In June 1831, a community of Welsh miners rose up against the ironmasters and defied the might of the British state, seizing control of their town for a full week, and flying the red flag for the first time on British soil as a symbol of workers' insurrection.
The Merthyr Rising was a tremendous act of rebellion that terrified the British ruling class, which was forced to send hundreds of professional troops to restore order, but not before the budding trade union movement took a firm foothold in South Wales – which became a major front of the British class struggle.
In 1831, Harriet Arbuthnot, Tory political diarist and mistress to the Duke of Wellington mentioned a “great riot” in Wales that had just been brought to a bloody conclusion. “The soldiers have killed 24 people,” she wrote. “When two or three were killed at Manchester, it was called the Peterloo massacre and the newspapers for weeks wrote it up as the most outrageous and wicked proceeding ever heard of… this Welsh riot is scarcely mentioned.”
To this day, in comparison to the tragic events of 1819 (where 18 men, women and children were in fact butchered, and 650 wounded), the Merthyr Rising is little known. But it was one of the most sophisticated and audacious struggles in the early history of the British working class. A mass rally of Welsh miners turned into a general strike that ended with an entire town being placed under effective control by the workers for a week. The miners took on the ironmasters and king’s troops, began an impromptu redistribution of property, and flew the red flag as a symbol of workers’ insurrection for the first time on British soil.
In the end, it took hundreds of armed men to pacify the town. Afterwards, new trade union lodges cropped up all over South Wales, which soon became a major front of the British class struggle. As historian Gwyn A. Williams put it, “In Merthyr Tydfil in 1831, the prehistory of the Welsh working class comes to an end. Its history begins.”
The birth of the British workers’ struggle
The Rising in Wales did not erupt from the blue, but was part of a wave of class struggle reflecting the explosive development of British capitalism during the industrial revolution. Still fearful of the influence of the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794, and paranoid about the merest hint of British “Jacobinism”, a series of Whig and Tory governments at the turn of the 19th Century crushed the lower classes under an iron heel of state repression. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were enacted specifically to curtail the early trade unions, membership of which could end with prison, transportation or on the scaffold. Between 1800 and 1815, 220 offences carried the death penalty that specifically targeted unrest from the workers and poor.
But, as Rob Sewell writes, “this reign of state terror unleashed by the ruling class proved to be the midwife of revolutionary trade unionism.” A number of major workers’ movements and protests erupted in the 1800s. There were the Luddite Rebellions of 1811-12 for example, in which workers, incensed by starvation wages and brutal working conditions, smashed the machines that were the immediate source of their misery. In the aforementioned Peterloo Massacre of 1819, a mass assembly to demand universal suffrage ended in a bloodbath when petty-bourgeois volunteer troops (the Yeomanry) met the crowd with sabres.
The General Union of Trades was established in 1818, and remained illegal until the Combination Acts were finally repealed after years of bitter struggle in 1824, unleashing a flood of strikes that terrified the establishment. In 1820, there was the Cato Street Conspiracy to murder ministers and overthrow the government, and that same year, the “Radical War” in Bonnymuir saw Scottish workers take up arms against the authorities. There were also big strikes against wage cuts in the late 1820s in Yorkshire, Stockport, Manchester etc. by all manner of tradesmen: miners, weavers, spinners and so forth.
These primitive workers’ movements met the cruelty of the state with a savage internal justice of their own. The Luddites and early union organisations were intensely secretive, and members swore elaborate oaths that named flogging, torture and death as punishments for treachery. Their desperate battles were met with few victories and terrible losses, but they were an important school for the British workers that led to the establishment of national organisations of struggle, including the Spinners’ union in 1829, the Potters’ union in 1831, and the Builders’ Union in 1831-2. But despite its lack of organised leadership, the Merthyr Rising of 1831 put all these previous battles in the shade.
The rise of Merthyr Tydfil
The Napoleonic Wars fed the rapid industrialisation of South Wales, naturally rich in coal and metal deposits. The ‘Welsh method’ of puddling, pioneered in the 1780s, utilised coal to make malleable iron – essential for the production of machinery, infrastructure and weaponry. The demand for iron and coal transformed the rural and sparsely populated South Wales valleys (stretching from Carmarthenshire in the West to Monmouthshire in the East) into one of the industrial centres of British capitalism, with several massive coalpits and ironworks. The level of industry was highly developed. The world’s first steam locomotive left Penydarren in Merthyr Tydfil in 1804. By 1830, South Wales was producing 40 percent of British pig iron.
Merthyr Tydfil was the epicentre of this industrialisation, with 10 out of the 21 South Wales ironworks based within Merthyr’s legal jurisdiction, and five of them in the parish itself. These five were owned by the four biggest estates in the region: Dowlais, Cyfarthfa, Plymouth and Penydarren, who collectively employed about 14,000 men in 1830. Everything was pressed into the service of iron production. The green mountains surrounding the parish were soon crossed and dotted by tramways, canal and feeders, turnpikes, quarries, coal levels, reservoirs and tips. With the development of the iron industry in Merthyr also came a population explosion, from 8,000 in 1801 to 27,000 in the year of the Rising: easily the biggest single population in Wales, at twice the size of Swansea and four times that of Cardiff.
