The Merthyr Rising
In May and June 1831 the workers of Merthyr Tydfyl, Wales, rose up against the British Government in what would become known as the Merthyr Rising. It is believed that the red flag of revolution was flown as a symbol of workers' revolt for the first time during this event.
In 1829 the iron industry entered a depression that would last three years and as a result Merthyr Tydfil’s Ironmasters took action by making many workers redundant and cutting the wages of those in work. This was set against a background of rising prices and combined this forced many people into unsustainable debt. Consequently, creditors turned to the Court of Requests, which had been set up in 1809, to allow the bailiffs to seize the property of debtors.
In 1830 the Radicals of Merthyr, as part of the National movement for political reform, organised themselves into a Political Union and in November of that year held demonstrations to protest against the Truck System and the Corn Laws. By the end of 1830 the campaign had broadened to embrace the Reform of Parliament.
In March 1831 William Crawshay announced cuts in the wages of his workers and redundancies at Cyfarthfa Ironworks, which would take effect in May. It was this, combined with similar situations in other ironworks, the hatred of the activities of the Court of Requests, and some stirring up by political agitators which lit the spark of rebellion. On May 30th 1831 at the Waun Common above Dowlais a mass meeting of over 2,000 workers was held and tensions were high.
On May 31st bailiffs from the Court of Requests attempted to seize goods from the home of Lewis Lewis (Lewsyn yr Heliwr) at Penderyn, near Merthyr. However, neighbours rallied behind Lewis and the bailiffs were prevented from entering his home. The Magistrate, John Bruce, was called and he arranged a compromise between Lewis and the bailiffs which allowed the latter to remove a trunk belonging to Lewis. The next day workers from Merthyr marched to the Ironworks of Richard Fothergill at Aberdare where they demanded bread & cheese and created a disturbance. At the same time, at Hirwaun, a crowd led by Lewis Lewis marched to the home of a shopkeeper who was now in possession of his trunk, took the trunk back by force, and prepared to march to Merthyr.
On the march to Merthyr the crowd went from house to house, seizing any goods which the Court of Requests had taken, and returning them to their original owners. By this time the crowd had been swollen by the addition of men from the Cyfarthfa & Hirwaun Ironworks. They marched to the area behind the Castle Inn where many of the tradespeople of the town lived and in particular the home of Thomas Lewis, a hated moneylender and forced him to sign a promise to return goods to a woman whose goods he had seized for debt. Bruce arrived at the scene and recognising what was the start of a revolt withdrew. He then quickly enrolled about 70 Special Constables, mainly from the tradespeople, to help keep the peace. He also advised the Military Authorities at Brecon that he might need troops.
On June 2nd an attempt was made to persuade the crowd to disperse and when this failed the Riot Act read in English and Welsh. This was ignored by the crowed who drove the magistrate away and attacked the home of Thomas Lewis. That evening they assembled at the home of Joseph Coffin, President of the Court of Requests, seizing the books of the Court, which they burned in the street along with his furniture. On hearing of the attack Bruce called for troops to be deployed and so soldiers of the Royal Glamorgan Light Infantry were dispatched from Cardiff and a detachment of the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders were sent from Brecon. Meanwhile the crowd had marched to the various ironworks in the town and persuaded the workers to join them.
By the time the Highlanders had reached the Castle Inn where they were met by the High Sheriff of Glamorgan, the Merthyr Magistrates and Ironmasters and the Special Constables, a crowd of some 10,000 had gathered. The Riot Act was once more read and once more it was ignored. The crowd pressed towards the Inn with the soldiers drawn up outside. The workers demanded the suppression of the Court of Requests, higher wages, the reduction in the cost of items they used in their work and parliamentary reform; these were refused outright. They were told that if they did not disperse that the soldiers would be used. The result was to anger the crowd, which surged forward throwing stones and clubs at the soldiers. In the fight the soldiers outside the Inn were bludgeoned and stabbed, eventually provoking the soldiers stationed within to open fire, killing three of the rioters with their first shots. The fighting continued for a further 15 minutes before the crowd withdrew. Altogether 16 soldiers were wounded, 6 of them severely, and up to 24 of the rioters had been killed. The authorities withdrew to Penydarren House while rioters sent word to the Monmouthshire ironworks in an attempt to obtain further support.
