4 November 1839: the Newport Rising leaves 22 dead

On this day in 1839, 22 Chartists were killed in the Newport Rising as they stormed the town’s Westgate Hotel to free their comrades who had been imprisoned by the authorities.

Newport Rising
A possibly unrepresentative depiction of events.
(Image credit: © Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The mid-19th century was a time of great social change. It was also a time of huge inequality – only 18% of the adult male population could vote, for example and the propertied classes lorded it over the vast majority of the country's unwashed, underprivileged, and under-represented masses.

The Chartist movement aimed to end this injustice.

In 1838, a charter was drawn up with six demands: "universal" suffrage (well, almost – all men over the age of 21); no property qualification to vote; annual parliaments; equal representation (ie, constituencies with a broadly equal number of residents returning just one MP); salaried MPs; and voting by secret ballot rather than a show of hands.

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Despite being supported by a petition containing 1,290,958 signatures, Parliament refused to consider their – quite frankly, perfectly reasonable – demands. Chartism was seen as a dangerously seditious movement. Feelings were running high.

It was against this background that John Frost, a prominent Welsh Chartist, hoped to organise a march on Newport. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Chartists assembled outside the town, but were delayed by bad weather. When the authorities heard of the plan, they feared a riot, and arrested several Chartists, holding them in the town's Westgate Hotel.

The Chartists got wind of their comrades' arrest, and armed themselves, aiming to storm the hotel and free the prisoners. But when they arrived, they were greeted by 500 special constables and 50 armed troops – 22 protesters were killed when the troops opened fire.

At least 200 Chartists were arrested, and 21 were charged with high treason. John Frost, along with fellow organisers Zepheniah Williams and William Jones, was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, a particularly barbaric and uncivilised punishment, even for the times.

There was uproar at the harshness of the sentences. It was discussed in the Cabinet and eventually Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, announced the sentences would be commuted to transportation instead.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.