Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/489/2464

From The Socialist newspaper, 31 May 2007

Pages from working-class history

The Merthyr Rising 1831

Insurrection of the men of iron

A PROTEST march attacked by the military turns into a generalised insurrection. Armed workers take over the town, and besiege the authorities in their headquarters. Barricades are set up on the roads into town and a military 'relief force' is surrounded and disarmed.

Internationalist slogans are chanted and attempts are made to spread the uprising. The town is only recaptured a week later by military force. That was Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales in June 1831. Geoff Jones writes on one of the most explosive struggles in British working-class history.

THE INDUSTRIAL Revolution in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, fuelled to some extent by profits from the slave trade, was based on iron. The explosive growth of the iron industry in South Wales became the engine of the development of English industry.

The northern edge of the South Wales coalfield from Aberdare to Brynmawr and Blaenafon (on the map of Wales, the present A465 'Heads of the Valleys' road) provided iron ore, coal, limestone, and timber. The area became the world crucible of iron production.

Entrepreneurs like Josiah Guest from Shropshire and William Crawshay from Yorkshire moved in to set up the world's largest and most advanced iron works in Dowlais and Cyfarthfa.

Around the works, communities mushroomed, sucking in workers from the whole of rural Wales but also from Ireland and England. By 1801 the population of this industrial belt had topped 100,000.

At the beginning of the 19th century Merthyr was a sleepy village on the edge of high moorland. By 1830 it had quadrupled in size to become the largest town in Wales, its population mainly workers in the iron and coal industries and their families.

With no member of parliament, town council or police force, it was a lawless frontier town, but one where skilled iron workers and craftsmen had a high level of literacy and political sophistication, with radical groups and clubs poring over the latest pamphlets and newspapers shipped down from London.

Merthyr was a centre of industrial unrest and a crucible of radical ideas, centred on a newly formed working class, described by contemporary Tory newspapers as "revolutionary forgemen, Jacobin moulders, democratic colliers and demagogic furnacemen".

Right to vote

THE BIRTH of the rising was in early May 1831. Ironically it started when Cyfarthfa iron-master William Crawshay called out his workforce to demonstrate support for the 1830 Parliamentary Reform Bill and the right to vote. On 9-10 May, thousands of workers roamed the town haranguing and physically attacking anyone believed to oppose reform.

The following day, two 'ringleaders' were brought before magistrates sitting in the Bush Inn. A crowd of thousands surrounded the inn and forced the magistrates to free the prisoners. From that point working people felt their own power. In the words of the Marquess of Bute - Lord Lieutenant and the major landowner in the area - "From that moment the people thought they were irresistible and could act with impunity."

The final detonation came on 1 June following Crawshay's announcement that wages at Cyfarthfa would be cut due to a slump in iron prices. Gangs of workers took over the town and picketed out the other works in the area.

A huge meeting addressed by speakers of all political persuasions on 30 May was followed over the next two days by mass attacks on shops and offices, burning down the hated Court of Requests (a bailiffs' office which took away debtors' goods and furniture). A sheet was dipped in a calf's blood and carried at the front of the march.

Eyewitnesses reported the crowd shouting radical slogans, particularly "Remember Paris" (where workers had risen to depose the monarchy the previous year) and "Remember Poland" (the 1830 Polish war of independence against Tsarism, only finally crushed in September 1831). The workers were no mindless mob. Many had an instinctive internationalism.

In the town they met soldiers from the 93rd Highlanders and drove them back to the Castle Inn where they besieged the magistrates, ironmasters and their soldiers. A deputation was sent into the inn demanding concessions, which the ironmasters refused to discuss until the 'mob' disbanded.

The delegation knew that only the presence of the workers, massed round the inn, would force the masters to talk to them. Soon after, at Crawshay's order, the soldiers fired, killing twenty and injuring many more. This did not end things. Workers kept the inn under siege, returning fire from cover.

Workers' control

THE NEXT day the town was under workers' control. They set up roadblocks on the roads from Brecon (the nearest garrison town) and Aberdare, manned by armed pickets supported by "a strong body of Irish labourers carrying bludgeons". Meanwhile the troops had withdrawn to Pendarren House, a strategically placed and defensible mansion.

Magistrates fled the town in a desperate race to Cardiff, Newport and London for more soldiers. The next morning a detachment of the Swansea Cavalry on the road from Aberdare was ambushed and disarmed. Workers' delegates travelled as far as Blaenafon, Llanelli and Pontypool to try to spread the rising. A march of thousands to join the rising was only stopped east of Merthyr by the ironmaster Guest with four hundred and fifty soldiers at his back.

But by the fourth day, the rising was losing momentum. The ironmasters offered to reverse the wage cuts. A split occurred - some wanted to accept the terms while others wanted to attack Pendarren House. By Tuesday over a thousand troops had arrived to grab back control.

Eighteen leaders were arrested including Lewsyn yr Helwr (Lewis the Hunter) and Dai Llaw-Haearn (Dai Iron Hand) who had led the deputation to the Castle Inn. Among others arrested was a young miner Dic Penderyn, charged with stabbing a Scottish soldier.

