The Merthyr Tydfil rioters, June 1831

The Merthyr Tydfil Riots

   THESE riots, as alarming in their nature as they were distressing and mischievous in their consequences, occurred at Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, on the 3rd of June 1831. The district surrounding Merthyr Tydfil was at that time, as it is now, densely populated by persons engaged in the iron manufactories with which that district abounds, and the alleged in sufficiency of the wages was the immediate cause of the desperate riot which took place.

   The preliminary to this distressing occurrence, it appears, was a turnout, or strike among the workmen; and the alarming manner in which these men assembled, and the threats which they held out, produced a well-grounded apprehension that violence might be done both to the persons and the property of the iron-masters. In order to meet any attack which might be made, the magistrates assembled at the Castle Inn, Merthyr Tydfil, for the purpose of devising means to meet and repel the rioters, and the result was that an application for military assistance was determined on.

   In consequence a detachment of the Ninety-third Regiment, under the command of Major Folkes, proceeded into the town, and on the 3rd of June took up their quarters at the Castle Inn, the chief inn in the town, where the magistrates still remained assembled in consultation.

   By this time, the mob had already exhibited its riotous and unlawful determination by an attack upon the Court of Requests. This court, it would appear, had become hateful to them, from its being also the place where offences affecting the relations of master and servant were usually adjudicated upon, and they demanded that the books should be given up to them. This was, of course, refused, as indeed they had been already removed to a secure place, upon which the mob commenced a most violent and determined assault upon the building. The residence of Mr Coffin, the officer of the court, was also an object of their angry demonstrations, and the two places having been stripped of their books and furniture, a fire was immediately made of them in the street and they were burned.

   This done, the rioters proceeded at once to the Castle Inn, there to give fresh proofs of their power and determination. At this time they exceeded a thousand in number, and they were loud in their demands that justice should be done them. A deputation was called in to explain their wants, who respectfully but firmly demanded an increase of wages, but the magistrates, having earnestly desired them to return to their work, pointing out to them that it was impossible that they could suffer themselves to be dictated to by a lawless mob, desired them to retire. Upon their return to their partisans they communicated what had taken place, and symptoms were soon observable in the countenances of all, which denoted their determination to proceed to measures even more violent than any they had hitherto adopted.

   They were addressed by several of the iron-masters present at the inn, both in English and Welsh, but without effect, for they persisted in their demands for further wages, and declared their intention to persevere until their desires were acceded to.

   At this time there was a guard of soldiers stationed at the door of the inn, the smallness of whose numbers was remarkably contrasted with the vast assemblage of the workmen. The weakness of the position of the military, in case of an attack, was at once seen, and steps were immediately taken to secure the safety of the post at which they had fixed themselves. For this purpose three men were ordered to each window in front of the building, to be ready with their muskets in case of necessity. Renewed efforts to procure the dispersion of the crowd were then made by Mr Crawshay and Mr Guest, and a long parley took place. No amicable decision was, however, arrived at, and at length, when it was least expected, a spontaneous rush was made by the people upon the soldiery occupying the door way and its vicinity, whose arms appeared to be the object of the attack. The force in the street was absolutely as nothing against the numbers by whom they were assailed, and orders were given to the soldiers above to fire.

   At this period a scene of dreadful conflict was witnessed. The men in the windows advanced one by one to the front to fire, and each man, before he discharged his piece, took deliberate aim at one of the most violent of the mob, whom lie seldom failed to bring down. As each man fired, he fell back and re-loaded, so that there was a constant succession of discharges upon the heads of the misguided people in the street. The personal conflict below was no less dreadful. The first person whom the mob had attempted to seize, was a soldier whose back was turned to them, and his assailant was a brawny fellow of upwards of six feet in height. The musket was seized from behind, but the soldier, no less active than his antagonist, immediately turned round, still maintaining his hold of his piece. By a dexterous twist he pushed his opponent from him, and received him, on his return, on the point of his bayonet, so that he fell dead at his feet. The soldier was at once felled to the ground by a blow from a bludgeon, and his gun was secured by another of the rioters. At the same moment a scene almost precisely similar occurred within two yards of the same spot. A fellow seized hold of a drummer's sword, but immediately had a bayonet run though his body. The muskets, meanwhile, were cracking from every window, and the street was raked from one end to the other. Many of the rioters penetrated to the interior of the house, where they committed acts of violence upon the officers of the regiment and upon the magistrates, many of whom, in their efforts to secure these assailants, received severe contusions. The rioters exhibited a degree of determination which was truly surprising, and the position of those who were in the inn was at one time highly critical. The superior discipline of the soldiery, however, prevailed against their numbers, and at length the neighbourhood was cleared.

