Newport Rising 1839
Workers storm the gates of privilege
ON 4 November 1839, 170 years ago, the ‘Chartist Rising’ in Newport, south Wales, ended in bloodshed. 30 members of the working-class political movement, the Chartists, were killed; many more were wounded by soldiers as they attempted to storm the Westgate Hotel. Never since has the military killed more civilians on British soil.
DAVE REID explains the background to one of the first workers’ insurrections in history.
Many workers today agree that the working class needs a political voice – a new workers’ party. Some are actively trying to get the trade unions to cut the link with New Labour and support a new party for the working class. This struggle for a political force for workers can trace its origins back not just to the founders of the Labour Party 100 years ago but even further to the Chartists of the mid 19th century.
Chartism in the 19th century was the first political movement of the British working class and arguably the first mass workers’ movement in history. In 1838 the London Working Men’s Association drew up the People’s Charter, demanding equal political rights for the working class. Property qualifications prevented workers from standing for parliament or even from having a vote.
Chartism fought for democratic demands, but it was not solely a democratic movement, it was a revolutionary class struggle to change society. To Frederick Engels it was “the compact form of the proletariat’s opposition to the bourgeoisie”. William Price, a Pontypridd Chartist leader said: “Oppression, injustice and the grinding poverty which burdens our lives must be abolished for all time.”
As workers were forming the first trade unions, the increasingly bitter battles with the employers convinced them they needed to change society through political means. Political power was expected to make a material difference to their lives. Many workers wanted the Newport insurrection to give them control of the mines and ironworks. Garndiffaith Chartist lodge declared: “The [iron] works do not belong to the present proprietors but to the workmen and they will very shortly have them”.
While their husbands marched on Newport, two women had the following conversation in Gelligaer: “I want some coal and I don’t know what to do now the colliery has stopped.”
“Oh don’t worry, go and take some coal off the trams on the tram road.”
“What will Mr Powell [the colliery owner] say if he should hear it?”
“Oh never mind him, the Gelligaer colliery will be my husband’s tomorrow when Newport is taken.”
The authorities later discovered the owner had been marked down to work as a coal cutter if the miners had taken power.
Chartist organisations were created in workers’ districts across Britain and a campaign began to present a grand petition to parliament requesting the vote. The petition, signed by over a million workers and supporters, was rejected by parliament in 1839 – MPs would not even accept the petition.
This rejection created a crisis in the Chartist movement which had already developed both a ‘moral force’ wing and a ‘physical force’ wing. The moral force wing believed that reforms could be won by persuading the ruling class of the moral force of their argument. Physical force Chartists were influenced by revolutionary ideas and believed in the use of force to win democratic rights.
The moral force Chartists’ position was completely undermined by parliament’s rejection of the petition. The Chartists’ National Convention broke up in October 1838 with little strategy to take the campaign forward except for the vague calling of a ‘sacred month’ or general strike. But it seems likely that some physical force delegates secretly prepared a plan to use the disappointment at the rejection to prepare an insurrectionary movement to seize power in a number of areas starting with Monmouthshire and Glamorgan in South Wales.
In 1839 the South Wales valleys were being transformed into industrial power houses employing thousands of workers in the ironworks and mines. The high concentration of workers in heavy industry created a militant working-class movement in South Wales that moved ahead of some more conservative Chartist areas dominated by tradesmen and shopkeepers. 25,000 workers joined the 50 Chartist lodges in South Wales.
A central figure was John Frost, the elected leader and representative from the Monmouthshire Chartist association and speaker of the National Convention. He supported the physical force wing and clearly participated in the decision to organise uprisings following the petition’s failure. He was an honest reformer and became a martyr for the cause.
But he had no stomach for a revolutionary movement and was distrusted by many workers in South Wales. He aimed most of his speeches at ‘respectable’ society, constantly urging restraint, wavering between the capitalists and the workers. From the start he tried to back off from insurrection.
Other Chartist leaders in South Wales were more militant and determined to win power through force if needs be. Weeks before the insurrection, a delegation of Blackwood workers warned Frost: “Mr Frost if you will not lead us, neither you nor your family shall live in Newport. We are beginning to suspect you”.
