Merthyr's main ironworks

Between 1790 and 1900, Merthyr Tydfil was a truly remarkable town. Although the town was certainly very well established by the 1400s, it was the local access to iron ore and coal that really transformed the area. The small and very rural town had to cope with massive numbers of new arrivals as the four main ironworks grew.

Below is a map of the Merthyr area in about 1850. The four main ironworks (Dowlais, Cyfarthfa, Pen y Darren, and Plymouth) were located in areas where there were good sites for building the blast furnaces. Because this was a very open moorland type of landscape there was nothing to get in the way of the building of the furnaces and they were built in a spread out manner with lots of other buildings surrounding them. The town of Merthyr was too small to absorb the large numbers of new houses needed for the ironworkers. A number of new streets of houses were built near the ironworks which created new communities in Pen y Darren and Dowlais. The need to move large amounts of heavy iron products such as cannon, wheels, rails and beams and joists meant that large numbers of tramways and railways connected the ironworks with the centre of the town. New streets of houses were built along these tramways, gradually increasing the urban area of the town.

There was a continual shortage of housing which meant that very small and badly built houses were built in areas where the land was cheap. Land was cheap because it was very damp, the foundations were poor, and it was close to the filth of the river. Merthyr's poorest people ended living in the poorest and most unpleasant parts of the town (see Merthyr's housing). A similar process occurs in cities like Rio de Janeiro today.

The iron works all produced thousands of tons of waste in the form of slag and cinders. This waste material was dumped in any open spaces that could be found. The open moorland was ideal for this kind of dumping and man made mountains of waste scarred the land surrounding the town. No one cared about the massive amounts of pollution and toxic waste that were being produced by the works. Thepeople of Merthyr still suffer a large number of health problems related to industrial pollution from the past.

The fact that the large iron works were producing massive quantities of basic cast iron meant that lots of small businesses also grew up around the works making all sorts of small iron items in little forges in sheds and roughly built warehouses throughout the town.

 

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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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