Merthyr Riots

In 1831 is marked by the Merthyr Riots, which had tragic consequences to one Richard Lewis “Dick Penderyn”.

During this time there was wide spread poverty due to low wages paid by the coal and iron industries, and disquiet with the prevailing conditions was rife throughout the valleys. Mass meetings of the workmen were held and urgent demands made for increase of wages. It said that the average weekly wage of workmen in these industries was about twelve shillings.

On Friday June 3rd several thousand of workmen assembled in front of the Castle Hotel in Merthyr Tydfil, where the employers had taken up their position to reason with the crowd and to endeavour to persuade the men to return to work peaceably, with a promise of negotiations to settle their grievances. Several of the speakers adopted a conciliatory attitude, but these were followed by one utterly devoid of tact for such a delicate situation that he threw, as it were, a lighted match into the dry stubble around him, by intimating that they would be compelled to give up their agitation by the superior force of arms.

This statement and the presence of a contingent of the 93rd regiment of Highlanders drawn up in a line before the hotel incensed the mob into a mad fury. Lewis Lewis “Lewsyn yr Heliwr” from Penderyn who had already exhorted his comrades to fight, immediately sprang upon one of the soldiers near him and deprived him of his musket, and thus started the fighting which ensued for some time. Eventually the tremendous pressure of the mob forced the soldiers to withdraw into the hotel one by one.

It appears that when the last of these brave Highlanders tried to escape through the backyard of the house, he was set upon by Richard Lewis “Dick Penderyn” and some of his infuriated comrades, and it was in respect of the attack on this soldier he was charged on the Assize Court for feloniously attacking and wounding Daniel Black, 93rd Regiment at the Castle Hotel Merthyr.

After the tumult had subsided a thorough search was made for the prime instigators of the riots, and about twelve of them were soon captured. Captain Franklyn together with William Crawshay, the employer, went in the direction of Hirwaun in search of the culprits and in a wood near Penderyn they discovered Richard Lewis, whom they recognised as the man who had addressed the mob from a lamp post in the street in Merthyr. He was captured and taken for temporary safe custody in the Lamb Inn Penderyn, until some cavalry men came to escort him to Merthyr where he was tried with sveral others, including Lewsyn yr Heliwr so called because he had been a huntsman in the service of the Squire of Bodwigiad where he lived.

A number of the rioters were committed to stand trial as the Assize Court at Cardiff; some were discharged, and others sentenced to long periods of imprisonment. Richard Lewis and Lewis Lewis had to face the capital charge of treason. The Counsel for the Crown declared that Lewis Lewis was the person responsible for the initial bloodshed in the riots. Both were found guilty and condemned to die on the gallows. In the case of Richard Lewis the sentence was duly carried out on the 13th August 1831 at Cardiff, but through the influence of some local gentry with the authorities in London, the sentence of death was commuted to one of transportation of life.

The Riots at Merthyr Tydfil 1831
By Charles Wilkins

I must go back a little in the eventful life of William Crawshay, the Iron King, to relate the story of the Riots of 1831, which took place at a time of extreme depression in the district, and just a little before the advent of the railway age, which may be well termed the golden age in the history of the iron trade. It was in June, 1831. Colliers were but of little account then. Miners were an important body almost as much so as ironworkers, and the procession to the levels was of dingy-coated men, with candles in their caps, not of the coal-dusty men we now see. For two years the iron trade had been in a lamentable condition, and reduction after reduction had been carried, and still works did not pay. At Cyfarthfa, during 1830 and up to March, 1831, a great accumulation of iron stone had taken place, and Mr Crawshay had this on his hands, with a large stock of iron in various stages of manufacture, for which there was no sale. Bar iron was then £5 per ton, and pig iron proportionately low.

