From its origins as a group of settlements in the Iron Age to its role as a power house of the Industrial Revolution, Merthyr Tydfil has a rich history.
Did you know that Merthyr Tydfil became a county borough in 1908? Or that its population peaked at more than 80,000 in 1911?
When the Romans invaded Wales between 47AD and 53AD and reached the Merthyr area, they found Iron Age hill forts built by the Celtic Silures tribe.
The Romans built a network of roads and fortifications, including a fortress at Penydarren covering around three hectares and overlooking the River Taff.
After the Roman Empire fell, monks from Ireland and France visited the area to spread Christianity among the local population.
Early Christian convert Tydfil, the daughter of the local chieftain, Brychan, was murdered by Pict and Saxon marauders while travelling to Hafod Tanglwys farm in Aberfan in around 480 AD, local tradition says.
So, she became an early Christian martyr – merthyr in Welsh.
When the local settlements became a town, it was named in her honour.
For centuries, Merthyr’s people were farmers who traded at markets and fairs. In 1754, it was noted that most of the area’s workers were shepherds.
In the middle of the 18th Century, though, there was a great demand for iron smelting and land in the area was being leased for the industry.
In 1759, the Dowlais Ironworks was founded under the management of John Guest.
This would become the first major works in the area. The Plymouth, Cyfarthfa, and Penydarren iron works followed between 1763 and 1784
In the early 19th Century, the Cyfarthfa works became the most productive in the world.
As the industry expanded, the railways came, building lines between the ironworks and coal mines and ports on the south Wales coast.
In fact, the world’s first railway steam locomotive, created by Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick, pulled 25 tons of iron with passengers on the new Merthyr tram road between Penydarren and Quaker’s Yard in 1804.
Merthyr’s workers faced appalling conditions in the furnaces, pits, and rolling mills.
There were also narrow streets and badly-ventilated, crowded houses. Diseases such as cholera and typhoid took hold because of the open sewers.
In the 1820s, these difficult conditions were coupled with hardships caused by a depression where ironmasters cut wages multiple times, laid off workers, and forced employees to take wages in tokens they minted themselves, spending them in expensive ‘truck’ shops.
In June 1831, between 7,000 and 10,000 workers took to the streets of Merthyr to protest about wage cuts and unemployment.
For four days, the ironmasters and magistrates said they were under siege in the Castle Hotel and the workers controlled the whole town. Soldiers from Brecon were sent in and several people on both sides were killed in clashes between them and the protesters.
Several alleged leaders were arrested, including coal miner Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis), who was charged with stabbing a soldier in the leg with a bayonet. He was convicted despite the fact the soldier, who survived, could not identify him. Penderyn was also not a leader of the rising.
Thousands of people signed a petition claiming his conviction was unsafe, but the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne refused to reduce the sentence of death. Dic Penderyn was hanged in Cardiff in August 1831.
In 1874, another man who had fled to the United States confessed on his death bed that he had stabbed the soldier.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Merthyr became well known for its nonconformist chapels, many of them with services conducted in Welsh. One of the earliest chapels was Ynysgau, which dated back to 1749.
Its Anglican churches include St Tydfil’s, and the town also had the largest Jewish community in Wales. The Merthyr Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1848 and the Merthyr Synagogue was built in 1875.
The iron industry began to decline in the 19th Century.
The Penydarren works closed in 1859, the Plymouth works followed in 1880, and the Cyfarthfa works closed in first 1874 after its owner Robert Crawshay refused to modernise and replace iron with steel production, then for good in 1919 after the First World War.
The mining industry expanded in the 1870s, with new pits at Merthyr Vale, Treharris, and Bedlinog, and the population peaked at more than 80,000 in 1911.
But that industry also began to decline in the 20th Century and the Great Depression hit the area hard. By 1932, 80% of the men in Dowlais were unemployed and 27,000 people emigrated away from Merthyr in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Second World War meant the area’s industry was needed for the war effort. Then in 1948, the American company Hoover established its new washing machine factory in Pentrebach. It became the largest employer in the borough in the 1970s with almost 5,000 workers.
Several other manufacturers followed and made Merthyr their home. However, the town again faced the problem of unemployment as the mines and steelworks in the area closed the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, there are large public and private sector employers in Merthyr – including the Welsh Government and T Mobile and EE.
The history, architecture, and culture of our town is important to many people in the borough.
Several groups aim to preserve it and educate the public about it, including the Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Regeneration Trust, the Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society, and Merthyr Tydfil Museum and Heritage Groups.
This project has received funding via the Regional Tourism Engagement Fund (RTEF) and supported through the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and the Welsh Government, the Fund to improve the visitor experience and create stronger destinations by working together.