In May 1838 Henry Vincent was arrested for making inflammatory speeches. When he was tried on the 2nd August at Monmouth Assizes he was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. Vincent was denied writing materials and only allowed to read books on religion.
Chartists in Wales were furious and the decision was followed by several outbreaks of violence. John Frost toured Wales making speeches urging people not to break the law. Instead Frost called for a massive protest meeting to show the strength of feeling against the imprisonment of Henry Vincent. Frost's plan was to march on Newport where the Chartists planned to demand the release of Vincent.
The authorities in Newport heard rumours that the Chartists were armed and planned to seize Newport. Stories also began to circulate that if the Chartists were successful in Newport, it would encourage others all over Britain to follow their example.
When John Frost and the 3,000 marchers arrived in Newport on 4th November 1839 they discovered that the authorities had made more arrests and were holding several Chartists in the Westgate Hotel. The Chartists marched to the hotel and began chanting "surrender our prisoners". Twenty-eight soldiers had been placed inside the Westgate Hotel and when the order was given they began firing into the crowd. Afterwards it was estimated that over twenty men were killed and another fifty were wounded.
Frost and others involved in the march on Newport were arrested and charged with high treason. Several of the men, including John Frost, were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The severity of the sentences shocked many people and protests meetings took place all over Britain. Some Physical Force Chartists called for a military uprising but Feargus O'Connor refused to lead an insurrection.
The British Cabinet discussed the sentences and on 1st February the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, announced that instead of the men being executed they would be transported for life. John Frost was sent to Tasmania where he worked for three years as a clerk and eight years as a school teacher.
I have made minute inquiries into the subject of the guns which have been received by coach in this place and I have come to the conclusion that the information which was conveyed to me on the first instance was calculated to give a some what exaggerated impression of the real facts of the case. The inquiries I have made have only enabled me to trace with certainty three distinct packages of guns and muskets, all of which appear to have arrived here from the neighbourhood of Birmingham and one of which was accompanied by a heavy hamper. Of those packages, two were sent from here to Pontypool, two to Tredegar, both towns in this county surrounded by iron works. It is extremely probable that hawkers passing through the county finding a great demand for guns and muskets order them in the usual way of business without knowing or caring for the purpose to which they are intended to be applied. I understand that clubs have been recently established in this neighbourhood to which men contribute small periodical payments in order to obtain arms in their town, and I was informed sometime back that guns and muskets were purchased with eagerness at the neighbouring iron works.
It is also within my own knowledge that active efforts are making to incite the workmen employed at the Collieries to violence and to persuade them that in any course they may pursue they will not be opposed by the soldiers who would not act against them. There has existed in this town for some months a Chartist Society - some of the members whereof make circuits periodically into the neighbouring villages and mining districts to obtain signatures to the Chartist petition and contribute to the national rent. The missionaries attend at public houses and beer shops where a party small or large as the case may be has been assembled. The missionary expounds to them the grievances under which they labour tells that half their earnings are taken from them in taxes, that these taxes are spent in supporting the rulers in idleness and profligacy - that their employers are tyrants who acquire wealth by their labour, that the great men around them possess property to which they are not entitled that these evils are to be cured by the Chartists but that the people must sign the Chartist petition and contribute to the Chartist rent, that if their demands are not peaceably conceded they will be justified resorting to force and that they need not fear bloodshed because the soldiers will not act and a letter is normally read to confirm the statement made with respect to the feeling of the soldiery.
Strengthened by the arrival of the men sent by the Home Secretary, the magistrates assembled at the hotel, and decided upon arresting the individuals against whom the warrants were out; and, to be prepared for the worst, had sent the town crier to request the immediate presence of the special constables then in the town. Between forty and fifty obeyed the call, and, loitering before the inn, watching the proceedings, were the identical men whom the authorities were so anxious to apprehend: they were pointed out to the police, who at once took them into custody, and secured them inside the hotel. Upon this the tocsin of alarm was given, and the news of the arrest reached those assembled at the bridge in a very short time. This crowd, with their numbers swelled on the way, soon arrived in sight of the hotel, where they saw the police and special constables drawn up to receive them. The sight took them aback, but it was only the momentary impediment which dammed up the waters for a more impetuous rush.
Without arms of some description, their great number was no match for the police and specials, armed with their staves of office. They accordingly withdrew for a few moments to procure whatever they could lay their hands on in the form of weapons - guns, staves, pikes, hay forks, sickles, and even spades were hastily seized by the excited and turbulent mob!
Some of the women who had joined the crowd kept instigating the men to attack the hotel - one old virago vowing that she would fight till she was knee-deep in blood, sooner than the Cockneys should take their prisoners out of the town. She, with others of her sex, gathered large heaps of stones, which they subsequently used in defacing and injuring the building which contained the prisoners. When the mob had thus armed themselves, the word 'Forward!' was given, and as soon as they were within hearing of the police, they imperatively demanded the release of their friends, which demand was of course refused. What took place during the next few minutes cannot be easily ascertained; both parties afterwards accused the other of commencing the fray. The special constables, many of whose acquaintances were among the crowd, were seen to give way on the approach of the Chartists, and to seek their safety either in the hotel, or by trusting to their legs. When their request was denied them, the mob set up a terrible shout, and pressed forward towards the door of the inn; the rioters asserting that the London police began the conflict by striking one of their number, which only exasperated them the more, and caused them to shout out for 'revenge!' as well as the release of the prisoners. They further state that the Ex-Mayor, on finding that he was locked out, to ensure his own safety, suddenly appeared to sympathize with the mob, by crying out 'Chartists for ever'; and, with a stick which he had in his hand, broke the first pane of glass, thus initiating the mob in the work of destruction.
