Born in Aberavon, Glamorgan, South Wales Lewis, was a labourer and miner whose nickname was taken from the village of Penderyn near Hirwaun, where he formerly lived. He became involved in the Merthyr Rising of June 3, 1831.
He moved to Merthyr Tydfil with his family as a boy in 1819 and both he and his father worked in the local coal mines. He was literate with some chapel schooling. His sister Elizabeth was married to a well known Methodist preacher Morgan Howells. It seems that Richard was a relative of radical leader Lewis Lewis who was from Penderyn, and went to live with him there around 1828.
Along with Lewis Lewis, the main leader of the Merthyr rising, Dic Penderyn was arrested for stabbing Private Donald Black of the Highland Regiment, using a bayonet attached to a gun. This incident was alleged to have happened outside the Castle Inn. Private Black's injuries were not fatal, and he did not identify either Lewis Lewis or Richard Lewis; nevertheless, both were convicted and sentenced to death. There is no evidence that Dic played any substantial part in the rising at all unlike Lewis who was definitely involved. Lewis Lewis had his sentence commuted to transportation, largely thanks to the testimony of a Special Constable, John Thomas, whom Lewis had shielded from the rioters. The people of Merthyr Tydfil were convinced that Dic Penderyn was not responsible for the stabbing, and 11,000 signed a petition demanding his release, even the conservative Cambrian newspaper objected. Joseph Tregelles Price, a Quaker ironmaster from Neath, who went to console the two condemned men, was immediately convinced of Penderyn`s innocence and went to Merthyr to gather evidence for this. He persuaded the trial judge that the sentence was unsafe. The Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, well known for his severity, delayed the execution for two weeks, but refused to reduce the sentence despite pleas not only from workers but the Welsh establishment. It seems the execution occurred solely because Lord Melbourne wanted a scapegoat to blame for the Rising and to set a deterrent example to others. The Gates Of Cardiff Jail by Chris Hastings and Huw Pudner is a traditional type ballad about Penderryn and the public outcry that surrounded his execution.
Penderyn was hanged in St. Mary's Street, Cardiff on August 13 at the age of 23. According to popular reports his wife was pregnant at the time, and had a miscarriage as a result. His last words were: "O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd" or "Oh Lord, here is injustice." Thousands flocked to escort his body to his grave through the Vale of Glamorgan, and listened to a funeral sermon from his brother in law Morgan Howells.
He is buried in St Mary's churchyard, Port Talbot near Aberavon, where a memorial was placed on his grave by local trades unionists in 1966. Regarded as a martyr his death further embittered relations between Welsh workers and the authorities and strengthened the Trade Union movement and Chartism in the run up to the Newport Rising.
In 1874, a man named Ianto Parker confessed on his death bed, in the United States, to the Rev. Evan Evans (1804-1886) that he stabbed Black, thus exonerating Dic Penderyn. Another man named James Abbott, who testified against Penderyn at the trial, also later admitted that he lied under oath.
Interest in the case has remained strong. Harri Webb wrote a booklet on it. In 1972 Alexander Cordell wrote the popular novel The Fire People, set against the background of the Merthyr rising. Cordell did considerable research and an appendix to the book presents evidence suggesting he may have been unjustly condemned to be hanged. The book added to the interest in the case. In 1977 a memorial to a ‘Martyr of the Welsh Working Class’ was unveiled at Merthyr public library by the general secretary of the TUC, and sections from Cordell's book were read out.
After reading Cordell's book, Welsh singer/songwriter Martyn Joseph wanted to write a song telling the story of Dic Penderyn. Cordell warned him to be sure to do Penderyn justice. Upon completing the song, Joseph sent the song to Cordell, who said that he had done "a beautiful thing."
A plaque to Dic Penderyn can now also be found at the entrance to Cardiff Market on St Mary's Street, Cardiff.
The Gates of Cardiff Jail by Huw Pudner and Chris Hastings [folk ballad ]