John Frost was an important figure in the Chartist movement, a political movement in the early to mid nineteenth century in Britain for political and economic rights, and particularly for suffrage. The movement was eventually successful, and it has had significant and beneficial consequences for Britain and Wales.
19th Century Britain was a corrupt society ruled by a powerful monarchy. It had recently developed an industrial economy, which was controlled by a small minority of the population, with support from the feudal elite. In 1215 the aristocracy had forced the King to sign the Magna Charta into law, which gave the aristocracy formal political rights, and created Parliament. Parliament could pass laws, which could be vetoed by the King, and its members were elected by the aristocracy. The King was also able to act outside of the written law in many cases. This system lasted for many centuries.
The vast majority of people had no representation in the government whatsoever. A movement began in the eighteenth century to extend the franchise to more of the population. In 1832 the Electoral Reform Act was passed, it gave the vote to the upper middle class. At that time the majority of Britain’s population were poor unskilled or semi-skilled workers, and were not included, even though a vast majority of them had support the act. They would soon support another opportunity for enfranchisement. “Despite the disappointment of the 1832 Electoral Reform Act, the demand for universal suffrage had not gone away, just stalled, and it would be only a matter of time before public discontent focused on some other vehicle for procuring a more broadly based and just democracy” (Humphries, 116). The working class did not benefit from the passage of the Electoral Reform Act; in fact their lives became increasingly worse. Adult working hours remained unregulated, poverty was treated as a crime and entire families were committed to the workhouses, and unions were banned. In addition to this there was a grave recession. “The harvests were disastrous, a recession in trade followed, and so did widespread public unrest” (Humphries, 116).
In May 1838 a movement coalesced with the purpose of putting into law a charter that would enfranchise all men. It had six points, which were; Universal suffrage for all men age 21 and older, equal-sized electoral districts, voting by secret ballot, an end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament, pay for members of Parliament, and annual election of Parliament. There was strong and widespread support for the Charter from the working class, and more than two million people signed a petition in favour of the Charter. South Wales was particularly supportive of Chartism. Known as the Black Domain, South Wales’ economy was based on coal and other mining, and iron forging. The owners of these industries were extremely powerful and corrupt, and living conditions for the working class were abysmal. “Underpinning the demand for universal suffrage was the burning desire among Monmouthshire Chartists for freedom, which, as they saw it, was a prerequisite for purging public life of corruption and injustice, so that the common good could prevail above the interests of only one class” (Humphries, 306). The economic conditions of 19th century Britain thus gave rise to a vastly held belief in “classical republicanism, Res Publica, which means seeking to do what is best for the whole community. While its origins lay deep in the period of the Roman republic, the concepts were adopted by the leaders of the American Revolution who placed equality at the heart of a republican society in which distinctions were based only on merit. Emerging Welsh republicanism could not fail to have been influenced by the Declaration of Independence” (Humphries, 306). The difference between Welsh republicanism and American republicanism was that while American republicanism cam out of opposition to what became to be seen as a foreign government, “Welsh republicanism was born out of a sense of political injustice and social deprivation” (Humphries, 306).
One of the leaders of the Chartist movement was John Frost, a middle class Welshman who took an interest in radical politics as a result of his personal grievances with the ruling class. John Frost was born in Newport, Wales. His mother died in his early childhood, and he went to live with his grandparents. His grandfather was a bookmaker, and John became his apprentice. When he was sixteen John left home to become a draper’s apprentice and tailor, in Cardiff then Bristol, and then London. During this time Frost became acquainted with the poverty that was so widespread in Victorian Britain. “Having witnessed the poverty, squalor and degradation of the vast majority of the people in those large cities he began to take an interest in the fiery politics of the day, in the hope that he may help to alleviate the lot of his fellow men” (Vaughan). In 1806 he returned to Newport to start his own business. He married Mary Geach in 1812 and they had eight children. Frost ran for the town council, and won. He was active in radical politics, campaigning against abuses of power by the local elite. He was also skilled writer and used that skill effectively, writing accusatory letters to the local elite and publishing pamphlets about the many injustices he discovered. In 1821 Frost’s uncle died, and Frost found out he was excluded from the will. Frost blamed the Newport solicitor and town clerk Thomas Prothero for the exclusion. “Prothero was by now a rich and powerful man due to his lucrative appointments and his mining interests… 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” (Vaughan). Frost wrote a letter to Prothero about the problem, and when Prothero spread false rumours about its contents frost had it published in a local newspaper. Prothero sued Frost for libel, and Frost was ordered to pay Prothero £1000. Frost then accused Prothero of malpractice, Prothero sued frost again, and Frost was sentenced to six months in prison.
