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Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

Merthyr Tydfil is a town in the Welsh county of Glamorgan.  

Merthyr Tydfil Map locator
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMerthyr Tydfil Map locator - Credit: NordNordWest

Hillforts were built here during the Iron Age, inhabited by a tribe called the Silures. The Romans invaded around 40 AD, bringing Christianity to Wales.  Tydfil, a daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog, was slain here by pagans around 480.  Merthyr means martyr in Welsh.

Merthyr remained a small village until well into the Middle Ages.  But with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the area's reserves of iron ore, coal and limestone caused a rapid expansion during the second half of the 18th century. The growing town became the centre of important ironworks.

The iron master's residence, Cyfarthfa Castle, built 1824
Creative Commons AttributionThe iron master's residence, Cyfarthfa Castle, built 1824 - Credit: John Wilson

By 1851, Merthyr had overtaken Swansea to become the largest town in Wales, with over 46,000 inhabitants. During the first few decades of the 19th century, the ironworks continued to expand and at their peak were the most productive in the world. Thomas Carlyle visited Merthyr in 1850, writing that the town was filled with such "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."

The iron workers rose up against their employers in the 1831 Merthyr Rising.  As many as 10,000 marched together under a red flag. For four days, magistrates and ironmasters remained under siege in the Castle Hotel, and the protesters effectively controlled Merthyr. They were eventually beaten back by the military.  Some of the revolt’s leaders were transported to Australia.  The first trades unions, illegal at the time, formed shortly after the riots. Many families left Wales, mainly for the steelworks of Pittsburgh, America. 

HIgh Street
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHIgh Street - Credit: Kev Griffin

The population of Merthyr reached almost 52,000 in 1861, but then began to decline as the ironworks closed.  Migration to America continued. 

In the 1870s, coal mining gave the town a new boost. The population rose to a peak of almost 81,000 in 1911. But the steel and coal industries began to decline after World War I, and by the 1930s all the works had closed. Merthyr suffered an out-migration of 27,000 people in the 1920s and 1930s.  A significant proportion of the current population is unemployed.    

A Channel 4 programme rated Merthyr Tydfil as the third worst place to live in Britain in 2006.