ONE of the key figures of the Chartist comission, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams tells DAVID DEANS Newport should have plan for a lasting reminder of its proud Chartist history by the autumn.
THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams say the destruction of the Chartist Mural in Newport was a sad blow for the city.
In an exclusive interview Dr Williams has spoken of his family’s love for Newport and how he’d like to see a lasting, world-class memorial to the Chartists.
Dr Williams, who lived in Newport for almost 11 years, is one of three members of the commission established by the city council to find a replacement for the mural.
It will also have a role in the 175th anniversary commemorations of the Chartist Rising, when 22 protestors died after soldiers fired on a march to the Westgate Hotel.
Dr Williams explained why he decided to accept an invitation to join the commission after hearing of the destruction of the Chartist Mural at John Frost Square.
“It did seem to be a sad blow to something of Newport’s self image and self confidence,” he told the Argus.
“There was a real need to gather up literally and figuratively what was left and ask the question: how can Newport now celebrate this crucial part of its history?”.
Dr Williams said: “The Chartist legacy is surely one of the great elements in the pride that people ought to take.
“I did think the destruction of the mural was a great sadness.”
When the then Bishop of Monmouth first moved to Newport in 1992 its town centre was “frankly looking pretty battered," Dr Williams remarked.
“I remember when we came to have a walk around it when I knew I would be moving there, my family and I came and had a look around the centre, our hearts sank a little bit. It felt depressed, looked depressed.
“Over the last ten years it gradually got more confident. City status helped. The new waterfront developments helped, then I think it sagged again a little bit, the energy ebbed a way a little, and that had a lot to do with economic issues.
“It’s wonderful there’s a tremendous popular surge now to push it forward again.
“We got to love Newport really, really deeply after our years of living there, really seriously. We know what Newport people are capable of and we know the generosity and the energy and sort of vision Newport people are capable of.”
The Chartist Rising of November 4 1839 was a moment “where Newport had a role in national, even international history” and was one of the “first great moments of popular democracy in this country”, the master of the University of Cambridge’s Magdalene College said.
It was an "act of protest, an act of violence, an event that left a very deep impact on the city and more widely," Dr Williams argued.
“It seemed to me quite important that Newport should recognise that it had played that role in wider history. For it [the Mural] to disappear seemed to be a bit of a step back.”
Dr Williams says the commission, which includes Assembly presiding officer and Newport West AM Dame Rosemary Butler and the Chartist anniversary committee's Pat Drewett, have spoken and have started to decide on what their remit should be.
He said the commission would like to get on “as quickly as possible”, with the NATO summit coming in September and the anniversary in November.
“Equally we want to get the very best quality of memorial. We don’t want to rush it too much.”
A number of suggestions have already been made, with ideas varying from digital projections to a reconstruction of the mural.
“We’ve all got our own ideas, we don’t want to impose them, we want to see what really rings a bell with the people of the city,” Dr Williams said.
However the former archbishop said he’d like to see “something really lasting, something for the next couple of generations that is a visible reminder... just what people of the city were capable of in the 19th century.
“I would like to see something that is as world class as we can get, something which people would want to come and see from outside Newport.”
Dr Williams hoped that by this autumn the commission would have a “good clear idea of where we were going with it, an identifiable plan, a resource plan and a timetable”.
But he explained that with the pace of grant bids it was “most unlikely“ a major installation could be established in the next six months.
With the fundraising required the commission will also likely need a trust-type structure – which Dr Williams said was being worked at.
Commission members have been in touch with Newport-born Hollywood actor Michael Sheen – who will not be a member of the commission but will have a “very important role in it”, Dr Williams said.
“He’s extremely supportive of the whole project - he’s extremely supportive of the idea of a major new commemoration,” he said.
“Of course he’s got unique experience in drawing communities together with the work he did in Port Talbot a few years ago, with the passion play, just getting a town to think about its values, its legacy, about its spiritual identity you might say.
“And I think that’s what we’re doing here.”
The commission itself will not co-ordinate the anniversary celebrations – Dr Williams said the “heavy lifting of organising isn’t going to be done by a few very busy people” – but will focus on the new memorial.
However Dr Williams said the commission would oversee and advise the commemorations: “I hope there will be a real outreach to schools so that all young people in Newport will be aware of that heritage.
“I remember the commemoration of the 135th anniversary back in the 1990s, there was a lot of work with local schools at that time. I would like to see things like that happening again.
“I just think something that gives the next generation that sense that Newport is a place to be proud of.”
The commission came about after Michael Sheen wrote an open letter, published in the Argus, over his dismay on the destruction of the mural.
After Newport council leader Bob Bright Mr Sheen later agreed to be a founder trust – although it later emerged the actor would serve in an advisory capacity to the commission rather than a member.
Newport council demolished the mural last October as part of plans for the Friars Walk shopping development, decided on in March 2012.