Newport First Stop - 100 Years of News Stories

Ferment and Insurrection 1830 - 1840

By Derrick Cyril Vaughan

By the year 1830 Newport was unrecognisable from what it had been at the turn of the century. Many ancillary industries to the coal and iron trade had sprung up and the town was prospering. The chief beneficiaries of this prosperity were the coal owners, the iron masters, the ship builders, those in trade, the professions and of course Sir Charles Morgan with his agent Thomas Prothero. The labouring classes and the poor were in as desperate a situation as ever. Increasing numbers of immigrants from Ireland arrived daily by ship from Cork to swell the already crowded population; many of them with hardly enough clothes on to sustain decency. They wandered the streets, men and women with their children in tow, begging for food, money and work. As an extreme example of the difference of income of the various grades of society, at one end of the scale a working man would consider himself well off if he managed to keep his job for a year and earn about fifty pounds. On the other hand Sir Charles Morgan's income at this time was over £40,000 per annum and continuing to increase, due in part to the 'Golden Mile', whereby he received dues for every ton of coal or iron crossing Tredegar Park.

Lack of hygiene was another great problem. There were a few public wells scattered about the town but those were mainly polluted and a source of diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and cholera. Baneswell was the site of the most notorious well, for it was situated at the foot of the hill leading to St. Woolos Church, where the graveyard was overflowing with the dead and where skulls and bones protruded from the surface of the earth. It was publicly admitted that water filtered through the ground and ended up at the bottom of the hill. Another hazard was the disposal of waste. Sewers were almost non-existent in the poorer districts of the town, human excrement was thrown into the nearest open ditch to be collected on rare occasions by the few scavengers employed by the Council. Rats abounded; one pair of rats could multiply a thousand-fold in the course of one year, and therefore the services of rat-catchers were much in demand. Due to overcrowded accommodation, tuberculosis was rife, while dogs roamed the streets, many of them infected with rabies, a bite from one of these would cause hydrophobia ending in a certain and unpleasant death.

The streets of Newport, apart from Commercial Street and Commercial Road, were narrow and muddy. Pavements only existed in the main part of the town and depending on the weather either dust or mud was projected by the horse-drawn traffic at the unhappy pedestrians. In hot weather a few water carts were used to dampen down the dust in the area where most of the shops were situated.

Politics were much to the fore in the 1830s and no more so than in the hills and valleys of South Wales. Merthyr particularly was in an almost permanent state of riot and troops were regularly to be seen passing through Newport to the scene of the disturbances. Reform of Parliament was the cry but how to set about it was another matter. The powerful landowners would give nothing away, continuing to protect their interests by buying the votes of the burgesses of the cities and towns, using any means to get their man elected.

In Newport the feud between John Frost and Thomas Prothero continued unabated, Frost continually accusing his arch enemy of corruption. Prothero was by now a rich and powerful man due to his lucrative appointments and his mining interests. He had been Sir Charles' agent for a quarter of a century. His mode of life was almost equal to the grand style of his master. His income and his lust for power continued to increase, in spite of the fact that he must have known he was the most hated and feared man in Monmouthshire and that he was in danger of losing his possessions, his life, and the lives of his family, if the high passions being engendered in the hills should be translated into the more direct action of riots or even revolution. His opportunism had served him well in the past and realising that his association with Sir Charles was his greatest danger, he made a great show of publicly quarrelling with his one-time mentor, using the coming Parliamentary election of 1831 to sever his ties with Tredegar House and all its excesses by supporting the Liberal candidate Benjamin Hall against Sir Charles Morgan's friend and fellow Tory the Rt. Hon. Henry Somerset, Marquis of Worcester. At the same time he made overtures to John Frost who rejected his advances, the hatred he bore Prothero being far more powerful than any political expediency.

The election gave Prothero the opportunity he needed to show himself in his new role as a man of the people. This wily lawyer put it about that he was available to stand as an independent candidate for the Monmouth Boroughs in place of the Liberal Benjamin Hall, but had declined the honour in favour of the better man. He had of course no intention of abandoning his lucrative local appointments for the delights of London and an unpaid position as a Member of Parliament. He would rather have Hall in his pocket by delivering to him enough votes from the burgesses of Newport to ensure his election.