   Upon a search being now made, it was found that thirteen of the rioters lay dead upon the ground, and the mob were seen carrying off many others, who were believed to be dead or severely wounded. The soldiers themselves did not escape injury: nearly twenty of them were wounded, exclusive of Major Folkes, who had received a serious contusion on the back of the head from a bludgeon. One of the men had had his bayonet taken from him and was stabbed in his side, while others were bleeding profusely from places where they had received blows or wounds from the people. The bodies which had been found in the street were conveyed to the stables of the inn -- many of them only now parting with the last quivering remains of existence -- there to wait a coroner's inquest, while those persons who had been secured and who were wounded, received immediate surgical assistance.

   The danger to the town, however, had not yet altogether ceased. The rioters having succeeded in escaping from its precincts, ascended the neighbouring heights, from whence they continued to fire upon the immediate vicinity of the Castle Inn with much precision. Many of them had procured fowling-pieces, while others employed the muskets which they had taken from the soldiery.

   It may readily be supposed that an occurrence like this produced a very great degree of alarm in the vicinity of Merthyr Tydfil; and the assertion that men were hourly swelling the ranks of the insurgents, tended to increase the apprehensions which already existed. The magistrates, with great promptitude, summoned additional military force to their aid, and by night a body of cavalry, infantry and militia, amounting in number to near five hundred men, was at their disposal. During the whole of the day exaggerated and alarming accounts of the proceedings of the rioters were brought into the town, and the number of rioters assembled in the evening was stated to be nearly eight thousand men, all of whom appeared to be endeavouring to station themselves at Coedycymer. A large body of troops, both cavalry and infantry, was in consequence dispatched to Penydarran House, to keep them in awe and prevent any further acts of mischief in that quarter.

   This state of things continued during the whole of that night, but on the ensuing day a circumstance occurred which is worthy of notice, as exhibiting the ferocious intentions of these misguided men. Their headquarters at this time were at Hirwain, and there two red flags were hoisted, as typical of their bloody determinations. This, however, was not significant enough in their opinion, and they actually procured a basin of calf's blood, in which the flags were soaked, and with which the standard bearer's hands and arms were smeared on his appearing at their head. They were approaching Merthyr Tydfil with this emblem, when, however, they perceived the increased strength of the military, and prudently retired until they should procure fresh numbers.

   On Sunday the rioters remained perfectly inactive; but on Monday it had been determined that a general meeting of the working classes should be held on the Wain Hill, near Dowlais, which was to include all the men engaged, not only in the local districts, but in the counties of Brecon and Monmouth, and nearly twenty thousand persons were expected to assemble.

