Merthyr Rising 1831 remembered

Geoff Jones describes when the working class had power in Merthyr


A protest march attacked by the military turns into a generalised insurrection. Armed workers take over the town, and besiege the authorities in their headquarters. Barricades are set up on the roads into town and a military 'relief force' is surrounded and disarmed.

Internationalist slogans are chanted and attempts are made to spread the uprising. The town is only recaptured a week later by military force. That was Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales in June 1831. Geoff Jones writes on one of the most explosive struggles in British working-class history.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, fuelled to some extent by profits from the slave trade, was based on iron. The explosive growth of the iron industry in South Wales became the engine of the development of English industry.

The northern edge of the South Wales coalfield from Aberdare to Brynmawr and Blaenafon (on the map of Wales, the present A465 'Heads of the Valleys' road) provided iron ore, coal, limestone, and timber. The area became the world crucible of iron production.

Entrepreneurs like Josiah Guest from Shropshire and William Crawshay from Yorkshire moved in to set up the world's largest and most advanced iron works in Dowlais and Cyfarthfa.

Around the works, communities mushroomed, sucking in workers from the whole of rural Wales but also from Ireland and England. By 1801 the population of this industrial belt had topped 100,000.

At the beginning of the 19th century Merthyr was a sleepy village on the edge of high moor land. By 1830 it had quadrupled in size to become the largest town in Wales, its population mainly workers in the iron and coal industries and their families.

With no Member of Parliament, town council or police force, it was a lawless frontier town, but one where skilled iron workers and craftsmen had a high level of literacy and political sophistication, with radical groups and clubs poring over the latest pamphlets and newspapers shipped down from London.

Merthyr was a centre of industrial unrest and a crucible of radical ideas, centred on a newly formed working class, described by contemporary Tory newspapers as "revolutionary forge men, Jacobin moulders, democratic colliers and demagogic furnace men".

The birth of the rising was in early May 1831. Ironically it started when Cyfarthfa iron-master William Crawshay called out his workforce to demonstrate support for the 1830 Parliamentary Reform Bill and the right to vote. On 9-10 May, thousands of workers roamed the town haranguing and physically attacking anyone believed to oppose reform.

The following day, two 'ringleaders' were brought before magistrates sitting in the Bush Inn. A crowd of thousands surrounded the inn and forced the magistrates to free the prisoners. From that point working people felt their own power. In the words of the Marquis of Bute - Lord Lieutenant and the major landowner in the area - "From that moment the people thought they were irresistible and could act with impunity."

About three weeks later, a huge meeting addressed by speakers of all political persuasions on Monday 30 May was organised at Twyn Y Waun by a moderate miner Thomas Llywelyn. The rally was dominated by reformists. Speakers and banners declared 'Reform in Parliament' and also 'God Save William IV'. Revolutionary movements quite often begin with the most moderate demands. The 1905 Russian revolution began with a mass march led by a priest Father Gapon to petition the Tsar for minimum reforms. The massacre that followed precipitated a revolution that went far ahead of Gapon’s intentions - and the original intentions of the workers who marched to the Tsar's Winter Palace.

So too in Merthyr. The following day, Tuesday 31 May, Llywelyn held another rally on Hirwaun Common with more militant workers, mainly miners from Hirwaun. But the miners' movement was much revolutionary than just appealing to the ruling class for reforms.

While Llywelyn marched off to Aberdare to call for reforms, the Hirwaun miners prepared for more radical action. A calf on the common was killed and the white flag of reform was dipped in its blood. The first red flag recorded in the history of the working class was raised at the head of their march to Merthyr along with a banner 'Bara neu Waed' (Bread or Blood!).

Over the next two days there were mass attacks on shops and offices, burning down the hated Court of Requests (a bailiffs' office which took away debtors' goods and furniture). The final detonation came on 1 June following Crawshay's announcement that wages at Cyfarthfa would be cut due to a slump in iron prices. Gangs of iron workers picketed out the other works in the area, joined the movement and took over the town.

Eyewitnesses reported the crowd shouting radical slogans, particularly "Remember Paris" (where workers had risen to depose the monarchy the previous year) and "Remember Poland" (the 1830 Polish war of independence against Tsarism, only finally crushed in September 1831). The workers were no mindless mob. Many had an instinctive internationalism.

In the town they met soldiers from the 93rd Highlanders and drove them back to the Castle Inn where they besieged the magistrates, ironmasters and their soldiers. A deputation was sent into the inn demanding concessions, which the ironmasters refused to discuss until the 'mob' disbanded.

The delegation knew that only the presence of the workers, massed round the inn, would force the masters to talk to them. Soon after, at Crawshay's order, the soldiers fired, killing twenty and injuring many more. This did not end things. Workers kept the inn under siege, returning fire from cover.

The next day the town was under workers' control. They set up roadblocks on the roads from Brecon (the nearest garrison town) and Aberdare, manned by armed pickets supported by "a strong body of Irish labourers carrying bludgeons". Meanwhile the troops had withdrawn to Pendarren House, a strategically placed and defensible mansion.

Magistrates fled the town in a desperate race to Cardiff, Newport and London for more soldiers. The next morning a detachment of the Swansea Cavalry on the road from Aberdare was ambushed and disarmed. Workers' delegates travelled as far as Blaenafon, Llanelli and Pontypool to try to spread the rising. A march of thousands to join the rising was only stopped east of Merthyr by the ironmaster Guest with four hundred and fifty soldiers at his back.

But by the fourth day, the rising was losing momentum. The ironmasters offered to reverse the wage cuts. A split occurred - some wanted to accept the terms while others wanted to attack Pendarren House. By Tuesday over a thousand troops had arrived to grab back control.

Eighteen leaders were arrested including Lewsyn yr Helwr (Lewis the Hunter) and Dai Llaw-Haearn (Dai Iron Hand) who had led the deputation to the Castle Inn. Among others arrested was a young miner Dic Penderyn, charged with stabbing a Scottish soldier.

Most were transported but Dic Penderyn was hanged, despite a huge campaign for his release. The charge against him was certainly trumped up. The authorities seemed to want to make an example of an unimportant figure rather than make martyrs of the workers' leaders.

But they were so afraid of a further uprising that they refused to allow his body to be buried in Merthyr, instead forcing the burial to be fifty miles away in Port Talbot. Dic Penderyn has been accepted as the first working-class Welsh martyr.

Many Labour and trade union leaders who know any history prefer to see workers' history in terms of 'the long march of labour' to electoral respectability. Workers are seen as mere extras or spear-carriers on the electoral stage, expected to give loyal support to the leadership, but not to think or speak for themselves. 'Labour history' for them and for capitalist historians means events like the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester where an unarmed crowd was dispersed by soldiers. The Merthyr Rising has been airbrushed out of history, apart from amongst socialists and labour movement activists in Wales. But that rising, like the establishment of the Paris Commune 40 years later, showed ordinary workers' willingness to fight, to set up their own organisations and to 'storm heaven'.

Geoff Jones

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