In April 1831 the Mayor called a meeting of the burgesses and their families at the King's Head to substantiate their right to vote in the impending election. It had been ascertained by the Town Clerk, none other than Thomas Prothero himself, that the burgesses of Newport formed the largest voting bloc in the towns forming the Monmouth Boroughs, namely Newport, Monmouth and Usk and that their votes were at his disposal due to his influence and his change of party. Election fever ran high and in spite of his past record Prothero became for a moment the popular hero of the day. This was the position he had hoped to achieve since his break with Sir Charles, but could he deliver the votes he had promised, and were there enough burgesses to ensure victory?

The by-laws of Newport were fairly obscure coming as they did from the distant past. One of these laws concerned the burgesses, namely that the sons of freemen and persons who marry the daughters or widows of freemen were not allowed to vote. At the public meeting therefore Prothero, as Town Clerk, should have been aware of this restriction but nevertheless
many of those granted votes on that evening were illegally enfranchised.

Prothero went to Monmouth for the election in early May 1831 when, as he had foreseen, Benjamin Hall was duly elected to Parliament with a small majority of votes over his Tory rival the Marquis of Worcester. On his return to Newport Prothero was met outside the town by a multitude of people with flags and music, the horses were taken from his carriage and it was dragged in triumph through the streets to his home. This was the highlight of his career, for he had not only established himself as a defender of the deprived, but he was now no longer looked upon as the tyrannical agent of Sir Charles Morgan - all was forgotten and his position was safeguarded in case of a further deterioration of the situation in the hills.

The Rt. Hon. Henry Somerset, Marquis of Worcester, was much aggrieved at this defeat in a seat which he considered his own and consulted with his friends and fellow aristocrat Sir Charles Morgan who promised to look into the situation.

Since the rift with Prothero, Sir Charles though a mild mannered man, had taken a passionate dislike to him. He knew only too well the ability of his former agent for intrigue, having benefitted himself from it in the past. He now appointed legal investigators to check the votes in Newport, particularly the votes of the burgesses; it soon became apparent that many of them had not been entitled to vote, and this information was immediately conveyed to the Marquis, who put in a Petition to Parliament. In July a committee of the House of Commons met and having heard representations from both sides declared that the Marquis of Worcester was duly elected for the Monmouth Boroughs, Mr. Benjamin Hall having received illegal votes from the burgesses of Newport. Luckily for Thomas Prothero no further investigation was undertaken as to how these votes had been authenticated in the first place.

Prothero was not at all put out by the subsequent annulment of his candidate's votes. He may have lost Hall as his dupe in the Commons, but his main aim had been achieved, for he had established himself firmly in the minds of the Newportonians as a free-thinking radical, a man of the people. It was said that he had even taken up religion, insisting that the servants in his employ said community prayers every morning, leading them in prayer himself when he had the time to spare from his business and legal activities.

Although by now a rich man he desired more riches and looked around for the means of achieving this - the opportunity presented itself in 1833. By this date so many collieries had opened in the South Wales coalfields that more coal was being produced than the trade could absorb. In order to get rid of the surplus, owners of collieries were competing against each other by underselling their production. Prothero saw his chance and formed a partnership with Thomas Powell, a timber merchant and Alderman of Newport. Together they persuaded a number of colliery proprietors to sell them their coal at eight shillings a ton over a number of years. Once contracts had been drawn up they immediately raised the price to eleven shillings a ton, thus ensuring for themselves a large fortune.

Meanwhile, John Frost had not been idle, he had watched the machinations of his old enemy and realised that only the power of his pen could help eradicate the corruption which he saw on every side, not least in the Council Chambers. His was a war of dedication against the evils of his time. More and more he left the running of his drapery shop in the capable hands of his wife, while he fought for the rights of the underdog and the deprived which continued to be a source of inspiration for his pamphlets.

In September 1835 the Municipal Reform Act was passed. Among its provisions it gave the vote to the occupants of houses worth ten pounds a year. This new Act was implemented in Newport in the election of that year when John Frost and Mr. Townsend, an honest man of independent ideas, were the first persons elected as Councillors. Mr. Joseph Latch became the first Mayor and John Frost was elected Mayor and Chief Magistrate in the following year. This at last gave him the chance to open up the can of worms.

