HE is a man whose name is known across Newport and Gwent for his role in the Chartist uprising. We know him for this, the square and now the school named after him, but how much do we really know about John Frost? MARTIN WADE investigates.

HISTORIAN Les James has studied Chartism for many years and regularly gives talks on the Newport rising. He is currently working on a book exploring the life of the Newport Chartist leader.

Born in 1784 John Frost was fortunate in being educated. A much rarer privilege then, he owed his learning to the position of his family.

Les states: "Although they weren't rich, neither were they poor."

Schooling cost money and his family had the wherewithal, just - to pay for it.

His parents kept a pub – the Royal Oak – at the centre of Newport, near High Street. His father died when he was barely four-years-old and his mother continued as landlady. They had just enough money to send John to school in Bristol, but it was his grandfather, a cobbler, who taught him how to read. His grandfather led the family to the Mill Street Independent Church on Sundays, where Frost attended Bible classes.

It was here he would learn the biblical verses that later in life, would pepper his speeches and political pamphlets.

Les tells how John soon left his home town. "At first Frost was apprenticed to work with his cobbler grandfather, but he soon tired of making boots and shoes and left home for Cardiff." He later found employment in Bristol and then London, working in shops.

The young Frost came back to his home town when he was 22 and worked in a draper's shop on High Street.

Then, the first stirrings of Newport's prosperity could be seen. Coal and iron was being shipped from the town, trade of all kinds was blossoming on the wharves of the Usk and along the newly-cut canal. Migrants from England, Ireland and other parts of Wales saw the town's population expand.

Six years after his return, he married Mary, a wealthy widow, and over the next ten or so years they lived above their High Street shop and raised a family of five daughters and two sons as well as bringing up Mary’s two older children.

John was by now a successful businessman, making enough money to support a large family in reasonable comfort and would have had some standing in the fast-growing town. Yet he was unable to take part in the politics of the town or of the country at large. The fundamental freedoms we know today, the right to vote and to stand for public office were denied to him and to the majority of people.

These rights were the preserve of property-owners only.

Not only were those freedoms we have today unknown, political power in Newport and Monmouthshire rested in a place that is familiar to us. Tredegar House. As the major landowner in the area, the Morgan family wielded enormous power.

Les gives an example of how they wielded that power. Octavius Morgan, the son of Lord Morgan, claimed common land in Bishton. At a stroke ordinary people were denied grazing rights on the land. Then they had no voice, no power. There was nothing they could do. "This kind of behaviour infuriated Frost" Les says.

In the 1820s Frost began writing pamphlets attacking both the Whigs and the Tories – the two parties that dominated politics. Les explains: "Their mission was to fill Parliament, borough corporations and the county Magistracy with gentlemen from or connected with the landed classes."

This was the political establishment that Frost was struggling against.

Eventually, though Frost was able to break into that establishment. As his campaigning went on, there were changes nationally which went some way to widen democracy.

The 1835 Municipal Reform Act established that in all ancient boroughs, including Monmouthshire, councillors were to be elected by all ratepayers. In that year, Frost was elected to Newport Town Council.

The following year he became the Mayor of Newport, a Poor Law Guardian and a Magistrate.

But, Les explains, Frost was all too aware that while relatively wealthy men like him had been allowed to have a voice in politics, that voice was still denied to the vast majority of people.

The Chartist movement was founded in the first decades of the 19th century to campaign for ordinary people to be given a say in how the country was governed.

Their key aims included votes for every man over 21 and secret ballot.

Frost was an enthusiastic supporter of the People’s Charter, launched in 1837 to fulfil the aims of Chartism. A year later he was elected by his supporters to go to London and represent them at the National Convention organised by the Chartists as a sort of alternative Parliament.

On behalf of the National Convention he travelled the country and gained his pre-eminent position in the Chartist movement.

"He became something of a national figure at this time" Les explains. "Following the convention he travelled around the country speaking for the Chartist cause."

Back in Newport and across Monmouthshire, Chartist supporters were enraged by the arrest of the prominent local Chartist Henry Vincent.

On the fateful day of the uprising, November 4, 1839, Frost led the main column of Chartists from Blackwood to Newport. Les tells how Frost had decided that most of the protestors should enter Newport together. "There is some suspicion that Frost thought he could better prevent violence if the Chartists stayed together."

That hope was of course, forlorn. The faith many of the protestors had that the soldiers would not fire on them was misplaced.

An estimated 10,000 people marched to the Westgate Hotel in Newport that day. The protesters shouted for Vincent and other imprisoned Chartists to be released. The soldiers did open fire, killing 22 of those gathered there.

Frost was arrested later that day and charged with high treason. Early in 1840, along with fellow leaders William Jones and Zephaniah Williams, he was tried at Monmouth's Shire Hall.

Les tells how Frost’s popularity grew as the trial went on.

"His self-possession, dignity and respectability, reported during his trial at Monmouth impressed many people."

Frost, Williams and Jones were found guilty and sentenced to die a traitor’s death. They would be executed by hanging, followed by the beheading and quartering of their bodies.

The sentence was met with a wave of protest throughout Britain. The authorities relented and their sentences were commuted to transportation to Van Diemens Land (Australia) where they would spend the rest of their days.

But that wasn't the end of the story. "Such was the support he had, appeals and petitions for his release, kept coming" Les explains, adding "he became even more popular after the rising."

This campaign for his return kept running for 16 years, until he was an old man of 72 and he was granted a full pardon.

To the surprise of the authorities, he had not been forgotten and in 1856 crowds turned out in Newport, London and elsewhere to see and hear this man of principle,

who had held to the six points of the Charter and was angry that not one of these six aims, had yet been implemented.

Strong though the support was which pressured the government to pardon him and let him leave Australia, he would never come back to live in Newport.

"There was an equally vociferous campaign against him being allowed to live in Newport again" Les explains, "Octavius Morgan remained a thorn in his side."

He instead joined his wife who was living in Stapleton, near Bristol, where he lived until his death in 1877.

And today, his profile perhaps has never been so high in modern times.

Most poignantly, for someone who so valued education, the naming of a school in his honour will mean his name will be remembered too by Newportonians of the future.