Merthyr Tydfil

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Merthyr Tydfil
Welsh: Merthyr Tudful
High Street, Merthyr Tydfil - - 356862.jpg
High Street
Grid reference: SO049060
Location: 51°44’43"N, 3°22’42"W
Population: 30,000  (est)
Post town: Merthyr Tydfil
Postcode: CF47-48
Dialling code: 01685
Local Government
Council: Merthyr Tydfil
Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

Merthyr Tydfil is a town in Glamorgan, with a population of about 30,000 and which was once the largest town in Wales. The town is often referred to simply as Merthyr.

According to legend, the town is named after Saint Tydfil, a daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog. According to her legend she was slain at Merthyr by pagans around 480; the place was subsequently named Merthyr Tydfil in her honour.[1] Although the usual meaning of the word merthyr (from the Latin martyrium) in modern Welsh is 'martyr', it is probable that the meaning here is "church (in memory of a saint or on his/her grave)." Similar examples, all from south Wales, include Merthyr Cynog, Merthyr Dyfan and Merthyr Mawr. The Cornish and Breton language equivalents, in place names, are merther and merzher.[2]


The Roman invasion

The Romans had arrived in Glamorgan by about 47-53 AD, finding it part of the lands of the Silures tribe. They established a network of forts, with roads to link them and needed them as they fought hard to consolidate their conquests. In 74 the Romans built an auxiliary fortress at Penydarren, overlooking the River Taff, which 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 the mountains to the north and with Watling Street by way of Brecon. Parts of this and other roads, including one known as Sarn Helen, can still be traced and walked on.

The Silures resisted this invasion fiercely from their mountain strongholds, but the Roman armies eventually prevailed. In time, relative peace was established and the Penydarren fortress was abandoned by about 120 AD. The local economy suffered as by this time come to rely upon supplying the fortress with beef and grain, as well as imported items such as oysters from the coast. Additionally, intermarriage with local women had occurred and many auxiliary veterans had settled locally on farms.

The Roman legions withdrew around 380 AD. By 402, 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.

Local legends

Local tradition holds that a girl called Tydfil, daughter of a local chieftain named Brychan, was an early local convert to Christianity, and was pursued and murdered by a band of marauding Picts and Saxons while traveling to Hafod Tanglwys in Aberfan, a local farm that is still occupied to this day. The girl was considered a martyr after her death in approximately 480 AD. "Merthyr" means "martyr" in English, and tradition holds that, when the town was founded, the name was chosen in her honour. A church was eventually built on the traditional site of her burial.[3]


The valley of the River Taff was heavily wooded, with a few scattered farms on the mountain slopes, and this situation persisted for several hundred years. The Norman came after the Norman Conquest of England, but by 1093, they only occupied the lowlands and the uplands remained in the hands of the local 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 passed to and fro in the Welsh Marches. During this time Morlais Castle was built.

Early modern Merthyr

No permanent settlement was formed until well into the Middle Ages. People continued to be self-sufficient, living by farming and later by trading. Merthyr Tydfil was little more than a village. An ironworks existed in the parish in the Elizabethan period, but it did not survive beyond the early 1640s at the latest. In 1754, it was recorded that the valley was almost entirely populated by shepherds. Farm produce was traded at a number of markets and fairs, notably the Waun Fair above Dowlais.[4]

The Industrial Revolution

Influence and growth of iron industry

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. The Plymouth ironworks were initially in the same ownership as Cyfarthfa, but passed after the death of Anthony Bacon (industrialist)|Anthony Bacon to Richard Hill in 1788. The fourth ironworks was Penydarren built by Francis Homfray and Samuel Homfray after 1784.

The Cefn Coed Viaduct built for the Brecon and Merthyr Railway

The demand for iron was fuelled by the Royal Navy, who needed cannons for their ships, and later by the railways. 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 engineering challenges. In 1804, the world's first railway steam locomotive, "The Iron Horse", developed by the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick, pulled 10 tons of iron on the newly constructed Merthyr Tramway from Penydarren to Abercynon.[5][6] A replica of this now resides in the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. The tramway passed through what is arguably the oldest railway tunnel in the world, part of which can still be seen alongside Pentrebach Road at the lower end of the town.

The 1801 census recorded the population of Merthyr as 7,705, and as the most populous parish in Wales, though the combined population of the parishes of Swansea then exceeded 10,000. By 1851 Merthyr had overtaken Swansea to become the largest town in Wales with 46,378 inhabitants. By this time, Irish immigrants made up 10% of the local population, and there were substantial numbers of other Britons, Spaniards and Italians.[4] A Jewish community was established some time after 1841, and by 1851, they were able to establish a small prayer hall. The charming Merthyr Synagogue was consecrated in 1875 and a cemetery at Cefn-Coed was established in the 1860s.