By June 4th more troops including the Eastern Glamorgan Corps of Yeomanry Cavalry and the Royal Glamorgan Militia arrived in Merthyr. A troop of the Swansea Yeomanry Cavalry were ambushed on their arrival at Hirwaun, having apparently been greeted in a friendly manner. They were however quickly surrounded, their weapons seized and forced into a retreat back to Swansea, where they re-armed and joined the Fairwood Troop for the march back to Merthyr. A similar ambush was laid at Cefn Coed y Cymmer to stop ammunition being delivered from Brecon, forcing the Cardiff Troop of Glamorgan Yeomanry Cavalry into retreat. A troop of 100 Central Glamorgan Yeomanry was sent to assist but were unable to break through the mob. By now the rioters commandeered arms and explosives, set up road-blocks, formed guerrilla detachments, and had banners capped with a symbolic loaf and dyed in blood. Those who had military experience had taken the lead in drilling the armed para-military formation, and created an effective central command and communication system.
On Sunday June 5th delegations were sent to the Monmouthshire Iron Towns to raise further support for the riots and on June 6th a crowd of around 12,000 or more marched along the heads of the valleys from Monmouthshire to meet the Merthyr Rioters at the Waun Common. The authorities decided that rather than wait for this mob to attack them they would take the initiative, and 110 Highlanders, 53 Royal Glamorgan Light Infantry Militia and 300 Glamorgan Yeomanry Cavalry were despatched to stop the marchers at Cefn Coed. Faced by the levelled muskets of the army the crowd dispersed without bloodshed. The Rising was effectively over.
Panic spread through Merthyr and arms were hidden, the leaders fled and workers returned to their jobs. On the evening of June 6th the authorities raided houses and arrested 18 of the rebel leaders. Eventually Lewis Lewis was found hiding in a wood near Hirwaun and a large force of soldiers escorted him in irons to Cardiff Prison to await trial.
The trials began on 13 July 1831 at Cardiff Assizes. 28 men and women were tried. Most of those found guilty were eventually sentenced to transportation. Lewis Lewis and Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) were charged with attempting to murder a soldier, Donald Black of the 93rd Highland Regiment, outside the Castle Inn on June 3rd, by stabbing him with a bayonet attached to a gun. The main evidence against the two Lewis' was from Black himself, James Abbott, a hairdresser and Special Constable and James Drew, also a hairdresser and Special Constable. On the evidence it was adjudged that Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was guilty but that Lewis Lewis was not (though he was already under sentence of death for the attack on Thomas Lewis' house). Dic Penderyn was sentenced to death.
Joseph Tregelles Price, A quaker Ironmaster from Neath, took up the case of Dic Penderyn and Lewis Lewis and presented a petition to have them transported. Evidence was produced that Abbott had threatened Penderyn prior to June 3rd and people said that Penderyn was not there when Black was attacked and that they knew who had carried out the attack but it was not Dic Penderyn. Strangely Lord Melbourn, the Home Secretary, reprieved Lewis Lewis, who was certainly one of those most responsible for the riots, and transported him to Australia, but would not reprieve Penderyn, who seems to have been much less involved. Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was taken from his cell at Cardiff Prison on August 13th 1831 to the gallows at St.Mary Street, Cardiff and there he was executed protesting his innocence. He was 23. His body was transported across the Vale of Glamorgan to be buried at Margam.
In 1874 the Western Mail reported that a man named Ieuan Parker had confessed to a Minister on his death bed in Pennsylvania, USA that he was the man who attacked Donald Black. James Abbott, who had testified at Penderyn's trial, later said that he had lied under oath, claiming that he had been instructed to do so by Lord Melbourne.
In 2000 a legal case was started by Lewis's descendants to seek a pardon and in June 2015, Ann Clwyd MP presented a petition for a pardon in the House of Commons. However Mike Penning, Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, responded that pardons were only granted where evidence has come to light which demonstrates conclusively that the convicted individual was innocent and that the relevant appeal mechanisms have been exhausted. In July 2016, Stephen Kinnock MP presented a 600-signature petition to the Ministry of Justice, calling for a pardon. The Ministry of Justice replied that 10,000 signatures were required to trigger a parliamentary debate, and referred to the answer given by the ministry in 2015. Kinnock said that the fight for a pardon would continue.
This model was built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on people and protest. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
14/8/2020 08:49:12 am
Thank you for bringing this episode to the attention of modern eyes. It makes absolutely clear that no society should expect fairness under a self-serving, capitalist, foreign overlordship. It’s small wonder that the push for self-rule in Wales almost succeeded in the latter years of the 19c. It’s a shame it didn’t. It’s also a bit of a shame that you couldn’t have mentioned Dic’s final words at the gallows, “Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd!” (“Lord, what an injustice!”). But excellent nontheless.
23/8/2022 02:10:37 pm
The article in The Western Mail in 1874 deliberately doesn't name the alleged culprit to protect any surviving family. The name Ieuan Parker has never been substantiated & there is no evidence that a person of that name was living in either Wales or later, America at that time.
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