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Port in a Storm: A History of One City’s Radicalism

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Newport has always had a compelling allure for me. Growing up in the steel town of Ebbw Vale, it was hard to avoid the fact that Newport was the de facto capital of the South East Wales’ Valleys. The town, as it was then, teemed with life and opportunities that were sadly lacking in a semi-post-industrial, post-Miner’s Strike Ebbw Vale. Newport thrived on individuality, free-thinking and a self confidence that was utterly remarkable in my experience – if Newport was a character in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, it would almost certainly be Judd Nelson’s edgy and rebellious John Bender, as opposed to Cardiff’s corporate and socially conservative Emilio Estevez. Far from the description of the city in Adam Walton’s radio documentary of The Legendary TJ’s owner John Sicolo, as a ‘cultural desert’, Newport has a vibrancy that can be both compelling and life affirming. Also, there is a radical political legacy in Newport that has shaped not only Wales, but has impacted upon Britain and possibly the world, which is not just confined to tales of Chartism and John Frost (even though these are hugely important and vital in the retelling of Newport’s political past). It is because of this unique cocktail of culture, vibrancy and heritage that I made Newport my home.

My first introduction to political radicalism in Newport came, like most people, in the history lessons of state education – seemingly endless passages of text describing with intricate detail the events of November 4th 1839 and what became known as the Newport Rising. The ideals of Chartism and Newport’s pivotal role were hardly discussed; instead we focused on the suffocatingly narrow narrative of the GSCE curriculum of events and dates. By adhering to a strictly linear approach to the teaching of history, no-one understood the significance and uniqueness of Newport in the shaping our present society. Through the struggles of Chartism, the Suffragette and Trade Union movements, Newport continually produced individuals and institutions that challenged the norms and conventions of society. However, is it possible that these individuals that have shaped the world around us, such as John Frost and Margaret Haig Mackworth, could have come from another town or another city and it was just happenstance that Newport became their base? Or was it the conditions, culture and geography unique to Newport that allowed them to develop into the historical figures they have undoubtedly become?

Before the beginning of the nineteenth century and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, Newport was a small town that had little impact on the events of the State, and was only notable for the Welsh King Gwynllyw and the petty squabbles between the Morgan and Herbert families. Then as the mineral wealth of South East Wales was discovered and exploited, Newport began to develop into the city we know today. The birth of any major conurbation is often a fraught affair, and Newport was no different; workers arrived in the town from all four corners of the British Isles with hopes of a better life, only to be presented with a level of squalor and degradation that would be familiar to anyone who had a merest understanding of Dante’s Inferno. According to Colonel James Considine in 1840, Newport was a ‘vile town… in which the lower classes are of the very worst description.’

For decades the factory owners, landlords and shopkeepers exploited the working class across South Wales, from unsafe working conditions to the truck system, employees had few luxuries and even fewer rights – the utopian model of Robert Owen’s New Lanark, a town planned with allowances for social and economic welfare for its workers, must have seemed a distant dream for the South Wales’ miners and ironworkers. Given these appalling living conditions, the people of Newport and the surrounding valleys began to demand greater representation in the structures of government, better working practices and a restructuring of the Poor Law (1834). Chartism, and the subsequent publication of the People’s Charter in 1838, was a unifying movement that gained momentum throughout the newly industrialised towns and cities of Britain – the extending of the democratic franchise to all men over the age of twenty-one and the demand for the opening up of Parliament to the working and middle classes must have seemed an intoxicating notion to a society that had been stifled by patronage, elitism and de facto feudalism.

Then at the Westgate Hotel in Newport this clarion call of Chartism reached its zenith as ironworkers, miners, artisans, skilled and unskilled labourers, led by a former mayor of Newport, John Frost, attempted to liberate fellow Chartists and potentially begin a guerrilla war that they hoped would spread across the nation. This became the largest insurrection against authority in mainland Britain since the Civil War, with potentially seven thousand men taking up arms – though a number between one and five thousand is more realistic. The result of the Newport Rising was far from inevitable; with the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne commenting that rebellion could have succeeded and the result would have been disastrous for the comfortable status quo enjoyed by Britain’s ruling elite. Instead the Newport Rising failed, but it is interesting that, because of the unique conditions in Newport at the time, it was the only area in Britain, with the possible exception of the West Riding of Yorkshire, that a Chartist rebellion could have been conceived. Why Newport?

