BRYN COCH, GLAMORGANSHIRE, WALES
Wales is located on the southwestern portion of the British Isle that constitutes England, Scotland and Wales. The southern coast provides extensive access to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Bristol Channel which separates the English Cornish peninsula from the mainland. Our interest is in the county of Glamorgan (Glamorganshire). Glamorgan is the central of three regions which span the southern coast of Wales. Gwent, to the east, borders on the Severn and Wye valleys - the England-Wales boundary. Dyfed, to the west, borders on the Irish sea. In general, throughout history, the western portion of Wales is the more rural and the eastern, the more industrialized.
In descriptions of Wales, the Glamorgan area is referred to as "The Valleys" due to the numerous north-south river valleys where was mined the coal and iron during the industrial revolution. In Wales that occurred in the eighteenth century. One of these valleys is the Vale of Neath. Another neighboring valley is the Rhondda Valley, a coal-producing area made famous in Richard Llewellyn’s classic tale How Green Was My Valley.
Neath, a city that formed about the ancient Neath Castle lies on the eastern bank of the Neath River about 3 miles north of the mouth of the river. The Vale of Neath (Nedd) extends to the upper portion of Glamorganshire where important iron-making districts developed near the city of Merthyr Tydfil. Across the river from Neath is the site of the once-prominent monastery – Neath Abbey. That abbey, along with other British religious institutions of Catholic origins, was left to decay after the separation of the Anglican church.
The area occupied by Neath Abbey was known as the parish of Cadoxton, and is now well populated. The Neath Abbey Iron works was located within a mile of the Abbey site, along the western bank of the Clydach river. Today, the New Road, a major thoroughfare, leads from the town of Skewen eastward to the iron works site and then on to Route 465 which is the major artery to Merthyr Tydfil. The Clydach river runs in a southerly direction from the hills above the abbey site where the village of Bryn Coch is located – about two miles from above the iron works site. There are roads on both the east and west sides of the Clydach River that takes one to Bryn Coch. The eastern road begins as Taillwyd road and eventually becomes Dyffryn road as the village is approached. The western road begins as Longford Road which becomes Tyllwyd Road as it passes just west of the village center on it way to the Tyllwyd farm location.
(A super-sized image showing the streets in the area is available here. The Abbey ruins are at the center bottom of the image with the site of the Neath Abbey I. W. highlighted in red. Bryn Coch is at the top center.)
A satellite image of this area shows that the area in the immediate vicinity of the village is still today quite rural, although there is build-up along the roads as the Neath Valley is approached. Further details of the road access to the ironworks site may be found in A Search for the Neath Abbey Ironworks, which chronicles the only visit made by this author to the region. The village of Bryn Coch was not visited during that trip (the author did not have the knowledge that Hopkin Thomas was born there at the time of the search).
It should be noted at this point that two men named Thomas were born in the 1793-4 time period in Bryn Coch, both of whom went on to become prominent in the American industrial revolution – Hopkin Thomas, born Dec. 19, 1793 and David Thomas, born Nov. 3, 1794 on Tyllywd Farm. That farm was located along the Tyllywd Road (Tyllywd means ‘gray house’). Both were trained at the Neath Abbey Ironworks and therefore must have known one another quite well. As far as we know, there was no close family relationship. They were to join forces fifty some years later at the Crane Iron Works in Catasauqua, Penna.
As young lads growing up, it is certain that both made many trips the few miles along the banks of the Clydach river to see the cauldron of activity that sent sulfurous fumes into the air through the tall smokestacks of the blast furnaces of the Neath Abbey Ironworks. Nothing would be more exciting that viewing the river of glowing metal flowing on the sand floor to the pigs at the time of the tapping of a furnace. And the sight of the red hot slag being dumped on to the cinder piles at twilight is long remembered. Industrial activity existed within the small village of Bryn Coch as well as surrounding villages, but nothing on the scale of the Neath Abbey Ironworks. (Coal pits had been operated for hundreds of years in the Neath Abby area and a small iron furnace was erected in Bryn Coch before 1735.)
Indeed, the Vale of Neath provided may an opportunity for those choosing a livelihood. D. Rhys Phillips prefaces his history of the area thusly:
It has been the home of distinguished families of princely stock, the birthplace of eminent men, the site of notable ecclesiastical foundations, the arena of bitter manorial strife. … The Valley has ever been the home of song and story. It was the birthplace or the adopted home of numerous Welsh poets, the very existence of some of whom has long since been forgotten, while the original connection of others of them with the Vale of Neath has been completely obscured. It was the cradle of some of the most important Welsh industries and the scene of one of the earliest and most vigorous manifestations of the Industrial Revolution in Wales.
Hopkin Thomas was the son of the Bryn Coch miller and David Thomas was the son of a farmer. The position of miller was prized as it did not require the toil and labor of a farmer, but, rather, it did test the mechanical aptitude of the mill owner. As a successful, but not wealthy, tenant farmer, David Thomas’ father held a respected position in the community, Each boy had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their respected fathers, but youngsters made the decision to strike out on their own – each entered into an apprenticeship at the Neath Abbey Ironworks at the age of 16 or 17.
No other documentation on Hopkin Thomas’ family or early history has been uncovered. Some anecdotal evidence exists that Hopkin had a sister, Rachel, and a bother Joseph. A Rachel Thomas of Bryncoch, born in the Hopkin Thomas era, married Charles Milson whose descendants came to Catasauqua, PA when Hopkin was there. The Milson descendants made casual comments to the effect that the Milson and the Thomas families had ties in the Bryncoch days. Further, Hopkin’s grandson, Wm. R. Thomas, III produced notes indicating that the fact that Hopkin and Rachel were siblings – these notes are headed “Lehigh Valley History”, but no supporting text has been found in those circa 1900 histories. Twice, contact has been made with a genealogist named Alan Hayward regarding the Hopkin Thomas families – Hayward was from Bryncoch. Alan Hayward’s conjectures do not shed light on Hopkin’s Bryncoch family – to wit, Hayward did not uncover any specific data when going over the plethora of Thomas family genealogy. Perhaps a search of Milson (also spelled Milsom) family data could shed light.
Rev. January 2011