By the year 1829, a depression had set in the Welsh iron industry which was to last for three long years.
As a direct result, the Ironmasters of Merthyr Tydfil made hundred of workers redundant and also severely cut the wages of those who were allowed to remain.
Against a background of rapidly rising prices this caused severe hardship for many of the working people of the area and, in order to survive, many people were forced into crippling debt.
Most were unable to pay off their debts, and their creditors would then turn to the Court of Requests which had been set up in 1809, specifically to allow bailiffs to seize the property of debtors.
The Court became a focus of hatred by the majority of people, who saw it as the sole reason for the loss of their property.
The fledgling Radical movements of Merthyr, were part of the bigger National movement for political reform, and by 1830, had organised themselves into a Political Union in order to spearhead a local campaign for political reform.
By November 1830, they were calling for mass demonstrations in the town to protest against the barbaric Truck (Company Shop) System and the Draconian Corn Laws.
Their campaign was even supported by some of the local Ironmasters.
William Crawshay of the mighty Cyfarthfa Ironworks, (the largest in the world at the time) and Josiah John Guest of Dowlais Ironworks for example, both openly supported the campaign.
By the end of 1830, the campaign had expanded to embrace the Reform of Parliament, and the election of a Liberal Government in Great Britain, had led to a bill being brought before Parliament to reform the House of Commons.
The Bill was welcomed by the Merthyr Radicals as a step in the right direction, although it did not give Merthyr a Parliamentary Constituency, and only extended the right to vote to the Middle Classes as opposed to the workers.
In April 1831 however, the Bill was defeated in a House of Commons vote, the Government resigned and a General Election was called to fight on the issue of Parliamentary Reform.
In May of that year a huge demonstration in favour of Reform was held at Merthyr Tydfil.
William Crawshay, the Ironmaster, who had supported Reform, describing the demonstration, reported that a local shopkeeper, Mr. Stephens, who would not support the Reform found around 5000 demonstrators massed outside his house who had threatened to hang him and thrown stones and other missiles at his windows.
A Thomas Llewelyn and another of the ringleaders, were arrested the next day, but a mob of around 3000 threatened to rescue them, and then burn down Mr Stephens’ house and murder him.
As a result Mr Stephens dropped charges against them and they were released.
Despite Crawshay’s support for the Reforms, he was forced, in March 1831, to announce cuts in the wages of his workers and even more redundancies.
By May, the wage cuts took effect and he made another 84 of his skilled puddlers redundant.
It was this, combined with similar situations in other ironworks in the region, the hatred of the activities of the Court of Requests, and some stirring up by political agitators which finally led to what is remembered now as the inglorious ‘Merthyr Rising.’
On the 30th of May 1831, at the Waun Common above the town of Dowlais, a mass meeting of over 2000 workers from Merthyr & Monmouthshire gathered to discuss:-
Petitioning the King for Reform
The abolition of the Court of Requests
The state of wages in the iron industry
One person, a stranger in the area, advocated strike action.
This stranger was probably a representative of the National Association of the Protection of Labour, a trade union which had been formed in the North of England in 1830, and which had already set up Colliers Union branches in North Wales and was attempting to do so in South Wales.
On the 31st May 1831, bailiffs from the Court of Requests attempted to seize goods from the home of Lewis Lewis (Lewsyn yr Heliwr) at Penderyn, near Merthyr.
However Lewis refused to let the take his property and, supported by his neighbours, prevented them from entering his home. The Magistrate, J.B.Bruce, was called and he arranged a compromise between Lewis and the bailiffs which allowed the latter to remove a single trunk belonging to Lewis.
The next day a march was held by workers from Merthyr to the Ironworks of Richard Fothergill at Aberdare (a distance of approximately 12 miles) where they demanded bread & cheese and created a small disturbance.
At the same time at Hirwaun, a crowd led by Lewis Lewis marched to the home of a shopkeeper who was now in posession of his trunk, took the trunk back by force, and prepared to march on to Merthyr itself.
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.
They ransacked the house of one of the bailiffs (Thomas Williams) and took away many articles. 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, who was a hated moneylender and forced him to sign a promise to return goods to a woman whose goods he had seized for debt.
