Nestled in the heart of the South Wales valleys, Merthyr Tydfil is steeped in history. From humble beginnings as a small agricultural hamlet, the town enjoyed a period as the ‘Iron Capital of the World’ before being forced to rebuild its fortunes and identity following the demise of the coal and steel industries. Merthyr Tydfil has weathered the ebb and flow of economic change with spirit and resilience. Here, we take a brief look at the town’s history, from the 5th century to the modern day.
Merthyr Tydfil’s history can be traced back to ancient times. Initially a small, rural settlement, the town’s name is believed to have originated from Saint Tydfil, who, in around 480AD, was brutally murdered by pagans as she prayed.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution precipitated Merthyr Tydfil’s transformation from a small, rural hamlet to an industrial powerhouse that earned it the nickname the ‘Iron Capital of the World’. The town’s rich natural reserves of iron ore, coal and limestone deposits were in enormous demand throughout the Industrial Revolution and catapulted Merthyr Tydfil onto the global stage.
Merthyr Tydfil was the ideal site for ironworks. In addition to its natural reserves, the area was rich in waterpower thanks to a multitude of mountain springs, and the vast forests provided ample timber for use in charcoal production. Cyfarthfa Ironworks, located in the North of the town, became one of the largest and most technologically advanced in the world. The town’s population swelled, with ironmasters and workers flocking there in search of employment. The once small hamlet became Wales’s largest town, its skyline dominated by smoking chimneys and sprawling factories.
The Merthyr Uprising
The phenomenal economic growth triggered by the Industrial Revolution brought with it an explosion of capitalism in the UK. As the fortunes of ironmasters and other business owners swelled, those largely responsible for the production of iron, steel and coal – the workers – saw little of the wealth their hard labour produced. Unrest simmered, and the years of class struggles erupted in 1831 with the ‘Merthyr Uprising’.
The Merthyr Rising is considered a landmark event in the history of British workers. It began when workers from the Cyfartha iron works walked out en masse, protesting against the exploitation of workers and demanding wage reform. Using the iconic red flag of revolution as a symbol of their rebellion, the workers succeeded in spreading the uprising throughout the area and gaining control of Merthyr Tydfil for over a week before eventually being defeated by the King’s troops. However, the end of the Merthyr Uprising was just the beginning of South Wales’ working class’s fight for better working conditions and fair wages. In its wake, new trade union lodges sprung up throughout the region, determined to secure a better life for their members.
Decline and rebirth
The 20th century heralded the well-documented decline of the iron and steel industry. Changing economic conditions, Global competition and technological advancements meant that the region’s reserves were no longer in such great demand, and substantial numbers of iron and steelworks were forced to close. The town had relied so heavily on iron and steel production that other industries were few and far between, and significant unemployment and financial hardship ensued.
When the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, Hoover, moved into the area in the late 1940’s, locals were thrown a lifeline, and the Hoover factory became the largest employer in the borough. However, a series of economically disastrous decisions and financial difficulties led to the sale of Hover to an Italian company, Candy, resulting in job losses. In 2002, a fire ripped through the factory, disrupting production and causing workers to strike. Eventually, the factory’s fate was sealed when Candy moved production abroad. Once again, Merthyr Tydfil faced the loss of its principal employer and the resultant financial devastation.
For some time, the once prosperous Merthyr Tydfil held the dubious accolade of being referred to as the ‘poorest town in Wales’. The locals’ expectations that they would have a ‘job for life’, either in the iron industry or later, with Hoover, had long stifled entrepreneurial spirit. This, coupled with the towns’ relative geographical isolation, meant little money was generated. In 2019, Merthyr Tydfil was ranked bottom of the UK Competitive Index, indicating that it was expected to experience the most significant economic decline.
However, Merthyr Tydfil rallied to improve its fortunes. A concerted effort to attract retailers to the town has led to a retail boom, and people from around South Wales now visit the area to shop at the Cyfarthfa retail park, giving it one of the largest footfalls in the UK.
Adventure tourism is also flourishing, thanks to the stunning countryside surrounding the town, and thousands of visitors visit each year to enjoy outdoor breaks. The resurgence has attracted entrepreneurs and start-ups keen to establish themselves in the region whilst it is still affordable, creating jobs, opportunities and a long-absent buzz. Merthyr Tydfil’s proud, close-knit community are optimistic about the future, and with seemingly good reason.