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.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Lord Liverpool and the economy 1812-1822

Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister after Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in May 1812. He was the most underrated Prime Minister in the nineteenth century. described later in the century by Benjamin Disraeli as an ‘arch mediocrity’. Yet, he was a skilled politician and held together a government of strong personalities with differing opinions more prepared to serve under him than under each other. Between 1812 and 1822, he was faced with economic, political and radical challenges caused by the war against France and the problem of returning to peacetime conditions after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Between 1822 and 1827, the government had considerable energy largely because of the emergence of what has been called ‘liberal Toryism’. It was damaged only by divisions within the Cabinet especially over the ‘Catholic question’ though even here Liverpool was able to head off serious tensions by making it an ‘open question’.

Liverpool’s stroke in February 1827 released long restrained tensions and rivalries. Within three years, his party was in tatters, divided and without effective leadership. Three Prime Ministers followed in quick succession. Liverpool’s successor, George Canning[1] died in August within months of gaining office. His successor, Viscount Goderich[2] was a disaster resigning without ever meeting Parliament. Finally, the Duke of Wellington took the helm in January 1828.[3] His ministry saw the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Catholic Emancipation the following year. Wellington’s refusal to accept parliamentary reform led to the fall of his government in November 1830. The Whigs were in power.

Year Events
1812 11 May: Assassination of Spencer Perceval 8 June: Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister
1815 Corn Laws passed 18 June: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo
1816 Income tax repealed against government’s wishes December: Spa Fields riots
1817 February: Habeas Corpus suspended March: Seditious Meetings Act March of the Blanketeers 9 June: Pentrich rising
1818 General Election
1819 May: Bullion Committee chaired by Peel recommended the phased resumption of cash payments by the Bank of England 16 August: Peterloo Massacre followed by the Six Acts
1820 29 January: George III died, succeeded by George IV; General Election February: Cato Street conspiracy June: beginnings of Queen Caroline affair December: Canning resigned over government’s handling of Queen Caroline affair
1821 December: Sidmouth resigned as Home Secretary
1822 Peel appointed Home Secretary 12 August: Castlereagh committed suicide. Canning becomes Foreign Secretary and Leader of House of Commons
1823 January: Robinson appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer October: Huskisson appointed President of the Board of Trade
1826 General Election
1827 March: Liverpool resigned following stroke on 17 February April: Canning became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer 8 August: Canning’s death. Goderich became Prime Minister
1828 January: Goderich resigned and Wellington became Prime Minister Repeal of Test and Corporation Acts
1829 Catholic Emancipation
1830 June: Death of George IV. William IV succeeds July: Revolution in France August: General Election 2 November: Wellington ruled out parliamentary reform 16 November: Wellington resigned

How did Lord Liverpool’s economic policy develop 1812-1822?

Liverpool became Prime Minister towards the end of the protracted wars with France. By 1812, the duke of Wellington was winning the war against the French in Spain. The French defeat at Vitoria in August 1813 allowed him to cross the Pyrenees and invade France. Napoleon had been weakened by his unsuccessful invasion of Russia in 1812 and in early 1813 Liverpool and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh[4] were able to set up the Fourth Coalition (Austria, Russia and Prussia). Napoleon was defeated in the three-day ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in October 1813 and faced with a two-pronged invasion of France (Wellington from the south and the coalition partners from the east), he abdicated in 1814. Exiled to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean Napoleon plotted his return while the allies set about redrawing the boundaries of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. In March 1815, Napoleon returned to France but was defeated, in what Wellington called ‘a close-run thing’ at Waterloo in June. Exile was now permanent and Napoleon was sent to the southern Atlantic island of St. Helena where he died in 1821. Liverpool faced two major problems in the seven years after 1815: he needed to reorganise government finances depleted by the cost of the French Wars; and he had to face and deal with a revival of working-class radicalism.

How did Liverpool reorganise government finances?

The French wars saw two contradictory trends in the British economy. The need for uniforms and weapons to feed the war stimulated demand in increasingly mechanised manufacturing industry, especially textiles and iron and production increased dramatically. Mechanisation led to working-class resistance and Luddism.[5] Because of expansion in the agriculture sector, Britain was less reliant on imported food especially wheat. Large areas of England had been enclosed during the war. This made farming more efficient and allowed farmers to increase the amount of food they were producing. They borrowed money to pay for this but high profits meant that they could easily repay the banks. They could charge high rents for their land and the price of wheat remain high because the war restricted imports. By 1815, both industry and agriculture were outwardly strong but they were geared up for wartime production. The transition to peacetime proved difficult and posed a series of fundamental questions that taxed government until the 1840s. What should the place of agriculture be in an industrialised society? How could the competing claims of farmers and industrialists be resolved? What was the relationship between consumers and producers? What role should government have in determining the overall direction of the economy?

