REVIEWS AND COMMENTS ON 'THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO'
TO THE ALAMO
THE TRAIL OF A CHARTIST HERO
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
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?’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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.
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
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.
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
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’.
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.
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
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?
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’
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.
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.
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.
DEAD OR ALIVE
Valley Leader September 30th 2004
escape route of Cynon Valley Chartist John Rees has been discovered
after a 165-year search.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.’
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.
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.
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.