During the first few decades of the 19th century, 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.

Thomas Carlyle visited Merthyr in 1850, writing that the town was filled with such "unguided, hard-worked, fierce, and miserable-looking sons of Adam I never saw before. Ah me ! It is like a vision of Hell, and will never leave me, that of these poor creatures broiling, all in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits, and rolling mills."[7]

The Merthyr Rising

The Cyfarthfa Castle, commissioned in 1824 by William Crawshay II

The Merthyr Rising of 1831 was precipitated by a combination of the ruthless collection of debts, frequent wage reductions when the value of iron periodically fell, and the imposition of truck shops. Instead of using normal coin of the realm, some Ironmasters paid their workers in specially-minted coins or credit notes, known as "truck". These could only be exchanged at shops owned by the same ironmasters. Many of the workers objected to both the price and quality of the goods sold in these company-owned shops.

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 are unknown. The skillr workers have been suggested as beginning adjitation gfor improvements, 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, magistrates and ironmasters were under siege in the Castle Hotel, and the protesters effectively controlled Merthyr.[4]

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 for the crime of stabbing a soldier named Donald Black in the leg. Lewis became known as the first local working-class martyr.

Alexander Cordell's low-brow novel The Fire People is set in this period. A more serious political history of these events, The Merthyr Rising was written from a Marxist perspective by the Merthyr-born writer Professor Gwyn A Williams in 1978.

The first trade unions, which were illegal and suppressed, formed shortly after the riots. The rising also helped create the momentum that led to the Reform Act. The Chartist 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 use 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 population of Merthyr reached 51,949 in 1861, but went into decline for several years thereafter. As the 19th century progressed, Merthyr's inland location became increasingly disadvantageous for iron production, and only the Dowlais works invested in steelmaking technology. Penydarren closed in 1859 and Plymouth in 1880; thereafter some ironworkers migrated to the United States or even Ukraine, where Merthyr engineer John Hughes established an ironworks in 1869 at Yuzovka ("Hughesovka", now called Donestsk).[4]

In the 1870s the advent of coal mining to the south of the town gave renewed impetus to the local economy and population growth. New mining communities developed at Merthyr Vale, Treharris and Bedlinog, and the population of Merthyr itself rose to a peak of 80,990 in 1911. The growth of the town led to its grant of county borough status in 1908.[4]

The steel and coal industries began to decline after First World War, and by the 1930s, they had all closed. By 1932, more than 80% of men in Dowlais were unemployed; Merthyr experienced an out-migration of 27,000 people in the 1920s and 1930s, and a Royal Commission recommended that the town's county borough status should be abolished.[4] The fortunes of Merthyr revived temporarily during Second World War, as war-related industry was established in the area. In the post-war years the local economy became increasingly reliant on light manufacturing, often providing employment for women rather than men.

In 1987, the iron foundry, all that remained of the former Dowlais ironworks, finally closed, marking the end of 228 years continuous production on one site.

After the War

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, 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 1970s. The local Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind, founded in 1923, remains the oldest active manufacturer in the town.[8]

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.

In 1966 a colliery tip slid down a mountain covering a school causing the Aberfan disaster.

Industrial legacy

Merthyr Tydfil has a long and varied industrial heritage, and was one of the seats of the industrial revolution (see history below). Since the end of the Second World War, much of this has declined, with the closure of long-established coal mining collieries, and both steel and ironworks. Despite recent improvements, some parts of the town remain economically disadvantaged, and there is a significant proportion of the community who are long-term unemployed.

In Britain today, Merthyr:

  • Ranks 13th worst for economic activity
  • Ranks 13th worst for life expectancy: women live on average 79.1 years, and men 75.5. This is lower than the average for England but better than the Scottish and north of England averages[9]
  • Has 30% of the population suffering from a limiting long-term illness.

A [10][11] Channel 4 programme rated Merthyr Tydfil as the third worst place to live in Britain in 2006 following areas of London.[12]
However, in the 2007 edition of the same programme, Merthyr had `improved` to fifth worst place to live.[13]


Merthyr is home to several established community choirs, who perform regularly in the local area, and throughout the rest of the world. They include Dowlais Male Voice Choir, Ynysowen Male Choir, Treharris Male Voice Choir. Merthyr Tydfil Ladies' Choir. Cantorion Cyfartha; and the mixed-voice choir, Con Voce, newly formed in 2007.

