Monday, 23 November 2015

John Frost and a lifelong commitment to the Chartism of 1839

John Frost was the first of the Chartist martyrs. As leader of the Newport rising of 1839, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a traitors death before wiser counsel saw him reprieved and banished instead to penal servitude in Tasmania.

But what happened to Frost and to the other leaders of the abortive attempt to seize the town after their arrest, and what did Frost have to say of his experience when he finally returned to his homeland in 1856?

Over recent years, South Wales has seen a revival of interest in the Chartist movement and in the part it played in the history of Newport. Les James, a former museum education officer for Gwent and senior lecturer at University of Wales, Newport has been a central figure in that process.

In Render the Chartists Defenceless: John Frost’s Voyage with Dr McKechnie to Van Diemen’s Land in 1840, Les James sheds some light on the fate of Frost and the others after their trial.

The basis of the book is Frost’s own writings, which can be found in the Chartist collection at Newport Library – a rich vein of previously overlooked material, which, the publishers promise, is just waiting to be mined for future publications.

Render the Chartists Defenceless examines in particular the relationship between Frost, Zepheniah Williams and William Jones (the three martyrs) and Dr Alexander McKechnie, the ships surgeon on board the Mandarin, which would carry the convicts to their place of exile.

At first, Frost got on well with McKechnie, who appeared to befriend and comfort the men as they faced the prospect of leaving behind wives, families and friends for a life of uncertainty and hard penal servitude.

But by encouraging Frost to write home to his wife and friends, was McKechnie simply driving home to Frost just how alone he now was, isolating the three men from each other and gleaning intelligence for the authorities in Whitehall and Westminster?

Frost would continue to proclaim his innocence of the charge of high treason for the rest of his life – in contrast to Williams, who had been encouraged by McKechnie to write a full confession while still on the Mandarin.

And on his eventual return (the only one of the three to come back to Wales), he would be hurt by the way in which was shunned by Newport society and attacked by the press.

He would continue to stand steadfast by his Chartist principles until his death at the age of 92. Yet as Les James notes, even in this milieu he had been left behind. While Frost talked the Radical language of “old corruption”, the new Chartist leaders talked in socialist terms of class.

And, while he stood by Chartism, he said little about what had happened in Newport all those years back. Sadly for posterity, he never did fulfill his promise to give “an account of the rise and progress of the affair in Wales in 1839, and the apparent cause of its termination”.

Render the Chartists Defenceless is available in a limited run of 350 copies from the website of its publishers, Three Imposters, price £10 including p&p.

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