BBC Wales documentary from 2015. Michael Sheen travels through the South Wales valleys on a journey to find out why people are disillusioned with politics. He follows in the footsteps of the working-class reform movement the Chartists, on the day of the 1839 Newport Rising.
Thank you to InvisibleIceWandS for uploading the documentary to YouTube. Is it also available on iPlayer as of October 2023.
Michael Sheen’s Valleys Rebellion – 2015.srt
Thank you to Claire @Eden_n_Tunnels for creating this transcript of the documentary, which includes links to additional information:
View English transcript
175 years ago, 5000 armed working men marched down through the South Wales Valleys, to the centre of Welsh power at the time: Newport. They marched because they believed the political system had failed them. They marched because they wanted their voices to be heard. They wanted representation. They demanded the right to vote. Now, 22 of those men, Chartists as they became known, were shot dead here, outside the Westgate Hotel. Those Chartists gave their lives for the right to vote. So why, increasingly today, do we not use it? I want to go on a journey through those same South Wales Valleys and find out why politicians and the people seem further apart now than ever.
Teaser: snippets from the rest of the film
Man 1: Politics needs to have an injection of younger blood, younger minds.
Man 2: We owe it to our ancestors like the Chartists to keep fighting for justice and democracy and equality.
Man 3: There’s nothing we can get to get our voices heard. I don’t think they care about us.
Man 4: I spoke to somebody up in the Valleys and he said to me: there are no jobs here. And my response was look,if you can’t find it outside your own front door, go look elsewhere for it.
MS: If they didn’t have this…/ Woman 1: they’d have nothing. / M: nothing, yeah.
Man 5: Please listen to what we have to say, don’t just blank us out as a bunch of idiots.
MS: Is there something wrong with our democracy today? The blood that was spilled on these streets, was it worth the sacrifice?
[MS] So, who were the Chartists? Well, I’m certainly no expert, but here’s what I know.
Quick history lesson. About 250 years ago the valleys were a very different place. They were a feudal area, they were rural, they were farmlands. But then at the end of the 18th century, the iron-rich land in the Valleys started to attract industrialists from across the border for the first time. It became one of the most heavily industrialised areas in the world, and people were flocking to the Valleys by their thousands. And so the towns we are now so familiar with started appearing for the first time, towns like Ebbw Vale and Tredegar, Rhymney, Blaina, Nantyglo. But the conditions in these towns that were just growing so quickly out of control were very, very harsh. The ironmasters had a tight grip on the workforce. And it was out of this desperate situation for the majority of people that a movement for change started to emerge. And that movement eventually became known as Chartism.
To commemorate the Chartist march, a mosaic mural made of 200,000 pieces of tile and glass was erected here, in the centre of Newport, in 1978. Now at this point I’d love to show you the mural; it was just over there. But unannounced, the mural was demolished. So I decided the most use I could be would be to write an open letter to the City of Newport, very grandly, and put it in the local paper, the South Wales Argus.
I wrote that the vicious irony of something that was created to celebrate those who risked so much for the good of all being wiped out without consulting the people themselves is both absurd and tragic.
Now inevitably, I started being drawn more into the story of the Chartists, and what happened on the night of November 3, 1839, here in Newport.
Why don’t people use the vote today? The Chartists died for this right. As I said in my public letter, forgetting what was struggled for in the past makes it so much easier to take from us in the present. I want to celebrate our history and connect it to today. I’m keen to meet as many people as I can who live in the valleys, and find out about their lives. Do people feel they have a political voice today? And if so, how are they using it?
I’m going to be travelling north out of Newport up to the heads of the valleys, and this is really the key area where the Chartist march began. From here, I’ll visit towns and villages all across the Rhymney and Gwent valleys, all Chartist strongholds, including Pontlottyn, Rhymney, Tredegar, and Blaina, before joining the main Chartist route back into Newport.
But first, I need to know why the men marched. I’ve come to the Welsh Oak pub, once a Chartist meeting place, to meet historian Brian Davies.
BD: The country has no democratic system at all, as far as they are concerned. They don’t have the vote. Even after the great reform bill of 1832, a smaller proportion of the population had the vote than in apartheid South Africa. So it’s only really the seriously well-off who’ve got the vote. In the twelve months before the march on Newport, these people, they campaign, they hold peaceful marches. Huge numbers of them sign a petition to Parliament, which is thrown out contemptuously.
[MS] A charter was drawn up, calling for six basic reforms of the unrepresentative electoral system.
A vote for all men over 21; secret ballot; abolish the need for members of Parliament to own property; a wage for members of Parliament; equal constituencies; and finally, annual parliaments: the six points of the People’s Charter.
The heads of the Valleys: the starting point of my journey.
At the time of the Newport rising, there were at least fifty ironworks here.The Chartists were convinced that getting the vote would transform workers’ lives for the better. Today, the South Wales valleys has one of the lowest percentages of people using their vote in Britain. In the most recent European elections, Blaenau Gwent had just a 28% turnout. Why such rejection of the electoral system? Is it apathy? Or has the vote not delivered the transfer of power so hoped for?
But the Chartists’ legacy hasn’t completely disappeared. There are still people fired up by local issues. Here in Pontlottyn, the United Valleys Action Group hold well-attended meetings once a fortnight.
M1 If we raise up a community, we stand 200 people outside the Senedd and shout a lot,
M2 Things get done.
M1 A hell of a lot of things get done.
M2 They wanted to build a massive waste incinerator on the top of a mountain, and in two weeks we raised 10,000 objections, we fought through the IPC, and eventually Covanta pulled out.