   At an early hour men were seen drawing towards that spot in every direction, and at ten o'clock it was announced that there were thousands in the road coming down to Penydarran, armed with bludgeons. The troops, now consisting of one hundred and ten Highlanders, fifty of the Glamorganshire Militia, and three hundred Yeomanry Cavalry under the command of Colonel Morgan, accompanied by the magistrates, proceeded to meet them, and at Dowlais the road was found filled with the dense masses. Mr Guest ably addressed them, but to no purpose, and the Riot Act was read. Still no disposition to disperse was manifested, but a determined resistance was shown and maintained. The Highlanders were at length ordered to level their muskets; but the coolness and forbearance of all parties allowed the words of command to be given so slowly, that the consideration of the consequences intervened between them, and the last word Fire!' became unnecessary, to the great satisfaction of all the gentle men present. The rioters now gave way, and many returned home. Some parted on one side, others on another, but the greater part crossed the hill to the ravine in the Brecon road, where, by regular concert, all the arms were collected under the most determined and hardened of the villains; and they were observed from the tower of Cyfarthfa Castle exercising in line with the sabres and pistols taken from the cavalry, and with the muskets of the Highlanders and their own fowling-pieces. This exercising was observed to continue during the whole morning, and repeated shots were heard fired. About twelve o'clock a scout who had been sent out brought intelligence that two black flags were flying in the Brecon road -- a symbol of the determination of the men who fought under the banner to conquer or die. Soon after this, a movement was observed among the rioters, as if they would assume an offensive position, and every preparation was made to give them such a reception as would effectually disperse them. Their march was observed, however, to be hesitating and wavering, numbers flung away their arms and returned home, and at length the main body became so disheartened that they fairly took to their heels and disappeared.

   During the whole of the remainder of that evening and the next morning, the magistrates and military were exceedingly active in apprehending such men as were suspected or were known to have taken part in these disgraceful proceedings, and fourteen of the worst among them were taken in their beds. On Wednesday night, Richard Lewis, who had led the attack upon the Castle Inn, was secured. He was found skulking in a wood by two men, who secured him in a low public-house until they had obtained the aid of the military, and the prisoner was escorted into the town by a body of cavalry. His appearance and demeanour were ferocious in the extreme -- in which he differed materially from the other prisoners, of whom there were now near forty, all of whom admitted their fault, and ascribed the lamentable bloodshed which had taken place to their own unjustifiable attack on the military. This expression of feeling on their part was also sufficiently accorded to by the conduct of their fellows at liberty, who, without saying one word against the course which had been taken, buried their dead companions as quickly and as quietly as possible -- a sure proof that their own consciences convicted them of lawless violence. Those who had been wounded, exhibited an equal consciousness of guilt, by abstaining from seeking medical aid, until pain or inflammation rendered such a step absolutely necessary to save their lives.

   In the course of the week, the greater proportion of these misguided men who were still at liberty returned to their work, while the cases of those who were in custody were disposed of by the magistrates. Several who appeared to have acted as ringleaders in this dreadful affair were committed for trial, but the larger number were dealt with summnarily, by the infliction of the penalties of fine or imprisonment, or by their being held to bail, to be of good behaviour. Many of the muskets and sabres which had been carried off were restored, and all exhibited the greatest terror at the guilt in which they had involved themselves, and apprehension lest they should be placed in the same position of difficulty in which their less fortunate companions were thrown.

   At inquests held on the bodies of the rioters who had been killed by the soldiery, the juries returned the invariable verdict of 'Justifiable Homicide' -- a sufficient assurance to the country that the steps taken by the magistracy had been neither uncalled for nor too violent.

   The trials of the prisoners who had been committed for various offences of which they were alleged to have been guilty during these disturbances came on at the Cardiff summer assizes, held in the month of July.

   The following sentences were passed upon those who were convicted:

   Lewis Lewis and Richard Lewis -- Death, without a gleam of hope of mercy.

   David Hughes, Thomas Vaughan and David Thomnas -- Death recorded: the judge intimating that the sentence would be commuted to transportation for life.

   Eight were sentenced to imprisonment for different periods and hard labour.

   Several other persons, committed to Cardiff jail for having participated in the riots, were acquitted.

   The charge upon which Richard Lewis was convicted, was that of having, during the scuffle with the military before die Castle Inn, wounded Donald Black, a private in the Ninety-third Regiment of Highlanders, with a bayonet: the wound in this case was never considered dangerous.

   The soldier gave his evidence upon the trial in a very manly and creditable manner, but could not identify the prisoner as the party who had used the bayonet. The only evidence of identity was that of a person who, till the riots, was unacquainted with the prisoner.

