A brass band was playing an overture that he could not quite place. He was not sure that anyone could and some of the cornet players may have wondered if the trombone was reading from the same music, while the drummer beat to a rhythm of his own choosing. Feargus O’Connor was standing very close to the stage in Carpenter’s Hall, above the orchestra pit in which the band was hidden from sight if not aurally. He would be introduced to the very large crowd that had each paid for a ticket to celebrate the birthday of the late Henry Hunt, which was two days’ later on Wednesday 6th November. Unusually for Feargus, the event, organised by the Friends of Radicalism, was in the shape of a tea party and many of those listening with stiff smiles were female, also noteworthy.
Abel Heywood, who had provided the bail for Feargus, had been elected to Chair the event and called on all present to celebrate the glorious life of Henry Hunt to which there were many cheers. He then introduced the man he called ‘the poor man’s friend’, Feargus O’Connor, who jumped on to the stage and began his oration to so much applause that the wooden building appeared to shake. If the ghost of William Cobbett could not be with him that night, although his next trip was to Oldham, where he was sure to have a visitation, he thought, then he would surely raise the ghost of Henry Hunt. As soon as he called himself a ‘Huntite’, then the spirit of the great man roused him to a great performance that enraptured the crowd. “Whatever I do will come to nothing compared to Henry Hunt, for he was the first, alone when he started his agitation for universal suffrage and the rights of the poor. I am simply in his footsteps.” The applause was far more than the tinkling of spoons on cups that one might have expected in a tea party. It was substantial and gave Feargus time to view his audience, especially the multitude of young ladies that were of constant distraction.
Before he had stepped on to the stage, a note had been passed his way that he had scarcely had time to notice but he glanced at while the audience was in such a rapturous mood, cheering and shouting his name. The note mentioned something about Newport in Wales and the word Frost appeared several times. He took it to be a joke about the Welsh weather but could not be bothered to read it fully until his speech was concluded and he stepped almost into the arms of Julian Harney. “Feargus, we have to leave quickly.”
“I know, we have a coach to Oldham.”
“No, Feargus, this is far more serious. The coach will wait.” He took Feargus into a small room and sat him down. Abel Heywood had followed them in and was asked to be silent while Harney read from some notes he had made. “Feargus, Abel, I am sorry to rob you of your time but this is a serious matter that I have for you. You will remember know our own John Frost, Convention Representative from Newport, Feargus, the Chairman of the Convention meeting you attended at the Crown and Anchor?” Feargus replied: “I recall that he became very fired up that day. He was under much pressure, if I recall.” Harney nodded and went on: “His fire did not die, Feargus, for he was also one of many Chartists in Wales that had been mightily angered by the recent imprisonment of their friend, Henry Vincent, for crimes that were unproven and clearly fabricated by the local police. This was, for the working people of the Town, the last straw and the local people in Newport yesterday decided to take matters into their own hands.” Feargus’s face showed clearly his dismay as the young Londoner continued.
“I will read for you information that has come my way.” Feargus and Abel sat back in their seats, waiting for the story to be told: “From the Coach and Horses in Blackwood, the Welshmen decided to hold a mass assembly, after which they would march in three sections on Newport: Frost leading from Blackwood, a second from Brynmawr and Ebbw Vale led by Zephaniah Williams and a third from Pontypool led by William Jones. From Cefn, where they were to meet up, they would march further into Newport, stopping traffic and mail coaches and then taking the town. This had been their own plan, a Welsh plan, not coordinated with anyone outside of that country but a plan to take the Town by force!”
“You knew nothing of this?” Feargus asked Julian, who felt Feargus’s stare eating like acid into his face.
“No, Feargus, no, we knew not a jot of this. They kept this close.” He continued: “As they marched, Zephaniah’s lawlessness, always likely to be a risk, became untrammelled. Houses were broken into by his men, some of them drunk, no doubt, and adult males were forced, against their will, to join the armed Chartists on their way to Newport. With Frost at the head of the marchers, those with guns were told to go to the front, those with pikes behind. The rain was now falling heavily and the marchers were, by this time, soaked to the skin. Some asked whether they were right to attack indiscriminately but Frost’s ambition was to create havoc and what needed to be done, would be done, he said.”
Feargus feared what was coming and a small crowd had now gathered around them as Harney went on:
“By this time, it was just yesterday, Feargus, Sunday, preparations were under way in Newport to defend the town. The Mayor held hourly briefings and soldiers had been sent out on reconnoitres to find where the enemy lay. Several of them were taken prisoner by Frost’s men. Other soldiers, meanwhile, carried out local searches and many were arrested for carrying arms. They were imprisoned in the Westgate Hotel and at the new Army Barracks, the Union Workhouse. Soldiers were then also sent to the Westgate to guard the men so taken.”
“The Westgate! We have spoken there, Julian. I remember it.” Harney ignored the interruption: “The fact that there appeared to be only twelve or so soldiers at the Westgate raised the confidence levels amongst the Chartists to an extreme and encouraged them further as they began the final stage of their march to take over the Town. Frost gave the command: ‘March, march!’ and, leading the men in his heavy black coat and red cravat, he was followed by those with guns, marching five abreast, those with pikes behind them. At the back, they carried pitchforks, sticks, mandrills and whatever else they could find.”
“In the Town, many locals had come outside to see for themselves what was happening and peered from behind doors and from side streets. Frost’s men arrived at the Westgate and, at the entrance to the stable, Frost commanded that the doors be opened. Inside were Mr Hopkins, the Superintendent of Police and a number of Special Constables. A scuffle took place as demands were made for the prisoners taken the previous night to be freed.”
“The constables were armed just with staves and began to run for escape as the Chartists began their attack on the hotel. The soldiers, themselves fully armed with guns, of course, started to load and fire on the Chartists but the fire was returned in good measure. Bang!” Feargus and Abel jumped back in their seats as Harney smiled: “The Mayor had been shot and, while his arm was being bandaged, an un-named Chartist entered with a pike, which he aimed at the Mayor himself! Bang! That Chartist was quickly shot by a soldier, from point-blank range. There was much more firing but, within some minutes, the attackers withdrew and quiet was resumed. Many soldiers had already exhausted their ammunition within the fifteen or so minutes of the attack and would have likely fled if the attack had persisted for much longer. The Chartists were almost victorious.”
“Hundreds of Chartists now ran back up the hill from which they had come into Newport. Zephaniah Williams had been leading his own laggards into the town, delayed by all his pillaging and they were now passed in the other direction by those fleeing before he had even become part of the fray. The rebels were, lucky for them, not pursued by the soldiers but hundreds of weapons were seized at the Westgate. Amongst those weapons were found the dead bodies of fifteen Chartists.”
Feargus and Abel both gave out audible sighs at the thought of the deaths. Harney read from a note he had in his hand:
“That they believed that they were fighting for a just cause is shown by a letter, written by one of those dead and I have it here,” as he waved it over his head, “I will read it and it will bring tears to the eyes of grown men,”
‘Pontypool, Sunday Night, November 4th, 1839.
I hope this will find you well, as I am myself at present.
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 Shell, a cabinetmaker, was but nineteen years’ old when he died, shot by the military at the Westgate.”
Feargus asked: “How many men died, Chartists and soldiers and police?”
Harney looked at his notes: “Twenty-two bodies were eventually found, although not one had been born in Newport. Twenty-two bodies, more even than died at St. Peter’s Fields.” Feargus could somehow feel the spirit of Henry Hunt as it drifted away.