The Merthyr ironworks and mines fully embodied the Dark Satanic Mills described by William Blake. Much like the Russian working class decades later, the Merthyr workers were hurled from the countryside straight into the literal furnaces of industrial production. Working conditions were hellish. Days were long, accidents and deaths were commonplace, and the toxic byproducts of the ironworks and mines afflicted Merthyr with constant disease. Parish registers evince an appalling child mortality rate, even for the time. Between 1813 and 1830, 46 percent of burials were for children under five.
However, the skilled labour required for ironworking and mining meant people often earned more money than, say, English factory hands. The parish records from before the Rising describe 35 percent of the population as “skilled workers” (as opposed to rural labourers, for example). In periods of boom, mines and colliers could earn 22 to 24 shillings a week, and puddlers up to 60 shillings – several times what a farmhand or factory worker would normally get. But theirs was a very precarious existence. During slumps (which occurred every few years), wage cuts of 40 percent were expected. Working-class families would thus be plunged immediately into debt and unemployment, made worse by the inflation of food prices that always accompanied these slumps. Starvation would then take a scythe to the population.
Despite the difficult conditions, the large community was tight-knit and erudite. The level of general education was pretty high. Most people were bilingual to some extent, with English being the language of officialdom, while Welsh was used in homes, pubs, chapels and the streets. The main leader of the Rising, Lewis Lewis, was familiar enough in English to use it to insult an army captain during a confrontation. The Rising’s most-famous martyr, Dic Penderyn, was definitely educated, given the high-quality Welsh of the letter he wrote to his sister from prison. Merthyr also boasted a vibrant local culture of music, poetry and dance, culminating in the annual eisteddfod festival, which was taken very seriously.
In short, far from being backward, Merthyr workers were some of the most advanced representatives of their class. The rough frontier town bred tough people, who (also like their Russian counterparts), rapidly developed consciousness of themselves as a class in the harsh school of industrial labour. And they were reaching out for political understanding. Jacobinism and the utopian socialist ideas of Robert Owen were widespread amongst both the lower-middle-class business-owners and artisans that grew up in and around the town, and the skilled workers in the furnaces and mines.
And even before legal union lodges made their way to south Wales, the Merthyr workers were renowned for their capacity for self-organisation, meeting attempts to cut wages or raise the prices of essentials with fierce collective resistance. In the 1810s and 20s, there were food revolts and strikes in Merthyr in which colliers and miners naturally assumed a leading role. This was a town destined to play an important early role in the British working-class struggle.
The middle classes
The big ironmasters ruled Merthyr like the feudal lords of old. Situating themselves in grand mansions overlooking the parish, they would regularly engage in faux-aristocratic pageantry, where their estates would be opened for exclusive parties with the British upper-crust. The ironmaster William Crawshay II even built himself a castle in Cyfarthfa: a mock-Medieval monstrosity whose construction cost an eye-watering £30,000, to the exasperation of Crawshay’s father in London. Crawshay also fancied himself a radical, commenting on the July Revolution of 1830 in France that he only regretted he had not been present himself to pepper the backside of the fleeing King Charles X with his fowling piece. The extent of this narcissistic demagogue’s “radicalism” would soon be exposed.
The greatest ironmaster, Josiah John Guest in Dowlais, had no such political pretensions. He was a hard-nosed reactionary who was the Sheriff of Glamorgan and a Tory MP for Honiton, and went on to win the Merthyr Tydfil seat in 1832. During a strike over food prices in 1810, Guest and some of his respectable friends had personally opened fire on the starving crowds who tried to forcibly close his ironworks. Dowlais was also one of the strongest centres of the hated truck system in Wales, in which rather than being paid in real money, workers would instead receive credit vouchers to exchange for goods at the masters’ own shops, to which they were permanently in debt. Fighting the truck was one of the main initial motivations behind the Rising of 1831.
The ironmasters would occasionally band together during depressions to set mutually advantageous prices for their iron and negotiate concessions during workers’ unrest, but in general, their rivalry was bitter. Repeated attempts to coordinate policy over stockpiling, prices and contracts always broke down. Competition between them was fierce, particularly over the acquisition of skilled labour. In good times, this contributed to comparatively high wages. Some of the ironmasters actually took a lax attitude to workers’ “combinations”, because an organised working class demanding decent wages allowed the capitalists to keep the price of their iron high. But there was a hard limit to this permissiveness when it threatened profits, as we shall see. However, the divisions that already existed in the bourgeoisie; and the well-developed working-class they cultivated, were all factors in the strength of the Rising.
Beneath the big capitalists were the “penny capitalists” in Merthyr Town: the village shopkeepers, the beer brewers, the carpenters, the retail butchers and so on. There was a great deal of tension between the labourers and this weak, parasitic petty-bourgeoisie, who were entirely dependent upon the ironworks for their livelihoods and yet tended to regard themselves as the workers’ “betters” (though they often earned less). Particularly hated were the small landlords, pawn brokers and bailiffs. Answerable to the despised Court of Requests (a small claims court under the jurisdiction of the Merthyr magistrate), they were known to literally seize the beds out from under ill, elderly women if payments were behind. Such was the fate of Margaret Rees, who died on straw. These characters were treated with deserving contempt, and became one of the focal points for the class rage of the Rising in 1831.