M3 They come to this area because they either think it’s… either sick, thick, or lazy.
MS: That’s why they came here. Because they thought they wouldn’t be objected, because they thought these communities would be too sick, thick, or lazy to do anything about it.
M1 We show people that they can have a voice, they can… if they engage and they come with us and make their voices heard, they will be heard eventually.
MS : Isn’t that why we elect politicians? (all laugh) Isn’t that…? I thought that’s…. (more laughter and applause)
MS: Now, if there were to be a new People’s Charter, and you could put one point onto it, one thing that would help you feel more represented, feel that your voice was heard, what would that one thing be?
M4: Listen to us! You don’t have to agree, but just please listen to what we have to say, don’t just blank us out as a bunch of idiots.
M1: Don’t allow them the right to ignore the people who put them in power in the first place. They shouldn’t have that right to decide that. We put them there.
MS: If you feel like the laws of the system that is set up, supposedly to represent you, isn’t doing that, at what point is it then justifiable to break those laws?
Man: Is GCHQ going to watch this?!
MS: I… This is a hypothetical conversation, I’m not suggesting that you might do this, but I just want to know what your feelings are about that.
Man: Hypothetically, when all other avenues have been exhausted.
M1: Yes. I don’t think we’ve exhausted all our options yet.
MS: We ll, I mean that’s… I suppose that’s a crucial difference. It does seem, and this is a very positive thing, it does seem that all other options haven’t been exhausted yet.
Man: Not as yet.
MS: You are fighting to make sure those options aren’t completely closed down, and you are working within the democratic system. You are continuing the exploration of what democracy is, and what it can be, and what it should be, and so that it fulfils the function that it was originally created for. So good luck to you!
Man: Thank you.
MS: And thank you very much for letting me here.
(thanks and applause)
Being in that meeting was extraordinary. They weren’t apathetic, they were organised, and they were doing something about the issues that mattered to them, and they were making their voices heard; when maybe the people that are supposed to represent them would prefer it otherwise.
The petition for the People’s Charter was signed by 1.25 million people throughout Britain. When Parliament rejected it, the public mood turned aggressive.
Someone who’s taken a keen interest in Chartist history, and knows a thing or two about getting his voice heard, is the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Lord NK: Put together all that pain, all that totally unjustified, intolerable suffering, and the ideas of liberation, and you’ve got a very combustible combination. All it then needs is a courageous, articulate leadership, and in the South Wales Chartists of course they were plentiful, and the result was the approach, the established order thought, of revolution. Indeed, the Prime Minister, the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, reinforced and fortified the Tower of London in the 1830s, because he believed that Queen Victoria in the 1840s would have to take refuge there because revolution was impending.
Historian BD: The formal leading figures were John Frost, who’d been the mayor of Newport – very much a political radical of a generation standing – Zephaniah Williams who was a master miner, also owned a beer house, owned several houses – and William Jones, a watchmaker from Pontypool.
This is the first paradox that you’ve got to try to understand when looking at the Chartist movement: many of the leaders don’t look like typical leaders of working-class movements, right? They are conspicuously middle class, and in other circumstances rather respectable.
These are the kind of people who find 1830s Britain so insufferable and oppressive that they are prepared to contemplate very radical action to do something about it.
MS: My next stop is Rhymney, once the site of one of the largest ironworks in South Wales, and it seems you don’t have to go far in these parts before you trip over someone who wants to make a difference.
Carl Cuss: Morning!
MS: I’m following the route of the Chartists, you know the Chartists?
Ms: Are you from here in Rhymney?
CC: Yes, I’m the local councillor in Rhymney
MS: You’re the local councillor? Wow, that was a handy person to bump into. So if I want to know anything about Rhymney, you’re the person to ask.
MS: How long have you lived here?
CC: I’ve been elected since 2012, and I’ve been living in Rhymney all my life.
MS: And what made you want to get into the world of politics?
CC: Well, this area is the third most deprived ward in Wales, and I feel that I can offer a contribution to make it a better place, and I find it fascinating, politics, to be honest.
Carl offers to take me to the site of the old union ironworks, where many of the Chartists would’ve worked.
MS: I’m sure you weren’t expecting to be doing this, were you?
So you’ve grown up with the same faces, presumably a very strong sense of community then?
MS: Whether you like it or not, everyone knows your business.
CC: That’s it.
MS: Does that make it difficult then when you become councillor, and you’re, you know, suddenly seen as being, “Oh, this is, here’s a person now who’s in authority, but we know him, we used to watch him running down the street with his arse hanging out”?
CC: Haha, yes.
MS: Does that make it tricky?
C: Well no, it doesn’t, because people know who I am, and know what I’m about. So, you know, sometimes in politics, you do get people who stand for election, they’re not from the area, they don’t know the area, but they want to stand anyway because they want to be a career politician.
MS: And what has the reality of political life been like? Is it what you expected, or has it been… surprising?
CC: It’s been an eye-opener to be honest, a real eye-opener, because… obviously I was thinking with politics, it’d be easy, and I can get stuff in the area, we’ve got Labour control. But this moment in time we’re making huge cuts to our services, you know? And, you know, in the back of my mind is the people who put me here.
CC: So I’ve got to try and tailor, you know, what I’m going to cut, around who I represent; which is very hard.
MS: So you got into it because you wanted to make a difference, and then the reality is, you find yourself actually having to say: “you can’t have that anymore, we have to do the thing.”
Carl: This was the ironmaster’s house
MS: He lived in this actual house?
CC: That’s right, yes
MS: So this presumably would’ve been the biggest house in the area!
CC: Yes, yes
MS: if this is where the iron master lived.
