Dreadful riot and loss of life at Newport
At the request of Mayor Phillips, the 45th Regiment had divided its force between the Workhouse and the Westgate Hotel, where the Mayor and the magistrates hoped to control the unrest. Inside the hotel were thirty soldiers from the 45th who had moved into position only minutes before the Chartists arrived. Hidden behind shuttered windows and unseen from the street, they were only feet away from four thousand or more men. Most of the soldiers were drawn from the working classes; they didn’t have the right to vote either.
Finding that the gates on the side of the Westgate were locked, the Chartists moved towards the front door which was manned by the special constables. Did they know that, inside, the soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Gray were poised for battle?
A gun fired, windows were smashed and some Chartists pushed into the hallway of the Hotel. According to the Monmouthshire Merlin the soldiers ‘fired over the shutters which were nearly mid-way up the window but it was supposed that the balls passed over the heads of the visitors’. The report goes on to say that the shutters were opened and, clutching a copy of the Riot Act that had been printed and issued early that morning, Mayor Phillips appeared at the window as if about to address the rebels when he received a slug through the left arm. The 28 soldiers led by Sergeants Daily and Armstrong filed past the windows, firing their muskets in quick succession at the crowd. This surprise tactic forced mass retreat.
Many fell to the ground dead, including an army deserter known as Williams, who was shot dead by Captain Gray. Jack the Fifer, despite a hand injury, urged a fight back and a small band of determined fighters returned fire, including by some accounts, a one legged man with a wooden leg who stood and fired three rounds in reply! Some of the soldiers turned their guns on those who had entered the hotel. As soon as the battle commenced, John Frost fled in dismay, three unused pistols in his coat pocket. ‘The moment I saw blood flow I became terrified and fled’, Frost admitted. Fighting lasted about twenty minutes, before the last Chartist left the scene or fell, but the military remained in position for at least another hour.
The authorities were not convinced of their hold on the town, aware that many Chartists from the eastern valley, led by William Jones, had gathered near Newport Castle. On hearing news of the carnage, this ‘reserve army’ stayed away. A stunned Zephaniah Williams wandered off, crying when he realised that Chartists had lost their lives.
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