But another section of the urban petty-bourgeoisie in Merthyr was affected by the July Revolution in 1830, and the Reform Crisis of 1829-34 about extending the franchise to wider layers of the middle classes. Out of these elements, a radical intelligentsia of artisans, artists and small entrepreneurs began to emerge. Organised as the Merthyr Radicals, they held petitions against the truck and the Corn Laws, which received thousands of signatures. They also held a mass meeting on 23 December 1830 in the Bush Inn to rally support for parliamentary reform. 800 showed up, described by one observer as “never more respectable”, and raised demands for annual parliaments, the abolition of rotten boroughs, suffrage for all taxpayers and so on. Despite their political ‘radicalism’, and private sympathy for the workers, these layers were a non-factor during the Rising.
Crisis and Reform
Merthyr’s fortunes began to waver with the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, which had kept the demand for pig iron high. Despite some good years in the 1820s, a major economic crisis was inevitable. This came with the stock market crash of 1825: a crisis of overproduction that was triggered by speculative investments in the colonies. By 1829, the market price of bar iron fell to a dreadful £5 a ton. The big ironworks began to reduce the make. By the end of 1830, a quarter of Merthyr’s furnaces were forced to close. Wage cuts were enacted across the board for those that remained open and the price of goods skyrocketed. Thousands of families were suddenly hurled into abject poverty, and the Court of Requests sent its ruthless bailiffs to seize furniture, clothing, watches – anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor. Even the bourgeois Cambrian newspaper decried these “fiends in human form.”
A huge amount of resentment built up amongst the workers of Merthyr towards their lot, directed particularly against the Court of Requests and the truck system. In this context, the more ‘liberal’ ironmasters spied an opportunity. William Crawshay kept wages high and actually increased his workforce, pumping out thousands of tons of iron for which no market existed. At the same time, Crawshay and some of his companions formed the Political Union of Merthyr to fight for ‘democratic and humanitarian reforms’. Allied with the Merthyr Radicals, who leaned towards Jacobin ideas, the Political Union launched a political campaign against the truck system, and for parliamentary reform.
This was a local reflection of the national Reform Crisis. The British ruling class was split on the question of the vote. On the one hand, a conservative layer based on the landed gentry and old financial aristocracy wanted to restrict the franchise as far as possible to a privileged elite of big landowners. On the other, the urban business owners wanted to increase their political power by extending the franchise and giving greater representation to the cities. The latter wing of the bourgeoisie cloaked its self-interest by invoking the Enlightenment ideals of “democracy” and the “rights of man” in its pursuit of Reform, which came to capture the popular imagination. The question of Reform was also linked to the struggle over free trade versus protectionism (especially pertaining to the Corn Laws), with the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ wings of the ruling class similarly divided.
A fierce battle over Reform was being waged between the Tories and the Whigs (representing the conservative and liberal bourgeois respectively), leading to the dissolution of parliament by King George in 1830. A general election produced a short-lived Tory majority government under the Duke of Wellington, who was soon forced to resign due to dissent in his own ranks. Polling for the subsequent 1831 election, in which Reform was a defining issue, ran between April and June. This was one of the most serious political crises to hit British capitalism. The splits at the top reflected simmering class foment at the bottom of society.
As a Pro-Reform Whig who claimed to support universal suffrage, Crawshay appealed to the radical intelligentsia and working classes alike (many of whom saw him as an ally) in order to whip up support for the political objectives of his wing of the ruling class. Moreover, despite taking short-term losses by refusing to scale back production, Crawshay was confident that stockpiling a supply of pig iron would allow him to rapidly bounce back from the market slump and outcompete his rivals in Merthyr – with the added benefit of keeping his workers on side.
However, by March 1831, with no end to the recession in sight, this ‘friend’ of the workers gave notice of a wage cut. He released a pamphlet defending himself, explaining that he had always valued his fraternal relations with “his miners”, pointing out that he had kept his furnaces open long after his competitors had closed their doors. He also promised to introduce his cuts as a sliding scale, to minimise their impact. The news was a shock, but the apparently honest dialogue and the goodwill that Crawshay had accumulated meant there was no immediate backlash. That would come later.
The pro-Reform bourgeoisie was gaining confidence, and began leaning more heavily on the working class. Big industrialists started supporting and funding “radical democratic” political groups, and issuing propaganda to stir up popular support for extending the franchise. Feeling the wind changing direction, the arch-reactionary John Guest actually spoke up in parliament in favour of Reform to “increase the representation of the industrial regions”, though he staunchly opposed the idea of universal suffrage. Crawshay went so far as to claim he would “die fighting in the streets” for Reform. In order to get their way in parliament, the pro-Reform bourgeois unleashed their workers in mass mobilisations, where Tricolours Flew and violent riots often ensued. In May 1831, the pro-Reform industrialists in South Wales called for a march to the polls in Brecon, Glamorgan and Carmarthen. Crawshay rallied his workmen for the march, and encouraged them to sign a petition for parliamentary reform.
