Industry in Wales – 1800


             I reached a small village half-way between Swansea and Neath, and without stopping continued my course, walking very fast. I had surmounted a hill and had nearly descended that side of it which looked towards the east, having on my left, that is to the north, a wooded height, when an extraordinary scene presented itself to my eyes. Somewhat to the south rose immense stacks of chimneys surrounded by grimy diabolical looking buildings, in the neighbourhood of which were huge heaps of cinders and black  rubbish. From the chimneys, not withstanding it was Sunday, smoke was proceeding in volumes, choking the atmosphere all around. From this pandemonium, at a distance of about a quarter of a mile to the south west, upon a green meadow, stood looking darkly grey, a ruin of vast size with window holes, towers, spires and arches, between it and the accursed pandemonium, lay a horrible filthy place, part of which was swamp and part pool; the pool black as soot, and the swamp of disgusting leaden colour. Across this place of filth stretched a tramway leading seemingly from the abominable mansions to the ruin. So strange a scene I have never beheld in nature. Had it been on canvas with the addition of a number of diabolical figures, proceeding along the tramway, it might have stood for Sabbath in Hell—devils proceeding to afternoon worship.


Thus wrote George Borrow in his romantic tale of the Welsh country side in 1834. The scene in the years at the turn of the century would not have been markedly different. The existence of mineral resources in Wales, coal and iron ore in particular, had  for some time, caused this area to lead the way in industrialization. In this chapter we examine  three facets of this development during the period of Hopkin Thomas’ training : steam power, iron-making and mining.


Steam power evolved along two lines. First came the stationary engines used primarily to pump water from the coal and ore mines


Stationary pumping engines used to de-water mines were several stories high with the working beam jutting out the side of a brick or masonry building. This is a Boulton & Watt design of 1798 – see  Wallace, M., The Non Rotative Beam Engine.


See The Development of the Steam Engine



Next came the steam locomotive, used to haul the coal and ore from the pits to the furnaces.


The early steam engines were crude affairs – the challenge was to make them light enough  so as not to damage the rails, which had been designed for horse-drawn wagons.


See The Development of the Steam Locomotive



Iron-making flourished as coal, rather than charcoal was developed as a blast furnace fuel. The famed iron works at Neath and Merthy Tydfil flourished in the early and mid-1850s. A concise history of the development of the iron industry is given by G. E. Jones in his work entitled Modern Wales. An extensive review by D. Morgan Rees which begins with 16th century efforts and covers activities including the works at Merthyr Tydfil and the efforts of George Crane and David Thomas at the Ynyscedwyn Ironworks is found in Rees's, Mines, Mills and Furnaces: Industrial Archaeology in Wales. A brief summary of the work performed by George Crane and David Thomas at the Ynyscedwyn Iron Works, located in in Ystradgynlais, near Swansea, Wales, can be found on the web in the Grace's Guide to British Industrial History.



The earliest references of the mining of coal in the Neath area date back to the 1200’s when a land owner by the name of Owen ab Alaythur granted rights to mine ‘stone coal’ on his property. Stone coal was anthracite coal – commercial quantities of this hard-to-burn fuel are found only in Wales and Pennsylvania. As transportation systems – canals and railroads -  were developed in the 1800s, mining and exporting of coal became a major industry. Anthracite coal was developed for industrial usage. A history of the coal mining industry has been published by the Glamorgan Historian. You will find a citation to the effect that one of the early (17th century) miners was a man named Hopkin Thomas. Not our Hopkin, but possibly an ancestor.  Again, Modern Wales by G. E. Jones provides a brief history of the development of this wide-spread and important industry.



As was the case later in America, canals became a principle means of transportation for the iron and coal prior to the development of the railroads. The Glamorganshire Canal was a major artery constructed in the period from 1790 – 1794. It remained in operation throughout most of the 19th century, although it declined in importance in the second half of that period. Shortly after the completion of the canal, in 1799,  efforts were begun to connect neighboring areas to the canal by tram way.  Eventually, these roads were connected together in what became known as the Merthyr Tramroad. It was a railway on which horse-drawn wagons, with wheels riding on either rails or plates, tied together by stone sleepers, operated. It was on a portion of this tramroad that Richard Trevithick demonstrated the capability of steam locomotion in 1804. Steam power did not come into general use, however, until the 1830s.



The Neath Canal, once a major artery for the transport of coal, passes the ruins of the Neath Abbey.


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Rev. November 2014