Frost was a skilled writer, and wrote many pamphlets articulating his political views. He was essentially a left-liberal. In his time he was called a radical, because the society he lived in was so corrupt. He was strongly opposed to the de jure class system, which gave the aristocracy a far better standard of living than the majority of people. He believed that the aristocracy had gained power illegitimately, by force. “A Real Gentleman never values himself on his birth. A man of understanding knows that family pride, is family folly. He knows that the ancestors of those who call themselves noble, acquired their honours by rapine and plunder; and that the wealth of the great was acquired, in the same way as their honours; he knows too, that receipts for the property of the illustrious were written in the blood of former possessors” (Frost, 1822). The ruling class believed that it was imperative to society that they existed because only they could invest in society, improving the standard of living for all. Frost did not believe that was true, because it was not necessarily in their interest to invest in society, and they often did not do so, but instead used their power to their own benefit, often to the detriment of the majority of people. “Men may possess immense wealth, without making use of that wealth to promote the happiness of their fellow creatures; and, that, although men may abound in riches, although men may have in their power, the means of securing the respect of their neighbours; yet, that it is possible, that a man, with all these advantages, may live unrespected, and die unregretted” (Frost, 1826). Frost held that wealth was power in his society, and that was unjust, because it denied equal rights to the majority of people. “It is well known, that justice cannot be obtained in this country without money; and a great deal of it too. If any one wish to have a clear exemplification of this, let him employ your agent; he will soon teach him what sort of laws we live under. It is notorious, that the rich in this country oppress the poor; we have every day clear proofs of this” (Frost, 1826). Frost alleged that because the ruling class did not use their power and their wealth to the benefit of society, and had acquired that power and wealth by robbing society, they did not have a right to that power and wealth. “The right to property can never be so absolute as to sanction oppressive conduct in the owners of it; and when a great land owner treats his tenants as slaves, or suffers others to treat them as such, it naturally excites a spirit of enquiry, as to the right the Landlord has to the property” (Frost, 1826).
After the Charter failed to be passed into law by Parliament the Chartists started focusing on methods other than petitions. “Something more than petitions was needed to breach the entrenched system of government” (Vaughan). The leaders of the chartist movement decided they needed to have massive protests, and they started looking for areas that would be ideal for them. They decided on South Wales. “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” (Vaughan). The Chartists began organizing in South Wales, especially in the coalfields. They recruited influential men to lead the local population in support of Chartism. One of those leaders was John Frost. Chartism fitted very well with his political ideology. “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” (Vaughan). The Chartist leaders were very happy to have a Magistrate and former Mayor as the leader of the Chartist group in Newport, the city they believed would be the best place to have the first mass protest. Frost was glad to play such an important role, and he took the Chartist message to workers wherever he could find them. He had the help of Henry Vincent, Zephaniah Williams, William Jones and many others. The government found out about the Chartists in South Wales and persecuted a number of Chartists in Newport. “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” (Vaughan). The arrest of these Chartists angered the Chartists in Newport. Frost was afraid they would become violent and he did all he could to calm them. He did not want violence. He believed “that the pressure of the organised movement would in due course, cause the Government to give in to the demands of the Chartists peacefully” (Vaughan). Unfortunately the government did not give in.
In 1839 the Chartists decided to hold a large protest in Newport. It did not go well. It was “undoubtedly ill-conceived and badly executed” (Chartist Ancestors). Some of the Chartists, including John Frost, believed it would only be a protest, while others wanted a revolt, and it turned into a slaughter. “It achieved no political end in itself, and if, as some suppose, it was intended to trigger a wider revolt, then it failed in that too - though not without bringing the Bradford and Sheffield Chartists along with others to the very brink” (Chartist Ancestors). The immediate objective of the protest was to free Henry Vincent and the three other Chartists who had been arrested and were believed to be held at Newport. They were not actually at the Newport Gaol at the time. The Chartists were planning on marching to Newport early in the morning on Monday November 4. they would march in three columns, with Frost leading the western column, Zepheniah Williams leading the central column, and William Jones leading the eastern column. They carried weapons, including guns, pikes, and mandrills, most believing they would be used for defence only. They planned on stopping the mail coach from leaving for Birmingham, which would signal to the Birmingham Chartists that they should rise.
