The fight for Nonconformist freedoms – and Chartism

Some old church battle grounds recalled by Jean Silvan Evans

People often say today that religion and politics don’t mix. But, the more I look into the life
of our illustrious forefather John Batchelor – better known as the statue in the Hayes than the
founder of Charles Street Congregational Church, forerunner of City URC – the more I see
that our modern Parliamentary government was forged at a time when religion and politics
mixed to great effect.
For our forefathers and mothers at Chas St Cong, it was religion that came first and dictated
the politics. Ever since David Meek drew my attention to the fact that John Batchelor was the
founder of one of the churches that united to form City URC – when I had missed him out
entirely in an article I was writing on the history of our church! – I have become totally
fascinated by the great man.
I have told Link readers quite a bit about John Batchelor already but since then I have been
tracing influences that informed his political actions – actions that changed political life in
Cardiff and helped to change political life in the whole of Wales. And I discovered it was the
radical political ideas of Chartism.
John Batchelor grew up in Hope Congregational Church in Newport where Chartist leader
John Frost and his family were part of the congregation. All eight of the Frost children and
the seven later – of 12 – Batchelor children, were baptised at Hope in the intertwining years
from 1819 to 1829, including the infant John in 1822.
Given the close and intimate nature of early Congregationalism, John Frost, a generation
older than the young John Batchelor, would have been seen as a familiar and trusted mentor
to him as he grew into teenage. Hope minister the Rev Benjamin Byron was a close friend of
Frost and a supporter of the Six Point Charter.
There was a symbiotic link between the democratic and social values of Chartism and of
Nonconformity in general – and of Congregationalism, with its emphasis on freedom from
the state, in particular.
It all goes back to the old divisions between the Established Church of the state and the
Nonconformists, rapidly growing in power and influence in the 19 th century, who worshipped
in the increasing number of chapels outside the Anglican communion.
Highly successful Nonconformists – such as the Colmans of mustard fame and the Lever
family of Sunlight soap – were wealthy, leading industrialists. Yet, as Nonconformists, they
still suffered under severe civil disabilities.
Nonconformists could only be legally married in the Church of England; it was 1880 before
they could bury their dead by Nonconformist rites; and they were excluded from government
office and the universities. But they still had to pay compulsory church rates!
So, it was no coincidence that Nonconformists lined up on the side of radical politics.
Renowned Chartist leader John Frost and his young disciple John Batchelor both became part

of the great Liberal-Nonconformist force that swept 19 th century Wales and gradually forced
Parliamentary reforms.
Nonconformists found a natural political home in the Liberal Party. As restrictions began to
lift, Frost became a town councillor, then a magistrate. In 1835, he was mayor of Newport. It
was a rapid downfall as he became more actively associated with Chartism and he was
removed from the magistracy. After the collapse of the Chartist Rising in1839, Frost was one
of the three ‘Chartist martyrs’ transported for life.
Frost is still celebrated for his politics – today recognised as the bedrock of our democracy. It
is not so often remembered that he was a Congregationalist. The Chartist Rising alarmed
Victorian society but the movement for Parliamentary reform and social justice went on.
Protests eventually led to Frost and the others receiving unconditional pardons.
John Batchelor was one of those proud to carry on his work. He played a key part in the
creation of modern Cardiff, as the small market town transformed into the largest coal
exporting port in the world. He broke the both the political and economic stranglehold on
Cardiff of the mighty Marquis of Bute.
He spearheaded the Liberal Party election campaign that saw the Butes’ favoured
Conservative MP ousted by a Liberal-Nonconformist – the first Nonconformist MP elected in
Wales; and he was the chief promoter of a Parliamentary Bill to build Penarth dock that broke
the Bute monopoly of the coal export trade.
These triumphs earned him the undying anger and hostility of the Bute party but in no way
defined Batchelor’s life and purpose. He was a man driven by service to his God and his
community. Central to understanding him was his strong Congregationalist faith – with
Chartist overtones – nurtured as he grew up in Hope Chapel.
As a 19-year-old young radical, Batchelor, who came of a shipbuilding family, was so closely
associated with Frost and Chartism that, in the unrest that followed the collapse of the Rising,
the family quickly spirited him away from Newport to the safety of a Sunderland shipyard.
Eventually, he settled in Canada, where he developed and managed a large shipbuilding yard.
It was on his return to this country that he and his brother set up business in Cardiff as
Batchelor Bros, timber merchants and shipbuilders.
In those early years, his passion was unabated and his voice added to the political support for
the Charter. His advocacy was recalled after his death in a tribute by his long-time fellow
Liberal councillor on Cardiff Town Council Ald Richard Cory JP, a fellow supporter of the
Cory recalled Batchelor was then still ‘engaged in the noble task’ of pressing for the ‘six
points of the Great Charter – the Charter to remove the disabilities and enfranchise the
people’. Something, said Cory, he did even in those later years at the risk not only of losing
his position and reputation but of ‘actual transportation’.
While Cory spoke in praise of Batchelor, his Chartist links were used vehemently against him
by his political rivals. Cory was speaking at the unveiling of the statue in The Hayes in
honour of Batchelor – sanctioned by a Liberal Cardiff Town Council.

But while Batchelor was revered by Liberal supporters, he was denigrated by Conservative
opponents, who vigorously opposed the statue. They initiated a petition of 1,200 signatures to
remove it but the council refused to budge – to cries from the Conservative Western Mail of
the ‘cowardice’ of councillors who ‘surrendered to the howlings of a radical clique’.
The inscription Friend of Freedom was another point controversy. The Western Mail put
forward derisive alternatives: ‘traitor to the Crown’ in regard to his Chartist support; ‘hater of
the clergy’ to highlight his Nonconformity; and, a reference to his eventual bankruptcy when
the Butes finally succeeded in ruining his business, ‘sincerely mourned by unpaid creditors’.
That particular attack actually launched a famous criminal libel case that made headlines
across the country and set a libel precedent that lives on today. The judge ruled that ‘the dead
have no rights and suffer no wrongs’ and ordered the jury to find for the defendants.
But Frost’s name remained a political football in the vicious debate. Editor Lascelles Carr
kept up his spirited attack and later wrote an article to claim that – had the case not collapsed
on a point of law – he had ‘ample authority’ to justify words used in the original libel case.
He said when he wrote, in reference to Batchelor’s stay in Canada, that ‘he left his country
for his country's good’, what he meant was that in his opinion it was for the good of the
country that a ‘political and social agitator, an associate and sympathiser with John Frost and
his Chartist allies, like the late Mr. John Batchelor should leave it’.
So, well after Batchelor’s death, there were still echoes of the formative influence of the
Congregationalist-Chartist ideals of democratic reform and social justice learnt in Hope
Congregational Chapel that he put into practice all his life.
Although few people could put a name to Batchelor’s statue today, his heritage is still visible
in the life of Cardiff. As the prime mover in the establishment of Charles Street Cong, the
church he formed lives on here in City URC. The original grade 11 listed building is now
owned by St David’s Roman Catholic Cathedral and is being developed, with the help of
Heritage Lottery funding, as the community / conference centre Cornerstone.

Photo credit: David Meek used with permission
The familiar statue in The Hayes of John Batchelor, who helped to create modern Cardiff and
fought for Parliamentary reform and social justice.

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