Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Nymphs of the Pave

Cyfarthfa Ironworks - Thomas Prytherch

The large audience had an anxious wait for speaker Steve David to arrive at this month’s meeting, however his subsequent lecture proved that it was worth waiting for the late start. He began by stating that the dictionary definition of the term “nymphs of the pave”, was a “lady of extinguished virtue”. It would be easy to dismiss this as a description of a prostitute but Mr David’s talk showed that these women were very much a symbol of Merthyr Tydfil in the 1840s. At the time the town was

 devoid of law and order and very much in the hands of a criminal underclass, unique in the world of its day.

Merthyr in the 1840s was the largest settlement in Wales. In 1720, the surrounding area had a population of less than 200 people. Yet by 1841 this had mushroomed to 57,000, spurred by the industrialization of the ironmasters. The largely male, young and unruly population was described as “the detritus of the flood”, by a concerned minister of religion. The commercial and financial success however was undoubted with nine businesses producing turnover of over £100,000 per annum. John Guest measured the profits of his company and his personal wealth in millions and Merthyr despite its poverty was one of the greatest concentrations of industrial capital in the world.

Most of the population was both Welsh and Welsh speaking, some further 10% was Irish and contributed in no small measure to the building of the ironworks. The Jewish community amounted to around 1% of the population and contributed to the shops of the town (which included three cheese shops) and had established a synagogue in the town. Merthyr itself had no local government or corporation and was virtually lawless and self- regulating. People were attracted to Merthyr by the vastly higher wages offered by the industries which were three times as high as the penury offered by the countryside. Mr David spoke of the hiring fairs, which set a fixed annual wage to agricultural labourers and often meant that a second child would not survive a harsh winter. However, the magnet of the ironworks and its associated industries led to a massive disparity in the gender ratio of the town. It was described as a “masculine republic”, with over 1000 men to every 50 women. Dowlais alone was serviced by 200 pubs and there were also “gin palaces”, which were frequented by the women. Women also worked in the heavy industries, and earned ¾ of a man’s wage. They frequently had to discard some of their clothing (did not wear petticoats) and Merthyr was described as Gomorrah.

The notorious area of China, named  after a flour works and its products a comparison to the opium wars of the time, was the haunt of the “nymphs of the pave”. The area had 63 working prostitutes controlled and protected by “bullies”, under the ultimate control of Ben and Margaret Evans, the Emperor and Empress of China.  In return, there were only 17 police officers, totally incapable of suppressing the total dystopic anarchy of the situation. One of the “bullies”, was the infamous Sioni Ysgubor fawr, who was to feature in the Rebecca Riots when he moved to the Llanelli area. The cultural mayhem continued until around 1845, when a well-connected medical Doctor Melville was fleeced by a one of the young nymphs at his own home ( despite having sent his house keeper away for the night!). He was connected to the Earl of Bute and his agent Crichton Stewart.

Two actions resulted from this. Missionary Societies moved into the town and started to calm the situation, indeed there was a religious revival at Merthyr in 1852. Secondly, troops were sent from Brecon and arrested many of the miscreants including the Emperor and Empress. These were later transported to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) following a trial at Cardiff for periods ranging between 10 years and life.

In 1862, a commentator noted in a report that the “nymphs”, were considerably older and that the problem had largely passed.In reality, it was Merthyr Tydfil itself which had passed its industrial and demographic zenith as other areas such as the Rhondda were being opened with their own similar social problems, but with the difference that the newly formed Glamorgan Constabulary would take greater control of the situation. Merthyr however, remains historically almost unique as a town totally dominated by an organised criminal class in the nineteenth century.

Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Steve David for a most interesting talk. Next month’s meeting will be a members’ night.