The women followed the example thus set them by throwing stones at every window of the house, while the men pressed forward and tried to burst in the front door, through which the police had retired. The thought of their prey slipping through their fingers infuriated the mob, who sent repeated showers of stones at the door and windows; the latter were soon shattered into a thousand fragments. Guns were next fired through the door, which, after resisting all their efforts for some time, was ultimately burst open. The mob quickly spread themselves over the house in search of their comrades, whom they found handcuffed in the kitchen. They were at once led off to a smith's shop, where their gyves were knocked off. Finding themselves masters of the house, the rabble proceeded to hunt out the policemen, against whom alone their animosity was now directed. The Mayor with one of the police had retired to the bedrooms, but the latter (Blenkhorn) was soon found, and dragged from under a bed; his pistol and staff were wrested from him, and the former was presented at his head. He was then most savagely abused by all who were within reach of him, till his bruised and bleeding features moved the hearts of some of the most compassionate, who managed at great risk to save his life, for only with his life would some of the ruffians be appeased.
The Mayor (a surgeon by profession) was also discovered in one of the bedrooms. He was rather frightened when brought out into the street; but a happy idea occurred to him, - he appealed to their better nature, by recalling to their memories how he had saved their mothers' lives in ushering them (the Chartists) into the world. He touched the right string; their hearts were softened, and they allowed him to proceed to his home without injuring him.
On the morning of this eventful day, I started from Pontypool with a neighbour, in my gig, for Newport, on my way to Cardiff, in Glamorganshire, to visit an invalid sister. On my arrival at Newport (ten miles on my journey) failing to get other conveyance on to Cardiff, and the horse's shoulder showing symptoms of being galled, I was compelled to ride him the rest of the way (twelve miles) to Cardiff. On arriving there, I was a second time wet through. (I had changed part of my clothes before, at Newport.) Again I got my clothes dried, paid my visit, and returned in the same way, in the evening, to Newport; again wet through. During the process of once more drying my dress, I was informed that the authorities of Newport had received information that the Chartists, thousands strong, were coming down that night to attack Newport, led by Frost, Williams, and Jones. On hearing this, as soon as possible, I repaired to the Westgate Inn, where I found Sir Thomas Phillips, the Mayor, with the military and a large force of special constables. The Mayor assured me the report was to be relied on, and advised me not to proceed home.
The cry of 'The Chartists are coming,' like the cry of 'Wolf,' had so often been given before, that I turned a deaf ear to the Mayor's kind recommendation, ordered my gig, and, with my friend, started for Pontypool! Would we had not!! We proceeded slowly, in consequence of the horse's galled shoulder, for above six miles, when it was evidently becoming worse; so much so, that after considerable jibbing the horse fairly stood still, and would not proceed farther. The Cock Inn at Cross-y-ceilog, kept by a customer of mine, being close at hand, we determined on leaving the poor brute there, and walking the remainder of the distance (four miles) home. We saw the horse properly attended to, and set off per turnpike-road, on foot, for Pontypool, regardless of the reports that the Chartists were coming. We reckoned, however, without our host, - they came.
We had reached the great oak at the Race Farm, within about three miles and a half of home, when we suddenly heard the heavy tread of a multitude of feet, and, ere we could exchange a question and answer, were surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of armed men; for the night was so pitchy dark, that the eye could not penetrate the gloom a single yard in advance. The first words I heard were from a voice which I fancied I knew, uttering, with military authority, the command, 'Halt' He then demanded my name and business, and also my companion's; on my mentioning who I was, there was an evident sensation, whispering, and communicating around us. On this, he demanded if we were armed; and, notwithstanding he was answered in the negative, we were instantly ordered to be searched, during the performance of which ceremoney (not over gently performed) I addressed the leader, stating that I was certain I was perfectly well known to him, and to most of the assembled throng, and that, if any violence were committed on the persons of my friend or myself, he would be held responsible. The answer was, - 'Hold your tongue; obey orders, and you'll be taken care of; offer resistance, or attempt to escape, and it will be the worse for you.' He then ordered four pikemen to take possession of, and guard, the prisoners; which, to their credit be it said, they did most carefully; and, in addition to the four pikemen, two rough and determined fellows, with pistols, took me under their especial care and protection, and never left my side for hours.
At day-break we were conducted through hosts of drenched, begrimed, fatigued, and many apparently frightened men, who lined the road for a considerable distance, without let, hindrance, or molestation. This party was the section immediately under Mr Frost's command, waiting for the other divisions to join them, and consisted of several thousands of men, nearly all armed, some with pikes, fixed on well-made handles or shafts, some more roughly made; crude spears, formed of rod iron sharpened at one end, and turned into a loop at the other as a handle; guns, muskets, pistols, coal mandrills (a sharp double-pointed pick-axe used in cutting coals), clubs, scythes, crow-bars; and, in fact, any and every thing that they could lay their hands on. The whole presented one of the most heterogeneous collection of instruments and munitions of war that ever were brought into the field to compete with disciplined and well-armed forces. It was folly; it was frenzy; it was sheer insanity; downright madness!
Mr Fussell opened the meeting by reading from the 'Sun' newspaper an account of the Riots in Wales, after he had read the paper, he said he was very glad to see the People of Wales was stirring and by this time the people of Newport had declared their independence, and that he hoped in a short time they would be prepared to proclaim themselves a Republic, he said a Man would be deputed to go to Wales and learn the particulars and that we do hold a public meeting on the day he returns, and that it should be such a meeting that had never been held in the Town. That they should petition the Queen to give them universal suffrage or they would take it by force. Many said we will have it or die for it.