REVIEWS AND COMMENTS ON 'THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO'

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WALES TO THE ALAMO

ON THE TRAIL OF A CHARTIST HERO

A new book about the Chartist Rising puts an adventurer who was at the Alamo, and who later joined the California Gold Rush, at its centre

MIKE BUCKINGHAM reports

SOUTH WALES ARGUS September 11 2004

‘For three years you followed the trail of the mysterious and elusive Jack the Fifer. What would you think of him if you met him in the flesh?’

John Humphries, a tall, spare figure and the journalistic equivalent of a Rottweiler when he was editor of a morning paper (The Western Mail), shoots straight back. ‘He’d fascinate me. He was the man at the centre of events that fateful morning of November 4, 1839, when Chartists were shot dead outside the Westgate Hotel.’

With the dedication of an investigative reporter on the scent of a hot story, John Humphries has picked away at the Chartists’ tale, taking barely a word of what has previously been written for granted.

Where historians have been content to take ‘facts’ peddled by other historians as read, he has gone back to basics, examining land deeds and birth records and death and marriage registers until finally tracking down a pivotal but elusive character in Welsh history.

The story of the Chartist Rising, as most people understand, is that of the generalship of John Frost of Newport, with Zephaniah Williams and William Jones as his lieutenants, with several thousand men, angrily demanding universal suffrage, descended on Newport and stormed the Westgate Hotel. Troops stationed within the hotel opened fire, thus crushing an insurgency which, if successful in its aims, would have been the signal for a more general uprising.

The leaders were tried on the capital charge of treason, the death sentence later being commuted to transportation. John Rees, alias Jack the Fifer, who had been the Chartists’ sergeant-major, managed to flee the scene, however, and probably ended up in America.

‘My point is that Rees was more than a sergeant-major who organised the insurgents into ranks and files. Much, much more.’ John Humphries, whose house is buried deep in the Gwent countryside he loves with an incandescent passion, leans forwards in his seat as he speaks.

‘Everything I have found out about him leads me to believe he was a tough, professional soldier who may have served in the British Army and who certainly fought in the Texas-Mexico War of 1836.

Far from being a drill sergeant, I believe he was the Chartists’ tactician, and it may well have been Jack the Fifer who fired the first shot which provoked the Westgate Massacre.’

The word ‘massacre’ is chosen with care, for one of Humphries’ other contentions is that the soldiers of the 45th of Foot who were inside the Westgate and who unleashed the lethal volley, were a hand-picked squad which, only a year before, had quelled a riot in Kent with similar ferocity.

The battle for the Westgate was a brief but bloody affair. Some of the Chartists fought an entrance into the hotel, only to be shot down in a passageway. Scattered by the soldiers’ disciplined fire the Chartists fled, leaving some 20 dead in front of the hotel. Others were taken away by their comrades. How many died of their wounds is not known.

Frost was later seen weeping and distraught at Tredegar Park before being arrested at the home of a friend. William Jones was arrested at Crumlin and Zephaniah Williams just after boarding a ship in Cardiff bound for Portugal.

John Rees, alias Jack the Fifer, managed to slip away amid the confusion, the pall of gunsmoke and the screams of the dying. John Humphries, though, was on his tail. He uncovered a letter in The Times newspaper which had been copied in the Cambrian newspaper, in which Rees detailed his flight, first to Liverpool, then to Middlesbrough and Newcastle, and from there to New York and finally Virginia.

From there, Rees returned to Texas, where he had lived until shortly before returning to Gwent to take part in the Chartist Rising and where he had involved himself in some shady land dealings, and from Texas he joined the rush heading west on the gold trail – the ‘49ers’.

‘And there the trail goes cold. We don’t know much about john Rees, alias jack the Fifer, until he dies at Hornbrook in California on November 13th 1893, at the age of 78,’ Humphries says. ‘He must have confided in someone in California, though, because the date of his birth – March 4th, 1815 – as well as the date of his death is on the tombstone in the town cemetery.’