For centuries Newport, not Cardiff, was the main social, political, cultural and economic centre of the South East Wales Valleys. These valleys’ roads, canals, rivers and railways acted as the blackened arteries for Newport’s beating heart of commerce – in the space of forty years, from 1800 to 1840, the population of these areas boomed. As David JV Jones notes in his insightful work The Last Rising: The Newport Chartist Insurrection of 1839 when describing the results of a government inquiry, led by Seymour Tremenheere, into the Chartist movement, he comments:

 

They discovered a geography, an economy, and a society which had few parallels and fewer precedents. ‘The localities in which the vast populations of the hills are congregated are remote and peculiar,’ Tremenheere reflected a few years later. ‘From the central chain of moorland, separating the counties of Monmouth, Brecon and Glamorgan, numerous valleys run off at right angles towards [Newport].’ These valleys … produced a substantial share of Britain’s wealth.

 

This network of transportation links, primarily designed for the flow of coal, tin and iron, allowed also for a free movement of ideas, radical thought and a revolutionary spirit. With Newport acting as the terminus of these trade and philosophical arteries it was inevitable that the largest town in the area would also become the focal point for any uprising.

The Newport Rising, like the French Revolution that preceded it and the October Revolution that followed, were born out of distress and oppression – the roots of these events lay deep in the unimaginably horrific working and living conditions that people constantly endured. Though this experience was hardly unique to Newport, these conditions certainly contributed towards the air of desperation; the cotton mills in Manchester, the iron and steelworks in Sheffield and the mines of the East Midlands could equally claim their working conditions were just as appalling. Illness, deprivation and death haunted these newly formed industrial towns. Diseases, such as cholera and typhus, claimed numerous lives and serious injury or death at work were just occupational hazards. Each man that participated in the Newport Rising had their own reasons for rebelling against the ruling classes, but it is an accurate assumption that these working and living conditions were the basis for most Chartists’ grievances – for few men would attempt to protest against the government, where most knew that their lives could be lost, without a significant reason to do so.

When searching for the reason why the Chartist rebellion could only have started in Newport, it is important to review how the Welsh language, the Nonconformist tradition and a history of radical political institutions created an extraordinary environment in which blueprints for revolution were allowed to be conceived. Most social commentators after the showdown at the Westgate Hotel repeated the mantra, as David JV Jones confirms, that the Chartist movement ‘had been planned in the chapels, and a great deal was made of the radical sympathies of some Nonconformists, especially of the Unitarians… and Primitive Methodists’. Since the Welsh Methodist Revival in the eighteenth century, there became a clear and distinct separation of English and Welsh religious practices; the church was viewed as Anglican and the spokesperson of the owners and capitalism, whilst the chapel was Nonconformist and spoke to the working classes. This division between the two sides of society was further exacerbated by the use of the English and Welsh language, in which Welsh, rarely spoken by the management of the mines and the ironworks, became the language of radicalism and sedition. Furthermore, it is also necessary to understand the upheaval that many workers undertook to relocate to these recently industrialised towns – in these newly constructed communities it takes time, maybe generations, to manufacture traditions, conventions and intuitive conservatism; the structures of society are malleable and radical ideas can easily become the norm. The Nonconformist Chapels offered a continuity and comfort for many working class men and their families, but it also became a place that it was possible to converse freely.

This ability to talk and openly associate using the Welsh language significantly contributed to the potential for a rebellion, since it reduced the need for more clandestine forms of communication. A fact which was not lost on the educational reformers sent to Wales after the Newport Rising, who identified both the Welsh language and Nonconformity as major contributors towards a general rebellious spirit associated with the Welsh nation. The fear in London was that the Welsh were becoming as ungovernable as the Irish. Incidents such as the Merthyr Insurrection of 1831, the Rebecca Riots and the activities of the Scotch Cattle (a miners’ organisation that primarily committed acts of terrorism against perceived unfair working practices) fuelled wild speculation across Britain that the working class of South Wales were just outlaws intent on causing the destruction of the means of production and it was through Nonconformity, the Welsh language and geography that this was allowed to prosper. Consequently, the educational system in the region and the Welsh language were attacked by the Government and ruling elite; both were viewed as un-Anglican and therefore deviant. The attempts to eradicate the Welsh language, through strict educational reform, were a direct result of the Newport Rising and the other working class movements in South Wales of the second quarter of the nineteenth century. All the Government inquiries into this civil unrest wilfully ignored the actual reasons for the direction action by the Chartists; instead they spent more effort in discrediting and stereotyping them as simple thugs who, because of their Celtic temperament, needed coercion to be forced to work rather than understanding what they really wanted was an equitable society. 

