Saturday, 22 July 2017

How did the government react to demands for political reform?





Demands for parliamentary reform began in the final years of the war.  In 1812, Major John Cartwright, a radical leader who had campaigned for parliamentary reform since the 1760s, began the first of three tours of the Midlands and North.  He wanted working- and middle-classes to work together to obtain parliamentary reform.  The result was the creation of Hampden Clubs[1] especially in the northern manufacturing districts hit by the slump in trade.  These were working-class in composition and moved away from the household or taxpayer suffrages demanded by middle-class reformers towards demands for manhood suffrage.  The Political Unions, organised by northern workingmen replaced the Hampden Clubs (they were finally banned in 1817) and helped organise over 2,000 petitions for parliamentary reform between 1817 and 1818. 


These two radical organisations raised a series of problems that were to dog radical activity until the 1850s. Was parliamentary reform best achieved by class collaboration (middle and working-classes working together) or by the working-class acting alone?  Should parliamentary reform be approached solely through demands for manhood suffrage (one man, one vote) or through achieving limited suffrage (household or taxpayer suffrage) and then moving to manhood suffrage (votes for adult males)?  The problem with this approach and class collaboration was that once the middle-classes had achieved limited suffrage, their enthusiasm for further reform waned.  This can be seen in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. What tactics should radicals use to achieve parliamentary reform?  Should radicals rely on persuasion (the use of petitions and meetings) to achieve their aims or should they adopt a more revolutionary approach using force if the government refused to act on their demands?  


It is easy to write off the revolutionaries as a failed minority and in retrospect, their activities can be seen as laughably naïve and doomed to inevitable failure.  However, there was a revolutionary underground in Britain that can be traced back to the late 1790s and it was prepared to confront the authorities with armed force.  The Luddite attacks between 1812 and 1815 had a revolutionary dimension and the Blanketeers projected march from Manchester to London to present a petition implied the use of force.  The fiasco of the Cato Street Conspiracy needs to be seen in the context of the actions of Glasgow weavers who were defeated by troops at the battle of Bonnymuir or the West Riding woollen workers who seized weapons and tried to take Huddersfield in April 1820.  The problem that radical faced was that attempts at revolution increased support for firm government action when public order and property were threatened. 


The transition to a peacetime economy between 1815 and 1821 severely strained social and economic relationships.  Falling demand for manufactured goods, especially textiles and the flooding of the labour market with demobilised soldiers and sailors increased unemployment.  In the climate of ‘distress’, the government found itself under pressure from two quarters.  It faced protest that took traditional forms, like the Fenland riots of 1816 that aimed at restoring ‘just’ wages and prices.  There were also growing demands for political reform from the radical platform of Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt[2] and William Cobbett. Hunt built on the foundations created by the Hampden Clubs and mobilised people around demands for manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and the secret ballot.


Disturbances in 1815 and 1816 convinced Lord Sidmouth[3] that the government faced a revolutionary challenge to its authority.  The disorder at the Spa Field meetings calling for parliamentary reform in London in November and December 1816 appeared to confirm his fears. The attack on the Prince Regent’s coach in late January 1817 was followed later in the year by the march of the Blanketeers,[4] unemployed workers from Lancashire and Cheshire. These events and Pentrich rising[5] in Derbyshire shifted middle-class public opinion, previously sympathetic to the radical demands behind the government that was committed to preserving public order and defending property. In 1817, Habeas Corpus[6] was suspended and restrictions placed on meetings for twelve months (the Seditious Meetings Act).  The opposition Whigs were as worried by events as the government and became more cautious in their approach to parliamentary reform. 


Prompt action by the government only partly explains the decline in radical activities.  Economic conditions eased during 1817 and 1818 and this led to a decline in radical activity.  William Cobbett maintained that it was difficult to ‘agitate a fellow with a full stomach’.  Habeas Corpus was revived early in 1818 and the Seditious Meetings Act lapsed in July that year. However, economic distress returned in 1819 and radicalism revived in 1819 reaching its peak in the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in August 1819.[7]  There was a wave of public support for the radical cause and even The Times attacked the actions of the Manchester magistrates.  The problem that faced Hunt and the radical leadership was how to translate this support into practical actions.  It was clear that the government did not intend to give in to radical demands for parliamentary reform.  Liverpool, though Sidmouth had advised the Manchester magistrates against taking any precipitous action, had little choice but to support their actions.  Repression was re-imposed in the ‘Six Acts’ restricting meetings and the press, allowing magistrates to seize weapons, and preventing drilling.  They gave the government powers to deal harshly with even slight symptoms of discontent.  The radical agitation faltered despite the intense unpopularity of the government. 


