The Chartist Riots

In the autumn of 1838, one William Graham, a sheriff’s officer of Chepstow, was in the Bush Inn, Commercial Street, looking for a criminal. He noticed considerable activity upstairs, enquired the reason and eventually, after having paid the admission fee of one penny, was admitted to a meeting to be addressed by John Frost, a former Mayor of Newport. In 1836, John Frost during his mayoralty had enrolled a number of special constables, as bribery was widespread in the town at that time.

In April, 1839, the Mayor issued a circular cautioning all persons attending these meetings and warning publicans against letting their premises to the Working Men’s Association promoting them. 

A membership card found by the police while searching a house at Malpas set forth the aims of the Association as being “Peace, law and order – equal law and equal rights. ” They claimed and advocated “he inalienable right of universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual Parliament, and no property qualification for election to Parliament,” and claimed that intellectual and moral fitness should be the only qualifications needed.

Following the issue of one circular calling a meeting, signed by Henry Vincent, of Bristol, editor of the “Western Vindicator,” an alleged treasonable publication, several hundred people gathered in High Street on April 25th at about 7 p.m., formed themselves into a procession five deep, and marched to Pillgwenlly, gathering support along the route. The procession returned to Mill Street, where a platform had been erected and an open-air meeting arranged. 

Mr J. Dickenson took the chair and a Mr Edwards introduced the speaker, Henry Vincent, who opened his remarks with the following words:

“Of all the cant with which this world is curst,

The cant of falsehood is the worst.” 

He then continued ” Let the Mayor or anybody else meet me on this platform and show any Act of Parliament – for that was the law, it was by that the people of England were governed and not by the mere “ipse dixits” of magistrates, parish beadles, sextons or grave diggers. Let them show me the chapter, the section and the clause, which would say, “You, Henry Vincent, are violating the law by the course you are pursuing.’ I would immediately bid the assembly to disperse.” 

Vincent was due to return to Bristol at the close of the meeting but the crowd remained about until 2. a.m. Vincent was again called to address a crowd outside John Frost’s house. This time he said : “Where are the Christchurch Cavalry ? Where are the special constables ? The magistrates in declaring the meeting illegal knew that it was false and were afraid to enforce it.” As a matter of fact, the magistrates did not act until after the arrival of the military.

Discontent and unrest increased in the town as time went on and because of this the Lord Lieutenant of the county made representation to the Government for military assistance. As a result, a detachment of the “Gallant 29th “, arrived by packet from Bristol on 2nd May, 1839. The detachment consisted of a field officer, 2 captains, 4 subalterns, a surgeon, 7 sergeants, and 105 other ranks, and was commanded by Major the Hon. C. A. Wrottesley. The troops were billeted in various licensed houses until the next day, when they were moved to the workhouse.

Meanwhile, the magistrates were engaged daily in swearing in special constables. These were called to a meeting at the King’s Head Hotel, when a letter was read from the Secretary of State suggesting the formation of an Association for the Protection of Life and Property, but instead of this it was decided to make the Special Constabulary a permanent force, and to train them in a disciplined manner so as to enable them to become an armed force in the future. 

On 10th May, 1839, at a Police Court held in the long room at the King’s Head Hotel, Henry Vincent, Edwards and two Newport men, J. Dickenson and W. A. Townsend, were charged with unlawful assembly and were committed for trial at the Monmouth Assize in August. Sympathisers, on hearing of the committal, marched through Thomas Street and held a meeting in Mill Street, where violent speeches were made.

A fortnight later, on 25th May, two men were charged at Newport with being in possession of pistols and copies of the “Western Vindicator.”

On 1st June, William Watkins, a wood cutter, living near the Six Bells Inn, Stow Hill, was fined £20 for trying to induce a soldier to desert his regiment. He could not pay the fine and was sent to the House of Correction at Usk.

In August, after the sentences passed at the Assize Court became known, unrest became worse in the town, and this steadily increased until on 3rd November, 1839, news poured into Newport from various sources of an intended uprising of the iron workers in the valleys and a proposed march on Newport. The Mayor thereupon instructed the Superintendent of Police to call out 150 special constables, and to post 50 at the King’s Head Hotel to guard the road to the bridge, 50 at the Westgate Hotel, and 50 at the Parrot Hotel, Commercial Street, where the police station was then situated, to guard the lower end of the town.

About 7. p.m., the same evening, the Mayor sent Special Constable Thomas Walker, licensee of the Parrot Hotel, accompanied by Richard Webb, ostler, on horseback towards Risca to reconnoitre.

As they approached Risca, they heard guns being fired and crowds cheering in the distant hills. They turned back but were stopped by a number of armed men, and Walker was stabbed in the groin, receiving a wound about six inches long. Notwithstanding this, they managed to return to Newport, but Walker had to receive medical attention and was confined to bed for a month.  Webb escaped with a torn saddle. 

During the same evening, at an unofficial meeting of Chartists in the Royal Oak beerhouse in Mill Street, the landlord of which, Charles Jones, was a well-known Chartist, gunpowder was issued to sympathisers with the agitators. 