British governments in the late-eighteenth century did not attempt to control change in the economy. After 1815, unemployment rose because of the demobilisation of the armed forces and the need to cut labour costs especially in farming and textiles.[6] In returning the economy to peacetime conditions, ministers were forced to take a more active role. ‘Corn’ and ‘Cash’ dominated debates in the 1810s and ‘Commerce’ became important in the 1820s. Each posed major political problems for the Tories.


Between 1813 and 1815, corn prices fell following good harvests in 1813, 1814 and 1815 and the return to peace in 1814 brought unwelcome foreign grain imports. Farmers and tenants found themselves under pressure. Lower prices and high wartime taxation meant that they often found it difficult to repay bank loans. This had the following consequences for the farming sector. There were many bankruptcies amongst farmers who had borrowed to invest in their land during the war and who now faced with falling prices. Falling prices led to some landowners reducing the rents paid by their tenants. Falling prices and a surplus labour force caused largely by the demobilisation of the armed forces led to farmers reducing the wages they paid resulting in ‘distress’ in areas where farming was the main occupation.

These events culminated in the passage of the Corn Law of 1815 that prevented the import of grain until the price fell below 80 shillings a quarter (28 lbs.) for wheat. As grain prices rarely rose as high as 80 shillings, this measure effectively ensured that local farmers could get a high price for their grain without foreign competition. Why did Liverpool’s government decide to introduce legislation seen as unfair and favouring one sector of society? The protection of farming was not new originating in the Corn Laws passed in 1773 and 1804. Also, Liverpool could not ignore the fate of one of the country’s largest single economic interests, whose votes mattered in Parliament. A Corn Law was justified on the grounds of national security as Britain might need a reliable domestic supply of food. Finally, legislation was needed to maintain stability, as agriculture was the largest employer of labour and higher prices were justified to protect jobs.

Liverpool saw legislation as temporary to help farming return to normal after the war but the landed interest saw it as permanent or at least long-term. Parliament was dominated by landowners and farmers and they voted for legislation that the government had little option but to accept. Previous Corn Laws had tried to balance the interests of producers and consumers by maintaining prices at levels acceptable to both. The 1815 Act clearly favoured the interests of the producers. Manufacturers attacked the legislation. Parliament was, they argued interfering with the free market in their own narrow interests. Radical politicians regarded it as class legislation keeping corn prices artificially high to help farmers while penalising working people through higher food costs. Reaction was swift. There were petitions and riots in London in March. Politicians’ houses were attacked and troops had to be brought to the capital to restore order. Higher food prices fuelled working-class distress especially in rural England and riots in 1816 and again in 1818 were, in part a violent reaction to the Corn Laws.

Even so, there were demands from tenant farmers for further protection of farming after 1815 especially during the agricultural crisis of 1821-1823. However, political attitudes were changing. Liverpool was convinced, largely by the actions of radicals between 1815 and 1821 that governments that pandered to farmers at the expense of working-class consumers or tax-paying industrialists had a dangerously narrow political base. He made his own position clear in February 1822: ‘The agricultural is not the only interest in Great Britain. It is not even the most numerous.’ Farmers were being told bluntly that they no longer dictated government policies. Abolition of the Corn Laws was not practical but reform was. The government introduced minor changes in 1822 but price levels meant that they never came into operation. Liverpool regarded this as an interim measure while considered a more permanent solution.

Rising wheat prices from 1823, the financial crisis in 1825 and growing depression in manufacturing industry in 1826 brought fresh demands for the abolition of duties on foreign grain. Manufacturers lobbied Parliament and anti-Protectionists tried to make it an issue in the 1826 General Election. Liverpool made it clear in 1826 that he intended to revise the 1815 Act the following year. The 1827 and 1828 Corn Laws introduced by Canning and Huskisson respectively completed the process begun in 1822. These acts provided a sliding scale of duties that operated from 60 shillings and reduced to a nominal rate at 73 shillings a quarter. They were a compromise because of disagreement in the Cabinet on how best to handle this sensitive issue.


Britain’s financial state in 1815 was not healthy: the French wars had been expensive, taxation was high and unpopular and ‘cheap’ paper money had been circulating since 1797 when Britain had gone off the Gold Standard[7] and the Bank of England had suspended payments in gold and silver and began to issue paper currency (£1 and £2 notes). Income tax (direct taxation)[8] brought in about a fifth of government income. Working-class radicals argued that indirect taxes[9] (duties or tariffs) pushed food prices up and hit working people unfairly. In 1814-1815, government spending exceeded income from taxation by 45 per cent. The national debt had risen from £238 million in 1793 to £902 million in 1816. Roughly, eighty per cent of government expenditure was needed simply to pay the interest on loans.