The Cato Street conspiracy, when a group led by the clearly unstable Arthur Thistlewood planned to assassinate the Cabinet in February 1820, had little impact on public opinion though Liverpool was able to make political capital out of it during the election campaign caused by the sudden death of George III the previous month.  More damaging for Liverpool was the unsuccessful attempt by the new king, George IV to divorce his wife Queen Caroline and the successful attempt to prevent her attending his coronation in 1821 (she was locked out of Westminster Abbey).  George IV became king on the death of his father in January 1820.  He had long lived apart from him wife whose behaviour had been a cause of concern since the mid-1800s.  In June 1820, she returned from Italy to claim her rights as queen, to which George IV was totally opposed.  The government was instructed to dissolve the marriage.  It was forced to abandon its attempts to deprive Caroline of her title and dissolve the marriage in November 1820 after widespread popular and Whig opposition.  She died suddenly in August 1821, three weeks after the coronation and the London crowds forced the military to take her coffin through the City on its way to Harwich and to her family home in Brunswick. The Queen Caroline affair made the government very unpopular and the Queen’s cause provided a rallying point for radical campaigners.


Once again, as the economy revived in the early 1820s, radicalism declined.  The public’s energies were diverted into other forms of radical action.  Some workingmen turned to religion and there were Methodist revivals in Lancashire and Cumberland.  Others campaigned against the Combination Acts.  Successful parliamentary pressure led to the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824.  A downturn in the economy led to a rapid increase in trade union activity with extensive strikes, including some violence in the winter of 1824-1825. Employers lobbied for the reintroduction of the Combination Acts and in 1825 new legislation was introduced that allowed unions to negotiate over wages and conditions but did not confer the right to strike.  This effectively limited trade unions to peaceful collective bargaining with employers over wages and hours.  Trade unionists who went beyond this narrow definition of legal activity for trade unions could be prosecuted for criminal conspiracy.


Two linked issues arise from the revival of radicalism after 1815: how revolutionary was it and how justifiable was the response of the government? The radical platform posed a significant threat in that it created a potential for revolution.  This was a very real fear for central and local authorities that feared a repeat of events in France thirty years earlier.   However, radicals who sought revolutionary solutions were never a leading force in the movement.  Far more importantly, the radical platform’s grievances challenged the whole direction of social development created by the industrial revolution.  There was a growing belief that working-class grievances like discriminatory taxation, the Corn Laws, the game laws, and the legal ban on trade unions could only be resolved by a parliament elected on democratic principles. Unrest and agitation, though they appeared to contemporaries to be part of a nation-wide movement, are best seen in terms of responses to local conditions. In this situation, the local magistrates rather than central government were at the forefront of reaction. The Home Office was prepared to provide advice to local authorities and increasingly its officials became convinced that there was a general desire to begin a national revolution.  The problem that Liverpool faced was that he had to rely on information provided by magistrates who reached national conclusions on their basis of their own local experiences, army officers and spies who often exaggerated the nature of the radical threat for financial gain. 


Liverpool was therefore responding to a perceived threat to public order based on inaccurate and, on occasions, deceptive information.  As a result, the government often overreacted to events as a result and because it did not wish to run any risk of revolution ever happening in Britain.  In fact, Liverpool’s approach was relatively moderate.  When legislation was passed, it was either, like the Seditious Meetings Acts given a time limit or as the Six Acts demonstrated largely ineffective in practice.  These radical demands challenged the political and economic power of the landed classes and industrialists and it was this that added a potentially revolutionary dimension of the radical challenge. The reaction of the government though criticised by contemporaries and historians as dictatorial emphasised the need for public order and tried--not always successfully--to distinguish between genuine social grievances and deliberately disruptive radical activity.



