISBN 978 1 78168 849 6 £14.99

Stephen Roberts, a beneficiary of Dorothy Thompson’s mentorship since his student days at Birmingham University until her death in 2011, has brought together a collection of her major essays and given a title The Dignity of Chartism that perfectly encapsulates her view of the Chartists. She was always rightly uneasy of the pikes and guns, the dominance of men, in the Newport insurrection. For Dorothy Thompson, Chartism was a community movement that developed a distinctly working class culture and a collective ethos expressed in ‘exclusive dealing’, cooperative enterprise, housing clubs, with its own press and carnival life. Gaining the vote was seen as the way to a whole new way of life.


Fascinatingly, Dignity includes a hitherto unpublished, but significant, local historical study that Dorothy co-authored with E.P.Thompson at the very beginning of their careers. It was then that these two powerful figures in the field of working class history reached an agreed demarcation. Edward restricted himself to proto-labour history, that he determined was the period up to 1832, covered by The Making of the English Working Class (1963) - he never did concern himself with the Welsh working class - whilst Dorothy focussed on the first coherent working class political formation, the movement of Chartism and did explore its Welsh dimension (1987). Both engaged in truly ground breaking research. Dorothy combined penetrating class analysis with discovery of the role of women in the movement, a topic previously ignored. She recognised that it was the women who humanised the movement and crafted its Dignity. (LJ Nov 2015)



4. Malcolm Chase, The Chartists: Perspectives and Legacies, (Merlin, June 2015), ISBN. 978-0-85036-625-9 paperback 260 pages £15.99


In this volume of diverse papers, Britain’s leading living Chartist historian locates the place of Chartism within the wider framework of Victorian politics and deals with the influence of Chartism on the emergence of Parliamentary democracy. Chartism was Britain’s civil rights movement. Key questions in Chartist historiography receive the clarity and a directness of style that we associate with Malcolm Chase, author of A New History of Chartism (2007).


This is a book with surprises and refreshing insights. As well as getting to grips with the mentioned mainstream themes, Malcolm explores a range of hitherto neglected aspects of Chartism - the Chartist Land Plan; Chartism’s endurance in Wales beyond the 1839 Rising; the role of children in Chartist campaigning; Chartism’s impact on the mid-Victorian ethos of ‘self-help’. Above all, there is the opportunity to revisit the important paper which Malcolm delivered last year at the 175th Anniversary of the Newport ‘Rising’, when he addressed the keen attention British Chartists gave to the rebellions of 1837-38 in Canada.


This is required reading for all who seek explanations for the ‘outbreak’ at Newport and need to understand why in the early stages of the movement, most Chartists, recognised the need for the movement to arm and drill. (LJ Nov 2015)



5. The 175th Chartist Anniversary Special edition of the Gwent Local History Journal, no 116
(2014) £5 plus p&p ORDER from Peter Strong, contact



LES JAMES: The Confession of Zephaniah Williams and the 1839 Rising.


COLIN GIBSON: George Shell’s Letter Revisited: Some Perspectives on its use at the Monmouthshire Chartist Trials


CHRISTABEL HUTCHINGS: A juror’s tale: The Travails of Edmund Jones at the Monmouth Chartist Trials

TONY HOPKINS: Policing the Rising: The Career of John Roberts, Police Superintendent of Pontypool, 1830-1860

SARAH RICHARDS: Finding Chartism in the Family: William Davies of Blackwood

DAVID OSMOND: Newport and the Chartist Land Plan


JOHN EVANS: William Shellard c.1797-1874: An Old Chartist fades away


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