The bourgeoisie was cynically exploiting the desperate and angry masses in a period of profound crisis in order to advance its own class interests. But it unleashed forces over which it lost all control. The workers came to see their aspirations for work, wages and political rights bound up with the “democratic” demand for Reform. Many saw Reform as a step towards universal male suffrage. The struggle to extend the franchise inadvertently became a point of reference for the workers’ pent-up frustrations. As a result, the march on 9 May across south Wales saw an explosion of popular rage. In Merthyr, huge crowds burned effigies of prominent Tories in the streets, called for opponents of Reform to be hanged, and known Tories found their windows smashed and their businesses looted.
The massed ranks of the working class swept the polite ‘radicalism’ of their middle-class allies to the side, who were horrified by what they had conjured up. By their own initiative, the workers started to draft petitions of their own for political rights, for the end of the truck system, for better wages and so forth. A huge rally was planned for 30 May at Dowlais, to coincide with the Waun Fair, to develop these demands and plan further action.
The response from the pro-Reform ironmasters was immediate panic. Things were getting out of hand. Crawshay was soon inundated with anxious letters from his fellow ironmasters begging him to forbid his men from attending the rally. By now, Crawshay’s decision to enact wage cuts had started to sour his relations with “his miners”. On 23 May, at the urging of his worried father, Crawshay brought the hammer down. Dozens of miners and puddlers (those known for participating in political agitation) received new, even-deeper wage cuts, and 84 were dismissed altogether. The ‘kindly ironmaster’ had shown his true face. The workers came to understand they could depend on no-one but themselves. On 30 May, hundreds of men turned their backs on Cyfarthfa and marched to Waun under a great white banner inscribed with the word “Reform.”
The Rising begins
The Waun meeting of 30 May 1831 was a turning point. At least 2,000 people turned up, though some reports claim 10,000. The attendees were mostly miners. The level of political development was variable. The main banner, for example, carried a crown and the words ‘God Save William IV’ alongside ‘Reform in Parliament’. But many of the speeches were extremely radical. In addition to attacking the Corn Laws and demanding Reform, the crowd railed against their hardship, cursed the idle nobility, and castigated the corrupt political elite.
There was no clear leadership to speak of, though some of those present (including Lewis Lewis) were known agitators with authority amongst the working class. A four-point programme was advanced and broadly agreed upon:
- Abolition of the Court of Requests;
- The abolition of all imprisonment for debt;
- New laws against price gouging;
- No hiring new colliers and miners on lower wages than their predecessors.
These were fairly mild demands, showing the tentative, early stages of this budding movement. Many of the ironmasters had been considering getting rid of the Court of Requests anyway, as it had been more trouble than it was worth. The bosses had no intention of granting any of the other points, but they nevertheless fell far short of the insurrection they feared. The bourgeois thus breathed a premature sigh of relief. The next day, workers in Penderyn in the neighbouring Rhondda flexed their muscles by physically preventing the arrest of Lewis Lewis, better known as Lewis yn Heliwr (Lewis the Huntsman) after he tried to prevent a bailiff from seizing his trunk.
The Rising had a very spontaneous character, but of anyone involved, Lewis is best described as its leader. The 38-year-old miner was born in the small Penderyn parish, the son of a butcher and horsebreaker. He was clearly a charismatic figure, who was well-known and respected by his fellow workers. Even the bourgeois newspapers and court documents grudgingly note his honourable conduct in the unrest to come, during which he shielded magistrates and constables from being torn limb-from-limb by angry crowds.
With the Waun rally still ringing in their ears, the workers did not wait for the establishment to accede to their demands. They started enforcing them themselves. In Aberdare, workers marched against a local ironmaster who had said he would hire miners on the cheap, and attacked a truck shop for good measure. In Penderyn, a crowd advanced on the shopkeeper who had taken ownership of Lewis’ trunk and took it back by force. They then hoisted it on their shoulders, with Lewis balanced on top, who gave a fiery speech in Welsh. Soon after, someone threw burning missiles through the windows of Joseph Coffin, president of the Court of Requests. These small acts of defiance were the harbingers of an insurrection.
The following morning, crowds gathered in Cefyn in Cyfarthfa; and at the Castle Inn in Merthyr town, to draw up plans. Bands of men with banners calling for Reform marched from house to house, demanding the location of goods taken through the Court of Requests, so they might be returned to their original owners. Hundreds of houses faced this treatment, which was not always carried out politely – especially where the haughty shopkeepers were concerned.
Before long, thousands of valuables were being carried back to their rightful place by crowds of workers. Their confidence was building, and one zealous bailiff had to be dissuaded by the town magistrate J.D. Bruce from pursuing cases of theft against 38 individuals, for fear of causing a provocation. It didn’t matter, the genie was out of the bottle. Seeing the unrest, Bruce immediately enrolled 70 petty-bourgeois tradesmen as ‘Specials’ (volunteer constables) and sent an urgent message to the depot of the 93rd Food at Brecon, requesting a military detachment to quell what was rapidly becoming a full-scale revolt.
