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Raising the red flag for workers’ rights in Wales

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A series of struggles in the early 19th century shook the status quo in Wales, writes Siân Ruddick on the first part of our new series.
Issue 2133
The Merthyr Uprising of 1831
The Merthyr Uprising of 1831

Welsh nationalism today articulates itself through things like popular culture, rugby and language.

But there is a much more radical tradition of the country, of bitter workers’ struggle, that contradicts this classless portrayal.

Wales has historically been a hub of migration and of industry.

Massive industrial development and dramatic population rises had an impact on the shape of the working class.

In 1770 the population of Wales stood at 500,000. But by 1851 it stood at over 1.5 million – and by 1914 it grew again to 2.5 million.

This was accompanied by rapid growth in industrial production in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

An industrial belt in the South Wales Valleys developed around iron and coal mining and production. The workers, thrown together into hard industrial labour, quickly showed their capacity to fight.

Merthyr was at the geographical and political centre of this new industrial development. In 1800-01 people rioted over food prices.

Bosses and the authorities fought to regain control, killing two miners in the process, and showing the masses what could become of them if they continued to revolt.

Yet the Welsh working class took part in a series of struggles throughout the 19th century.

Harsh living conditions, including low wages and steep wage cuts of up to 40 percent, saw rebellions taking place from Camarthen to Llanwnda in the early 19th century.

Merthyr was the sight of the most notable struggle of the period.

It was a hotbed of radicalism influenced by Unitarianism – ideas based on defending freedom of thought and expression, especially in relation to religion.

The owner of Merthyr’s main ironworks, William Crawshay, had encouraged his workers to join progressive political organisations, to fight for extended voting rights for example.

But in the spring of 1831 he announced wage cuts of 28 percent.

The workers’ response became known as the Merthyr Rising.

It began with huge crowds of workers and their families protesting in the town against the wage cuts.

Many had been forced deeper into debt and had various items of property confiscated.

On 1 June 1831, crowds marched to the debtors’ court, where confiscated goods and records of debtors were kept, and torched it. Local magistrates were left cowering in the Castle Hotel.

The magistrates issued a plea for help to surrounding areas to send soldiers. Eighty of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived the next day – only to be confronted with a crowd of around 10,000.

Workers discussed their tactics – to retreat would save some lives but to fight could mean freedom for them all.

Lewis Lewis, a respected leader of the protests, argued that they must continue to fight. Twenty workers were killed in the uprising, but it succeeded in forcing the military out of the town.

A local population of 80,000 was centred around Merthyr at this time – a population that quickly became incensed at the brutality of the military.

Many people joined the struggle and raised the red flag in the face of the Swansea yeomanry that was sent to crush the uprising.

The end only came when soldiers blocked a crowd of 20,000 workers and their families coming to join the revolt from Monmouthshire while another 1,000 soldiers were sent to Merthyr itself.

More forces were sent to crush the town and after fierce battles the workers were defeated.

Lewis Lewis was transported to Australia. Dic Penderyn, a 23-year old miner, was sentenced to death for wounding a Scottish soldier.

Eleven thousand people petitioned for his sentence to be dropped and a huge march of mourners followed his body from Cardiff jail to Aberafan, where he was buried.

This bitterness inspired continued militancy among the workers of South Wales. For many the response was to join trade unions and fight collectively.

The National Association for the Protection of Labour grew rapidly from 1831.

The union movement was hounded, bullied and faced frequent attempts to crush it.

Yet resistance became more organised and militant newspapers flourished.

The resistance articulated itself through the Chartist movement, which armed workers for the strike waves of the early 20th century.

These will be the subject of my next column.

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