Ugly, lovely towns

I thought of my river, the Afon Lwyd, that my father had fished in youth, with rod and line for the leaping salmon under the drooping alders. The alders, he said, that fringed the banks ten deep, planted by the wind of the mountains. But no salmon leap in the river now, for it is black with furnace washings and slag, and the great silver fish have been beaten back to the sea or gasped out their lives on sands of coal. No alders stand now for they have been chopped as fuel for the cold blast. Even the mountains are shells, groaning in their hollows of emptiness, trembling to the arrows of the pit-props in their sides, bellowing down the old workings that collapse in unseen dust five hundred feet below. Plundered is my country, violated, raped.

Alexander Cordell – The Rape of the Fair Country


I have a confession to make. I’m ashamed to own up to the fact that although I’ve spent my entire life on the fringes of the South Wales coalfield I’ve never really thought about its history. ‘The Valleys’ were just there, north of my childhood home in Port Talbot and a bit closer to the Mid-Glamorgan village I lived in as a teenager, but still…not an area that I considered as anything other than a vague shape on the map. It became even less important when at 18 I left home to study in Cardiff, and entered that strange bubble that envelops capital cities – nothing seems to exist outside.

There had, of course been times when The Valleys had demanded to be noticed – my God, who couldn’t be aware of Aberfan? But I was a child myself then and so the tragedy and its devastating aftermath largely passed me by. Much later I read Alexander Cordell’s ‘Rape of the Fair Country’ trilogy and wept over the fate of the fictional Mortymers and their neighbours. ‘The Fire People‘ by the same author, based on the historical events and some of the real-life figures of 19th century Merthyr Tydfil, had me raging about the cruelty of the ironmasters and the sickening miscarriage of justice that saw Dic Penderyn hanged in Cardiff; and for the first time I thought about the brutal effects of industrialization on this land and its people. But it was a fleeting thing and I was soon distracted by other factors like work, marriage and children. And I was in the bubble, you see.George_Childs_Dowlais_Ironworks_1840The ironworks at Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, painted by George Childs in 1840

Now I’m older – much older – and have taken to boring my entire family with a newly discovered love of history, as well as a curiosity about the area around us. So deciding it was high time to investigate all of this and connect the dots, a couple of weeks ago we drove over the Blorenge Mountain to Blaenafon, now a designated World Heritage Site.llangattock escarpment 14 mar 2017Llangattock Escarpment. Mr B walking along the old tramroad towards the quarried cliff face

I’d heard plenty about it – about the excellent museum and the preserved iron works, but nothing prepared me for the impact of the site. We parked just down the road from the Heritage Centre and walked back up to the building, which is also home to the town library. It’s a place that is bursting at the seams with information, with paintings, photographs and factual boards on every available surface. The development of Blaenafon is laid out in fascinating detail.

Iron has, of course, been produced for centuries – the Iron Age lasted from about 800 BC until 43 AD in Britain. In other parts of the world there’s evidence that iron was smelted as early as 2200 BC. What kept us? The development of an iron industry took longer, of course. Bear with me folks, because we are going to do some science!


Skip this bit if you want…
To make iron, you need iron ore, which is an oxide of iron. When the ore is heated in a charcoal fire, it begins to release oxygen and leaves behind a mixture of iron, charcoal and bits of extraneous stuff known as slag.

The slag is separated by the addition of flux – crushed seashells or (pay attention) limestone. So far, so good – we now have what’s called a bloom of iron, and the ancient blacksmith would have been capable of getting this far. He’d then have done what you see blacksmiths doing on films set in Roman/Medieval times, or on episodes of Countryfile if that takes your fancy – he drops this white-hot blob onto an anvil and hammers the living daylights out of it, which drives out the slag and compacts the iron. This is now known as wrought iron – hurray, a term even I recognize! I’d never wondered why it was called wrought iron – why would I even think about it for a nano-second? – but logically it’s because the word ‘wrought’ means worked. This stuff would contain a small amount of carbon (absorbed from the charcoal) and was the standard product of the time. It was used for almost everything from weaponry to building materials, from tools to cooking pots. So far so good.