Lewis Lewis, still on his rescued trunk, was at the head of the crowd, which swelled its ranks as it swept along the Brecon Road, heading due west towards the Castle Inn, which was surrounded by the comfortable homes of beadles, bailiffs and pawnbrokers. The workers promptly set about ‘liberating’ belongings of the workers and poor (and some more besides) from the middle-class occupants, who could do little but cower under what remained of their furniture while the goods were seized. The crowd always issued them ‘receipts’ to be signed, forswearing any right to this recovered property. Refusal was not an option. This was not an organised campaign with an elected leadership and political programme, but an outpouring of class anger. Given the relatively low political level of the workers at this stage in history, it could scarcely have been anything else.
In the middle of recovering a pair of watches from the home of the shopkeeper Thomas Lewis, the crowd was confronted by Bruce, along with the magistrates John Petherick and William Thomas from the Court of Requests, flanked by Specials. The lawmen immediately saw they were hopelessly outnumbered by the crowd, which had grown to be 2,000 strong. Lewis intervened to hold back the workers as Bruce falteringly read the Riot Act, demanding the people disperse under pain of death. This was met with derision. Under a hail of punches and kicks, the magistrates and the Specials were forced back to the Castle Inn at Merthyr’s town square, which soon became a refuge for the shopkeepers who had lost property to the crowds, as well as the rich inhabitants in Merthyr more generally. From there, Bruce began sending frantic letters to the East Glamorgan Yeomanry, requesting more men to suppress the movement.
The crowd headed next to the home of Joseph Coffin: the ultimate symbol of the hated Court of Requests. By now, the workers were stretching ropes across the street to prevent anyone from losing their nerve and fleeing. They had gone too far to back out. Their white standard had been abandoned for a red one, alongside a pike with a loaf of bread skewered on the tip. The message transcended any language barrier: give us bread, or we’ll give you blood. By now, the chants included: I lawr â'r Brenin (“Down with the King!”)
Lewis was there on his trunk and commanded the crowd to begin hailing the house with stones, shattering the window panes. They began to shout for the Court’s account books, so the workers might erase their debts (showing a fair bit of political initiative). After Coffin threw down obsolete records from the first floor window, the enraged mob burst through the door, turning over furniture and even tearing wallpaper from the walls. Outside, a great bonfire was lit in which the account books, along with Coffin’s possessions, were burned. Here was the unbridled rage of the working class, who had been kept for too long in a state of precarity and fear by the Court. Crawshay had just ridden in to witness the commotion. Horrified at the actions of “his miners”, he immediately rode off to gather as many soldiers as were necessary to restore the peace.
The crowd abandoned the wreck of Coffin’s house and turned to Cyfarthfa to stop the ironworks, heading next to do the same at Penydarren and Dowlais, hunting for Specials and bailiffs in hiding along the way. By morning, the ironworks had all fallen silent. This was a local general strike – perhaps the most complete and powerful Britain had ever seen. At this point, the miners began to demonstrate a remarkable, instinctive grasp of political tactics. The ruling class weren’t going to surrender Merthyr Tydfil without a fight: it was one of the main engines of British industrial production. If the Rising was to survive the inevitable backlash from the state, it would have to spread. Detachments from the main Rising were sent to the surrounding towns. Meanwhile, a massive crowd had filled the town square and surrounded the Castle Inn, while 80 men of the 93rd Foot, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched on the town. Crawshay was at their head. Women lining the roads jeered at the Highlanders to “go home and put some trousers on” as they approached.
Blood for blood
As the troops entered Merthyr, they faced a town ruled by the workers. They passed through lines of people hissing and shouting “Reform”. The main crowd surrounded the Castle Inn, armed with bludgeons and farm tools, ready for trouble and willing to fight. The Specials were amassed outside the Inn, pinned in place by at least 7,000 people. Inside were magistrates, gentlemen, tradesmen, and four ironmasters (including Guest) – huddling for refuge from the mob, which included miners, colliers, and puddlers; as well as women and children. Lewis Lewis was present, along with the 23-year-old Dic Penderyn.
The Riot Act was read again, which started a one-hour countdown before the soldiers could employ lethal force to restore order. The crowd was ordered to fall back. Bruce ordered the Specials to force them back when they refused. Crawshay and the soldiers filed past the crowd into the Inn. A squad took up position with guns pointed out of the Inn’s windows, while the rest of the troops stationed themselves outside, bayonets fixed and levelled at the crowd. A voice that might’ve belonged to Lewis Lewis cried out in Welsh: “There’s no need to fear the soldiers. The game’s ours. They’re no more than a gooseberry in our hands!”