(voiceover) And just around the corner is the site of the old ironworks itself.
CC: But if you look there, there’s the remains.
See where that yellow flower is
MS: Oh yes, look at that – a yellow flower, on the site of the only bit of it that remains.
“Look at my works, ye mighty, and despair.” An old poem called Ozymandias.
Think about the glory of the ironworks that was here, and how it, you know, in the boom time in the industry in the South Wales Valleys, and the ironmaster living in his big house, and now all that remains is a little bit of rock and a yellow flower.
CC: yes, that’s right
MS: Well…Things do change.
It was heavy industry that gave rise to these communities in the first place. But with the decline, first of iron, then coal and steel manufacturing, I wonder what the prospects for employment and regeneration are today.
Postman: All right?
MS: How are things?
P: OK, thanks.
Man: How are you?
MS: Morning, how are you doing?
Man: Bore da
MS: Bore da. We’re doing a film about… have you heard of the Chartists?
MS: So about the Chartist march, cause it’s the anniversary of the big Chartist march where they all came down from the heads of the Valleys through, all the way down to Newport to march on Newport, and there…
Man: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
MS: …and demand their right to vote.
Man: It’s a bit more of that we want.
Man: (Laughing) It is!
MS: No one will believe this but as we’re standing there, just filming me walking past the sign saying Rhymney, you know, this guy comes up and he says, “So, what are you doing here?” And it was the councillor, Carl.
Woman: Oh right, Carl.
MS: You probably know him ‘cause he’s from here, yes?
MS: So he took us to see the old ironworks, or what’s left of the ironworks.
Man: yeah, just over.. yeah
MS: So what’s life in Rhymney like these days, now that it’s not big ironworks?
Man: Terrible, terrible
Woman: Nothing for the kids, when they leave school.
MS: So what do you think might make a difference, then? What do you think would make you feel like you’re being heard, that you’re being represented?
Man: Well there’s nothing we can get to get our voices heard.
Man: I don’t think they care about us.
MS: Yeah. But if there was some completely new system set up, what do you think you would need?
Man: Oh Lord, aye.
MS: What might help you?
Man: Work first.
Man: Right? Work. I’m from Abertysswg, right? And there was a colliery on our doorstep, in Abertysswg. But now, like they say, we’re just sleeper valleys.
M: you know what happened then in 1839, where the men from these areas got weapons…
Man: That’s right.
MS: …got together, organised, marched on Newport, marched on where they thought the centre of power was, and demanded what they wanted.
Man: And we’re there again.
MS: Yeah, yeah.
Man: You know?
MS: Do you think something like that could happen again?
Man: Well, they want something like that to happen again. It does, really does.
Man: If you can get the people around you to get off their behinds there would be something.
MS: Right, yeah.
Man: They don’t want to bother.
Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent, and Rhondda Cynon Taf are the three areas with the highest unemployment in Wales. A quarter of working-age adults are on benefits. These communities are some of the most deprived and unhealthy in the country.
Cath Mobley works with the local food bank.
MS: So this is where the whole operation is based.
Cath: This is the base of the Food Co-Op, yes
MS: So these are local… local people in the Rhymney area.
C: Yes, the churches and chapels put boxes in their churches for us, and the local people fill the boxes, and then they come here, or they go down to New Tredegar.
MS: Right. And how is it decided, who is allowed to come and get food…?
C: They have to be on low benefits to be able to have the food bank.
C: A lot of people, obviously, haven’t got any money, not at all. Some people have their benefits stopped if they’re late for an appointment or if there’s a problem, and then they can’t buy food till they come to the food bank.
MS: So there are people who are literally… they have…
MS: …nothing to be able to go and buy food,
C: No, no
MS: And so, if they didn’t have this, they’d have nothing.
C: They’d have nothing. Yeah.
MS: So how many people do you think, so far this year, you’ve given out the food to?
C: About 1,000.
MS: About 1,000?
MS: So in the area of Rhymney I think there’s about 8,900 people, so doing my maths, I would say you’ve already fed, this year, about 12 percent of the population of Rhymney.
C: Yeah, and that’s only in nine months.
MS: That’s in 9 months
C: Nine months, yeah.
MS: And do you get paid for doing this?
C: No, no, it’s all voluntary.
MS: This is all voluntary.
C: Yeah, yeah.
MS: I mean, that’s… that is extraordinary, but it’s also extraordinary that that has to happen in the first place.
C: It is, yes, but it’s, um… touching that it’s a close community and people go all-out to help each other
C: Isn’t it? You know?
MS: Well, yeah – if it wasn’t for the people donating then there wouldn’t be any of the food
C: We wouldn’t be able to do it, no. There would be no food bank.
[MS] I’ve known about food banks, but it just feels like we’re sort of going backwards, to things I heard someone saying “oh and oup kitchens won’t be far behind, then” and that’s actually true.
Poverty is a major issue in the Valleys today, as it was in the time of the Chartists. In those days, the ironworks generated colossal wealth, but that wealth wasn’t distributed to the workers. In the 1830s there was huge migration to these areas, people attracted by work flooding to the very same communities which are the most deprived today.
I wanted a better sense of what living in this area nearly two hundred years ago was like. Joining me as I cross from Rhymney to Tredegar is Blaenau Gwent’s Heritage Officer Frank Olding, who was born and brought up in these valleys.
MS: I’m trying to get a sense of what was sort of just daily life like for those people, for those families in these sort of communities in the 1830s?
