Friday, 18 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Mid-Wales

The main industry in 19th century Mid-Wales was the woollen mills. There were three main towns involved, Newtown[1], Llanidloes[2] and Welshpool. The conditions of the woollen workers were poor. It was common for workers to work 14 hours per day and on occasions they would work 36 hour continuous shifts. Children were employed as feeders (feeding the wool into the machines) and horrific accidents to the children were not infrequent, with losses of limbs. Wages, living conditions and public health were poor in the towns. Poverty was rife, unemployment high and there were outbreaks of Cholera in the 1830s and the1840s. Although there were no trade unions the Friendly Societies acted as a type of union to which most workers belonged. In 1819, there was a march of Friendly Society members at Newtown to demonstrate against reductions in wages and this saw outbreaks of violence and damage to property. At Llanidloes in 1830 there was a five week strike by woollen workers which succeeded in winning higher wages. During the Reform Crisis of 1831-32, whilst the riots were taking place in Merthyr Tydfil, Political Unions were being formed in Mid-Wales. Expecting violence the authorities swore in 300 Special Constables, but there was no trouble. However, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did occasion violence and troops were required to restore order in Llanfair Caereinion in 1837 when a Relieving Officer was attacked.

In 1839, Llanidloes became well known all over the country as one of the centres of a growing revolutionary movement among working people. As well as not being allowed to vote, there were many other reasons for the ordinary workers to rise up against the government in the 1830s. A new law of 1834, just three years before Queen Victoria was crowned, brought in very harsh treatment of the poor and set up the terrible workhouse system. The local flannel-making industry was in depression and new machinery had put many of the poorest out of work. The situation led to outbreaks of violence in many areas, with unrest in industrial towns and the burning of ricks in country districts.

One of the radical groups which had set up the national Chartist movement was the Birmingham Political Union. It was with their help that a Chartist branch was set up in Newtown in 1837 and held its first public meeting in April that year to protest against the Poor Law. Further Chartist groups were set up in Llanidloes and Welshpool in 1838, though the latter did not survive for long. In October 1838 the first Chartist demonstration in Wales was held in Mid-Wales. At this meeting the Chartist Petition was approved and Charles Jones of Welshpool was chosen as delegate to the Chartist National Convention. Jones had lived in Birmingham and been a member of the Birmingham Political Union prior to returning home to Welshpool. Another local leader was Thomas Powell[3], originally from Newtown but, after training in London as an ironmonger, had set up in business at Llanidloes. Both of these men and most of the Mid-Wales leaders were responsible reformers who supported peaceful methods to achieve their aims. Not so, however, Henry Hetherington[4], a Birmingham Chartist who came to Mid-Wales in 1839 and advocated the taking up of firearms for ‘self-defence’. Unfortunately Hetherington’s views appealed to the younger fanatics amongst the Mid-Wales Chartists who proceeded to arm themselves, obtaining guns from local farmers, drilling under an ex-militiaman, making pikes, grenades and bombs.

By early 1839, the local landowners, magistrates, members of the church and others who had all the power in the area were getting worried by rumours of an armed revolt against them. Normally there was just a night watchman and part-time unpaid constables on duty in the town, so the magistrates sent for reinforcements. Three police constables were sent to Llanidloes from London, and Thomas Marsh, who was one of the wealthy landowners from the district, formed a ‘private army’ of around three hundred local men armed with sticks. They were probably people who were his workers and tenants, and had to do as he said. Like almost all ordinary workers of the time they would have been paid very little and could lose their jobs and homes if they upset the powerful ruling class. They would probably have supported the Chartists if they were able to[5].

A Chartist meeting was being held in Llanidloes on April 30th 1839 when three of their members were arrested by the policemen from London. They were taken to the Trewythen Arms in Great Oak Street, and when the crowd of Chartists found out what had happened to their supporters they all headed for the building... When the crowd of Chartist supporters arrived at the Trewythen Arms in the centre of Llanidloes they found it surrounded by the ‘private army’ of special constables. This enraged the crowd who stormed the building and set free the three Chartists who had been arrested by the London policemen. One of the policemen was badly beaten, but the other two escaped and hid, terrified of the mob. The inside of the building was wrecked but the authorities, scared of losing their power, claimed that there was a serious armed revolution going on. It appears, though, that most of the people involved in this affray were not Chartists but teenage labourers and other known troublemakers. Thomas Powell, the Chartist leader, was now in charge of the town of Llanidloes and he tried to act responsibly, being concerned to maintain the peace and appointing watchmen to ensure it.

