A hero imprisoned
Throughout the spring of 1839 Henry Vincent rallied support for the Charter in communities across Monmouthshire. Increasingly concerned, establishment figures such as Thomas Phillips, the Mayor of Newport, began to attend Chartist meetings to gather evidence which might help silence Vincent. In April, Phillips was especially alarmed to hear Henry Vincent speak in Newport. Although Vincent urged people to keep the peace his language was strong ‘...perish the privileged orders! death to the aristocracy!’
Capel Hanbury Leigh, the Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire, lost no time in writing to the Home Secretary, reminding him that there were no soldiers or special constables for miles around. Across the south Wales Valleys there were only twenty paid policemen and the nearest soldiers were stationed in Brecon. Vincent mocked the authorities in his diary:
‘The foolish magistrates had issued a proclamation, forbidding our meeting, and calling all Chartist meetings illegal....... Rumour was abroad that I should be arrested in the evening. At seven o'clock several thousand people assembled, joined me at Mr Frost's, and conducted me in procession through the town...... there could not have been less than 8,000 persons present. The Mayor and several magistrates were there. I spoke for two hours and a half, in a very animated strain.’
Vincent remained free but it was only a matter of time before his arrest, in London, on May 7th 1839. Three days later he appeared before the Magistrates in Newport. His diary records what happened:
‘Arrived in Newport at three o'clock. The people loudly cheered me. Several fights took place in the streets between the people and the specials, AND THE SPECIALS WOULD HAVE BEEN CUT UP LIKE MINCED MEAT IF THE CHARTIST LEADERS HAD NOT ORDERED THE PEOPLE TO KEEP THE PEACE. I listened to the depositions; suffice to say THEY ARE ALL FULL OF LIES, MISTATEMENTS, AND FLAWS! The fool Phillips (the fellow who is Mayor, or more properly speaking ass), said, we be bound over to appear at the assizes — myself in ONE THOUSAND POUNDS.’
Fearing an uprising, the authorities moved Vincent to the County Gaol at Monmouth where he was held for nearly seven weeks. His trial on 2nd August 1839, at the Shire Hall, aroused much interest in the town. The court was filled with ‘elegantly dressed ladies’ and their ‘gentlemen friends’ who apparently hissed the counsel for Vincent’s defence. Outside, large crowds shouted ‘Vincent for ever’ when he left the court for the gaol, having been found guilty of attending illegal meetings and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Three other Chartists from Newport, men who helped organise the meetings Vincent spoke at, were also found guilty.
Chartists were enraged by Vincent’s imprisonment. The debate, between those Chartists who believed in using moral argument to secure the Charter points, and those who believed physical force would be the only way to secure change, intensified.
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