What do Donny and Marie Osmond, Railways, International Socialism, and you, have in common. Well, all can trace strong connections with Merthyr Tydfil. To find out how, you will have to wade through this lot.

Although the heavily wooded valley in which Merthyr was later to be established had previously been inhabited for thousands of years, the coming of the Romans in around 50AD is the first notable incident in the area’s history. The fort they built here – part of a countrywide network of roads and fortifications – now lies quietly under the local football team’s pitch. The Roman occupation didn’t go entirely unopposed, and it was often a risky business for Roman soldiers to venture into the local mountains; but for 350 years there was generally peace and relative prosperity. When they left however, other bands of invaders started to roam across the land, and in 480AD one such group came across a local girl, Tydfil, and her companions on a road, and killed them. The girl, daughter of a local chieftain, was a committed Christian, and a church was later built on the site of her burial place. As the Pict invaders who had killed her were pagans, Tydfil was considered a martyr (merthyr in Welsh), and the place was therefore named Merthyr Tydfil.

St. Tydfil's church. The current 19th Century church is the latest in the line of churches to be built on the burial site of the martyr Tydfil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For centuries the valley remained much the same as it had been in the Bronze Age – no towns, just a few houses around Tydfil’s church and a scattering of isolated farms on the lower slopes of the mountains. A river, called the Taff, flowed gently through the valley, and shepherds walked the hills. Another invader, the Normans, came and went, and several centuries of quiet farming passed, before the world around Tydfil’s calm burial spot suddenly exploded in a clamour of noise and smoke.

It started in 1759, with the establishment of the Dowlais Ironworks – and Merthyr was the perfect place for it. All the requirements for large-scale iron production were conveniently to hand, namely, copious quantities of iron ore, coal, limestone and water. This first ironworks was followed a short time later by another, the Cyfartha Ironworks, and the scene was set for Merthyr Tydfil’s transformation into a major industrial complex. The cool, clean air of the valley became thick with smoke, and the flames from the blast furnaces cast a perpetual red glow over the town, day and night. The shepherds and farmers were replaced by miners and iron-workers - and the population leapt from around 300 to 80,000. At one stage the flow of immigrants into this and other areas of South Wales was exceeded only by immigration into America.

Dowlais Ironworks, Merthyr Tydfil in 1840

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1802 Admiral Horatio Nelson visited Merthyr to witness the production of cannon for the Royal Navy, and two years later the world’s first railway locomotive – invented and built by David Trevithick specifically for the task - commenced hauling iron out of Merthyr. As the idea of railways was taken up and developed around the world, Merthyr continued to contribute – at one stage producing 50,000 tons of rails from just one ironworks for Russia to build the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Cracks were, however, beginning to appear in the social fabric, and in 1831 riots erupted in Merthyr over working conditions and Parliamentary representation. Thousands of workers clashed with the military, and a number were killed or wounded on both sides. It is said that, in an inflammatory gesture, one of the worker’s leaders soaked a shirt in calf’s blood and waved it aloft during the clashes. Those who saw it, naturally assumed that it was from a worker who had been wounded or killed by the authorities, and it fired their anger and resolve. This powerful ‘Blood of the Workers’ symbolism led to red flags being brandished during the French Revolution, and eventually being adopted as the symbol of International Socialism. Were our ancestors involved in the riots? Many were certainly in the area at the time, and may well have been. Personally, I like to think that they were watching with polite interest from the doorway of the nearest bar – but that’s just me.

Many skilled workers from Merthyr were recruited by American companies, and were instrumental in founding the American steel industry. Over time, the markets for Welsh iron and coal declined, and the prosperity of the area declined with them. In 1987 the Dowlais Ironworks, which had been the first to open, became the last to close – and 228 years of continuous iron production was at an end. The various industrial companies slipped quietly away and - like previous invaders - left the inhabitants to their own devices. This - as would be the case when any town is deserted by its major employers - brought great hardship, from which the citizens of Merthyr are only slowly recovering. But diverse alternative industries are taking root there, and, due to land reclamation and environmental schemes, the valley itself is gradually returning to its former greenness. In time, the scars left on the countryside by the iron and coal producing industries will doubtless heal, and memories of the ‘Iron Capital of the World’ will fade into history. But our Foster ancestors were very much a part of that era, and that in itself is reason enough to retell the story.

Talking of fading memories, I almost forgot Donny and Marie Osmond! Their ancestors, on their Mother’s side, were also born and bred in Merthyr Tydfil - so if you ever felt the need to have something in common with them, now you do!