Exploitation, Ferment and Insurrection
In the early part of the nineteenth century John Frost was a draper having opened a shop in High Street in 1811. He had learnt his trade in both Bristol and London where 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. Inevitably he turned to Radicalism and returned to his home town with a determination to enter local politics and eradicate the corruption which he knew was rife in Newport.
The Frost family had for years taken an interest in local politics and had gained the trust of the people, many of whom were illiterate. They had a reputation for fair dealing and looking after the interests of the small man. John Frost therefore had no difficulty in being elected to the Town Council, most of whose members with a few notable exceptions, were already under the domination of Prothero.
At an early age Frost had discovered that he had the gift of being able to express himself well in print. On becoming a member of the council he started to publish pamphlets highlighting the many injustices which he had discovered. Often he would write accusatory letters to persons of whose actions he disapproved. One such letter he addressed to Thomas Prothero. Shortly afterwards inaccurate rumours of the contents were spread about the town, probably by Prothero himself. In order to justify his letter and scotch the rumours, Frost foolishly published the text. Prothero was overjoyed at this public disclosure and immediately charged him with libel. The case was heard in London and Frost was fined £1 000 (a massive amount in those days) together with a term of six months imprisonment in Coldbathfields Prison. On his return to Newport Frost was met by a large number of his admirers who escorted him in triumph to the Friar's where the crowd taunted Prothero.
Frost had for many years fought the Council, some members of which were feathering their own nests at the expense of the people. In one letter to the Mayor and Aldermen he accused a certain clique of Aldermen of out and out corruption, by quoting the case of Thomas Watkins, who having been made a burgess in 1802 had fallen foul of the Town Clerk, by accusing him of dishonesty, the result being that Watkins was forced to renounce his rights and his share of the Marshes by signing a statement to this effect, witnessed by three aldermen, George Griffiths, Abraham Jones and Thomas Prothero. This allegation of Front was ignored by the Council, but was well remembered by the other burgesses who in later years managed to rid it of those councillors and aldermen who had held such tyrannical power.
Politics were much to the fore in the 1830's and no more so than in the hills and valleys of South Wales. Merthyr particularly was in an almost permanent state of riot and troops were regularly to be seen passing through Newport to the scene of the disturbances. Reform of Parliament was the cry but how to set about it was another matter. The powerful landowners would give nothing away, continuing to protect their interests by buying the votes of the burgesses of the cities and towns, using any means to get their man elected.
In Newport the feud between John Frost and Thomas Prothero continued unabated, Frost continually accusing his arch enemy of corruption. Prothero was by now a rich and powerful man due to his lucrative appointments and his mining interests. He had been Sir Charles' agent for a quarter of a century. His mode of life was almost equal to the grand style of his master. 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 and that he was in danger of losing his possessions, his life, and the lives of his family, if the high passions being engendered in the hills should be translated into the more direct action of riots or even revolution. His opportunism had served him well in the past and realising that his association with Sir Charles was his greatest danger, he made a great show of publicly quarrelling with his one-time mentor, using the coming Parliamentary election of 1831 to sever his ties with Tredegar House and all its excesses by supporting the Liberal candidate Benjamin Hall against Sir Charles Morgan's friend and fellow Tory the Rt. Hon. Henry Somerset, Marquis of Worcester. At the same time he made overtures to John Frost who rejected his advances, the hatred he bore Prothero being far more powerful than any political expediency.
In June 1836 a British working-class movement was formed for political reform. It was centred on William Lovett's London Working Men's Association and by 1838 it had over a million adherents throughout the country. A People's Charter was drawn up containing six points for the reform of Parliament: Universal Male Suffrage; the secret ballot; equal electorial districts; the abolition of the property qualifications for M.P.s; the payment of M.P.s, and annual general elections. This Charter was presented to Parliament with two million signatures but was rejected. Something more than petitions was needed to breach the entrenched system of government and the leaders of the movement looked around for likely areas of discontent which might be exploited. 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. Speakers, many of them orators, were dispatched to the coalfields to contact men of influence in the areas and put across the true meaning of Chartism.
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. The leaders in London were delighted to have a Magistrate and an ex-Mayor as an ally in the most important town in an area which they had already chosen as the most suitable for their purpose.
Frost eagerly accepted his role as a co-ordinator of the Chartists in South Wales. In 1838 and 1839 he travelled widely in the coalfields taking the Chartist message to groups of workers wherever he could find then, ably helped by Henry Vincent, the Yorkshireman with the golden voice, Zephaniah Williams, William Jones and many others. 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.
In Newport, the Mayor Thomas Phillips and the other magistrates were well aware of the dangerous situation in the hills and even in the town there were many convinced Chartists. The arrest of Vincent and his friends sent a wave of anger through the movement and there were many ugly scenes which John Frost did his utmost to calm. He had by now emerged as the leading figure of the Chartist cause in South Wales; although this position had been thrust upon him, he willingly accepted it and seemed to give little thought at this time to the danger he was in. He was falsely led into the belief that the pressure of the organised movement would in due course, cause the Government to give in to the demands of the Chartists peacefully. Frost was dazzled by the position he had attained. It had been suggested to him by the leaders in London that after the bloodless revolution he would be made Lord Protector of South Wales and in fact leaflets had already been printed to this effect. The thought that his enemies, Thomas Prothero and his cronies, would be brought to low estate spurred him on to greater efforts; he became more enmeshed in a web of his own making, and was helping to create a monster which he would be unable to control, leading to the great march on Newport, the insurrection and the awful consequences.