To withstand this threat to law and order, the Newport police force was ridiculously small, consisting of only Superintendent Hopkins and Constables Moses Scard, Henry Chappel and William Lewis. Another man, John Gough, had been accepted as a constable, but the committee were awaiting a reply from the Bristol Police prior to his final acceptance. Two men were on duty from 11 a.m to 9 p.m. and assisting the sergeant on night patrol. William Lewis, a former butcher from Caldicott, was in charge of the police station. This small force was augmented by 500 special constables who were issued with truncheons. 

Moses Scard remained on duty all night at the Westgate Hotel, and other constables were placed at strategic positions on all roads leading into Newport and especially at the turnpike gate, Stow Hill. Others were stationed at the workhouse nearby, and some patrolled the town generally. Those on duty between the Barracks and the Police Office were relieved every two hours.

It was a dreadful night, pouring with rain until the early hours of the morning, and this no doubt helped the police considerably by keeping the people indoors. The few who were about were taken to the Westgate Hotel for questioning, and many were detained. Otherwise, the night was uneventful. 

Information was received that one Chartist, Jenkin Morgan, a milk-man, of Pillgwenlly, and ten other sympathisers were to be stationed on the outskirts of Newport to watch for the approach of the rioters, and that at a given signal from Stow Hill the Chartists were to seize a warehouse owned by Mr Aaron Crossfield, a Corn Street ironmonger, who sold some 100 barrels of gunpowder, each containing about 100 lbs., to the colliery owners each month.

At 8.15 a.m.,on Monday, 4th November, 1839, the Mayor persuaded Lieut. Gray to allow 30 of his troops to be stationed inside the Westgate Hotel. First, however, the prisoners who had been detained during the night, were placed in the cellars and the rooms were ventilated.

This having been done, the Mayor read the Riot Act, after which Superintendent Hopkins stood at the main entrance to the hotel with Constables Scard and Chappel, who had served with him in the Bristol Police Force. Just inside the door were special constables T. B. Oliver, a printer ; John O’Dwyer, a reporter ; Hopkins, and Isaac Venn, bread and biscuit baker. Inside the hotel were special constables Edmund Williams ; Davies, licensee of the ec Sailor’s Return “: Joseph Adye, watchman Richard Waters, attorney at law Thomas Latch, William Jenkins, grocer, and clerk of St Woolos Church James Jones, tiler and plasterer David Neck, clerk to David Williams, solicitor : William Henry Williams, accountant Benjamin Gould, painter and glazier M. Camden, master painter, and Francis Kynvin, painter, plumber and glazier.

The first news of the approach of the Chartists came from John Rees, son of Rees Rees, ex-constable, of Pillgwenlly. Rees reported having seen them near the weighing machine on Cardiff Road. He stated that they were armed with pistols, pikes, and other weapons, that some had marched up towards the Friars and others had proceeded straight on to the town. This was confirmed by others, but the main consensus of opinion is that the Chartists all marched up towards The Friars and then down Stow Hill. 

News of their approach soon spread, and shopkeepers in Pillgwenlly placed shutters on their windows and prudently kept indoors. 

The mob first halted near the Red Lion Inn, and then, just before 8.30 a.m., marched down Stow Hill. The Superintendent’s son, who was standing outside his father’s house in Stow Hill, hurried ahead of the procession and took up a position outside Mr Clement’s shop in Commercial Street.

As the mob of about 5,000 arrived at the foot of the hill, led by a man named Walters, they wheeled to the right. Walters and some others made for the front door of the Westgate Hotel, while others proceeded to the courtyard. 

Walters approached the main door with a gun in his hand and addressed the police in a threatening manner, saying, “Surrender yourselves our prisoners. Someone answered, “No, never.” 

Walters thereupon levelled the gun at Special Constable Oliver, who was standing inside the door. Oliver struck the gun aside with the door, and in the struggle which followed Special Constable O’Dwyer fell to the floor. A great many shots were then fired and some of the special constables retreated to the courtyard, while others went upstairs. 

Constable Moses Scard, who by this time was inside the premises, saw George Shell, a cabinet maker from Pontypool, lying in the passage near the soldiers’ room with a wound in his shoulder. He gave him some water, but the unfortunate man was beyond aid, and his body was moved to the stable. 

The Mayor was severely wounded in the arm and hit on the hip, and in the confusion a soldier was about to shoot him when someone shouted, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot the Mayor.” 

Firing continued for about ten minutes and then the Chartists fled in all directions, leaving the front of the hotel strewn with axes, pikes, guns, mandrils, iron rods and other weapons. In the encounter, nine men lost their lives.

As soon as the tumult had died down, a widespread search was made in the town and district for the ringleaders, but the search was made difficult by the fact that there were only seventeen policemen in the whole of Monmouthshire. Of these, four were Newport policemen and the others were stationed at Abergavenny, 3 ; Bedwellty, 4 ; Chepstow, 1 ; Monmouth, 2 Pontypool, 2 and Usk, 1.

