Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr (Established in 1765)

The Cyfarthfa ironworks became famous because of its association with the Crawshay family.

The works was established in 1765 by Anthony Bacon and William Brownrigg who were active in other local mining and smelting businesses, and Watkin George, a Merthyr engineer who masterminded the mechanics of the works.

Cyfarthfa Works was perfectly sited on a slope with plentiful water supply for a big waterwheel to power the blast furnaces.


Above: Cyfarthfa was built on an open site north west of Merthyr. There was a plentiful water supply which was used to power a massive water wheel.

Cyfarthfa was a successful works but its great opportunity came with the arrival of Richard Crawshay in 1783. Crawshay had a great deal of knowledge and experience of the British iron business. He knew that the profit was in producing bar or wrought iron. Crawshay ensured that Cyfarthfa's forges were large and well staffed so that he could produce large quantities of wrought iron from the basic pig iron produced in the blast furnaces. You can see the large forge building in the illustration at the foot of the page.

At times, Cyfarthfa works was producing so much wrought iron in various shapes and forms that it even had to buy in extra supplies of pig iron from the nearby Dowlais works. Crawshay was quick to adopt Henry Cort's puddling process which meant that he was able to produce large quantities of high quality wrought iron in a short space of time. Puddling was a means of converting the pig iron into wrought iron. Using a special furnace, the molten pig iron was stirred (or 'puddled') by stirring it with a big ladle. The job of puddler was one of the most skilled and specialised in the whole of the ironworks (see right).

Crawshay's involvement in Cyfarthfa increased after Anthony Bacon's death in 1786.

Above: A puddler at work in the cavernous foundry building of Cyfarthfa works in 1825. The figure at the far left is holding the furnace door open whilst the puddler works on the molten mass of iron. The second figure is controlling a wheeled dolly which will hold the ball of molten iron being formed in the furnace. The puddler will be working in extreme heat and his clothes will be almost hot enough to burst into flames but he has become used to the discomfort. The men on the left are deliberately sitting away from the extreme heat of the furnace opening.

By the end of the 1780s, Cyfarthfa was producing over 2000 tons of bar iron annually, and this figure was to triple within five years. The original furnace had been expanded to four furnaces by 1800. The works developed a reputation for good quality naval cannon which explains why Admiral Nelson visited the works in 1802. Although some ironworks had a rather precarious economy and relied on times of war for good business, Cyfarthfa was far more flexible. The period between 1800 and 1810 were years of steady expansion and development. At the time of his death in 1810, Richard Crawshay was able to leave his family a fortune estimated to be in the region of 1 million!

William Crawshay II took over the management of the works after 1810. The works continued to be very profitable. A new water wheel was built around 1820 which cost over £4000. William II spent £30,000 of the company's money to build Cyfarthfa Castle in 1825. Although not seen by everyone as an attractive building, it certainly portrays much of the attitude of the early iron masters.

From the 1820s, the railway boom helped increase the profitability of the works as it produced iron rails for railway companies all over the country. Cyfarthfa specialised in the production of basic iron rails which although reliable, were not up to the quality of the iron produced at Dowlais. As long as there was a boom, quality did not matter but as early as 1833 there was concern over the poor quality of Cyfarthfa iron when compared to that being made at Dowlais. Nevertheless, the name of Crawshay and Cyfarthfa ensured business remained good. By 1840 there were 11 blast furnaces, about 100 puddling furnaces and 6 rolling mills.

Below: The Cyfarthfa works in 1800. There was plenty of space to arrange the various buildings and the original works has a very open appearance. The blast furnaces are on the left. The charging houses at the top of the four furnaces all have roofs to keep the iron ore and coke dry before it is dropped into the furnace mouth. At the foot of the furnaces are the large casting houses which would have large sand floors for casting large numbers of cast iron pigs. The large waterwheel powers a massive pair of bellows to provide air for the furnaces. In the background, piles of coal are left to burn slowly and turn into coke for the furnaces. On the right, the large forge house can be seen. At the rear of the building are the numerous small chimneys of the puddling forges. The open archways bear teastimony to the massive amount of ventilation that was needed in the forge area. In the background are terraces of housing which were more like military barracks than family housing.

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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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