Clydach Ironworks

Clydach Iron Works ( Nr Gilwern at foot of A465 Black Rock Hill)

Established in the late 18th Century near the site of an earlier works and forge, Clydach Ironworks continued operating until 1884. Sited in a beautiful location rich in industrial archaeology, tramroads and pathways, the nearby beech woodlands are some of the oldest in Wales.   

Folklore has it that Shakespeare was inspired to write his “Midsummer-Night’s Dream” in a cave nearby, having heard the local legends/story of Pwca (Puck in English)

Smart’s Bridge – Clydach Ironworks ( Near Clydach Ironworks)

Smart’s Bridge was constructed in 1824 to link Clydach Iron Works with sites and routes on the river’s west bank. Arched iron girders cast in mediaeval- Gothic style support a metal-plated roadway provided with hoof grips for draught animals, and grooves for wagon wheels. Restored to almost  original condition, the bridge now carries pedestrians both to works and surrounding areas.

Reminiscences of the Old Clydach Iron Works and Neighbourhood - By T. Jordan, Govilon. (Abergavenny Chronicle, March 11, 1910).

The great industry of iron making in South Wales and Monmouthshire is now almost a thing of the past and the famous Iron Kings of the last century, whose names were household words throughout the Principality-the Crawshays of Cyfarthfa, the Guests of Dowlais, and the Baileys of Nantyglo, have long since passed away. But it is still within the memory of many when the hills and valleys in West and North Monmouthshire were at night time illuminated by the great fires of the blast furnaces, rolling mills, and coke yards and when the heavy thud of the monster Nasmyth steam hammer which, it was said, could flatten a ball of iron with ease, or crack a hazelnut without crushing the kernel, resounded on all sides. The cessation of those familiar sights and sounds was looked upon as a great calamity by thousands of working people and so it was, for when the steel-rail trade superseded that of iron, many changes took place, and several important firms declined to go to the enormous expense of changing their plant for the costly one required for the manufacturing of steel rails. Consequently, the discovery of the Bessemer and Siemen's processes doomed the old style of blast and puddling furnaces, and many large works were stopped, never to be re-started, and people traversing these valleys to-day frequently pass huge blackened ruins, the relics of many a bygone industry.

The Clydach ironworks were situated in the parish of Llanelly, in Breconshire, and cosily nestled in a picturesque corner of the valley, under the shadow of the Gilwern Mountain, about five miles from Abergavenny and four miles from Crickhowell. There were four blast furnaces, and the date on one of them, I recollect, was 1797. There had been an older one lower down the valley, at a place called the Sale Yard, which, it was said, was blown by a hand bellows. Part of the ruins was to be seen in my time and a little lower down again was the old charcoal forge. This was said to have been built in 1680 by Captain John Hanbury, one of the Hanbury-Leigh family, of Pontypool, who already had two blast furnaces at Pontypool. Messrs. Frere and Cook, the then proprietors of Clydach works, leased this forge in 1800, and in the course of time Messrs. Powell, solicitors, of Brecon, became partners in the works, and Mr. Frere retired from the concern altogether in 1832. The works were then carried on by the Messrs. Powell until they were closed in 1862. Clydach House, in close proximity to the old forge, is still in existence, and tenanted. It is a fine old mansion, of the Tudor style of architecture, and was the home of the Freres during their connection with the works, and was also the birth-place of Sir Bartle Frere, afterwards Governor of Cape Colony.    On a square tablet over the main entrance at the front of the house is the date 1603, which, I presume, would be the date of its erection.

Through the courtesy of the Rector of Llanelly, I was permitted to see the following register,

“Henry Bartle Frere was baptized at the parish church on March 29th, 1815 and died 29th May 1884 and buried at St. Paul's Cathedral."

After the retirement of the Freres, Mr. Lancelot Powell, one of the owners, and manager of the works, took up his residence at Clydach House, and resided there as long as the works continued. To the best of my knowledge, the Powell’s were the sole proprietors of the works, and the family consisted of four brothers, namely, John, Walter, Charles, and Lancelot, and one sister, who married Dr. Prestwood Lucas, a physician of Brecon, and a


brother of the late well-known and popular Dr. Lucas of Crickhowell, to whose memory is erected a public fountain in the centre of that town. The vicinity of Clydach House is very wooded and picturesque, with the brook with its quaint old bridge just below and nearby the place known as the Sale Yard. Probably few people now know why it is so called. It is a wide open space, where, at one time, coal was sold to purchasers from the country. I myself have seen the old weighing-machine which had been used for that purpose, as well as for weighing country produce brought in for the use of the works, such as hay, pit wood, &c.