Reducing public spending and paying off its debts (a process called retrenchment) was a major priority for Liverpool’s government after 1815. Liverpool recognised that the transition to lower peacetime taxation would take time. What Liverpool and his Chancellor Nicholas Vansittart needed was a period of financial stability. Income tax was central to this stability. By 1815, it accounted for a fifth of all government income and while it had never been popular, it had been tolerated. With the end of the war, demands for its abolition increased and in 1815 and 1816 the Whigs organised a national campaign against it. This was successful and in 1816, Liverpool failed, by thirty-seven votes, to continue the tax.

Abolishing income tax may have been popular but it left government finances in chaos. To make up the lost income, Liverpool had to reduce government spending, borrow money and increase indirect taxation. £340,000 was trimmed from defence spending in 1816. Government departments pruned and a ten per cent cut was made in official salaries. Liverpool could do little to reduce spending further. By 1818, he controlled only nine per cent of revenue. The rest was swallowed up servicing the interest on the National Debt, war pensions and interest on loans necessary to meet the deficit of £13 million. There was an overwhelming need for reform of the financial system.

Liverpool recognised that sustained economic growth meant a return to ‘sound money’ (low levels of interest and cash payments in gold and silver rather than paper currency). He set up a Select Committee on Currency chaired by Sir Robert Peel. In May 1819, it recommended the gradual resumption of cash payments by 1823. This transition was achieved ahead of time and from 1821, Britain was back on the Gold Standard. Financial experts favoured the end of wartime paper currency arguing that a return to a fixed Gold Standard was essential to a sound monetary policy. The landed interest supported cash payments. For them, it meant a return to ‘proper’ money and the end of a paper currency that represented financial speculation, industrialisation and uncontrolled urban development. Industrialists in the northern textile towns, by contrast, saw the decision as premature.

By 1818, government income through taxation covered the costs of government spending or a balanced budget. However, Liverpool still faced the problem of having to continue to borrow money from the London money market to pay off existing debts. Interest rates rose after 1815 and the government had to borrow money at high rates of interest to service existing debts. This led to a rising National Debt. The radical press, landowners who had to pay higher interest charges on loans but were faced with lower agricultural prices and industrialists were critical of ‘tax eaters’ and ‘fund holders’ who seemed to be holding the nation to ransom. The case of a review of the national system of finance was necessary economically and politically. A second committee looked at government finance (taxation, spending and borrowing). The recommendations of this committee led to Vansittart’s budget of 1819 that imposed £3 million of new taxes, including a new malt tax, and took £12 million out of government reserves to balance the budget. This was seen to herald a ‘new system of finance’. It established the two principles of fiscal management that dominated the remainder of the century: government should aim for a surplus of income from taxation over government spending; and that a balanced or surplus budget helped to restore public confidence in government.


Liverpool recognised that a revival in trade and manufacture was essential if his fiscal policy was to work effectively. ‘Trade’ was the third strand of his policies. It was thought that removing tariffs on imports and loosening commercial regulations would stimulate the sluggish economy but Liverpool’s approach was cautious. The government derived much of its income from customs and excise. Farmers were suspicious of moves towards freer trade, as they believed this would inevitably lead to the repeal of the Corn Laws.[10] Many merchants and manufacturers supported protection in markets in which they were weak arguing for freer trade only where they had the competitive advantage. Liverpool echoed these attitudes in a speech on trade in the House of Lords on 26 May 1820 that was guarded in its approach. He made clear the advantages of freer trade but he reassured his audience that he was not considering abandoning agricultural protection and believed that absolute free trade was out of the question. Two committees were established to lay down strategies for implementing the move to freer trade. Thomas Wallace, Vice-President of the Board of Trade played a central role arguing that freer trade would help industries out of depression, encourage the search for new markets and generate employment. With Vansittart, he drew up the blueprints for the reforms that Frederick Robinson, Vansittart’s successor as Chancellor and William Huskisson undertook after 1823.

In 1819 and 1820, Liverpool had established clear guidelines for the development of new financial and commercial policies. Sound money policy, together with these reforms, led to a dramatic increase in government revenue. By 1822, the government was in surplus and Robinson’s budget had excess revenue of £5 million. In 1823, he budgeted for a surplus of £7 million of which £5 million was used to repay debts leaving £2 million for tax cuts. Surplus budgets in 1824 and 1825 allowed reductions in excise duties on a range of consumer goods and raw materials including coal, iron and wood and on spirits, wine, rum, cider and coffee. In fact, there were budget surpluses until 1830 though they were insufficient to allow further tariff reductions. The limits of tax reduction had been reached and Liverpool recognised, as early as 1824 that the only way out of this financial stalemate was the reintroduction of income tax. John Herries, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Goderich was preparing to do so when the ministry collapsed in early 1828 and Henry Goulburn, Wellington’s Chancellor was only prevented in doing so in the 1830 budget because of the Prime Minister’s opposition.