By the late Medieval period Europeans had discovered that if the iron ore is heated to extremely high temperatures the end product was different. The ore melted and when it cooled it was hard and brittle. It shattered or cracked under a heavy blow and could not be hammered (wrought). What could be done was to allow this stuff to run into channels and allowed to cool. One large channel usually fed others and because the whole arrangement resembled the appearance of a pig suckling a row of piglets (think like a Medieval person, please), this was called pig iron. Usefully, it could be remelted and poured into molds to make cannons, cannonballs, pots, stoves, bells…

By the 18th century the making of cast iron had developed into an extremely efficient process and it was relatively easy – much easier to do on a large scale than to make wrought iron.  Huge furnaces (puddling furnaces) had been developed to do just this. The iron was kept separate from the fire and stirred by a skilled craftsman (the puddler) – a bit like making a risotto. As he stirred, semi-solid pieces of iron would rise to the surface. The puddler would gather these bits and work them under an enormous hammer-like machine – a forge hammer. It was slow, laborious and dangerous, and required highly trained workers.Gastineau_Nantyglo_1820Nantyglo ironworks, painted by Gastineau in 1820

The situation was complicated further – or made easier, depending on your point of view – with the introduction of Henry Bessemer’s converter in 1856. This turned the attention of the industrial world away from puddling pig iron and towards steel. No more chemistry for us, now – just suffice to say that as its carbon content was between that of wrought iron and cast iron, steel had a combination of their properties; it’s harder than wrought iron but not as brittle as cast iron. It’s flexible and strong, and can be easily shaped. The future was clear – it lay with steel.

Here endeth the science!


As early as 1578 the Hanbury family of Pontypool were collecting ore and using it to make iron. By 1684 there was an ironworks in the Clydach Gorge, just over the hill from Blaenafon. In 1787 three midlands businessmen – Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt – recognized that the area around Blaenafon in the Gwent Uplands had everything necessary to produce iron – coal, iron ore and limestone. They rented 12,000 acres from the Earl of Abergavenny and began to build, starting with three blast furnaces. Within two years they were producing pig iron and had built houses to attract workers from the rest of Britain and Ireland. By 1796 over 4,000 tons of pig iron had come out of the Blaenafon Ironworks; its success had spawned other ventures such as the construction of canals, tramroads and brickworks, the sinking of mines for coal and iron ore and the opening up of new quarries.2017-06-30 15.26.45Looking down at two of the blast furnaces at the Blaenafon ironworks

By 1812 there were five furnaces capable of churning out over 14,000 tons of iron a year, and in 1817 the company built the Garn-Ddyrys Forge two miles away on the western edge of the Blorenge, to convert their pig iron into wrought iron. Other milestones followed – the switch to the production of steel, the threat to Blaenafon’s success because of the Bessemer Converter and its temporary salvation by the modifications discovered by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas and his cousin Percy Carlyle Gilchrist.2017-06-30 15.24.33The water balance tower at Blaenafon

In 1860 969,000 tons of iron was made in South Wales. By 1879, a bare century after its founding, the Blaenafon Company employed 5,000 people. It had 7 blast furnaces, 3 rolling mills, 4 brickworks, ‘abundant’ collieries and 2 Bessemer converters for steelmaking using Thomas’ ‘basic process’.

I could go on, but I won’t, because this has been too much history and chemistry for me to write, as well as for you to read. But before finishing I think it’s worth just looking at the effect all of this had on the people who laboured so long and so hard in Blaenafon – and let’s not forget that these awful conditions were reproduced right across the area.

(All of the following information is from the Blaenafon Heritage Centre:)

Population and the use of child labour

  • In 1801 Blaenafon’s population was 1,469 and by 1841 it was 6,223.
  • In 1841 the Blaenafon company employed about 2,000 people, 174 of whom were children under 13 years of age. That year Government inspectors visited Blaenafon and other mining and iron-making districts in Britain. Their findings shocked the country and a law was passed in 1842 which made it illegal for women and boys under 10 years of age to work underground.
  • In 1850 inspectors again visited the mining areas. The Blaenafon Company was criticized when 70 women and girls were found working underground in its mines, 8 years after this was made illegal.
  • By 1891 the population was 11,452.
  • In 1901 a new law was passed preventing children under 12 years from working in factories and workshops. As school was only compulsory to the age of 12, most children began work on their 13th birthday

