Why is the history of iron important?

Some people have said that iron is one of the foundations of modern civilisation. Without iron we would not have aircraft, tower blocks, railways or motor vehicles. The development of the iron industry in Britain between 1750 and 1850 is one of the most important reasons why Britain had an industrial revolution.

Before 1800, the main materials used for building anything were wood, brick and stone. The development of new methods of making iron in any shape and in massive quantities for low cost turned iron into the ‘wonder material’ of the early 1800s.


Right: Cheap cast iron cooking pots  meant that even poor people could have a range of vessels for cooking. These were made in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in the late 1700s.

The iron producing areas of Wales were at the centre of the world’s need for iron products. The iron made in South Wales was exported from Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Bristol around the world. The ironworks of South Wales grew into massive undertakings. They dominated the landscape of the South Wales coalfield, and changed the shape of the land for ever with massive amounts of space needed for stockyards, furnaces, casting houses, railways, canals, housing and waste tips.

People came from all over the British Isles to work in Merthyr, Blaenavon, and the surrounding industrial villages. They brought with them new languages and different cultures which have influenced the character of the Welsh nation.

The iron workers learned many new skills in producing iron in all its forms. Welsh workers became expert craftsmen in coal mining, iron founding, and iron forging and the ‘new technologies’ of heavy engineering and steam engine building. In the years after 1850 many Welsh people emigrated to the United States of America because their skills were in such great demand.

Below: The breakthrough for iron as a miracle material occurred with the completion of the iron bridge which crossed the River Severn near Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. Completed in 1779, the bridge illustrated beautifully the possibilities of iron as a large scale construction material. The bridge has survived to be regarded as one of the key icons of the world's industrial development.


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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