A little-known fact is that Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the United States, was an avowed Chartist who participated in the Newport Chartist Uprising of 1839.

Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, and the intelligence work he carried out on behalf of Abraham Lincoln as head of the Union Army secret service intelligence division during the Civil War, are regarded as forerunners of the FBI and the CIA.

The group is also synonymous with strike-breaking: Businesses would hire the private security agency to infiltrate trade unions, spying on workers trying to organise for better pay and conditions, driving suspected trade unionists out of factories and intimidating workers from participating.

On many of these occasions, events turned violent - Pinkerton agents engaged in open battle against Homestead steel workers in Pittsburgh, USA, during their 1892 strike against planned wage cuts.

The agency exists to this day as a private security firm. In 2019, Amazon was revealed to have hired Pinkerton detectives to surveil staff at a warehouse in Poland, and the agency was called in to provide security when telecomms workers in Virginia, USA, went on strike in 2018.

Although rarely mentioned in narratives of the Newport rebellion, Pinkerton's participation as a young man with his brother is well documented in the family's papers and associated publications (Mackay (1996), The Early Pinkertons).

Moreover, his experience at Newport provided lessons for Allan Pinkerton which may have played an important role in influencing the meticulous work methods that he developed in the US.

Why was Alan Pinkerton, a native of Glasgow, participating in the Newport Rising?

In order to understand this, it is worth considering the origins, growth and development of the Chartist movement through 1838 and 1839.

The Chartist movement had emerged at a time when government was run by a relatively small group of wealthy individuals.

Society in the mid 1800s was changing rapidly. Many felt exploited with poor living and working conditions and no representation in the government of the day.

The Charter, which underpinned the Chartist movement’s aims, was designed to extend democratic rights, and in particular voting rights, to society as a whole.

The Charter, penned by William Lovett in 1838, had six demands for parliamentary reform including annual parliaments, universal suffrage, secret ballot, abolition of MPs property qualification, payment for MPs and equal constituencies.

The National Wales:

Allan Pinkerton, who served as head of the Union Intelligence Service and foiled an alleged assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland, while guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration, 1862. Picture: Alexander Gardner/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

As a result of meetings held across Britain during 1838 to publicise the Charter, the Chartist movement had gained momentum through 1838. On May 21 1838 Glasgow saw a large meeting of Chartists, which was attended by Allan Pinkerton.

The first Chartist Convention, with delegates from across the country, was held in London in 1839.

Through the first half of 1839 the momentum behind the Chartist movement grew with membership mushrooming.

However, during 1839 a schism developed within the Chartist movement, as non-violent "moral force" activism, supported by mostly middle class Chartists, began to be threatened by the rise of "physical force" activism supported by many working class members.

This division increased as a result of the slow progress towards meeting the Chartist goals, the rejection of the Charter by parliament in July of 1839, and increasing attempts to suppress the Chartist movement by the arrest of its members and leaders.

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President Lincoln with Allan Pinkerton and General McClernand at the Antietam battlefield (by Alexander Gardner, American, 1821 - 1882), October 3, 1862. Print from a wet collodion negative. Picture: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

In May 1839 a petition had been drawn up for parliament, and on the day the petition was due to be delivered to parliament, there was much unrest across Britain, including riots at Llanidloes. This unrest was a portent of further violence to come later in the year.

On June 14 the Chartist Petition was eventually presented to parliament by Thomas Attwood. On July 12, the petition was defeated by 235 votes to 46, and the petition rejected.

Following this rejection, increased repression of the Chartist movement occurred. Between June 1839 and June 1840, more than 500 Chartists were detained.

One particular arrest incensed the acitivists of south Wales.

On May 8, Henry Vincent, an important and popular Chartist leader who had toured extensively in the local mining valleys, was arrested in London. The warrant had been issued by Newport magistrates on a charge of “having conspired to produce discontent and unlawful assembly”.

On his arrival and detention at Newport, along with three other local Chartists, there was considerable unrest - including riots on the streets of Newport.

Along with the three Newport Chartists, Vincent was held in Monmouth gaol. He was eventually tried at Shire Hall, Monmouth on August 2, 1839, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

Vincent’s arrest and imprisonment was one of the triggers of the Newport Rebellion, with one of the early objectives being his release from gaol.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Allan Pinkerton had become involved as an active member of the Chartist movement.

Pinkerton had been born in the Gorbals district of Glasgow in 1819.

By the end of 1838 he had served his seven year apprenticeship as a cooper but had found no work. By then he had developed an impressive physique, from swinging the 10lb hammer used to drive the staves into the iron hoops of barrels.

In 1838 and through 1839 Allan Pinkerton had emerged as a "physical force" Chartist. He was not religious, was interested in a broad range of social issues to improve society and importantly, for some of his later activities in the United States, was already passionately anti-slavery.

He was later to describe himself as the “most ardent” Chartist in Scotland - by which, apparently, he meant the one most determined to see the affair through, even to the point of bloodshed.

