“Every one who attempts to deprive bad men of power expect to meet with the hostility of those men whom he assails, and we all know perfectly well that the worse use they make of power the more do they desire to retain it” – John Frost.
“Ye serpents and generations of vipers, why seek ye the life of Frost? You may succeed but what think ye of the mighty millions? If ye can escape the bullet, who can escape the match?” – Risca Letter, 17 December 1839.
Today marks the 180th anniversary of the Newport Rising, and it is fitting that we’ve recently digitised the transcript of John Frost’s trial published in 1840 as The Trial of John Frost, for High Treason: under a special commission, held at Monmouth, in December 1839, and January 1840, as part of an ongoing project to digitise all the 19th century Welsh or Welsh interest biographies in the Welsh Print Collection. Based on the shorthand transcription of Joseph and Thomas Gurney, presumably the court stenographers at the trial, it’s a fascinating document, giving us a courtroom seat for one of the most sensational trials of the 19th century.
Frost, along with his fellow Chartist leaders Zephaniah Williams and William Jones, had been charged with high treason following the uprising, but it was Frost who was put on trial first. The build-up to the trial had been tense with campaigns and agitation in support of Frost, especially amongst Chartism’s working class supporters, across south Wales and the rest of Great Britain. Frost was able to retain two very capable lawyers, Sir Frederick Pollock, a former Attorney-General, and Fitzroy Kelly, considered to be “one of the most acute and powerful advocates at the bar.” Both lawyers were ably assisted by Foster’s stepson, William Geach, who identified a technicality in relation to the prosecution’s sharing of a list of witnesses, which raised the possibility of a dismissal of the trial.
There was, however, no dismissal and Frost’s trial took place between 31 December 1839 and 8 January 1840. While Frost was at a serious disadvantage from the beginning having been unable to find many witnesses to testify in his favour, facing a large list of witnesses ready to testify against him and facing an expectation that he would duly be found guilty and punished accordingly. However, as The Trial of John Frost shows us, both Pollock and Kelly were able to mount a spirited defence through both their examination of the witnesses and in their summing up, destroying the credibility of at least one witness and undermining the evidence of several key witnesses, most notably the idea that the Chartists planned to stop the mail at Newport as a signal for a larger uprising across the rest of Great Britain.
Pollock and Kelly’s efforts bore some fruit, with the prosecution abandoning much of their case against Frost in the summing up. However, the Attorney General maintained that by marching thousands of armed men into Newport and attacking the Westgate Hotel they were guilty of treason by levying war against the queen. More unexpectedly, it also led the trial judge, Lord Justice Tindal, to sum up in favour of acquittal, much to the chagrin to the Attorney General. The jury, however, comprised of propertied men, was not swayed returning a guilty verdict in just half an hour, a not entirely unexpected result considering the jury’s class composition. Frost, Williams and Jones were be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, later commuted to transportation for life in Tasmania. In an act of defiance as they left the court at Monmouth after sentencing, William Jones shouted to the crowd, “Three cheers for the Charter!”
Despite receiving conditional pardons in 1854, Williams and Jones would remain in Tasmania, with Williams making a considerable fortune in the coal industry. Frost, however returned to Britain in 1856 on receiving a full pardon, having first travelled to America in 1854. Returning to Britain, Frost remained a committed Chartist, and also a vocal campaigner against the horrors of transportation. Frost had himself been sentenced to two-years hard labour not long after arriving at Port Arthur following disparaging remarks made about the then Home Secretary, Lord Russell, and had witnessed countless floggings which had greatly disturbed him. Frost summed up his attitude to the penal colonies in his Horrors of Convict Life, originally published in 1856 noting, “Never, in my opinion, in any age or country, has society existed in so depraved a state as I have witnessed in the penal colonies, produced, too, by laws not equalled in severity in any part of the civilised world.”
As noted above The Trial of John Frost is a fascinating and valuable work, documenting one of the most sensational and politically charged trials of the 19th century. It’s also one of over 2,000 Welsh or Welsh interest biographies that are currently in the process of being digitised by the Library. So, as we remember the Newport Uprising of 4 November 1839, why not take the opportunity to take your seat in the courtroom for The Trial of John Frost.
- John Frost – The Horrors of Convict Life (Hobart, 1973, original published London, 1856)
- Joseph and Thomas Gurney – The Trial of John Frost (London, 1840)
- David J. V. Jones – The Last Rising: The Newport Chartist Insurrection of 1839 (Cardiff, 1999)
- Ivor Wilks – South Wales and the Rising of 1839 (Llandysul, 1989)
- David Williams – John Frost: A Study in Chartism (Cardiff, 1969)
Dr. Douglas Jones
Published Collections Projects Manager
 John Frost – The Horrors of Convict Life (Hobart, 1973), p. 5.
 David J. V. Jones – The Last Rising: The Newport Chartist Insurrection of 1839 (Cardiff, 1999), p. 188.
 David Williams – John Frost: A Study in Chartism (Cardiff, 1969), p. 266.
 Ibid., pp.275-278.
 Ibid., p. 282
 Ivor Wilks – South Wales and the Rising of 1839 (Llandysul, 1989), p. 219.
 Jones – The Last Rising
 Frost – Horrors of Convict Life, p. 16.