Friday, 7 September 2007

Chartist Lives: Zephaniah Williams

Williams[1], a Chartist and geologist, was probably a native of the Sirhowy valley, near Newport, Monmouthshire. Little is known of his early life, but by 1830, he had married Joan, daughter of Llewelyn Llewelyn, a yeoman farmer on Mynyddislwyn, and embarked upon a career as a geologist. He prospected for coal in the lower Rhymni valley and was for a time mineral agent to the Sirhowy Coal Company.

By the time of his rise to prominence as a leader of the Chartist rising at Newport on 3rd November 1839, Williams was landlord of the Royal Oak inn at Blaenau. His credentials for leadership of the movement were clear. He was known throughout the area as a freethinker, and defended his position in a pamphlet, A Letter to Benjamin Williams, in 1831. He had also a strong interest in radical politics: when, in 1832, the House of Lords rejected the second Reform Bill, Williams, with others, founded a political union to emphasise their support for the measure. Both the local working men’s association and the female Chartists met at the Royal Oak during the 1830s.

Williams was a key figure in the Chartist uprising. A confidant of its leader, John Frost, he toured the region addressing eager audiences in Welsh. He assured his listeners that if the people acted together there would be no bloodshed; that, indeed, many of the military were sympathetic to the claims of the Chartists. On the night of 3rd November, Williams and his men were assigned the key role of bringing up the rear of the column descending on Newport though by the time of their arrival in the town the advance guard was already fleeing from the bullets of the soldiers of the 45th regiment stationed there. Williams is alleged to have shouted ‘Cowards!’ at the men’s retreating backs, but, with the game so clearly up, he was not long in following their example. He took himself off to Caerphilly, and for three weeks evaded the authorities, hidden, variously, by his family or concealed in the branches of trees, wearing a green suit. His brother-in-law Dr John Llewelyn attempted to secure his passage to Australia on a ship named Vintage, but Williams was spotted boarding the vessel and arrested on 21st November. He was sentenced to death, but on 1st February learned that this had been commuted to transportation for life.

Thus Williams duly arrived in Australia, albeit under rather different conditions than he had once hoped. The Australian chapter of his life, however, saw him turn his fortunes around, after several notable reversals. The first of these occurred in 1843, when several men under his command in Van Diemen’s Land decided to escape and forced him to accompany them. He, along with the prisoners, was recaptured and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in chains, breaking stones. Another unsuccessful attempt, around 1847, brought another year’s punishment.

William’s fortunes began to revive, however, when he fell back on his old skills as a geologist. In 1851, he set up near Hobart with a Canadian rebel. The venture thrived and, after selling his share in the business for £800, he moved to Launceston, where in 1853 he received his conditional pardon, allowing him to live anywhere outside the British Isles. By this time, he was again in business and in autumn 1855 he hit the valuable Mersey coal bed, some 25 miles from Launceston, the exploitation of which made him rich. His wife and their two children, Rhoda and Llewelyn, rejoined him in 1854, and he died in Launceston, Tasmania, on 8th May 1874, thirty-five years after what he later called his ‘mad adventure’ in Newport.


[1] Sources: D. Williams John Frost: a study in Chartism, 1939, D. J. V. Jones The last rising, 1989 and J. Davies The Chartist movement in Monmouthshire, 1981. J.E. Lloyd and R.T. Jenkins (eds.) The Dictionary of Welsh Biography Down in 1940, Cardiff, 1959 has short biographies of the leading figures in the Newport rising including Zephaniah Williams.

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