T.E. Marsh, the Mayor of Llanidloes, however, was determined to take action and he again requested assistance from the Government, and this time they sent a contingent of the 14th Light Infantry from Brecon plus a troop of around two hundred Yeomanry cavalry that arrived on Saturday 4th May, 1839. The Chartists were not prepared to take on the army and fled, mostly to the South Wales ironworks where they considered they would be safe from apprehension. . The troops sealed off the town and arrested over thirty Chartists, including three women and Thomas Powell, and sent them to Montgomery jail. Although there was little resistance to be found in the town a military force stayed in the town until the following year. They were tried at Montgomery Assizes on 15th July 1839 where they were defended by Hugh Williams, the Carmarthen Lawyer and radical. All were found guilty. Thomas Powell was sent to prison for twelve months and was charged to find sureties of £400 after his release to keep the peace for a further five years. James Morris was transported for fifteen years for stabbing with intent to do bodily harm; Abraham Owen and Lewis Humphreys were transported for seven years for drilling in the use of arms; John Evans (Tailor), John Lewis (Tatw) and John Lewis (Crippplegate) were each sent to prison for twelve months with hard labour; others were sent to prison for six months with or without hard labour; and others lesser sentences of imprisonment[6].

[1] B. Bennett Rowlands History of Newport, Newport, 1914 contains some useful material on the early nineteenth century.

[2] E. R. Horsfall-Turner Municipal history of Llanidloes, Llanidloes, 1908 gives a municipal perspective on the events of 1839.

[3] A short biography of Thomas Powell can be found in J. E. Lloyd and R. T. Jenkins (eds.) The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down in 1940, University of Wales Press, 1959, pages 776-777. Powell was born in 1805 in Newtown, Wales. He moved to London youth as ironmonger’s assistant, worked for Hetherington and became bookseller himself. He was a Chartist missionary in Wales in the 1840s and took party of English ‘political’ emigrants to South America (San Salvador) via New York where he worked briefly. He died in 1850 in Trinidad. He contributed to possible Chartist influences on constitution of San Salvador.

[4] Ambrose G. Barker Henry Hetherington 1792-1849, London, 1938 remains the only modern biography. Shorter biographies can be found in J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume i, Macmillan, 1972, pages 167-172 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 236-238.

[5] Humphrey Gwalchmai ‘Y Chartists yn Llanidloes’, Yr Athraw, Llanidloes, 1839 and Anon (George Thomas) History of the Chartists and the bloodless wars on Montgomeryshire, Welshpool, 1840 are the most detailed contemporary accounts. Edward Hamer The Chartist Outbreak in Llanidloes, Llanidloes, 1867 reprinted 1939 is a sound near-contemporary pamphlet.

[6] Valuable analysis of the disturbances can be found in J. E. Samuel ‘The Montgomeryshire Chartist riots’, Cymru Fu, volume ii, 1889; J.D. Spencer ‘The Chartist movement in Wales’, in O. M. Edwards (ed.) Wales, volume ii, London, 1895; and, T. I. Nicholas One hundred years ago: the story of the Montgomeryshire Chartists, Aberystwyth, 1939.


Martin Davies said...

A relative of mine Edward powell aged 45 left the town with his family shortly after 1841(his youngest son was caled Thomas).Is there any referance to him being invoved in the Riot?.Was he related to Thomas powell?

Martin Davies said...

A relative of mine Edward powell aged 45 left the town with his family shortly after 1841(his youngest son was caled Thomas).Is there any referance to him being invoved in the Riot?.Was he related to Thomas powell?

Richard Brown said...


It's unlikely that Edward Powell was Thomas Powell's father. TP was born in 1805 and would have been in his mid-30s when the riots occurred though it is posible that Edward was a brother. This could explain why he left Llanidloes after 1841 though there could easily be other explanations. You might like to have a look at: Morris, E. R., Chartism in Llanidloes 1838-1839, (Llanidloes Chartist Celebration Committee), 1989, 2nd ed., 2005 for more detail on the riots.