Dic Penderyn, the Welsh Martyr

In the early summer of 1831, many of the the towns and villages of industrial Wales were marked by political and social unrest.

Terrible working conditions in the mines and iron works of the country were made even worse by wage cuts and, in some cases, by the laying off of men as demand for iron and coal fell away.

Dic Penderyn's gravestone in Aberavon

Thanks to things like the hated truck shops (an arrangement in which employees are paid in commodities), food was always in short supply and now money was also a problem. Debts spiralled out of control as women sought to feed their families and men seemed helpless to solve the problem.

In Merthyr Tydfil there were serious riots in the streets and, on 3 June 1831, a mob ransacked the building in the town where court records of debt were being stored. In the eyes of those in charge this was not a spontaneous upsurge of emotion but a carefully planned and deliberate act.

In a desperate bid to restore order the authorities sent in a detachment from one of the Highland Regiments stationed at Brecon. When the soldiers fired into the unarmed crowd that had gathered outside the Castle Hotel 16 people were killed.

Although no soldiers had been killed in the affray, one of them - a man called Donald Black - was stabbed in the leg. The weapon used in the assault was a bayonet attached to a gun, presumably a weapon dragged off one of the soldiers in the scuffle.

Private Black was unable to identify his attacker but a young man called Richard Lewis, known throughout the town by his nickname Dic Penderyn, was arrested and charged with the assault.

Arrested with Dic was his cousin, Lewis Lewis. He was well-known to the authorities as an "agitator" and was certainly someone who was heavily involved with the organisation of the riot.

Young Dic, however at just 23-years-old, had limited involvement and was there, more as a spectator than a participant.

Richard Lewis, or Dic Penderyn, had been born in 1808 at Aberavon and had come to Merthyr in 1819 when his father found work in the mines. Richard was always known as Dic Penderyn after the village of Penderyn near Hirwaun where he lodged .

He was literate and reasonably well-educated, thanks to the Sunday School movement, and quite why he should have been singled out for arrest on that fateful day in June 1831 has never been made really clear.

Yet singled out he was. The result of the trial was a foregone conclusion and both men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Lewis soon had his sentence commuted to transportation as, despite his involvement in starting the riot, it became clear that he had actually saved the life of a special constable by shielding him from angry rioters. Dic, however, was doomed.

Despite numerous appeals for a reprieve - and the presentation of a petition with 11,000 names attached - the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, a man well known for his traditional and severe view of wrong-doing, refused all appeals for clemency. It was a strange decision as there was clearly little or no proof that Dic Penderyn was involved in the assault.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of authority, justice had to be done and, perhaps more importantly, had to be seen to be done. The execution would be an example to others.

Dic Penderyn was duly hanged outside Cardiff gaol, on the gallows that then stood in St Mary's Street - the site of the execution is now the St Mary's Street entrance to Cardiff Market. According to legend, Dic's final words were "Oh Lord, this is iniquity."

Legend also states that Dic's young wife was pregnant at the time and the shock of her husband's arrest, trial and subsequent execution caused her to miscarry.

Thousands grieved and lined the route as Dic's coffin was taken from Cardiff to Aberavon where he was buried. If Melbourne and the rest thought that the young man would soon be forgotten they were greatly mistaken.

In many respects the execution of Dic Penderyn was a fairly minor moment in Welsh history but, in his death, in his martyrdom, the young miner became a symbol for those who tried to fight and resist oppression, wherever it was to be found.

He became a working class hero, a folk hero, who has remained in the minds and the affections of all Welsh people.

Interestingly, many years later, a man by the name of Parker confessed on his deathbed that he had been the one to stab Private Black. He had then fled to America to avoid justice. Another man, James Abbott, also confessed to having lied on the witness stand. None of it did any good for Dic Penderyn, of course, as he had long been dead.

These days Dic is remembered as a true Welsh martyr. A book by Alexander Cordell published in the 1970s, The Fire People, kept his name alive and in 1977 a memorial to the town's famous son was unveiled outside Merthyr Library by the general secretary of the TUC. It was, perhaps, the least that could be done.


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