What follows is an edited version of a paper I gave at the Remobilising Militant Pasts conference at King’s College, London, in August 2017.
O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd / Oh Lord, this is injustice. The final words of Richard Lewis (1808-1831) of Aberavon, better known as Dic Penderyn, spoken on the scaffold of Cardiff Gaol before Lewis’s execution for his part in the Merthyr Rising. Penderyn had been arrested in Merthyr accused of stabbing Donald Black, a soldier from the Highland regiment sent into the town to quell the rebellion, with his own bayonet. The evidence that Lewis had been, as the judge put it during the trial, ‘either the first or one of the first to make an attack upon the military’ has always been regarded as fairly tenuous. Nevertheless, as the historian Gwyn A. Williams put it in his famous study, The Merthyr Rising, ‘Richard Lewis … was condemned … even though throughout his trial he had been treated as a secondary offender … it was the less rather than the more guilty, who was to take two minutes to die at the end of a rope’. Lewis as Dic Penderyn was quickly identified as a martyr to the cause. But whose cause and what kind of injustice was being invoked on the scaffold on 13 August 1831 has divided Welsh society for nearly two hundred years and continues to be a line of demarcation: for class or for nation?
For many decades, Dic Penderyn was a figure largely lost to public discourse, both in English and in Welsh. Search for his name in the newspapers of the nineteenth century and he does not appear until the mid-1880s, and although he appears intermittently in journal literature of the nineteenth century, such intermittence is hardly indicative of the same kind of posthumous ‘fame’ he was to enjoy in the twentieth century. Just as Dic Penderyn had been invisible prior to his trial, so he became largely invisible thereafter. He was, as Gwyn A. Williams put it, not so much the face above the crowd, but a face within it. The recovery of the story of Dic Penderyn began in earnest in the early twentieth century. It is hardly a coincidence that this was the same period that saw the rise of the Labour Party and the emerging appreciation of what we now recognise as labour history but which was then understood as industrial history. The martyrdom of Dic Penderyn, as it became, was set into a grand narrative that linked together Chartism, democratic reform, and the eventual coming of socialism. Perhaps inevitably, such a narrative needed both martyrs and leaders, and so, over time, the myth of Penderyn’s leadership during the riots emerged.
This leadership role found its way into the writing of Ness Edwards, perhaps the leading worker-historian of the South Wales Coalfield in the early twentieth century. He was later Labour MP for Caerphilly. In his The History of the South Wales Miners published in 1926, he wrote of the Merthyr riots that they were indicative of the ‘gathering clouds of class hatred’ which were ‘coalesced by the tyrannical methods of the employers’. Dic Penderyn, now elevated to the role of leader of the Merthyr workers, was ‘hung from the gibbets. The workers were cowed by the soldiers’. This was, of course, history useful in the present quite as much as the past; the ironmasters of 1830s Merthyr were the coalowners of 1920s South Wales, and there is something akin to AJ Cook in Ness Edwards’s depiction of the heroic struggle of Dic Penderyn. This historical narrative was to be carried forward in the industrial histories and pageants written and performed in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a cultural manifestation of the struggle that led to the formation of a social democratic political system in the South Wales region that was almost unique in Britain at that time.
The parallel narrative that has subsequently emerged since the Second World War is firmly nationalist in character. Stressing Dic Penderyn’s Welshness, this version of the story positions events in Merthyr Tydfil not in a grand narrative guided by class struggle but in a grand narrative of Welsh struggle against external oppressors, particularly from England. Meic Stevens, a leading Welsh folk singer, occasionally likened to Bob Dylan, at least in Welsh-language circles, penned his iconic song ‘Dic Penderyn’ in 1972 with lines that reference the ‘Cardiff Englishman’s rope’, for instance, and a musical narrative that instils the idea that the rising was not so much about labour country, but a country – a nation – called Wales. This was carried forward by an even more ambitious telling of the Dic Penderyn story in 1978 in the form of a rock opera performed at the New Theatre in Cardiff during that year’s National Eisteddfod. The theatre company that staged the piece, Theatr yr Ymylon (Fringe Theatre) had been formed a few years earlier in an effort to spur the development of a genuinely ‘national’ theatre for Wales, based in the national capital, as well as to set out the parameters of a theatrical tradition for the nation that was both bilingual and able to tackle historical themes in contemporary ways.
