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   Chapter 12 THE BATTLE OF MERTHYR.

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 19668

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Well, sir, it is, as you say, a long time ago, but it was one of those

things, look you, that a man meets with only once in his lifetime; and

that being so, I might call it all to mind if I began slowly, and went

on so as to keep my pipe alight to the end."

The speaker was a little, white-haired miner, who had been employed for

fifty years by the Crawshays, of Cyfarthfa. We were sitting in the

sanctum of his kitchen, the beautifully sanded floor of which smote me

with remorse, for I had walked up from Merthyr, and was painfully

conscious of two muddy footprints in the doorway.

Mrs. Morgan Griffiths, engaged upon the task of repairing Mr. Morgan

Griffiths's hose, was seated in the middle of the room opposite the

fireplace, having against the wall on either side of her a mahogany

chest of drawers in resplendent state of polish. Mr. Morgan Griffiths

sat beside the fireplace, with his pipe in one hand, the other resting

affectionately upon another mahogany chest of drawers, also

resplendently polished, standing in a recess at his left. The other side

of the fireplace was occupied by the visitor, who, if he had turned his

head a little to the right, might have seen his face reflected in the

resplendent polish of a third mahogany chest of drawers, which somewhat

inconveniently projected from the recess on the side of the fireplace.

Apparently, every well-to-do Welsh collier marks his status in society

by the possession of a mahogany chest of drawers--if mounted in brass

so much the better--which it is the pride and privilege of his wife to

keep in a state of resplendent polish. Mr. Morgan Griffiths having had a

long run of prosperity, and being of a frugal mind, had launched out

largely in the purchase of mahogany chests of drawers, and his kitchen

may be said to bristle with them. Each had its history, and it was to

the patient listening to the repetition thereof, and to the expenditure

of much appreciative criticism upon the varied styles of architecture

displayed in their construction, that I completely won Mr. Morgan

Griffiths's confidence, and overcame the cautious fencing with which

he met my first inquiries touching his recollection of the memorable

Merthyr Riots of 1831.

Perfect confidence reigned between us now, and I discovered that,

though it is exceedingly hard to get a Welsh miner to talk freely to

"a Saxon," when he opens his heart, and can look back for a period of

fifty years, he is a very interesting companion.

"Yes, it's a long time ago," Mr. Morgan Griffiths repeated, in short,

clipping intonation of the English language I will not attempt to

reproduce, "but I've often talked it over with Mrs. Morgan Griffiths,

and I can see it all now. Times was sore bad, and there was a deal

of poverty about. Bread was dear, and iron was cheap--at least so Mr.

Crawshay said when we went up to ask him if he couldn't give us

miners a trifle over the twelve or thirteen shillings a week we was

earning. Everybody I knowed was in debt, and had been in debt for

some time, and was getting further in every week. The shopkeepers

up at Merthyr were getting uneasy about their money, and besides

saying plump out to some of us that we couldn't have any more bread,

or that, without money down on the nail, they served out all round

summonses to what was called the Court of Requests. That was all

very well, but as we couldn't get enough to eat from day to day

upon our wages, it was pretty certain we couldn't go and pay up

arrears. But the summonses came all the same, and it was a black

look-out, I can tell you.

"One day, in the middle of the summer of this year 1831, there was

a great meeting out on Waun-hill of all the miners of the country.

I can't rightly tell you the day of the month, but it was about

three reeks after we rescued Thomas Llewellin, who had been sent

to gaol on account of the row at Mr. Stephens's. We talked over

our grievances together, and we made up our minds that we couldn't

stand them any longer, though we meant no more mischief than our

little Morgan who wasn't born then, me and Mrs. Morgan Griffiths

not being married at the time, nor indeed set eyes on each other.

After the row opposite the Bush Inn, I went back to my work till

such time as the petition we had agreed to send to the King was

written out by Owen Evans, and had come round to be signed by us

all. But there was others not so peaceably minded, and a lot of

them, meeting outside Merthyr, marched over the hill to Aberdare,

where they went to Mr. Fothergill's and treated him pretty

roughly. They ate up all the victuals in the house, and finished

up all the beer, and then took a turn round the town collecting

all the bread and cheese they could lay their hands on.

