Merthyr Tydfil is often described in accounts of the first half of the 19th Century, as a "Vision of Hell." Rapid population expansion resulting from the transformation of the town from hamlet to iron capital of the world, had happened so quickly it had not allowed for the development of an adequate water supply or sanitation system for a population of upwards of 40,000 people!
There were not enough houses to accommodate the large numbers of immigrants arriving in the town looking to obtain lucrative work in this now heavily industrial area. With space in short supply, any houses that were built were positioned very close together and constructed with poor quality building materials. Water was collected from pumps in the street or from the polluted River Taff. Under these conditions, diseases such as Cholera were rife and infant mortality extremely high.
Merthyr's expansion into one of the heartlands of the industrial revolution was unexpected. The town did not have an industrial tradition and in 1801 the population of Merthyr was under 8,000 people. However Merthyr had rich reserves of iron ore, coal, timber, limestone and water-power. These resources combined with an enormous demand for armaments for the war campaigns of the 18th Century, resulted in Merthyr's dramatic industrial growth. Yorkshireman Richard Crawshay, owned the Cyfartha ironworks. He lived at Cyfartha Castle, now a fascinating Museum documenting his life and that of his family. Other major ironworks included Dowlais, Plymouth and Penydarren.
In 1815, there was a dramatic decline in the numbers of young men farming the land. The industrial revolution had arrived. The attractions of the iron industry were the high wages attainable in comparison to agricultural working (iron labourers earned approximately 3 times as much as farm labourers), and the exciting social life with its proliferation of drink.
This "golden age" was not to last however. In 1829, a depression hit the iron industry that would last for 3 years. Worker's rights did not exist and sudden dismissal, wage reductions and short-term working had always been imposed by the Ironmasters to maximise profits. The sudden downturn in the market saw the Ironmasters move quickly to make surplus workers redundant and cut the wages of those in work. The working classes were immediately plunged into hardship. The loss of jobs and decline in earnings combined with rising prices resulted in destitution for many. Baliffs, authorised by the Court of Requests which was set up in 1809, moved in to seize the property of the unfortunate debtors thus exacerbating their misery. The yawning and ever widening gap between rich and poor was now exposed once again.
A National movement for political reform was established in 1830 to challenge the power of the Ironmasters, who were not only employers but also major players in local government. Support for the campaign emboldened it to challenge Parliament itself, and a Bill was brought by the new Liberal Goverment to reform the House of Commons.
The Bill, which was later defeated, merely sought to extend the right to vote to the Middle Classes. The working classes were still to be excluded from having their say.
Matters came to a head on 31 May 1831. Bailiffs from the Court of Requests arrived at the home of Lewis Lewis, known as Lewis the Huntsman, who was born at Pyle but was now residing at Penderyn near Merthyr. Lewis, with the support of neighbours, managed to stop them spiriting away his property. However by means of compromise the local Magistrate allowed the bailiffs to take a trunk belonging to Lewis. Refusing to accept this, Lewis and a crowd of followers seized the trunk back from a shopkeeper who was now in possession of it. The Merthyr Rising had begun.
Lewis' growing army marched on to Merthyr where they demanded back any goods which had been removed by the Court of Requests and returned them to their rightful owners. Lewis was a moral man and carried out this redistribution fairly. For example, in one instance regarding the seizing of a chest of drawers from a poor woman who had bought it legitimately from a debtor's court, Lewis made sure she had her money back before returning it to the original owner.
Local Magistrates were quick to realise that swift action had to be taken to restore order. There was no Police Force in 1831 - the Glamorgan Constabulary would not exist for another 10 years, so Special Constables were quickly sworn in from local tradespeople in an effort to keep the peace. Following an attack on the home of the President of the Court of Requests, Joseph Coffin, it was inevitable that the soldiers would have to be brought it to quell this serious disturbance. The Royal Glamorgan Light Infantry from Cardiff and the Highlanders from Brecon were dispatched to Merthyr.
On the morning of Friday 3 June 1831, the soldiers and an angry crowd of 2,000 confronted each other outside the Castle Inn in Merthyr.
The crowd attacked the soldiers, who eventually seeing their comrades falling began to fire and killed at least 16 people (this would have been a deliberately low estimate).
Gradually the authorities came to gain the upper hand and arrested Lewis Lewis and a man called Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn), for allegedly stabbing a soldier called Donald Black, a private from the Highlanders, with a bayonet attached to a gun outside the Castle Inn on 3 June 1831. Although Black did not identify either Lewis Lewis or Richard Lewis, both were sentenced to death.
Lewis Lewis eventually had his sentence reprieved to transportation for life. This was in large thanks to the testimony of a Special Constable, John Thomas. John Thomas owed his life to Lewis Lewis on account of Lewis throwing himself on top of a cornered Thomas to protect him from the blows of the rioters. However despite petitions for mercy and the intervention of Joseph Tregelles Price, a Quaker Ironmaster from Neath, who even persuaded the trial judge that Richard Lewis was innocent, Dic Penderyn was hung on the gallows in St. Mary's Street, Cardiff on Saturday 13 August 1831. The name Dic Penderyn, scapegoat for the Merthyr Rising, has lived on in Welsh hearts ever since. However, despite Dic Penderyn's mythical appeal, we know very little about him.
Dic Penderyn was killed at the age of 23 years, still protesting his innocence. Dic felt that he was being held responsible for the actions of others and ended his time on earth with the words "O Arglwydd, dyma ganwedd" or "Oh Lord, here is injustice." Born in Aberavon in Glamorgan in 1808, he and his family moved to Merthyr in 1819. Dic and his father both found mining jobs in the town. It was here that he began to acquire a reputation for leadership and as a champion for workers' rights. In 1831, the year of his death, Dic was married with a baby on the way.
Lying silently in the South Wales Police Museum is an item which is directly connected to the tragedy of Dic Penderyn. The tipstave in the first glass case to your left on entering the Museum belonged to the Special Constable who arrested him for the stabbing, but not the murder, of Donald Black. Bearing the markings "Merthyr Tydfil" and "1831" the tipstave would have contained a warrant for Dic's arrest.
The after effects of the Rising rippled for many years among the working classes. It caused great alarm to the British Government and this was why it was imperative that swift strong action be taken against the "ringleaders."
Dic Penderyn's death symbolised the struggle of the working classes against oppression, and it is for this that makes him significant and ensures that an ordinary man will always be remembered.
In 1874, it was reported by the Western Mail Newspaper that a man called Ieuan Parker had made a death bed confession to a Minister in the United States of America, that he was the man who had stabbed Donald Black Although most people today believe in Dic's innocence, this account has never been verified.