Frost defence fund 1839 – 1840

With the arrest of John Frost and other leaders of the Newport rebellion, a stunned Chartist movement swung slowly into action to raise a legal defence fund.

Many of the contributors are named in the Chartist Ancestors databank.

Frost was arrested within hours of the rising’s failure on the cold wet night of 4 November 1839, hiding at the home of a local Chartist and heavily armed. William Jones was caught, pistol in hand, in Ebbw Vale days later. Zepheniah Williams was taken off a ship in Cardiff Bay on 23 November, shortly before it was due to sail for Portugal.

All three now faced trial for high treason and the prospect of the death sentence.

At first, there was silence from the Northern Star. Although its editor, William Hill, knew of plans for the rebellion, he failed to alert Feargus O’Connor, who was in Ireland until the 3 November and knew nothing of it. Reports in the Northern Star of 9 November, five days after the rising, were culled entirely from other papers.

The following week, in his regular column, O’Connor launched an appeal for funds to get the best possible lawyers for those arrested. Soon, the donations began to arrive, pennies and shillings at a time. It was clear, however, that large sums would be needed.

The front page of the Northern Star of 30 November carried a letter from Frost’s solicitor, W F Geach, in which he explained that “duty bound, by ties of kindred” with Frost’s family, he would do all he could, but that the cost of a proper defence would inevitably be beyond his means. The paper promised that O’Connor would meet Geach, and warned its readers: “Funds will be wanted. Frost’s life may depend on instant exertion. Need we say more?”

In his issue of 7 December 1839, Feargus O’Connor announced that the price of the 21 December issue would go up from four pence halfpenny to five pence halfpenny and that the week’s entire profit would go to the Frost Defence Fund. He also set off on a tour of the country in a further bid to raise funds from public meetings.

O’Connor would later recall:

“In 1839 when Frost was arrested there was not a single farthing to apply to his defence. I had to pay down nine hundred sovereigns out of my own pocket to commence the defence before a farthing was subscribed.”
(Source: Northern Star, 8 July 1843)

Frost’s trial began on 31 December 1839, and within days he had been found guilty. Similar verdicts on his co-conspirators followed soon after. Some English Chartists believed that an insurrection was now both necessary and possible, and risings were attempted with varying degrees of seriousness in Bradford, Barnsley and Newcastle. The most serious of the disturbances was in Sheffield. But even here, with the Northern Star warning against violence, the numbers involved were small and they stood little chance of success.

Most Chartists followed O’Connor and the Northern Star’s advice to petition on behalf of the prisoners and raise money for further legal action. As the money came in, the Northern Star began to acknowledge contributions. Its issue of 18 January named every individual who had contributed and gave the sum donated. The list that week ran to eight columns, taking up a full page and a half of the broadsheet paper.

The fundraising effort went on, but clearly it was not possible to acknowledge every penny in print. Although the exercise was repeated in the 25 January issue, on 1 February 1840, the Northern Star concluded: “We cannot continue to give these contribitions in detail. They will else fill the whole paper.”

As to the fate of Frost, Jones and Williams, it was a close-run thing. All three were sentenced to death. On 28 January 1840, Frost’s appeal was rejected by a majority of the 15 appeal judges, and the following day the Cabinet agreed that the three should be executed. The Home Secretary, Lord Normanby, immediately wrote to Monmouth Gaol setting an execution date of Thursday 6 February.

However, with petitions containing tens of thousands of signatures seeking clemency, the government facing a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, and even the Lord Chief Justice urging ministers not to go ahead with the executions, the Cabinet swiftly changed its mind and commuted the sentences to transportation for life.

About the names

The databank names 1,532 contributors to the Frost Defence Fund as they were recorded in the Northern Star’s issues of 18 and 25 January 1840.

Some entries will be more useful than others. “JJ of Stockport” or “Four poor men of Huddersfield” are frustratingly unhelpful. However, Robert Snaden or James Welsh from Newton Shaw in Clackmannanshire may be more readily identifiable.

The caution of those who withheld their names was understandable. But hundreds more felt sufficiently confident to stand publicly by their support for John Frost and the Chartist rebels.

Names are organised by locality (given in column three) and are transcribed directly from the Northern Star as they appeared there. Money appears to have been collected by a named individual in each locality, and their name appears here in column 2.

Some things to watch out for:
• The Northern Star mostly (but not always) uses M’Lean or M’Farlane where today McLean or McFarlane is more common.
• The Northern Star version of this table includes the amounts contributed by each individual.