Mortality influenced by poor housing and overcrowding

  • 1849: A cholera epidemic killed over 4,500 people in towns in Wales
  • 1868: Measles epidemic in Blaenafon resulted in 21 deaths
  • 1870: Measles epidemic in Blaenafon resulted in 52 deaths in one month alone
  • 1874: Measles epidemic in Blaenafon resulted in 24 deaths in March
  • 1875: 62 children under 10 died in a 3 month period
  • 1877: Measles epidemic in Blaenafon resulted in 1,500 cases and 24 deaths
  • 1880: Measles epidemic in Blaenafon resulted in 115 cases and 13 deaths in one month
  • 1912: the infant mortality rate was 1 in 4

2017-06-30 15.24.04.jpgWorkers’ houses built in 1788 to attract workers to Blaenafon. The houses are ‘two-up, two-down’ – most were smaller. By 1840 there were as many as nine people living in one of these. There was a row of latrines at the back of the houses you can just see at the left of the picture and the houses are no more than two hundred yards from the furnaces; in 1860 a 50-metre high chimneystack for a new engine house was placed between the two rows you see here. 

Social and political unrest

The end of the war with France in 1816 resulted in a fall in the demand and price of iron. Whenever the ironmasters felt the pinch economically they responded by cutting wages. Workers were paid in token money that could only be spent in the Company shops, where the ironmasters had the power to set the prices of food and other goods. The formation of workers’ unions had been made illegal in 1799 so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that riots broke out in protest against the situation. People can only be pushed so far, after all. This state continued over the next several decades and fuelled the rise of political agitators and groups such as the Chartists.

In 1831 there were riots in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales’ largest town, and again the touchpaper had been lit by the imposition of wage cuts. Troops were summoned from the barracks at Brecon and they killed at least 16 of the rioters when they fired into the unarmed crowd. There was chaos as they searched for the leaders of the protest; Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was accused of stabbing a soldier and was hanged in Cardiff, despite appeals for clemency and a petition with 11,000 signatures. Over forty years later a man named Ianto Parker confessed on his death bed to the assault on the soldier.

Working conditions

In 1872 a law was passed that reduced the working day for miners from 12 to 9 hours. The same year, another law was introduced that allowed the secret ballot in elections, which had been one of the six demands of the Chartists.

In 1911 Blaenafon steelworks closed, putting 500 men out of work.

In 1913 Blaenafon Council was forced by Monmouthshire Council to build 50 new houses immediately to reduce severe overcrowding in the town. Much of Blaenafon’s oldest housing was condemned as being ‘unfit for human habitation’. Plans were shelved by the outbreak of World War I. This was an era of peak coal production in South Wales. One Welshman in four was a miner and a third of world coal exports were mined in South Wales. That same year saw the worst single mining disaster in British history when 439 men and boys were killed underground at Universal Colliery, Senghenydd.

Post World War I economic conditions became ever more difficult, marked by the Great Depression and the Wall Street Crash. At such times, community spirit was crucial; in 1933 1,200 miners employed by the Blaenafon company decided to work part-time in order to share work with 850 unemployed miners.


I grew up in another steel-town, Port Talbot – which itself has been living through some trying times lately. It may not be the prettiest place on the planet but we were very happy growing up alongside Aberafan Beach. Port Talbot, as anyone who knows it will be aware, has its own micro-climate – probably influenced by the industrial works as much as by its geography.

Max Boyce, a well-known singer and comedian from the Neath valley, once told a joke that went something like this: a man was walking along looking at the sky and stopped to speak to another man sitting on a bench. “Excuse me,” says the first man, “but is that the sun or the moon up there?” ; to which the second man replies “I dunno – I’m from Port Talbot”.

