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Merthyr Tydfil

Merthyr Tydfil - Overview

The area around Merthyr Tydfil shows evidence of small scale settlement from the prehistoric periods onwards, and the name originates in the tale of the martyred Saint Tydfil, one of the many daughters of the fourth-century ruler Brychan Brycheiniog. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the valley was sparsely populated with farming and the rearing of livestock forming the main economy, though a small village had formed on the site of the modern day town.

In the early eighteenth century abundant deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone were discovered, making it an ideal location for the relatively new ironwork industry that was leading Britain Industrial Revolution.

In 1759, the first major ironworks, Dowlais, was founded. Other works, including Plymouth, Cyfarthfa and Penydarren, followed in quick succession and Merthyr Tydfil changed beyond recognition. Under the ownership of John Josiah Guest between 1807 and 1852, Dowlais rose to international fame as the largest ironworks worldwide employing 8,800 workers and producing 88,000 tonnes of iron a year. By 1820, Merthyr was producing 40 per cent of Britain iron exports, while in the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the works converted to the production of steel.

As a result of the rapid expansion of industrial production and mining activities, the population of Merthyr Tydfil increased dramatically. The 1801 census recorded 7,000 people in the parish – by 1910 Merthyr Tydfil had almost 90,000 inhabitants.

Due to crammed living conditions in the terraces of workers housing and the lack of proper sanitation, disease was rife and life expectancy low. The low wages of the industrial workforce, poor working conditions and the implementation of the ‘truck system’ by the iron masters, in which workers were not payed real money, but vouchers and tokens valid only in their masters’ own shops, contributed to ongoing social unrest. In 1831 the increasing tension came to a head, triggering the Merthyr Rising. For the first time, workers united under the red flag and effectively took control of the town for four days. The situation spun out of control as soldiers were moved in to suppress the movement. One of the leaders, Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis) was arrested and hanged while others were sentenced to transportation to Australia.

Although lacking the picturesque beauty of medieval ruins or the grandeur of the mountain landscapes of Snowdonia, Merthyr Tydfil drew a steady stream of visitors from mainland Europe. During the day, the travellers carefully studied the cutting edge production methods in the numerous factories, while at night they stared in wonder at the ‘hell-fire spectacle’ of the furnaces illuminating the entire valley.

Thanks to its international industrial reputation, declining steel and iron production in the mid twentieth century was replaced by manufacturing industries. Today, major land restoration projects are under way to enhance landscapes formed by largescale coal mining and metallurgic production, while museums, such as the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, keep Merthyr Tydfil’s industrial heritage alive.

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