[1] Hampden Clubs were first set up in 1812 by Major Cartwright to promote the cause of parliamentary reform.  They were named after Sir John Hampden who fought and died for the cause of Parliament in the Civil Wars in the mid-seventeenth century. They were banned by the government in 1817.
[2] Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773-1835) advocated annual parliaments and universal suffrage (one man, one vote).  He was the major leader of the radical movement in the 1810s.
[3] Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844) was an able administrator but a mediocre Prime Minister between 1801 and 1804.  He was an effective Home Secretary between 1812 and 1822
[4] March of the Blanketeers.  Manchester textile workers decided to march to London to petition the Prince Regent for parliamentary reform.  They each carried a blanket but few got beyond Stockport and only one reached London.
[5] The Pentrich Rising was led by Jeremiah Brandreth with little support and was easily put down.
[6] Habeas Corpus.  A writ requiring that someone who has been arrested and imprisoned should be examined by the courts to see whether there are sufficient grounds for continued imprisonment.  It is an effective means of protecting the individual against arbitrary arrest and detention.
[7] Peterloo Massacre.  On 16 August 1819, a peaceful meeting was held at St Peter’s Field, Manchester.  Local magistrates decided to arrest Hunt who was one of the speakers.  The Yeomanry were given this task, in the ensuing chaos, large numbers of people were injured, and at least eleven killed.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Newport to Newport..John Frost’s journeys

The recent Chartism Day included an paper on the Williams’ ‘confession’ and a reappraisal of his role in the insurrection by Les James.  This led me to look again at my discussion of the transportation of the three Chartist leaders to Van Diemen’s Land in the second edition of Three Rebellions, published at the end of last year.


After they were sentenced, Frost, Jones and Williams were then returned to Monmouth Gaol to await their fate and were placed, at their own request, in the same condemned cell. Isolated from what was happening, they were unaware of the massive campaign to save their lives or the rival campaign among Monmouthshire’s gentry to bolster the government’s resolve to execute them. Feargus O’Connor expressed the view that ‘Frost has been the victim of a black conspiracy; and that if he is executed he will be foully and deliberately murdered.’[1] Initially, the government was unimpressed by calls for mercy arguing that some examples needed to be made to prevent anarchy. On Tuesday 28 January 1840, Frost’s appeal was rejected and the following day the Cabinet unanimously confirmed this decision with Normanby, the Home Secretary, immediately informing Monmouth Gaol that the sentence should be carried out on Saturday 1 February. Preparations for their execution were well advanced when two days before it was scheduled, it was postponed until Thursday 6 February. Some years later, Frost commented that the postponement was part of a government plot to push the three into a suicide pact, something they had discussed and which he and William Jones had rejected.[2]



John Frost


This intensified sympathy among Chartists for Frost and his fate became a rallying point that unified the movement behind a massive petitioning campaign, and mass meetings were held in almost every major town across Britain. In Dundee, for instance, a meeting called on Chartists to consider what ‘the violent and ignominious death of Mr Frost would inflict upon this unhappy, miserable, distracted and misgoverned country’.[3] The Frost Defence Fund, quickly established, proved effective at raising funds from across Britain.[4] The level of support was exceptional. Lord Brougham, who presented many of the petitions to the House of Lords, said he had never known a subject that caused so much public interest. More signatures were collected on petitions for reprieve than had been collected for the first Petition and there is more evidence of revolutionary organisation with plans for rescue or for further rebellion should the death sentence be carried out than at any other time. In Monmouthshire, there was a wave of arson attacks, threatening letters and assaults aimed at those associated with the prosecution. O’Connor, probably correctly, saw that peaceful action was the only means of saving Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones from the gallows. The Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert was planned for 10 February and many Chartists expected a pardon as a practical way of heading off demonstrations. The government was in a difficult position however, as it was facing widespread criticism over its handling of Chartism. It triggered a no-confidence debate in the House of Commons on the day Frost’s appeal was rejected that it survived by only 21 votes and it needed to be seen to be resolute in its response to rebellion.



Nonetheless, there was growing pressure outside Westminster for clemency and Frost’s lawyers repeatedly lobbied the Cabinet, although the Bradford rising did not help their cause. Yet, Tindal’s blunt recommendation for mercy at the trial and his intervention on 31 January, when he told Normanby that the government should consider sparing all three prisoners on the grounds of legal objections raised in the trial proved crucial.[5] His intervention made it increasingly difficult for the government to maintain its firm stance and a reprieve was finally granted on 1 February 1840. O’Connor felt he had succeeded with his campaign of peaceful mass petitioning where rebellion had failed and that the authorities could be open to the extra-parliamentary pressure.[6] The focus for O’Connor now moved towards obtaining a free pardon for the three men.[7] Whether Melbourne made the decision to commute the sentence because of Chartist pressure or Tindal’s intercession, the first unlikely, the second probable, it was an astute move defusing a potentially inflammatory situation. Frost, Jones and Williams were transported to Van Diemen’s Land from Portsmouth on 24 February arriving in Hobart four months later.[8] Frost returned to Britain in 1856 but Zephaniah Williams and William Jones did not, dying in Tasmania in 1874 and 1878.[9]