The Magistrate J.B. Bruce arrived at the scene and realised that this was rapidly becoming a more widespread revolt against the Court of Requests.
He and some other magistrates, quickly enrolled about 70 Special Constables, mainly from the town’s tradespeople, to help keep the peace, and then advised the Military Authorities in the town of Brecon that he may need troops sent.
Bruce, along with Anthony Hill, the Ironmaster of the Plymouth Works, tried to pursuade the crowd to disperse, but to no avail.
He then had the Riot Act read in both English and Welsh.
This also had little effect, and the crowd then drove the magistrates away and attacked Thomas Lewis’ house.
That evening, (the 2nd of June) the crowd assembled outside the home of Joseph Coffin, President of the Court of Requests, demanded the books of the Court and other books in the house, which they then burned in the street along with his furniture.
On hearing of this attack, Bruce decided that he would have to call in the troops after all, and soon, 52 soldiers of the Royal Glamorgan Light Infantry were despatched from Cardiff to Merthyr by coach, and a detachment of the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders were sent from Brecon.
Meanwhile the crowd had marched to the various ironworks and managed to persuade the workers to join them.
On their march from Brecon, the Highlanders were mocked and jeered but eventually arrived at the Castle Inn where they were met by the High Sheriff of Glamorgan, the Merthyr Magistrates and Ironmasters and the Special Constables.
The crowd outside the Inn, now some 10,000 strong, again refused to disperse when the Riot Act was read for a second time and pressed ever closer toward the Inn and the soldiers drawn up outside.
Anthony Hill then asked the crowd to select a deputation to put forward their demands.
The deputation demanded:-
Suppression of the Court of Requests
Reduction in the cost of items they used in their work
The Ironmasters flatly refused to consider any of these demands, and the deputation returned to the crowd. The High Sheriff then informed the crowd that if they did not disperse, the soldiers would be used against them.
William Crawshay and Josiah John Guest (known reformers) also tried to get the crowd to disperse, but they became even angrier and the front ranks of the crowd tried to surround the soldiers.
Lewis Lewis was hoisted onto the shoulders of some of the crowd and called for the soldiers to be disarmed by the rioters.
The front ranks of the crowd surged forward and threw clubs and rocks at them and even managed to disarm some.
A fight then ensued in which soldiers were bludgeoned and stabbed, and eventually the soldiers within the Inn opened fire killing three of the rioters with their first shots.
The fighting continued for about fifteen minutes in all, until the rioters were routed by the soldiers.
The street outside the Inn was said to have been running with blood, women were screaming and desperately looking for their husbands and sons, and the soldiers too, were in a bad state, many were injured and some near death.
Altogether 16 soldiers were wounded, 6 of them severely, and up to 24 of the rioters had been killed (their bodies were removed secretly by the crowd and buried and the injured also were treated in secret).
The authorities were certain that this was not the end of the rioting and they moved their headquarters to a safer position at Penydarren House.
That night the rioters searched for weapons ready for an attack the next day. They also sent word to the Monmouthshire ironworks in an attempt to obtain furher support.
By the 4th of June, more troops including the Eastern Glamorgan Corps of Yeomanry Cavalry and the Royal Glamorgan Militia had arrived in Merthyr.
A troop of the Swansea Yeomanry Cavalry (under a Major Penrice) on arrival at Hirwaun, were ambushed when they stopped to rest, being greeted in an apparently friendly manner, but were soon surrounded, their weapons seized and they were forced to retreat 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.
The Cardiff Troop of Glamorgan Yeomanry Cavalry (under Captain Moggridge) sent out to assist in the passage of the ammunition, was forced to retreat, being fired upon by the rioters and having rocks hurled at them from the hills above.
Another troop of 100 Central Glamorgan Yeomanry (under Major Rickards) was sent to assist but were unable to break through the mob.
Fortunately though Moggridge and the Cardiff Troop did manage to bring the wagons safely to Merthyr by a different route with only one man injured and one disarmed.
The authorities at Penydarren House were now prepared for an expected attack by the crowd.
Despite meeting various deputations from the rioters the ironmasters had not managed to pursuade them to disperse.
Just as the crowd were leaving Cefn Coed to attack Penydarren House, a final deputation was leaving the house.
