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Ceremony of Remembrance for the Chartists, who died at the Westgate Inn

 

Annually for thirty years, people have gathered at 6pm on November 4th in the old Parish churchyard of Newport’s Cathedral. We assemble to remember the Chartists killed on that day in 1839 at the Westgate Inn. Ten men were buried in the St. Woolos graveyard.

 

Many bring a flower to lay at the memorial stone. Some light a candle. Others provide appropriate poems. It a moment in the ‘civic’ calendar when people from all democratic parties and from none, put aside political differences and remember that our liberties and freedoms were gained by the sacrifices of previous generations and that their retention depends upon eternal vigilance. A roll call of the names of the Chartists who died in 1839, discovered by historical research, will be read.

 

This ceremony was started in 1986 by members of the Newport Local History Society (notably Richard Frame and David Osmond), because there was no visible, public recognition of the buried Chartists at St. Woolos. Paul Flynn set up the George Shell Society to promote this event on an annual basis and by 1988 a stone memorial was placed in the churchyard, unveiled by the novelist, Alexander Cordell. The stone was carved by local stonemason, the late Les ‘Tombstone’ Thomas of Caerau Road, not to be confused with Leslie Thomas, the novelist. Due to popular enthusiasm, the commemoration has continued every year for round about half an hour, usually starting at 6pm (as it will this year) through wind and rain for 30 years. Sometimes down to half a dozen stalwarts, but happily since 2007 attended by large numbers - this is an inclusive event that has always been OPEN to EVERYONE.

 

This year, the ceremony is coordinated by Dame Rosemary Butler DBE on behalf of Our Chartist Heritage. Since the early days of the ceremony, it has become the tradition for the Cathedral Dean to welcome everyone and this year is no exception with the Very Rev.d Lister Tonge attending. When Rowan Williams was Bishop of Monmouth, he participated and for more than a decade the Mayor of Newport has taken part. Today the event has entered the 'civic' calendar. It is good to see numbers of Councillors from all parties attending, as do the Newport MPs and AMs.

 

HOW MANY CHARTISTS DIED?

Even though the injured were predominantly, and the dead solely, to be found amongst the Chartists, the battle at the Westgate Inn was within hours declared an act of treason by the Deputy Lord Lieutenant, Reginald Blewitt MP. It was taken for granted that the violence was caused by the protesters. Blewitt was keen to prove that local Chartist leaders had deliberately perpetrated violence against Her Majesty’s army. In the immediate aftermath, Newport’s police superintendent Hopkins left the removal of the bodies to the army and busied himself collecting the scattered Chartist weapons as evidence. The magistrates were anxious to play down the scale of violence meted out by the military. William Brewer, magistrate and coroner, held a peremptory inquest of the ten bodies placed in the stable stalls at the rear of the hotel. He declared cause of death ‘justifiable homicide’. He was only able to identify George Shell, the rest remained anonymous in the official records.

 

Tredegar iron master, Samuel Homfray boasted that some thirty Chartists had perished and there were rumours of bodies found lying in many places, the largest number in Caerleon. Some of the wounded did die later. And without a doubt, many of the dead were secreted away by friends and family. Present day historians generally agree that casualties numbered at least 20, and possibly 22, dead Chartists. Over 50 people were seriously wounded, seven of whom were not Chartists, comprising two soldiers, four special constables and the mayor, Thomas Phillips. Three days later, in the dead of Thursday night, soldiers secretly dug three graves on the north side of the church and without a proper ceremony, buried the ten bodies, leaving the graves unmarked. The intention was to prevent a cult of martyrs.

 

WHY DO WE LAY FLOWERS?

It was customary in Monmouthshire for people to place flowers on the graves of their deceased relatives and loved ones on ‘Flowering Sunday’ in April. In April 1840, six months after the Rising, the Monmouthshire Merlin reported (18.04.1840) that the three Chartist graves had been 'decked with flowers and laurels', surmounted with the following verse:

 

May the flower of Wales never blow

The Clyde of Scotland cease to flow

The Harp of Ireland never play

Until the Chartists gain the day.

 

In April 1841 the Merlin commented that large numbers of people had been drawn to the churchyard 'by curiosity' to look at the graves of the 'deluded and dearly punished men', which were covered with flowers.

 

The Northern Star noted that 'the poor fellows who fought and died for liberty were not forgotten', as 'hundreds of people came running with their presents'.

 

Once again verses were placed on each of the graves: according to the Monmouthshire Beacon they 'breathed the spirit of Chartism and lauded the victims'. At one stage a woman knelt on the grave containing the body of George Shell, and read out the attached verses in 'a clear tone and correct manner'. The Beacon introduced a sour note into its report by complaining about the presence of a beggar at the graveside, who held out a hat for alms.

 

There were no more reports of the decoration of the Chartists' graves on 'Flowering Sunday' in subsequent years in either the local or the national press.

Les James and Pat Drewett

01/11/2016

 

Roll Call of the Dead (20 known names)

 

John Codd

Evan Davies, collier

Robert Lansdown,

? Williams, deserter from the 29th of Foot

John Morris, miner

William Evans of Tredegar, miner

Reece Meredith of Tredegar

David Morgan of Tredegar, tinker

David Davies of Waunhelygen, Brynmawr

and his son, David Davies

‘John the Roller’ of Nantyglo

Isaac Thomas of Nantyglo

John Jonathan of Blaina

Abraham Thomas of Blaina, collier

William Williams of Cwmtillery

William Farraday of Blackwood, collier

 

George Shell of Pontypool, Carpenter

John Davis of Pontnewynnydd, Carpenter

 

‘William Aberdare’

William Griffiths of Merthyr (Lodge no 657)

 

These are listed in Appendix 1: The Rebel Dead, p252, from Ivor Wilks (1984) South Wales and the Rising of 1839, (Croom Helm, London & Sydney)

 

Sources: Bristol Mercury, 9 Nov 1839; Cambrian, 16 Nov 1839; Merthyr Guardian, 9 Nov 1839; Monmouthshire Merlin, 9 & 16 Nov and 28 Dec; Morning Chronicle, 8 Nov 1839; Silurian, 9 Nov 1839; The Times,11 Nov 1839; Newport Magistrate Examinations (known as ‘Chartists Trials’ docs at Newport Library: vol. V (Reece Meredith),vol. XI (John Davis); W.N. Johns, The Chartist Riots at Newport, 2nd ed (Newport, 1989), p44.