MERTHYR TYDFIL - IRON METROPOLIS 1790-1860

OWEN, JOHN A., Merthyr Historian, Vol. 1, Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society, 1976

 

Before discussing the emergence of the Merthyr Tydfil district from the late 18th century as the largest and most powerful iron manufacturing area in the world, it is important to look very briefly how the four great ironworks started.

 

Dowlais Works

 

Started as the "Merthir Furnace" from the prospecting of one man Thomas Lewis, of Llanishen, the owner of the Pentyreh Furnace and other forges. He obtained leases in coal and minerals in Dowlais district from Lord Windsor for 31 per annum for 99 years. He then formed a consortium of nine partners, merchants, gentlemen, etc. in September 1759, to operate and trade as iron masters for a stock of ₤4,000.

 

From the start the venture was very short of ready cash to operate the business and until 1767 a committee was appointed to run the affairs of the concern. In 1767 a Manager was appointed, namely John Guest. In 1782 John Guest became a partner acquiring 6/16 share in the works. From this time on the Guests dominated both the partnership and the direction of business, although until the early part of the 19th century not in a commanding position.

 

The Plymouth Works

 

So named because it was built on land leased from the Earl of Plymouth in December of 1763 to Isaac Wilkinson and John Guest. But because of early difficulties, i.e. getting farmers and tenants to move from their land, they sold their rights to Anthony Bacon, a rich London merchant in 1765/1766. (There is no evidence that Guest & Wilkinson actually started production.) Then in 1788 the Court of Chancery granted a lease on behalf of Anthony Bacon's second illegitimate son who had inherited the Works to Richard Hill from Christmas 1786 for 151, years. Hill was the brother-in-law of Anthony Bacon and had been managing the furnace from 1784. When he took over the Works it consisted of one small furnace, worked by two giant bellows, waterwheel operated.

 

Cyfarthfa Works

 

In 1765 Anthony Bacon and William Brownrigg of Whitehaven took out a lease to build a furnace. In 1766/67 the first furnace appears to have been built by one Charles Wood for the partnership. A thong it seems that a forge was built in 1766 using pig iron from the Plymouth Works, also during the building of the furnace many castings were supplied from the Plymouth Works. The furnace was further extended in 1773 by building a mill for boring canon to supply the Board of Finance and through this venture in 1777 a London merchant became a partner, namely Richard Crawshay. In 1783 Bacon leased his mill to Francis Humphrey, the owner of a furnace near Broseley, Staffs, but Bacon kept the furnace and stipulated that Homphrey had to buy his pig iron from him. About the same year, 1783, Bacon leased his estate and furnace to Crawshay for ₤5,000 and other portions to Homphrey, Hill, Lewis and Tait. Also it has been stated that in October 1784, the forge and cannon boring mill were leased to one David Tanner. Whatever, from Christmas 1786 for a term of nine years, the Cyfarthfa furnace was leased to Richard Crawshay, William Stevens and Joseph Cochshutt at the yearly rental of  ₤1,000.

 

Penydarren Works

 

Came into being in February 1784, for 99 years lease under the ownership of the three sons of Francis Homphrey-Jeremiah, Thomas and Samuel, and George Foreman of London. The same Francis Hornphrey who had leased the cannon boring mill from Richard Crawshay. He must have recognized the value of the opportunities presented within the district, hence went into business in Merthyr. He already had interests in a furnace in Broseley, Staffs., where John Guest was from, so besides being acquainted with Cyfarthfa, he probably discussed local trade with Guest whom he leased his large mineral tract from anyway. The Management of the Works was taken on by two of the brothers, namely Jeremiah and Samuel by 1786. It was they who built up the Works.

 

Merthyr District 1790

 

By this time all the four ironworks were established. Granted they were in different stages of evolution and development, but nevertheless all in operation.

