Review: The Chartist Rambler by David Osmond
If you concertina the life of William Edwards into the cover blurb for a book you get an intriguing list indeed. This prominent south Wales Chartist was ‘adored by the people of the Monmouthshire valleys, twice gaoled for sedition, burnt in effigy by his former supporters; preacher, baker, bookseller.’
Despite all this he is not as well known as some of his fellow fighters for democracy and for the right to vote such as John Frost, in part explained by the fact that he was in prison during the high drama of the Newport rising, which thus overshadows his undeniable achievement in promulgating the cause.
Now David Osmond’s lucid and deeply researched account sets out to address that imbalance, or overshadowing, even though some of the normal tools available to a biographer are very much missing.
No portrait of the man exists from which one might infer clues about his character: neither is there much description of him, beyond various people testifying to his physical strength and muscularity.
But despite these absences, and by diligently poring over the papers and documents that are there, Osmond manages to fashion a vivid picture of a man entirely driven by a cause and willing to sacrifice a great deal in the furtherance of the aim of ensuring political rights for the working classes.
Osmond has, in the historian E.P.Thompson’s phrase, reclaimed Edwards ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Here was a man who pledged himself ‘to dedicate my time, my talents, my influence and the energies of my mind to the great work of destroying error in all its forms, and of defending and publishing the truth in all its beauties.’
In furtherance of these lofty ideals, Edwards was helped by being a persuasive and gifted orator, who could bring a crowd with him and often did so in front of very large gatherings, sometimes numbering in the thousands.
Indeed he was so successful at such mass persuasion that local anti-Chartist newspapers such as the Monmouthshire Merlin produced their early versions of media slurs, describing an Edwards speech as ‘one of his raving farragos…He tore away for a couple of hours. It was horrible.’
Other papers followed suit, accusing him of encouraging violence: one suggested he talked about ‘cutting throats’ even as he drew a forefinger across his throat, lest anyone be unsure about what he was suggesting precisely.
A speech might be “horrible” in the paper’s opinion but there’s a clue there to the man himself in the simple length of his oration: here was a man of enormous energy, who could deliver a speech with all the gifts of a preacher full of boundless hwyl.
Such occasions were buoyed up by lots of excitement with placards put up in advance by way of announcement, backed up by town criers. Then, just before the meeting, there would be parades and processions, before Edwards and other speakers arrived by chaise decorated with a Union Jack.
But success engendered further attacks in the newspapers, such as the publication of a letter from Richard Bailey, a member of the Crawshay family of ironmasters, in which he described Edwards as a ‘vagabondising, levelling, infidel, radical demagogue’ who wanted to ‘turn the world upside down.’
As if this string of adjectives wasn’t sufficient anti Chartist activists suggested he was on the verge of bankruptcy, while others went further, intimating that he was mad, and the ‘mad baker’ tag stuck with some.
Things came to a head when, by order of the Government, he was charged at Monmouth Summer Assizes – along with three other defendants – with unlawful assembly and conspiracy.
Nervousness about the reaction of his faithful followers led to a contingent of Lancers being stationed in the nearby Forest of Dean while special constables were sworn in in the town itself.
At the end of the trial the jury agreed its verdict very quickly and the prisoners were soon off to Monmouth Gaol. Here they suffered deprivations that political prisoners such as themsleves should not ordinarily have to face, such as losing access to books.
A second trial followed, as further charges were levelled against him and Edwards found himself in Oakham gaol in Rutland, a long way from his home and family.
‘A more determined Chartist’
On being eventually released Edwards returned to his family in Commercial Street, Newport, to the bookshop where he sold the Western Vindicator, The Penny Satirist, the Bristol Spy and the scurrilous Sam Spy, full of ‘malicious scribblings of unmanly and impure literary assassins,’ which he was forced by magistrates to take out of stock.
True to character, he also went back to the political fray: as he said ‘I went to prison a Chartist, and I shall leave the prison a more determined Chartist than ever I was before.’ One of the tactics of the Chartists at the time was to nominate candidates for Parliament so Edwards put himself forward. The hustings, however, resulted in a fiasco, not least when Edwards stood aside because he apparently did not want to cause further incovenience to his rival, Blewitt.
In this case it was Edwards who blew it: an angry crowd gathered at the Westgate Inn and soon the former people’s hero was being flogged, hanged and burned in effigy.
He was later charged by his fellow Chartists with conspiring with the Whigs and accepting bribes, which he freely admitted, so ushering in a period when he settled quietly into selling books rather than sounding words in fiery speeches.
But personal tragedy followed, when his wife Sarah died at the age of 46 of ‘nervous debility,’ a condition brought on perhaps by the strain of looking after the shop and family when her husband was in gaol.
Edwards did remarry, this time a much, much younger woman, which brought another whiff of scandal to a man who had long been pilloried for being who he was, and for the certainty of his beliefs.
David Osmond has given us an intriguing portrait of both a man and his times, opening out the story of the south Wales Chartists to include one of its unsung heroes and going a long way to restore him as ‘a serious, influential and durable’ presence in their story, and in the struggle to improve the lives of others.
In the case of Edwards it did not come without personal cost or suffering, with impecunity and imprisonment. But his strength of character still shone through, for as he himself put it, ‘Although my body has been in prisons and cells, yet my mind has been free and unshackled.’
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