Chartism and Human Rights

Were the South Wales Chartists, who campaigned for the vote and ultimately marched on Newport in 4th November 1839, concerned about human rights? On the face of it, the six point charter that they wanted to see introduced was about very specific changes to the political system rather than fighting for basic rights, but the historical context suggests their battle was about much more than just the vote.


Chartism was a movement that captured the imagination of middle and working class people in the 1830s, most of whom did not have the right to vote. Members of Parliament at the time were required to be independently wealthy as MPs weren’t paid. They were also required to own property. Those who could vote could not do so in secret and constituencies often didn’t reflect the explosion in population that had come about as a result of the industrial revolution. Many people felt that parliament was not representing the views of most people in Britain.


In addition, Wales had a strong tradition of cyfiawnder or justice, partly based on relatively egalitarian Welsh medieval laws. All of this led many people in Wales to support the Chartist cause passionately. Support didn’t die with the conviction of the ringleaders for high treason. Across Britain, people continued to campaign for the charter to become law and slowly, the political system in the United Kingdom began to change.  Since 1918, all men aged over 21 have been eligible to vote and in 1928 that was extended to include women over 21 too. Human rights, as well as civil rights are also better protected now than they were when the Chartists stood trial.


The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was signed on 4th November 1950, exactly 111 years after the Chartists marched on Newport. It paved the way for other legislation, including Britain’s Human Rights Act, which came into force in October 2000 and which incorporates the ECHR into UK Law. The Human Rights Act includes the right to Free Elections and enshrines in law one of the points of the People’s Charter – the right to secret ballot:

The Human Rights Act requires the government to support your right to free expression by holding free elections at reasonable intervals.

 The elections must enable you to vote in secret.

The right to free elections only applies to those who are eligible to vote under UK law.


What the law says

Protocol 1, Article 3: Right to free elections

The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

 The European Convention of Human Rights is clearly relevant to the early battles of the Chartists, but what would they make of the current Government’s proposed changes? According to the Conservative party’s pre-election manifesto it plans to:

Scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain.”

  and replace it with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities which will:

  •  Make Britain the ultimate arbiter of human rights in this country – ensuring our Supreme Court is supreme
  • Balance rights with responsibilities”

The Chartists, had a keen sense of what these rights should be. Their legacy lives on in our legislation and in our political system today. 22 of the Gwent Chartists died fighting for the political rights we now enjoy.  The Chartists would have strived to keep our politicians accountable, whatever their political persuasion, to ensure that the rights that they fought for remain enshrined in law, and in today’s context they would certainly have looked very closely at what was being won and lost in changes to the Human Rights Act, and how people’s lives would be impacted.

This letter was written by Baptist Minister Micah Thomas in Abergavenny on 22nd January 1840 to the Marquess of Normanby. In it he is pleading for clemency for John Frost, the Chartist leader recently sentenced to death for high treason.  While he distances himself from the chartist cause himself, he says of Frost: “His notions of what he considered, popular rights, might by moderate men be deemed extravagant, but his humanity and regard for social order prior to the recent catastrophe, have been honourably attested.”

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The Chartists’ Heartland

One of the strongest areas of the campaigners for the right to vote in 1839 was the north of the valleys in the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouth. This area can be seen on the tithe maps from the period which have all been collected by the Cynefin project. Below are the maps of Aberdare, Merthyr, Gelli-Gaer, Bedwellty and Aberystruth joined together.

Chartists' Heartland

These maps show clearly that the areas had seen considerable industrial development, with a number of iron works in the area, for example i Tredegar and Rhymney.



On the 3rd of November 1839 the Chartists attacked the town of Newport, this is a part of a tithe map showing the town as it was at the time.


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Vote, vote, vote!

If you are 18 years of age or over and have registered, you have the right to vote in the general election happening across the UK on Thursday 7th May 2015. You may already have done so via a postal vote.

But why does voting matter?

Britain has a proud tradition of popular involvement in politics. Attempts to keep those in charge honest and accountable, whether they were members of royalty or politicians, date back 800 years to Magna Carta. This was Britain’s first ‘people’s charter’ but, politics being what it is, the issue of fair representation didn’t go away. In 1838, a new People’s Charter was drawn up, with the primary aim of securing the vote for all men over 21. Women were not overlooked: their struggle for the vote had already begun. In the spirit of setting achievable goals, however, fighting for rights of men was more realistic. The Chartist movement gained in strength and popularity across the country.