 

Transport was still the greatest problem, although the odd mule train system of carrying had ceased since 1771 when the road straight down the valley to Cardiff was opened. The sheer volume of output from the Works completely clogged this slow and very costly means of cartage. Hence, in 1790 the first of a few very significant moves was made that coupled together, exploded the productivity capacity of the existing ironworks, and wrote the name Merthyr Tydfil in letters of fire. Namely, the act for the Glamorganshire Canal was passed and work started immediately on its construction. It took four years to complete and was ready to use in 1794 by which time the export in iron out of Merthyr was accelerating daily. The other factor was the tremendous development at Cyfarthfa of Cort's dry puddling process for making wrought iron (patented in 1784). It was at Cyfarthfa that the process was perfected and the use of rolling mills for mass producing bar iron. It was that Works which took the lead in manufacture and greatness to start, from 10 tons of bar iron per week in 1787 to 200 tons per week in 1800. All the Works produced pig iron and bar iron which became the staple product for many years.

 

1800

 

At the turn of the century all the ironworks were consolidated, although apart from Cyfarthfa, the other three, i.e. Dowlais, Plymouth and Penydarren, were struggling in matters of production and capital. In 1802 Cyfarthfa made a profit of 36,000 and was the largest manufactory of its kind in the world.

 

In 1803 Cyfarthfa had six furnaces in blast and was described by Malakin as the largest ironworks in the kingdom or for that care in the world. Although two of the furnaces had been built at Ynysfach in 1801, completely separate from the main Works, eventually there were four on this site. In 1806 Dowlais had three furnaces in blast and produced 5,432 tons, blast to furnace was supplied by a double acting steam engine. In the same year Plymouth Works had two furnaces in blast and produced 3,952 tons. In 1807 Plymouth erected a third blast furnace when it became known as the Plymouth Forge Co.

 

This Works was always noted for the very high quality of pig iron and bar metal. The metallurgical analysis of its products was very closely monitored by Anthony Hill.

 

1810's

 

By 1811 Cyfarthfa was a gigantic concern where travellers described the buildings of the furnace as "elegant in form and where is the only building in the world which has a complete iron roof, where iron is converted into every possible use, even iron barges" (a gross exaggeration as the products were almost solely pig iron, No. 2 bar or tram plates). When Richard Crawshay died in 1810 he left a fortune in excess of ₤200,000. The Works were valued at ₤100,000 in 1809, hence a good deal of his wealth came from his merchant house in London. The output from five furnaces in 1814 was 9,600 tons per annum. Between 1817 and 1819 William Crawsbay became the sole owner of the Cyfarthfa Works buying out his relations, the Baileys and Benjamin Hall. By this time the capital of the business was in the ₤200,000 mark. Although between the years 1813-1819 ₤250,000 to ₤300,000 was spent from the profits of the London merchant house in securing sole control of the Works at Cyfarthfa and increasing its production capacity, i.e. new blast furnaces, rolling mills and ₤4,000 alone in a vast new water wheel to supply power to the Works. In 1816 the Works produced 15,000 tons of pig iron from five furnaces, but due to the slump in trade, a large proportion was not being converted into bar iron due to the very low prices prevailing; hence this large Works and its proprietor was already controlling prices and regulating the demand for iron. It was a period to tighten the belt and await for the tide to turn once again in a profitable direction. Meanwhile at Penydarren, progress had been much slower with less drive and innovation from a production point of view. In 1815 the yearly output was 7,800 tons from three furnaces. Although Penydarren had assured everyone of her place in history with Richard Trevithick and his high pressure steam engine which first ran on rails from Penydarren to Abercynon on 21st February 1804. Plymouth on the other hand by 1815 was making 7,800 tons from three furnaces and by 1820, 7,941 tons from five furnaces. By this time the smaller ironworks were feeling the pinch in terms of capital, output and technical expansion. Both Plymouth and Perydarren concentrated on the more quality aspect of the pig and bar iron worked and later in high quality rails in small quantities. It was the giants of Cyfarthfa and now Dowlais that were the mass production side of the industry with huge works, massive machinery and teeming thousands of employees.

 

By the year 1815 Dowlais was dominated by one man, Josiah John Guest. The early years of committee management, lack of working capital and no directional policy were all over. In 1815 the five blast furnaces produced 15,600 tons of pig iron yearly. Whilst by 1823 the ten blast furnaces were producing 22,287 tons of pig iron. From this time on Dowlais was to expand and develop into the largest and best ironworks in the world.