It is this fight for a more democratic society, which has typified much of the political radicalism of Newport, the role of individual activism has been at the centre of this struggle. Chartism in South Wales needed the leadership of individuals such as John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones to help inspire the massed ranks of confused and angry men. Furthermore, Newport has produced other prominent radicals who have taken a lead role in their confrontations against the established orthodoxy, such as Margaret Haig Mackworth and John Batchelor. Indeed, the tale of Margaret Haig Mackworth (née Thomas), and her role in the Suffragette movement, is a fascinating one.

Born into privilege during the latter part of the nineteenth century, Mackworth was radicalised from a young age. Her father was David Alfred Thomas, a social reformer and Liberal Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil, holding the seat for over twenty years. Her mother, Sybil Margaret Haig, cousin of the infamous Field Marshall Douglas Haig, was a noted campaigner for female suffrage and a prominent member of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Throughout her childhood Margaret witnessed her parents constantly battling for the rights and ethical freedoms of the working class and disenfranchised. Having witnessed her mother’s moderate approach to female suffrage was having little impact upon the political machinations of Westminster, Mackworth decide to join the more militant organisation Women’s Social and Political Union, whose motto ‘Deeds, Not Words’ hinted at a more aggressive campaigning approach, in 1908. She quickly became the Union’s Newport Branch Secretary and during the subsequent six year period she campaigned tirelessly for the cause of female suffrage. She notably destroyed a post box on the Risca Road in an attempt to sabotage the contents by posting explosive substances, for which she served a prison sentence only to be released after undertaking a hunger strike. She also took direct action during the 1910 General Election attacking the car of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in St Andrews. Mackworth also spoke at many meetings across Newport (probably a more dangerous pastime than handling explosives) espousing the importance of her movement in which she would regularly get personally abused and assaulted.

After surviving World War I and the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania, on which she was returning from America; Mackworth became one of the most prominent proponents of feminism in Britain. She undertook many campaigns related to universal suffrage, including an unsuccessful fight to take her father’s seat in the House of Lords, along with her battle for the extension of the female voting franchise. Not satisfied with gaining just a partial victory in the Representation of the People Act 1918, allowing women over thirty the vote, Mackworth continued to shape the language of political discourse with the founding of the Six Point Group. This was campaigning organisation that attempted, through extensive legislation, to improve the lives of women and children throughout society by creating equality in many spheres of public office and life. Furthermore, Mackworth established, and later edited, a political and literary magazine entitled Tide and Time – initially it was devised as a feminist publication to support the work of the Six Point Group, but later it evolved into a more traditional left wing journal. A brilliant campaigner, writer, and political force, Margaret Haig Mackworth (Viscountess Rhondda as she later became known) was one of the most remarkable products of Newport’s radical past that it seems an immense shame that the only monument to her legacy in Newport is a battered old post box on the Risca Road.

Another testament to Newport’s distinctive political heritage can be witnessed in the occasions when the city becomes the focal point for national news. As indicated by the struggles of the Chartist campaign, Newport has often been associated with the traditions of the working class and the Trade Union movement. There have been some notable incidents such as the Newport Dock Strike of 1910 and the commandeering of the gondola on the Newport Transporter Bridge during the Miners’ Strike, in which miners marched on Newport from the surrounding valleys, echoing the Chartists’ efforts in 1839. This adherence to the socialist principles of borderless comradeship also saw many people from Newport join the International Brigade to fight Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War and the housing of many of the parentless refugee children, from the conflict, in return. This heritage of social conscience is not just confined to the political activism and campaigns that are associated with Newport; it also permeates through every aspect of the city’s literature, music and arts. It is a theme that connects the writings of WH Davies, the music of Dub War, Jon Langford and the Manic Street Preachers (though not initially from Newport, they have been heavily influenced by the city).

Newport is a city that is rightly proud to wear its history on its sleeve. It has witnessed many conflicts and suffered some of the worst living conditions mankind has ever endured in peacetime, but it has never forgotten the struggles of previous generations that fought for the rights and freedoms that we all currently enjoy. The people of Newport have influenced and shaped world events; from the affect that possibly the first ever worker led insurrection had on Karl Marx to the impact Viscountess Rhondda had upon the international feminism movement – Newport has continually challenged the orthodoxy in a country that cherishes tradition, intuitive conservatism and convention over the rights of the individual. It may be a city that has charms that are not immediately forthcoming, but it is a city that has a vibrancy and independence unlike any other I have visited.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

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