Matters came to a crisis. Mr Crawshay was anxious not to stop the works, so he gave notice on March 28th of a reduction from 1s to 7d, on various classes of iron-stone. The miners continued working, and up to May 23rd no murmuring was heard against him, though in every direction the badness of the times was felt, and in addition electioneering excitement was on in Brecon, where a Reform candidate was being run. Nor was this all. Low wages, Reform agitation, and a strong prejudice against the Court of Requests, formed a triad of reasons for prompting the men to take up an aggressive course, leaving the peaceable track of industry for one of strife. On Thursday, in the early days of June, a large mob assembled at Merthyr, and marched over to Aberdare, where they compelled Mr Rowland Fothergill at Abernant House, under penalty of his life, to sign a paper declaring that he had not said that his miners were getting 5s a week more than Mr Crawshay’s.

William Crawshay II Picture Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Museum
William Crawshay II Picture Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Museum
 Then they demanded food, and the house was literally cleared of bread, cheese, and beer. The next step, for their hunger was not satisfied, was to visit Aberdare shops. Mr Scale resisted, but the shopkeeper more prudently threw out of the window all the bread and cheese he had, and then they marched back to Merthyr. Arriving there, they visited the houses of the bailiffs attached to the Court of Requests. These houses they destroyed, burnt the furniture, and then went and sacked the Court of Requests, burning in particular all the books, thus fondly hoping to clear off their debts. Other places followed; one, a grocer’s shop, was pillaged, and old people used to relate that the rapidity with which every eatable thing was cleared off was astonishing. One venerable woman filled her apron with flour, into which pepper and other things were thrown, and she marched off rejoicing, crying out, “This is Reform.” Probably thinking, as many had cleared off with their plunder that their numbers had been seriously diminished, they marched next to Cyfarthfa Works, then to Penydarren and Dowlais, forcing every man to join them, and it was late at night when they dispersed, to meet on the morrow. The ironmasters in the meantime had not been inactive.

Brecon then was the chief town in Wales, and here was stationed a part of the 93rd Highlanders, under Major Fall, who had been urgently called upon by a special messenger to come to the rescue. This he did, and by hurried marches arrived at Merthyr at ten o’clock Monday morning. By this time the mob had gathered in still greater numbers, and as the Highlanders came down the Pandy Road they swarmed around them, every man carrying a firelock or a bludgeon, and all swearing lustily at the armed force. With steady tramp, undismayed at the savage-looking multitude, the soldiers marched steadily on until they came to the Castle Hotel, in which by this time Mr John Guest, Mr William Crawshay, Mr Hill, and other leading ironmasters had gathered, and the high-sheriff of the county, mounting a chair as the soldiers drew up in front of the “Castle,” addressed the mob and read the Riot Act. Yet, still defiant, the mob pressed on savagely against the Highlanders, shouting out wild oaths, pushing their bludgeons tauntingly in their faces, as if to sting them on to begin an assault. Mr Hill, one of the most worthy and amiable of ironmasters, followed the high-sheriff in imploring the crowd to disperse still no change.

Then Mr Guest spoke in the same manner, and was succeeded by Mr Crawshay, who sturdily eyed the great concourse, unmoved and fearless. His friends had tried to soothe the mob, implored them. Not so he. The old Norman spirit, that which had won Saxon England by the sword and had made the Crusades memorable for ever, was not to be cowed by a crowd who had grown up around him from their boyhood. “Go home,” he roared,” you shall get no advance of wages from me by threats or violence. I defy you! Go home, if you value the safety of your life. But this I promise you. If you all go home quietly, and send a deputation from each mine level to me in fourteen days, I will thoroughly investigate your complaints of distress, and do everything in my power to relieve you. It was all in vain. Kind words and stern fell uselessly. A bold fellow, who was known to be a resolute poacher, called “Lewis the Huntsman,” got on a lamp-post by the aid of some of the rioters, and spoke in Welsh: “We are met, boys,” he shouted, “to have our wages raised, instead of which the masters have brought the soldiers against us. “Now, boys, if you are of the same mind as I am, let us fall upon them and take their arms away.” He then dropped down, and immediately there was a mad rush upon the soldiers, and, in less time than it takes to tell, the bayonets of the front rank, numbering about twenty, were wrested from them, and used furiously against them. So dense was the crowd, and the pressure so great against the soldiers, that those who retained their arms only used them with difficulty. For a time the Major and his men fought with the bayonet, more in fencing off the blows of stick and gun than in wounding their antagonists; but there is a point where mercifulness becomes the sign of fear or weakness, and when the officer in command with a number of men were struck down and bayoneted, the signal was given to the soldiers who had gained the security of the ” Castle,” and could operate from the windows, to fire, and in a moment a volley was poured into the mass with a deadly precision that soon told. For a minute or two the misguided miners and ironworkers, staggered as they were, fought to regain their lead; but when one by one fell, pierced with bullets, and the shrieks of the death stricken sounded above the roar of battle, there was a rush away into bye-lanes, and anywhere, in fact, where shelter could be found. Some sturdy fellows made a daring attempt to get up the back way of the “Castle,” and thus put the soldiers between two fires. This was quickly seen and resisted, and the battle practically was over, though now and then from the outlying district a bullet crashed into the “Castle,” one passing between Mr Crawshay and the high-sheriff, fortunately wounding neither.