When it became clear the crowd wasn’t going anywhere, a dozen delegates were invited to enter the inn and parlay with the ironmasters and magistrates. The workers sent 12 of their men (including Penderyn), who demanded the Court of Requests be suppressed, the introduction of higher wages, the reduction of the price of basic goods, and immediate Reform: meaning extension of the franchise, and free trade. Even with 7,000 pairs of hands ready to throttle them, the ironmasters refused to budge on any of these demands. Likewise, the crowd refused to disperse. It was a standoff.
It was announced that an hour had elapsed, but the crowd held firm. Men began to circle around the soldiers’ backs, cutting them off from the wall of the inn. Someone in the crowd demanded Guest speak to the workers. He appeared alongside Crawshay from the upstairs window, imploring the crowd not to act rashly, and promising to heed their grievances if they would first go home. A man clamoured to speak. He was raised on the shoulders of his fellow workers, complaining in English that his wages were too low, and he would be satisfied with enough to pay for bread for himself and his family. The crowd angrily yanked him back, and lifted another man, who said he would only be satisfied with bread and cheese! The crowd suddenly took up this chant in Welsh: Caws gyda bara! (Cheese and bread). Like the later slogan for ‘bread and roses’, the workers were seeking not merely the bare minimum to survive, but enough to lead a decent, dignified life.
Finally, Lewis Lewis spoke: “Stick together until we get our terms!” The crowd pressed in between the soldiers and the inn, isolating and surrounding them. Guest again came to the window, saying he had done all he could, and if this went any further, “you must take the consequences on yourselves.” The crowd was undeterred, seizing the muskets of the front rank of soldiers. At that moment, they surged forward, knocking down four or five troops and beginning to push their way into the inn. They were repeatedly driven back at the point of bayonets, but the crowd began to isolate individual soldiers and beat them down with cudgels. Finally, an officer gave the order to fire. There was screaming and commotion as volley after volley was fired into the crowd, which reeled back from the gunfire. Even when the shooting began, men were trying to break into the inn, and had to be forced back or cut down.
Recovering from the first shots, the crowd (many now armed with stolen muskets) fell back to a tip overlooking the Castle Inn. Powder and shot was looted from shops, and the workers peppered the inn, while hand-to-hand clashes between workers and soldiers continued in the surrounding streets. When they ran out of bullets, the workers fired marbles. The troops in the Castle Inn shot back in all directions. Among the casualties were not only members of the Rising, but also men, women, children and elderly people in their own homes – struck with wayward shots. Injured and dying men retreated from the streets to die in ditches or their own bedrooms. Survivors mustered for further attacks, shooting at Cyfarthfa Castle for about an hour. The majority of embittered, bloodied and furious workers from the battle at the Castle Inn rallied at the canal bridge, where Lewis told them to distribute the stolen guns to those who could hold them. The Rising set up bases in Cefyn on the Brecon Road, and went to establish outposts at Hirwaun on the road to Swansea, knowing that a retaliation would come.
The terrified and exhausted men at the Castle Inn retreated to the more defensible position of Penydarren House, carrying their wounded on stretchers. They were soon joined by 70 men of the East Glamorgan Yeomanry and 50 from the Central Region – the same reserve corps of petty-bourgeois scum who had caused such bloodshed at Peterloo. A detachment of the 93rd Foot arrived from Newport, resulting in a total of 300 men at Penydarren. They were underequipped, surrounded by a town in furious revolt, and keenly aware that a 120,000-strong population of angry working men in a 15-mile radius might descend on them at any moment.
Meanwhile, crowds were drilling with their new weapons in the hills, as a young man enacted an ancient ritual of vengeance: sacrificing a calf and drenching a banner in its blood. This grisly new standard sent a clear message: no quarter had been given, and there would be none taken. Far from beating them back, the whip of reaction was driving the workers forward.
The Rising Continues
Here, the Merthyr Rising reaches its remarkable peak, showing the sophistication and class solidarity that existed amongst the working class even at this early stage. The impact of the Rising spread well beyond the boundaries of Merthyr. In Hirwaun and Aberdare, squads of 15-20 armed workers looted shops of guns, shot and powder. The women in Merthyr started making pikes, preparing for a seige. An armed blockade was organised on the King’s Highway. Workers scoured the countryside for hunting rifles. Within a day, the Rising had between 300-400 guns at its disposal. The rebels were not roaming mobs, but highly organised units of working men, for whom decades of cooperation in complex, technical labour had proved a useful school for military tactics. Detachments went out with commanders and flags, setting up roadblocks and winning support from Monmouthshire and the western valleys, where strikes were breaking out in support of the Rising, and for local demands.
Penydarren House had become the de facto seat of the official government in Merthyr, but the real power lay with the workers. They were mustering their forces for a decisive assault against what remained of bourgeois rule. Bute, Guest and the others were rapidly running out of food and they weren’t confident they could hold out until help arrived. Penydarren released a statement to the “Workmen of Merthyr Tydfil” that lamented the blood spilled at the Castle Inn following the “rash attempt you made to disarm the Soldiers brought here only to protect our Property and Persons, against your threatened Violence. Good God! That you should have been led on by the Speech of one Violent Man to commit so daring attack as you did...”