On assuming office in 1836 Frost began an investigation into the activities of Thomas Prothero. He called a meeting of the Council to consider the conduct of the Town Clerk in respect of certain monies paid to the Council which had not been properly accounted for. In particular Frost proved that 39 fines of £10 each for throwing ballast into the Usk had not been handed over to the County Treasurer. Prothero explained away some inaccuracies, then the whole affair was neatly covered up by a Council Resolution; that they were satisfied with the Town Clerk's conduct. Once again Prothero had triumphed and Frost was the loser but it was the spirit of the man, that in spite of the massive forces of wealth, corruption, intrigue, blackmail and self interest ranged against him, he continued to fight to the bitter end.

In June 1836 a British working-class movement was formed for political reform. It was centred on William Lovett's London Working Men's Association and by 1838 it had over a million adherents throughout the country. A People's Charter was drawn up containing six points for the reform of Parliament: Universal Male Suffrage; the secret ballot; equal electorial districts; the abolition of the property qualifications for M.P.s; the payment of M.P.s, and annual general elections. This Charter was presented to Parliament with two million signatures but was rejected. Something more than petitions was needed to breach the entrenched system of government and the leaders of the movement looked around for likely areas of discontent which might be exploited. South Wales was the obvious choice, having as it did a highly emotive and exploited population in a close society, knit together by, the common misery of the working conditions and already in a state of ferment and unrest. Speakers, many of them orators, were dispatched to the coalfields to contact men of influence in the areas and put across the true meaning of Chartism.

John Frost was attracted to Chartism from the earliest days and on being approached eagerly joined the movement, seeing in it a vehicle from which to enhance the work he had been undertaking for years on behalf of the exploited people of the valleys and of the deprived in Newport. The leaders in London were delighted to have a Magistrate and an ex-Mayor as an ally in the most important town in an area which they had already chosen as the most suitable for their purpose.

Frost eagerly accepted his role as a co-ordinator of the Chartists in South Wales. In 1838 and 1839 he travelled widely in the coalfields taking the Chartist message to groups of workers wherever he could find then, ably helped by Henry Vincent, the Yorkshireman with the golden voice, Zephaniah Williams, William Jones and many others. The unrest in the hills had by this time alerted the Government, and when Vincent and three of his companions returned to Newport, they were immediately arrested and charged with conspiracy and illegal assembly, being sent to Monmouth gaol to await trial.

In Newport, the Mayor Thomas Phillips and the other magistrates were well aware of the dangerous situation in the hills and even in the town there were many convinced Chartists. The arrest of Vincent and his friends sent a wave of anger through the movement and there were many ugly scenes which John Frost did his utmost to calm. He had by now emerged as the leading figure of the Chartist cause in South Wales; although this position had been thrust upon him, he willingly accepted it and seemed to give little thought at this time to the danger he was in. He was falsely led into the belief that the pressure of the organised movement would in due course, cause the Government to give in to the demands of the Chartists peacefully. Frost was dazzled by the position he had attained. It had been suggested to him by the leaders in London that after the bloodless revolution he would be made Lord Protector of South Wales and in fact leaflets had already been printed to this effect. The thought that his enemies, Thomas Prothero and his cronies, would be brought to low estate spurred him on to greater efforts; he became more enmeshed in a web of his own making, and was helping to create a monster which he would be unable to control, leading to the great march on Newport, the insurrection and the awful consequences.

Prothero, meantime, had been consolidating his position as one of the leading figures in the area, and since the election, his new found popularity with the working class. Finding the Friars' not prestigious enough, he moved to Malpas Court, a much larger establishment off the Malpas Road and more to his taste. His overtures to John Frost having been rejected, and realising that his popularity did not extend to the Chartists, he decided to take precautions in the event of a successful rebellion. He therefore used his money and his influence to form a network of spies who reported to him regularly on the movements and mood of the inhabitants of the hills. It was thus that he obtained the first information that the Chartists were due to mount their attack shortly and intended to take him and his family hostage together with Reginald Blewitt M.P. of Llantarnam Abbey. Prothero and his family fled at once to an unknown destination leaving his coachman and gardeners in charge of his estate. He was not seen again in Newport until he received word that the insurrection was over and Frost in the safe hands of the authorities. He then returned with glee to help in mounting the prosecution against the man who had been a thorn in his flesh for over twenty years.