 

The whole Merthyr area was Ironworks Dominated. Each separate works produced a surrounding area in microcosm of each other. The big house of the ironmaster, schools, churches, chapels, public houses, workmen's houses. They were the precursors for all our accepted living environments to-day, in all crude mini welfare states. The whole Merthyr area had the biggest, best and worst aspects of an emergent industrial society, which was trying to adapt to an unknown future. Merthyr was a frontier town in all aspects. Housing, slums, endemic and contagious diseases, great wealth and poverty and magnificent technical evolution and invention.

 

1820's

 

In 1820 the four Merthyr ironworks were sending down the Glamorgaushire Canal to Cardiff 46,756 tons (chiefly wrought iron, an added value product as opposed to common pig iron), out of a total of 150,000 tons of pig iron output for the whole of South Wales. By 1840 the comparable figures were 109,777 and 505,000 tons respectively. This figure of 505,000 tons produced in South Wales represented 38% to 39% of the total pig iron output of Great Britain. Therefore the Merthyr district made approximately 8% of the total for Britain from four Works. Then in 1821 Dowlais started to make the key product that would unlock the door to the Merthyr district's greatness and secure vast profits for the ironworks, namely "rails" for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first passenger line in the world. All the Works by 1830 had taken to the manufacture of iron rails in some degree or other.

 

1830's

 

In 1830 Penydarren had already made the cables of flat-bar link iron for the Menai Straits suspension bridge of Telfords and rails for the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Dowlais in the same year laid out a whole new special rail rolling mill to mass produce wrought iron railway rails (the Big Mill).

 

The periods of early railway construction created an enormous demand for railroad "furniture" (rails, chairs, etc.) and was undoubtedly the greatest stimulant to the expansion of industry for decades. The opportunity the Merthyr ironworks grasped with both hands. By 1836 Dowlais was exporting rails all over the world and making 20,000 tons of this product alone per year. The rapid expansion of the trade and industry continued with frightening speed to the zenith of the district's manufacturing capacity and influence in iron. A great aid to this expansion was the completion of the Taff Vale Railway from Merthyr to Cardiff in 1841, for the ingress of raw materials and export of finished goods at speed.

 

1840's

 

By 1845 the Dowlais Works was the biggest and greatest ironworks in the world with 18 blast furnaces producing 88,400 tons yearly, 1,700 tons weekly, with the finished products in rails and bar iron 1,600 tons weekly, and 7,500/10,000 persons were employed. Whilst Thomas Evans the sales agent was paid l,000 per annum and traveled the world to obtain orders for rails, and where the rest of the world's industrialists beat a path to the Door of Dowlais House so they could view the gigantic concern, see its marvelous technical developments, then go home and copy it if they could.

 

Cyfarthfa had 11 furnaces in blast producing 45,760 tons of iron and the new steam driven rolling mill produced 2,500 tons of rails per month and cost ₤25,000 to erect and equip.

 

Penydarren had six furnaces in blast (seven in 1848) and produced 15,600 tons of high quality iron but the Works had not expanded or developed as they had earlier promised due to the lack of capital and management direction. This ironworks, the last to emerge in 1784, would be the first to close in 1859, the high water mark being its association with Richard Trevithick in 1804.

 

Plymouth Works had steadily progressed under the excellent guidance of Anthony Hill from his managership in 1826. He was a first class businessman and more important an excellent metallurgist, so much so that the iron produced in the Works was always. oversubscribed in orders. It was the standard quality to which all other South Wales iron was judged. The Works had developed South from Merthyr in a very fragmented strip development, which on the surface was not conducive to efficiency, but for them it worked, because they were always relatively “small " and did not overdevelop outside their capacity for quality iron. The original Plymouth Works in Merthyr had five furnaces ultimately. The Duffryn furnace site started in 1819, was finally finished in 1850 when No. 10 blast furnace was blown in. Whilst the Pentrebach Works in-between consisted of puddling furnaces and rolling mills, the last big investment being made in 1841. In 1846 the eight furnaces in blast produced 35,198 tons. This Works continued to prosper up until 1862 when Anthony Hill died. The firm which took it over either through lack of expertise or business management, allowed the concern to run down completely. This was accelerated when they attempted to compete against the giants of Dowlais and Cyfarthfa in the mass produced railway furniture market, whilst abandoning their quality product iron in the process which could have saved them.