In both forms, then, the Dic Penderyn story was utilised as public theatre, as history, and as poetry or song, and throughout the twentieth century events in Merthyr in 1831 appeared as one or other of those things. From Ness Edwards’s early writings in the 1920s to Gwyn Thomas and Islwyn ap Nicholas in the 1940s, to Harri Webb and Gwyn A. Williams in the 1950s, and Meic Stevens and Alexander Cordell in the 1970s, the legend of Dic Penderyn has advanced both as class struggle and as a chapter in the saga of national liberation. There is one last layer to include before considering the meanings and purposes reflected in these works, namely memorialisation. There are several memorials to Dic Penderyn around South Wales. The first of these was, of course, his grave stone ultimately replaced in 1966 by a more ambitious marker on the encouragement of Alexander Cordell. As a non-conformist and chapel-educated, Dic Penderyn’s religious faith had little to do with Anglicanism or the Church fundamentally identified with the Establishment ‘over there’ and frequently decried as yr hen bradwress, the old traitress. Nevertheless, as Gwyn A. Williams noted, it was the Church that preserved both Dic Penderyn’s memory and his mortal remains. The irony should not be lost:
It was this church which was the first institution in Wales to raise a memorial to Dic Penderyn, martyr of the Merthyr Rising. Merthyr itself, hoary old capital of Welsh radicalism didn’t erect one till much later and then it was done at fictional second hand.
The gravestone at St Mary’s Church, Aberavon, is relatively moderate in tone and only hints at the class-orientated nature of Penderyn’s execution. It reads: ‘To the memory of Richard Lewis’, reads the dedication, ‘executed at Cardiff for the part he played during the industrial riots in Merthyr Tydfil in June 1831’. That compares with the marker in Merthyr, referred to by Gwyn A. Williams, which was unveiled by Len Murray, the General Secretary of the TUC, at Merthyr Central Library in 1977. ‘Merthyr Gweithwyr Cymru / Martyr of the Welsh Working Class’. This would be echoed even more strongly in the blue plaque erected in Cardiff in 1980 on the site of the former gaol (today it is Cardiff’s grand indoor market). Donated by the National Union of Mineworkers, the plaque stresses the class struggle:
Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis) aged 23 was hanged on this site at 8.00 am on Friday 13th August 1831 for the alleged wounding of a soldier during the 1831 armed rebellion of the Merthyr trade unionists when 24 people died. When Dic Penderyn’s body was taken to Aberavon the funeral cortege was over a mile long. The County Gaol stood on this site for over three hundred years and it was the scene of brutal punishment and religious and political martyrdoms.
There are no memorials that stress the nationalist narrative; but because history is continually turned into spectacle in our postmodern age, there is a pub named for Dic Penderyn. It’s a Wetherspoon, of course, and sits on Dic Penderyn Square immediately opposite Merthyr Central Library. First as tragedy, then as beer. Karl Marx might yet approve.
There is much to unpick in this complex weaving together of class-based martyrology, the construction of a saga of national liberation, and contemporary memorialisation, so here I shall focus on a few examples, namely that of Gwyn Thomas and Harri Webb. Both labour history and national history need foundation myths, legends, and martyrs. And, as nationalism in Wales has moved steadily leftwards over the course of the twentieth century, it’s no surprise that certain individuals have become a little like Harvey Dent and readily appropriated to both traditions.