Planning for the rising went on for a number of weeks, and the authorities didn’t find out until the last minute. On November 3 “A company of the 45th Regiment was drafted to Newport, and special constables were hastily sworn in and began to arrest known Chartists” (Chartist Ancestors). Prothero had a spy ring and had probably found out about the rising from his spies. “He… 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” (Vaughan). The authorities decided that the most likely place the Chartists would go would be the Westgate Hotel, and they stationed the 45th regiment there. When the Chartists reached the hotel someone fired a shot, and the slaughter began. At least ten Chartists were killed by the 45th Regiment. That’s when Frost “realised for the first time he had unleashed a power he could not control” (Vaughan). He and many other Chartists fled. “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’” (Vaughan). Frost and other Chartists were arrested.
The magistrates immediately searched Frost’s house. “Not only did Frost’s wife and daughters raise no objection to the search, they even helped by directing the magistrates’ clerk to the shelves containing Frost’s private papers. Later, much would be made of the fact that no personal papers of Frost were produced at the trial, because they contained nothing incriminating” (Humphries, 151). Frost and the other Chartists were charged with High Treason. Prothero was vindictive, and as the prosecutor did everything he could to get a verdict of guilty. The judge ruled that they were guilty, and sentenced them to death. However, Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones were so popular that the government believed there would be riots if they were executed, so their sentences were commuted to transportation to Australia. Frost believed that the government was attempting to get them to commit suicide, “deducing it was all part of a Government plot to push the three Chartists into a suicide pact, thereby discrediting Chartism while avoiding the opprobrium of a public execution, and the widespread unrest this might cause at a time the nation was preparing celebrations to mark Queen Victoria’s marriage” (Humphries, 166). There was already a lot of unrest, “mass meetings held in almost every large town in Britain… In Monmouthshire, there was a wave of arson attacks, threatening letters and assaults levelled at those connected with the prosecution” (Humphries, 166).
Frost, Williams, and Jones believed that as political prisoners they would not have to work in Port Arthur, the worst of the slave camps, a sentence usually reserved for repeat offenders. “As political prisoners, Frost, Williams and Jones were confident they would escape the hell of Port Arthur. After all, it was for repeat offenders, which they were not. Customarily they could expect to be sent to one of the Probation Stations along the Tasmanian coast, there to serve two-to-four-years on public works projects before being granted a ticket of leave and released into the community to work for wages” (Humphries, 170). Either of those situations would have been slave labour. “Any convict who dared transgress of offend his master returned to a penal settlement for further punishment. Of the 211 convicts aboard the Mandarin, the three chartists were to be the only ones destined immediately for the punishment settlement at Port Arthur” (Humphries, 170). The government eventually relented and pardoned the three Chartists conditionally in 1854 and unconditionally in 1855. Jones and Williams stayed in Australia, and Frost returned to Britain. He died in 1887 at the age of 93.
John Frost was very important to the suffrage movement in Britain, and principally in Wales. Universal suffrage was eventually achieved in Britain, with very positive consequences. The Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised all male householders. The suffragette movement was active from 1885 to 1918, but was held back by World War One. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 expanded the right to vote to all men aged 21 and older, and to women who were at least 30 and owned property. The Representation of the People Act of 1928 allowed women to vote at 21 years with no property restrictions.
One of the most important results of the suffrage movement was the founding of the Labour Party, and it can be seen as the descendant of the Chartist movement. The Labour Party grew out of the union movement and the socialist movement, and continues to describe itself as a democratic socialist party, and it has traditionally been supported by the working class. It was traditionally in favour of socialist policies such as public ownership of important industries, redistribution of wealth, increased rights for workers and unions, and support for welfare and publicly funded health care and education. Many of these policies are now a reality in the United Kingdom. While Britain certainly isn’t perfect, there is broad consensus in favour of these policies. Britain, and Wales, are a lot better now that they have democracy, than when Wales was known as Black Domain.
Anonymous. “Newport rebellion, 1839 - the battle for the Westgate Hotel”. Chartist
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Humphries, John. “The Man from the Alamo: Why the Welsh Chartist Uprising of
1839 Ended in a Massacre”. Glyndŵ̂r Pub. 2004.
Vaughan, Derrick Cyril. “'Newport First Stop' - 100 Years of News Stories”.
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