"A lad sent by Mr. Fothergill came running over the mountain with

a letter to the magistrates, telling them what was happening in

Aberdare, and pressing them to send off for the soldiers. It was

said the magistrates did this pretty quick, but we had no railways

or telegraphs then, and, ride as quick as you might, the soldiers

could not get here before morning. The men from Aberdare were back

here the same night, and marched straight for the Court of Requests,

where they made poor Coffin, the clerk, give up every scrap of book

or paper he had about the Court's business, and they made a bonfire

of them in the middle of the street. Then they came over here, and

swore we should all turn out and join them.

"I remember it well. I was just coming up from the pit to go to my

tea, when they came bursting over the tips, shouting and waving

their sticks, and wearing in their hats little bits of burnt paper

from the bonfire opposite Coffin's house. They were most of them

drunk, but they were very friendly with us, and only wanted us to

leave off work and go along with them. I was a young fellow then,

up to any lark, and didn't make much fuss about it. So off we

went to Dowlais, freed the men there, and we all had a good drink

together.

"Next day the soldiers came in earnest: Scotchmen with petticoats

on, and nasty-looking guns on their shoulders. I stood in a passage

whilst they marched down High Street from Cyfarthfa way, and didn't

like the look of things at all. But close upon their heels came all

our fellows, with bludgeons in their hands, and one of them, a man

from Dowlais, had tied a red pocket-handkerchief on a stick and waved

it over his head like a flag. The soldiers tramped steadily along till

they got just above the Castle Inn, and there they halted, our men

pressing on till they filled the open place below the Castle, as well

as crowding the street behind the soldiers, who looked to me, as I

hung on by the hands and legs to a lamp-post, just like a patch of red

in the centre of a great mass of black. The soldiers had some bread

and cheese and beer served out to them, but they were a long time

getting it; for as soon as any one came out of the Castle with a loaf

of bread and a piece of cheese some of our men snatched it out of

their hands and eat it, jeering at the soldiers and offering them bits.

"The soldiers never said a word or budged an inch till the Sheriff

looked out of the window and asked the little fellow who was their

commander-in-chief to draw them up on the pavement close before the

hotel. The little fellow said something to them; and they turned round

their guns so as the butt ends were presented, and marched straight

forward, as if our fellows were not on the pavement as thick as ants.

There was a little stoppage owing to the men not being able to clear

off because of the crowd on the right and left. But the thick ends of

the guns went steadily on with the bare-legged silent soldiers after

them, and in a few strides the pavement was clear, and the soldiers

were eating their bread and cheese with their faces to the crowd, and

a tight right-handed grip on their muskets.

"The Sheriff got on a chair in the doorway of the Castle, with the

soldiers well placed between him and us, and made a rigmaroling

speech about law and order, and the King; but he said nothing about

giving us more wages. Our master, Mr. Crawshay, was in the hotel too,

and so was Mr. Guest, of Dowlais. Evan Jones, a man who had come over

from Aberdare, got up on the shoulders of his mates and made a

rattling speech all about our poor wages.

"'Law and order's all very well," he said, "but can you live on twelve

shillings a week, Mr. Sheriff, and bring up a lot of little sheriffs?'

"Then we all shouted, and old Crawshay coming up to the doorway, I got

down from the lamp-post, not wishing to let him see me there, though I

was only standing on my rights. But Mr. William had a voice which,

something like an old file at work, could go through any crowd, and I

heard him in his quiet, stern way, just as if he was talking to his men

on a pay-day, say it was no use them crowding there with sticks and

stones to talk to him about wages.

"'Go home, all of you' he said; 'go to bed; and when you are sober and

in your senses, send us a deputation from each mine, and we'll see what

can be done. But you won't be sensible for a fortnight after this mad

acting; so let us say on this day fortnight you come with your

deputation. Now go home, and don't make fools of yourselves any more.'

