Thursday, 25 May 2017

John Frost : Radical Chartist Leader (25/5/1784 - 27/7/1877)

John Frost  radical Chartist leader was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales  on this day  25th May 1784, the son of John Frost and his wife, Sarah, landlady of the Royal Oak public house in Mill Street, Newport. His father died when John was very young and his mother remarried twice. Aged about sixteen, Frost was apprenticed to a tailor in Cardiff. In 1804, he was an assistant woollen draper in Bristol and the following year he worked in London as a merchant tailor. There he joined radical circles and sharpened his political education by reading Paine and Cobbett. On his return to Newport about 1806, he continued his business as a tailor and draper. On 24th October 1812, Frost married Mary Geach (née Morgan), widow of a timber dealer, with whom he had eight children between 1815 and 1826.In 1821 Frost became involved in a legal dispute with Thomas Prothero, a Newport solicitor. The original problem concerned the will of John Frost's uncle, William Foster. Frost accused Prothero of being responsible for Foster's decision to exclude Frost from his will. When Frost included this in a letter, Prothero sued for libel and in March 1822, Frost was fined £1,000. Frost continued to accuse Prothero of malpractice and in February 1823, he was found guilty of libel again, and this time he was sent to prison for six months.
Frost was told he would serve a long prison sentence if he repeated his allegations against Thomas Prothero. Frost therefore decided to direct his anger against Prothero's close friend, Sir Charles Morgan, one of the major landowners in Newport. In 1830 he wrote a pamphlet, A Christmas Box for Sir Charles Morgan, where he accused the landowner of badly treating his tenants. In the pamphlet John Frost also advocated that universal suffrage and secret ballots was the only way to curb the power of people like Sir Charles Morgan.
Over the next five years Frost established himself as the leader of the supporters of universal suffrage in Newport. As a result of the Municipal Corporation Act, tradesman such as John Frost became more powerful in the running of towns. In 1835 Frost was elected as one of Newport's eighteen new councillors and was also appointed as a magistrate. The following year he was elected mayor. However, his aggressive behaviour upset a lot of people and Frost was replaced as mayor in 1837.
Frost became  an enthusiastic supporter of the People’s Charter, launched in 1837 to fulfil the aims of Chartism. A year later he was elected by his supporters to go to London and represent them at the National Convention organised by the Chartists as a sort of alternative Parliament  The Chartists wanted the vote for all men (though not for women) and a fairer electoral system. They also called for annual elections, the payment of MPs, and the introduction of a secret ballot. Working conditions in many coalfields and ironworks in South Wales were harsh, and there was often conflict between workers and employers. Across Britain men, women and children worked 14 hours a day for little reward. For a time workers looked to the Radicals in parliament, but the much talked about Reform Act Of 1832 only gave votes to the rich. John Frost said that the working man should 'look to no one but himself, for if he depends on those who are in superior situations, he will always be disappointed.' Chartism was about the working class looking to itself. Given these circumstances, it was no surprise that Chartism developed quickly. In the summer of 1838 a Working Men's Association was formed in Newport, Monmouthshire to publicise the People's Charter.


Following a split in the movement, Frost threw in his lot with the Physical Force Chartists, who advocated violent action to achieve reform. This outraged the Home Secretary Lord John Russell and in March 1839 Frost was sacked as a magistrate.
Around Britain, and especially in South Wales, discontent was smouldering  and in May 1838 eloquent speaker Henry Vincent was arrested for making inflammatory speeches. When he was tried on the 2nd August at Monmouth Assizes he was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. Vincent was denied writing materials and only allowed to read books on religion.
Chartists in Wales were furious and the decision was followed by several outbreaks of violence. Frost toured Wales making speeches urging people not to break the law. Frost's plan was to march on Newport where the Chartists planned to demand the release of Vincent.
The authorities in Newport heard rumours that the Chartists were armed and planned to seize Newport. Stories also began to circulate that if the Chartists were successful in Newport, it would encourage others all over Britain to follow their example. On 4 November 1839, 5,000 men roused with much anger  marched into Newport ,and attempted to take control of the town. They marched to  Westgate Hotel, where they had heard that after several more arrests, local authorities were temporarily holding several chartists, began chanting "surrender our prisoners". Troops protecting the hotel were then given the order to begin firing into the crowd, killing at least 22 people, and another fifty being wounded and resulted  in  the uprising being bought to an abrupt end. Among the injured was a Chartist named John Lovell, who was shot in the thigh and badly wounded. It would be the last large scale uprising in the history of  mainland Britain.


After the Chartist attack on the Westgate Hotel Frost and others involved in the march on Newport were arrested and charged with high treason. During Frost's trial  his popularity grew," His self-possession, dignity and respectability, reported during his trial at Monmouth impressed many people."
Several of the men, including John Frost, were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in what would be a traitor's death. The severity of the sentences shocked many people and protests meetings took place all over Britain.
Some Physical Force Chartists called for a military uprising but Feargus O'Connor refused to lead an insurrection.
The British Cabinet discussed the sentences and on 1st February the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, announced that instead of the men being executed they would be transported for life.
John Frost was sent to Tasmania where he worked for three years as a clerk and eight years as a school teacher. Chartists continued to campaign for the release of Frost. Thomas Duncombe pleaded Frost's case in the House of Commons but attempt to secure a pardon in 1846 was unsuccessful.
Duncombe refused to be defeated and in 1854 he persuaded the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, to grant Frost a pardon but he stipulated that he must not enter British territory.
Frost and his daughter, Catherine, who had joined him in Tasmania, went to live in the United States. Frost toured the country lecturing on the unfairness of the British system of government.This campaign for his return  had kept running for 16 years, until he was an old man of 72 and he was finally granted a full pardon.
To the surprise of the authorities, he had not been forgotten and in 1856 several thousand people crowds turned out in Newport, London and elsewhere to see and hear this man of principle, and give him a hero's welcome. He told them that one day not only would they have the Charter but they would also have 'something more'--a better world where those who make the wealth would enjoy it to the full.
Frost retired to Stapleton near Bristol where he wrote articles for newspapers on subjects such as universal suffrage and prison reform. John Frost died at the  grand old age of ninety-three on 27th July, 1877.
John Frost Square, in Newport city centre, was named in his honour. A 1978  mural of the Newport rising in the square was shamefully  demolished in 2013 :- https://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/destruction-of-chartist-mural.html
We should be grateful to John Frost, that almost all of the reforms for which he and the Chartists had campaigned had been enshrined in law. I believe it is important to respect and honour the legacy of the Chartists and John Frost and the sacrifices they made , as the struggles for democracy continue. Many people have been arguing that modern politics is broken, and now is a time for a  new People's charter. Generations later  the fight to defeat elite driven policies continues, for the many not the few. There is still so much to fight for.

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