 

During the latter half of the 1840's and throughout the fifties, the wind of change started to blow through the Merthyr ironworks district. At Dowlais there was the lease drama in 1848 when it was thought that Sir J. J. Guest was not going to carry on manufacture and close the Works down, but he renewed it at the last event for over 5,000 rent per annum and ₤30,000 royalties, a far cry from ₤31 per annum he paid up to then. Cyfarthfa continued as strong as ever in the same period with their lease due for renewal in 1864.

 

1850's

 

Meanwhile Plymouth, whilst Anthony Hill lived, refined top grade iron. Penydarren on the other hand slowly limped to oblivion in 1859 as a manufacturing entity, when the Dowlais Iron Co. bought them out for ₤59,875, solely to retain their old mineral district at Cwmbargoed for coal production.

 

But the middle of the nineteenth century produced a terrific traumatic shock for the whole world of manufacturing industry. In 1856 Henry Bessemer patented a process for producing malleable iron, using a blowing cylinder, without recourse to coal or charcoal. The Bessemer process as it became known was the dawn of the steel age and although no one then could forecast the impact the event would have, it was the beginning of the end for the mass produced iron manufacturing age - Dowlais as ever with its technical expertise took out the first license from Bessemer and Longsdon to use the patent. Although for many technical reasons the process was not successful at first, but by 1865 it had its steelworks, which were to resound throughout the world the same as the earlier ironworks did. Cyfarthfa did likewise but much later in 1884, with a long shut down period in between. Plymouth never built a steelworks due to a failure of the whole manufacturing business in 1875/80.

 

Thus by 1860 the glory of the great Merthyr ironworks district was fading fast, buried by technical and economic changes in manufacturing processes.

 

The industrial rise of the Midlands and the north of England was at hand. It did not end at this date but between 1860 and 1880 a completely different manufacturing philosophy and business emerged, with the change to steel taking place and the emergence of the South Wales coal industry.

 

The entrepreneurs of the local iron industry had mostly all been Englishmen, merchants, traders and technical adventurers, who had vision, ability and business acumen to create vast fortunes for themselves and introduce tremendous technical innovations and expertise which the rest of the world followed for many years, also the doubtful advantage of mass integrated industrial communities with all the ignorance, disease and exploitation they portended.

 

Business Expansion and Population

 

But for all that, it is well for us to remember the names of the main proprietors of those Works.

Lewis/Guest                                     Dowlais

Bacon/Hill                                        Plymouth

Bacon/Crawshay                              Cyfarthfa

Homphrey /Foreman                        Penydarren

 

Also some of the statistics of iron exported down the Glamorganshire canal from 1817 to 1840.

 

References (Abridged)

1. The Dowlais Iron Co. Letters 1782-1860. Edited by Miss M. Elsas, Glamorgan County Archivist 1960.

2. A Short History of the Dowlais Ironworks, J. A. Owen 1972.

3. Mines, Mills and Furnaces, Morgan Rees 1969.

4. The Penydarren Ironworks, Miss M. S. Taylor 1969 (Glamorgan Historian Vol. 3).

5. The Canals of South Wales and the Border, Charles Hadfield 1967.

6. The Industrial Development of South Wales, A. H. John 1950.

7. The Crawshay Dynasty, John P. Addis 1957.

8. The Plymouth Ironworks, Clive Thomas 1972.

9. The History of Merthyr Tydfil, Charles Wilkins 1908.

10. The Early History of the Old South Wales Ironworks, John Lloyd 1906.

11. A Guide to Merthyr Tydfil, T. E. Clarke 1849.

12. A History of the City of Cardiff, W. Rees 1969.

13. The Iron Manufacture of Great Britain, William Truran 1855.

14. The Economic History of the British Iron & Steel Industry 17841879, Alan Birch 1967.

 

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Rev. November 2009