The Newport Chartist Rising

The Newport Chartist Rising, November 1839

The Chartist movement was a mass movement of ordinary people (men and women) right across Britain that began in the late 1830s and survived into the 1850s.

It was focused on the 'six points' of the 'People's Charter', which aimed to introduce universal male franchise (at a time when perhaps only one-fifth of adult males had the vote - essentially those drawn from the upper and middle classes) and a more equitable, participatory and democratic political system underpinned by a broader notion of citizenship. The six points themselves were:

  1. The vote for all men aged 21 and over (serious thought was given to campaigning for the vote for adult females but it was decided that this was tactically unwise, and not all Chartists were as fully enlightened as we might like them to have been)
  1. Equal electoral districts (to help equalise the value of the vote across constituencies)
  1. Payment of MPs (to enable working men to stand)
  1. No property qualification for MPs
  1. The secret ballot (at this time voting was a public act and pollbooks were printed which recorded how people voted)
  1. Annual parliaments (at this time a general election was required only once every 7 years which was felt, unhelpfully, to distance MPs from the people)

The primary method by which the Chartists sought to achieve their goals was the mass petition submitted to Parliament. Conventionally, scholars have distinguished between 'moral' and 'physical' force Chartism: the first covered petitioning, mass meetings, attempting to gain election to Parliament, while the second implied a readiness to take up arms against the state. The contrast between these two approaches can be overstated - many Chartists believed that the threat of force might be necessary to back up the moral pressure represented by the mobilisation of public opinion, but that did not necessarily mean that they would seriously contemplate rising in rebellion. Some, however, particularly concentrated in the Monmouthshire and east Glamorgan valleys. and in Newport itself, did.

The 'Rising' at Newport in November 1839 was the most serious manifestation of physical force Chartism in the history of the movement. It is important to note that the Chartists were armed and ready to use force: they were not the passive victims of a massacre. The 'Battle of the Westgate' was a bloody and not especially brief struggle, but it clearly resulted in the defeat and confusion of the Chartists and discredited the physical force strategy. The subsequent trial for high treason of the Rising's leaders, their conviction, and the commutation of the sentence to transportation to Australia, went some way towards rescuing the 'cause' in that it highlighted the dignity of John Frost in particular, and mobilised sympathy for those on trial. It also clouded the historical record in that the defence case sought to deny that the Rising had been a genuine attempt at insurrection. After the Rising the Chartist movement continued in Newport and its hinterland but was never as strong or as threatening again.

None of the six points of the Charter were achieved during the lifetime of the movement, but five of the six have subsequently come to pass (the exception being annual parliaments), and of course full political equality for women was also attained in two stages, in 1918 and in 1928. The Chartists were, thus, ahead of their time in envisaging a much more democratic political system than the one that existed in nineteenth-century Britain.

There was much more to Chartism than the six points. This was a manifesto, an umbrella under which different campaigns and objectives could shelter. Many Chartists made improving the living standards of working people a priority: a more democratic and representative political system would be the means to achieve such an end. Some imagined a different economic system involving workers' control of industry. Others were attracted by utopian visions of communitarian societies. There were Chartist newspapers, Chartist churches, Chartist schools and Chartists who put as much energy into campaigning for temperance as for the People's Charter. It was a very wide-ranging and amorphous movement that embraced communities the length and breadth of Britain.

Those who opposed Chartism should not automatically be seen as self-serving villains. They often had good reasons for thinking that the time was not right for any or all of the six points. Yes there were those who simply did not wish to relinquish economic and political power, but there were others who felt that unleashing a mass electorate at a time of partial literacy and limited political education was a recipe for disaster. The Mayor of Newport at the time of the Rising, Thomas Phillips, was a Liberal campaigner for reform, a philanthropist, paternalistic employer, dedicated Anglican and Welsh patriot and in many ways a far-sighted campaigner for a better future.

Newport Chartism involved many Welsh-speaking Chartists and many who might have felt patriotically Welsh. Although sometimes attempts have been made to force the Newport Rising into a nationalist mould, it is highly unlikely that the Chartists themselves would have understood this; Chartism was a British-wide movement focused on reforming the Westminster Parliament and there was no separatist current within it.

For the twenty-first century, the key values of the Chartist movement might be expressed like this:

  • Democracy - a political system that reflects the views and interests of the people
  • Equality - of all both in terms of political rights and of opportunities
  • Dignity - respect for all forms of labour
  • Participation - the idea that all have an opportunity and an obligation to contribute to debating the present and future of society
  • Community - that social and moral values can be understood best in a common, collective context
  • Co-operation - that much more can be achieved by working together across boundaries than by remaining isolated
  • Vision - a future that is worth championing and that offers positive hope for all

Chris Williams, Professor of History, Cardiff University.