Besides the and picture and brief outline, this page also contains a poem called Who Was Dic Penderyn?; a more detailed account of the events of 1831. I am grateful to Trev and Debbie Jones for their permission to use the picture and detailed account given below.
Richard Lewis, better remembered as 'Dic Penderyn' was born in Aberafan, Glamorgan in 1808. He took part in the Merthyr Riots in late May/early June, 1831. After these, he was one of those arrested. He was accused of wounding a soldier, and was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on 13 August, 1831. He vehemently protested his innocence, and about 40 years later another man confessed on his death bed to the wounding. He is widely believed to have been singled out because of his union activism.
His execution is still commemorated today. This is not so much to mark the death of Dic Penderyn, but because he has become a symbol of the days of oppression and of what can happen if the powerful have too much power. Such crude oppression is not something we are likely to face today, but we would do well to remember the old quotation 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance'.
[This was said by John Philpot Curran on his speech on the Right of Election of Lord Mayor of London on 10 July, 1790. His actual words were 'The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.' This means the same thing.]
Who is Dic Penderyn?
Who's this Dic Penderyn then?
He was Mrs. Lewis's son, wasn't he?
He was just one of the ordinary men -
a man like you and me.
He might have raised a strike or two,
not doffed his cap to the Master's Man.
But tell me, just what else did he do?
Come on, tell me if you can.
He was an Aberavon boy;
not even a Merthyr man.
He only stirred up to annoy;
to spoil the Master's plan.
Anyway, Ieuan Parker stabbed that Scot:
I saw it all myself.
They say it's all a plot,
but I think Dic brought it on himself.
We poor folks should know our place,
not try to rise above our station.
There's them that's made for silks and lace,
An' us what knows our limitation.
So who's this Dic Penderyn then?
He was Mrs Lewis's son, wasn't he?
He was just one of the ordinary men -
a man like you ans me.
The Events in More Detail
(I am grateful to Trev and Debbie Jones for their permission to use this.)
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 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 regained 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 for Dic 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 was 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.