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The house in the Gorbals where Allan Pinkerton was born

Following a meeting in late 1838, Chartist power in Scotland had moved from "moral force" supporters in the east of Scotland to militant factions in Glasgow.

Here, Pinkerton had come under the sway of the ‘physical force’ charismatic leader Thomas Gillespie. He also became associated with George Harney, a left wing agitator and friend of Marx and Engels.

It was in this atmosphere that the ‘hotheads’ of the movement, included Pinkerton, became involved in plotting direct action to support the Charter.

However, it seems the Scottish Chartists had determined that Scotland was too remote to ferment a revolution and were actively looking elsewhere for insurrectionary activity. South Wales would turn out to be the testing ground.

A connection between the south Wales and Glasgow Chartists may well have been made when John Frost delivered a speech to about 100,000 people at the Green in Glasgow in June 1839. It seems probable that Frost would have met the young Pinkerton at this time.

In the spring of 1839, Pinkerton had already been appointed by the Glasgow Coopers to be their representative to the Chartist Convention in Birmingham.

In July, at the Birmingham Bullring riots, Chartist protestors were attacked by London policemen. This further increased the level of unrest in the Chartist movement and their determination to use physical force.

Against this background of increasing unrest, there is speculation that during the Birmingham Convention, a secret military organisation was formed with a decision made to free Henry Vincent from Monmouth Gaol.

Whatever the actual events at this time, there is no doubt that the Chartist movement had developed a sophisticated communication network.

Militants in Yorkshire, the North East, South West and Scotland committed their districts to armed struggle.

The Chartist movement was no longer a movement to address local grievances, but a nationwide unified movement for basic human rights. By mid-1839 delegates were in close communication with each other to monitor activities and discuss and coordinate forward plans.

Visits by delegates are well documented.

In the trial of William Jones, one of the south Wales Chartist leaders, specific mention is made of a visit by a Glasgow delegation to one of Jones’ meetings.

The imprisonment of Vincent and fellow Chartists in Monmouth had further raised the ire of the miners and iron workers in south Wales - the tide was moving towards militant action.

On October 3 John Frost visited Blaina, the home of Chartist leader Zephaniah Williams, and addressed a meeting at the Royal Oak. His aim had been to pacify the miners, whom he heard were intent on freeing Vincent from Monmouth Gaol.

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Tomb of Allan Pinkerton, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

His message was that now was not the time for action but to wait his command. Frost said: "The people of Scotland, were anxious to join them, along with Lancashire and West of England but the time had not yet come".

It was clear from Frost’s reception at these meetings that the miners and ironworkers in the Monmouthshire valleys were angry and demanding action. Momentum was beginning to build.

Frost had mentioned that he had great difficulty in restraining the Welsh from attempting to release Vincent by force. He was told that if the Welsh rose to release Vincent the people of Yorkshire and Lancashire were ready to join in a rising for the Charter.

Probably as a result of the Chartist communication network, the Glasgow delegation had become aware of the upcoming event in south Wales and, eager to participate, had made their way south to join the action.

During mid-October, the proposed uprising had morphed from an effort to free Vincent to a surprise march on Newport.

The road network and the convergence of several mining valleys on Newport perhaps provided a strategic advantage over an attack on the town of Monmouth.

Immediately prior to the march on Newport ,there were a frenetic series of secret meetings to coordinate the march, the final one being held at the Coach and Horses in Blackwood on Friday November 1, which was attended by many Chartist delegates.

Pinkerton has said that he was at that meeting although there is no documented evidence of this.

Pinkerton seems to have set out behind John Frost and Jack the Fifer on that fateful march down Stow Hill to the Westgate Inn on the morning of November 4.

Family records say he was only armed with a cooper’s hammer. His brother Robert was armed only with a pick axe.

After soldiers had opened fire on the Chartists both outside the entrance to the Westgate Inn and in the entrance hall, the demonstrators had fled for their lives, leaving the dead and wounded behind them.

The National Wales:

A drawing of the Chartists in Newport on November 4, 1839

Both Allan and his brother Robert fled through the back streets of Newport "with volleys of shots ringing round their ears’"

Dodging the withering fire of musketry, Allan Pinkerton and his Glasgow colleagues never stopped running until they were well on the road back to Risca. In the end, they somehow managed to scramble their way home back to Glasgow.

Far from deterring Pinkerton, the Newport Rising drove him to be more deeply involved in the Chartist movement.

By 1842 the pressures had begun to be too great and, with a price on his head, in April 1842 he decided to start a new life in the USA.

His subsequent career as a ‘private eye’ (Pinkerton’s term) and a spy in the Civil War was characterised by meticulous planning and secrecy.

The Newport experience had made him realise that success could not be achieved when planning and execution were poor.

However, Pinkerton would also have learned that secrecy and surprise (two components of the Newport Uprising that were to some extent well executed by the rebels) had given some strategic advantage, and he would have used this lesson in developing his future detective and espionage operations.

Additional content: Rebecca Wilks

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