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Cultural Vandalism – The Eastern Valley & The Newport Chartist Mural

October 4, 2013

It has been a long time people, I make no apologies for that. Lots of things have happened here that I shan’t bother you with for a variety of reasons. I am now in my final year of university although I am quite sad at that. It has been fun and the learning curve has been unexplainable, exciting, saddening, hard, but altogether, rewarding. It appears I picked the right course. The only thing I would change would be my first year of study.

So what has prompted my emergence from blogging hibernation? Well, the title sorta gives it away a tad, but before I rip Newport Council a new one over the mural, lets have a little look at the background to this. I feel I am qualified to comment.

Image

Aiming at the Council Chamber – Sorry, at the Chartists

The mural that has been destroyed is commonly depicted as the Newport Chartist Mural. It was more than that as it also illustrates a few other events in Welsh political history. However, just for now, lets go with the Newport uprising and have a little look at the background to that.

In the early nineteenth century, the politics of Monmouthshire was controlled by two country seats in Parliament. The Morgans of Tredegar held the monopoly on one, the Duke of Beaufort held the other. Two towns in Monmouthshire basically controlled who was appointed due to their populace, namely Newport and Usk.

Around 1806, a fella named John Frost returned from London, established himself in Mill Street as a tailor draper and became a radical spokesman for manhood suffrage (sorry ladies, you had to wait for your turn). Frost was determined to break the gentry stranglehold that occupied the Parliamentary seats for the county. To do this he teamed up with Thomas Prothero, who happened to be the Town Clerk for Newport, and the lesser industrialist John Hodder Moggeridge. Launching a series of ferocious broadsides against gentry political corruption and, in turn, his former colleagues, Frost ended up alienating himself to the extant he was gaoled for libel in 1823. Undeterred, Frost established the Political Union of the Working Classes in Newport in 1831.

The Reform Act of 1832 infuriated Frost and his fellow radicals. Fuelled by this disappointment, like minded people joined Frost and Chartism started to gather pace. By 1839 over 400 chartists were active in Newport alone. The leaders of Chartism started lecturing throughout the eastern valley. The lectures diffused outwards from Newport towards Abergavenny.  Not widely known is their initial target audience. The large mass of bodies in the coalfields were left well alone (OK, fess up, who split this fact on the Labour run Newport Council?), it was  middle class support they were after. This changed when London’s Working Men’s Association appointed a roving ambassador called Henry Vincent. Soon after, 20 new chartist branches were established with the number of active supporters rising to as many as 20,000.

A huge petition to Parliament was beginning to take shape. Vincent held many meetings, heralding that if the petition were to be rejected, ‘every hill and valley of Wales should send forth its army’. Stirring words indeed, and as such it should be no surprise that the authorities, both civil and private, starting putting in place measures to combat the Chartist tsunami. Soldiers entered Abergavenny, Newport and Monmouth.  Warrants were issued for the arrest of the Chartist leaders which concluded with Vincent being arrested and thrown in Monmouth gaol. But it was never going to be enough, and it could easily be argued that these actions fanned the Chartist flames. By the night of November third 1839, an army had amassed to ascend on Newport. Frost led from Blackwood, Zephaniah Williams from Ebbw Vale and Nantyglo, while the watchmaker William Jones, led the men from Pontypool. The following day is well documented.

File:Westgate Hotel.jpg

So what is the kerfuffle in regards to this historical background and the last few weeks? In 1978 Kenneth Budd  was commissioned to create a mosaic depicting the chartist struggle and subsequent battle. And, he did a jolly good job of it. 200,000 pieces of tiles and glass were painstakingly pieced together to produce what can be considered to be a masterful piece of historical art, it was of extraordinary quality.

Opinion divided as Newport Chartist Mural faces demolition

The mural lined the walls of a subway leading to John Frost Square in Newport City’s centre. Thousands of people walked past it daily giving them a constant reminder of the struggle of past years. If truth be known, we are currently going through the same struggle in the present day. It should be of no surprise that subsequent London Parliaments continue to protect those at the top; the gentry and industrialists of yesteryear. For me, it was the ultimate historical identity link for the ordinary person to past events. It gave Newport people historical identity.  It worked two ways, they went to work or walked to a rugby game based in Newport. Either way, they walked past the mural.

Newport City centre needed to be developed. The rise of Cwmbran’s shopping centre has overseen the demise of both Newport and Pontypool shopping centres in the eastern valley (over and above its original purpose). The subway the mural is housed in was Included in the development area. As such, the mural was under threat. A request to list the mural, to give it some sort of cultural protection, was dismissed by CADW, apparently out of hand. The South Wales Argus (18 September) reports,

” A spokesman for Cadw said the mural, located in a walkway off John Frost Square, had fallen short of its criteria for listing on grounds of its “special architectural interest”.

