The story of the 1831 uprising of workers in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. The struggle that (for some) used the the Red Flag for the first time in the history of the working class movement.
In 1829 depression set in in the iron industry
which was to last for three years. As a result Merthyr Tydfil Ironmasters made many workers redundant and cut the wages of those in work. Against a background of 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 debt. Often they were unable to pay off their debts and their creditirs would then turn to the Court of Requests which had been set up in 1809 to allow the bailiffs to seize the property of debtors. As a result the Court was hated by many people who saw it as the reason for their losing their property.
Against this background the Radicals of Merthyr, as part of the National movement for political reform, organised themselves into a Political Union in 1830 to lead the local campaign for reform. In November 1830 they called for demonstrations in Merthyr to protest against the Truck System and the Corn Laws. The campaign was actually supported by some local Ironmasters. William Crawshay of Cyfarthfa Ironworks and Josiah John Guest of Dowlais Ironworks, for example, both supported the campaign. By the end of the year 1830 the campaign had broadened to embrace the Reform of Parliament, and the election of a Liberal Government in Great Britain 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 rather than the workers. In April 1831, however, the Bill was defeated in a House of Commons vote, the Government resigned and a new General Election was called to fight on the issue of Parliamentary Reform.
In May 1831 a huge demonstration in favour of Reform was held at Merthyr Tydfil. William Crawshay, the Ironmaster, who supported Reform, describing the demonstration, reported that a local shopkeeper, Mr. Stephens, would not support Reform and around 5000 demonstrators massed outside his house and threatened to hang him and threw stones and other missiles at his windows. Thomas Llewellin and another of the ringleaders, were arrested the next day, but a mob of around 3000 threatened to rescue them, burn down Mr Stephens' house and murder him. As a result Mr Stephens dropped charges against them and they were released. (William Crawshay: The Late Riots at Merthyr Tydfil, 1831).
Despite Crawshay's support for the Reforms he was forced , in March 1831, to announce cuts in the wages of his workers and redundancies. In May the wage cuts took effect and he made 84 of his puddlers redundant. It was this, combined with similar situations in other ironworks, the hatred of the activities of the Court of Requests, and some stirring up by political agitators which led to the Merthyr Rising. On 30 May 1831 at the Waun Common above Dowlais a mass meeting of over 2000 workers from Merthyr & Monmouthshire discussed :-
Petitioning the King for Reform
the abolition of the Court of Requests
the state of wages in the iron industry
One person, a stranger, advocated strike action. This strager was probably a represetative 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 31 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 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 trunk belonging to Lewis. The next day a march was held by workers from Merthyr to the Ironworks of Richard Fothergill at Aberdare where they demanded bread & cheese and created a 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 to Merthyr. 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, 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 realized that this was a widespread revolt against the Court of Requests. As a result he and other magistrates enrolled about 70 Sopecial Constables, mainly from the tradespeople, to help keep the peace, and advised the Military Authorities at Brecon that he might need troops. Bruce, with Anthony Hill, the Ironmaster of the Plymouth Works, tried to persuade the crowd to disperse, but to no avail. He the had the Riot Act read in English and Welsh. Again this had little effect and the crowd drove the magistrates away and attacked Thomas Lewis' house. That evening (2 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 burned in the street along with his furniture. On hearing of this attack Bruce decided that he would have to call in the troops and as a result 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 pursuaded the workers to join them.
On their march from Brecon the Highlanders were mocked and jeered but evetually 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 10000 strong again refused to disperse mwhen the Riot Act was read for a second time and pressed 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 refused to consider these demands and the deputation returned to the crowd. The High Sheriff then told the crowd that if they did not disperse the soldiers would be used. 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 stones at them and managed to disarm some. A great fight ensued in which soldiers were bludgeoned and stabbed and evetually the soldiers within the Inn opened fire killing three of the rioters with their first shots; the fighting continued for about 15 minutes and then the rioters were put to flight by the soldiers.(Crawshay).
The street outside the Inn was dreadfully covered in blood, women were screaming and looking for their husbands and sons and the soldiers, too, were in a sorry state, injured and some seemed 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 secretly).
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.
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 leavibng 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. (Crawshay).
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 shooting.
On Sunday 5th June delegations were sent to the Monmouthshire Iron Towns to raise further support for the riots and on 6th June a crowd of around 12000 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 addressed 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 the diehards remaining. Eventually they too gave way. No bloodshed was involved. (For details of the disarming of the Swansea Troop and its repercussions see my page on the History of the Glamorgan Yeomanry).
After the riot was over panic spread through the town and arms were hidden and the leaders fled. On the evening of 6th June the authorities raided houses and arrested 18 of the rebel leaders. Workers reurned en mass to their jobs. 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 cause great alarm to the British Government, who feared that the Colliers Union was behind it. The setting up of lodges of the Union at Merthyr immediately afterward seemed to support this view. Events at Merthyr were used both by opponents of Reform and by its supporters to further their aims. What was seen as most important was that swift, strong action must be taken against the ringleaders.
The trials began on 13 July 1831 at 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, Donald Black of the 93rd Highkland Regiment, by stabbibg him with a bayonet attached to a gun outside the Castle Inn on 3rd June. 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. On the evidence it was adjudged that Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was guilty but that Lewis Lewis was not guilty ( though he was already under sentence of death for attack on Thomas Lewis' house). Dic Penderyn was sentenced to death.
Joseph Tregelles Price, A quaker Ironmaster from Neath, took up the case of Dic Penderyn and Lewis Lewis and presented a petition to have them transported. Evidence was produced that Abbott had threatened Penderyn prior to the 3rd June and people saidthat Penderyn was not there when Black was attacked and that they knew who had carried out the attack but it was not Dic Penderyn. Strangely Lord Melbourn, the Home Secretary, reprieved Lewis Lewis, who was certainly one of those most responsible for the riots, and transported him to Australia, but would not reprieve Penderyn, who seems to have been much less involved. Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was taken from his cell at Cardiff Prison on 13 August 1831 to the gallows at St.Mary Street, Cardiff and there he was executed protesting his innocence. His body was transported across the Vale of Glamorgan to be buried at Margam.
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 the man who attacked Donald Black.