"We always listened to what Mr. Crawshay said, though he might be a

little hard sometimes, and this made us waver. But just then

Lewis-yr-Helwyr, shouting out in

Welsh, 'We ask for more wages and they

give us soldiers,' leaped at the throat of the Scotchman nearest to him,

and snatching the musket out of his hand, stuck the bayonet into him.

"In the twinkling of an eye the great black mass jumped upon the little

red patch I told you of, and a fearful struggle began. The attack was so

sudden, and the soldiers were at the moment so earnest with their bread

and cheese, that nearly all the front rank men lost their muskets and

pressed backward on their comrades behind. These levelled their pieces

over the front rank's shoulders and fired straight into the thick of us.

The little officer had hardly given the word to fire when he was knocked

down by a blow on the head, and a bayonet stuck into him, Our men

pressed stoutly forward and, tumbling over the dead, fell upon the

soldiers, who could move neither arm nor leg. The rear rank were, as

fast as they could bustle, filing into the hotel, but not before they

had managed to pass over their heads the little officer, who looked very

sick, with the blood streaming down his face.

"At last the soldiers all got inside the doorway of the hotel, where

they stood fast like a wedge, two kneeling down shoulder to shoulder

with their bayonets fixed, three others firing over their heads, and

others behind handing up loaded guns as fast as they fired. There was a

lane speedily made amongst us in front of the doorway; but we had won

the fight for all that, and cheered like mad when the soldiers turned

tail.

"In a few minutes we shouted on the other side of our mouths. Without

any notice the windows of every room in the hotel suddenly flew up, and

out came from each the muzzles of a pair of muskets which flashed death

down upon us at the rate of two men a minute; for as soon as the first

couple of soldiers fired they retired and reloaded whilst two others

took their places and blazed away. A rush was made to the back of the

hotel, and we had got into the passage, when the bearded faces of the

Scotchmen showed through the smoke with which the house was filled, and

the leaders of our lot were shoved back at the point of the bayonet. At

the same time the windows at the back of the house flew up as they had

done in the front, and the muzzles of the muskets peeped out as they

had done before.

"This was getting rather hot for me. Men dead or dying were lying about

everywhere around the Castle Inn. If I had been asked that night how

many were killed, I think I should have said two hundred; but when the

accounts came to be made up, it was found that not more than sixty or

seventy were shot dead, though many more were wounded. I was neither

hurt nor dead as yet, and I thought I had better go home if I wanted to

keep so. I was below the Castle Inn at the time, and not caring to pass

the windows with those deadly barrels peeping out I turned down High

Street, and walked through the town. It was raining in torrents, and I

never saw Merthyr look so wretched. Every shop was closed, and

barricades placed across some of the windows of the private houses; and

as I walked along, trying to look as if I hadn't been up at the Castle,

I saw white faces peeping over window blinds.

"Merthyr was trembling in its shoes that day, I can tell you; and it

came out afterwards that every tradesman in the place had got together

all the bread, cheese, meat, pies, and beer he could put his hands on,

ready to throw out to the mob if they came knocking at his door.

"It was late at night when I got home, having gone a long way round, and

I saw nothing more of our fellows; but I heard that the wounded soldiers

had been taken up to Penydarren House, which was fortified by their

comrades, and held all night against our men. Somehow the word got

passed round that we were to meet the next morning in a quiet place on

the Brecon road, and when I got there I found our gallant fellows in

great force. I, having neither sword nor gun, was told off with a lot of

others to get up on the heights that bank the turnpike road near

Coedycymmer, and roll down big stones, so that the fresh troops expected

up from Brecon could not pass. This we did with a will; and when, in the

afternoon, a lot of cavalry came up, we made it so hot for them, what

with the stones rolled down from above and the musketry that came

rattling up from our men who had guns, that they cleared off pretty

smartly.