“The quality of building to which the mosaic is attached is poor and the underpass itself has no intrinsic design merits. It was also felt that there was no specific association between the location of the mural and the Chartist uprising,” he said.
Cadw had worked with the council to find a future for the mural but “the costs associated with relocation are too great for this to be a viable option.”

It goes on to state,

“The demolition of the mural is not planned to take place as part of the first phase of demolition works at John Frost Square that the council is currently seeking a contractor for.”

What comes next is derived from a statement made on Newport Councils Faceboook page.

“Following the submission of the listing request, we took Cadw’s advice and commissioned Mann Williams Consultants, experts in the field of civil and structural engineering, about the potential for relocating the mural. It was made clear that it would cost at least £600,000 and there were real risks that the mural would not survive such a move. We have to consider the cost to the council taxpayer, especially in the current financial climate.”

OK then, lets take at those statements in greater detail. 

  • “It has no special architectural interest”

Really? How many other 35 metre long murals do we have in south east Wales depicting the chartist movement?

  • “no specific association between the location of the mural and the Chartist uprising”.

Really? Erm, it led to JOHN FROST Square.

  • The demolition of the mural is not planned to take place as part of the first phase of demolition works at John Frost Square

Really? That didn’t quite ring true did it?

  • “Followed Cadw’s advice and commissioned Mann Williams Consultants, experts in the field of civil and structural engineering.”

Really? And why were specialised conservation and contsruction renovating experts not consulted? Engineers built the second Severn crossing and the Channel Tunnel, I am not sure how many of them have created an artistic master piece made up of glass and ceramic tiles.

  • “It was made clear that it would cost at least £600,000 and there were real risks that the mural would not survive such a move.”

This last one is my favourite. Watch this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=croLnqK8a2I

Now those little diggers pack one helluva clout. I know this as I have been hit by the swinging arm of one (although I did manage to catch a piece of 14C monastic tile before I hit the ground). You can quite clearly see that the machine is having considerable difficulty demolishing the mural. Not exactly un-survivable if it had been carefully re-located doncha think?

The mural has been laid onto a sand and cement mortar which in turn has been laid onto what is called metal rib lath. The geomatric design of rib lath makes it incredibly strong when rendered with sand and cement, so much so that the mural could have easily been taken down, without major damage, stored for a very long time, and then refitted when necessary. In fact, so big and strong were some of the chunks of the demolished mural, the Police gave some to the protesters that were present on site. That in turn prompted this astonishing Tweet

What on earth are @gwentpolice doing handing out pieces of the Mural!?

Hmm, quite Cllr. Now hang your head in shame for your incompetent ignorance. For shame.

Given the above the mural could easily have not been incorporated into the current development for a fraction of the cost quoted. And I mean a fraction.

In short, Newport County Borough Council have dropped a bollock here, one of monstrous proportions.

And they have form. Where do you think half of the Castle is? Or the Corn Exchange? They don’t even deserve the Newport Ship which, by the way, an independent consultation said would bring millions of pounds into Newports economy over many years.

Strange how they have chose to ignore that isn’t it?

Perhaps not.

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9 Comments
  1. H Price permalink

    Brilliant!
    You may also want to take a look at this http://www.newport.gov.uk/stellent/groups/public/documents/leaflets_and_brochures/cont528464.pdf
    Friars Walk plan – 2010. Pages 82-83, budget for the project:

    “Site Preparation Works:

    Provision for preservation of John Frost Mural: including handing to Council for re-use elsewhere – £100,000. ”
    Wonder what happened to that £100k?

  2. Indeed! I am presuming that nobody thought of asking the conservation dept at Cardiff University to have a look at it. I am sure the £100K would have been sufficient to them.

  3. Dave – I am shocked and saddened.

  4. Normal for the eastern valley Jean. It is a continual battle that I don’t mind upsetting people with.

  5. Just another example of corporate vandalism unfortunately. I signed the petition but what use was that?

  6. Gav permalink

    Excellent piece, very informative, I’d like to say I enjoyed it, but it highlighted just how sad this affair is. Shame on NCC.

  7. Dave great article. Just a quick couple of comments on the technical side of this. Because the estimates for moving the mural are not available for scrutiny it is only possible to guess at the plans to move and the brief they were given. However having seen how it came down it seems obvious that a professional conservator could have lifted the mural and removed it for re attachment. This would have been hard because of scale but not tremendously so. Given that consevators lift mosaics, murals and wall paintings in much worse condition with minimal loss the chartist mural would have been relatively straightforward. As for the costs I can say that to safely lift and remove it I am sure other professionals would have quoted less. But I don’t know what the engineers included. For example were they planning to take down the whole wall? If so why? Lastly to be fair to cadw. Look at the guidelines for listing and ask if they would fit a removed mural. Perhaps we need a recognition scheme for portable heritage and extend protection beyond the built environment.

    • Thoroughly agree with the CADW scenario, I should have included it within the post. It is certainly something that needs to be changed.

  8. Richard permalink

    Ironic that it is a Labour run council no?…..or maybe not considering how right wing labour has shifted!

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