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A Brief History of Merthyr Tydfil

by Wayne Foley, Feb 2019

Once the largest urban area in Wales, this towns name is said to be a combination of the modern Welsh for martyr (Merthyr) and the name of King Brychan of Brycheiniog’s daughter, Tydfil.

Merthyr Tydfils history begins with the Roman Empire (as most of the cities in the UK tend to!). They established a network of roads and fortresses. In 74 AD, in order to consolidate their conquest of Wales, they built an auxiliary fort at Penyradden on the River Taff. 

The Roman legions were withdrawn from Wales around 380 AD and Wales, at the time called Cambria, suffered raids from Irish pirates and other groups. The most notable of these groups were the Saxons, who in 490 AD invaded and settled Britain. 

While Christianity had been introduced by the Romans in Wales, Irish and French monks popularised it to a much greater extent after their departure.

The Norman invasion of England affected only the lowlands of Wales in 1093, with the uplands remaining decidedly Welsh ruled. During this time, Morlais Castle was built two miles north of Merthyr Tydfil.

In the middle ages, Merthyr Tydfil remained a small village inhabited mostly by shepherds with an almost entirely agrarian economy. However, the industrial revolution was inbound and about to change this for good.

Merthyr Tydfil was located very close to iron ore, coal, limestone and lumber reserves. Ironworks had existed in the village previously, but the industrial revolution brought a huge increase in demand for these industries. 

In the 19th century, many young men had moved to industrial work from agriculture and workers rights did not really exist until the 1831 Merthyr Rising. Frequent wage reductions, aggressive debt collection and unfair payment arrangements saw 10,000 workers take to the streets to demand reform. Unfortumately for the workers though, they lost control of the movement and many of the perceived leaders of the marches were arrested. 

Throughout the 19th century, Merthyr Tydfil’s location became more and more disadvantageous, due to their lack of access to the sea. Many workers began to emigrate, mainly to the USA and Ukraine. John Hughes, a Merthyr engineer, actually established the now extremely prominent city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.

By 1932, due to a decline in industry and am emigrating population, more than 80% of the men were unemployed. However, in World War II, war industries were established in the town which temporarily boosted the economy.

After World War II, many large companies set up in Merthyr Tydfil. The Hoover company started a washing machine factory and they eventually became the largest employer in the borough.

A significant increase in working women in Merthyr Tydfil came as a result of the establishment of lighter industries and consumer based companies, as opposed to the heavy coal and ironworks industries traditionally popular in the town. 

In 1992, scientists in Merthyr Tydfil discovered that a treatment for angina they were working on had other potentially beneficial purposes. This became the basis for the drug we now know today as viagra.

While Merthyr Tydfil is only a small welsh town, but its rich history and passionate people more than make up for that fact. There is absolutely more to Merthyr Tydfil than meets the eye!