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History

Various peoples, migrating north from Europe, had lived in the area for many thousands of years. The archaeological record starts from about 1000BC by the 'Celts' (although the 'Celtic Movement' may be seen as a gradual spreading of ideas rather than an invasion of a particular people) Celt. From their language, the Welsh language may have developed. Hillforts were built during the Iron Age and the tribe that inhabited them in the South Wales area were called the Silures, according to Tacitus, the Roman historian of the Roman invaders.

The Roman invasion


The Romans had arrived in Roman Wales by about 47-53CE and established a network of Roman forts, with Roman roads to link them. They had to fight hard to consolidate their conquests, and in 74 CE they built a Roman auxiliary fortress at Penydarren, overlooking the River Taff (Taf). It covered an area of about 3 hectares, and formed part of the network of roads and fortifications. Remains of this fortress were found underneath the football ground where Merthyr Tydfil FC play. A road ran north-south through the area, linking the southern coast with Mid Wales and Watling Street via Brecon. Parts of this and other roads, including one known as Sarn Helen, can still be traced and walked on.
The local tribe, known as the Silures, resisted this invasion fiercely from their mountain strongholds, but the Roman armies eventually prevailed. In time, relative peace was established and the Penydarren fortress was abandoned by about 120 CE. This had an unfortunate effect upon the local economy which had by this time come to rely upon supplying the fortress with beef and grain, as well as imported items such as oysters from the coast. Additionally, intermarriage with local women had occurred and many auxiliary veterans had settled locally on farms
The Decline of the Roman Empire eventually developed with the Roman legions being withdrawn around 380CE. By 402 CE, the army in Britain comprised mostly Germanic troops and local recruits, and the cream of the army had been withdrawn across to the continent of Europe. Sometime during this period, Irish Dalriadan (Scots) and Picts attacked and breached Hadrians Wall. During the 4th and 5th Centuries the coasts of Cambria (Wales) had been subject to the raids of Irish pirates, in much the same way as the south and East coast of Britain had been raided by Saxon pirates from across the North Sea. Around the middle of the 5th century, Irish settlements had been established around Swansea and the Gower Peninsula as well as in Pembrokeshire and eventually petty kingdoms were establish as far inland as in Brecon. Later, by about 490CE, hordes of Saxons invaded and settled in the east or in "lowland" Britain and the locals were left to their own devices to fight off these new invaders.

The coming of Christianity
The Latin language and some Roman customs and culture became established before the withdrawal of the Roman army. The Christian religion was introduced throughout much of Wales by the Romans, but locally, it may have been introduced later by monks from Ireland and France who made their way into the region following rivers and valleys.

Local legends
After the departure of the Romans, minor kingdoms slowly developed in the area. Welsh legend describes a Romano-British leader who repelled Saxon invaders, and through conquest and diplomacy, united several small kingdoms to create a sizable kingdom that included South Wales and much of western Britain. This grew into the legend of King Arthur. More legend than fact is known about this man. Some scholars suggest that he may have been Ambrosius Aurelianus. If so, he would have spoken Latin and maintained some aspects of Roman culture, possibly including at least nominal devotion to Christianity, the official religion of the Romans at the time. Aurelianus may have been of Roman birth, and there are some implications that he may have been related to a Roman Emperor.
Another local tradition holds that a girl called Tydfil, daughter of a local chieftain named Brychan, was an early local convert to Christianity, and was pursued and murdered by a band of marauding Pictsand Saxons while traveling to Hafod Tanglwys in Aberfan, a local farm that is still occupied to this day. The girl was considered a martyr after her death in approximately 480CE. "Merthyr" translates to "Martyr" in English, and tradition holds that, when the town was founded, the name was chosen in her honour. A church was eventually built on the traditional site of her burial. Images of that church can be found on the Merthyr History website.

The Normans arrive
The valley through which the River Taff flowed was heavily wooded, with a few scattered farms on the mountain slopes, and this situation persisted for several hundred years. The Norman Barons moved in, after the Norman Conquest of England, but by 1093, they only occupied the lowlands and the uplands remained in the hands of the local Welsh rulers. The effect on the locals was probably minimal. There were conflicts between the Barons and the families descended from the Welsh princes, and control of the land passed to and fro in the Welsh Marches. During this time Morlais Castle was built.
Early modern Merthyr
No permanent settlement was formed until well into the Middle Ages. People continued to be self-sufficient, living by farming and later by trading. Merthyr Tydfil was little more than a village. Anironworks existed in the parish in the Elizabethan period, but it did not survive beyond the early 1640s at the latest. In 1754, it was recorded that the valley was almost entirely populated by shepherds. Farm produce was traded at a number of markets and fairs, notably the Waun Fair above Dowlais.

