Dowlais Ironworks 1800 - 1840


The expansion of the British army and Royal Navy in the 1790s meant that there was a massive and growing market for Dowlais iron. Pig iron produced in the blast furnaces was used to cast things such as cannon and parts for steam engines. Pig iron was also refined in the large number of forges and workshops that grew up on the site.

Right: The Dowlais works was on a large open site to the north east of the town. The large site meant that it was easy to expand the works in later years.

The forges produced wrought iron for chains, steam engines, plates for boilers, and bars of wrought iron for export across the world to America and India. The growth of the works in the early 1800s meant that there was a continual demand for labour. Both the blast furnaces and the forges of Dowlais needed a constant flow of labour in the form of men, women and, for many years, children. At this time manpower was the only way of moving the heavy iron around the works and there were many small cranes and hoists everywhere to help in the dangerous work. See the illustration below.

By 1815 there were five blast furnaces providing pig iron for the Dowlais forges and for the forges of the nearby Cyfarthfa works. In 1821, Dowlais won the contract that would transform the industry. Iron rails would be needed in massive quantities for the new railways that were starting to appear.

Above: An extract from G Childs' painting of the Dowlais blast furnaces in 1840. The open top blast furnaces belched flame, smoke and pollution into the valley. In later years the blast furnace tops would be sealed to recover the heat and gas given off by the furnaces.

By 1823 Dowlais had 10 blast furnaces, large English ironworks had no more than four furnaces. By this time Dowlais had become the largest ironworks in the world. By 1836, Dowlais was producing 20,000 tons of iron rails for the world's railways. Further growth was assured. By 1845 there were eighteen blast furnaces employing over 7,300 people to make over 88,000 tons of iron products a year. At this time the blast furnaces alone employed over 1000 people.
Below: Although undated, this drawing is acknowledged as being of men working in one of the Dowlais rolling mills. The crude crane suggests an early date close to 1800. Rolling was a very effective way of shaping iron bars. The iron bar was passed through a series of notched rollers. The rolling mill on the right of the picture has 5 notches. Passing the hot iron bar through each of these notches in turn would gradually change the shape of the bar into the desired product. The drawing illustrates beautifully the typical working environment of a Welsh ironworks forge in the early 1800s. On the left is a chimney stack from one of the many reheating furnaces that would be used to keep the iron hot and malleable. The rolls would be spinning very fast, and there would be a large number of exposed cogwheels and flywheels in constant motion. The iron bar would be passed between the rolls from one team to the other at a very high speed. The men in the teams were all expert users of the wrought iron long handled tongs that were the tool of their trade. The man with the wheeled dolly (on the left) would have to be perfectly placed to take the weight of the bar at the right time in the process, otherwise the bar could be ruined. The noise, heat and danger of this working environment must have been truly incredible. A mistake could mean painful injury or death at any time. Some modern 'management experts' talk of teamworking as if it's a new concept, how little they know. It is hardly surprising that these men went home to form superb choirs, self-help education clubs, trade unions and welfare schemes!


SHW's Book of the Month:

Salt by Mark Kurlansky

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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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