FO: it was really hard, and it would’ve been hard anyway, in the nature of the work they were doing, for one thing, that would’ve been hard enough, and their working conditions were pretty grim, but they were also, on top of that there were rank injustices in their everyday lives. If you turned up from Carmarthenshire or Breconshire, which lots of people did, because life is pretty hard on the land as well, you come to the ironworks and you get a job, you don’t get paid for three months, but you’ve got to live in the meantime, so they give you subs off your pay, so they will give you a chit to go and spend in the company shop
MS so the company shop was owned by…
FO: the company,
MS: the ironworks
FO: Yes, exactly, exactly
So then, when you got paid, they would tot everything up, and 9 times out of 10 you’d spent more than you’d earned, so you owed the company money.
MS: So you were in debt to the company already. So if you had any issues with what was going on, you didn’t really have a leg to stand on
FO: No, because you couldn’t leave to find alternative employment until you paid the company off, so you could never pay the company off, and that meant you were over a barrel entirely.
[MS] In the 19th century, Tredegar was known as the emporium Of The Hills. The tramroad servicing the ironworks also brought goods from all over the world, so it was a commercial hub, unlike today. But perhaps it is more well-known as being the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Health Service.
MS: What is this here?
FO: Well, it’s a series of sculptures to people in Tredegar, and here we’ve got Aneurin Bevan
MS: Well, so, this is where Aneurin Bevan came out onto the balcony, and–
FO: exactly, out onto the balcony
MS: Do you see a direct connection between Bevan and the Chartists?
FO: There is that line of inheritance, isn’t there, from what started with the Chartists and that real movement for reform through the second half of the nineteenth century, which leads in the end to reform and suffrage and then also into the labour movement, in a broad sense, the unions, the Labour party, but also the movements for general social reform, and I think you can easily see Aneurin Bevan as the inheritor, really, of that legacy.
MS (reading from plaque) “The first function of a political leader is advocacy.” (A.B.)
That’s what a politician is supposed to do, isn’t it? That’s representation, isn’t it?
FO: Absolutely. The advocate of his people.
MS: I find it very moving to see what that man did on behalf of people, and what he set up, and what he gave to this country, and to see it being just stripped away, and the sort of final insult to make people feel like that doesn’t matter, to make people feel like: “Unions? Just a pain in the arse. Welfare state? Just scroungers. NHS? No, you know, privatise, privatise everything. Give it to capitalist forces. Let the market work” And, you know, these things were hard-fought. People actually died for people to vote, they gave their life in the service of helping others, and for us to kind of just let that go is just heartbreaking.
FO: it’s a tragedy, it really is a tragedy.
[MS] Of course not everyone will agree with me, but I do find it ironic that Nye Bevan once said: “the purpose of getting power is to give it away”.
Just around the corner from Tredegar town hall is the home of one of the most powerful men at the time of the Chartists, who shared none of his power.
MS: So Frank, whose house was this?
FO: this is Samuel Humphrey, who was the ironmaster of the Tredegar ironworks. And he built the Tredegar ironworks in 1800, and he was the son-in-law of Lord Tredegar, Tredegar House, near Newport, and this was the house he built for himself in the latest Regency style, between about 1808 and 1818.
MS: So because of the Industrial Revolution, because the technology was changing, suddenly what the South Wales valleys had to offer brought these men of industry from outside, and it was… they were making money hand over fist, is that what was going on?
FO: They were making a heap of money, because they had all the raw materials they needed. Because you need iron or coal and limestone, and at the heads of the valleys they all outcrop on the surface. So they had all of that they needed. And of course, almost as soon as they start, the Napoleonic Wars start….
MS: And suddenly there’s massive demand for iron.
FO: Absolutely, iron for everything
MS: Right. So they’re like… they can’t get it out of the ground quick enough.
MS: So people are coming from all over the country to come and be the labour force here, because it’s booming and these towns are growing up, and these men — because it’s totally unregulated, is that right?
FO: That’s right
MS: So this is the best time possible for a capitalist ironmaster…
FO: (laughs) It’s Klondike, you know, it is the Klondike
MS: It’s like being a banker in the late twentieth century
FO: it is, though, it’s exactly the same.
My next stop is the village of Blaina, where a quarter of working-age adults are on benefits, and male unemployment is more than double the British average. But scratch the surface, and there is pride. And where there’s pride, surely there’s hope.
(martial arts club)
MS: It’s all right to come in?
RS: Yeah, come on in. You’re looking to train?
MS: Oh, I don’t know, I’ve got a bad shoulder, don’t know if I could…
RS: I’m Richard
Nice to meet you Richard, I’m Michael. What’s going on? What’s happening here?
RS: We’re a martial arts academy, we cover everything, we’re a mixed martial arts club but we cover all aspects. Do you know what mixed martial arts is, MMA?
MS: er, is that like the cage fighting stuff?
RS: yeah, we don’t like the term cage fighting, yeah?
MS: alright, ok, sorry!
RS: but yeah, you got the right idea
MS: What made you want to start doing this?
RS: There’s not a lot of things that’s going on for young people at the moment in the Valleys, so this is something where we do something positive
MS: Do you think there’s, you know… the young men of Blaina, do you think there’s a kind of… a type of character, you know? These towns grew up, they were like the Wild West when they grew up, they were lawless, there were difficult conditions.
RS: Let’s be honest, it’s difficult now, even as adults it’s difficult.
MS: and they’re meant to live in these conditions
MS: I would imagine it took a certain kind of character to survive.