            John Rees was a real adventurer: in the Texan-Mexican War, which started in 1836, he was captured along with 400 others who were promptly massacred by the Mexicans (The Goliad Massacre), and was only one of 28 to escape by swimming the San Antonio River.

‘After the war there was no money in Texas to pay the veterans, so they were paid in land. It was at this point his shady dealings came into it… I don’t suppose we will ever know exactly why John Rees came back to Wales to take part in the Chartist Rising, but after studying this man for three years I can say for sure he was someone who liked to live on the edge.’

There are other intriguing nuggets in the book. The fact that the 45th of Foot were the urban warfare specialists of their day is not generally known. Did the fact that such a skilled and ruthless unit was in Newport mean that the authorities were forewarned as to the nature of the threat?

There is an astonishing codicil to what even if the it’s revelations had been confined to Jack the Fifer, would have been a remarkable book. John Humphries actually went to Tasmania, and in a remote corner of the island discovered the Bible belonging to Zephaniah Williams’ family.

‘The Bible is inscribed with birth dates, and for the Williams’ five children and in the case of three of them, their deaths,’ he says. ‘Inexplicably, this great tome has remained in the same house which was built by Williams’ son-in-law for more than 100 years, even though the property has changed hands many times.’

            The story of the swashbuckler who fought at the Alamo and in Newport and who became a prospector for Californian gold… an old Bible which has been gathering dust for more than a century… it’s all stuff to get the imaginative juices flowing.

John Humphries, having got the taste for historical research, is now engaged upon another project. Professional historians, who in the past have lazily accepted one another’s notions in a cosy intellectual non-aggression pact need look to their laurels.

There is a new kid on the block, and in pursuit of the truth he is as diligent and determined as a good journalist should be.


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WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE

 By Gary Marsh

 Cynon Valley Leader September 30th 2004

The escape route of Cynon Valley Chartist John Rees has been discovered after a 165-year search.

John Rees, then 24, succeeded in fleeing to America after hiding in the hills above Hiwaun following the Chartist Uprising in November, 1839. The Chartists pressed for Parliamentary reforms, including universal male suffrage, to improve the lot of working classes. Little is known about Rees – considered to be one of the leaders of the uprising. But a new book, The Man from the Alamo, traces the uprising, which ended in a massacre. The book, published this month, contains exclusive accounts of Rees’s escape.

A vast amount of research was undertaken by author and journalist, John Humphries. According to a newspaper report in 1844 – five years after the uprising, Rees wrote a letter from America to The Times.

‘This struck me as very strange,’ said Mr Humphries. ‘I felt that a Welsh speaker from Hirwaun would be unlikely to write a letter to the editor of The Times,’ said Mr Humphries, a former editor of The Western Mail. But it all came together for the author when he discovered that The Times reporter who covered the story was based in Swansea at the time!

‘The report contained a detailed account by Rees explaining his escape from Hirwaun to America,’ said Mr Humphries. John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were sentenced to death for their part in the uprising. Rees was found guilty of high treason, but despite an extensive search of Hirwaun and neighbouring areas, he was never found.

‘Rees was the only committed revolutionary among the Chartist leaders,’ said Humphries. ‘Frost fled before his troops opened fire, and Williams and Jones were nowhere near. New evidence shows that Rees stepped from the crowd to lead the attack.’

But Rees is not the only person the author has researched. The Man from the Alamo also reveals what became of Zephaniah Williams. Williams, the son of a Penderyn farmer, never returned to Wales after being deported to Tasmania. ‘The information was discovered in a house in a remote corner of the Australian bush – in the Williams family Bible,’ said Mr Humphries.

‘The only surviving artefact of the Williams family was taken to Tasmania in 1854 by Zephaniah’s wife, Joan, when she left South Wales to join him in establishing a Welsh mining settlement on the Mersey River Coalfield in the north-west of the island.

Mr Humphries has also traced the names of almost 100 miners and their families recruited from Wales by Zephaniah Williams to work on his mines on Ballahoo Creek.

 



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