Various peoples, migrants from Europe, had lived in the area for more than three thousand years, dating back to the Bronze age. The were followed from about 1000BCE by the Celts, and from their language, the Welsh language developed. Hillforts were built during the Iron Age and the tribes who lived in them were called Silures by the Roman invaders.
The Roman invasion
The Romans had arrived in Wales by about 47-53CE and established a network of forts, with roads to link them. They had to fight hard to consolidate their conquests, and in 74 CE they built an 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 via Brecon. Parts of this and other roads, including one known as Sarn Helen, can still be traced and walked on.
The local 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.
The Roman empire eventually disintegrated, and the Penydarren fortress was abandoned by about 120CE. By 402 CE, the army in Britain comprised mostly Germanic troops and local recruits, and the cream of the army had been withdrawn across to the continent of Europe. By about 408CE, the armies of the Saxons were landing and the locals were left to their own devices to fight off the new invaders.
The coming of Christianity
The Latin language and some Roman customs and culture had become established, despite the withdrawal of the Roman army. The Christian religion was introduced, perhaps by monks who found their way up the valleys from Ireland and France.
Against this background, some petty kingdoms came slowly into existence. Welsh legend has it that a local chieftain arose, later to be known under the name of King Arthur. More legend than fact is known about him, but one story has it that he was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romanised Briton. He probably spoke Latin and maintained some traces of Roman culture. He was possibly, at least nominally, a Christian, which had become the official religion of the Roman empire. He was enough of a military commander to band some of the tribes together and carve out a kingdom that included South Wales.
Tradition holds that a girl called Tydfil, a daughter of a local chieftain, Brychan, was an early local convert to Christianity, and was pursued by a band of marauding Picts and Saxons. They supposedly murdered or “martyred” her in about the year 480CE, and on the traditional site of her burial, a church was eventually built. From the death of Tydfil, Merthyr traditionally dates its foundation. The farm that Tydfil was travelling to when she was martyred, Hafod Tanglwys in Aberfan, is still occupied to this day.
The Normans arrive
The 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 conquering England, but by 1093, they only occupied the lowlands and the uplands remained in the hands of the 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 see-sawed to and fro. No permanent settlement was formed until well into the Middle Ages. People continued to be self-sufficient, living by farming and later by trading. In 1754, it was recorded that the valley was almost entirely populated by shepherds, and the markets and fairs at which farm produce were traded were many, bringing prosperity to some, and starvation to others.
The Industrial Revolution
Merthyr 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 in South 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. As other works were established, along with associated iron ore and coal mining, Merthyr grew from a hamlet of some 700 inhabitants to an industrial city of 80,000 people.
The demand for iron was fuelled by the railways and by the Royal Navy, who needed cannons for their ships. In 1802, Admiral Lord Nelson visited Merthyr to witness cannon being made.
Several 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 enegineering challenges. In 1804, the world’s first railway locomotive – “The Iron Horse”, developed by the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick, pulled 10 tons of iron from Merthyr on the newly constructed tramway from Penydarren to Abercynon. A replica of this now resides in the National Maritime Museum, Swansea.
During the first few decades of the 1800’s, 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.
The Merthyr Riots
The riots of 1831 were probably precipitated by the ruthless collection of debts, which caused great poverty and hardship amongst workers affected by lower wages when the iron trade was depressed.
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, they effectively controlled Merthyr.
Even 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, creating 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-born Marxist and writer Professor Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams in 1978.
The first trade unions, which were illegal and savagely suppressed, were 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 utilise 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.
The decline of coal and iron
The steel and coal industries began to decline after World War One, and by the 1930’s, they had all closed. In 1987, the iron foundry, all that remained of the former Dowlais ironworks, closed, marking the end of 228 years continuous production on one site.
The fortunes of Merthyr revived during World War Two, as war-related industry was established in the area. Many refugees from Europe settled in the town.
Post-world war II
Immediately following World War Two, 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.
Several other companies built factories, including an aviation components company, Teddington Aircraft Controls, which opened in 1946. The Teddington factory closed in the early 1970’s.
The Gurnos housing estate was, at the time of its construction, the largest housing project in the world.
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.
Famous sons and daughters of Merthyr include Richard Davies (actor), rugby international Robert Sidoli, boxers Howard Winstone and Johnny Owen, fashion designers Julien Macdonald and Laura Ashley and composer Joseph Parry. Esther Isaacs, mother of “Chariots of Fire” athlete Harold Abrahams was from Merthyr, as was the grandfather of Rolf Harris. One of the first two Labour MPs to be elected to parliament, the Scot Keir Hardie, was elected by the Merthyr Tydfil constituency.
The newspaper proprietor William Berry, 1st Viscount Camrose and his brothers Seymour Berry (Lord Buckland) and James Gomer Berry, 1st Viscount Kemsley also hailed from Merthyr Tydfil. The Australian politican, Sir Samuel Griffith, was also born in Merthyr Tydfil.
The current borough boundaries date back to 1974, when the former county borough of Merthyr Tydfil expanded slightly to cover Vaynor in Breconshire and Bedlinog in Glamorgan, it becoming a local government district in the administrative county of Mid Glamorgan at the time. The district became a county borough again on April 1, 1996.
Merthyr Tydfil hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1881 and 1901. It is twinned with Clichy-la-Garenne, France.