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The Ignorant Mountaineers of South Wales

The Chartist-led ‘uprising’ or violent demonstration in Newport in 1839 was one of the most serious acts of its kind on mainland Britain, occasioning one of the worst losses of life in a single event of public disobedience, and with very profound consequences for future dissent and organised protest. Three columns of armed working-men descended on the town from various points on the coalfield intending… well, what exactly? Their intentions that day have been the subject of endless research and speculation ever since.

The years leading up to these events had been bitter ones of strikes, trade and wage fluctuations, epidemics and seething social discontent, and the workers had to evolve their own organisations of self-defence and mutual support in the face of these conditions. Chartism when it came, comparatively late-on to these valleys, was easily and swiftly grafted onto this existing stock of deeply alienated and well-organised workers. But Chartism’s long-held constitutional and peaceable approach to protest had - only that summer - been brushed aside dismissively by the British Parliament’s rejection of its National Petition. So-called ‘moral force’ Chartism immediately lost its sway and ‘physical force’ Chartism came to the fore, especially in places like the ‘heads of the valleys’ of industrial Blaenau Gwent.

At this time, worker militancy and organisation was probably further advanced in south Wales than anywhere else in Britain and the class divisions between men and master were more pronounced too - why else would Nantyglo’s ironmaster, Crawshay Bailey, build fortified towers around his property and have recourse to the regular army and militia in times of industrial and social unrest? But the singularity of Wales, its culture and language, was a major factor as well; a factor which many contemporaries in the British establishment[1] were very quick to point out in the subsequent enquiries and investigations, and use as a justification for both denigrating and proscribing it – the language especially.

One of my direct forebears, Rees Howells - sometimes recorded as Howell - lived in Nant-y-glo, Monmouthshire, during the momentous events described in this story and, coincidently, was born in the same year and died in the same year as his one-time employer, the infamous ironmaster, Crawshay Bailey. I do not know whether Rees was a paid-up Chartist or sympathiser or whether he took to the hills in fright during the days in question, but I do know that he was an ironworker most of his working life in what was one of the most troubled and militant areas of south Wales.

Rees was a migrant from rural Carmarthenshire, arriving in Nant-y-glo in the 1820s as far as I can tell, and lived and worked there for the rest of his life. Rees’s involvement or otherwise, as stated above, can only be guessed at of course; however, simply knowing that my family was right at the centre of these things spurred me on to research this period and this event because, one way or another, they must have been affected by it – as everyone was.

The fictional Rhys Howell is a nod, therefore, in the direction of my forebear, Rees, but I have given him a personality and some character traits that are also drawn from life: my Rees’s own grandson (also called Rees Howells). He was another ‘iron-man’ and my great grandfather, and I know about him because my father knew him as a child and passed these memories onto me; I also have a sepia photograph of him before me as I write.

The fictional Gwilym is based on a real-life character, too – a William Howell of Blaina (no relation). This William and his wife, Rachel, figured quite prominently in the Monmouth Treason Trial following the debacle in Newport, as a couple of state witnesses who were well-known for their opposition to ‘physical force’ Chartism. This same William, however, significantly failed, even under oath, to identify Zephaniah Williams, the radical publican from Nant-y-glo and one of the most prominent Chartist organisers – a man who had almost certainly visited his house!

Why would that be so, I wondered? Perhaps, it was because he could not, in all conscience, bring himself to implicate people that were known to him, people of his close community – especially not when the death penalty was the inevitable punishment for treason at the time! My fictional Gwilym, then, is very loosely based on the real-life, anti-militant, William Howell(s) of Blaina though he is invested with certain attributes – such as his Deaconate at Capel Hermon – that are totally my own invention.

Elaborating, then, upon these fragments of family history and employing the fictional device of two opposed, but loving brothers at the centre of these events, I have tried to portray – as faithfully as I can at this remove – the issues of the day and bring alive the herculean struggles, hopes and disappointments of that momentous year: 1839.


[1] The play’s title, 'The Ignorant Mountaineers of South Wales', is taken from an article in The Times, 6th November 1839.

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