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The History of The South Wales Iron Industry

The History of The South Wales Iron Industry, 1837.

By Thomas Watkins, - Eddil Ifor, (1801 – 1889)


(The extract below is taken from one of the winning essays from the Abergavenny Eisteddfod of 1837. Written in Welsh by Thomas Watkins, it was translated by Colin Morgan in 2009 and is used with permission).


The Nantyglo Works of J. & C. Bailey :  


In 1776 the same company that established Blaenafon – Messrs. Pratt, Hill & Hopkins - laid the foundations for the first two smelting furnaces.  They also ‘owned’ the Lordship of Abergavenny manors in these mountainous districts with all their ore and coal.  They were originally from Worcestershire and had taken leases on the Abergavenny manors which lie within the old Welsh princedom of Glywsig. Before they could start building anything a dispute arose between them and Watkins, Tan-y-Graig who was a well known and responsible person with much land holdings in the manors at this time of the beginning of iron works in south Wales.  He possessed to a very great extent the same strengths and spirit as [King] Arthur, with the consequence that they would not get any licence in Gwent save through the medium of this incomparable and spirited Welshman.  He put many obstacles in the way of their achieving success if their plans were not to his taste; with the result that all that they had built had to stay idle for several years until it was taken over by Richard Harford, of Glyn Ebwy Fawr and Thomas Hill of Dennis (near Stafford) and Blaenafon who then built two big furnaces.  All went smoothly and successfully with them for a few years until they fell out and went to law against each other for reasons not known at present by the writer, but with the result that everything came to a stop and the furnaces were ‘blown out’, and hundreds of workers thrown out of work.  


The works were idle for several years until the legal contest ended, all of which was costly to both sides and the cause of scarcity of work in the area. The works were then taken on by Messrs Harrison and Griffiths for several years who made hardly any changes but they failed to achieve their aims, soon lost heart, and decided to bring the works to a stop.   Mr. Harrison was one of the directors of Blaenafon Iron and Coal works and Mr. Griffiths a manager of the smelters under the same gentlemen.   After the departure of these gentlemen the area lost many inhabitants and nothing is now made except for that by the few mountain small holders who lived roundabouts, and the works have been idle for several years and grass now grows over many parts of the buildings which previously had been red hot, showering sparks to create terror for the stranger.  Subsequently the works were taken on by Joseph Bailey MP of Glan Usk Mansion, Crughywel, Breconshire, who together with his brother Crawshay Bailey built another smelter in addition to those on site already, a new steam engine, and put the older furnaces of Hill and Harford to work again.  They also sunk pits and underground roadways to get the ore and coal, and made tramways [roads] to all places essential for bringing the ore to the smelters.  There was no other rail or tram road to transport the iron from this site at this time except that belonging to the Monmouth and Brecon Canal Company which went through Cwm Clydach to the canal, where the iron was transferred into boats to be taken to Newport.


In 1813 this district of Nantyglo started to grow into great prominence when these gentlemen built their major works with several refining sheds, blast and other furnaces, together with new engines, mills making sheets of various sizes, a fine foundry and a mill for the manufacture of sheet metal for steam engines, all of which brought great profit to the owners.    After achieving the greater part of their aims they had set themselves, they took a large piece of Mr. Williams’ land on the other side of the river, and built four excellent smelting furnaces there, making a total of seven huge furnaces sufficient to smelt one hundred tons of iron a week. By all this they had made the whole place suitable for perfection in their trade and commerce.


These gentlemen did not rest until they had every facility so that the works grew greatly to have seven smelting furnaces, from ten to twelve refining works, a large number of blast furnaces, and two vast forges which keep hundreds of hands fully at work; there are manifold mills to make sheets and joists of every size.  Also every kind of bar and rail down to the thinnest wire for nails of all sizes are made here.  The works has from seven to ten engines of the most powerful and versatile kind at work.  One sees these works at their most compact and comprehensive, and from the accounts show the huge growth which these gentlemen have achieved since they took over.  Last year – 1836 - they sent to Newport via their main rail road to the Brecon and Monmouth canal 39,975 tons in bars, bolts, wire and pigs.  As a result of this growth Gwaenhelygen (now called Brynmawr) has grown into a town and the area full of people with iron works that are some of the biggest in Monmouthshire at the present time.


© Colin Morgan 2009


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