ON MAY 8, 1839, Henry Vincent, Chartist missionary to the west of England and south Wales, editor of the Chartist newspaper, the Western Vindicator, and firebrand orator, was arrested in London on a warrant issued by Newport magistrates on a charge of “having conspired to produce discontent and unlawful assembly”.

He was taken to Newport and, after a hearing at the King’s Head, was transferred to the gaol at Monmouth pending the next Assizes. He was held there for five-and-a-half weeks before being briefly released on bail.

On August 2 he was tried along with three Newport Chartists - William Townsend, John Dickenson and William Edwards - at Monmouthshire Assizes, held at the Shire Hall, Monmouth, and sentenced to a year in prison.

This meant that he was in Monmouth gaol at the time of the Newport Rising, probably saving him from the same fate as Frost, Williams and Jones.

On March 30, 1840, while still in prison, he was tried again, on grounds that he had “entered into a conspiracy with intent by force and unlawful means to cause a great change in the government” and sentenced to a further year.

South Wales Argus: Henry Vincent

Henry Vincent

He was transferred from Monmouth to the Millbank Penitentiary in London, where he spent a month before being transferred again, this time to the Rutland County Prison in the town of Oakham, where he remained for another seven months before being released in January 1841.

While in prison in Monmouth and Rutland Vincent wrote a series of letters to his friend and fellow Chartist, Henry Minikin.

These letters are now held by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. They give us an insight into this important figure in the Chartist movement, not only into his treatment in prison but also into his contacts with the outside world, his attitudes, and his views on various matters.

Writing from custody, he could not always express himself freely. It seems that some of his letters were smuggled out and others taken out by his solicitor. Some never got out at all: “there is one in the hands of the government written two months ago., which the magistrate would not allow to be sent.”

A death in the family

While he was in Monmouth his young sister, Jane, died: “I was grieved to hear of the death of poor Jane, though I felt it to be a happy release both for her and mother. The poor girl had so many years suffering and my mother so many years of pain and care in attending on her that I cannot but feel thankful that her miseries are over.”

South Wales Argus: Monmouth Prison

Monmouth Prison

Privileged prisoners

As political prisoners, Vincent, Edwards and Dickinson were at first far better off than other inmates. They were allowed to receive presents of food to supplement the prison diet of “one pound of potatoes, two quarts of skilly” a day. (Skilly is thin broth made mainly from oatmeal with a little meat.) At one stage they had a ham and half a side of bacon hanging up in their rooms. They also had access to clothes, books and newspapers sent in by supporters.

They gained some diversion teaching a fellow prisoner, Thomas Jones from Tredegar, who was charged (and later found guilty) with bigamy, to read and write.

Conditions did seem to get worse for Vincent after he was tried and sentenced. His bacon and ham were replaced by a “daily mess of skilly, rotten potatoes and bad bread.”

According to his letters, what Vincent found most unpleasant about prison life was the compulsory religious services. As a Chartist he disliked the prayers for the royal family and members of the House of Lords.

In spite of this, at first he had quite a favourable view of the prison chaplain, regarding him as a “very worthy and gentlemanly man” and “rather intelligent.”

But after witnessing the minister’s attitude to Frost, Williams and Jones, Vincent’s attitude became more hostile: “Our parson seemed much disappointed that they were not hung. We call him the gravedigger and ropemaker, for he was digging graves and making ropes in every sermon he preached while Frost was here.”

By contrast, Vincent seems to have got on well with the chief turnkey, James Evans. In his first letter from Oakham he asks Minikin to write to him at Monmouth gaol to send “kindest regards to him and his wife.”


Fellow Chartists

News of the Newport Rising clearly reached Vincent in Monmouth gaol. Disappointingly, he had virtually nothing to say about it in his letters, probably constrained by the censor and the need to avoid giving any ammunition for the prosecution of Frost, Williams, Jones and the other Chartists.

All we get is a cryptic comment written four months after the Rising: “a mishap happened 4 months since, which I shall some day make you acquainted with.”

He briefly saw Frost when he was in Monmouth awaiting transportation, commenting: "I hope Frost and the others will, in spite of all, be yet restored to liberty. I love Frost for his love of his country! He is really a good man.”

South Wales Argus: The King's Head Hotel in 1873

The King's Head Hotel in 1873


His period in custody and the strain of facing potentially severe sentences naturally took a toll on his health. At one stage he was “taking about a bucket full of medicine” and spent time in the prison hospital. The doctor ordered that he should receive “two ounces of meat, a tablespoonful of brandy, and a pint of tea” daily, for which he was grarteful: “Although a Tory, the doctor is one of the most humane and intelligent men it has ever been my good faith to meet with.”

In spite of his varying health, he was at pains to reassure Minikin that he was in good spirits: “I and by companions are as happy and merry as humans beings can possibly be.”

Ministers and magistrates

Vincent saw the hand of the Whig Government of Lord Melbourne behind every move against him, referring to the Whig Ministers as “inhuman devils”, “body snatchers” and “base and heartless wretches”.

He had nothing but contempt for the magistrates that he came up against and for the court proceedings, calling the Newport magistrates, including mayor Thomas Phillips, “men whose noses I would pull were I not afraid that by pulling them I should poison my fingers!”


Following the second trial and second guilty verdict, Vincent spent a further week in Monmouth gaol before being transferred to the “smoky, stinking miasmas” of Millbank and then to the far better conditions in Oakham, with its country air “filled with the most delicious odours.”

Upon release, he was still a convinced Chartist, but now very clearly in the moral force camp, standing for parliament unsuccessfully on several occasions and embarking on lecture tours which advocated teetotalism and self-improvement, leading the Monmouthshire Merlin, which in 1840 had described him as an ‘itinerant demagogue’, nine years later to call him a ‘a patriotic and eloquent man’.

You can learn more about Henry Vincent at the annual Newport Chartist Convention at St Woolos Cathedral on November 6. For details of how to book a place visit www.newportrising.co.uk