Changes in commercial policy began in 1821 when Wallace reduced duties on timber imports. The following year he simplified the Navigation Acts allowing the colonies freer trade with foreign countries while Anglo-colonial trade was still restricted to British ships. In 1823, Wallace resigned when William Huskisson[11] became President of the Board of Trade and he has not received the credit for developing the commercial policies that Huskisson then implemented. In 1823, the Reciprocity of Duties Act reduced tariffs if other countries would follow suit and by 1827, most European countries and the United States had negotiated agreements for mutual abolition or adjustment of discriminatory tariffs. Foreign ships were allowed freer access to British ports especially London which became the centre of world trade. The policies of Wallace and Huskisson proved very successful and there was a sixty-four per cent increase in tariff revenue between 1821 and 1827.

Just how committed was Liverpool’s government to free trade? Barry Gordon regards Wallace’s decision in 1821 to reduce timber duties as ‘the first practical step towards implementation of laissez-faire in the post-war period’. Boyd Hilton disagrees seeing the free trade commercial policies of the 1820s as motivated by very practical considerations: the 1821 Agricultural Report made it clear that the United Kingdom could no longer feed itself and the Corn Laws were seen as an obstacle to getting the necessary food from the continent. A reliable and cheap food supply was essential to maintain public order. In Boyd Hilton’s view, free trade reform was based on fiscal and agricultural policies designed to stabilise rather than expand the economy. Norman Gash argues that Liverpool’s economic policies were essentially ‘social’ in character. His aim was to make the economy more prosperous and as a result reduce working-class discontent.

Liverpool supported the abolition of legal restrictions on the export of machinery, emigration of artisans and trade unions. He was prepared to legislate to deal with particular problems. The Poor Employment Act of 1817 offered government loans for public work schemes to help the unemployed. In 1819, a Factory Act regulated the employment of children in textile mills and the legal position of Friendly Societies[12] was clarified. Restrictions were imposed on trade unions in 1825 a year after the repeal of the Combination Acts. These were limited in scope and largely ineffective in practice. Neither Liverpool nor Huskisson were doctrinaire free traders. Their policies were based on a hard-nosed assessment of the economic advantage Britain could gain, the prosperity and political stability this would bring.

[1] George Canning (1770-1827) entered Parliament in 1784 and held various government offices including Foreign Secretary (1807-1808, 1822-1827). He became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer a short time before his death in August 1827.
[2] Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1782-1859) was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1823 and 1827. He was asked to serve as Prime Minister after the death of his friend Canning but was unable to control his ministers. He resigned in January 1828. In 1833, he was created Earl of Ripon and served as Whig Lord Privy Seal (April 1833-May 1834) but later joined the Conservative Party serving as a minister between 1841 and 1843 in Peel’s government
[3] Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) rose to fame as a military leader in the French wars culminating in his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. He was Prime Minister between 1828 and November 1830. A sound military leader, he lacked the political flexibility to be a good Prime Minister and party leader.
[4] Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769-1822) was Foreign Secretary between 1812 and 1822. He was very influential at the Congress of Vienna at the end of the French wars especially his ideas about a European balance of power. Highly-strung and almost incapable of taking criticism, he committed suicide
[5] The Luddites were machine breakers who operated in Nottinghamshire, south Lancashire and Yorkshire between 1811 and 1813. The term ‘Luddism’ is often applied more generally to any movement in which machines were smashed to protect existing technologies and employment.
[6] Up to a quarter of a million soldiers and sailors were demobilised in 1815 and 1816. Unemployment went up dramatically because it did not prove possible to absorb so many people into work
[7] Gold Standard. System under which a country’s currency is exchangeable for a fixed weight of gold on demand at the central bank.
[8] Direct taxation was taxes levied on individuals directly. The most widespread was income tax introduced in 1797 by William Pitt. It was abolished in 1816 but revived by Sir Robert Peel in 1842.
[9] Indirect taxes were taxes imposed on good or services usually collected when the good move from one country to another (customs and excise duties) or at the point of sale. Tariffs are duties paid on goods.
[10] Free Trade--shorthand for the doctrine of laissez-faire—is the doctrine of non-interference by the state in economic matters. It derived from the teachings of classical economists like Adam Smith, Malthus and David Ricardo.
[11] William Huskisson (1770-1830) was President of the Board of Trade 1823-1827 where he continued the work of William Pitt on fiscal reform. He died after being knocked down by a locomotive at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway in September 1830.
[12] Friendly Societies were set up often by working people to provide insurance for workers to cover things like sickness, unemployment and burial costs.