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Montgomeryshire collections


Vol. 80 1992

Thomas Powell, Chartist, c.1802-1862

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From a reading of the articles on Mid Wales Chartism, which have appeared in the pages
of The Montgomeryshire Collections the figure of the Newtown born Thomas Powell emerges
as that of an individual of more than local interest and importance. Previous to the
appearance of these studies, the only reference to him was the account in Montgomeryshire
Worthies1 on which the later one in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography3 drew heavily. Nothing
very much, in the way of additional material, appears in the latter, however; the dates of
Powell's birth and death, the details of his parentage and those of his own chequered career
are still missing. So, it was The Montgomeryshire Worthies account which provided the starting
point for this study. Unfortunately that account mentions no sources for the bare facts it
contains. Further research has been difficult and the story, which has eventually been put
together, still contains gaps and also facts which puzzle one.
It may be said of Powell, as it was once said of his great fellow townsman-Robert Owen,
that he was little known in his native town. In Owen's case, that has long since been
rectified and Owen now has a museum and a statue to honour him in the town where he
was born, to which he returned at the end of a very long life spent in distant parts and where
he is buried. It is hoped that this study will in some way record the activities of Thomas
Powell and so perpetuate his memory in the town of whose inhabitant he was so proud.
Again, like Robert Owen, Powell's life was passed in locations and in circles far removed
from the Mid Wales flannel manufacturing town. Powell however did return to the county,
not in extreme old age but while still a young man and for some nine years played a leading
role in those political events of the 1830s which convulsed the small towns of the Upper
Severn Valley and brought them briefly to national prominence. To many, his ideas,
outlook and activities, just like those of Robert Owen (who to so many was just 'Mr Owen
the atheist') were anathema; to others, his was a daring, restless, generous spirit imbued
with a passionate desire to improve the lot of his fellow men. But his dream entailed the
participation of all members of society in a democratic system and differed from the
paternalistic, rather authoritarian and dogmatic vision of Robert Owen. Prior to 1832,
much of his time had been spent in London, then the great breeding ground of radical ideas
and again, after 1840, he was to return there to think out emigration schemes for the
betterment of the working classes. He died, years later, in Trinidad and despite the
seeming failure of his and his friends' ideals, remained optimistic regarding Man's
potential and his rational nature.
Thomas Powell was descended from families long settled in the parishes of Newtown and
Llanllwchaiarn. In their parish registers are entries from the mid 17 century onward
relating to members and branches of the Powell family. It would seem that they were
drawn from the 'middling sort of people' -small master cratfmen employing a few
artisans, journeymen and apprentices. Earlier, it is probable that they stemmed, as a junior
branch, from a small landed family-at least, there was a strong tradition in the Powell
'Mont. Coll. Vol. LVIII Part 1 'Who were the Montgomeryshire Chartists?-E. R. Morris; Vol. 62 Part 1 'Chartism in
Mid Wales'-Owen Ashton.
^'Montgomeryshire Worthies'-Rd. Williams, Newtown (1884-1894).
'Dictionary of Welsh Biography-London 1954.
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