A look at Monmouth's role in Chartists' trial

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Chris Were

by Chris Were - Reporter

This winter marks 180 years since John Frost and the Chartists of South Wales were tried at the Monmouth Courthouse, now more commonly known as Shire Hall.

Following the Newport Rising on 4th November, Octavius Morgan had a significant role to play as he was summoned to sit on the grand jury to decide which Chartists would face trial. Two years after the uprising, Octavius ran an anti-Chartist campaign to successfully be elected as MP to what was then the Monmouthshire constituency in 1841.

The grand jury stayed overnight at Ross and were received at the Shire Hall on 10th December 1839. They were escorted into Monmouth by the High Sheriff, Lord Lieutenant and an armed retinue. The grand jury later adjourned for church at St Mary’s to a sermon by Reverend George Irving who preached: "while they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption." The sermon was then published for a shilling a copy. By 3pm the following day the grand jury had completed their duty and selected 14 men who were listed in the ’True Bill’ for high treason.

The trial of John Frost and the other chartists took place at the Shire Hall in Monmouth, thrusting the town into the national spotlight for not only the trial itself, but also as a catalyst for the wider discussion about the state of national politics and how political movements ought to be conducted. The trial was the last mass treason trial to ever take place in the UK.

The Monmouthshire Beacon, which was printed in Agincourt Square at the time and rival paper, the Monmouthshire Merlin, weighed in on the Chartists’ trial to great extent with the Beacon publishing a 200 page report called ’Full and correct report of the trial of John Frost for High Treason’.

Both papers asserted that the chartists on trial were guilty and both were likely to have been read by the jurors, almost certainly affecting the trial in one way or another.

The Monmouthshire Beacon which was not much more than two years old by the time the trial came around, was almost certainly boosted by its coverage of such an important event, securing its foothold in Monmouthshire’s public discourse.

During Frost’s trial the Monmouthshire Beacon took an establishment stance when it came to the trial and the Chartist movement in general saying: "If grievances exist there are constitutional ways of addressing them, but all history assures us that no national good was achieved by the adoption of physical force."

The Monmouthshire Beacon’s rival at the time, the Monmouthshire Merlin was also unsympathetic to the chartists cause, however generally less so than the Beacon. The Merlin editor at the time was Edward Dowling, a Catholic with Whig leanings, whereas the Beacon was seen as a more conservative voice of the day. Eventually the Merlin became absorbed into the Beacon. The press were given significant privileges when covering the trial, a gallery was erected specially for use by press members.

This autumn National Trust Wales marks 180 years since the Newport Rising with a new event at Tredegar House exploring the Morgan family’s previously untold role in the rebellion.

At the time, the Morgans were one of the most powerful families in South Wales and largest landowners in the region, responsible for hundreds of tenants. Octavious’ older brother and first Baron of Tredegar Charles was criticised by John Frost for his indifference to the lives of his tenants and what Frost considered the corruption, villainy and cruelty of the Morgans’ land agent, Thomas Prothero.

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