Wales has a proud history of rebellion and resistance. From Owain Glyndwr to John Jenkins, every generation of Cymry has produced men and women willing to fight back against the yoke of British imperialism and defend our land and people.
19th century Wales was no different, and in many ways, set the tone for all future class-based struggles, whether or not commentators on social history choose to recognise it.
The world was changing rapidly. Workers were waking up to the fact that they were being fucked by their bosses, and they soon began to start fighting back.
All over Wales, and the rest of Britain, riots and strikes were commonplace. Workers were becoming more organised, realising that they had strength in numbers.
In 1831, Hirwaun Common would witness a moment that would change the course of history.
In 1829 there was a depression, caused by a slump in demand for iron. This led to pay cuts, with many workers being paid with “truck” – a currency that could only be used in shops belonging to the ironmasters, where goods were overpriced and of poor quality.
Angry and hungry, workers began to organise themselves. There were attempts made by some to push for reform, but many did not want reform, they wanted revolution. And they were willing to fight for it.
On May 31st 1831 a coal miner named Thomas Llewelyn attempted to hold a meeting at Hirwaun Common where he would push for reform. There he was met by much more militant workers with one simple demand – “Bara neu waed!” (Bread or blood!). They took the white flag of the reformists, dipped it in calf’s blood and raised the red flag, now an internationally recognised symbol of working class resistance, before marching on Merthyr.
An estimated 7-10,000 workers descended upon Merthyr and seized control of the town. After securing the town they set about sacking the debtor’s court and redistributed all the goods and destroyed account books, essentially writing off the debts of scores of workers.
The army were called in from Brecon, and the next day the 93rd Highland Regiment marched in to town. They were met with fierce resistance from thousands of workers, led by Lewis Lewis, the majority of whom were unarmed, and had many of their weapons seized by the workers. The soldiers opened fire and after a battle with the rioting workers, they were forced to retreat to nearby mansion, Penydarren House, leaving the workers in control of Merthyr.
By Saturday 4th June the riots had become a full scale armed insurrection. Workers had armed themselves with weapons and explosives commandeered from the soldiers. They formed guerrilla detachments and set up road blocks and were extremely effective in keeping the British army out. They ambushed a baggage train, fought off the Glamorgan Yeomanry, defeated 100 cavalry sent from Penydarren House and also ambushed and disarmed the vanguard of the Swansea Yeomanry.
On June 6th 450 soldiers were sent in to try and retake the town and the following day Lewis Lewis was arrested and by the end of the week the rebels were defeated.
In total, 28 men and women were arrested for their roles in the rising, and were handed sentences ranging from hard labour to transportation (a practice whereby a convict would be packed in to a ship and sent off to some distant colony of the British Empire).
One man however would not be so lucky. Richard Lewis, more commonly known as Dic Penderyn, was falsely accused of wounding a soldier and hanged outside Cardiff gaol on August 13th 1831, and became a martyr of the Welsh working class.
He was later exonerated after another man, Ianto Parker, confessed to stabbing the soldier on his death bed in America, where he had fled to avoid being caught.
Despite the establishment’s best efforts, the workers would no longer be placid, and the aftermath of The Merthyr Rising would see great unrest, with the formation of the first trade unions, the creation of the Reform Act and the birth of the Chartist Movement, Scotch Cattle and Merched Beca (Rebecca’s Daughters), but that is another story altogether.
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