The poet, librarian, journalist, and political activist, Harri Webb, occupies a fascinating position within the Welsh nationalist tradition. He identified early with the nationalist-republican left and for a time in the 1950s swung in and out of Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party. Born in Swansea in 1920, Webb studied languages at Oxford and graduated in 1941. After service in the Royal Navy he returned to Wales and absorbed himself in the emerging nationalist-republican movement, a tradition to the left of mainstream (liberal) Welsh nationalism at the time. He wrote articles for the Welsh Republican, a remarkable post-war newspaper, which sought a uniquely Welsh socialist position. As Webb put it in an editorial, ‘Welsh republicanism develops as the practical successor to English Labour “socialism”’. But the movement eventually faded and Webb took a job at Cheltenham Public Library in 1952. He joined Labour in 1953 and remained a member until 1958 before rejoining Plaid Cymru in 1960. It was during his period as a member of the Labour Party that he started working seriously on events in Merthyr in the 1830s. A return to Wales came in 1954 when Webb was appointed librarian at Dowlais Library. (He would later become head of the library service for Mountain Ash Urban District Council.) The two primary outputs of his work on Merthyr are a poem published in Rampage and Revel in 1977 and his pamphlet on Dic Penderyn and the Merthyr Rising published in 1956.
The poem is symptomatic of the nationalist-republican idealisation of Dic Penderyn, although it’s not very good:
But still we hold in honour
The men who struck and bled
For freedom and for justice
And to give our people bread.
And the time is surely coming
When Wales must once more show
The courage of Penderyn
So many years ago.
The pamphlet, which has its origins in a lecture delivered to Merthyr Trades and Labour Council in 1955, is far more interesting. Despite stretching the Penderyn story for literary and political purposes, it was the first publication to actively present the events of 1831 as a rising, rather than merely a riot or act of rebellion. Webb began:
Merthyr Tydfil in 1831 – the industrial centre of gravity of the universe – the greatest populated place in Wales, larger than Cardiff and Swansea and Newport put together – the satanic metropolis of iron, built in the image of the ironmasters, where the flaring furnaces cast their lurid light on the gleaming new stonework of Cyfarthfa Castle, and over the unspeakable slum homes of the workers.
The literary quality of the piece descends from this fanciful rhetoric into language that gets worse. For instance: ‘The house was full of soldiers whose bayonets had already drunk Welsh blood’. For Harri Webb, the only heroes were on ‘our’ side, and the rest were evil, regardless of who they were. This was Jesus on Calvary, Daniel in the lion’s den, black and white, right and wrong. Whatever historians said in response, and respond they did, it didn’t really matter, because this was narrative for a purpose. It set down the idea of the Merthyr Rising as a particularly Welsh rebellion – a theme taken up by the historian (and Welsh Republican) Ivor Wilkes – that could be set alongside Owain Glyndwr and a Wales that was and might be. It is hardly sober history and it is highly internalised. Nevertheless, the influence of Harri Webb’s take is evident in Meic Stevens’s song and it has consequently resonated in cultural circles ever since.
There is, of course, an alternative, namely the narrative produced by Gwyn Thomas in his remarkable novel All Things Betray Thee. Gwyn Thomas was born in the Rhondda in 1913 and like Harri Webb he studied languages at Oxford. He spent a period of time in Republican Spain, a cause to which he was attached all his adult life, and returned to the Rhondda in the mid-1930s where he struggled to find work and eventually settled into teaching. For a time he wrote obituaries for the local newspaper, the Rhondda Leader, and took to writing short stories and novels. Several of these were published at the end of the 1940s culminating in his retelling of the Dic Penderyn story. This was his most important novel and one that earned him plaudits all over the world. Thomas had seen, and taken part in, the mass protests against the means test in the 1930s, he’d volunteered for Spain but was too ill for service in the international brigades, and moved in communist circles although a member of the Labour Party. For Gwyn Thomas, events in Merthyr were the beginning of a great epic sweep of history that culminated in the coming to power of the first majority Labour government in 1945. This was workers taking control of their own destiny, combating capitalism, and about a collectivist response to the state and collectivist action in challenging the state’s power.