   The prisoner persisted in a denial of his guilt, and declared that he would do so with his dying breath.

   Lewis Lewis (called Lewis the Huntsman, from his having been a huntsman to a gentleman of the name of Llewellen, about eleven years before) was indicted jointly with Hughes, Vaughan and Thomas, together with three other persons. He was charged with having, on the 2nd of June (the day preceding the affray near the Castle Inn), stood upon a chest in the street, opposite the house of a man named Thomas Lewis, and addressed the mob to the following effect: 'I understand that the mob has taken a chest of drawers from a widow woman, who had purchased it for two guineas from the bailiffs of the Court of Requests, and restored it to another poor widow, from whom it had been taken in execution. Now I don't think that is fair, unless she has her two guineas back, and if you are of my mind, we will go to Thomas Lewis and get it back. All you that are of my mind, raise up your hands.' Upon this, the mob all raised their hands, and several of them went into Thomas Lewis's house, and compelled him to deliver up the two guineas which he had received (being the plaintiff in the execution) to one David Williams, the widow's son. They also compelled Thomas Lewis to give up several other articles. During the whole of this time Lewis Lewis remained in the street. Upon this evidence the jury found Lewis Lewis, Hughes, Vaughan and Thomas Guilty, and acquitted the other prisoners.

   It appears that the two guineas thus extorted were restored to the prosecutor, Thomas Lewis, about a month before the assizes.

   Looking at this offence with all its bearings, there seems a much less degree of moral turpitude in the crime, than that of an ordinary robbery, committed for the sake of plunder. Here the offender sought no plunder, but, from a mistaken sense of right and wrong, did that which he thought justice, by restoring to the widow the money she had paid for the chest of drawers.

   At the conclusion of the trials, John Thomas of Merthyr Tydfil, who was employed during the riots as a peace-officer, and who apprehended the prisoner when he was committed to jail, was called by the prisoner's counsel, and was ready to prove, upon oath, that whilst the mob were assembled before the house of Mr Coffin at Merthyr Tydfil, some of them attacked him (J. Thomas) and violently beat him. And but for the timely aid of the prisoner, who actually fought in his defence, and in which he was himself severely beaten, he would, in all probability, have been killed.

   This evidence, however, was declared inadmissible at the trial, although it was subsequently made the ground of an application for mercy on behalf of the prisoner.

   The circumstances attending the conviction of these unhappy men procured for them almost universal commiseration, and petitions, signed by many thousands of persons unconnected with them in any way, were presented to the Crown, with a view to obtain for them a mitigation of punishment.

   In the cases of Hughes, Vaughan and Thomas, in obedience to the suggestion of the learned judge, an immediate reprieve was granted, together with a commutation of punishment. In that of Lewis Lewis, the huntsmnan, a respite for a week was at the same time allowed. The same favour was almost immediately afterwards accorded to Richard Lewis, but the most painful doubts were entertained as to his ultimate fate.

   On Friday, the 5th of August, Lewis Lewis received a reprieve, together with a notification that his punishment was commuted to transportation for fourteen years (an arrangement which was also at the same time made in the cases of Hughes, Vaughan and Thomas) and on the same day a respite for Richard Lewis for a fortnight was transmitted to the sheriff.

   This postponement of the fatal day was looked upon by most persons as preparatory only to a commutation of punishment, but this favourable anticipation was contradicted by its being eventually determined that the case of the prisoner did not entitle him to any further consideration.

   On the night before the execution, the unhappy convict was urged to make a confession of his guilt, but he positively denied that he had been in any way connected with the transaction in which he was alleged to have been an actor. He continued firm in this declaration up to the time of his death, and Lewis Lewis, who so narrowly escaped the same fate and who was his brother, subsequently confirmed the assertion which he had made, and stated that he could have given satisfactory evidence of his brother having been altogether absent from the affray.

   The execution took place at Cardiff, on Saturday the 20th of August 1831.

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