The ‘Violent Man’ in question was Lewis Lewis. The letter warned of “ten times the number of Soldiers to protect us and our Property as were here Yesterday, and we implore you to consider the fatal effects of continuing your present unlawful proceedings.... Return to your Work and put an end to this dreadful state of things, which must and will be worse every hour it continues. YOUR FRIENDS AND MASTERS.”
Despite the threat, and the attempt to isolate Lewis as the main culprit for the bloodshed, the bosses’ words were hollow: they hadn’t the forces for a counter-offensive. Moreover, attempts to bring in reinforcements and arms were frustrated by the workers stationed around Merthyr. 40 men of the East Glamorgan Highlanders escorting an ammunition train from Brecon were sniped at from houses, and met with rocks rolled across the road, along with hundreds of armed men. Another detachment of 100 Yeomanry were met with rolled rocks and heavy fire from the rebels, forcing a full retreat in view of Cefyn, Georgetown, Cyfarthfa and the Village. Later, the Swansea Yeomanry were ambushed by armed men at Waun Coed Meyrick, who relieved them of their weapons and sent them packing back to Neath in disgrace. These victories only boosted the workers’ confidence, and they dug in further still.
But it is here that the Rising also reached its limits. Simply holding the town was not enough: the miners could not hope to defeat the entire might of the British state once it found its way to Merthyr. Without a political programme to lay claim to the means of production – the ironworks – and spread the fight to extend their control to the surrounding region, the movement was doomed to run out of steam. People were still hungry, and once the shops were looted, there were no goods to replenish them. The same was true for guns and ammunition. Given the early stage of the workers’ movement, it is inconceivable that the necessary programme could have been developed. In terms of their efforts to secure Merthyr and spread the rebellion, the workers went about as far as possible for the time.
One ace that Guest and Crawshay had up their sleeve was a large network of blackleggers and agents, who got messages out and kept the ironmasters abreast of the workers’ activities – and divisions in their ranks. Using these illicit contacts, the ironmasters identified rebels who were beginning to waver, and invited them as “delegates” to Penydarren for negotiations, and then sent them back to their comrades. It is unclear exactly what was promised or agreed in these talks, but they clearly had some effect, because a huge march on Cyfarthfa Castle was abandoned in confusion after discussion within the ranks of the workers. It seemed that dissension was taking hold as the more backward layers got cold feet, and others came to believe that the best opportunity to attack Penydarren had been lost.
The leading rebels tried to restore confidence by calling a mass rally on 6 June, with invitations sent out to workers in the surrounding region to join in for a huge meeting, thousands strong, to decide the next steps. Exploiting the cracks the ironmasters saw emerging in the Rising, Penydarren released another message via its agents that the crimes of the rebels amounted to high treason and rebellion, and that all criminals would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. At the same time, a further meeting was held at Penydarren with the wavering rebels, cutting them off from the vanguard. Additionally, the magistrates in Swansea and Neath denounced the truck and promised cash wages to the men as a partial concession. The bourgeoisie also relied on the services of the Church, with chapel ministers denouncing the rebels in English and Welsh all across the valleys.
The initiative passed to the ironmasters, who by now had stalled long enough that help had arrived. They had at their disposal a combined force of 450 Highlanders, Royal Glamorgan Militia and Yeomanry. These forces met a 12,000-strong crowd that had set out from Monmouthshire for Merthyr to attend the 6 June rally. What happened during this confrontation isn’t known, but it is certain that the crowd from Monmouthshire gave way to the soldiers’ bayonets, with only a small handful crossing over to the Cefyn, while the majority went home or melted into the surrounding countryside. This was a major turning point in favour of law and order.
The Rising was now petering out, and the Yeomanry (backed up by fresh ranks of professional troops), began moving into Merthyr to clear the streets. There was some fight left in the rebels, and gun battles with the Yeomanry continued in the morning of 7 June. But by midday, the Rising’s cohesion totally broke down. The splits widened, and desperate, panicked men could be seen breaking or burying their stolen weapons. A final attempt at a rally was blocked by 45 men of the 3rd Swansea Dragoons, and by the evening any semblance of a battle turned into a manhunt as the Yeomanry set about rounding up the ringleaders, including Lews Lewis, who was seized in the woods near his home after a struggle. In total, it took between 600-800 troops and Yeomanry to pacify the rising, detachments of which remained to place the smouldering, resentful town under military occupation and force the miners back to work.
The significance of the Merthyr Rising and the tenacity of its combatants was not lost on the ruling class. Eight years later, at the time of the Chartist march on Newport, the Home Secretary wrote of Merthyr: “It is the worst and most formidable district in the kingdom. The affair we had there in 1831 was the most like a fight of anything that took place.” And the effect of the Rising on the consciousness of the workers did not end with its defeat. Literally within days, union lodges began springing up in Merthyr and the surrounding towns. The workers had stood up once, and they weren’t about to return immediately to their knees. The lessons they had learned would result in a renewed struggle at an even-higher level.