From the rejection of the petition, serious preparations began across South East Wales for an insurrection in Newport which they hoped would trigger other risings around the country. Preparations were made in London, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Newcastle, Birmingham, the West Country and Dundee. On the day of the rising 65 delegates gathered in Newcastle to await the signal from South Wales.
The South Wales Chartists fashioned a highly organised mass party in months. Membership cards were issued. As well as regular lodges, youth lodges were formed. At a time when not even bourgeois women played any role in politics, women’s lodges were active in the area. Huge meetings involving over half the population of some towns prepared politically for the insurrection.
Workers’ militia formed and drilled under the bosses’ noses. ‘Sections’ originally formed to collect money to sustain Chartist prisoners were improvised into militia of eleven men. Each section had a captain and the sections were grouped into troops, companies and brigades. A directorate of 12 organised the insurrection.
Plans were made to fraternise with troops sent to Newport. Within a few weeks 13 had deserted, been found new jobs and re-housed. The rest were withdrawn before they could desert. Hundreds of picks were secretly stored in caves in the valleys. Firearms were stolen.
The plan was to seize power in Newport, Cardiff, Abergavenny and Brecon, declare a “Silurian” workers’ republic and appeal for support in England and Scotland. It was timed to coincide with the ‘sacred month’ called by the General Convention.
Looting was forbidden on pain of death. The Times later marvelled at the level of organisation of these ordinary working people. “This was no momentary outbreak but a long-planned insurrection, deeply organised, managed with a secrecy truly astonishing.”
A rough economic programme was also worked out, including taking over the mines and iron works and expropriating the banks.
7,500 armed workers eagerly began the long march from the heads of the Valleys to Newport on 3 November. They had been preparing long enough. They knew that some would not return but believed that those that did would be free.
George Shell, a 15-year old Pontypool carpenter wrote to his parents: “I shall this night be engaged in a glorious struggle for freedom and should it please God to spare my life, I shall see you soon; but if not grieve not for me. I shall have fallen in a noble cause. Farewell!” George Shell was killed the next day.
Despite painstaking preparations, the element of surprise was lost as the earlier sections waited for hours for the slower detachments. The Pontypool detachment did not arrive in Newport in time at all. By the time the workers arrived in Newport 100 soldiers were waiting and prepared in the Westgate Hotel. Despite entering the hotel dozens of Chartists were cut down by gunfire.
Following the Newport defeat, South Wales was placed under martial law and hundreds of Chartists arrested or forced into hiding. 82 were sent to trial and five leaders including John Frost sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered (the last people to be given that sentence). The executions were commuted to transportation to Australia because of the outcry.
The struggle for the Charter continued through the 1840s and 1850s with a mass movement of further petitions, demonstrations and general strikes. Eventually the vote was conceded to male workers in 1867 but not to all women until 1928.
Now, all but one (annual parliaments) of the Chartists’ demands (see box above) have been won. But the struggle for real democracy continues. Having resisted the vote for workers the ruling class conceded it, but aimed to ensure that workers’ representatives were absorbed into the system, firstly through Lib-Labism (a Liberal-Labour alliance to misrepresent workers).
Then after the Labour Party’s formation, Labour’s leaders were overwhelmingly absorbed into the capitalist establishment through inducements. The Chartists fought for pay for MPs so that not only the wealthy could afford to go to parliament and workers could represent other workers.
Now the state system pays MPs huge sums to ensure they live lives removed from workers and are not under workers’ control. The Socialist Party demand today of workers’ MPs on workers’ wages continues in the spirit of the Chartist demand of pay for MPs, to attempt to make MPs represent workers.
The Labour Party’s transformation into capitalist New Labour means that, once again, working people are disenfranchised. The demand for a new workers’ party continues the Chartists’ struggle for democratic rights as a step to a workers’ democracy.
See www.cnwp.org.uk for the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.
The People’s Charter 1838
- Suffrage for all men age 21 and over
- Equal-sized electoral districts
- Voting by secret ballot.
- An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
- Pay for Members of Parliament
- Annual election of Parliament