Hirwaun: The establishment of the ironworks in 1757

 

Although iron ore was common throughout the northern part of Glamorgan, the moorland known as Hirwaun Wrgan Common at the top of the Neath Valley, was recognised as a special place because it had easy access to limestone, water, iron ore and coal. Iron ore from Hirwaun had long been used in the Brecon ironworks and two Brecon businessmen saw an opportunity for profit in building a furnace at Hirwaun and save on the cost of transporting iron ore to Brecon.
Early in 1757, Thomas Mayberry and John Wilkins took out a lease to dig for iron and coal on the common at Hirwaun. Included in the Lease was provision to build a furnace at Bryn Maerdy. There was plenty of opposition to the scheme. Local farmers were increasingly resentful of the new industrial development and it was not easy for Mayberry and Wilkins to make quick progress. After what seems to have been some difficulty they settled on a site for the furnace alongside the River Cynon. A works was built quickly and was operating by 1760. The works must have quickly started to attract workers who lodged in local farmhouses which were altered and enlarged to cater for these new 'immigrant workers'. There must have been a basic shanty town set up around the works by 1770 because the name Hirwaun becomes commonly used for the new 'village' that had emerged. By 1800, a number of two roomed terraced houses had been built on the Glamorgan bank of the River Cynon. The auction catalogue of 1813 contains the sale of 116 workers houses.

Although we have very little idea of how the original furnace looked, it is fairly safe to assume that it was similar in layout to other furnaces of the time. It probably looked rather similar to the remains at Cefn Cribbwr. The 1780s and 1790s were times of war and expansion of the army and navy. There was a big demand for armaments and the works produced large numbers of cannon and cannon balls. However, the business must have been quite precarious because in 1813 it was bankrupt and auctioned off. In 1817 the works were eventually sold to William Crawshay II. The works was always in a precarious position economically and the villagers of Hirwaun had to live with a 'boom and bust' economy until the works was eventually closed in the late 1850s.

The unreliable nature of employment at the ironworks meant that many ironworker's families lived in extreme poverty for long periods. It is quite possible that by the 1840s, Hirwaun may have had the worst housing and living conditions in the whole of the South Wales Coalfield.

Right: An 18 pound field cannon from the early 1800s. Cannon such as these were cast in large numbers in the Hirwaun works and shipped down the Neath canal for loading on ships berthed at Giant's Grave and Briton Ferry. They were transported to army and naval bases in England where the wooden carriages and wheels were added.

Below: Although undated, this photograph of the Hirwaun works was probably taken some time in the 1860s 0r 1870s, after most production had ceased. The general dilapidation is typical of the state most of the South Wales works and industries after they had ceased to become useful. It is hardly surprising that most South Wales councils and residents were very keen to demolish and redevelop such dereliction.

From left to right , you can identify: A terrace of houses. A number of important workers would be housed as close to the furnaces as possible in the late 1700s. Next to the houses is the four storey house for the steam blowing engine with the tall chimney behind. To the right of the blowing house are the blast furnaces, there are four in this view. The third one has been partly demolished. The stone used for the furnaces was often of good quality and it would be taken and re-used in building houses and churches. Further to the right of the blast furnaces, you can see the forge. This was the building with lots of small re-heating furnaces where the pig iron was made into cannon, cannon balls, chains, and other wrought iron artifacts. You can see the large number of chimneys for the small furnaces. In the foreground is the River Cynon. Much of the waste from the works was tipped into the river causing dreadful pollution along the river valley.

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SHW's Book of the Month:

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This is not a local history book and Mark Kurlansky is a journalist not a local historian. Nevertheless he has produced a fascinating history of one of the world's basic commodities. I first came across Kurlansky with his book about the history of Cod. I think anyone who wants to know about the history of the Bristol Channel has to be familiar with the fish and how it encouraged Bristol fishermen to discover the Grand Banks. Salt is another offbeat yet fundamental bit of our history. We've had a popular web page on salt for ages and Swansea had a Salthouse Point at the mouth of the River Tawe for centuries. Kurlansky takes you on a journey across space and time to discover the importance of salt for mankind. From Jericho to Gandhi, salt has had an important part to play. This is a lovely book that enhances the quality of history for it adds depth and value to something we use every day. (Nigel Robins)

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