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 (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.
Despite being supported by a petition containing 1,290,958 signatures, Parliament refused to consider their 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. In the fighting that followed, 22 of them were killed.
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.
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.
Also on this day
On this day in 1922 archaeologist Howard Carter discovered a set of stone steps that led to the tomb of Tutankhamun. Read more here.