Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wales : Merthyr Rising 1831 - the beginning by Gethin ap Gruffydd


The Reformist Road to Twyn y Waun 30 May 1831

The Radical Road to Hirwaun Common 31st May 1831.

There are two traditional views of the Merthyr Rising of 1831. They are not necessarily totally separate views re the history and conditions that caused this workers' revolt to break out into an armed uprising.

Suffice to say for a very simple overview just read the account headed Merthyr Rising p396 of the Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, Ed Meic Stephens. Oxford University Press. You will of course not leave it at that but go on to books that will deal with the subject in greater depth, some of which I will mention below. What I wish to focus on is those two separate views, which point out the two separate paths that converged on Merthyr 1831 and at the end of May beginning of June causing this most major of Welsh insurrections since the time of Owain Glyndwr.

It's generally accepted that the Merthyr Rising of 1831 was in many ways part of the general British struggle for political reform, which would be the basis of a later much stronger Chartist Movement and also part of the struggle to establish Trade Unionism. There is another aspect of the Revolt that may be seen to have more national Welsh connotations’ and that is in the more radical nature the Merthyr Rising took as a particularly Welsh insurrection.

This is the view presented by Welsh Republicans such as historian Ivor Wilks and more romantically by Harri Webb. This is presented in the ‘natural justice’ protest on Hirwaun common, such radicalism prior and since is seen as representing a long history of Welsh radicalism. (also see writings on this by professor Gwyn Alf Williams).

Merthyr Tudful had been in discontent for a long time, particularly since the depression of 1829 with subsequent reform agitation following, not least in the early months of 1831.  Merthyr Tudful was in a ferment of discontent and disturbance culminating in a great Reform Rally at Twyn y Waun on 30 May 1831.

This reform rally was a political affair led by dissident radicals such as Cyfartha coal miner Thomas Llywelyn and issues raised at this rally were reformist and relating to trade union rights under banners which declared ‘Reform in Parliament' but also ‘God Save William IV’.

It seems the following day 31 May 1831, Thomas Llywelyn attempted to hold another reform rally at Hirwaun Common. Here however ‘Reformism’ met with the more militant men of Hirwaun who seemed more hell bent on radical measures. Their purpose was to put right more immediate wrongs and had more to do with a long tradition of struggle for ‘natural justice’.

Thus Thomas Llywelyn led his trade unionists off on a march to Aberdare to seek workers' justice in term of labour rights; improved conditions and wages. Back on Hirwaun Common other more militant matters were being considered, which would come to an head.
I do not want to dwell much more on repeating the history of the Merthyr Rising as there are a number of books you should read on the subject which will more than inform you of the history but also the differing views as to its nature, form & purpose.

Suffice for me to conclude that after the Reformists had left Hirwaun Common, the radicals killed a calf and dipped in its blood the white cloth of a reform flag, which they raised on a pole as possibly the first ever Red Flag of Popular Rebellion along with another banner that stated ‘Bara neu Waed’ (Bread or Blood).

There can be no doubt that the following seven days in June changed Welsh history immensely and of course in these terms the commemoration of 1831–2006 should be not only an entertaining experience but also be most informative & educational purpose to remind us who we are and where we come from.

The Merthyr Rising 1831   Time line of key events       

1st June - Workers march on Merthyr

2nd June - The town is seized by workers, the Riot Act is read and troops sent for

3rd June - “The Battle of Castle Inn” (see Dic Penderyn below). 26 “rioters” killed

4th June - Troops arrive from Brecon but one column is ambushed and disarmed by workers

5th June - Gwent workers rise and march to support Merthyr workers

6th June - Great workers' gathering at Twyn y Waun, troops arrive and level guns

7th June - Troops regain control of Merthyr, mass arrests and imprisonment follow

Epilogue: During the days that followed the troops searched particularly for those seen as leaders of the revolt, many were arrested and imprisoned amongst them Dic Penderyn and shortly after Lewis Lewis was captured.

All were put on trial, found guilty and sentence to death or transportation to Australia. Some question the mysterious way Lewis Lewis was reprieved but not Dic Penderyn. Dic Penderyn was executed on 13 August 1831, thus was created a “Welsh Working Class Martyr” long remembered as a popular  "Hero of Welsh History", whilst Lewsyn yr Heliwr - no doubt instigator and leader of the revolt - has been largely forgotten.

Whilst it remained politically or culturally correct to remember Dic Penderyn as a martyr, later "respectable" Victorian Wales chose to forget the Merthyr Rising 1831. So too Welsh Labour – Unionist Tradition, which came to remember more about the Tolpuddle martyrs & English Labour history rather than their own Welsh labour history.


Ironically the resurrection and restoration of this radical History was left to be more popularised by a Welsh Republican Movement 1946 – 56 via the writings of socialist republican historian Ivor Wilks and socialist republican bard Harri Webb. 

Historical Note: Twyn y waun had been the location of the Waun fair since the Middle Ages and possibly further back it may have been a traditional ancient gathering point for people. During the 16th Century Waun Fair was recorded in official records as being associated with outlaws & thieves particularly horse stealers & cattle rustlers who brought their four-legged stolen goods to dispose of at Waun fair. So well known was this that even suppliers of the English army came to Waun fair to buy cattle on the cheap and of course make huge profits.

Reading Matter for you yourselves to determine much.
Introduction: Read up on following subjects matter  (Full details & literature via web search)

·        Any material on the making of modern Wales post-Act of Union 1536.
·        18th Century Welsh Cultural Renaissance, Religious Revival & Political dissent.
·        18th Century popular protest, disturbances & discontent, focus 1798 – 1831.
·        The Merthyr Rising 1831
·        Post-1831 Scotch Cattle & the Newport Insurrection 1839.
·        The 1839 Rebecca Rebellion of the western counties.
·        1848 - the Year of European Revolutions and in Wales the Blue Books.
·        1848-1880s Rise of Liberal Wales to Cymru Rydd & beyond.
·        Rise of Labour Party & trade unionism in Wales.
·        Welsh Nationalism inc anything on republicanism.

For the chief reading material regards much of above & Merthyr 1831 plus it’s aftermath to 1831 & beyond you may focus on three particular historians:

· D. J. V. Jones: Before Rebecca Popular Protest in Wales 1793 – 1835.

· David Smith: For traditional “Unionist British Labour history’’.

· Gwyn A. Williams: For a communist and republican viewpoint.

· Ivor Wilks: Protagonist of a “Welsh Republican” view.

Further to above there are a great number of other books & essays in a number of journals, as ‘Llafur’ all of which may be searched out via the web & bibliographies. Further, two essays that touch on the above, are available on request via email only; they are:

· Aftermath. A radical interpretation of Welsh History from conclusion of Glyndwr war to the Merthyr Rising of 1831.

· Dic Penderyn. An interpretation of the Welsh Martyr Complex & why”.

Obtainable from

Merthyr Rising 1831 Commemoration - Cardiff

Dic Penderyn was executed 13 Awst 1831: Outside the market on St Mary Street, Cardiff near the spot where he was executed, you will find a plaque in commemoration of his execution. To the last he protested his innocence, and his final words in Welsh were an anguished cry at injustice. "O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd" "O Lord what an iniquity" he shouted, as the hangman's noose was tightened. Dic Penderyn’s coffin was then carried by cart to Port Talbot, where he was buried in cemetery of St Mary’s Church


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