Early iron industry across the Heads of the Valley.
From the east starting with Blaenafon across to Aberdare, all the Heads of the Valley valleys had iron works. The reason is simple, here all the raw materials needed for the industry was easily obtainable and in some cases iron ore and coal was available together. There was a plentiful supply of water and numerous reservoirs were created to ensure a continuous supply. The water was very important as it powered many of the bellows and hammers used in the industry.
Alongside the iron works was a complex transport system involving tram roads and canals, the iron might be smelted and forged at the head of the valleys but the markets were further away, rails were exported around the world, you could say that the American West was opened up thanks to Nant y Glo as many rails were made at the works. A similar thing happened at most of the iron works. When Blaenafon was granted World Heritage Status in 2000 it was not for the town but for the hundreds of people who created that landscape with their own hands be it building canals and tramroads, tunnels and inclines, ponds and reservoirs, the iron works and coal mine and all the other scars left on the land.
We do need to realise this was not just for the home market and in due time some of the iron works became the “biggest in the World” for their period. Nant y Glo was at one time the biggest or most important iron works in the world and when you see the size of the works you will be amazed because the site looks so small.
Cyfarthfa iron works on the other hand really is quite huge and in turn it was also considered the biggest in the world. We must not forget that there were iron works in Europe, in France for example; Buffon had an iron works at Montbard just east of Auxcerre and when steel comes in, the Schneider brothers had their huge steel works at Le Creusot.
Starting at the east end of the heads of the valley with Blaenafon if we continue down the Afon Llwyd valley we would find Varteg iron works, the British at Abersychan and Pontypool iron works. I have a feeling I’ve left one out.
Move to the Clydach Valley and we have the Clydach iron works. There were many forges associated with all the iron works, e.g. with Clydach we had the Llanelli forge and further towards the River Usk the Glan Grwyne forge.
These satellite forges were important; there might not be enough room on the iron works site so the forges were built alongside the tramroads or canals where further work could be done to the pig iron, turning it into wrought iron before continuing to its market.
On to the Ebbw Fach valley and here we have the Nant y Glo iron works made famous by Crawshay Bailey. It’s my own personal opinion but I do think that Crawshay Bailey has had a bad press. The first time I heard of him was through a rugby song which got ruder and ruder as more verses were made up and added with everybody coming in on the chorus. I never realised until I moved to Brynmawr and started looking at local history that this man actually existed. He was according to many a tyrant and treated his workers badly, yet when he died and it was a private funeral, many of his old workers walked down to Llanfoist which is where he was buried to pay their last respects. No transport in those days though the MTA had opened from Abergavenny to Merthyr. Crawshay Bailey was also instrumental in building many churches not only in the Brynmawr/Nant y Glo area but in other parts of the valleys as well.
To continue down the Ebbw Fach valley and we have Coalbrook Vale iron works owned by George Brewer, the Blaina Iron works and right next door the Cwm Celyn iron works. There might have been another called Dykes iron works but this needs further research. In the space of three miles we had three, possibly four iron works and all of them would have been taking water out of the same river. There is the story that Crawshay Bailey dammed the River Clydach to form what is called the Blaen Cwm Reservoir. In damming the river he actually stopped the flow of water and it was the concerned people of the Clydach Valley who walked to find out what had happened and he was forced to release water back into the river.
Moving on to the next valley which is the Ebbw Fawr and alongside the Ebbw River was the Pen y Cae iron works and further down the valley was the Victoria iron works. I read a little snippet in a newspaper as I was doing some research that a toad had been found at the Victoria works 60 feet underground. There was also a very gruesome accident at the works. A young boy was to link together two trams and as the one approached he lifted the hook to catch the eye. He missed and the two trams crashed into each other with the poor boy’s head in between. The article continued to say that they carried his brain home in his cap.
We move over to the Rhymney Valley and the Rhymney iron works. There was also the Bute iron works but the two combined to become the Rhymney works. Here a group of houses were built called Y Dre Newydd (Newtown) but these days called Bute Town. This showed that some iron masters really did look after their workers, not all lived in shabby shanty towns.
Then we have the Merthyr area. Here there were four main iron works. Starting from the top of the valley you had the Dowlais iron works, lower down the Pen y Darren, across to the Cyfarthfa works and down to the bottom of Merthyr the Plymouth. There was also the Ynys Fach works which was really an offshoot of the Cyfarthfa works.
Finally over towards Hirwaen and we end at Aberdare. There were others in the H O V area and many more outside the area. What I’m trying to show is how closely they were to each other and naturally they were in competition with each other. As one seemed to fade the others would jump over themselves to buy it. There was no real love lost between the iron masters and yet at times they could work together especially if it was of benefit to them. This came obvious during the Chartist uprising as George Brewer and Crawshay Bailey joined forces and formed an anti-chartist group.