When the roll was called over a dozen of the soldiers were found to have been injured, two very severely, and it was reported in after times that one died; Major Fall was severely cut about the head and was covered with blood, and of the mob sixteen were stated to have been killed and many injured. The total death and injury were never accurately known. The survivors and families of the slain and wounded concealed all possible traces. Wounded men remained at home, reported as sick; dead were buried with as much privacy as possible. The flight from the town of armed rioters was very great, and years after it was nothing unusual for an old sword or bayonet to be found in a garden or in the mountain side, having been hidden so as to destroy any trace.

It may well be imagined that the fewness of the soldiers, who, by one account, were under fifty in number, made the position of the ironmasters and others in the “Castle,” one of great risk, and it is now well known that had the soldiers been overpowered a lamentable slaughter of these would have followed. As it was, when the mob had been driven off it was deemed prudent to retire from the “Castle,” and while express messengers went to various quarters for reinforcements, the gentlemen and Highlanders made for Penydarren House, then the residence of Mr Forman. This was one of the best positions for defence in the district, and at five o*clock in the afternoon the march took place, four coaches containing the wounded. Once at Penydarren House they were safe, and soon fifty of the Glamorgan Militia, with Captain Howells, and Major Rickards with the Llantrisant
Cavalry, made their appearance, and the situation was regarded as tolerably secure. Throughout the night the force remained under arms, and every now and then their attention was caught by the report of a distant shout, as of a great body of people, and the occasional discharge of a gun. It was intended to pull down Mr Crawshay’s house by the rioters, but the rigorous ironmaster was rightly feared, and the threat was not carried out. On Saturday intelligence was brought that an immense body of the rioters had again gathered, and had made their way up the Brecon Road in the valley two miles beyond Cefn, where the rocks stand out like a fortress, with ivied towers “along the steep.” Spies had taken information, evidently, that the remainder of the Highlanders, with baggage and ammunition, were on the way, and this march was to intercept them.

Penydarren House
Penydarren House

To aid the Highlanders, Captain Moggridge with forty of the Cardiff Cavalry, went out to meet them and reached Cefn securely. Here forces were joined, and the return journey was made for a time in safety until the rocky battlements were reached, and there it was seen that the rioters were in great force, that the road was simply blocked with great boulders, and crowds on the top, with rocks loosened, were prepared to sweep away any force that came along the road. News was instantly brought down to the town of this alarming state of things, and Major Rickards, Captain Morgan, and Lieutenant Franklin, with 100 more Cavalry, were dispatched to the relief of Captain Moggridge, but upon their arrival at the spot the rioters were found to be too strongly posted. They were well armed, the roads impassable, and every now and then huge stones would sweep the ravine, so that it would have been death to attempt to force the way. For a little time a resolute effort was made, but it was futile, and a stampede of the Cavalry followed, men escaping, fortunately, but four of the horses were injured. Captain Moggridge was then abandoned for a time, and Penydarren House re-gained. Information was next brought that a detachment of the Swansea Cavalry was on its way, and the rioters, who were as well posted with information as the ironmasters, sent off a considerable force from the heights beyond Cefn to the Aberdare Road, and very soon the jingling of the Cavalry was heard under charge of Major Penrice, who evidently never expected such a reception as he received.