Despite the heavy military presence, the ruling class was not confident about maintaining the peace in Merthyr, which they feared would rise up in rebellion again at any moment. This in part explains the relatively lenient treatment of the captured ringleaders of the Rising, coupled with Merthyr’s importance to British capitalism. The authorities were eager not to provoke the populace into another strike. In total, 28 people were charged with various offenses connected to the Rising, including one 62-year-old woman. But only two faced the death penalty: Lewis Lewis, and Dic Penderyn. In the end, a petition from the miners and a desperate series of letters from Bruce to the presiding judge meant Lewis’ sentence was commuted to transportation. It is clear from these correspondences that the presence of the unions in Merthyr, which were gaining strength by the day, left Bruce fearful for his health should Lewis hang. In short, it was the collective power of the working class that rescued Lewis from the scaffold.
Today, Dic Penderyn is known as the martyr of the Merthyr Rising, but his actual contributions to it are uncertain. He certainly had some prominence: he was chosen as one of the 12 delegates who entered the Castle Inn to parlay with the ironmasters, for example. But it is very clear from the court proceedings and all contemporary accounts of the Rising that Lewis was the main leader, and a far-more famous political figurehead. We actually know very little about Penderyn. He is described as a miner at his trial, and is said to have spent most of his life in Ynysgau. Local tradition in Merthyr goes that he was a powerful man, handsome, fond of a drink, a strong debater for the rights of working men, and gained local popularity for beating up a local constable notorious for bullying and blackmail.
The greater significance of Penderyn is that the ruling class identified him as someone who could be made an example of. He was important enough that his death would mean something, but hopefully not famous enough that his death would reignite the rebellion. Ironically, while Lewis was bang to rights, Penderyn had to be convicted on a false charge: stabbing a soldier named Donald Black in the leg with a bayonet. To his credit, Black himself testified at his trial that Penderyn was not the man who stabbed him. But it didn’t matter, the ruling class wanted revenge. They cynically exploited the fact that the people of Merthyr were busy organising their petition to save Lewis, whose crimes put him at far greater risk of death, to pursue the ultimate penalty for Penderyn. When this became apparent, 11,000 signatures were hastily collected and dozens of witnesses came forward testifying that Penderyn had no part in stabbing Black – Lewis Lewis included. But the judge was unmoved, and Penderyn was sentenced to hang.
The only written document we have for which Penderyn’s authorship can be definitively confirmed is the aforementioned letter he sent to his sister on the eve of his execution. It affirms, in good, literary Welsh, “I believe the Lord has forgiven me my divers sins and transgressions, but since I am accused, I am not guilty and for that I have reason to be grateful”. The letter was later printed and sold to raise money for Penderyn’s widow. On 13 August, he was transported to Cardiff. By then, his fame had increased significantly (to the irritation of the authorities), and a large crowd turned out in respectful silence for his last moments. His final words on the gallows are disputed, but the most-widely reported are the Welsh phrase: “O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd” – “Oh, Lord, this is injustice!” His body was not returned to Merthyr, for fear it would become a shrine to the miners. Instead, thousands of mourners accompanied its journey to its final resting place in Port Talbot, where trade unionists built him a proper memorial in 1966.
But while Penderyn strangled for a minute-and-a-half at the end of a rope, in the ruling class’ grisly ritual of vengeance, his comrades were performing another ritual back in Merthyr. In lodge after lodge across the coalfield, Dic Penderyn’s friends and workmates knelt as the Clerk of the Lodges read an initiation oath from his Secret Paper. Days later, the colliers’ union marched from Swansea to Newport in a show of solidarity and strength, to the horror of the capitalists and magistrates who had put Penderyn to death. If they had hoped the defeat of the Rising and Penderyn’s demise would be the end of the story, they were mistaken.
Today, Penderyn is a legend in Wales, with many memorials in his name. But his greatest legacy was the impact of his martyrdom on the workers’ movement. Union activity spread like wildfire across South Wales after the Rising, and Dic Penderyn’s sacrifice was a source of great inspiration to the newly organised workers. Two years later, a new Grand National Consolidated Trades Union had grown to 500,000 members. South Wales became a hotbed, not just of union activity, but also Chartism – the workers having moved beyond the two-faced middle-classes’ calls for Reform to demanding universal male suffrage. There were major confrontations, like the mighty Newport Rising of 1839, in which 10,000 Chartists led by John Frost battled with the authorities to release Henry Vincent and possibly start a general rebellion. Right up to the 20th Century, Welsh miners were part of the vanguard against the reactionary Tory governments of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, in which the former was toppled through strike action. Penderyn’s blood had watered a movement that would grow to tower above his deeds in life.
The fact that Penderyn only became a legend after his execution actually helps explain his significance. He was an empty vessel into which a working class, that was just stirring to life as a political force, poured all its aspirations and grievances. He became a champion of the voiceless and downtrodden. Of a class whose strength arises, not from the talents or intellect of this or that individual, but from its collective power. For that reason, the Merthyr Rising and Dic Penderyn deserve their place alongside the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Communards, the revolutionary Russian workers and all the other class fighters who risked life and limb in the fight for a decent existence.
Much of this article is based on ‘The Merthyr Rising’ by Gwyn A. Williams (1988).