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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 89

Newtown in the late afternoon of an August day in the twenty first century is a relaxed place. Shoppers browse and buy. Two older men finish their cigarettes and disappear back into a betting shop. A woman in a worsted suit comes out of the bank that stands on the site of the house where Robert Owen was born. There is nothing in the air to suggest rebellion and less of the spirit of revolution. And yet, everyone on the streets of Newtown has a vote, a say in the way the town, the county and the country are governed. Everybody I see has a standard of living that affords them the right to some happiness in their lives. They are free to worship or not worship at whatever church or mosque or chapel they desire without being forbidden to hold public office because of it. They enjoy, in short, the human rights of a mature democracy. Rights that were fought for on these very streets by men and women branded as a danger to society.

Wales has produced its share of politicians of substance. And Welsh politicians have made their name in defending or promoting the rights and welfare of the working classes. David Lloyd George is the only Welshman to attain the post of prime minister but it was as Chancellor of the Exchequer that he made his greatest contribution (if you can make such a claim of a man who led his country to victory in a world war). His people’s budget of 1909 was the first serious attempt at a redistribution of wealth the country had ever seen. It aimed “to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness”. Aneurin Bevan was the dogged and determined Welshman who saw through the birth of the National Health Service in the face of determined opposition. Both men made a lasting contribution to the alleviation of suffering of the poor. They came from a great Welsh tradition of dissent and standing up for freedom and dignity.

Newtown had been founded as a place of industry surrounded by thousands of hectares of farmland. Wales, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was home to a few very rich men and a great mass of the sickeningly poor. Newtown had two classes of poor; rural and urban. There was no single event that led to uprisings in the 1830s and 1840s. They were the result of decades of oppression, cruel laws, sickness and disease and a world wide spirit of revolution.

Richard Price is not a well known name in this country yet he has been called Wales’ greatest ever thinker. At his death, France called a day of national mourning, America saluted a great advocate of freedom and so many turned up to his funeral that the cortege eventually reached the cemetery five hours late. He preached of three revolutions that had changed the political landscape; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that had, in Price’s words,  broken the fetters of despotism, expelled a tyrant and asserted the rights of the people; the American Revolution and the French Revolution that had extended the rights of the people to govern themselves. He warned of the need for these rights to be extended to the people of Britain. From his pulpit in 1789 he sent out a warning with a style of oratory that is typically Welsh.

“Tremble all ye oppressors of the world…You cannot now hold the world in darkness…Restore to mankind their rights; and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.”

Price’s influence was so great that it led to Edmund Burke writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

His words found their political outlet, forty years later, in the Chartist movement. It was strong in Newtown and Llanidloes and was taken up by the people of industrial Wales.

The 1830s had been a time of great unrest and risings against real or perceived oppression in the principality. In the west of the country the Rebecca Riots had seen local tenant farmers, dressed in women’s clothing, attacking toll houses and toll gates in a fight against corruption and malpractice. In industrial towns of the valleys, typhoid, dysentery  and cholera were claiming hundreds of lives every summer and factory lay-offs brought intolerable hardships to the urban slums. In 1831 there was a rising in Merthyr Tydfil. It was a violent climax to many years of simmering unrest. During the month of May the whole area rose up against a lowering of wages, layoffs and general unemployment. It was during this uprising that a flag was soaked in cow’s blood and became the first time a red flag was raised as a symbol of worker’s solidarity anywhere in the world.

The dis-satisfaction of the people of Wales grew in the 1830s with the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This cruel legislation created workhouses where those unable to look after themselves were sent. Conditions were deliberately worse than the lowest worker could manage, families were split up and very few ever emerged. A new union workhouse was built at Caersws between 1837 and 1840. It was to house 350 “inmates” and caused huge opposition in Newtown and Llanidloes. It wasn’t just the Welsh poor who found the New Poor Law (as it came to be known) offensive to human dignity. Charles Dickens wrote both Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol in direct response to the hardships and inhumanity it caused.

A Chartist branch was set up in Newtown. At a meeting in Llanidloes on April 30th 1839  members of the branch were arrested and charged with a serious attempt to ferment armed revolution. Thomas Powell of Newtown, John Evan and two separate men called John Lewis were imprisoned while James Morris, Abraham Owen and Lewis Humphries were transported. It had been a peaceful demonstration infiltrated by men paid to cause trouble to give the authorities an excuse to clamp down on Chartist activities.

Lest anyone think of the Chartists as desperate men intent on insurrection for the sake of causing trouble it may be worth taking a look at what they stood for. They had seen the dreadful state of the rural and urban poor and saw that they were simply not represented by anyone in positions of power. They felt let down and angry at the 1832 Reform Act, which had promised to extend the vote to the many, but instead kept it to those who held the interests of property. The Chartists had six demands which they felt would bring about freedom and alleviation of suffering. The government of the day dismissed the demands with contempt when they were presented to parliament peaceably. The good people of Newtown and Llanidloes and indeed the entire population of Great Britain today enjoy all but one of these demands as essential rights and guarantees of democratic freedom.

  1. Every man over 21 who was not a criminal or insane should be allowed to vote.
  2. Voting should be done in secret.
  3. Candidates should not need to be rich or own property to become a Member of Parliament.
  4. All Members of Parliament should be paid for doing their job.
  5. All electoral areas should represent the same number of people.
  6. Elections should be held annually.

On the 4th November 1839 a larger Chartist rising took place in Newport, South Wales. Some historians contend that it was only the weather that prevented it from becoming the British Revolution. It is estimated that at least twenty thousand men set off for Newport as part of a carefully orchestrated Chartist demonstration. All around Britain other groups waited to hear news from Monmouthshire. If the rising was successful it was to spark risings all over the country. The weather was atrocious and this played into the hands of government forces. By the time the Chartists reached their goal, of the Westgate Hotel, their numbers were little over one thousand and these men were soaked to the skin and exhausted. Soldiers in the hotel opened fire on the demonstrators (it is believed that the first shot came from the crowd) and after a gun battle lasting twenty five minutes, 22 Chartists lay dead. It was the biggest loss of British life from British government action in modern history.

As I stand on the corner of High Street and Broad Street, Newtown has a holiday feel. It’s quite a place to be. I’ve never been particularly revolutionary in outlook but I enjoy the freedoms that have been so hard fought and at such a cost. I raise  my voice in acknowledgement of the role the people of this town and this country have played in giving me the rights  that I enjoy today. I’m descended from South Wales iron workers. My own family could easily have been in Merthyr or Newport or even here and I salute them.