Sensationalising the story
The County had two newspapers. Edward Dowling, a ‘Catholic with Whig leanings’ edited The Monmouthshire Merlin, which was owned by Reginald Blewitt. Generally unsympathetic to the Chartist cause, The Merlin was marginally more supportive than its rival the Monmouthshire Beacon, which it regularly outsold. The Beacon was printed in Agincourt Square at Thomas Farror’s Works and later in Castle Street. It oozed the establishment view: ‘If grievances exist there are constitutional ways of addressing them; but all history assures us that no national good was ever yet achieved by the adoption of physical force.’ With wide circulations across the county, both papers would have been read by the men who stood as Grand Jurors and Jurors. And as both reported that the Chartists were guilty - before they had been tried - they made it impossible for a fair trial to be held.
The drama of the Rising and the showcase trials undoubtedly helped increase newspaper circulation. National interest in the Special Commission and the Treason Trials ensured many journalists arrived in Monmouth to cover the proceedings for the London and provincial press. Special arrangements were made to accommodate them at the Shire Hall, as the local papers reported:
‘the approaching Special Commission has rendered necessary the erection of a gallery for the accommodation of Reporters, which has been fixed immediately over the Judge’s entrance, and coeval with the Grand Jury box. The press are indebted to the kindness of the visiting magistrates, and to the Mayor of Monmouth, for the provision made for their convenience.’
In an age before photography, no one knew what Frost, Williams or Jones looked like, but everyone wanted to know! Quick to recognise the opportunity Dowling, at the Merlin, commissioned pictures of the main protagonists, rushing out a series of pictures:
‘We have just seen a portrait of Mr. John Frost, which gives, with great success, the pensive and calmly resigned expression of features of the convict when hearing the solemn sentence of condemnation pronounced by Chief Justice Tindal. It certainly appears one of the most successful efforts to give correct likeness of this notorious individual, and reflects much credit on the artist, Mr J. F. Mullock.’
The Chartist Riots were the making of this young artist's career. His lithograph depicting teh attack on eth Westgate hotel was a 'best seller'. Illustrators were the flavour of the time: within a year of the Monmouth Show Trial the Illustrated London News had been launched.
As soon as the Trials finished on 16th January printed portraits of the Chartist leaders appeared in the press and were for sale in the streets. The Beacon rushed out a 200 page ‘Full and correct report of the trial of John Frost for High Treason’, costing one shilling, whilst Dowling at the Merlin published a souvenir guide – The Rise and Fall of Chartism.
The Welsh language press, including papers like Seren Gomer, followed events in Monmouth with great interest, whilst the Newport Rising had made world headlines, ‘creating an ‘extraordinary sensation in France’, as the Merlin reported in early December 1839: ‘A gentleman just returned to this country from Paris, states that when the exaggerated reports in the newspapers (some of which stated that Newport was in the hands of the Chartists, who were 40,000 strong) first reached the Cafes and Salons, loud and repeated cheers of “Vivent les braves Anglais!” “Vive la Charte Britannique!” resounded through the rooms.’
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