Tonight on BBC2 Wales, Michael Sheen will be presenting a program to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Newport riots. He’ll be following in the footsteps of the Chartists, who 175 years ago gave their lives to secure democracy for succeeding generations.
The Merthyr Rising has been described as the most important Welsh insurrection since the time of Owain Glyndŵr. Its roots were in deep discontent which had been evident for many years. A major depression in 1829 caused wage reductions as the value of iron fell and many ironmasters (the owners of forges and blast furnaces) paid employees in ‘truck’ – special coins or notes which could only be exchanged in the firm’s shops. Goods there were often overpriced and of dubious quality.
On 31 May, Thomas Llewellyn, a coal miner, attempted to hold a rally advocating reform at Hirwaun Common. However, the reformers met with a more militant group who wanted to take more radical action. The radicals killed a calf and dipped the white cloth of a reform flag in its blood. They raised the flag on a pole as probably the first ever Red Flag ever flown as a left-wing symbol. It was declared to be a symbol of their slogan Bara neu Waed (Bread or Blood).
Over the next two days some 7,000-10,000 workers marched on Merthyr Tydfil and the town was seized by the workers. After storming Merthyr, the rebels sacked the local debtors’ court and distributed the goods that had been collected. Account books containing debtors’ details were also destroyed. Among the shouts were cries of Caws a bara (cheese and bread) and i lawr â’r Brenin (down with the king).
The authorities were very alarmed by the turn of events and called on the military for assistance. The Riot Act was read and soldiers were sent from the garrison at Brecon.
On 3 May soldiers fired into the crowd gathered around the Castle Hotel and over 16 rioters were killed and a great many others wounded, later to die of their injuries. Many injustices were committed by the authorities on that day. Not one of the soldiers received a bullet wound and the crowd was largely completely unarmed. There was an inquest on only one of the persons killed, John Hughes. The inquest unanimously found that his death was “justifiable homicide”. Wounding a soldier received the death penalty, but soldiers could kill with no questions asked as long as the Riot Act had been read.
Within another three or four days or so, the military regained full control and events reverted to normal. After the event, 28 men and women were tried in on charges connected with the Merthyr Rising and those convicted were given sentences ranging from hard labour to transportation. However, Richard Lewis, far better known as Dic Penderyn was accused of wounding a soldier as well as rioting and sentenced to death. Dic Penderyn was executed on 13 August 1831, creating a Welsh working class martyr. He was 23 years old.
In 1874, a man named Ianto Parker confessed on his death bed that he stabbed the soldier and then fled to America fearing capture by the authorities, thus exonerating Dic Penderyn. Another man named James Abbott, who testified against Penderyn at the trial, also later admitted that he lied under oath.
Outside the market on St Mary Street, Cardiff near the spot where he was executed, you will find a plaque in commemoration of his execution. To the last he protested his innocence, and his final words in Welsh were an anguished cry at injustice. “O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd” “O Lord what an iniquity” he shouted, as the hangman’s noose was tightened.
The first trade unions, which were illegal and suppressed, were formed shortly after the riots. The rising also helped create the momentum that led to the Reform Act. The Chartism movement, which did not consider these reforms extensive enough, used Merthyr as its active base. It got its name from the formal petition, or People’s Charter, that listed the six main aims of the movement. These were:
- a vote for all men (over 21)
- the secret ballot
- no property qualification to become an MP
- payment for MPs
- electoral districts of equal size
- annual elections for Parliament
The movement presented three petitions to Parliament – in 1839, 1842 and 1848 – but each of these was rejected. The last great Chartist petition was collected in 1848 and had, it was claimed, six million signatures. The plan was to deliver it to Parliament after a peaceful mass meeting on Kennington Common in London. The government sent 8,000 soldiers, but only 20,000 Chartists turned up on a cold rainy day. The demonstration was considered a failure and the rejection of this last petition was a huge disappointment to the organisers and marks the starting point of the decline of Chartism.
These six aims have been adopted into law, but how sad it was that it should have taken so long. Today we see the same apathy towards politics which allows the extremists a voice and influence in a nation where politics and politicians have so little respect and understanding.
As the Irish statesman Edmund Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” Where are our true socialists today?