Review: Dic Penderyn – The Man And The Martyr by Sally Roberts Jones
In Merthyr, the past is both exile and participant, faintly unbelievable but intimately close.
In a town much disfigured by time and questionable planning, the industrial years have a ghostly quality about them: not quite present, but always lurking as a feeling, a remnant, a suggestion – and sometimes as a startling revenant.
On this fraught threshold lies the Merthyr Rising and its martyr, Dic Penderyn.
Growing up in Merthyr, it seemed we were always aware of this definitive event which encapsulated our view of our town as a brave and intractable place of solidarity.
In school, Dic’s last words – Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd – were indelibly impressed upon us, as was the iniquity of his execution.
We knew the basic outline of the events that culminated in his death: simmering anger at injustice and poor conditions igniting and leading to an insurrection which was eventually put down by the military, during which a soldier was injured, and for which Dic Penderyn was wrongly tried and hanged.
But we didn’t know much, if anything, about Richard Lewis – Dic Penderyn – himself. This book by Sally Roberts Jones gives a valuable overview of his history which deepens our understanding of the context and throws light on the ways in which we remember and commemorate our past.
We discover early on that information regarding his upbringing is surprisingly scant, but we do know that he was born in the parish of Aberafan around 1808.
It is in that village, as it was then, that he spent his formative years, and much like the Merthyr he eventually moved to, it was ‘solidly Welsh-speaking’.
Indeed, it is from Welsh-language sources that much of what is known anecdotally about Dic Penderyn originates, and these are helpfully referenced by the author.
It is to be remembered that ‘Merthyr in the 1820s saw an intense interest in Welsh-language culture’, and that many of its inhabitants had come from the countryside or were the descendants of such industrial migrants.
As the author notes, ‘in Dic’s time, the ordinary people of Merthyr formed a very cohesive, Welsh-based society in which the old sanctions held’; that is, older notions of communal justice and labour organisation, often associated with rural tradition, more informal and ad hoc than the eventual unions: a gwerinol sense of communitarian justice (the word does not yield to a satisfactory translation).
This particular context would influence the Rising.
Dic was considered an intelligent man, ‘a recognisable figure in Merthyr, a keen defender of workers’ rights, fluent in Welsh and English, knowledgeable’, though some historians and remembrancers treated him as a face-in-the-crowd, a bystander thrust into the storm, or even an unwitting simpleton, but this book’s thesis disproves that.
In any case, his involvement in the Rising is consistent with those accounts of his activism.
The events of the Rising are chronicled here in a concise yet engaging manner, and certain facts arrested my attention. For example, it is not widely known that the workers disarmed the soldiers sent to quell them and controlled the town for days, in effect, before the authority of the state was restored.
The word revolution hangs above the events, at least in retrospect, and one wonders how close it might have come.
However, it is the legal proceedings, the trials and their aftermath, that are most striking.
It is the details revealed here that are most likely to be news to those who are familiar, at least in part, with the history of the Rising and Dic Penderyn’s fate.
The evidence of Dic’s wounding a soldier deliberately, a capital offence at the time, is shown to be dubious, and contemporary and subsequent research revealed serious inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case.
Likewise, the legal process was utterly inadequate.
The defendants ‘were not allowed to go into the witness box to give evidence, and even their knowledge of the charges against them could be minimal, while their counsel… could not sum up for the jury if the case was a felony, as this was’.
Practically no effort was made to gather witnesses for the defendants to disprove the charges against them.
There is a sense of inevitability in the proceeding: despite the collecting of convincing statements and evidence in the anxious weeks before his execution that Dic had not attacked the soldier Donald Black, the sentence was carried out.
The book’s summarising of this exculpatory evidence is an important addition to the case for Dic’s innocence.
Ultimately, one agrees with the assessment that ‘for Richard Lewis… the trial was simply a formality – his fate was already sealed’. A scapegoat, most certainly.
A marked man
It is also suggested that his involvement in the cause of workers’ rights and justice might have made him a ‘marked man’ before the Rising, especially given the authorities’ fear of working-class organisation.
To winnow myth from fact in such a case as this is not an easy task, but the author succeeds in creating a convincing narrative out of disparate strands.
Even though much of what is known about Dic Penderyn derives from later accounts, there is nonetheless enough consistency between them to form an image of the man.
But whatever we come to learn about Richard Lewis, Dic Penderyn transcends him. A vigorous folk memory of his fate was passed down and continues to be passed down, at least in post-industrial south Wales.
He has come to represent for many the spirit of the Merthyr Rising, as well as working-class protest more generally.
This book gives an account both of the man himself and that which he came to symbolize.
It shows how a story of injustice has reverberated through to our present day while also giving us a glimpse of the workings of our cultural memory.
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