Excerpts from

Vaughan, F., Poor Relief in Merthyr in the Nineteenth Century, Merthyr Historian, Vol. 1, 1976

pp 96-97


In the first half of the 19th century Merthyr was a rapidly growing town. Four great iron works had arisen in the Merthyr area and the influx of workers into the area was to make Merthyr for 60 years, the largest town in Wales. Daniel Defoe's " most agreeable vale . . . with a pleasant river running through it called the Taafe " was transformed into a clamouring hive of industry, the green hills black-blistered by "tips" and George Borrow would lament, " The hills around the Taff, once so green, are blackened by the smoke of the chimneys of Merthyr". Here in this valley the stage was set for scenes of wealth side by side with squalor and utter degradation; on the one hand the chandelier-lit rooms of Cyfarthfa Castle and on the other the poverty, filth and disease that were the dark companions of the poor in their ugly, little hovels, the cellars and basements, in which whole families lived.


A visitor to Merthyr Tydfil in the middle of the 19th century might think that Merthyr was a prosperous town. It had an air of prosperity, many shops and two big markets, one in Dowlais the other in Merthyr. On Saturdays the Merthyr market was open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. It was a crowded, colourful. scene, the workers parading in their Sunday-best clothes, the stalls and booths lit with flares, the side shows, hawkers, ballad singers.


Some of these workers who paraded on Saturday nights were lowly paid labourers earning 10/- a week. Some were girls who earned 4/- to 6/- a week.


There were many pubs and beer shops in the town, 305 by 1850, one to every 24 houses. The temperance reformers attacked these " dens of iniquity " very strongly, but the pubs were also places of social gatherings and the meeting places of Friendly Societies.


Behind the facade of prosperity lay the reality of poverty. When there was a slump in the iron industry, wages were reduced. Then, indeed, it was difficult for workers to make ends meet, especially the lowest paid workers already mentioned. Out of their 4/- to 6/- a week some girls had to pay rent 1/ - a week and also pay for food and clothing. These badly paid workers were those who most easily became paupers. Others were those who had been injured in the works-puddlers who had become blind, the many who had lost limbs. There were workers' Sick Funds and Benefit Clubs, but a mere 4/- a week from these was not enough to keep one above the level of pauperism. If one turned away from the shop windows of the High Street, and naphtha flares of the Market and went into the dark "courts" and "alleys" one would see plenty of poverty and squalor. In that "maze of courts and tortuous lanes" called Pont Storehouse or in "China", the cesspool of Merthyr, would be found what one Merthyr historian has called "the final degradation".


The workers could do nothing about wage reductions. They could hold protest meetings, send deputations to the iron-masters, but it was all in vain. The working classes had not yet arrived at the day when the strike would be a potent weapon. Where there were squalor and poverty there was disease. There was appalling infant mortality among the working class. Three quarters of those who died were under the age of five. Life expectancy among the working class was about 22 years. Shopkeepers and publicans seemed to live longest.


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November 2009