In the “Monmouthshire Merlin”  of 16th November, 1839, there appeared the following advertisement –


£300 Reward.

Whereas JOHN REES, a Welshman about 5′ 8″ in height, rather thin in the face, cheeks hollow, pale dark complexion, rather dark sandy whiskers, light hair, full eyes, long neck, blunt manner, very talkative, walks upright, has a military air when walking . had a blue pilot coat on the day of the riots and a black hat ; known as “Jack the Fifer.”

DAVID JONES, of Tredegar, a collier, a Welshman, about 5′ 8″ or 5′ 9″ high, stout built, marked with smallpox, very wide mouth, sandy whiskers, sandy hair, he has a sort of collier’s manner of walking, rough manner and appearance, generally wears a red plush waistcoat, short cut dark colour pilot coat, blue trousers and a dark hat and known as “David the Tinker.”

ZEPHANIAH WILLIAMS, a native of Argoed, Bedwellty, in the County of Monmouth, coal agent, and who lately kept the ee King Crispin ,, beerhouse at Blaina about 5′ 8″ high, strong square built, dark hair, no whiskers, round smooth face, full dark hazel eyes, very short necked, nose inclined to turn a little, pale com- plexion, rather blunt manner and bold talker . has the appearance of a seafaring man and loose swagger ; usually wore a black coat and dark trousers a small neck handkerchief round his neck showing a shirt collar.

Severally Stand Charged with High Treason.

£100 Reward.

Will be paid upon conviction to any person or persons who shall APPREHEND and bring to justice either of the above named offenders.

The following are now in custody charged with offences connected with the riots –

Jenkin Morgan, of Pillgwenlly, milkman. 

Edward Edmonds, of the Greyhound in the parish of Moneythusloyne.

Samuel Etheridge, Fairoak Cottage, beerhouse keeper, near Newport. 

John Llewellyn, beerhouse keeper, Pontnewynydd, near Pontypool. 

Charles Jones, of the Royal Oak, beerhouse keeper, Newport. 

All persons who can give evidence or information against the above named offenders or any other offenders concerned in the riots are particularly requested to communicate the same immediately to Thomas Jones Phillips, Esq., clerk to the Magistrates, Newport. 

Following this advertisement, a number of men, including John Frost (who was arrested at Newport) were arrested in various parts of the country, partly through the vigilance of the police and partly because of the inducement offered to the public to come forward and supply information.

William Jones was arrested in a wood at Crumlin a week after the riots. At first he threatened his pursuers with a pistol, but eventually gave himself up. David Jones, alias David the Tinker, disappeared. He was dealt with “in absentia.” 

John Rees, alias Jack the Fifer, made good his escape and reached Virginia. He was also dealt with “in absentia”. 

Zephaniah Williams was arrested at 3 a.m. on 23rd November, 1839, by Superintendent Stockdale, of the Cardiff Police. He was found asleep in a berth on the sailing vessel “Vintage ” bound for Oporto, Portugal. He gave the name of Thomas Jones, of Bridgend.

Jenkin Morgan was arrested in the Bunch of Grapes beerhouse, Bristol, by Constable Phineas Sims, of the Bristol police. When challenged by the officer, he gave the name of Morgan Jones. Unfortunately for Morgan, however, John Lewis, licensee of the Tredegar Arms inn, Pil gwenlly, had been sent to Bristol and was able to identify him. 

The Glamorgan Police made enquiries at Hirwaun for John Rees, but he got away before they were able to arrest him. However, they received certain information, and Constables John Milward and Williams, of the Glamorgan Police, Merthyr, proceeded to Swansea, where they saw a man answering Llewellyn’s description entering the Carmarthen to Newport mail coach. They boarded the coach and questioned him during the journey, but he persisted that his name was John Lewis. So satisfied were the officers that he answered the description of the wanted man, however, that they arrested him and took him to the Newport station house, where, according to the evidence of the Glamorgan constables, they christened him, “John Lewis Llewellyn.”

At the subsequent trial, when a large number of accused men were placed in the dock, extensive precautions were taken, members of the London police being brought down to keep order in the Assize court at a cost of £112.8.0. Admission to the court was by ticket only and the judge arrived at the court preceded by ten London policemen.

On Thursday, 16th January, 1840, eight men received sentence of death. In the case of five, it was commuted, but Frost, Williams and Jones suffered the agony of the condemned cell and knew nothing of the agitation going on to secure their reprieve. When the government acted after twelve days, instructions were sent to Colonel Considine and the prison authorities, and at midnight on a Sunday night, the prisoners were roused from sleep, taken to the gaoler’s room, and then bundled into a van, handcuffed, chained and guarded by six London policemen and an escort of 24 soldiers of the 12th Lancers. They were taken to Chepstow, where they were placed aboard a ship and conveyed to Portsmouth, where they were transferred to the “Mandarin” and transported to Van Diemen ‘s Land, the old name for part of North Australia.

Special Constables Walker, Williams and Morgan, who received severe injuries during the riots, were granted life pensions of £20 a year.

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