Early Iron Industry in Wales: Background

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The British iron industry has its roots in the arrival of the Celtic 'Hallstatt Culture' around 650 BC. These Celtic tribes brought with them condsiderable expertise in the smelting and working of iron. We have evidence of early iron workers smelting iron around Llantrisant and the Forest of Dean. The iron produced by these early tribes was worked and shaped using stone hammers and anvils. Some of the early iron artefacts that have survived show evidence of great knowledge and skill.

The Romans (c. 44- 410 AD)

In the 400 years that the Romans occupied Britain, they introduced a number of changes to the way in which iron making was organised. There was a massive demand for iron in Roman Britain and a large number of ironworks were established at military bases and large towns. Iron ore was mined at sites all across the country and the Roman roads made it far easier to transport heavy cartloads of iron ore to wherever it was needed. Locally there were ironworks at Caerwent, Ely, Llantwit Major, Neath and Aberllynfi in Breconshire. It is likely that there would have been a large amount of carefully managed woodland around these sites to provide charcoal for the smelting hearths.

Above: Roman iron implements. A billhook, a hoe and a small shears.

After the Romans

We know that many things changed after the Romans left but the need for iron remained very high. Ironworkers were considered special craftsmen in many communities, and smiths and their skills were highly prized. Many monks developed iron working skills and some monasteries became centres of iron production. The close European links of a number of monasteries meant that any developments in skills or techniques developed in France or Germany were quickly communicated to the iron workers of the Welsh monasteries. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, a number of monasteries were considered major centres of iron production. Both Neath and Margam Abbeys were granted rights to mine iron ore and produce iron artefacts by the 1280s. All of these early ironworkers were producing iron from small structures known as 'hearths'. The amount of iron produced in a hearth was quite small and the hearths were not hot enough to melt the iron, they turned it into a flexible mass that could be hammered into shape as long as it was kept hot.

A 'revolution' in smelting

In the early 1400s, a number of ironworkers in western Germany developed a new way of making iron. Their idea was to build a bigger, taller hearth. The effect of these new furnaces was to get a much higher temperature which would melt the iron completely. This new liquid form of iron could be poured into moulds of any shape. This new 'cast' or 'pig' iron could be produced in much greater quantities than was possible in the older style hearths.

Right: An early blast furnace from the 1750s.

The news of this change spread slowly across Europe and ironworkers everywhere started to experiment with bigger hearths or furnaces. An important development for this new type of furnace was the invention of bigger bellows to pump air into the bottom of the furnace. This made the furnace fire much hotter which melted the iron. This arrangement of tall furnace and bellows became known as the 'blast furnace'. The first blast furnace to be built in Britain was erected around 1490 at Buxted in Sussex. In the years 1500-1595, many more blast furnaces were built across the country. We know that a blast furnace was built at Neath Abbey during these years but we do not know the exact date. We can only confirm that it was dismantled in 1694.

The blast furnace is established

By the 1600s, the blast furnace had become established as the best way to make 'cast' or 'pig' iron. The iron produced by a blast furnace was not a very good quality iron, it needed a lot of working and refining by smiths and other craftsmen before it could be really useful. This meant that the iron industry started to grow into a much bigger industry because it needed a range of trades and crafts. The table below shows the difference between the early 'hearth' type of iron making and the later 'blast' furnace method.

Original Hearth (1450s)
Blast Furnace (1550s)
  • Could be built around a hole in the ground
  • Needed a small bellows perhaps powered by a small waterwheel or a man
  • No maintenance needed
  • Very few special skills needed
  • Could be built anywhere
  • Produced a small amount of good quality iron
  • A big structure with carefully built foundations.
  • Needed stonemasons and builders,carpenters, joiners and, blacksmiths.
  • Building and engineering skills needed.
  • Needed a large waterwheel with a good water supply.
  • Lots of maintenance necessary.
  • Large charcoal supply needed.
  • Large iron ore supply needed.
  • Large amount of labour needed.
  • Large amount of space for other buildings needed.
  • Large amount of cheap iron produced.
  • Could cast large things such as cannons.
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