The destruction of the Newport Chartist Mural is a needless and casual act of cultural vandalism

Thirty years after it was created, men wearing high-visibility jackets took a small digger to the Chartist mural near Frost Square in Newport - all for a new shopping centre

Rob Williams
Friday 04 October 2013 14:47
The mural depicts a fatal confrontation between democracy protesters and troops at Newport’s Westgate Hotel in 1839
The mural depicts a fatal confrontation between democracy protesters and troops at Newport’s Westgate Hotel in 1839

Sometimes the tide of stupid gets so great you can hardly catch your breath.

Yesterday, two days before a planned protest, and over thirty years after it was created, men wearing high-visibility jackets took a small digger to the Chartist mural near Frost Square in Newport.

The 35m (115ft) mosaic, which commemorates the 1839 Chartist uprising in the city, was created in 1978 by the artist Kenneth Budd. It was made of 200,000 individual pieces of tile and glass.

In a matter of hours the men with the high-visibility jackets and the little digger had torn it down to help make way for a £100m shopping centre development.

Nothing should stand in the way of progress, you might say. Newport can certainly use the jobs and the investment, you might also say.

The mural, you might say, was hidden away in an unlovely part of the city - a city which marks its Chartist history elsewhere with statues and indeed another mural. So what? You might say.

Well, nothing. Aside from the fact that there was a small and ever growing number of people extremely angry about the planned demolition of an art work that was seen as a valuable reminder of Newport's radical past; and that there had been a petition of 2,500 signatures calling for it to be saved; and that there was a protest planned for Saturday in order to draw public attention to the fight to save the mural; there was also the council's much-disputed claim that moving the mural would cost £600k.

Also, as pictures emerged of the demolition yesterday questions were being raised about whether the mural was actually attached to the car park wall behind it as had been originally claimed.

There were also questions about the speed at which the demolition took place - even managing to surprise some councillors who appeared to be unaware the demolition was due to take place yesterday.

Aside from that isn't it striking symbolism?

The sweeping aside, in an undignified and disrespectful manner, of a much-loved work of art commemorating Newport's proud Chartist history, only to replace it with a shopping centre.

First slated for demolition in 2009 the mural escaped the little digger and the men in their colourful vests after a previous planned development was scrapped. Not so this time.

Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service, had dismissed calls to protect the mural saying that "it fell short of the criteria to be listed at the national level on grounds of its special architectural interest."

They also added, rather strangely, that the mural's position (near John Frost square) "had no specific association between the location of the mural and the Chartist uprising.”

The manner of the demolition, as amateurish and cack-handed as it appeared in video published yesterday was hugely insulting to those that opposed its removal who were gearing up for a protest on Saturday. Many have described the destruction of the mural as simple vandalism.

Should Newport's history make way for its future, of course - if that is absolutely necessary.

But if both can be preserved and the needless destruction of the past is simply to make the ushering in of a glossy new retail wasteland quicker and cheaper, shouldn't the council be stopping to think a little bit more?

The council's decision to simply destroy the mural despite the opposition and despite the disputes over the safety of it and difficulty of removing it will live long in the memory of some Newport residents.

And, given the outrage and anger manifested today, if the council were planning to avoid a PR disaster this weekend when the protesters were set to make their voices heard during the Newport food festival, they must be sorely disappointed by the furore.

In a statement a spokesperson for Newport City Council said the: "The mural is a modern day depiction of an historical event that happened in Newport and has served to remind us of Newport’s past, but we must now focus on Newport’s future.

"CADW has determined NOT to list the mural as it fell short of the criteria to be listed at the national level on grounds of its lack of special architectural interest.

"The current Chartist mural is in a very precarious position, as it is attached to the wall of the multi-storey car park which is extremely unsafe. The council has had to take immediate action with regards to pre-demolition preparations and safety precautions.

"Major demolition work will be starting at the end of this month.

"The council is committed to commissioning an alternative solution to commemorate the Chartist movement and will be consulting with the public on the nature of this different form of celebration shortly."

So the replacement for the mural will be decided on by the communities of Newport, a claim likely to be undermined by the destruction, despite the wishes of many in those communities, of the mural.

As one activist put it today the smashing of the mural is the destruction of "an important symbol of the city".

It is that, but it is also indicative of the lack of regard for Welsh history and the triumph of the brute stupidity and disregard for the views of their constituents that many in authority have.

It was an attack on the cultural heart of a city and worse than that it was an unnecessary and stupid one.

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