Merthyr Tydfil is a town with a population of about 65,000, situated approximately 23 miles (37km) north of Cardiff. At one time the largest town in Wales, Merthyr Tydfil is today its fourth largest urban area by population. Situated in the historic county of Glamorgan, it is the main town in Merthyr Tydfil County Borough. Both the town and the county borough are often referred to simly as ‘Merthyr’.
According to legend, the town is named after Tydfil, a daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog, she was said to have been slain at Merthyr by pagans around 480; the place was subsequently named Merthyr Tydfil in her honour. Although merthyr generally means ‘martyr’ in modern Welsh, the meaning here is closer to the Latin martyrium: the mausoleum or church built over the relics of a martyr. Similar examples, all from south Wales, include Merthyr Cynog, Merthyr Dyfan and Merthyr Mawr.
Merthyr has a long and varied industrial heritage, and was one of the seats of the industrial revolution. Since the end of the Second World War, much of this has declined, with the closure of long-established nearby collieries, and both steel and ironworks. Despite recent improvements, some parts of the town remain economically disadvantaged, and there is a significant proportion of the community who are long-term unemployed. In 2006, a Channel 4 series ranked Merthyr Tydfil as the United Kingdom’s third-worst place to live. In the 2007 edition of the same series, Merthyr had improved to fifth-worst.
In 2006, a large open cast coal mine, which will extract 10 million tonnes of coal over 15 years, was authorised just east of Merthyr as part of the Ffos-y-fran open cast mine.
The town is in a South Wales Valleys environment just south of the Brecon Beacons National Park, and this, along with its rich history, means it has huge potential for tourism. National Cycle Route 8 passes through the town. The Brecon Mountain Railway is easily accessible by cycle and car.
At the time of the 1891 Census, 68.4% of the population of Merthyr – 75,067 inhabitants out of a total of 110,569 – spoke Welsh. By the time of the 1911 Census, that figure had fallen to 50.9%, or 37,469 inhabitants out of a total of 74,596 and now less than 10% of the population of Merthyr speaks Welsh.
Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council is the governing body for the town and the County Borough, which stretches as far south as Treharris.
Merthyr relies on a combination of public sector and manufacturing and service sector companies to provide employment. The Welsh Government has recently opened a major office in the town near a large telecommunications call centre (T-Mobile & EE.) Hoover (now part of the Candy Group) has its Registered Office in the town and remained a major employer until it transferred production abroad in March 2009, with the loss of 337 jobs after the closure of its factory.
The town has held many cultural events. Local poets and writers hold poetry evenings in the town, and music festivals are organised at Cyfarthfa Castle and Park.
Menter Iaith Merthyr Tudful (the Merthyr Tydfil Welsh Language Initiative) has successfully transformed the Zoar Chapel and the adjacent vestry building in Pontmorlais into a community arts venue, Canolfan Soar and Theatr Soar, which run a whole programme of performance events and activities in both Welsh and English, together with a cafe and book shop, specialising in local interest and Welsh language books and CDs.
Also on Pontmorlais, Merthyr Tydfil Housing Association was successful in a number of funding bids to develop the Old Town Hall into a new cultural centre, working in partnership with Canolfan a Theatr Soar to turn the Pontmorlais area into a cultural quarter.
The Old Town Hall facility was launched on Saint David’s Day 2014. With references to the 1831 Merthyr Rising and the building’s red bricks, the venue has been named Redhouse – Hen Neuadd Y Dref/Old Town Hall. Merthyr Tydfil College’s Arts and Media departments occupy part of the building, holding occasional professional performances at Redhouse’s Dowlais Theatre and providing opportunities for students to perform dance, musicals, plays, and instrumental and vocal concerts.
Merthyr Tydfil has several choirs which perform locally and around the world, including Dowlais Male Voice Choir, Ynysowen Male Voice Choir, Treharris Male Voice Choir, Merthyr Tydfil Ladies Choir, Con Voce, Cantorion Cyfarthfa, St David’s Church Choir, St David’s Choral Scholars, Merthyr Aloud and Tenovus.
Merthyr hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1881 and 1901 and the national Urdd Gobaith Cymru Eisteddfod in 1987.
Merthyr, like nearby Aberdare, is known for its thriving music scene. The town has produced several bands that have achieved national success, including The Blackout and Midasuno. From 2011-2014 the town held the Merthyr Rock Festival at Cyfarthfa Park.
Road improvements mean the town is increasingly a commuter location and has shown some of the highest house price growth in the UK.
From a sporting perspective, Merthyr is particularly known for its boxers, both amateur and professional. Famous professional pugilists from the town include Johnny Owen, Howard Winstone, and Eddie Thomas, who all have commemorative statues situated in the town.
Where the sculpture of Eddie Thomas stands was also the site of The Bethesda Community Arts Centre in the 1980s, hence: Bethesda Gardens.
Merthyr has a football team, Merthyr Town. ‘The Martyrs’ compete in the Evostick Southern Football League and play home games at Penydarren Park.
The town was home to the professional Football League club Merthyr Town FC, which folded in the 1930s; Merthyr Tydfil AFC was founded in 1945. In 1987 they won the Welsh Cup and qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In the first round, they won 2-1 against Italian football team Atalanta in the first leg at Penydarren Park. However, they lost the return leg, and went out 3-2 on aggregate.
2008 marked the centennial of football at Penydarren Park. After going into liquidation in 2010, the club dropped down three divisions, reverted to the name of Merthyr Town and made Rhiw Dda’r their new home ground. Following promotion the club moved back to Penydarren Park in July 2011.
The local rugby union club, Merthyr RFC, is known as ‘the Ironmen’. It was one of the 12 founding clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union in 1881. The club competes in the Principality Premiership and play home games at The Wern.
Semi-professional League 1 club South Wales Ironmen, previously known as South Wales Scorpions, play rugby league in the town at The Wern. Merthyr is also home to the Tydfil Wildcats Rugby League team, which played at The Cage in Troedyrhiw until September 2010. Merthyr Tydfil was one of the first rugby league sides in Wales in 1907 and beat the first touring Australian side in 1908.
Bikepark Wales, the UK’s first purpose-built mountain biking centre, is located at Gethin Woods, Merthyr Tydfil.
Parkwood Outdoors Dolygaer was opened in 2015 on the site of a previous LEA centre. It is now open to family visitors as well as schools, scouts, and corporations. They offer a range of activities including canoeing and Stand Up Paddleboarding on the Pontsticill Reservoir.
Among those born in Merthyr are fashion designer and retailer Laura Ashley and fashion designer Julien Macdonald, while notable descendants of Merthyr include the Chariots of Fire athlete Harold Abrahams’ mother Esther Isaacs and the 1970s pop group The Osmonds, who have traced their ancestry to Merthyr.
Lady Charlotte Guest, publisher and translator, married ironmaster John Josiah Guest in 1833 and moved to his mansion in Dowlais where she lived for many years and it was there she translated the stories of the Mabinogion in 1838-45 and 1877.