The rioters had made their arrangements with a good deal of skill, and the Major literally rode into a trap, with such a formidable armed mass covering him with their guns that he did not even make an attempt to fight, but surrendered at discretion. His men, it is stated, gave up their swords, and were allowed to march back to Swansea. It was many a long day before this was forgotten, and the generation had to die out before the miserable weakness ceased to be the subject of jibe and banter. The mob now, still better armed with the Cavalry swords, had renewed prospects of success, and a combined attack by all the rioters upon Penydarren House was determined upon. In the meanwhile, by the influence of Mr John Guest and Mr Perkins, one of the principal solicitors of the town, efforts were being made to bring about peaceful relations, and a deputation of orderly workmen waited upon the crowd and did their best to effect a truce.

The rioters were, however, for the time, determined to make one more effort, and Monday was selected as the day. On Sunday, the force at Penydarren House were delighted with the appearance of Captain Moggridge, who had skilfully made a wide detour over the mountains, a long way to the rear of the rioters’ camp, and successfully entered the town. This gave the ironmasters and others great confidence and a strong additional force, and Sunday was passed in tolerable quietness. With Monday came the final attempt. The intention of the rioters was to assemble on the Waun Mountain, and, being there joined by ironworkers from the Monmouthshire district, to make an organised assault on Penydarren House. The troops were now in a better state of readiness. The Highlanders numbered no men, and there were 300 Cavalry and 50 of the Glamorganshire Militia, all animated with a military spirit, and bent upon retrieving a reputation which had been weakened by the discomfiture on the Brecon Road and the disarming of the Swansea men. The Penydarren forces, under charge of, principally, Colonel Morgan, with the magistrates of the district, instead of waiting the assault, marched out, and took the initiative, making a formidable appearance as they proceeded up through Dowlais, and here they came in sight of the great mass, estimated to be nearly 20,000 in number, on their way to the attack. For a few minutes each party remained at a standstill, while Mr John Guest advanced to the front and addressed them.

He was a man held in great respect, and at any ordinary time his pleadings would have told. Now, however, the blood of the men was “up.” They were enraged at the military having been brought, as they reasoned, to subdue them, and blood had been shed, and blood called for blood. The murmurs which followed Mr Guest’s appeal increased in volume, and then came the last step. The high-sheriff read the Riot Act, the Highlanders were ordered to level their muskets, the ominous word, “Fire,” was on the point of being given, but so slowly that every possible chance was afforded the men to give way, and very gladly did the magistrates note a gradual falter of the leading ranks of the mob, and then a sullen, but decided, retreat.

Sir John Guest
Sir John Guest

Many returned home; every road was thronged, and the greatest part made tracks for the mountains, and then over by the Morlais Castle to Kilsanws, getting into the Brecon Road to the ravine where their great success had been won. Here, with all the arms gathered in the conflict, they were seen from the tower of Cyfarthfa to be exercising in line with the sabres and pistols taken from the Cavalry, and the bayonets of the Highlanders and their own fowling-pieces, and making a very good similitude of a military demonstration. The firing was incessant, and a good deal of alarm was caused when the whole body was seen as if making their way again for the town, two black flags being borne and mischief evidently intended. Then came to the observers evident differences amongst the rioters, a division of forces, and a thinning off of the crowd, and at this juncture a dispatch was sent by Mr Crawshay to the military urging a prompt attack, as so large a number had separated. The officer in command did not adopt this course, but proceeded to clear the town and scatter the crowds that still collected, thinking it better to wait for stronger signs of the disbanding of the main body of the rioters.

The waiting policy proved the best, and an excellent move was carried out the following night by Mr Guest and other magistrates, who took certain measures which resulted in the capture of fourteen of the ringleaders, who were taken in their beds. One of the best measures of the military at this juncture was to carry out scouting parties, who, well-armed and prepared for any exigency, hunted the mountains and the district cwms, getting hold of many who had figured in the riots. Captain Franklin was very successful in this course, and upon one occasion they were led by Mr Crawshay, who had evidently received information from a special source.