RS: We’ve got a really successful competition team, and people ask what’s the recipe for the success, and I’ll be honest with you, a lot of it is the fact that these kids have been fighting since they were, as you said, very young
RS: it’s been a part of their lifestyle, part of the culture, a lot of frustration in the area, so sometimes it boils over in their social life, which is understandable, you know, when there’s no work, there’s no prospects, and people fall into a negative mindset
And they do get involved in… you know, they do get into trouble, I do a lot of work with the youth offending team, you know, they bring a lot of referrals my way. And again we’ve probably got a 95% turnaround with the youth offending team. The lads that come here, they really do turn their life around.
RS: We’ve got Jack here who’s one of the instructors, and he’s also a professional fighter now. Jack, he won’t mind me saying, was thrown out of school at 15, was referred to us through the youth offending service, he’s gone on to join the army, he’s now in the Paratroop Regiment, he’s done two tours of Afghan, um, they’re giving him time out to concentrate on his professional career as a martial artist as well, so hopefully his next fight will be for the world title.
MS: and what do you think, had he not come to you, what would be a likely path for him?
FO: He’d be the first to say, he’d probably be in prison.
(MS) Blaina was a Chartist stronghold, and the home of its charismatic leader, Zephaniah Williams. It’s said that on the night of the march, he sounded a horn to bring his followers together.
(brass band rehearsing!)
MS: So you’re the Blaina…
Colin Jones: the Blaina Brass Band
MS: and when did that, when did the band start?
CJ: the band started in 1817, and…
MS: Looking very well on it!
CJ: Yes, yes! This is the oldest brass band in Great Britain, it was the first all-brass band, and then it was taken over by the Browns ironworks in 1823. It was basically started for the workers to have something to do in their spare time, because it was a horror of a place to work, you know
MS: and who supplied the instruments?
CJ: Well in the case of Blaina it was the works, you know
MS: so they were company instruments…
CJ: they were company instruments, and the companies were, in Blaina’s case were very possessive of the band.
MS: So this band was playing at the time of the actual rising itself?
CJ: Well Zephaniah Williams, more than… he was a brass instrument player so there’s every likelihood he would’ve been a member of the band.
[brass band plays the end of the tune]
MS: Well it’s been a very moving day at times today.
Nye Bevan, who, you know, is this sort of legendary, mythical figure… Being in the spot where he would have spoken to people, and thinking about what he achieved, it made it very concrete somehow, in the context of this march, this Chartist story, what they fought to do, what they sacrificed, what they gave up.
And listening to the Blaina band playing, there’s something on just a very basic, primal level that you hear those instruments, and knowing what that has meant to working people for hundreds of years now, that that sound is somehow associated with the working people, and that really moved me as well.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen parts of the valleys for the very first time, as well as seeing first-hand some of the issues that affect them today. I’m intrigued by the parallels of the problems that face today’s population and the struggles their forefathers faced nearly two hundred years ago.
I’ve invited Owen Jones, journalist, author, and socialist campaigner, to join me on my push towards Newport.
MS: Do you feel connected to groups and events like the Chartists and the Chartist uprising? Do you feel there’s a sort of direct connection between them and now?
OJ: I think the, if you like, the baton of struggle against injustice, it’s kind of passed on from generation to generation.
OJ: And what we don’t do in this country is celebrate those traditions, of struggle of ordinary people organising from below, against what seemed like insurmountable odds, often at great cost and sacrifice. What always strikes me, and when I come to communities like this, and communities across the country, particularly those battered the 1980s onwards by deindustrialisation, the stripping away of secure work, you know, it’s like a return to the Victorian era, when dockers marched to the yard and stuck their hands up hoping to get work; well, these days young people get a text message at 6 a.m. in the morning telling them that they’ll get any hours that day. How can you build a life, how can you have security?
The point is this, though, it’s not apathy we’ve got a problem about at the moment. There’s no shortage of anger out there, and there’s no shortage of fear, but there’s one thing missing and that’s hope. And without hope people become resigned.
MS: I wonder how that has been created, is that something… ? Because obviously it serves certain people, for the rest of the people to be feeling like that.
OJ: Well, injustice and the status quo depend on resignation, they depend on a sense that this is just the way the world is, it’s the natural order, there is no alternative.
And what Tony Benn always used to say was: the way you get change is
“the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope at a better world”.
And the problem is, that hope, that burning flame of hope, has been taken away from people. What we’ve seen in the last few years is democracy and universal suffrage unwinding by stealth. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote. There’s now a huge gap in turnout between professional middle-class people, who are still very likely to vote, and unskilled workers at the bottom. Often those who need, if you like, democracy most are the ones least likely to engage with it.
MS: Let’s just say for a moment that on the night of Nov 3rd into Nov 4th, 1839, you were living in the South Wales Valleys, where do you think you would’ve been on that night, and where do you think your sympathies would’ve lain?
OJ: Well my sympathies undoubtedly would’ve been with the physical force Chartists. Now I hope I’d have the courage. I know I’m quite well-built, so I would’ve been invaluable, probably!
MS: we’re both giants!
OJ: Giants! In so many ways, I mean these tree trunk arms would’ve come in handy, but yeah, I mean that’s where my sympathies would’ve lain, obviously. I think those were the people who recognised that it wasn’t a democracy, it was a state which denied people basic democratic rights, so the only way you’re going to get any change in that situation is to fight by all means at your disposal to force the people at the top to listen to you.
MS: when you say you hope that you have the courage, I mean, I feel the same way. You know, I think about lines from, you know, Manic Street Preachers songs like “if you tolerate this, then your children will be next”. But I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to do that, you know, that’s the thing, it can’t be taken for granted, can it?
[MS] Owen uses the word “hope”, and says that it’s the lack of hope, not apathy, that is the problem today. But I wonder how the younger people of South Wales feel about politics.
