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 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.
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
of the Roman Empire eventually developed with the Roman legions being withdrawn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and local recruits, and the cream of the army had been withdrawn across to the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.
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
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
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.
Influence and growth of iron industry
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.
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."
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.
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.
decline of coal and iron
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
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.
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.
other companies built factories, including an aviation components company, Teddington
Aircraft Controls, which opened in 1946. The Teddington factory closed in the
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.
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.
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.
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".