The Industrial Revolution
Influence and growth of iron industry

Merthyr was situated close to reserves of iron ore, coal, limestone and water, making it an ideal site for ironworks. Small-scale iron working and coal mining had been carried out at some places inSouth Wales since the Tudor period, but in the wake of the Industrial revolution the demand for iron led to the rapid expansion of Merthyr's iron operations. The Dowlais Ironworks was founded by what would become the Dowlais Iron Company in 1759, making it the first major works in the area. It was followed in 1765 by the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. The Plymouth ironworks were initially in the same ownership as Cyfarthfa, but passed after the death of Anthony Bacon to Richard Hill in 1788. The fourth ironworks was Penydarren built by Francis Homfray and Samuel Homfray after 1784.
The demand for iron was fuelled by the Royal Navy, who needed cannons for their ships, and later by the railways. In 1802, Admiral Lord Nelson visited Merthyr to witness cannon being made.
Several railway companies established routes that linked Merthyr with coastal ports or other parts of Britain. They included the Brecon and Merthyr Railway,Vale of Neath Railway, Taff Vale Railway and Great Western Railway. They often shared routes to enable access to coal mines and ironworks through rugged country, which presented great engineering challenges. In 1804, the world's first railway steam locomotive, "The Iron Horse", developed by the Cornishengineer Richard Trevithick, pulled 10 tons of iron on the newly constructed Merthyr Tramway from Penydarren to Abercynon. A replica of this now resides in the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. The tramway passed through what is arguably the oldest railway tunnel in the world, part of which can still be seen alongside Pentrebach Road at the lower end of the town.
The 1801 census recorded the population of Merthyr as 7705, the most populous parish in Wales (however, the built-up area of Swansea, covering several parishes, then exceeded 10,000). By 1851 Merthyr had overtaken Swansea to become the largest town in Wales with 46,378 inhabitants. By this time, Irishimmigrants made up 10% of the local population, and there were substantial numbers of English, together with some Spaniards and Italians. The Jewish community built the charming Merthyr Synagogue.
During the first few decades of the 1800s, the ironworks at Dowlais and Cyfarthfa continued to expand and at their peak were the most productive ironworks in the world. 50,000 tons of rails left just one ironworks in 1844, to enable expansion of railways across Russia to Siberia. At its peak, the Dowlais Iron Company operated 18 blast furnaces and employed 7,300 people, and by 1857 had constructed the world's most powerful rolling mill. The companies were mainly owned by two dynasties, the Guest and Crawshay families. One of the famous members of the Guest family was Lady Charlotte Guest who translated the Mabinogion into English from its original Welsh. The families also supported the establishment of schools for their workers.
Thomas Carlyle visited Merthyr in 1850, writing that the town was filled with such "unguided, hard-worked, fierce, and miserable-looking sons of Adam I never saw before. Ah me ! It is like a vision of Hell, and will never leave me, that of these poor creatures broiling, all in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits, and rolling mills."

The Merthyr Rising

The Merthyr Rising of 1831 were precipitated by a combination of the ruthless collection of debts, frequent wage reductions when the value of iron periodically fell, and the imposition of truck shops. Instead of using normal coin of the realm, some Ironmasters paid their workers in specially-minted coins or credit notes, known as "truck". These could only be exchanged at shops owned by the same ironmasters. Many of the workers objected to both the price and quality of the goods sold in these company-owned shops.
There is still controversy over what actually happened and who was to blame. It was probably more of an armed rebellion than an isolated riot. The initiators of the unrest were most probably the skilled workers; men who were much prized by the owners and often on friendly social terms with them. They also valued their loyalty to the owners and looked aghast at the idea of forming trade unions to demand higher wages. But events overtook them, and the community was tipped into rebellion.
The owners took fright at the challenge to their authority, and called on the military for assistance. Soldiers were sent from the garrison at Brecon. They clashed with the rioters, and several on both sides were killed. Despite the hope that they could negotiate with the owners, the skilled workers lost control of the movement.
Some 7,000 to 10,000 workers marched under a red flag, which was later adopted internationally as the symbol of the working classes. For four days, magistrates and ironmasters were under siege in the Castle Hotel, and the protesters effectively controlled Merthyr.
Even with their numbers and captured weapons, they were unable to effectively oppose disciplined soldiers for very long, and several of the supposed leaders of the riots were arrested. Some were transported as convicts to the penal colonies of Australia. One of them, Richard Lewis, popularly known as Dic Penderyn, was hanged for the crime of stabbing a soldier named Donald Black in the leg. Lewis became known as the first local working-class martyr.
Alexander Cordell's novel The Fire People is set in this period. A serious political history of these events, The Merthyr Rising was written by the Merthyr-bornMarxist writer Professor Gwyn A. Williams in 1978.
The first trade unions, which were illegal and suppressed, 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, was subsequently active in Merthyr.
Many families had had enough of the strife, and they left Wales to use their skills elsewhere. Numerous people set out by ship to America, where the steelworks of Pittsburgh were booming. It only cost about five pounds to travel steerage.

