Rising in the Valley: The Merthyr Rising
The Merthyr Rising. Gwyn A. Williams. Croom Helm. £3.50
By 1831, forty per cent of the pig iron produced in Britain was being made in South Wales. The centre of the industry was Merthyr Tydfil which, with a population of some 27,000, was the largest town in Wales. Merthyr was dominated by four great iron companies, which together employed at least nine thousand workers, who lived lives of wearisome toil, grinding poverty and nagging insecurity. These workers carried out an insurrection that spread its shock waves well beyond their native valleys, left over two dozen of them dead, and provided Wales with its first working class martyr. The insurrection is chronicled by Gwyn Williams in a vivid and detailed book now available in paperback.
From 1829 there was a severe economic depression in the Merthyr area, as the market price of bar iron fell drastically, and the employers were forced to cut wages and lay people off. This led to many working-class families into debt with shopkeepers and thus into the clutches of the Court of Requests, a special local institution whereby bailiffs were entitled to confiscate a debtor’s property and sell it in order to pay the shopkeeper.
The economic crisis coincided with the agitation over the Great Reform Act of 1831. A leading local advocate of Reform was William Crawshay II, owner of the giant Cyfarthfa iron-works. Crawshay mobilised the iron workers and miners he employed into action against his Tory opponents, only for them to discover that Reform by itself could not abate the depression. For while he spoke of Reform and democracy, Crawshay was giving notice of wage reductions and lay-offs.
On May 30 1831, a great working-class rally was held outside Merthyr at Waun Fair, ostensibly in favour of Reform. But it was a meeting with many strands and many influences, the more so as there were no obvious “leaders”. One motion demanded the abolition of the Court of Requests, and one speaker demanded that the Court be brought down. The next day saw the first defiance of the law and act of rebellion; people in the village of Penderyn used physical force to stop a Court of Requests distraint on one of their neighbours, Lewis Lewis, who was to become prominent in the insurrection and its aftermath.
It was on the morning of 2 June that the insurrection proper broke out. A crowd moved through Merthyr from house to house, locating goods that had been sequestered by the hated Court of Requests and returning them to their original owners. The action continued in the afternoon, and in the evening the workers sacked the house of the Court’s President. Faced with such attacks on private property, the local magistrates, traders and employers could not stand idle. They installed themselves in the Castle Inn in the High Street and sent for soldiers.
About eighty Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived from Brecon on the morning of the following day and halted outside the Castle Inn, where a crowd of up to ten thousand gathered. After a fruitless attempt at negotiation, the crowd became restless and were ordered to disperse. From an upper window, Crawshay offered to redress his employees’ grievances if they would send delegates to see him in a fortnight. Angered, the crowd surged forward and seized the muskets of the front rank of soldiers. After further skirmishes, the soldiers were ordered to fire. They did, again and again, right into the crowd. By the time the street was cleared, some twenty-four workers had been killed.
The masters realised that they were prime targets for revenge and so removed to Penydarren House, just outside the town, and sent for more soldiers. By the evening of 3 June, Merthyr had been abandoned to its workers. A full-scale insurrection was now under way, with workers arming themselves, setting up road blocks in an attempt to isolate the town, and sending spokesmen to Monmouthshire to gain support. Some of the soldiers trying to get through to Penydarren were intercepted, disarmed and sent packing.
Of course it could not last. The efforts to spread the insurrection elsewhere were fruitless and gradually the military – numbering about eight hundred by now – regained the initiative. On 6 June the movement collapsed: crowds dispersed, men buried their weapons and returned to work. The prominent rebels were arrested; by the end of June, twenty-six of them were housed in Cardiff jail.
The Home Secretary decided to avoid provocation and not prosecute any of them for treason, and in the event only four cases came to trial. But that was enough for four sentences of transportation and one of the death penalty. The latter was on Richard Lewis (otherwise known as Dic Penderyn), a miner, who was found guilty of wounding a soldier at the Castle Inn confrontation on 3 June. Despite a petition to the king for mercy, and the extremely flimsy nature of the identification evidence against, Dic Penderyn was hanged at Cardiff on 13 August. The government had been determined that someone should die for what had been done at Merthyr. In choosing Dic Penderyn they murdered not a leader but a man who was, and represented, the ordinary worker. In Williams’ words:
“it was not any ‘leadership’ which made him a martyr; it was his very innocence, his innocuousness, his sense that he ‘was only doing what thousands of others did’. He did literally ‘die for thousands’.”
Unrest did not cease with the putting down of the rebellion or the execution of Dic Penderyn. In August 1831 the first trade union lodges were formed in South Wales. Two of the large Merthyr ironworks demanded that workers leave the union on pain of dismissal, and began lock-outs. It took until November for the workers’ will to be broken and the union smashed. Merthyr ended 1831 still under military occupation.
The Merthyr Rising deserves a place on every worker’s bookshelf, just as the event merits a place in any working class history. The insurrection must not be built up out of proportion, for it was not and could not be the beginning of a revolution. There was no way in which the Merthyr rebels could have “won”. But that does not stop us noting their solidarity in the face of vicious ruling-class brutality and saluting their courage.