Just along the coast from Port-Talbot is Swansea – Abertawe in Welsh, because the town stands where the River Tawe meets the sea. It’s easy to be stuck-up about Swansea – it’s not smart or slick; it’s scruffy and rather shabby. As Dylan Thomas says, it’s:

An ugly, lovely town…crawling, sprawling…by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea town was my world

Dylan, of course, can do no wrong in my eyes. He’s the star of Swansea, as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins are the Port Talbot boys who shone. We went to Swansea a couple of weeks ago because there was an air show on, the sort where you lounge on a beach turning ever-more red whilst planes zoom overhead. We arrived in time for the warm-up act…20170702_195204

The real attraction, of course, was the Red Arrows display team and the seagulls were soon blown out of the sky2017-07-02 15.05.48

2017-07-02 19.59.06
2017-07-02 19.58.37

We’d left the car at a park-and-ride and it wasn’t until we returned that we went to investigate the ruined industrial buildings just across the road. These were the Hafod Copper Works, founded in 1808 and finally abandoned in 1980. There are several statues and plaques around the site but sadly the whole area is in a really poor condition.2017-07-02 15.41.04

Not quite ready to go home we drove along the coastal road, past the University and into the Mumbles – home of another export to Hollywood, Catherine Zeta Jones. It’s a pleasant place, with views across the bay to the city, over which the air show was still in full swing. We sat on a bench and filled ourselves with fish and chips before setting off to tackle the traffic chaos, finally driving miles out of our way across the Gower Peninsula before turning north to the M4 and our route to the Neath Valley and home. Our way bypassed the industrial valleys  but I know that these days the land is becoming lush and green again.

And I know, now, what was there before.

… I heard the rumble of the nightshift trams and the cracking of whips as the spraggers urged their horses to their loads. Lamps burned along the face of Llangattock mountain and burnished iron flashed…

Alexander Cordell. The Rape of the Fair Country

8 responses to “Ugly, lovely towns

  1. I’m completely hooked now, I have to say! I’m pulling maps off the shelf and trying to get my head around the working geography of the area. A few months ago we’d walked from Govilon along the canal to Gilwern and then the Clydach Gorge but couldn’t get over to the site of the ironworks there or up to the tramroad around the mountain because there’s an extensive (and seemingly never-ending) road building scheme going on. We’ll have to drive around and find another way up!

  2. J > Odd, isn’t it – how we undervalue what is on our doorstep, what we’ve known since birth or childhood? I certainly know a great deal about the Valleys – especially the canals, railways, great iron works and so on, just as I know about the same things across England and the West Midlands and Shropshire in particular. That’s because the industrial revolution fascinated me even as a child: and that’s partly how I came to be a civil engineer. The professional interest is now behind me, but interest in industrial economic/social history continues, and the bookshelves behind me now are full of maps and books on these subjects. The interest has helped shape my view on the world, on personal responsibility and endeavour (how many great men and women pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps!) and politics (how many more men and women suffered at the hands of the powerful!).

  3. Always important to be reminded of the history, especially when it’s so easy to forget when you live close and walk the streets every day. We live in a two up, two down miners house and I often think how if its small for us, how small must it have been for them, especially when they had a whole family living there. We watched a show recently which talked about industrial workers, their conditions and the wealth of the bosses! I wish I could remember what it was called. I’ll have to get my thinking cap on.

    • What amazes me is that any gesture from the owners was so greatly appreciated. Samuel Hopkins of Blaenavon left £100 in his will for the good of the people of the town and his sister helped start a school. These were looked on as philanthropic acts!

  4. Fascinating post, Helen, as always, and a history that always needs reiterating. (Not been to Blaenavon yet, but I have wandered around the scarred landscape south of Clydach when my daughter was doing the Gilwern Grunt x-country race.) Just now trying to get my head around the statistics, and the human beings behind the numbers.

    • Thanks Chris. It’s well worth a visit. Driving back down over the side of the Blorenge into Govilon there’s a layby where you can stop and look around the landscape and try to put everything into some sort of geographical perspective. The blackened wasteland behind you and the fertile Usk valley in front…but from here you’d be able to smell the works, probably – and the night sky would be alight. I wonder if a dim red glow would have been visible from where we live?

      • Some local Tolkien fans would have us believe that when the man supposedly visited this part of the world in the 30s and 40s (no evidence that he did) he was so taken by the sight of the night sky aglow from the Usk valley that he was inspired to conceive of Mordor. Somehow I think there were sights around the Black Country that would’ve been closer to hand as inspiration …

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