The decline of coal and iron

The population of Merthyr reached 51,949 in 1861, but went into decline for several years thereafter. As the 19th century progressed, Merthyr's inland location became increasingly disadvantageous for iron production, and only the Dowlais works invested in steelmaking technology. Penydarren closed in 1859 and Plymouth in in 1880; thereafter some ironworkers migrated to the United States or even Ukraine, where Merthyr engineer John Hughes established an ironworks in 1869.
In the 1870s the advent of coal mining to the south of the town gave renewed impetus to the local economy and population growth. New mining communities developed at Merthyr Vale, Treharris and Bedlinog, and the population of Merthyr itself rose to a peak of 80,990 in 1911. The growth of the town led to its grant of county borough status in 1908.
The steel and coal industries began to decline after World War I, and by the 1930s, they had all closed. By 1932, more than 80% of men in Dowlais were unemployed; Merthyr experienced an out-migration of 27,000 people in the 1920s and 1930s, and a Royal Commission recommended that the town's county borough status should be abolished. The fortunes of Merthyr revived temporarily during World War II, as war-related industry was established in the area. In the post-war years the local economy became increasingly reliant on light manufacturing, often providing employment for women rather than men.
In 1987, the iron foundry, all that remained of the former Dowlais ironworks, finally closed, marking the end of 228 years continuous production on one site.


Post-Second World War
Immediately following the Second World War, several large companies set up in Merthyr. In October 1948, the American-owned Hoover Company opened a large washing machine factory and depot in the village of Pentrebach, a few miles south of Merthyr Tydfil. The factory was purpose-built to manufacture the Hoover Electric Washing Machine, and at one point, Hoover was the largest employer in the borough. At the Hoover factory the Sinclair C5 was built.
Several other companies built factories, including an aviation components company, Teddington Aircraft Controls, which opened in 1946. The Teddington factory closed in the early 1970s.
The Gurnos housing estate was, at the time of its construction, the largest housing project in the world.[citation needed
Cyfarthfa, the former home of the ironmaster Richard Crawshay, an opulent mock-castle, is now a museum. It houses a number of paintings of the town, a large collection of artefacts from the town's Industrial Revolution period, and a notable collection of Egyptian tomb artefacts, including several sarcophagi.
In 1966 a colliery tip slid down a mountain covering a school causing the Aberfan disaster.
While testing a new angina treatment, researchers in Merthyr Tydfil discovered (purely by accident) that the new drug had erection-stimulating side effects. This discovery would go on to form the basis for Viagra. The inventor Howard Stapleton, based in Merthyr Tydfil, developed the technology that has given rise to the recent mosquitotone or Teen Buzz phenomenon.

Aberfan Disaster

For approximately 50 years up to 1966, millions of cubic metres of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board's Merthyr Vale Colliery was deposited on the side of Merthyr Mountain, directly above the village of Aberfan. Huge piles of loose rock and mining slag, known as tips, had been built up over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs, and several tips had been built up directly over these springs. Although local authorities had raised specific concerns in 1963 about slag being tipped on the mountain above the village primary school, these were largely ignored by the NCB's area management.
Early on the morning of Friday, 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3-6 metres occurred on the upper flank of colliery waste tip No. 7. At 9:15 a.m. more than 150,000 cubic metres of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty metres. The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start, but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen - although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.
The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic metres of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 metres (40 feet) deep.
The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school, demolishing most of the structures and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 metres (30 feet) deep. Mud and water from the slide flooded many other houses in the vicinity, forcing many villagers to evacuate their homes.
The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday. They had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful", when a great noise was heard outside. Had they left for their classrooms a few minutes later from the assembly, the loss of life would have been significantly reduced, as the children would not have reached their classrooms when the landslide hit: the classrooms were on the side of the building nearest the landslide.
Nobody in the village was able to see it, but everyone could hear the roar of the approaching landslide. Some at the school thought it was a jet about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to hide under their desks. Gaynor Minett, then an eight-year-old at the school, later recalled:
"It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes."
After the landslide there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered:
"In that silence you couldn't hear a bird or a child".

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