Most were transported but Dic Penderyn was hanged, despite a huge campaign for his release. The charge against him was certainly trumped up. The authorities seemed to want to make an example of an unimportant figure rather than make martyrs of the workers' leaders.

But they were so afraid of a further uprising that they refused to allow his body to be buried in Merthyr, instead forcing the burial to be fifty miles away in Port Talbot. Dic Penderyn has been accepted as the first working-class Welsh martyr.

Many Labour and trade union leaders who know any history prefer to see workers' history in terms of 'the long march of labour' to electoral respectability. Workers are seen as mere extras or spear-carriers on the electoral stage, expected to give loyal support to the leadership, but not to think or speak for themselves.

'Labour history' for them and for capitalist historians means events like the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester where an unarmed crowd was dispersed by soldiers. The Merthyr Rising has been airbrushed out of history, apart from amongst socialists and labour movement activists in Wales.

But that rising, like the establishment of the Paris Commune 40 years later, showed ordinary workers' willingness to fight, to set up their own organisations and to 'storm heaven'.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.


In The Socialist 31 May 2007:

No to McJobs


G8 Summit protests

Protest against the G8 leaders

Protest at arrest and prosecution in Bolivia


Socialist Party campaigns

Campaign brings victory against cuts

Local campaign successes show effective leadership in action

National Shop Stewards Network founding conference


International socialist news and analysis

Southern Ireland general election: Smaller parties squeezed

Wales - Labour rule under threat

Talking about the 'real world' at Wales TUC


Socialist Party news and analysis

A double bonanza for big businesss

Fight against destructive school policies

Stop and question: A dangerous kite to fly

Unhealthy surpluses on NHS underspend


Socialist Party feature

Defend and expand public housing


War and terrorism

Refugee camp siege compounds Lebanon's deep political crisis

Protesters cleared


Marxist analysis: history

The Merthyr Rising 1831


Socialist Party LBGT

Repression of Gay Pride in Moscow

Homophobia: it's not over


Socialist Party workplace news

Hull UNISON takes historic step

Remploy try to close factories


 

Home   |   The Socialist 31 May 2007   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate  




Related links:

Merthyr:

trianglePowerful picture of the Port Talbot steel workers' struggle

triangleWales: Corbyn's left surge refutes right-wing Labour doomsayers

triangleAberfan: a disaster that should never have happened

triangleUncovering the class struggle behind the Rebecca Riots

triangleTV review: Valleys Rebellion

Class:

triangleFighting on class policies

triangleLand registry in third pay walk out

triangleCNWP conference: Wanted - a new mass workers' party

triangleThe working class needs its own party

Working-class:

triangleHow Blairism sank its claws into the Labour Party

triangleSocialist Party Congress 2017 reports

Wales:

triangleHundreds turn out for rally aimed at removing west Wales Tory MP

triangleCardiff Socialist Students confront 'Parasite' Jacob Rees-Mogg

Reports and campaigns

Reports and campaigns

19/10/17

North West

Arriva North West bus drivers strike over pay

18/10/17

Democratic rights

Conference on state spies: who's watching who?

18/10/17

Leeds

Striking back against sackers' charter at Leeds Uni

18/10/17

Royal Mail

Royal Mail bosses block strike - back postal workers

18/10/17

PCS

Balloting members on the pay cap

18/10/17

Art

'Dazzling' Bad Art show points to socialist future

18/10/17

Council

Sheffield Labour council threatens peaceful protesters with prison

18/10/17

South West Wales

Hundreds turn out for rally aimed at removing west Wales Tory MP

18/10/17

NHS

Uprising to save the NHS!

18/10/17

Socialism

Can you donate to the Socialism 2017 appeal?

18/10/17

East London

No cuts - hands off King George A&E!

18/10/17

North London

North London hospital workers fight cuts and job losses

18/10/17

BAE

Nationalise to save jobs at BAE Systems

18/10/17

Schools

Schools "can't go any further" - stop the cuts: set deficit budgets now

18/10/17

Swansea

Socialist Students 'welcome' Hillary Clinton to Swansea

triangleMore Reports and campaigns articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party

triangle19 Oct Arriva North West bus drivers strike over pay

triangle18 Oct Russia, October 1917: When workers took power

triangle18 Oct Tories torn - bin them now

triangle18 Oct Royal Mail bosses block strike - back postal workers

triangle18 Oct Balloting members on the pay cap

triangle13 Oct The end of the Tories?

triangle11 Oct Nasty party imploding...drive out the Tories

More ...

triangle21 Oct Birmingham: NSSN Solidarity Forum

triangle23 Oct Chesterfield Socialist Party: The continuing struggle for abortion rights

triangle24 Oct Liverpool Socialist Party: The October Russian Revolution 100 years ago to the day

triangle25 Oct Salford Socialist Party: The October 1917 Russian revolution

More ...

Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

Archive

Archives:

October 2017

September 2017

August 2017

July 2017

June 2017

May 2017

April 2017

March 2017

February 2017

January 2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999

Legal

SP RSS feed RSS

Platform setting: = No platform choice

V2