A FOUR-DAY festival is being held in Newport this weekend to celebrate and interrogate the events of November 4, 1839, when 22 pro-democracy campaigners were killed by British troops in the city’s Westgate Square.

Newport Rising incorporates talks and lectures, a photographic exhibition, guided walks, gigs, book launches – and even a reggae party – with most events taking place at the Westgate Hotel, where infamous bullet holes in the building’s original pillars will also be examined for authenticity using the latest research.

The Rising was a major flashpoint in the mid 19th century struggle between pro-democracy activists known as the Chartists and government and establishment forces who wanted to maintain the status quo.

Chartists were so-called because they campaigned for the implementation of the six points of a People’s Charter. The majority of their demands – universal suffrage, a secret ballot, equal sized constituencies, and the right for anybody to stand as an MP and be paid to do the job – were eventually enshrined in law, forming the bedrock of our current democratic rights.

The National Wales: The Chartist leader John FrostThe Chartist leader John Frost

In Newport, the Chartists were led by John Frost, whose name is now remembered in the city’s main square, William Jones and Zephaniah Williams. Around 4,000 people marched through the night from across the Gwent and Glamorgan valleys, with the aim of surprising troops holding some of their fellow Chartists captive at the Westgate Hotel.

Some were armed with homemade weaponry which was no match for the firepower of the state. In the battle of Westgate Square, sometimes referred to as the last attempt at armed insurrection on the British mainland, more than 50 Chartists were injured and a probable total of 22 killed.

READ MORE: Memorial to Chartists vandalised just days before anniversary

Dr Melinda Drowley, who grew up in what was in 1839 the Chartist hotbed of Blackwood – and is now a trustee of Our Chartist Heritage (OCH), explains that compared to past commemorations of Newport’s most remarkable historical event, "this festival is definitely edgier".

"It’s about people speaking out," says Drowley, "and people getting together to change things for good."

The National Wales: Newport Rising Festival will return for its fourth year. Photo: Newport RisingNewport Rising Festival will return for its fourth year. Photo: Newport Rising

A refreshed approach to marking the date of the Rising follows the granting of charitable status to OCH, followed by the award of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £78,000 in 2018. This funding has allowed various longstanding activities to be organised under one umbrella organisation.

Dr David Osmond was a founder member of Newport’s local history society in the 1980s, and remembers a plethora of modern day efforts to keep fresh the memory of 1839.

"There was a lot of activity around the 150th anniversary of the Rising," he says. "A people’s opera at the Blackwood Miners Institute, major new books from historians Ivor Wilks and David Jones, musicals, a lecture from Gwyn Alf Williams, and a week-long conference. But it all went a bit quiet after that."

Osmond says the catalyst for more recent commemorative activities, in Newport and across Gwent, came in 2007 after various local people traced their family histories to the Chartists.

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Local enthusiasts, including chair of OCH Patrick Drewett and historian Les James, were instrumental in setting up a Chartist Convention, which initially combined talks with a coach tour to relevant sites across south-east Wales.

Blackwood and Nantyglo were among the mining towns where the fateful marches to Newport began, and the Shire Hall in Monmouth was where the Chartist leaders were tried, convicted and sentenced to transportation to Australia.

But the convention quickly outgrew its original church hall venue, and moved, via the University of South Wales campus and the then recently renamed John Frost School, to its current home at St Woolos Cathedral.

Dr Osmond says the cathedral is an appropriate venue because it is where at least 10 of the men killed on November 4, 1839, were buried – in unmarked graves. "It’s also one of the few buildings in Newport that still exist from the time of the Rising."

The National Wales: Newport RisingNewport Rising

Contemporary documents reveal that a tradition of laying flowers at St Woolos’ graveyard began on ‘Flowering Sunday’ in April 1840, the year after the quashed rebellion.