The town has held many cultural events. Local poets and writers hold poetry evenings in the town, and music festivals are organised at Cyfarthfa Castle and Park. With this in mind, Merthyr's Welsh Language and Initiative Centre are working on a new project to transform the Zoar Chapel and the adjacent vestry building in Pontmorlais into a community arts venue. The project, if successful, will provide a focal point for the arts in Merthyr Tydfil. Also recently opened was Merthyr Tydfil College's Theatr Myfanwy Theatre, where students perform dance, musicals, plays, and instrumental and vocal concerts, and where students work with some of the best in the business, including members of the Welsh National Opera.

Merthyr has several historical and heritage groups:-

The Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Regeneration Trust has as its aims - "To preserve for the benefit of the residents of Merthyr Tydfil and of the Nation at large whatever of the Historical, Architectural and Constructional Heritage may exist in and around Merthyr Tydfil in the form of buildings and artefacts of particular beauty or of Historical, Architectural or Constructional interest and also to improve, conserve and protect the environment thereto."[14]

The Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society has as its aims:- "To advance the education of the public by promoting the study of the local history and architecture of Merthyr Tydfil".[15]

The Merthyr Tydfil Museum and Heritage Groups aims:- "To advance the education of the public by the promotion, support and improvement of the Heritage of Merthyr Tydfil and its Museums."[16]

Merthyr Tydfil's Central Library, which is in a prominent position in the centre of the town, is a Carnegie library.

Merthyr Tydfil hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1881 and 1901 and the national Urdd Gobaith Cymru Eisteddfod in 1987.


Merthyr is not known for tourism, but it is eyeing the potential for developing in that direction. The town is found in the valleys just south of the Brecon Beacons National Park, and there are hopes that his favourable position and the town's own rich history will attract visitors if rightly promoted.

National Cycle Route 8 passes through the town. The Brecon Mountain Railway is easily accessible by cycle and car. Merthyr is also on the fringes of Fforest Fawr Geopark designated in 2005 in respect of the area's outstanding geological and cultural heritage. The borough has recently been awarded European Funding as part of the Interreg Collabor8 project and will be working in partnership with the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority to promote the region across Europe.

The Taff Bargoed Valley is increasingly becoming an area for outdoor activities and is home to Parc Taf Bargoed and the Summit Centre (formerly Welsh International Climbing Centre). Settlements of interest include Bedlinog, Quakers Yard, Nelson, Trelewis, and Treharris.


In 2006, a large open cast coal mine, which will extract 10 million tons of coal over 15 years, was authorised just east of Merthyr Tydfil as part of the Ffos-y-fran Opencast mine.


  1. Farmer, David Hugh. (1978). "Tydfil". In The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
  2. University of Wales Dictionary, vol. III, page 2436.
  3. Merthyr History website
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 The Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press 2008.
  5. R Trevithick in Merthyr
  6. Trevithick2004
  7. James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of his Life in London 1834-1881, Longmans, vol 2, 1855, p. 52.
  8. Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind
  9. WebPage
  10. 'Third worst place in UK' — but Valleys town disputes claims — icWales
  11. "Ten reasons to love 'worst town'". BBC News. 10 August 2005. Retrieved 12 May 2010. 
  12. Merthyr Tydfil: Best and Worst Places to Live in the UK 2006 from
  13. [1]
  14. [2]
  15. [3]
  16. [4]


  • A Brief History of Merthyr Tydfil by Joseph Gross. The Starling Press. 1980
  • The Merthyr Rising by Gwyn A Williams. University of Wales Press,
  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press,
  • People, Protest and Politics, case studies in C19 Wales By David Egan, Gomer 1987
  • Cyfres y Cymoedd: Merthyr a Thaf, edited by Hywel Teifi Edwards. Gomer, 2001
  • Civilizing the Urban: Popular culture and Urban Space in Merthyr, c. 1870-1914 by Andy Croll. University of Wales Press. 2000.
  • Methyr Tydfil A.F.C. 1945-1954: The Glory Years By Philip Sweet. T.T.C. Books. 2008
  • The Eccles, Antiquities of the Cymry; or The Ancient British Church by John Williams (1844), p116.
  • Noteworthy Merthyr Tydfil Citizens by Keith L. Lewis-Jones. Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Trust 2008.[5]
  • Merthyr Historian volumes 1 - 21, Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society. [6]

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