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Chartism takes off in south Wales

The first Working Men’s Association in Wales was set up in Carmarthen in 1837, by solicitor Hugh Williams, a close friend of William Lovett. Soon the National Petition was circulating in Welsh, striking a chord with workers from the coalfield who were attracted to this new movement which offered hope for a better future.

In one of the most highly industrialised areas in Britain at the time, the Monmouthshire Valleys, Chartism flourished. John Frost announced his support for the People’s Charter in 1838 and soon became the leader of Monmouthshire’s Chartists, as Working Men’s Associations were set up in Pontypool and Newport. He launched the Charter in Newport at the Parrot Inn, where he addressed a crowd of over 300 from an upstairs window. When Henry Vincent arrived in Wales in January 1839 he mesmerised Welsh audiences with his clever impersonations and fiery speeches. Soon there were more than thirty Chartist groups or Working Men’s ‘lodges’ in Monmouthshire alone.

Although Chartism in Wales was hugely influenced by the English movement, (and recorded from an English perspective through the press) there was a distinctly Welsh dimension. Many Welsh people had been influenced by the ideas of Tom Paine, whose ‘Rights of Man’ had been published in Welsh. Many more, including Zephaniah Williams and Dr Price had grown up with an inherited Welsh tradition of ‘the cause of justice’ and ‘a rising’ against the invaders. The Carmarthen solicitor Hugh Williams even created a Chartist flag which referred back to Welsh bardic traditions: green represented the earth, blue the heavens and white represented Justice or Cyfiawnder.

Chartists found a receptive audience in Wales, many of whom were familiar with the sentiments of Welsh Republican, William Jones from Llancadfan:

"We, the poor remnants of Ancient Britons, are confined to the mountains of Wales, cultivating an ungrateful soil, whose production is insufficient to support its occupiers. The tendancy of our boasted constitution to accumulate property into few hands, and the present wretched mode of taxing the produce of labour and the necessities of life, has of late increased the number of our poor into an alarming degree, and must sooner or later reduce the labouring classes into a servile dependency or absolute slavery, and which the insatiable avarice of the landed gentry has partly effected in our country."

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