There are still traces of a cluster of old sheds and stables, and at one time the Abergavenny and Merthyr mail coach changed horses there, and there too, stood the little log hut where Molly Dobbs, the Company's post-woman, used to shelter while waiting with the letter-bags for the mail coach as it passed. Methinks I see the sturdy little woman now, as I often saw her, in scarlet cloak and bowler hat, as she handed her charge to the guard when he jumped down from the coach to receive it. This was before the days of Sir Rowland Hill's penny- postage system, and letters then were seldom sent or received by the working people of Clydach.. The Company's bags were opened at the offices every morning, and when letters for other people chanced to be among them they were sent to the Company's shop, where they remained until called for, and many days would frequently elapse before those to whom they were addressed would get them or even know that they were there. Sometimes it was difficult to know for whom a letter was intended, there being so many persons of the same name, and so few known by their right names. The majority of the people on the hills were then best known by nicknames, which were usually selected after a place where they or their forefathers had lived, or worked, or some circumstance connected with their previous history, and prefaced by Twm, Dai or Shoni, Bettws, Shan, or Peggy, and so on.

There were two separate and distinct divisions of' the population, the ironworkers in the valley, and the miners on the “Hill." There was nothing in common between them. They almost looked upon each other as belonging to a different race of people, and not infrequently when they came into contact breaches of the peace were committed which would form the subject of enquiry by the magistrates at Crickhowell, but there were seldom cases of a more serious nature than could be disposed of by a fine of a few shillings; and the late Mr. George Davies, of Court-y- Gollen, who was for many years chairman of the Crickhowell Magistrates, would, when the money was not immediately paid, impatiently shout, "Fork-em-out, fork-em-out," and by that appellation he was often jocularly spoken of by the people.

Mr. Lancelot Powell was a stern man, a true type of the ironmasters of the old school, and one who brooked but little opposition to his will. It was his regular custom every morning to ride up on his well-groomed bay horse to the works and his first halting place would generally be at the offices, whence he would cross to the furnaces, and from there round by the coke yard to the rolling mills, peering keenly into every place as he went along, and any of the workmen who might not be busily employed when he approached knew whether it were best to avoid him or not by the way in which he carried his walking stick whether across his shoulder or twirling it round in his hand. The officials under him were all old servants of the company, well tried and trusted. Most of them had been born and brought up in the place. Mr. Thomas, of Maes-y-Gwartha, for many years the confidential clerk and book-keeper and Mr. Wm. Morgan, the cashier, whose father had been cashier before him, and two of his brothers, John and Thomas, had been furnace-manager at the works in succession. Mr. Robert Ellis from roll-turner became mill manager, and he was succeeded at the roll turning by his son William. Mr. Wm. Davies managed the Old Forge for many years, and Mr. John Reynallt and his brother Charles were at the head of the pattern-makers and carpenters. The former, who had spent all his life at the works, was quite a genius, knowing all the intricacies of the works and the peculiarities of the old-fashioned machinery by which the Inclines were worked. The Griffiths family, too, were old inhabitants, and had been the smiths and boiler-makers of the works from father to son, even to the third and fourth generation.

Then again, there was Mr. Robert Smith the mining engineer, though not a native of the place, he served the Company faithfully for many years. He was a native of Northumberland, and had been recommended to the Company, and engaged by them in 1825. The inhabitants of Clydach, at that time, were greatly prejudiced against strangers, especially English, and Mr. Smith's reception amongst them was by no means of a friendly nature. They called him the “B____y Scotchman," and gave him a good deal of trouble in the discharge of his duties.

There were no policemen in those days only a parish constable here and there, generally old men, and much lawlessness prevailed. When an official in the mining department became unpopular with the workmen, he was in danger of a nocturnal visit from the dreaded “Scotch cattle," as they were called, a band of men with blackened faces, who would drag their victim from his bed, and after doing him grievous bodily harm, would proceed to demolish the furniture. I myself have seen many a cottage clock. its bronzed face disfigured with scars, the work, I was told, of the notorious "Scotch Cattle," a name probably given them on account of their black appearance and the savage brutality which characterised their outrages. They were, I presume, an organization similar to the Mollie Maguires that at one time terrorised some of the mining States of America. The animosity towards Mr. Smith, however, soon passed away, and in the course of time he got to be greatly respected by the workmen. the young people looked up to him as to a father, and called him Y Meister (the master), and many a time did he ride to Crickhowell to speak a good word on behalf of the “Boys” when they had got into trouble, perhaps through a drunken brawl, for drinking bouts frequently ended in a fight, followed by a summons to appear before the magistrates.     Mr. Smith retired from the works in 1849, after 24 years' service under the Company.

Brynmawr Social Club, 61 Beaufort Street, Brynmawr, NP23 4AE                                                          © Brynmawr Historical Society 2020

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