There is no doubt that this was a political trial.[10] The prosecution focussed its attentions on what happened in Newport and made little attempt to examine the full extent of the rebellion and the Attorney-General was instructed that the trials should not be allowed to drag on. The Tory press was quick to scent a cover-up and, according to one observer: ‘It would be impossible to describe the indignation of the country magistrates at this abandonment of duty upon the part of the Crown’.[11] Although Normanby wrote to express his appreciation at the valuable services of the local magistracy on 21 January 1840, any tempering of their feelings was probably countered when the death sentences were commuted. This may explain why Justice Maule passed savage sentence against rebels appearing before the Brecon Lent Assizes. David Lewis and Ishmael Evans of Brynmawr were sentenced to the maximum sentence of seven years’ transportation for administering illegal oaths and with incitement to violence.[12] By the end of 1840, many Chartists still remained in prison: 62 in Monmouth Gaol, 4 in Usk, 12 in Brecon Gaol and 50 in Montgomery and one in Swansea.

At around midnight, on Sunday night, the prisoners were roused from their sleep, told of the change of sentence and informed that they were to be moved immediately on the orders of the Home Office. They were driven to Chepstow escorted by police and a troop of lancers and, around 4.00 am put aboard the steamship Usk and taken to Portsmouth, a voyage that usually took four days but took fifiteen because of bad weather. There, they spent ten days on the prison hulk York before being transferred to the Mandarin on 24 February for transportation to VDL – 14,000 miles and 4 months later, Frost, Jones and Williams arrived at Hobart on 30 June 1840. The voyage itself was not uneventful. Frost was convinced that there was a government plot to kill the three men.[13] Before the Mandarin sailed, the Governor of Portsmouth had warned Frost that if there was any commotion on the ship, the officer in command of the troops had orders to act ‘with the greatest promptitude’. His view was reinforced by rumours of a mutiny to take over the ship before it reached the Cape and sail to South America, and a letter was sent to the three inviting them to lead it. Although Zephaniah Williams was inclined to join the plotters, Frost would have nothing to do with it and burned the letter. Dr Alexander McKechnie, the Surgeon Superintendent who, in addition to his medical duties, was responsible for security appeared to befriend the Chartists promising to do what he could to make their lives as comfortable as possible.[14] Although all three were indebted to McKechnie, Frost had doubts about the surgeon’s motives. Frost concluded that the letter was bogus, may have been written by McKechnie and was a calculated ploy to entrap them and give the government the excuse to carry out their commuted executions. For Frost, the suspicion that they had been encouraged to commit suicide in Monmouth Gaol, the warning from the Governor of Portsmouth and the bogus letter were sufficient to convince him of a government conspiracy to kill them. Although his suspicions might have been justified, there is no evidence apart from Frost’s later letters to confirm the conspiracy’s existence.

McKechnie’s motives are also important in considering the validity of Zephaniah Williams’ ‘confession’ made a few weeks after rumours of the mutiny had spread around the ship. A copy was discovered by David Williams among the papers in Lord Tredegar’s Library at Newport when he was researching his biography of Frost during the 1930s. The confession confirmed everything that the government had suspected about the rebellion: it was a revolution that planned to overthrow the government and establish a republic. Although he denied everything at his trial, Williams admitted to McKechnie all that the Crown had alleged when it outlined its case at the Monmouth Special Assizes. Both Wilks and David Jones rely heavily on the confession that the rebellion was an attempt to establish ‘an autonomous republic, a commonwealth, a commune of armed citizens’[15] and that it was a ‘local rising originally conceived as part of a general insurrection’ to support their revolutionary conclusions.[16] They are critical of Williams’ dismissal of a document suggesting that its existence undermined his conclusion that the rebellion was in fact a monster demonstration.

