Les James writes


Henry Vincent and William Burns, two young members of the London Working Men’s Association, “rambled” through Gloucestershire for nearly a fortnight, spreading news of the People’s Charter.


On Saturday 16th March 1839, they crossed the Wye into Wales. They found Monmouth to be a “Very Torified” town, firmly in the grip of the Duke of Beaufort’s family. Vincent hired the town’s Bellman “to cry” a meeting at 7 o’clock at the Bell Inn, Church Street (later became the Savoy Theatre). When they got to the venue they “found he had not cried it, having been bribed.” Also waiting for them were about fifty or so men, who “received us friendly, and congratulated us on our prospects of a good meeting.”


Burns (aged 30), a lawyer, and Vincent, (25) a printer by trade, now a newspaper man, were suspicious and played for time – they told these ‘retainers’ of the Duke, they had been mistaken, as they had fixed the meeting for Monday evening in the spacious Assembly Room of the Bell.


He reported these events in the Western Vindicator, triumphantly claiming that after a well-attended meeting “we were waited upon by several intelligent people, who undertook to form the nucleus of an association, and to obtain signatures for the National Petition.”


This Working Mens Association branch could well have included J.G.H. Owen of Monk’s Street, known as the ‘Poor Man’s Attorney’, although he probably preferred the role of ‘eminence gris’, keeping the members informed, rather than serving as a branch officer. He was certainly prepared to step forward and defend Chartists brought to court. He represented arrested men put on trial following the Llanidloes ‘riots’ of April 1839 and advised numerous defendants at the Monmouth trials in January 1840.


‘Anti-squirearchy’ opinions were common in market towns. ‘Street battles’ between pro and anti-Beaufort factions were a regular feature of Mayoral elections at Monmouth before 1826. About a third of the town’s population are thought to have been Dissenters in their religious allegiance and they were feared by the town’s Anglican elite to be a source of political dissent, with some cause. The growth of Nonconformist churches in the town in recent years was partly due to the moribund state of Anglicanism. Anglican revivalism meant expenditure and consequently in the late 1830s, the Church rate paid by all ratepayers in the parish of St. Mary’s Monmouth reached 1s 6d in the pound. The money was needed for the refurbishment of the parish church. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 had standardised and contained the annual payments of the rural landowners and their tenants. Dissenter Ministers were questioning why such taxes only benefited the Anglican Church and found a reservoir of resentment at Vestry Meetings to these taxes. If Nonconformists could build churches out of their own pockets, why not the rich Anglicans like the Beauforts?


Religion became a matter of politics. The Monmouthshire Merlin (02.12.1837) reported that at a vestry meeting at St. Mary’s, there was talk of a campaign of “passive resistance”. Not surprisingly, as the numbers of Nonconformists in Monmouth grew, fear of disorder and the belief that dissent bred sedition, became a firm opinion amongst the clergy. Revd. Copplestone, Bishop of Llandaff, regarded Nonconformity as a conspiracy against the state. Revd. Edward Gosling had no doubt that Chartism was a problem in the town. He was convinced that Chartism and Dissent were synonymous and sought to prove it. Following the Trials in January 1840, Gosling mentions in his report as chaplain to Monmouth gaol (1840) that it had been his custom “To obtain from each individual after entering the prison… an avowal of the particular church or sect to which he might happen to belong. This I have usually done for the better discharge of my duties as a Minister. In the case of the Monmouth chartists this was not the only motive: the wish to discover in what congregations sedition throve best was another… Of various sects there were 41: of the Anglican and Romish churches 8.” T


These results satisfied Gosling that radicalism could be equated with dissent. However, he complained that “I have since been told that some who gave their names as belonging to the established church were deceiving me …….. others there were who had been members…. and formed part of the choir, who afterwards left it, their lapse into dissent and their progress in Chartism keeping pace one with another”. (see Keith Kissock, Monmouth: The Making of a County Town, Phillimore, Ch. iv, 1975.)

Despite Beaufort domination, the town remained fertile ground for Chartist agitators in the Spring of 1839. The Six Point Charter published May 8th 1838 by the London Working Men’s Association was proving popular across the country. Chartists gathered regularly at the Masons Arms in Monnow Street. This popularity of ‘Reform’ frightened the Beauforts as well as Gosling. The Mayor ordered landlord William Pritchard to appear before him and threatened him with penalties if he did not refuse to serve beer to Chartists. Members drifted away. Such societies went underground.


On 10 May 1839. Vincent returned to Monmouth. He travelled from Newport with a baker, butcher and wine merchant in a prison wagon escorted by Lancers. All four had been brought before the Newport magistrates and charged with making seditious speeches at illegal meetings in the town.


Monmouth County Gaol


Delivered to the County Gaol (Hereford Road), they found more soldiers stationed at its gates. The 12th Lancers were billeted at the White Swan, conveniently located in the town on the route between the prison and Shire Hall. Over the summer months, Monmouth as county town became an armed camp.


On 02 August all four Chartists appeared before the Assizes judge at Shire Hall and received prison sentences; twelve months for Vincent, nine for William Edwards and six for both John Dickenson and William Townshend, junior.


Tension mounted in the coalfield of Western Monmouthshire where the charismatic Vincent had become a folk hero amongst the miners and their families. Thousands, many armed, mobilised on Sunday 3rd November and walked through the night, not to Monmouth, but Newport. At about 9.20 am on Monday 4th November, soldiers of the 45th, fired from inside the Westgate Inn at the assembling crowd, some of whom attempted to force their way past the special constables manning the front door. Within a time span of twenty minutes, the battle was over. That morning over twenty Chartists died at the Westgate Inn.


Mass arrests started that day throughout the Newport district. Next day the Magistrates began their Examinations at the Westgate ‘hotel’. Over fifty men were charged with Treason joined Vincent and the ‘Newport Three’ at an overcrowded Monmouth Gaol. The Grand Jury held at Shire Hall 10-13th December considered 21 cases, selected by the Attorney General and they determined a ‘true bill’ against fourteen. Twelve appeared in court when the Lord Chief Justice Tindal opened proceedings (29th December). ‘Jack the Fifer’ (John Rees) and ‘Dai the Tinker’ (David Jones), workers at the Tredegar works, were never arrested. The police made a show of searching for them, but they never appeared in court. Rees returned to his family in Virginia. Jones came back to Tredegar a few years later, living as a woman.


Frost, Williams and Jones were sentenced to death by ‘hanging and quartering’ along with five others, who were immediately offered clemency on the grounds that they had been duped by their betters and all five received a long term of hard labour, which they served at Millbank. Four cases were dismissed.


In addition, some fifteen or so cases were sorted out behind the scenes by the Attorney General. Owen, the local Monmouth solicitor played a considerable role in these negotiations. And in the weeks that followed the death sentences, he assisted another sympathetic solicitor, Hugh Williams of Carmarthen, in his endeavours to lobby the Home Secretary. Frost, Williams and Jones sentences, to death by ‘hanging and quartering’, were commuted by royal decree a fortnight later to life transportation,to be served in Van Diemens Land (Tasmania). They received Pardons 1854-56.


For further information re. Henry Vincent in Monmouthshire:

David Osmond, The Chartist Rambler: Williams Edwards of Newport 1796-1849, Six Points 2021.






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