As the Rising slipped out of living memory the practice seems to have waned, but Osmond remembers the moment in the 1980s when Richard Frame and South Wales Argus reporter Mike Buckingham reintroduced the tradition and revived interest in the story.

"Mike Buckingham wrote a piece, you know, that someone had laid flowers at the graves – but of course he had put them there himself!"

Eventually a plaque was installed near the entrance to the cathedral, commemorating the lives of the 22 men killed. Each year a short ceremony takes place to remember what happened.

The National Wales: The memorial to the Chartists outside Newport CathedralThe memorial to the Chartists outside Newport Cathedral

This year, the Reverend Canon Ian Black, Dean of St Woolos Cathedral, will offer an apology for the way the established Church rejected Chartism at the time before Newport council leader Jane Mudd and author Elin Jones will recount the events of 1839 in English and in Welsh. Newport’s mayor, David Williams, will pronounce a roll call of the dead to remember the names of those who gave their lives for the cause of democracy.

Melinda Drowley says it is particularly poignant that Newport East MP Jessica Morden was in touch regarding her message for the event before attending the House of Commons chamber debate to remember murdered Conservative MP Sir David Amess.

And she is keen to emphasise that while as a charity OCH is not affiliated to any political party, it does campaign on political issues.

"We assert Article 21 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights," says Drowley. "That anybody can be in the government of their country, and participate in civic life."

READ MORE: Celebrate the history of Newport's Black sailors

The charity is painfully aware that many citizens of Newport – refugees and asylum seekers – have come to Wales precisely because of political persecution in their countries of origin.

"In Wales they have been given the right to vote," says Drowley, referring to the eligibility granted to foreign nationals in Senedd elections. "We believe that right should be extended to all UK elections."

And she strongly asserts the UK-wide relevance of the Newport Rising to our understanding of democracy today. "It’s the nature of uprisings like Peterloo [when 18 people were killed by cavalry in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester while campaigning for greater democratic representation] and the Newport Rising to be underestimated and underreported. It’s in the interests of the status quo to keep that history on the back burner.

"It’s important for Wales to recognise the very disturbing, challenging, exciting thing that happened – it was a major landmark on the road to democracy."

The National Wales: Newport RisingNewport Rising

But Drowley is keen to stress that "you won’t get easy answers from the Chartist story – but you will get a very interesting vantage point from which to consider the problems with democracy today".

To this end, in addition to the convention and commemorative events, recent years have seen the expansion of OCH’s schools-based activities.

Previously centred on an annual reenactment march, OCH’s schools programme now includes free workshops such as ‘Chartism Redrawn’, delivered by artists Josh Cranton and Rhys DW, who in 2019 produced a graphic novel reimagining the Newport Rising, and ‘Fight for Facts’, focused on helping young people to develop greater awareness of misinformation and fake news.

Drowley says she has found the reinvigoration of Newport’s Chartist commemorations and celebrations 'exhilarating’, particularly since a torchlit march in 2019 that "captured the imaginations of hundreds of the diverse people of Newport".

But she says: "I don’t find it a romantic story. It’s a frightening story, and also an inspirational story. It’s not about heroes and heroines, it’s about people who were forced to act."

David Osmond adds: "The [Chartists] weren’t all desperately poor. A lot of them did have something to lose – but they fought to make things better for everyone."

The reopening of the Westgate Hotel, site of the massacre, has also been instrumental in opening up "a massive emotional history". In 2019, 2,000 people visited during the week of the launch of the graphic novel and recalled their own memories of the building’s use in more recent years.

"People remembered the ballroom," says Osmond, "and told stories about when they came here when it was a nightclub, or about family members who worked here when it was still open as a hotel."

And it is this, what Osmond concludes by calling "intangible cultural heritage" that OCH wants all of us to rediscover. "Whether you’ve just arrived on a boat, or were born and brought up in the valleys and have lived here all your life, it’s there and it’s free and available for all to claim."

For more information on Newport Rising, visit the website

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