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
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 stranger was probably a representative 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.
Matters came to a head on 31 May 1831. Bailiffs from the Court of Requests arrived at the home of Lewis
Lewis, known as Lewis the Huntsman, who was born at Pyle but was now residing at Penderyn near Merthyr. Lewis, with
the support of neighbours, managed to stop them spiriting away his property. However by means of compromise the local
Magistrate allowed the bailiffs to take a trunk belonging to Lewis. Refusing to accept this, Lewis and a crowd of followers
seized the trunk back from a shopkeeper who was now in possession of it. The Merthyr Rising had begun.
Lewis' growing army marched on to Merthyr where they demanded back any goods which had been removed by the
Court of Requests and returned them to their rightful owners. Lewis was a moral man and carried out this redistribution
fairly. For example, in one instance regarding the seizing of a chest of drawers from a poor woman who had bought it
legitimately from a debtor's court, Lewis made sure she had her money back before returning it to the original owner.
Local Magistrates were quick to realise that swift action had to be taken to restore order. There was
no Police Force in 1831 - the Glamorgan Constabulary would not exist for another 10 years, so Special Constables were quickly
sworn in from local tradespeople in an effort to keep the peace. Following an attack on the home of the President of
the Court of Requests, Joseph Coffin, it was inevitable that the soldiers would have to be brought it to quell this serious
disturbance. The Royal Glamorgan Light Infantry from Cardiff and the Highlanders from Brecon were dispatched to Merthyr.
On the morning of Friday 3 June 1831, the soldiers and an angry crowd of 2,000 confronted each other outside
the Castle Inn in Merthyr.
The crowd attacked the soldiers, who eventually seeing their comrades falling began to fire and killed at
least 16 people (this would have been a deliberately low estimate).
Gradually the authorities came to gain the upper hand and arrested Lewis Lewis and a man called Richard Lewis
(Dic Penderyn), for allegedly stabbing a soldier called Donald Black, a private from the Highlanders, with a bayonet attached
to a gun outside the Castle Inn on 3 June 1831. Although Black did not identify either Lewis Lewis or Richard Lewis,
both were sentenced to death.
Lewis Lewis eventually had his sentence reprieved to transportation for life. This was in large thanks
to the testimony of a Special Constable, John Thomas. John Thomas owed his life to Lewis Lewis on account of
Lewis throwing himself on top of a cornered Thomas to protect him from the blows of the rioters. However despite petitions
for mercy and the intervention of Joseph Tregelles Price, a Quaker Ironmaster from Neath, who even persuaded the trial judge
that Richard Lewis was innocent, Dic Penderyn was hung on the gallows in St. Mary's Street, Cardiff on Saturday 13 August
1831. The name Dic Penderyn, scapegoat for the Merthyr Rising, has lived on in Welsh hearts ever since. However,
despite Dic Penderyn's mythical appeal, we know very little about him.