STEPPING BACK TO A TURBULENT TIME
North-west of Tredegar, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, our local walking group came across the famous Chartist Cave. In the autumn of 1839 this remote cave was reputedly used by Chartist rebels to plan, make and stockpile weapons in advance of their famous protest march on Newport in November of that year.
At that time, in stark contrast to the iron masters and coal owners, the wages, living and working conditions of industrial labourers were appalling. The aim of the Chartists was to gain reforms by securing political rights and influence. The Chartists presented three petitions to Parliament – in 1839, 1842 and 1848 – but each of these was rejected. The first in 1839 claimed to have some 1.3 million signatures but like the others contained many forgeries.
1. a vote for all men (over 21)
2. the secret ballot
3. no property qualification to become an MP
4. payment for MPs
5. electoral districts of equal size
6. annual elections for Parliament
Chartists attack the Westgate Hotel
The march on Newport took place on 4 November 1839. Chartists marching from Blackwood, Nantyglo and Pontypool were delayed by a storm, giving the authorities ample time to prepare an armed response. When the Chartists eventually converged on the Westgate Hotel, a bloody battle ensued. Within half an hour, 22 protesters lay dead or dying and upwards of 50 had been injured. An eyewitness report spoke of one man, wounded with gunshot, lying on the ground, pleading for help until he died an hour later. Bullet holes remain in the masonry of the hotel entrance porch to this day. The Chartist leaders John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were found guilty of high treason, becoming the last men in Britain to be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. However, following a huge public outcry the sentences were commuted to transportation for life.
Some historians doubt that the cave was ever used by the Chartists. Many a local iron works would have been far more accessible and suitable for forging weapons and it seems unlikely that such an out of the way place would have been chosen to store them. Even so, for many the cave still has symbolic significance. A plaque at the entrance commemorates the role of the Chartists in helping to secure democratic rights. Five of the six Chartist demands were realised, with only annual elections for Parliament not eventually adopted.
We are often reminded of the events of the Newport Rising. In the recent ITV series Victoria, Queen Victoria is depicted as ordering the drawing and quartering of the ringleaders to be commuted to deportation, after learning that one of the men is the nephew of a member of her household staff.