Almost 180 years ago, on the 4th of November 1839 around 5000 workers from the surrounding valleys descended on Newport calling for political reform. They were furious and desperate to change their terrible working conditions. Child labour was rife and a stratified society meant people were forced to work for wealthy landowners for pittance.
Headed by their leader John Frost, the men, known as Chartists marched down the steep Stow Hill and assembled in front of the Westgate hotel. But, the protest wasn’t to flow smoothly. Violence broke out as the Chartists clashed with soldiers in the hotel and as a result it’s believed 22 of the protesters were shot and killed with many more injured. Workhouse registers from the era prove Chartists were admitted there after the incident with gunshot wounds. The incident became known as the Newport Rising.
Chartism (named so because of ‘the people’s charter’ that was drawn up and presented to the house of commons) had began in the late 1830s and was a working class movement calling for such values as democracy, equality and dignity – things we take for granted in Britain today. Among things the Chartists campaigned for was the right for all men 21 and over to vote. At the time only around 1 in 20 men had the right to vote. They also campaigned for annual parliament (rather than elections held every 7 years) and secret voting. In 2013 a mural commemorating the Chartists in Newport was controversially knocked down by the council to make way for the new shopping centre.
With this project I’m taking part in we hope to raise awareness in the community of the importance of the Chartists and have a permanent public artwork on display along Stow Hill as well as a temporary installation at St Woolos Cathedral on top of the hill (the final resting place of some of those shot in the conflict). The installation will take the form of thousands of tiny clay shoes made by local community groups and schoolchildren.
Today I helped run workshops for children from a local primary school at the Riverside arts centre in Newport. We began the morning with activities introducing them to what Chartism was about. As a way to demonstrate the power of people coming together to demand change we took part in some role playing activities with the children playing roles of the Charters trying to get the attention of their bosses, first individually then all together. They got the chance to take part in a ballot and understand about the importance of anonymous voting.
Next they took part in a drawing exercise and each chose a section of the story of the Newport Rising to illustrate. Interestingly the river Usk popped up in many of the drawings. It seemed looking out over the river from upstairs in the arts centre had captured the children’s imagination.
After this we started on making the clay shoes. We began by playing with the clay, rolling it into spirals, making squares and balls etc. to learn about what it feels like to work with. Then we made pairs of shoes by shaping tiny pinch pots. The kids had a great time and we ended up with a wonderful assortment of shoes – from working boots to high heels, slippers, trainers and even flip- flops! I expect the installation will have a similar feel to Anthony Gormley’s ‘Field’ with the repetition of the shoes, each one slightly different adding power to the final outcome.
The shoes look touchingly innocent, especially because of their small size. Their’ raggedy’ nature reflects the poverty of the workers and their hard work. There’s also a slightly sinister reference to the Auschwitz shoe room and of course the plight of child labour. Although the Chartists eventually succeeded in turning things around in Britain it was important the children learnt that unfortunately, citizens of many countries today are still deprived of basic human rights.
In the afternoon, after this busy making session, braving the heavy rain and with united cries of ‘Join us!’ and ‘Things must change!’ Pat Drewett, an expert on the Chartists, took us on a walk up Stow hill to get a taste for what the Chartists would have experienced all those years ago. The day they walked down would have been very similar to this one – wet and cold. Pat showed us illustrations of what the town would have looked like back in the 1830s and we ended our pilgrimage inside St Woolos Cathedral which hopefully before long will be filled with tiny clay shoes!
Clay is a fantastic metaphor for the way people coming together can be a catalyst for change. In a dry, raw state with lots of water between the clay particles it is brittle and weak. However when fired the water evaporates and the clay turns to ceramic which is strong and durable. In the same way, individuals speaking out against their unfair treatment were ignored however when lots of disillusioned people got together to form the Chartist movement their voice was strong enough to change the state of the country.
Clay is also a metaphor for change in the way it a lump of wet clay can be formed, crushed and reformed endless times. If you’re not happy with something you make, you can change it. Unfortunately for the Chartists changing the way the country was run, wasn’t quite as easy as reshaping a lump of clay.