By the beginning of the 20th century, with only 10% of its population directly reliant upon agriculture, Wales was manifestly an industrial country.
Image: Chevron refinery in Pembroke, Wales (BBC)
With a smaller middle class than its equally industrialised neighbours, England and Scotland, at the beginning of the 20th century Wales could convincingly be described as the world's first proletarian nation.
By 1900 Wales had a long tradition of working-class protest. There was serious unrest in Tredegar in 1816 and, in the 1820s, the Scotch Cattle, a group seeking to create working-class unity through terror, were active in Monmouthshire.
Much of the protest was aimed at the untrammelled power of the ironmasters who, in addition to being employers were also landlords, owners of truck shops and controllers of such local government as existed. In some cases they were also members of the local magistrates' bench.
In 1831 Merthyr experienced the most serious uprising to occur in 19th-century Britain. The uprising was in part the result of the instability created by agitation for parliamentary reform.
However, its basic causes can be attributed to the highly distinctive character of the Welsh experience of industrialization; it culminated in the killing of at least 20 people outside Merthyr's Castle Hotel and the hanging of Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn).
The Chartist uprising of 1839 proved equally bloody. The Chartists, advocates of universal male suffrage, organised a march on Newport which was partly a demonstration and partly an attempt at revolution.
It resulted in at least a score of deaths around the town's Westgate Hotel, and the deportation of its leaders - John Frost, the one-time mayor of Newport - among them.
The growth of trade unionism
The brilliant historian Gwyn Alfred Williams considered that the Merthyr Rising marked the end of the primitive phase in the history of the Welsh working class. Thereafter, the emphasis was upon organisation.
Trade unionism came to Wales in 1830 when Flintshire miners joined the Friendly Associated Coalminers' Union; Merthyr followed in 1831.
Over the following 50 years, unionism had a chequered history. Attempts by Robert Owen of Newtown, the pioneer of co-operation, to establish comprehensive unionism collapsed in 1834. Craft unions came into existence in the 1850s but they tended to be exclusive.
In the early 1870s colliers sought to create an effective union, but were defeated by the enmity of employers. In the following decade, local unions struck root, particularly in the Rhondda, where William Abraham (Mabon) came to prominence.
In the early 1880s there was a marked growth in 'New Unionism', especially among dockers and railwaymen. In view of the prominence of coalmining in Wales, the key development was the establishment in 1898 of the South Wales Miners' Federation. The 'Fed' abandoned the moderation of leaders such as Mabon and eventually had a larger membership than any other secular institution in the history of Wales.
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