Williams did not doubt that Zephaniah Williams was the author of the confession, though the original has never been found, but his concern was why William had made the statement.[17] He suggested that it was designed to curry favour with the authorities in the hope of some reward such as remission of his sentence. If McKechnie knew what was going on during the voyage and of Williams’ apparent willingness to join the mutiny as Frost believed, he could have exploited Williams’ obvious desperation to extract the confession and this may account for the extent to which it confirmed the view of the establishment in London and Monmouthshire that Newport was an act of rebellion. One further problem is that the confession does not marry with Williams’ known actions during the rebellion especially his assurances to the marchers from Blaina that they should arm themselves only for defence. Humphries concludes that Williams produced an account ‘he knew the authorities wanted to believe’.[18] If this was the case, it failed abysmally. The Home Office made no use of the confession perhaps because ministers recognised that it was an opportunistic fabrication that would not stand up to public scrutiny. Normanby had always been keen not to exaggerate what happened at Newport and only inaugurated the Special Assize under pressure from the Tory opposition.[19] If the confession arrived while the Whigs were still in power, Normanby had good reasons to suppress it. If, on the other hand, it arrived after Peel formed his government in late 1841, he too had good reason not to publish it for fear of exacerbating the situation.

Supporters of the three men had been encouraged by their partial success and now began to work for a complete reprieve. Further petitions were received by the Queen and the government: the Home Office listed 568 petitions in 1840. Two came from Merthyr Tydfil signed by over 26,000 people including 11,000 women. J. T. Leader moved for a free pardon in the House of Commons but the debate was not held until 10 March 1840 when the prisoners had been at sea for two weeks.[20] He was supported by Hume and Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, radical MP for Finsbury, who argued that if Frost could not be legally hanged, he could not be legally transported. However, there was little interest in the debate and the motion was easily defeated by 70 votes to 7. During the 1840s and early 18, there was widespread support for the plight of Frost, Jones and Williams. A Committee for the Restoration of the Exiles was formed and the Merthyr Chartist leader Morgan Williams played an extremely active role. Quietly, over the spring of 1841, while both William Lovett and Feargus O’Connor were in prison and without the arguments that had accompanied the collection of names for the smaller petition of 1839, the Chartist movement accumulated 1,339,298 signatures seeking a pardon. Presented to the House of Commons on 25 May by Duncombe, it was rejected only on the casting vote of the speaker.[21] Campaigns in 1841, 1844, 1846 and 1847-1848 for a free pardon were all vigorously opposed by the government, despite petitions from Australia about the good conduct of the three leaders, Sir James Graham, Peel’s Home Secretary and other ministers were clear: the Newport rebellion had been more dangerous than protests in the Canadas. Nevertheless, the different campaigns helped to bring a new vitality to a movement increasingly ravaged by factionalism and reinforced O’Connor’s position as its leader. During 1853 and 1854, the fate of Frost, Williams and Jones was linked to that of the Young Ireland leaders also transported to VDL.[22] The attitude of the government can be summed up by the annotation on a letter from Mary Frost to the Home Office dated 25 August 1853…’Put with the other Papers’.

The Chartists received an unexpected reception in the colony. An opposition newspaper bluntly stated, ‘no person attentively reading the trial can form that conclusion that Frost ever contemplated ‘levying war against Her Majesty which is the treason complained of’ and hoped that the three men would soon be freed.[23] The three Chartists were given the privileges of political prisoners and were confident they would escape detention at Port Arthur that was generally used for repeat offenders. Normally, they could have expected to be sent to one of the Probation Stations along the Tasmanian coast to serve between 2-4 years on public works before being granted a ticket of leave and released into the community to work for wages. Of the 214 convicts on the Mandarin, they were the only ones sent to Port Arthur where Frost became a clerk in Commandant Charles O’Hara Booth’s office, Williams a supervisor in the coalmines, and Jones an overseer blacksmith in the boys’ penitentiary at Point Puer. All three encountered problems in their early years in the colony. William Jones was removed from his position within a year and, after several months in the hospital at Port Arthur was placed in Number One Garden Gang. He had managed to adapt to his new conditions better than his two companions and by 1843, was thought sufficiently reformed to be appointed a constable in Hobart, a position that Williams, now estranged from Jones, thought ‘just suits the tyrants’. Despite achieving some prosperity in his old trade, by 1848, he was penniless, his only source of income was earned as a part-time actor and he exposed William’s plans for a second escape to the authorities. He died in Launceston in late1873 aged 68. Zephaniah Williams tried to escape and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in chains first in the logging and then the garden gangs. Denied his ticket of leave largely because Booth decided he was too useful an asset to lose, he spent a total of three years at Port Arthur.[24] Finally, he was transferred to the probation station at Impression Bay where he was needed to prospect for fresh water, something he accomplished in three weeks. Frost’s employment as a clerk ended in 1841 and he was transferred to Brown’s River, possibly for displeasing Lord John Russell by an indiscreet letter to England. While at Brown’s River, he was sentenced to three days’ solitary confinement for insolence to the superintendent. Although recommended that he should be removed to Port Arthur and ‘employed at labour in the same manner as other convicts’, he too was sent to Impression Bay on the Tasman Peninsula, where he became a schoolmaster and was commended for being ‘studious, quiet and obedient’.

