Dic Penderyn

Richard Lewis, better known as Dic Penderyn, was born in Aberavon, Glamorgan in 1808. He had some schooling, in chapel and elsewhere and learned to read and write, but in 1819 the family moved to Merthyr Tydfil where he joined his father at work as a miner. Dic was still only fifteen when he began to earn a reputation as a fighter for workers' rights, and he lost his job for this, but by May 1831 he was back in Merthyr working as a miner and was now married, with a baby on the way.

At that time Merthyr was in a state of unrest. Living conditions were relatively good, but they could - and did - change overnight, and there was no certainty of steady employment or adequate wages. Equally, there was a great deal of interest in political reform and in the various Reform Bills then being put to Parliament.

Not surprisingly, Dic Penderyn was involved in all this. He was an outstanding figure, both physically and intellectually - tall, powerful, knowledgeable, literate and an eloquent speaker. Whether he was actively involved in promoting the new unions, or whether his concern for his fellow workers was shown in other ways, we do not know, but he was clearly recognised as a leader, chosen for instance, as one of a deputation sent to negotiate with the ironmasters.

On 30th May 1831, a public meeting on the subject of Parliamentary reform was held at Twyn-y-Waun common. After a while the political agenda was forgotten and the meeting began to discuss the grievances caused by the Court of Requests - a court for the recovery of small debts. Later, while part of the crowd marched to Aberdare to seek support from their fellow workers, the rest - mostly women and young unemployed men and boys - paraded through Merthyr, forcibly repossessing goods seized by the bailiffs and sold to cover their owners' debts.

There was no police force in 1831, and so soldiers were sent for to control the rioters (the Aberdare marchers had gone back to work). Finally, on the morning of Friday June 3rd, soldiers and the crowd confronted each other outside the Castle Inn.

The crowd attacked the soldiers, who fired and killed at least sixteen people, and for the next few days Merthyr was in a state of siege. Eventually the authorities gained control and began to arrest the supposed ringleaders, including Dic Penderyn. He and another man, Lewis Lewis, were tried in Cardiff a month later on a charge of stabbing (not killing) a soldier named Donald Black. Black did not identify either Penderyn or Lewis, but they were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Various efforts were made to save the condemned men. In Merthyr, a petition calling for mercy collected more than 11,000 signatures and a Quaker ironmaster from the Vale of Neath named Joseph Tregelles Price, became convinced of Dic Penderyn's innocence and began a campaign to establish this and earn a reprieve. Lewis Lewis, meanwhile, had his sentence commuted to transportation for life.

Ultimately, Tregelles Price even convinced the trial judge that Penderyn should be reprieved, but the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne refused to listen. Dic Penderyn's execution was set for Saturday, August 13th and the sentence duly carried out. He died proclaiming the injustice of his death and forgiving those who had caused it. His body was later carried back to Aberavon to be buried.

Dic Penderyn was not the only man to die in such a way in early nineteenth century Wales - or even in Merthyr - but Tregelles Price's efforts and Lord Melbourne's refusal to listen to the claims of either justice or mercy made this execution so blatantly a matter of policy, that even the conservative Cambrian newspaper objected.

As for Dic Penderyn himself, he was twenty three years old when he died. He was an ordinary working man, and yet, for generations afterwards, men and women remembered where they or their parents had been when Penderyn's funeral procession passed by.

Clearly he was a remarkable man, and one has to wonder what he might have achieved if he had lived. Even now he has much to teach us about the unity in diversity of the Welsh tradition: a Welsh speaker, but from the industrial multicultural South; a man of the people, yet eager for knowledge and an understanding of the wider world. If Wales is looking for new heroes, it could do worse than include Richard Lewis of Aberavon among them.

Sally Roberts Jones

For further information visit The Search for Dic Penderyn