[at the barber’s]
MS: So is politics something that you’ve taken interest in?
Simon Taw: Well it interested me to the point that I actually sent to the local Labour MP for my area a 16-page email stating that young people should be injected more into local politics because it’s a bit archaic that old men seem to carry most of the political ideas for the country whereas it’s the young men that work and pay the taxes for the country.
(May I swap customers…)
MS: Yeah, no, please don’t let me stop you, you carry on
Customer: Thought he was going to kiss me, then!
ST: No, no, no – you’re not my type!
ST: Labour’s supposed to be part of the working man, yeah?
Tories are more like upper-class pimps as far as I’m concerned, yeah?
And the liberal democrats, well they don’t stand for nothing no more since they’ve become part of the coalition.
MS: If there was a new people’s charter, then, you know, you could put a list of things together that would change the way things are now, and you could force Parliament to take on these new things, what would you put on that new people’s charter, what would be the points?
ST: give the vote to anybody, like in Scotland, that referendum they’ve had, yeah? 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds, give them the vote. They’re considered adults, so why not let them vote like adults? Cut the wages for politicians: no more than 30 grand a year; no expenses, so any expenses they have, they gotta pay for themselves, you understand? Give them a free National Railcard if they have to get to different parts of the country, know what I mean? Use the public services which they install on us.
MS: So do you feel that politicians are just not connected to the normal lives of the people that they’re supposed to represent?
Very nice. How would that look on me?
ST: I think for your next film. Try it!
It’s clear from the people that I’ve met on my journey that they feel that politicians aren’t listening to them. But what about politicians themselves?
Assembly member Leanne Wood, from a traditional working-class background, is today leader of Plaid Cymru.
MS: What made you go into politics, what got you in it in the first place?
LW: Well, I’m from the valleys,and I grew up in communities which were struggling during the 1980s in the aftermath of the miners’ strike, and I studied the history of the area, and it was on going to university really, and realising that there were people from other places throughout the United Kingdom that had much more privileged lives.
The consciousness of people in these communities is not to the level that I would like to see it, and having experienced the campaign in Scotland prior to the referendum there, the level of consciousness amongst people in some very deprived communities in Glasgow estates for example, that I went to, was of a much higher level. The levels of knowledge of politics, and the fact that people wanted to debate politics in communities was a stark difference to places like some of the communities here in the Valleys.
MS: Hm. I mean, having been talking to people in the different communities as I’m following the Chartists’ route, one thing that I hear again and again, as I’m sure you have, is that people there feel that they’re just not heard, they don’t feel like they’re represented and they don’t feel – they feel very detached from the political system. What can we learn from the Scottish referendum in order to try and re-engage with those people?
LW: I think the difference in Scotland was that people were making a big decision over a big question. And all too often in elections, and particularly when the three main Westminster establishment parties, there’s so little difference between them, then people don’t see the point of exercising their vote. But voting on big questions like the referendum, on future direction of the country, that’s the kind of thing, or even, voting on matters like drafting up a constitution, I think those are the kinds of ideas…
MS: a people’s charter, you mean?
LW: a people’s charter indeed! Why not?
[MS] Over the past couple of days, I’ve been hopping from one valley to another, but I’m now joining the Chartists’ route from Tredegar to Newport, following the exact footsteps of the marchers on the night of the rising.
Every time I’m walking through from one valley town to another, I’m just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the landscape here, and it is… you know, the sort of stereotypical image of the bleak valleys, and it’s forbidding, and it’s a hard landscape, I mean it’s – there are hard conditions here, but it’s SO sort of juxtaposed against some of the most extraordinary beauty I’ve ever seen in my life.
(musical transition: a snippet of If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next by the Manic Street Preachers)
En route is Blackwood, hometown of politically aware rockstars the Manic Street Preachers, where I’m meeting lead singer James Dean Bradfield.
JDB: Hi Mikey boy!
MS: Fancy seeing you here!
JDB: Yes, you know, one of my old regular hangouts.
MS: So, when you started the band up, were you always aware of being, like, a political band, was that a big drive?
JDB: No, a lot of it was just being in love with music, you know, we were all absolutely music nerds at that point, we were just nerds, we’d just sit in each other’s bedrooms, on Thursday-Friday-Saturday night, with each other, and listen to the high heels go past, you know, people coming back from the social club and stuff. My dad was, you know, he’s a trade union representative, my mum was very political, you know, Nick’s parents were very political, Richey’s parents were really well informed, you know? It was all there, it was all on the surface, but we just had this things where we loved music, and we were in the middle of the maelstrom of the miners’ strike happening, and we were seeing our world, our very small, insular world suddenly being represented on TV for the first time, on the BBC News at Ten, first time we were seeing where we came from, because of the miners’ strike. So you’re seeing your world through a different lens all of a sudden, and you mash all that up together, you know, if you’ve got good parents, which we did, we had amazing parents, you know, if you’ve had a good education, we did, and if you kind of vaguely switched on, kind of thing, you know, then something’s gotta give.
And it’s harder for people who try to align themselves to something now in politics, you know. I think post New Labour everything’s just charging that middle ground. They want to hear the next band that’s gonna really speak, you know, speak about something, even just full of sheer and exciting rock and roll as it were, I want to hear a band that voices a malcontent, a discontent, and kind of a longing for something, you know, and I’m not hearing that at the moment.
MS: Well, even on the, your new album [Futurology, 2014] you’ve written a song about the Chartists, I mean, or it has an element of Chartism in it.
