The Merthyr Rising of 1831 was the violent climax to many years of simmering unrest among the large working class population of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales and the surrounding area.
Throughout the month of May 1831 the coal miners and others who worked for William Crawshay took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, calling for reform, protesting against the lowering of their wages and general unemployment. Gradually the protest spread to nearby industrial towns and villages and by the end of the month of May the whole area was in rebellion, and for the first time in Britain the red flag of revolution was flown.
After storming Merthyr town, the rebels sacked the local debtors' court and the goods that had been collected. Unpaid debts were taken and given back to their original owners. Account books containing debtors' details were also destroyed. Among the shouts, were cries of 'Caws a bara' (cheese with bread) and 'I lawr a'r Brenin' (down with the king).
In the beginning of June 1831 the protesters marched to local mines and persuaded the men on shift there to stop working and join their protest. In the meantime the British government in London had ordered in the army and contingents of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were dispatched to Merthyr Tydfil to restore order.
Since the crowd was now too large to be dispersed, the soldiers were ordered to protect the Castle Inn, where local employers and magistrates were holding a meeting. When the workers heard about the meeting, they marched there to demand a reduction in the price of bread and an increase in their wages. The demands were rejected and the people were advised to return to their homes.
When the crowds refused to disperse, the soldiers were ordered to open fire on them. When several members of the crowd had been killed, the protesters took control of the town. They set up road blocks, and when the Swansea Cavalry arrived from Aberdare they were ambushed and disarmed. Messengers were also sent out to neighbouring towns and villages calling on them to join the rising.
By 7 June 1831 the authorities had regained control of the town through force. Twenty-six people were arrested and put on trial for taking part in the revolt. Several were sentenced to terms of imprisonment, others sentenced to penal transportation to Australia, and two were sentenced to death by hanging – Lewsyn yr Heliwr (also known as Lewis Lewis) for robbery and Dic Penderyn (also known as Richard Lewis) for stabbing a soldier - Private Donald Black of the Highland Regiment- in the leg with a seized bayonet.
Lewsyn yr Heliwr was later reprieved when one of the police officers who had tried to disperse the crowd testified that the former had tried to shield him from the rioters; but the British government, led by Lord Melbourne, was determined that at least one rebel should die as an example of what happened to rebels. The people of Merthyr Tydfil were convinced that Dic Penderyn, a 23 year-old miner, was not responsible for the stabbing, and 11,000 signed a petition demanding his release. The government refused, and Penderyn was hanged at Cardiff market on August 13, 1831. In 1874 it was discovered that another man named Ianto Parker, not Dic Penderyn, had stabbed Donald Black and then fled to America fearing capture by the authorities, and also that rebuttal witness James Abbott, who had testified at Penderyn's trial, admitted that he had lied under oath, under the orders of Lord Melbourne, in order to secure a conviction.
- William, Gwyn A. (1971), 'The emergence of a working-class movement'. In A. J. Roderick (Ed.), Wales through the ages. Vol II: Modern Wales, pp. 140-146. Llandybe: Christopher Davies (Publishers) Ltd. ISBN 0-7154-0292-7.
- Williams, Gwyn A. (1988), The Merthyr Rising. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1014-1.