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Guilty?

At the end of the Trial Judge Tindal reminded the Jury they had to establish what Frost’s intention was, and that a guilty verdict could only be delivered if there was ‘clear and compatible’ evidence from two witnesses. Reviewing the prosecution’s case Tindal highlighted flaws and inconsistencies in the hearsay evidence provided by informers, many of whom had avoided charges against themselves by becoming Crown witnesses. 

On January 8th Tindal summed up for an acquittal, directing the jury to a verdict of ‘not guilty’. The weakness of the case put by the prosecution was clear. Sir John Campbell, the Attorney General, was convinced the Crown had lost. He need not have worried. The Monmouthshire jury had already made up their minds. Within 30 minutes they returned to pronounce Frost guilty - with a recommendation to mercy. The Attorney General had to be recalled from the nearby Beaufort Arms where he had taken his prosecution team for a crisis meeting to sort out what they would do about all the other cases, if Frost was found ‘not guilty’.


Chartist fears that the trials would not be fair were justified. Sketches showing three of the Chartist defendants hanging, alongside the words ‘special fun’, had been drawn by one of the Grand Jurors: J. E. W. Rolls, (the grandfather of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce fame) on his official papers. We can only guess whether he drew the gallows when he was on the Grand Jury or later when observing the sentencing of the Chartist leaders.


The trials of Zephaniah Williams and William Jones followed in turn and both men pleaded not guilty. But Frost’s jury had set a precedent and guilty verdicts proved inevitable for both of them. Tindal’s summing up at John Frost’s trial may not have had any effect on the jury, but it certainly influenced the Attorney General. Recognising legal flaws in the evidence against the remaining nine men, he speedily engaged in plea bargaining, privately offering reduced sentences in return for admittance of guilt. On January 15th, John Lovell, Charles Waters, Jenkin Morgan,, Richard Benfield and John Rees all pleaded guilty before the court.

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Text and artwork from Voices for the Vote: Shire Hall and the story of Chartism in south Wales. Reproduced by kind permission of Monmouthshire County Council/Shire Hall, Monmouth. The book costs £4.99 and can be obtained from Shire Hall Monmouth, Newport Museum or Gwent Archives