JDB: Yeah, I mean, it’s almost like a 3D juxtaposition of the past and the present and the near future. I suppose, you know the song The View From Stow Hill…know, Nick lives in Newport and he does that walk a lot – I suppose he was just transposing what we can call some of our glorious past, you know, onto the present day and the future.
[Musical transition: JDB’s solo rendition of The View From Stow Hill]
How did this town get so old
The air I breathe tastes so heavy and cold
Always caught in-between
The capital and the “other” country
Always caught in-between
The river and the valley
(You can still see the bullet holes)
[MS] Stow Hill, as sung about by the Manics, is the hill leading down to the Westgate Hotel, in the centre of Newport, and was the scene of conflict on the night of the uprising.
(You can still sense a little hope)
One politician who has a particular interest in the events of that night, and has a personal connection to the hill itself, is Conservative MP David Davies.
DD: I was brought up on Stow Hill in Newport, and the marches went past what would have been our house at the time. And you ask yourself, you know, what would you have done in that situation? And I would’ve been afraid of the consequences of anarchy and revolution and the loss of lives that that would’ve meant.
MS: I would imagine, as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, you have to look into a lot of issues that are rising out of the situation in the South Wales valleys. A lot of the people I’ve spoken to feel like they’re sort of being forgotten, they talk about, and there’s not a lot of hope there, it seems, from the people, and I just wonder what solutions there might be that you think.
DD: What everyone needs to realise is that governments can’t simply solve economic problems by chucking money around, and that’s something I fundamentally believe in. I spoke to somebody up in the valleys, a 17-year-old, a year or so ago, and there was a bit of a row afterwards, because he said to me, there are no jobs here, what can I do? And my response was: look, you’re 17, you’re fit and able, you have to go and find work. If you can’t find it in, you know, outside your own front door, go look elsewhere for it. I mean, it’s what people have done over the generations. I don’t mean it to be harsh, but I wouldn’t want to come back in 20 years’ time and if I do I’ll be saddened if he’s still sitting in his home complaining that there is no work, you know. It’s not about waiting for the government to go and deliver it, you have to go and find it yourself. Some will agree and some violently disagree, but that’s my own view.
MS: These days, having gone through the South Wales valleys and talking to a lot of people they seem to have neither: a political voice or financial stability. So what do we do about that?
DD: People do have a political voice, and they send their Members of Parliament often, their assembly members. You could argue, in fact, that people in Wales have more of a political voice now than people in England do: the constituencies – I mean, the Chartists, one of their six points was equal size of constituencies, but you have constituencies like Blaenau Gwent which actually have far fewer people in them than, say, well, than say, erm, well certainly than the average size in England. So people actually have more of a political voice in that sense.
[MS] If people do have a political voice, as David Davies suggests, then why are so few people, especially the younger generation, getting involved with politics?
One area that does seem to be gaining momentum is online petitioning. But is this really the way forward?
I’ve invited David Babbs, founder member of online pressure group 38 Degrees, to meet me in a rather more traditional forum for debate, a council chamber.
DB: When we ask 38 Degrees members who they voted for, they tell us all parties and none, and they often describe the choices that they feel boxed into having to make at a general election as unsatisfactory, because they don’t feel that any of the candidates necessarily truly reflect their issues.
MS: so, this is issue-based politics as opposed to party-based politics?
DB: issues and values. I think at the heart of 38 Degrees are some common values that 38 Degrees members share, values of, well, a belief that democracy is better if more people get involved and have their opinions heard, a belief that democracy is important and making UK democracy work in the 21st century is something worth fighting for. I think the most exciting thing about 38 Degrees is the way that it’s becoming something so much more than just an internet community, because people are meeting up in the pub in Newport or wherever and coming up with their own campaign plans and then using the 38 Degrees umbrella to help them get organised.
[MS] As I get nearer to Newport, I’m feeling like I want to know more about the ordinary men who gave their lives on the night of the Chartist rising. There are plenty of books about the leaders: John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones. But I’ve come across one of the lesser-known figures who died that night at the Westgate: a man called William Farraday.
MS: It seems that his family appears to have lived in Blaenau Gwent since the late 18th century. His wife Mary… They had six children. So he worked down the Fleur-de-Lis colliery, or Trelyn,, the Welsh name, and it’s likely that his two eldest boys, William who was 13 and Thomas who was 7, probably worked underground with him. We can assume that William joined a military unit, probably during the summer of 1839, so in the build-up towards the rising, and he would’ve been part of a ten-strong unit, with a captain, and those people would’ve been made up from the people that he actually worked with at the coalface, so they would have already known each other, had a strong sense of solidarity and loyalty, so that’s interesting.
[spooky sound, night walk]
[MS] I’m now beginning the final stage of the Chartist march. For men like William Farraday, it was too late to turn back.
Must’ve been hard going on the march that night. It was dark, it was cold, pouring with rain. William Farraday apparently had been very quiet all that day. Now the reality is probably starting to hit him: this is gonna be a night that he might not return from. He knows that there’s gonna be violence, he knows that there’s gonna be a lot of men, he’s heard that there are men coming down from all over the South Wales valleys, from as far as Dowlais, Rhymney, Nantyglo, Ebbw Vale, Tredegar, but any fears that William Farraday might have had are allayed by the fact that all he has to do is look to his side, and there are his friends, who he’s known all his life, who he works with at the coalface.Little does he know that his leader, up ahead, John Frost, was having severe doubts.
On the night of November 3rd, there was an agreement for the three leaders, Frost, Jones, and Williams, to meet here at the Welsh Oak, just outside Newport. But there were complications.