Sir John Franklin was replaced in 1843 and Williams planned to raise the question about the time he and Frost had been detained in penal settlements when the new governor visited Impression Bay. Perhaps because of his appeal, Williams and Frost then started two years’ probation. They were initially moved to Slopen Island, a transit station for convicts en route for Hobart where they arrived in November 1843. After three months in a quarry, Williams was made a convict constable before being moved after a month to the town of New Norfolk as a watch-house keeper supervising road gangs. He single-handedly put down a riot in the New Norfolk lunatic asylum in April 1845, something for which he applauded throughout the colony. The Governor recommended to London that he should be granted his ticket of leave. However, the Whigs had returned to power in 1846 and Sir George Grey, now Home Secretary stubbornly refused to grant even this small concession. Desperation appears to have set in again and he was soon back in a logging camp in the bush and then unsuccessfully attempted a second escape that resulted in his return to Port Arthur. Once he was released into the Convict Barracks in Hobart, he decided not to return to Wales and was sufficiently confident about the future to ask his wife and family to join him. He finally received his ticket of leave in November 1849, a conditional pardon on 27 June 1854[25] and a free pardon on 24 February 1857.

Although he took no part in public life, Williams’ entrepreneurial and business abilities played an important part in developing the colony’s coal reserves. In 1849, he began mining at Knocklofty without success, but later discovered the coalfield in New Town neglected for 20 years. Until 1853, in partnership with R. J. Collins, a Canadian Patriot he worked the Triumph mine, producing between 30-40 tons of coal a day. When coal was found at the Mersey River, Williams went to inspect it. Offers from a Launceston syndicate fell through and Williams started his own company acquiring over 2,000 acres, forming a miners’ camp and starting work at Tarleton where the Denison colliery was opened in 1853. He sent to Wales for miners, built houses for them, a tramway and a deep-water jetty.[26] In 1855, he entered another partnership and until 1859 managed the Denison, Nook and Don mines. Williams left the industry when the mines failed, became a publican at Ballahoo and built a fine house at Tarleton. Meanwhile some of his family had come out to join him and he died at Launceston on 8 May 1874.[27]

Frost was sent to New Town to work initially for William Carter and later for Rev. W. Jarrett.[28] In May 1846, he worked at Bothwell and received his ticket-of-leave next November. For the next eight years, he earned a meagre living as a schoolmaster in various places and played no part in the public life of the colony. On 27 June 1854, he received a conditional pardon. Aberdeen’s coalition government had conditionally pardoned one of the leaders of the 1848 Irish rising, William Smith O’Brien, because it needed the votes of Irish MPs. Duncombe immediately raised the case of the Chartists in the House of Commons and Lord Palmerston, the Home Secretary, announced their pardon. This meant that Frost was now free to leave VDL but could not return to Britain. As he did not wish to die in the colony, six months later at the age of seventy, he sailed for America with his daughter Catherine, who had recently joined him in exile. They reached California in May 1855 and made their way to New York. There in May 1856, he received news of his free pardon that had been given to political prisoners at the successful conclusion of the Crimean War He wasted no time in going home and arrived in Liverpool on 12 July. On his return, Ernest Jones highlighted Frost’s continued commitment to Chartist principles:

Seventeen years of exile have rolled over his head, it is grey with age, but it has never once bowed to expediency or power. John Frost is a noble evidence of Chartist faith, endurance and courage; he is an omen of Chartist triumph.[29]

After a brief stay in London, Frost returned to his family at Stapleton near Bristol. In his absence, his mother and three of his children had died. His wife was also ailing and died within a year of his return. Catherine, who had accompanied him around the world, soon returned to Tasmania. His daughter Ellen had married William David of Blackwood, who had turned Queen’s Evidence in 1839 and then absconded and both seem to have emigrated to Australia. His old adversary Thomas Prothero had also recently died. In August 1856, he visited Newport and was greeted by 1,000 people as he stepped off the Bristol packet. He spoke to the crowd from a window of the temperance hotel in Llanarth Street saying that he still held the same opinions as he had done seventeen years before and that he was determined to work for the radical reform of Parliament. The Denbighshire Advertiser in an aptly titled editorial commented:

