Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frost, John (1784–1877)

by G. Rudé

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Frost (1784-1877), Chartist, was born on 25 May 1784 at Newport, Monmouthshire, England, the son of John and Sarah Frost, of the Royal Oak Inn. He was educated probably at Bristol, and acquired an excellent command of English. After assisting a woollen draper in Bristol and a merchant tailor in London, he returned to Newport about 1806 to take over a draper's and tailor's shop. In October 1812 he married Mary Geach, a widow, by whom he had two sons and five daughters. He became a radical and from 1816 advocated reduced taxation and a programme of parliamentary reform that anticipated the Six Points of the People's Charter. As champion of the burgesses of Newport, he came into conflict with Thomas Prothero, the influential town clerk, and spent six months in the Cold Bath Fields' prison in London for libel. With the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, he became a member of Newport's first town council and a justice of the peace, and mayor of the town a year later. He attended the first Chartist convention in London in February 1839 and was chairman of the session which, on 14 September in Birmingham, decided to dissolve the convention after the first national petition had been rejected and most of the leaders had been arrested for sedition. Frost decided to appeal to physical force and led a body of working men, chiefly miners, trained in the Monmouthshire hills, in an armed attack on Newport on the night of 4 November. The ill-armed band were easily repulsed, and Frost and his partners, Zephaniah Williams of Blaina, and William Jones, a watchmaker of Pontypool, were arrested, tried by a special commission at Monmouth, found guilty of levying war against the Queen, and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. On 11 February 1840 the sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

Several efforts were made in the House of Commons to procure their release, but Frost, Williams and Jones sailed together in the Mandarin and reached Hobart Town on 30 June 1840. In accordance with practice the three Chartists were given the privileges of political prisoners: they were allowed to keep their own clothes and, instead of being put on road work, were sent direct to Tasman Peninsula, where Frost became a clerk in the commandant's office at Port Arthur, Williams a superintendent in the coal-mines, and Jones an overseer blacksmith in the boys' penitentiary at Point Puer. Frost's employment as a clerk ended in 1841 and he was transferred to Brown's River, possibly for displeasing Lord John Russell by an indiscreet letter to England, but of this there is no official record. While at Brown's River, he was sentenced to three days solitary confinement for insolence to the superintendent; although recommended to be removed to Port Arthur and 'employed at labour in the same manner as other convicts', he was sent instead to Impression Bay on Tasman Peninsula, where he became a schoolmaster and was commended for being 'studious, quiet and obedient'. On 17 November 1843 his probation term ended and he was sent to New Town to work for W. Carter and later for Rev. W. Jarrett. In May 1846 he was sent to work for W. Chester at Bothwell and received his ticket-of-leave next November. On 27 June 1854 after teaching in various places in Tasmania, he received a conditional pardon and six months later sailed for America with his daughter Catherine, who had recently joined him in exile. At New York in May 1856 he received news of his free pardon. He arrived in England on 12 July and on 31 August gave lectures at Padiham on his experiences. These were printed as Horrors of Convict Life (London, 1856) and A Letter to the People of Great Britain and Ireland on Transportation (London, 1857). He went to live with his family at Stapleton, near Bristol, and as old age crept on abandoned politics for spiritualism. He died at Stapleton at 27 July 1877.

Select Bibliography

  • Trial of John Frost for High Treason (Lond, 1840)
  • D. Williams, John Frost. A Study in Chartism (Cardiff, 1939)
  • Annual Register (London), 1839
  • Ac no 2/207 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. Rudé, 'Frost, John (1784–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/frost-john-2071/text2587, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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