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The 22 men killed in the Newport Rising who are at risk of being forgotten; In 1839, Newport's Westgate Hotel was the scene of the British mainland's biggest ever state sponsored killing.

Byline: James McCarthy

Gunshots rang out and the streets ran red with blood as government troops mowed down at least 22 men.

This was the scene of the biggest ever state-sponsored killing on the British mainland, when soldiers burst fromNewport's Westgate Hotel and butchered men marching for their right to vote.

It was November 4, 1839. Thousands had marched on the town in what has become known as the Newport Rising. Estimates of the numbers vary. Some say there were as many as 20,000 men.

Led by former Newport mayor John Frost, Nantyglo's Zephania Williams and Pontypool's William Jones, they were intent on freeing comrades reported to have been taken captive in the Westgate.

"The 22 dead are just the ones we know of," said the Chartist Society's Pat Drewett.

"I'm sure others went and died at home and were secretly buried.

"The authorities were afraid of revolution so the soldiers took the dead bodies left at Westgate Square and buried them in the middle of the night at St Woolos churchyard.

"They were afraid that this was going to be taken further."

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TheMonmouthshireMerlin reported the "firing of the troops was steady and murderous, both on the rioters in front of the hotel and on those who had rushed into the premises."

"Several unhappy wretches fell in view of the house, five or six mortally wounded, and were killed and several wounded inside," it said.

"During the melee the mayor was again wounded and had two providential escapes of life. A Chartist was about piercing his body with a pike when he was shot dead by a soldier."

The mayor too was nearly shot by the military, but someone pushed the gun aside.

"The heat of the conflict lasted about quarter of an hour when the defeated Chartists took to their heels in all directions - throwing away their arms and abandoning their dead and dying," the Merlin said.

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Chartists at the rear of the Stow Hill column fled across fields "scattering their weapons," it said.

The Ipswich Journal claimed the intention was "to seize the whole of South Wales."

"They reached the Westgate Arms, and were no sooner in front of it, than they gave three cheers, and immediately proceeded to demolish the house and fire upon the soldiers who were within," said a writer.

"Nothing, says an eye witness, can heighten the horror of the scene at this moment. Ladies with their children were in many of the rooms into which the slugs fired by the Chartists were flying, and threatening instant death to every person present."

But the Chartists came off worse than anyone.

Some claimed as many as 60 were massacred. One reporter saw 17 bodies. Industrialist Samuel Homfray reckoned at least 30 Chartists had been killed. Police man Moses Scard said he saw 16 corpses in the town.

Two or three were found scattered around Newport. One man died in the town's Pillgwenlly.

Tredegar's David Morgan was found in Friars Field, where Friars Walk shopping centre is now. He was identified by his grieving widow.

At the Westgate the authorities took nine bodies, five from inside the hotel and four outside.

Daniel Evans ran a tailor's shop opposite. He described how a man was shot at the west corner of the hotel, another collapsed on the front steps and a third was shot in a doorway.

Another fell backwards from a window, then tried to crawl away on his hands and knees.

A bill poster reported "a full and particular account of a dreadful riot."

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By the following Tuesday things had calmed.

It said: "The town seems still and peaceable, excepting a great talk about the killed, wounded and the unfortunate desperate transaction."

The civil unrest was triggered by the arrest at Monmouth in March 1839 of Henry Vincent for inciting people to riot.

The political reformer knew John Frost and they both wanted employees protected from inhumane treatment.

But the county's Lord Lieutenant and the Secretary of State knew of the sour mood.

"The troops were sent down to the Westgate Hotel and were waiting behind closed shutters for the Chartists to arrive," Mr Drewett said.

"That is where the confrontation took place.

"Who fired the first shot I do not think anyone knows."

The attack on the Westgate began at 9.10am. There was an assault party of 200 or 300 men. They were positioned in front of the building as most of their colleagues came down Stow Hill.

According to Ivor Wilks' "South Wales and the Rising of 1839", the Chartists fired on the hotel.

For a while they had the upper hand.

Lieutenant Basil Gray was one of the soldiers inside.

"They always faltered when they encountered their own dead, and then received our fire," he said.

The assault was short lived and the violence appalling.

"The shutters of the Westgate were thrown open and the soldiers fired into the crowd for about 20 minutes," Mr Drewett said.

It is thought at least 120 armed men were in the Westgate.

Panic took hold of the throng. Chaos reigned.