…it is worse than an absurdity to dream of it [the Charter] …The working men of England are too sagacious and enlightened not to perceive this, and hence the revival of the Chartist agitation will be as abortive as its success is hopeless…we believe that the workmen of these islands will not again allow themselves to be Frost-bitten in order to obtain even the six points of the Charter.[30]

Greater applause awaited Frost in London. On 15 September 1856, a huge demonstration took place in London during which, if The People’s Paper is to be believed, up to a million-people assembled to welcome Frost home.[31] ‘Mighty multitudes lined the streets’, it reported, ‘men marched in great part twenty-six abreast’ and an ‘almost ceaseless storm of applause and cheers…rose from all around’. In ‘a splendid open carriage’ drawn by ‘four greys with postilions in gala dress...decorated with laurels’ Frost himself was showered in flowers and surrounded by the crowds as many of those who had assembled tried to shake his hand.[32] At Primrose Hill, Ernest Jones read an address and Frost briefly responded.[33]

Frost perhaps planned to take an active part in public life. In the immediate aftermath of the London demonstration, he embarked upon a tour of Britain that lasted from September 1856 through the following spring. Although he spoke about events in 1839 at least once, when he declared that Hodge and Harford were government agents and that the story about the Welsh mail had been fabricated, his main topic was the horrors of transportation. Thousands paid to hear him lecture and many more were turned away from packed halls.[34] Frost’s lectures, presented as a sensational exposé were dominated by a tale of brutal tyranny, arbitrary rule, physical torture, human degradation and destruction faced by convicts. By revealing the truth about the barbaric conditions suffered by convicts, Frost hoped to excite a similarly intense hatred for tyranny in the people of Britain and to rouse them again to demand radical reform in the House of Commons. This was already passé and soon no more was heard from him. He remained a revered figure in radical circles and retained an interest in public matters but played no part in the reform organisations of the next twenty years. Like Chartism, he was already an anachronism. His interests turned to spiritualism that he had been introduced to in the United States and several times, he expressed his intention to write his autobiography but never did. He died on 27 July 1877, age ninety-three.[35]