In 1839, Chartism was particularly popular in south Wales. It was an area that had seen huge industrial change over the last few decades and many people felt their working and living conditions were intolerable. Without the vote, they had no power to change their situation.

On 3rd November 1839, about 5,000 men gathered from across Gwent to march through the night in the pouring rain. They were heading to Newport to demand the release of Chartist prisoners. Fearing the power of the Chartists, the authorities were waiting for them at the Westgate Inn in the centre of the town on the following morning. Both sides were armed and no one knows for sure who fired the first shot. What we do know though, is that over twenty men died that morning, fighting for the right to vote. What’s more, ten of them were hurriedly buried in the churchyard at St Woolos Cathedral by order of the authorities.

With their protest in tatters, the chartists fled, but many were arrested and William Frost, Zepheniah Williams and William Jones were tried for High Treason at a sensational trial in Monmouth in January 1840.

Zephaniah Williams Trial

Many more local people were called to give evidence against them. Eventually the three men were sentenced to be hanged and quartered (drawing, the removal of entrails whilst still alive, had recently been abolished.)

Effect of the Crime

Their sentence caused outrage and Queen Victoria, on the occasion of her marriage to Albert, commuted their sentence to transportation to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land.)

So what was the People’s Charter?

    The People’s Charter contained six key demands:

  • The right for all men over 21 to vote
  • Payment for MPs (
  • Abolishing the need to own property in order to stand as an MP
  • Secret ballots
  • Constituencies of equal size
  • Annual elections

How popular was Chartism?

At one point, about three million people in Britain signed a petition to make the People’s Charter law. The authorites later destroyed it, but this really was people power in action and it was effective: the only demand the Chartists made that hasn’t since become law is the demand for annual elections. Protesters wanted this to ensure that politicians remained accountable to voters, something that’s arguably just as important today.

So, whatever you think of politics and politicians today, if you are eligible, make your voice heard and vote on May 7th. Many people have died and others have made huge sacrifices to give you the right to do so.


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Chartism in the Modern World

Chartism is a hot topic at the moment here in South Wales. At a time when some people are saying that modern politics is broken, some have been asking whether it’s time for a new People’s Charter. As well as commemorating 175 years since the treason trials of those fighting for the vote, it is 800 years since Magna Carta was signed: another potent symbol of people power at work in Britain.
On a more practical level, we’ve recruited over 50 volunteers, some of whom are already hard at work. We’re bringing the sensational Chartist trial of 1840 into the 21st century by ‘tagging’ the 3,500 images we have of the trial documents. While the technical team build the site, a team of volunteers has been working hard to sort the documents into order to make transcription work easier. They have been sorting out how easy or difficult each document is to transcribe, picking out key themes and highlighting the names of those on trial. When the platform is ready for online transcription to begin, those unlocking the words of these men and women 175 years ago will be able to select a document that interests them. Already over 600 documents are ready to go and will be ready to transcribe in the next couple of months.
The first image below is a press account of Zephaniah Williams’ address to the courtroom. It is dramatic and vivid and it is hard not to feel some compassion for Williams.

Zephaniah Williams Press Account

He argues, “I never entertained the least design of revolting against the Queen.” This same edition of the paper, however, tells how he, John Frost and William Jones were sentenced to death for treason and is shown in the second image. It too uses highly emotive language as the judge is quoted as saying “The invasion of a foreign foe would in all probability have been less destructive to property and life.” Strong language to describe men who believed they were representing the views of the people around them and acting to change politics.
The men weren’t killed. They were transported to Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s land) and eventually all were pardoned. Of the six points of the Charter, five are now law:
• adults over 18 now have the vote (the original demand was for this to apply to men over 21)
• voting takes place in secret
• constituencies are roughly equal
• members of parliament are paid
• candidates are not required to own property in order to stand for election
The only point that was not adopted was the call for annual elections, proposed in order to keep MPs accountable. We still demand this accountability, but most of us are probably glad we don’t face a general election every year.

Sentence of Death

Reading the testimony of those on both sides of this debate is an insight into a world that has long since disappeared. It’s hard not to feel a resonance with the world we’re living in today however, as a general election looms. Whether or not we need a new charter, we should never forget the men and women who fought so hard to give us all the right to have a vote and a voice in politics.

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Learn How To use Cynefin

A workshop is being organised at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on Friday the 21st of November 2014. If you are interested contact Vicky on 01970 632 546

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Map of the month – November


Celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Chartist Uprising, the map of the month for November is of course St Woolos which includes Newport. The map was actually completed in 1845 – six years after the uprising – by Thomas Morris of Newport.

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