Prothero, meantime, had been consolidating his position as one of the leading figures in the area, and since the election, his new found popularity with the working class. Finding the Friars' not prestigious enough, he moved to Malpas Court, a much larger establishment off the Malpas Road and more to his taste. His overtures to John Frost having been rejected, and realising that his popularity did not extend to the Chartists, he decided to take precautions in the event of a successful rebellion. He therefore 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 shortly and intended to take him and his family hostage together with Reginald Blewitt M.P. of Llantarnam Abbey. Prothero and his family fled at once to an unknown destination leaving his coachman and gardeners in charge of his estate. He was not seen again in Newport until he received word that the insurrection was over and Frost in the safe hands of the authorities. He then returned with glee to help in mounting the prosecution against the man who had been a thorn in his flesh for over twenty years.
Early on the 3rd of November, Thomas Phillips the Mayor, a partner in the same law firm as Prothero, received intelligence that the march on Newport was imminent. He at once summoned all the Magistrates who were still available to the Westgate for a briefing on the situation. It was decided that as many able bodied men as possible should be sworn in to do duty as special constables and that the most likely place of attack would be the Westgate itself. A small company of two hundred men of the 45th Regiment now billetted at the Workhouse should be installed in the east wing of the hotel. The tension in the town was so great that many of the inhabitants decided to leave for the open country to the east; those who remained waited with foreboding the arrival of the men of the hills. Shops were shuttered and the Westgate stood stark and silent awaiting the onslaught.
The march had already commenced but was making slow progress. Down the valleys they came, their numbers swelling with every village they passed. Many of them carried guns of a sort and all had weapons including pikes and mandrills. It had been decided that Frost and Zephaniah Williams would lead the march down the western valley and Jones via Pontypool - the eastern valley, their aim being to take Newport in a pincer movement and prevent the coach carrying the mail to Birmingham leaving the King's Head, the non arrival of which would be the signal for the Chartists of that city to rise.
The men of the hills continued their slow progress through one of the stormiest nights of the year, many of the marchers were dispirited and all were sodden. At dawn on the 4th, Frost and Williams arrived at the Welsh Oak on the Risca Road at the head of 5,000 men; Jones was reported to be nearing Malpas with another 3,000. Frost led his men across Tredegar Park to the weighing machine at Court-y-bella where they were formed into ranks, five abreast, the men with guns at the end of each line. Having obtained some sort of order the long column, with Frost and Williams at its head, climbed the hill to St. Woolos Church.
When John Frost started down Stow Hill to the Westgate, with the noisy mob behind him, that fateful Monday morning at nine o clock, he realised for the first time he had unleashed a power he could not control. As the front of the column wheeled round the west side of the inn, Frost approached the gates to the courtyard, but finding them locked he turned to move to the front entrance but was forestalled by the mob which had already mounted the attack and were fighting in the hall-way. Suddenly the shutters of the room in the east wing were raised and the twenty nine soldiers of the 45th fired the first of many volleys into the crowd - Frost fled, leaving those whom he led to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences. 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."
In the Westgate itself all was chaos; Thomas Phillips was wounded three times in his arm by slugs and in his hip by a ball. Bleeding profusely it was only then he gave the order to Lieutenant Gray to fire on the rioters, who panicked and fled back to the hills. Fourteen of the mob lay dead in the square, many more were wounded and died later. The bodies were brought into the courtyard of the inn where they lay for all to see.
After fleeing from the Westgate, Frost was next seen at the Lodge gates to Tredegar House, by William Adams, park-keeper to Sir Charles Morgan. Mr. Adams later made the following statement to the magistrates. "I was on horseback and it was very nearly ten o'clock. I saw many people running from the direction of Newport which is about two miles and three quarters from the town. One man walking strongly had a handkerchief to his face as if he were crying. I asked him what was the matter at Newport, he took the handkerchief from his face and I recognised Mr. Frost. I said "Oh, how do you do?" He answered me but I do not know what the word was. He passed on at the same pace and vanished into a copse about two hundred yards from me."
Henry John Davis, a young Newport lawyer was one of about 100 men sworn in as special constables. The following is his account of the events of November 4th. "I was having breakfast about the time of the actual attack on the Westgate hut I was down at the hotel about ten o'clock. Thomas Phillips was at the hack of the hotel having his arm attended to. There was a lot of comings and goings and I was told to stay on duty in the ball. In the early evening Thomas Jones Phillips, Clerk to the Borough Magistrates, told me he had information that John Frost was at the house of his friend Partridge in Gold Tops. I went there with some others under cover of darkness and arrested Frost and brought him into the town."
Thus John Frost's foolish bid for power was all to no avail. At the age of 53 he found himself, with others, on a charge of High Treason. The position he had gained in the community as Mayor, Magistrate and defender of lost causes was as nothing compared with the loss of his liberty, probably his life, and the deprivation of his wife and family. Thomas Prothero on the other hand was triumphant, he no longer need fear for his fortune or the retribution of the men from the hills, and the continual attacks on him by John Frost were now at an end. He brought together all his considerable legal knowledge and abilities to concentrate his efforts on the preparations being made for the prosecution of his hated enemy Frost and the other Chartist leaders.
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