During May 1831 the coal miners and ironworkers who worked for William Crawshay took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, calling for reform, protesting against the lowering of their wages and and for the way they could be dismissed when it suited the company.
Conditions must have been extremely bad, as organised labour was practically unheard of and openly disagreeing with the aristocracy was something that employees would never have dreamt of. However, by the end of May the whole area was rebelling and this was the first time that the red flag of rebellion was used anywhere in the world.
After they had stormed Merthyr town itself, which was now the largest town in Wales, the rebels sacked the local debtors’ court (now a pub) and took back the goods that had been collected. Account books containing debtors’ details were also destroyed. Some of the desperate shouts that were heard were Caws a bara (cheese and bread) and I lawr â’r Brenin (down with the king) – not very radical by today’s standards but, at this point in time, many people still thought that royalty was only a step away from divinity.
Onto the scene appeared Richard Lewis, also known as Dic Penderyn, after the farm where he was born near Port Talbot. Dic moved to Merthyr Tydfil to find work as a miner and became part of the Merthyr Rising of 3 June 1831. Along with Lewis Lewis – or Lewsyn yr Heliwr – (Lewis the Hunter), his cousin, Dic Penderyn was arrested for stabbing Private Donald Black of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, using a bayonet attached to a gun. This incident was alleged to have happened outside the Castle Inn. Private Black’s injuries were not fatal, and he was unable to identify either Lewis or Dic. Despite this, both men were convicted and sentenced to death. The cousins were held in Cardiff Prison but Lewis was reprieved due to the testimony of a special constable and instead he was transported to Australia. The people of Merthyr Tydfil doubted Dic’s guilt and over 11,000 signed a petition for his release. The Conservative newspaper, the Cambrian, even voiced doubts and other industrialists backed this up. In spite of the lack of evidence, Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary wanted to make an example of someone and Dic Penderyn was publicly hanged on 13 August at the age of 23 in St. Mary Street, outside the prison, which is now the site of Cardiff Indoor Market. There is a blue plaque that commemorates this
His last words were in Welsh, “O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd” (“Oh Lord, this is iniquity”). In 1874, a man named Ianto Parker confessed on his death bed, in the United States, to the Reverend Evan Evans that it was he who had stabbed Private Black and then fled to America. Another man named James Abbott, who testified against Penderyn at the trial, also later admitted to lying under oath.
Title image copyright: © Cyfarthfa Castle Museum; Art Gallery 2016 (People’s Collection Wales), and this Flickr contributor.