At this point the advance party of the rioters arrived brandishing the sabres they had taken from the Swansea Cavalry, shouting and firing muskets.
The soldiers at the house now prepared to repulse the forthcoming attack, with the Cavalry formed up at the front and rear of the house.
Near the entrance to Cyfarthfa Castle the deputation which had just left Penydarren met the crowd.
What exactly happened at that meeting is not known but after discussion the march broke up.
The attack on Penydarren never took place, although there were some incidents in the town and some random discharges of muskets.
On Sunday the 5th of June, delegations were sent to the Monmouthshire Iron Towns to raise further support for the riots and on on the 6th of June, 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.
Josiah John Guest tried to address the crowd but to no avail, the Riot Act was read but had no effect, and then the Highlanders and Militia were ordered to level their muskets at the mob and the Yeomanry to draw their sabres.
Words of command were given clearly and slowly so that the mob could hear them.
With this the crowd gradually dispersed, only a hardcore remaining.
Eventually they too gave way. No blood was spilled that day.
After the riot was over, panic spread through the town and arms were hurriedly hidden and the leaders fled.
On the evening of the 6th of June the authorities began raiding houses and arrested 18 of the rebel leaders.
Workers returned en mass to their places of work.
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 rising at Merthyr caused shockwaves through the British Government, who feared that the powerful Colliers Union was behind it.
The setting up of lodges of the Union at Merthyr immediately afterwards, did seem to support this view.
The events at Merthyr were used politically, both by opponents of Reform, and by its supporters to further their own aims.
The general consensus was, that swift, strong action must be taken against the ringleaders of this movement.
The trials began on the 13th of July at the Cardiff Assizes.
28 men and women were tried, 23 of them ironworkers (12 colliers , 2 women, 2 shoemakers and one blacksmith).
John Phelps, David Hughes, Thomas Vaughan and David Thomas were all found guilty of attacks on the houses of Thomas Wiliams and/or Thomas Lewis.
Phelps was sentenced to transportation for 14 years, the others were sentenced to death (but with a recommendation for transportation for life instead).
Lewis Lewis and Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn), were charged with attempting to murder a soldier, a Donald Black of the 93rd Highland Regiment, by stabbing him with a bayonet attached to a gun outside the Castle Inn on the 3rd June.
They were both sentenced to death.
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.
(Black had stated during his evidence, that he could not be certain who had actually stabbed him).
On the evidence presented by the Crown, it was decided that Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was guilty, but Lewis Lewis was not guilty (although he was already under sentence of death for the attacks on Thomas Lewis’ house).
Joseph Tregelles Price, A quaker Ironmaster from Neath, took up the case of Dic Penderyn and Lewis Lewis, and presented a petition to Parliament to have them transported instead.
Evidence was produced that Abbott had threatened Penderyn prior to the 3rd of June, and people also stated on oath that Penderyn was not even present when Black was attacked, and that they also knew who had carried out the attack, but it was not Dic Penderyn.
But Strangely, Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, had reprieved Lewis Lewis, who was certainly one of those who were most responsible for the riots, and transported him to Australia, but would not even consider reprieving Penderyn, who was clearly seen to have been much less involved.
Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was taken from his cell at Cardiff Prison at Dawn on the 13th of August 1831, to the gallows at St.Mary Street, Cardiff and he was executed before a large crowd, protesting his innocence to the last.
His last words were: “O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd” “Oh Lord, here is iniquity.”
He was 23 years of age.
After he was cut down, his body was transported across the Vale of Glamorgan by his fellow workers and friends, where he was finally buried outside the chapel walls in his home town.
(convicted criminals were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground).
Thousands of people had lined the route as word of his execution had spread throughout Wales.
Dic Penderyn has always believed to have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and many people over the years have submitted petitions to the Home Office for a posthumous pardon, for the man who is still seen as, and will always be revered as the first Martyr of the Welsh working class people.
Lord Melbourne, who’s intention was to send a clear warning to any person who dared to challenge the established order, will fade into the mists of time, while Dic Penderyn’s last words will resonate throughout Wales for centuries to come.
‘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, in fact, the man who attacked Donald Black.’
(Transcribed from various sources available in the public domain….)