Fight begins to pardon hero of the 1831 Merthyr Rising

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After nearly 170 years of Welsh indignation, a legal campaign is under way to win a posthumous pardon for the forgeworker who has been described by historians as Wales's first working-class martyr.

After nearly 170 years of Welsh indignation, a legal campaign is under way to win a posthumous pardon for the forgeworker who has been described by historians as Wales's first working-class martyr.

Richard Lewis, more famously known in Wales as Dic Penderyn, was hanged in Cardiff Gaol in July 1831 at the age of 23 after his conviction for stabbing a soldier during the Merthyr Rising of that year.

He was a leading agitator in the uprising - during which a red flag was raised for the first time on Welsh soil - and addressed the crowds that defied Crown yeomanry and soldiers in protest against a local ironworks owner who had lowered their pay.

But even the wounded Scottish soldier did not identify Penderyn as the man who had stabbed him in the hip and when, 40 years later, a Welshman living in the United States confessed to having committed the crime, it seemed possible that the wrong man had been put to death.

The Cardiff lawyers seeking his pardon are also focusing on 12 witness statements, not disclosed at his trial, which declared Penderyn did not attack the soldier.

Bernard de Maid, the solicitor instructed by Penderyn's descendants to challenge the conviction, said it was "unbelievable" that the witness statements had not been brought back to court earlier.

Mr de Maid, who two years ago won a posthumous pardon for Mahmood Matan, a Somali seaman executed in 1952 for murdering a shopkeeper, said that the transcripts of the prosecution case were the only remaining record of Penderyn's trial.

It is therefore impossible to establish whether the jury was aware of evidence that the main prosecution witness, a barber, bore a grudge against Penderyn dating from an earlier argument.

Penderyn certainly did not speak in his own defence. Legislation that prevented defendants such as him from testifying - in the belief that they would incriminate themselves - was not amended until 1898. Mr de Maid is finalising his submission before presenting it to the Home Office. In doing so he will follow the path of a Neath ironmaster who pleaded with the Home Secretary of the time, Viscount Melbourne, to spare Penderyn, after more than 11,000 people petitioned against the sentence.

The ironmaster received short shrift. In Parliament, Lord Melbourne described South Wales as "the worst and most formidable district in the kingdom" and Penderyn went to the gallows, uttering " O Arglwydd dyma gamwedd" (O Lord, this is an injustice) on the scaffold. A vast crowd accompanied his body from Cardiff to the churchyard.

In the past 10 years John Davies, a Welsh historian, has argued that Penderyn had no more of a role in the rising than thousands of others. "He was not a face above the crowd but in the crowd, a face which the Welsh worker could perceive as his own," he said.

Other historians have agreed and Penderyn has established such status that his devotees in Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and Port Talbot have even been arguing over where a memorial event in his name ought to be held.

Cardiff has staged an annual event near the site of the gallows for the past six years but Merthyr is now claiming a stronger hold on his story and insists Cardiff's links are tenuous.

Meanwhile Port Talbot, where Penderyn was born, claims birthright should settle the issue. There have also been calls for a Dic Penderyn public holiday throughout Wales on 13 August - the date of the hanging.

One of Penderyn's descendants, Pamela Lewis, said that she believed that he had been made a scapegoat. "He was to be respected for having the courage, at 23 years of age, to speak for other people in the face of such terrible odds," she said.

Mr de Maid said that Penderyn's death, although it might have been unjust, had not been in vain. "The irony of all this is that if he had not gone to the gallows, Wales would have had one fine hero less," he said.