Early on the 3rd of November, Thomas Phillips the Mayor, a partner in the same law firm as Prothero, received intelligence that the march on Newport was imminent. He at once summoned all the Magistrates who were still available to the Westgate for a briefing on the situation. It was decided that as many able bodied men as possible should be sworn in to do duty as special constables and that the most likely place of attack would be the Westgate itself. A small company of two hundred men of the 45th Regiment now billetted at the Workhouse should be installed in the east wing of the hotel. The tension in the town was so great that many of the inhabitants decided to leave for the open country to the east; those who remained waited with foreboding the arrival of the men of the hills. Shops were shuttered and the Westgate stood stark and silent awaiting the onslaught.

The march had already commenced but was making slow progress. Down the valleys they came, their numbers swelling with every village they passed. Many of them carried guns of a sort and all had weapons including pikes and mandrills. It had been decided that Frost and Zephaniah Williams would lead the march down the western valley and Jones via Pontypool - the eastern valley, their aim being to take Newport in a pincer movement and prevent the coach carrying the mail to Birmingham leaving the King's Head, the non arrival of which would be the signal for the Chartists of that city to rise.

The men of the hills continued their slow progress through one of the stormiest nights of the year, many of the marchers were dispirited and all were sodden. At dawn on the 4th, Frost and Williams arrived at the Welsh Oak on the Risca Road at the head of 5,000 men; Jones was reported to be nearing Malpas with another 3,000. Frost led his men across Tredegar Park to the weighing machine at Court-y-bella where they were formed into ranks, five abreast, the men with guns at the end of each line. Having obtained some sort of order the long column, with Frost and Williams at its head, climbed the hill to St. Woolos Church.

When John Frost started down Stow Hill to the Westgate, with the noisy mob behind him, that fateful Monday morning at nine o clock, he realised for the first time he had unleashed a power he could not control. As the front of the column wheeled round the west side of the inn, Frost approached the gates to the courtyard, but finding them locked he turned to move to the front entrance but was forestalled by the mob which had already mounted the attack and were fighting in the hall-way. Suddenly the shutters of the room in the east wing were raised and the twenty nine soldiers of the 45th fired the first of many volleys into the crowd - Frost fled, leaving those whom he led to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences. He is reported to have said later in Monmouth gaol "I was not the man for such an undertaking, for the moment I saw blood flow, I became terrified and ran."

In the Westgate itself all was chaos; Thomas Phillips was wounded three times in his arm by slugs and in his hip by a ball. Bleeding profusely it was only then he gave the order to Lieutenant Gray to fire on the rioters, who panicked and fled back to the hills. Fourteen of the mob lay dead in the square, many more were wounded and died later. The bodies were brought into the courtyard of the inn where they lay for all to see.

After fleeing from the Westgate, Frost was next seen at the Lodge gates to Tredegar House, by William Adams, park-keeper to Sir Charles Morgan. Mr. Adams later made the following statement to the magistrates. "I was on horseback and it was very nearly ten o'clock. I saw many people running from the direction of Newport which is about two miles and three quarters from the town. One man walking strongly had a handkerchief to his face as if he were crying. I asked him what was the matter at Newport, he took the handkerchief from his face and I recognised Mr. Frost. I said "Oh, how do you do?" He answered me but I do not know what the word was. He passed on at the same pace and vanished into a copse about two hundred yards from me."

Henry John Davis, a young Newport lawyer was one of about 100 men sworn in as special constables. The following is his account of the events of November 4th. "I was having breakfast about the time of the actual attack on the Westgate but I was down at the hotel about ten o'clock. Thomas Phillips was at the back of the hotel having his arm attended to. There was a lot of comings and goings and I was told to stay on duty in the ball. In the early evening Thomas Jones Phillips, Clerk to the Borough Magistrates, told me he had information that John Frost was at the house of his friend Partridge in Gold Tops. I went there with some others under cover of darkness and arrested Frost and brought him into the town."

Thus John Frost's foolish bid for power was all to no avail. At the age of 53 he found himself, with others, on a charge of High Treason. The position he had gained in the community as Mayor, Magistrate and defender of lost causes was as nothing compared with the loss of his liberty, probably his life, and the deprivation of his wife and family. Thomas Prothero on the other hand was triumphant, he no longer need fear for his fortune or the retribution of the men from the hills, and the continual attacks on him by John Frost were now at an end. He brought together all his considerable legal knowledge and abilities to concentrate his efforts on the preparations being made for the prosecution of his hated enemy Frost and the other Chartist leaders.

--- o ---

- Next Chapter -