Plymouth Ironworks at Merthyr

 

The origins of the third large ironworks in Merthyr are not clear. The lease for the works was granted in 1763. The works is generally thought to have been built in the later 1760s. There was only one blast furnace until 1813 when two others were added.

 

Right: The Plymouth Works was south of the town. The site was lucky to have a good supply of water and the works was using water power long after its rivals had adopted steam engines.

The Plymouth Works were as successful as the other Merthyr works in the early 1800s. This has much to do with the fact that there was such a demand for their products that there was little chance of failure. However, the management of the works was rather conservative in nature and reluctant to embrace new technology. In boom times a lack of new investmment was not a problem however, the lack of efficient or modern plant and techniques would come to take a toll later in the century. Water power was used in preference to developing steam engines to power the blast furnaces. This meant that the works was dependent on the water that flowed from the hills above the works. To make sure that the best use was made of the water supply the works was subdivided into three main plants; the Plymouth furnaces, Pentre-Bach Forge, and the Dyffryn Furnaces. The works complex spread over 3 miles. The droughts of 1843 and 1844 meant that water power was severly reduced and prompted the company to develop steam power.

The use of steam power had a dramatic effect on production and the 13000 tons of iron produced in 1840 had risen to over 35000 tons by 1846. The Plymouth Works relied on producing top quality iron and considered its product the best in Merthyr.

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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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