Historian Brian Davies: Well, let’s just say they didn’t all get here at the same time. Right? To what extent that was due just to horrendously bad weather, driving rain, cold autumn night, trying to get five thousand people to come down from several different valleys to converge on the same place at the same time…
[MS: essentially there’s three…yeah- three different…]
BD: There are 3 main columns, which are supposed to converge here, and they don’t, and they miss each other by hours. Now to what extent that is simply due to the difficulties of getting the thing organised, or to what extent Frost is actually trying to slow things down, is debatable.
Lord Neil Kinnock: His reservations, Frost’s, were totally understandable in the circumstances. He must have known, as a highly intelligent man with a background of twenty years of organisation, that you should pick your time and your battlefield.
MS: And he’s not sure that this is the time and the battlefield.
NK: That’s right. But he couldn’t do anything about it.
MS: Right. Because it’s now – it’s happening, it’s underway.
NK: It was a dam bursting.
[MS] Now the march was about to enter its final, dramatic phase. The thousands of men who had come down through the South Wales valleys were now entering Newport. They were cold, they were wet, and they were no longer under the cover of night.
As William Farraday passed St Woolos’ Cathedral and started heading down Stow Hill, any ambiguities about where he was heading and what he was supposed to do were starting to be dispelled. He knew that he was only minutes away from the Westgate Hotel.
The Westgate Hotel in Newport, the hub of power, and the Westgate Hotel where the symbol of that power resided, the mayor Thomas Phillips inside it, the magistrates inside it, the richest families in the area taking refuge inside it, but also inside it, the soldiers of the 45th regiment.
But the marchers, as they were coming down here with their pikes and their muskets and their weaponry, had been told that the soldiers would not fire on them, the soldiers would be sympathetic to their cause, so they would probably offer no resistance.
But as William Farraday was about to find out, that wasn’t exactly true.
Originally Frost’s attack was supposed to be on the front of the hotel, under cover of night, but of course now it’s about 9:30 in the morning, daylight, so people were trying to get in through the rear, and through the side, but they couldn’t get entry. So the thousands of men poured down the bottom of Stow Hill, here, in front of the Westgate Hotel.
Suddenly a musket went off. We don’t know if it was one of the soldiers or if it was one of the Chartists. But a bullet was fired, and that began the whole thing. Suddenly the order was given for the shutters to be opened and for the soldiers to start firing into the crowd, the thousands of men here, pushing in, not knowing what was going on through the front entrance, suddenly there were bullets raining on them from here. As the bodies lay here, we know that someone was shouting for help, but soldiers were opening fire on anyone who might come anywhere near to get the bodies, so they were left to die out here.
We don’t know what the last thing William Farraday saw was. It might have been his own friends, his own comrades falling around him, panicked faces running, fear in their eyes. It might even have been his leader, John Frost, who said that as soon as the blood was spilt, he was terrified and he fled.
Ten of the men who died at the Westgate Hotel that night, including William Farraday, were buried here at St Woolos’ Cathedral, under the cover of darkness, in unmarked graves.
The families of men who hadn’t returned home that day or through the subsequent days started to come to Newport, fearing that it was their fathers, their sons, their brothers that had died that day. One of the women who came to Newport was Mary Farraday, William’s wife. She came and pleaded with the magistrates in the Westgate Hotel to be given her husband’s body. She’d seen a coat that she said was his, and now she wanted his body. But she spoke in Welsh, and whether it was because of that or just because it was already a hopeless cause, her husband had already been buried here, she was turned away. That’s the last we know of William Farraday.
The men who died that night have largely been forgotten, but I feel their names should be heard: John Codd; David Davies and his son, from Brynmawr; William Evans; John Jonathan; William Griffiths; Robert Landsdown; Reece Meredith; David Morgan; John Morris; George Shell; Abraham Thomas; Isaac Thomas; Williams, the Deserter; William Williams; William Aberdare; John the Roller; and of course William Farraday.
This has been an extraordinary journey. A few different journeys really, I suppose. There’s been a physical journey through the South Wales valleys where the Chartists began their march, met up, and finally came here to Newport. There’s the journey of going back into time, looking at the conditions and why they went on that march; and then the journey about today, about democracy, about why should it matter, what’s the relevance of what they did, or didn’t do.
It’s impossible to sum it up in some way and put it into some tidy box, but there are certainly moments that resonate. Sometimes I know why, sometimes I don’t know why. Things like the food bank, watching Cath, the shocking, disturbing truth that it’s even happening at all, that it should need to happen. But then, something like the meeting of the United Valleys Action Group, seeing a disparate group of people there using democracy to be able to feel like they have a voice, and actually trying to do something together, that seemed to be the key.
The Ancient Greeks had a saying: “live as though your ancestors were living again through you.” I suppose the best testament to the Chartists will be a living testament, that people look around at the issues facing Wales today, and specifically the South Wales valleys, and think about what the Chartists did when they had no voice, when their options were being closed down: they came together, they acted together to force change, if change wasn’t going to be given to them.
And there’s a poem I came across earlier today. It’s by a poet called Grahame Davies. And he wrote this about the miners, but I think it’s sort of quite apt for what the Chartists might want us to feel:
“We only ask you this – that you live well,
here, in the places that our labour built,
here, beneath the sky we seldom saw,
here, on the green earth whose black vein we mined,
and feel the freedom that we could not find.”
(End credits: Nihilism by the Manic Street Preachers)
Chartist leaders Frost, Williams and Jones were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
Following huge public outcry, the sentences were commuted and in 1840 they were transported to Australia.
Michael Sheen’s full interview with Owen Jones:
Michael Sheen’s full interview with David Davies: