Musket Balls and Misconceptions

Musket balls and misconceptions
by Ray Stroud

Artist unknown © Newport Museum and Art Gallery

Many youngsters through the years have found it difficult to resist the temptation of squeezing their fingers into the holes in the pillars of the Westgate Hotel.  We had all, probably, been regaled with stories of the Chartist attack on the Westgate, and of the musket balls that had penetrated the building during the battle.  But were these tales based on truth or myth? In recent years, many in Newport have adopted the ‘myth’ position, arguing that they had been drilled into the pillars at a later date, possibly to attach gates or some other structure.  But does that theory line up with the historical evidence?

The holes found in the pillars as they look today. © Ray Stroud

The portico, which today sadly stands concealed behind sheets of chipboard, is the only remaining feature of a building that was constructed in 1799.  Interestingly, it is actually not made of cast iron as many believe, but of wood. This portico was part of a ‘second Westgate Inn’, erected on the site of a fifteenth-century manor house at the bottom of Stow Hill.  The earliest known resident of this ‘Westgate House’ was Sir William ap Thomas, who was lord of the manors of Sutton and Rogerstone.[For more information Click to access an article 'The Westgate Hotel, Newport' by Gillian Holt.]

         Samuel T. Hallen and the Second Westgate Inn 1799-1884

      In May 1837, Mr. Samuel T. Hallen took possession of the Westgate Inn, and remained as its proprietor for more than 45 years.  Kelly's  Commercial Directory of 1848 describes Hallen as an ‘Innkeeper, Livery Stable Keeper, Postmaster and Patent Hearse Proprietor’. It was the Newport Rising of 1839, however, that provided the Westgate Inn with the large measure of notoriety that it still enjoys to this day. 
[See the Monmouthshire Merlin 9th November 1839 which states 'A volley was immediately discharged at the windows of the house' by the Chartists.]

In the conflict that took place on the morning of 4 November 1839, at least twenty-two people were killed.  Many more were injured, including the Mayor of Newport, Thomas Phillips, and the proprietor of the Westgate Inn, Samuel Hallen. 

James Flewitt Mullock’s well-known lithograph of the attack on the Westgate Inn, 1840.
© Newport Museum and Art Gallery
In 1840, the Newport artist, James Flewitt Mullock produced this lithograph of the attack on the Westgate, an event he had witnessed from a building opposite the inn.  His picture clearly shows Hallen’s name above the door of the Westgate Inn.  

The front facade of the Westgate Hotel (S. T. Hallen Westgate Hotel Posting House) "Presented to his worship the Mayor Councillor Walter Griffiths J.P for the Mayor's Parlour by Col. Sir Joseph A. Bradney. Griffiths was mayor of Newport 1928-9. 
Artist unknown. © Newport Museum and Art Gallery. 

Lithograph sketch by Lieutenant Taylor of the Royal Horse Artillery, of the Westgate Hotel following the Newport Uprising showing the position of bodies and abandoned weapons. © Newport Museum and Art Gallery. 
Click here and then click on the image to enlarge and see the position of the bodies in the inn more clearly. 

Following the attack, lying alongside the bodies was a mass of weapons. W. N. Johns, writing in 1889 in his book The Chartist Riots at Newport, says, ‘In front of the Westgate alone about 150 weapons of various kinds, thrown down by the Chartists, were collected together, and subsequently removed to Cross House, on Stow Hill, the residence of Mr Hopkins, the Superintendent of the Borough Police Force’.  He adds, ‘Among these being guns, pistols, blunderbusses, swords, bayonets, daggers, pikes, spears, billhooks, reading hooks, hatchets, cleavers, axes, pitchforks, blades of knives, scythes and saws fixed in staves; rods of iron, two and three yards in length, sharpened at one end: bludgeons of various length and size, hand and sledge hammers,  and mandrils; in fact every implement that could be made available as a weapon.’

By February 1840, Hallen was eager to reassure the public that the Westgate Inn had been restored to its former glory.  He posted an advert for the ‘Westgate Hotel and Posting-House’ in the Monmouthshire Merlin on 8th February 1840. 

'S.T. Hallen, in returning thanks to the Nobility, Gentry, and Public, for the kindness he has received at their hands, during his residence at the Westgate, begs respectfully to inform them, that he has at length, at very great expense, repaired the damage done to his house during the Riots in November last, and fitted it up in the most comfortable manner, in order to render it worthy of the distinguished patronage the Westgate had enjoyed previous to that unhappy event.  His anxious endeavour will make his customers feel that they are in a private house, and that the fireside of the Westgate is a comfortable home. – The Commercial Room has been handsomely put in order, and the weary traveller shall find a cheerful blaze and place of rest.'

The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, at St. James’s Palace chapel on Monday 10 February 1840, provided the perfect opportunity for Hallen to demonstrate the Westgate’s credentials.  Most of the shops in the town were closed and the day was kept as a holiday.  It was a day of celebration in the town: 
About 12 o'clock the Artillery, Hussars, and the 45th, stationed here assembled in full uniform before the Westgate Inn, and gave three cheers for Her Majesty (but did not fire); the children of the National Schools, about 800, were entertained with wine and cake; the labouring men were at different parts of the town supplied with beer; and at five o'clock a splendid dinner was provided by Mt Hallen, of the Westgate Inn; about 110 gentlemen sat down; 
[To access this article click and scroll down to the heading Newport

The Westgate Hotel continued to propagate its link with the Chartist conflict. In 1885-1886, Richard W. Jones, a Newport ship-owner dealing in iron and coal, wrote in Red Dragon February 1886 concerning the tour of Monmouthshire. He was accompanied by three friends and they used the Westgate Hotel as a base for part of their journey. This journey probably took place in 1884 as the author refers to the forthcoming demolition and rebuilding of the hotel.  By this time the story of the Chartist attack on Newport, typically termed ‘riots’ in the article, was eagerly narrated to the travellers by George, the waiter employed by the hotel, who insisted they placed their fingers in the bullet holes:

'The rain fell steadily all the evening, but the coffee-room faced a large open space, the busiest part of the town, and after recuperation of expended energy we smoked by the door, and were kindly taken in hand by a fine old fellow, George, the waiter, who told us the story of the Chartist riots, the part borne therein by the Westgate, which was garrisoned by the military, bade us put our fingers into the bullet holes in the wooden pillars that supported the little porch before the door, and then recounted the return of old Mr. Frost, one of the ringleaders, after "serving his time," and how the people had dragged his carriage down the main street. Were we condemned to chronicle small beer, and write the history of Newport, we should certainly put up at the Westgate and retain the head waiter permanently, for everything that happens in the town must, it seems, perforce pass under his windows, and we found him most kind and communicative.  But alas!  While compiling our notes we just heard that the old Westgate is to come down, and wondered what would become of our venerable friend George.' 

In the 1880s, Samuel Hallen was living at Eveswell House in Maindee, but spent much of his time in the town tending to his businesses. On 5 July 1883, after eating lunch at the Westgate as usual, he travelled to a property in Kensington Place, Maindee to meet a potential tenant.  The Western Mail reported that, while showing the Rev. T. D. Griffiths the back of the property, ‘… he was standing on the top of a flight of steps.  As he stood with his face to the house he fell backwards down the steps, and was killed’.  It was believed that he had broken his neck.  
[Shocking Death of Mr S. T. Hallen.

The demolition of the second Westgate Inn (1799-1884 and the construction of the third Westgate Inn 1884-6
The Westgate Hotel Company had been formed at the beginning of 1884 to take over the business of the hotel and to re-build the premises. It was envisaged that the new company would take possession of the property by April 1884, with a programme of demolition planned. It was intended that the building would be ready for furnishing by December 1885, and would be run by Mr Samuel Dean of the Castle Inn, Commercial Road; the hotel was later leased to Dean for a period of twenty-one years. 

The foundation stone for the new was laid on the afternoon of Monday 21 July 1884 by Mr E. J. Grice, vice-chairman of the Westgate Hotel Company.  It was originally intended that this task would to be performed by Mr Crawshay Bailey, but he had unexpectedly been called away to London.  At a luncheon to mark the event, the company expressed the desire to ‘put up a building that could not be equalled in South Wales’, with five shops on ground floor, a large banqueting room, spacious coffee, drawing and commercial rooms, and fifty-one bedrooms on the upper three floors. [See Monmouthshire Merlin,  Westgate Hotel - the foundation stone.]

This, however, was not the only prestigious building project under way in Newport in 1884.  A new town hall, which was to stand proudly in the centre of Newport until its demolition in 1965, was also under construction, illustrating the late-Victorian desire for larger and more elaborate buildings. [Click here to see Newport Past for Newport Town Hall.] 

Despite the passing of the Third Reform Act in December 1884, the South Wales Daily News revealed that the Chartist Movement was still widely viewed with contempt. [See The South Wales Daily News under the heading Greater Newport

'The Newport of olden days is disappearing beneath the spade and the shovel of the reconstructor, whilst at the same time the borders of the borough are continually extending outwards … the Westgate Hotel, round which lingers the odour of misguided Chartism, is being shorn of everything it contains, prior to demolition and the erection on the site of a building more in consonance with the requirements of modern, social and commercial life … '

The new hotel was intended to be the most imposing building in the borough of Newport.  The construction work was to be carried out by Mr. John Linton, a local builder, from designs by the architect Mr. E A Lansdowne.  Linton had won the contract with a tender of £15,200.  His plans were ambitious, with the elevations facing Commercial Street and Stow Hill being built in the renaissance style, incorporating large amounts of Pennant stone from Abercarn in small random rockwork; the dressed Beer stone that accentuated it was acquired from a quarry in Seaton, Devon.

The ‘third’ Westgate when it opened in 1886. E. A. Lansdowne, Architect. See "The Building News" April 9, 1886. See Newport Past 

   What about the holes in the portico? 

This picture contemporary to 1839 shows the bullet holes in the portico

This picture shows the bullet holes in the portico in 1860 - taken from Bradney, 'A History of Monmouthshire' Vol. 5, p. 42 

The portico was eventually pulled down on Wednesday 17 September 1884. The Monmouthshire Merlin reported on 19th September that 'Relics of the Chartist Riots' had been found,
          ‘… in the pillar that suffered the most on the occasion of the Chartist riots the workmen came across several roughly-made bullets, one with a nail driven through the centre of it.’ 
The newspaper added that, ‘…the bullets have doubtless lain where they were found ever since the memorable attack on the hotel 45 years ago’. 

In his bookThe Chartist Riots at Newport, which was published in 1889, W. N. Johns quoted from the above article. See 'Discovery of Bullets'.

      The new hotel, with Sam Dean as proprietor, opened on 6 May 1886 with an Inaugural Banquet for 150 local notables.  The Western Mail recorded that speeches were made by the Mayor, Mr E. J. Grice, and by several gentlemen, members of the Westgate Hotel Company and reference was made to the pillars and bullet holes.

           'The old building will be remembered by everyone who has seen Newport. and the old pillars, which were perforated by Chartist bullets, are the only things now left of the original [?]. These have been utilised by the architect of the present building in the vestibule of the hotel, where they are doing duty as supports to the ornamental moulding. The bullet holes still remain, and the old pillars are preserved intact.' 

For many years the famous holes in the pillars of the old hotel were unquestionably accredited to bullets or musket balls used in the exchange of fire during the Newport Rising.  Others, as I have already mentioned, have more recently suggested that the holes were, in reality, drilled into the pillars to make fixings for doors, gates or railings.  Indeed, this has led to older histories of the Newport Rising, such as The Chartist Riots at Newport: November 1839 by W. N. Johns, being rejected by some modern historians. The historical evidence suggests, then, that the musket holes are real -  and that Johns had, in fact, accurately described what had taken place.  Both he, and the newspaper accounts from the 1880s, would seem to be correct.  

I believe that a closer inspection of the hollow timber pillars is sufficient to dismiss the ‘gate theory’.  The holes are irregular, and not what would be expected for hanging railings.  The pillars were originally located outside the entrance door, and it seems they may have been rotated when re-erected on the inside of the new building. 

One of the musket ball holes © Ray Stroud 

All of this suggests that the pillars were in the direct line of fire in 1839 - of both the soldiers of the 45th and the Chartists.  Nevertheless, to arrive at any forensic conclusion on this point, a professional endoscopic investigation is required - in which a miniscule camera will be placed through the holes - to locate any scorch markings on the inside of the pillars.  There is more work to be done on this project, but we may soon have a definitive answer to a puzzle that has enticed the residents of Newport for decades.         

Oliver Blackmore, Collections and Engagement Officer at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, commented recently that when he first began working at Newport Museum the current viewpoint by prominent Newport historians was that the holes were railing holes. 'Wales Online' recently published an article about Newport myths and included some old quotes made by Oliver Blackmore. He stated recently,

'However, when the Westgate recently opened to the public, I took the opportunity to check the holes, and both Toby Jones (curator of the Newport Medieval Ship) and myself concluded they were genuine bullet holes. I contacted a representative at Cadw to see if could have some concrete research undertaken on them.  I wanted to have the holes properly recorded and demonstrate through experimental archaeology and /or known ballistic patterns, that the holes were clearly made by lead shot'. 
There is, therefore, more work to be done on this project, but we may soon have a definitive answer to a puzzle that has enticed the residents of Newport for decades.

Ray Stroud, August 2020

Note - click on the coloured underlined words to access sources. If it is a newspaper article you might need to scroll around to find it and wait for it to come into focus.


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