"The Chartists wouldn't have just stood there," Mr Drewett said.

Surgeons treated the Westgate's defenders, but left the rebels alone.

They are John Codd; David Davies, of Waunhelygen,Brynmawr; his son David; Evan Davies, a collier; John Davis, a carpenter and Chartist secretary from Pontnewynydd; William Evans, a Tredegar miner;Blackwoodcollier William Farraday; John Jonathan, believed to be from Blaina; and William Griffiths, thought to be fromMerthyr Tydfiland whose Chartist lodge number was 657.

Then there was Robert Lansdown; Reece Meredith, of Tredegar; David Morgan, a Tredegar tinker; miner John Morris; Abraham Thomas, a Blaina collier; Isaac Thomas; a man known as Williams, a deserter from the 29th Regiment of Foot; William Williams, of Cwmtillery; William Aberdare; Nantyglo's John the Roller; Harold Cox; Bertie Hall and George Shell, aPontypoolcarpenter.

Abraham Thomas was described by his wife as "a very wild man."

Two victims were named in the press. One was Williams, the 29th regiment deserter. His body was peppered with ball cartridges. The other was WillAberdarewhose real name was William Griffiths.

He was carrying his working men's association card and a note that he was "No 5 of H division."

Ten of the dead were put under guard in the hotel stables.

George Shell was the youngest.

A letter to his parents was found on his person. Some suspected it was written by the authorities.

"I hope this will find you as well, as I am myself at present," it read.

"I shall this night be engaged in a 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 fall in a noble cause. My tools are at Mr Cecil's, and likewise my clothes."

George Howell, who went on to become Bethnal Green'sMP, remembered Shell.

"George Shell, the brave youth who was shot in the Westgate Hotel, lodged with us, or in the same house, I forget which," he said.

"He often used to take me on his knee at meal times and would dance me up and down as I sat astride of his foot.

"On the very morning before he left on his fatal expedition he kissed me tenderly as if I were his own.

"He never returned, his loss was mourned by all the neighbours."

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University of South Waleshistorian, Dr Rachel Lock-Lewis, said there were 50 Chartist lodges in South Wales in 1839.

"There was an idea that this was a planned insurrection and that there were plans for Newport to be the trigger for other Chartists," she said.

The mail would be stopped and risings would begin in cities like Birmingham.

"There was talk among the Chartists of seizing the property of aristocrats like Lord Tredegar," Dr Lock-Lewis said.

"There seemed to be a plan by some to seize control and seize the means of production.

"How big that plan was we do not know."

Edward Dowling was editor of the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1839. He was no Chartist supporter.

But November 4's scenes horrified him.

"Many who suffered in the fight crawled away, some exhibiting frightful wounds, and glaring eyes, wildly crying for mercy, and seeking a shelter from the charitable," he wrote.

"Others, desperately maimed, were carried in the arms of the humane for medical aid.

"A few of the miserable objects that were helplessly and mortally wounded, continued to writhe in tortures, crying for water."

The Times reported "thousands" came into the town from "Tredegar, Serlioney and other iron works and collieries on the hills."

They had guns, pistols, swords, pikes and other weapons, and were led by "the notorious John Frost."

"When they entered the town their first inquiry was for the military, and where they were stationed, and being informed that a small detachment of them was stationed at the Westgate Hotel, the mob were formed in front of it and immediately commenced an attack by firing through the windows into the house," the paper said.

It reported the military returned fire.

"In a very short time several of the rioters were deprived of life, and lay weltering in blood - a horrid spectacle for the survivors, who very soon retreated in great disorder and in every direction," the paper said.

It heaped "great praise" upon the soldiers for their "cool and determined conduct".

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The author was "happy" the mayor was recovering from "a gunshot in the left arm" and "a severe cut to the right side which has quite disabled him."

"Only one of the military, a sergeant, has been hurt," the publication said. "And he not seriously.

"Several of the inhabitants have been wounded. Mr Morgan, a respectable draper, living in Commercial Street, was shot in the chest and is now lying in a dangerous state."

On December 24, 1839, Edmund Jones of Bulmore, Caerleon, wrote to his brother, Thomas Bevan Jones.

"It was a melancholy sight to see so many fellow beings lying dead, victims to their own imprudence with scarcely any among the hundreds around to commiserate their unfortunate fate, fearful of involving themselves in trouble," he said.