[1] ‘Frost and his Trial’, Northern Star, 18 January 1840, p. 4. Those subscribing to the Frost Defence Fund are listed pp. 7-8.
[2] This is discussed in ibid, Humphries, John, The Man from the Alamo, pp. 166-167.
[3] Northern Star, 25 January 1840, p 6. Northern Star, 1 February 1840, p. 1, listed meetings in Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Manchester.
[4] ‘The Frost Defence Fund’, Northern Star, 18 January 1840, pp. 7-8, 25 January 1840, pp. 7-8.
[5] ‘Meeting of the Fifteen Judges to decide on the Case of Frost, Williams and Jones’, Monmouthshire Merlin 1 February 1840, p. 4.
[6] ‘Frost and his Companions are saved’, Northern Star, 1 February 1840, pp. 5-8.
[7] ‘Meeting of Delegates…of devising the best means of procuring a Free Pardon’, Northern Star, 8 February 1840, p. 1.
[8] ‘Transportation of the State Prisoners, Frost, Williams and Jones’, Monmouthshire Merlin, 8 February 1840, p. 3, ‘The Condemned Chartist Prisoners, Further Particulars’, Monmouthshire Merlin, 15 February 1840, p. 3, ‘The Chartist Convicts—Frost, Williams and Jones’, Monmouthshire Merlin, 22 February 1840, p. 3, ‘The Chartist Convicts’, Monmouthshire Merlin¸7 March 1840, p. 3.
[9] On the lives of the three in Australia see, ibid, Brown, Richard, Three Rebellions, pp. 573-577.
[10] Ariouat, Jacqueline, ‘Rethinking Partisanship in the Conduct of the Chartist Trials, 1839-1848’, Albion, Vol. 29, (4), (1998), pp. 596-621, considers the nature of ‘partisanship’.
[11] Beacon, 25 January 1840.
[12] Ibid, Williams, David, John Frost, p. 323, suggests that the intervention of the Home Secretary led to his sentence being annulled.
[13] Ibid, Humphries, John, The Man from the Alamo, pp. 173-175.
[14] McKechnie (1803-1866) was employed as Surgeon on a second convict ship, the Layton, also to Van Diemen’s Land in 1841. See Therry, Roger, Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Residence in New South Wales and Victoria, (Sampson, Law, Son and Co.), 1863, pp. 15-16, for discussion of the influence of surgeons on convict ships.
[15] Ibid, Wilks, Ivor, South Wales and the Rising of 1839, p. 249
[16] Ibid, Jones, David, The Last Rising, p. 209.
[17] Ibid, Humphries, John, The Man from the Alamo, pp. 176-181, discusses Williams’ ‘confession’ concluding that Williams produced an account ‘he knew the authorities wanted to believe’. James, Les, ‘The Confession of Zephaniah Williams and the 1839 Rising’, Journal of the Gwent Local History Council, 116, (2014), pp. 3-33, and James, Les¸ Render the Chartists Defenceless: John Frost’s Voyage with Dr McKechnie to Van Diemen’s Land in 1840, (Three Imposters), 2015, is the most recent discussion.
[18] Ibid, Humphries, John, The Man from the Alamo, p. 180.
[19] Ibid, Wilks, Ivor, South Wales and the Rising of 1839, pp. 216-217.
[20] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 10 March 1840, Vol. 52, cc1133-1150. The response of Normanby to Lord Teynham’s presentation of a petition for pardon from Newport clearly expressed the government’s position, ‘the petition did not, in any respect, merit the character he had given. He had no doubt been misled, and the petition would be regarded as coming from persons interested in the fate of those men…and [did not represent] the feelings and opinions of the respectable inhabitants of Newport: Hansard, House of Lord, Debates, 10 March 1840, Vol. 52, c1109.
[21] McDouall’s Chartist and Republican Journal, 26 May 1841.
[22] John Williams to Lord Palmerston, 9 March 1853, and John Williams for the Committee to Home Office, 10 March 1854, James Harris to Lord Palmerston, 25 February 1854, HO 18 links William Smith O’Brien to Frost suggesting that the government should extend ‘the little clemency to the man Frost as has been extended to the gentleman O’Brien!’
[23] Launceston Advertiser, 23 July, 6 August 1840.
[24] Booth had been trying for eighteen months to manufacture iron castings and he turned to Williams in desperation. Williams quickly resolved the problem but his reward was seven months supervising their manufacture.
[25] Herman Merivale to H. Waddington, 8 June 1852, responded that Sir John Pakington, Tory Colonial Secretary, supported a conditional pardon for Williams and Jones largely because ‘neither was actually present at the affray which took place at Newport.’ See also Williams’ Petition for a Conditional Pardon, 15 September 1851, National Archives, HO 18.
[26] Ibid, The Man from the Alamo, pp. 241-269, examines the Welsh miners at Ballahoo Creek.
[27] Rudé, G., ‘Zephaniah Williams, (1795-1874)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 601-602.
[28] Rudé, G., ‘John Frost, (1784-1877)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 419-420.
[29] People’s Paper, 19 July 1856.
[30] ‘Chartism Frost-Bitten’, Denbighshire Advertiser, 27 September 1856, p. 4.
[31] The numbers were certainly disputed. The Times, 16 September 1856, for example, claimed that 20,000 people attended. At least one old Chartist also remembered the day as a disappointment: ‘It was a sorry affair. What was worse, it excited the derision of the shopkeepers who bestowed any notice on it at all. Two or three hundred people at the most constituted what was intended for a great democratic demonstration’. Adams, W. E., Memoirs of a Social Atom, 2 Vols. (A. M. Kelley), 1903, reprinted in one volume, (Augustus Kelley), 1968, p. 198.
[32] People’s Paper, 20 September 1856, The Leader, 20 September 1856.
[33] Chase, Chartism, pp. 351-353.
[34] Frost published several versions of his account of convict life. The first, produced while he was still in America awaiting a full pardon was entitled A Letter to the people of the United States showing the effects of aristocratic rule, (The Author), 1855. The content of one of his earliest lecture appearances on return to Britain then appeared in autumn 1856 as The Horrors of Convict Life: two lectures, (Holyoake and Co.), 1856. A reworked version of this was published in two editions, both of which were printed in 1857, as A Letter to the People of Great Britain and Ireland on Transportation showing the effects of Irresponsible Power on the Physical and Moral Conditions of Convicts, by John Frost, late of Van Diemen’s Land, (Holyoake and Co.), 1857. Reid, Kirsty, ‘The Horrors of Convict Life: British Radical Visions of the Australian Penal Colonies’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 5, (4), (2008), pp. 481-495.
[35] ‘Death of John Frost, The Chartist’, Western Mail, 30 July 1877, p. 2, ‘Death of John Frost, The Chartist’, Monmouthshire Merlin, 3 August 1877, p. 7.