The Lamb Inn picture courtesy of RCTCBC
The Lamb Inn picture courtesy of RCTCBC

The route they took was into the Hirwain district, and in a wood they were fortunate in getting hold of the very man who had harangued the mob from the lamp-post and led on the attack upon the Highlanders. This capture was hailed with delight. He was lodged in the Lamb Public-house, well-guarded, while a troop of horse was sent for to bring him into the town. That he was anything but a contrite man at his capture may be inferred from a remark made by Mr Crawshay himself. “Nothing,” he said,” can now exceed his hardened ferocity.” The capture of Lewis, the huntsman, and of Dick Penderyn, both miners, and the principal ringleaders, broke up the conspiracy. All men captured were next sent home, with two exceptions, Lewis, the huntsman, and Dick Penderyn.

From this time peace was restored. On Friday, June 17th, the inquiry was opened before Mr Evan Thomas, Justice of the Peace for Glamorgan, to investigate the circumstances attending the death of John Hughes, one of the rioters. Before this gentleman Dr Thomas, Court, William Williams (tailor), and Abbot (hairdresser) were the chief witnesses, and gave evidence. It was shown that John Hughes was shot while running away with a soldier’s musket. He, too, had been a soldier, had been distinguished in six engagements, and many commented at the time that one who had borne so valorous a life and come out from so many battles without a scar should have fallen in such an inglorious manner.

The result of the examination was the committal of the two men, Lewis and Penderyn, to Cardiff
Gaol, and at the next Assizes both were found guilty and condemned to die. In the case of Dick Penderyn this was carried out to the letter, and he was hanged at Cardiff. Lewis was reprieved, and about this man more romance has been woven than surrounds much more prominent characters in history.

By some he has been said to have been of gentle descent, the child of a frail and beautiful daughter of a country family of distinction, and that immense influence was exercised in getting his freedom; by others that at one time, how or why is not stated, he had been of great service to a person of distinction who had influence with the King. It now will never be known, in all probability, why he was allowed to escape, but that he did is certain. When in gaol he was visited by one of the Quaker ironmasters of the Neath valley, and some interesting anecdotes of the visit may be seen preserved in the pages of the “Red Dragon.”

And now comes another, and concluding, item of the great Riot, one that has a tinge of the romantic, and more than a quarter of a century ago formed the subject of wonderment and of discussion by many a fireside in the valley of iron and coal The incline connecting Dowlais with the Taff Vale Railway had been completed, and, after many trials, a passenger train had been run, and had come to grief, running wild to the bottom and injuring many. The news created the wildest excitement.

Thousands had congregated of young and old, and amongst them was one of those ancient, yellow-tanned old women of the “village,” who were the walking chroniclers of their time, and knew, in particular, every detail of the Riots of the old and troublous times. In the crowd she saw an old man, apparently an American, who was looking on with keen interest, and eyeing the people as they trooped by. The ancient lady looked intently at him, paused, mused, and then going towards him spoke, “Is it you, Lewis?” He was startled by her question, and, in turn, eyed her, spoke quietly a few words, and then disappeared amongst the crowd. It was “Lewis yr Heliwr,” a huntsman at Bodwigiad, a miner after that at Gellyfaelog Level, leader at the Riots, the condemned, then the reprieved. He had been an exile ever since that day in America, banished under imperative command, it was surmised, never again to return to his old haunts, and as time had passed and age had come to him, enfeebling gait and silvery hair, there had grown up in his mind the yearning desire, which old exiles invariably feel, to return home and “die at home, at last.” And he had come; had seen in the lapse of a generation that nearly all he had known had been swept away; that the village had become a great town, and the restless spirits were represented by a youthful and more settled race. The recognition by the old woman disturbed him. He was not seen again, and the belief was that he returned to the new home he had made on the other side of the Atlantic, and long ago has ceased to be.