REVIEW: Malcolm Chase, ‘A New Account of George Shell and the Newport Rising’
Gwent Local History Journal
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Malcolm Chase’s latest contribution to Welsh Chartist historiography appears in a recent edition (no 119, 2016, pp19-26.) of the Gwent Local History Journal and he’s found a gem - a hitherto unknown account of George Shell, the young Chartist member of the Pontnewynydd lodge, north of Pontypool. Shell died at the Westgate inn on 4 November 1839, leaving behind a sensational letter to his parents, published in both the Monmouthshire Merlin and the Chartist Northern Star. Produced as evidence of intended insurrection at the trial of Zephaniah Williams in January 1840, the letter also inspired a martyr cult amongst the faithful.
Professor Chase has searched Howell’s manuscripts surviving in the collections of the Bishopsgate Institute, London and in his article, identifies five separate drafts detailing his short sojourn in the Pontypool area as a young child. Over many years, George Howell planned an autobiography but it was never published.
Born 5th October 1833 in Somerset, Howell was only six at the time of the 1839 Rising. He lived only briefly alongside the Monmouthshire canal south of Pontnewynydd. His stonemason father, Edwin was undertaking contract work at a nearby reservoir. The family moved on to Bristol in 1840, as had the Shell family, except for George, the previous year.
The earliest draft dates from the 1870s and opens with Howell claiming: The one great event which I can recollect was the Newport riots in November 1839. George Shell, the brave youth who was shot in the Westgate Hotel, lodged with us, or in the same house. I forget which. He often used to take me on his knee at meal times and would dance me up and down as I sat astride his foot. Howell clearly acknowledged Shell had been a close family friend, but he went on to keenly stress his father’s absence and Shell’s presence when the long procession passed our door. And quickly followed with a hind sight: Onwards they went in that ill-considered, badly conceived and recklessly planned march providing – a judgement made by a cautious trade union man, dubious of direct political action.
But Was Edwin Howell more involved in Chartist affairs than first appears? Professor Chase insightfully ‘unpicks’ the nuances of language revealed over time in the manuscripts.
In his final publication-ready draft (1896), Howell added in that his father and two uncles were not just lost in the hills that night but that they were in general sympathy with the Chartist cause, but were not in any sense active politicians. There is much in this article for readers to chew on. 1896 was a long way away from 1839 - a period of immense social and political change. Importantly Malcolm Chase observes “It is possible that Howell imposed a false memory of Shell upon his account of November 1839. From his extensive reading in adult life, as well as his interest in history, he cannot have been unaware of how Shell’s death had met an outpouring of grief and poetic eulogy that extended far beyond Pontypool”.
Professor Chase opens up to us the political hind sights of a man who had risen through the ranks, organising the Reform League 1865-69, subsequently working for the T.U.C and then representing ’East End’ Bethnal Green North East as a Liberal MP from 1885 to 1895 . Navigating 1890s ‘Lib-Lab’ politics must have been a tricky business, with Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party emerging in 1893 and the gestation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. For Howell, what to publish or not to publish, would have been a serious concern and not surprisingly, the book never appeared in print. My own thoughts are that there’s every good reason to look further into Howell’s manuscripts – they might throw light on the extent and the substance of a revived interest in Chartism in the 1880s and 1890s? Also was Howell one of the many ‘Chartists’, who buried their past sympathies to advance themselves in the Liberal party? Strangely, Liberal politicians never appear willing to recognise any Chartist antecedents, whereas Chartism was a badge of pride, enthusiastically worn by the socialist pioneers of late Victorian society.
Colin Gibson ‘George Shell’s Letter Revisited: Some Perspectives on its Use at the Monmouthshire Chartist Trials’, Gwent Local History Journal, no 116, 2014, p33-49