"This cheered us greatly, and another lot of ours, who had been posted

on the Swansea road to intercept troops coming up in that direction,

soon after joined us, with news of a great victory, by which they had

routed the soldiers and taken their swords and muskets. We thought

Merthyr was ours, though I'm not sure that we quite knew what we were

going to do with it. When somebody shouted, 'Let's go to Merthyr!' we

all shouted with him, and ran along the road, intending to take

Penydarren House by storm. On the way we met Evan Price and some others,

who had been to see Mr. Guest, and had been promised fine things for the

men if they would give up their arms and go peaceably to work. Some

jumped at this offer and sneaked off; but I had got a sabre now, and was

in for death or glory. There was a good many in the same boat, and on we

went towards Penydarren House, enough of us to eat it up, if the walls

had been built of boiled potatoes instead of bricks.

"When we got in sight of the house, we found they were ready for us, and

had got a lot of those soldiers drawn up in battle array. There was a

deal of disputing amongst our leaders how the attack was to commence,

and whilst they were chattering the men were dropping off in twos and

threes, and in about an hour we were all gone, so nothing more was

done that night.

"We lay quietly in our own homes on Sunday, and on Monday had a great

meeting on Waun-hill again, colliers coming up by thousands to join up

from all parts around. Early in the forenoon we began to move down

towards Merthyr, everybody in high spirits, shouting, waving caps, and

brandishing swords. I saw one man get an awful backhanded cut on the

cheek from an Aberdare collier, who was waving his sword about like a

madman. Nobody knew exactly where we were going, or what we were going

to do; but when we got as far as Dowlais we were saved the trouble of

deciding, for there was Mr. Guest, with a great army of soldiers drawn

up across the road. Mr. Guest was as cool as myself, and rode forward

to meet us as if we were the best friends in the world. He made a good

speech, begging us to think of our wives and families, and go quietly

home whilst we had the chance. Nothing came of that, however, and he

pulled out a paper, and read an Act of Parliament, after which he

turned to the commander-in chief of the soldiers, and said he had done

all a magistrate could do, and the soldiers must do the rest.

"'Get ready,' shouts out the commander-in-chief; and the soldiers

brought their muskets down with a flash like lightning, and a clash that

made me feel uncomfortable, remembering what I had seen on the Friday.

"'Present!'

"There was ten murderous barrels looking straight at us. Another word,

and we should have their contents amongst our clothes. It was an awful

moment. I saw one black-bearded fellow had covered me as if I were a

round target, and I said to myself as well as I could speak for my lips

were like parched peas, 'Morgan Griffiths, twelve shillings a week and

an allowance of coal is better than this'; and I'm not ashamed to own

that I turned round and made my way through the crush of our men, which

was getting less inconveniently pressing at the end nearest to the

levelled barrels.

"There was, to tell the truth, a good deal of movement towards the rear

amongst our men, and when Mr. Guest saw this he rode up again, and,

standing right between the guns and the front rank of our men, said

something which I could not rightly hear, and then our men began running

off faster than ever, so that in about half an hour the soldiers had the

road to themselves.

"That was not the last of the riots, but it is all I can tell you about

them, for I had had quite enough of the business. There is something

about the look of a row of muskets pointed at you, with ball inside the

barrels and a steady finger on the triggers, which you don't care to see

too often.

"Anyhow, I went home, and there heard tell of more fighting all that

week on the Brecon road, of Merthyr in a state of panic, and at last of

Dick Penderyn and Lewis the Huntsman being taken, and the whole of our

men scattered about the country, and hunted as if they were rats.

"It was a bad business, sir--a very bad business, and I know no more

than them as was shot down in the front of the Castle Hotel how it came

about or what we meant to do. We were like a barrel of gunpowder that

had been broken up and scattered about the road. A spark came, and

poof!--we went off with a bang, and couldn't stop ourselves. Yes, this

is a bad business, too, this strike of to-day, and there's a good many

thousand men going about idle and hungry who were busy and full a month

ago. I don't feel the bitterness of it myself so much, because I have a

little store in the house. I had been saving it to buy another chest of

drawers to stand there, opposite the door, but it's going out now in

bread and meat, and I don't know whether I shall live to save up enough

after the trouble's over, for I'm getting old now, look you."

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