"Those that received their wounds outside the Westgate house were left to die on the streets. No one dare assist them without suffering for their humanity by being shot by the ignorant and brutal soldiery.

"The fellow in command of them says that they continued to fire as long as there was an object to fire at.

"I saw nine dead bodies altogether, it is supposed about 22 were killed, doubtless many died of their wounds that will never be known."

Families worried about missing relatives made their way to Newport.

Within three days an inquest had been held on the 10 under guard at the Westgate.

On Thursday, under cover of night, they were dumped in unmarked graves on the north side of St Mary's chapel in St Woolos Churchyard.

That sits on top of Stow Hill, down which they marched to their deaths.

Church records say "ten men, names unknown" were buried there "at once".

George Shell is understood to be among them. So is John Davis and William Farraday.

Days after the burials his wife, Mary, arrived in the town seeking permission to see his body.

Along the heads of the valleys others were grieving. James Brown of Cwm Celyn and Blaina works bemoaned two "of our greatest ruffians are dead."

So was a third who acted as a gamekeeper for his brother.

At least four of the dead came from Tredegar. Only two can easily be identified, David Morgan and William Evans.

Another half a dozen were named by contemporaries. These included Reece Meredith, who organised the marchers at Dukestown, David Davies or Brynmawr, William Williams, and John Codd, whose wife was fromPembrokeshire.

"Leaders John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered," Dr Lock-Lewis said.

They were the last men in Britain to be sentenced to that.

Frost was arrested at a friend's house.

"We represent the law," the police superintendent said.

"The law demands so much," said Frost.

"To break it is to adjust a changing world.

"The people demand adjustment in their time."

The police were ordered to hold their fire.

"Let the tongue replace the pistol," said Frost.

"No more bloodshed."

On February 1, 1840, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne commuted the sentences of the ringleaders to transportation to life -- exile in Tasmania.

The dead are now remembered on a stone at St Woolos Cathedral.

"We don't actually know where the graves are but we do know they are buried here," said the dean at St Woolos, Lister Tonge.

"I think the graves were unmarked because they were considered to be a bad lot, because they had been marching against King and country.

"Chartists had been to church the previous August and had sat in the church in silence.

"It's reputed the preacher preached against them because they were rebels and the church was aligned with power.

"We commemorate them every year now. There is always a gathering around the stone in the churchyard."

After the Westgate assault [pounds sterling]100 was offered for the apprehension of John Frost.

The Monmouthshire Merlin carried adverts offering [pounds sterling]20 for others wanted for "high treason."

"Ten pounds reward will be paid, one half upon the committal and the other half upon conviction," one said.

The Church had "learned a thing or two from them" since siding against the Chartists.

"These were ordinary people standing up for what we now consider inalienable rights and values," Dean Tonge said.

"That was a wake-up call it took the church a long time to wake-up to.

"As we have seen in the US, some of these rights have been rolled back. We have to remember what the result of rolling back people's rights can be."

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Pat Drewett said: "There is a growing feeling that the city of Newport should become more widely known, nationally and internationally, as the location of one of the most significant events in the shaping of British democracy, the Chartist Rising, when more than 5,000 Chartists marched from all over the Gwent valleys to the Westgate Hotel in their struggle for the right to vote.

"It is now vital for the city to develop assets that reinforce this heritage and build upon it in order to raise the profile of Newport as 'city of democracy'.

"In addition, there is a desire that Newport should become a major channel through which the story of Chartism and the evolution of the popular vote are told in a compelling and entertaining manner for a range of audiences locally, nationally and internationally.

"The city should become a catalyst for improved understanding of the vote and greater participation in democracy."

CAPTION(S):

Credit: MEDIA WALES-TRINITY MIRROR

Newport's Chartist Mural

Credit: MEDIA WALES-TRINITY MIRROR

The onslaught lasted barely 20 minutes

Credit: HANDOUT

Zephania Williams was one of the ringleaders - found guilty of high treason, he was condemned to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in what is now Tasmania, before eventually being pardoned

Credit: c/o Gwent Archives

A drawing of the Newport Rising of November 4, 1839, when thousands of Chartists descended on the Westgate Hotel in a bid to take over the town

Credit: c/o Gwent Archives

Zephaniah Williams was tried for high treason

Credit: c/o Gwent Archives

William Jones was one of the men tried for high treason
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Publication:Wales Online (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 25, 2018
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