The novel is a fusion of the contemporary and the historical; it is about the 1930s as much as the 1830s, about the waning of the power of the South Wales Labour Movement as much as its waxing. It’s also a novel about making choices and about recognising situations that we, as individuals, find ourselves in. And those choices should be based on a critical awareness of the past. As he has one of his characters explain, early in the novel:
Yesterday’s beliefs are nice, smooth drumsticks, and they are often brought to tap out reassurance against fears to which we have no answer at all. These people, brought here from a dozen counties, have no common understanding, no common language. They are still frozen and made dumb by the strangeness of their different yesterdays. Men are always shy to say clearly how the dream of freedom really strikes them.
And the choice:
I don’t know. I’ve never seen life as you boys seem to see it, a distinct, separate think like a detachable shadow, to be examined and kicked or kissed. It’s just flown around me, not hurting too much and I’ve never given a conscious damn. No, I’ve never thought about this business of choosing.
The choice, consistent with Gwyn Thomas’s own political view, was between a proletariat that simply accepted its place, and one that resisted and stood up for itself. It would be easy to switch this over to the nationalist narrative but Gwyn Thomas saw nationalism as supreme infantilization of politics. Towards the end of his life, endlessly hounded by nationalists who attacked him vehemently, he barked that nationalists had to grow up: ‘we’re off rusks now’. If nationalists hated him, socialists and communists loved him. They saw that Gwyn Thomas was writing their kind of literature; that is, literature with a political purpose, a literary contribution to socialism. ‘We must accept the world before we can change it’, argued Jack Lindsay, ‘we must accept the world in order to change it. That is the law of the artist, which may often irritate the hasty and sectarian; but it is sound politics’. Ultimately Dic Penderyn was reabsorbed as one of the people, but one of those who had made the choice to resist. He was neither leader nor martyr nor legend nor hero but part of a collective response, part of the crowd, part of the working class.
We live in times that echo the 1930s and the 1970s. Nationalism is riding high tides, although there are those who call for clear choices to be made. Humanity, writes Bernie Sanders, is at a crossroads. ‘We can continue down the current path of greed, consumerism, oligarchy, poverty, war, racism, and environmental degradation. Or we can lead the world in a very different direction’. We can, in other words, make a choice – which kind of militant past are we to engage with. In the last thirty years or so, relatively little has been written about the Merthyr Rising or about Dic Penderyn, certainly little that advances our understanding. Indeed, these days the Merthyr Rising is a music and cultural festival which is admirably sponsored by trade unions, but has the Morning Star as its official media partner, and takes its political cues from the hard left – John McDonnell, for instance, was a key note speaker this year, as was Robert Griffiths, the general secretary of the Communist Party. It’s a kind of post-modern performative radicalism, if you like. Like wearing a Billy Bragg t-shirt or something from the Philosophy Football catalogue on the one hand (harmless enough, and widely engaged in), or voting for Jeremy Corbyn on the other without recognising the origins of his politics.
The Wales of today, having voted for Brexit, governed by a “Welsh” Labour Party that is to the right of the Labour leadership in London, and certainly more overtly nationalist, is at a curious crossroads. It has, in many respects chosen to reject the labour version of the Dic Penderyn story and come to embrace a form of the nationalist one. It may well be that Wales and its left are different from England and its left, or (dare we say it) Britain and its left, but I doubt it, at least now. The distinctiveness that made the Welsh left, such as it can be called that, came from coal – Dic Penderyn was a coal miner, after all – and from a collective purpose based on clear choices made to advance the fortunes of working people. Those aren’t the values of nationalism. The trouble is, the nation’s mythologised hero, whose injustice was class-based and material, is lost in a translation that stresses the national liberation saga. In the end, all that remains is the question: Dic Penderyn, wyt ti’n fwy? Who is he?