Merthyr Tydfil


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There is no information on HopkinÕs activities after he left the Neath Abbey Iron Works, other than the fact that his new wife hailed from Merthyr Tydfil and his first son was born in Merthyr in 1829. Hopkin would have been 36 years old then, later in life than most persons would marry in those days.


Merthyr was a burgeoning industrial town – the location of four major iron works – Cyfartrhfa and Dowlais being the largest and Plymouth and Penydarren also important.  Based on the fact that Hopkin became proficient in the new technology of steam locomotive design and operation, we need to establish which of these iron works employed steam power in the period up to HopkinÕs emigration in 1834.


The following map shows the location of Merthyr relative to Neath – the route is generally northeast along the valley of the Neath River – the Vale of Neath. The entire valley was being industrialized – coal and iron mining -  with those products being used in famous iron-making centers, notably Merthyr Tydfil, but also in Ynyscedwyn and Hirwaun. Note the location of Ynyscedwyn – almost due north of Neath and to the west of of the Vale of Neath. It was here at Ynyscedwyn that the success was achieved by George Crane and David Thomas in the use of anthracite coal in blast furnaces.


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Below is a close-up of the Merthyr area. Dowlais is north east of the city center. Penydarren is close by – this was where Richard Trevithick conducted his activities with the earliest of steam locomotives.



An older map shown below locates the four major works – Dowlais, Cyfarthfa, Penydarren and Plymouth. The entire area was laced with coal seams with some iron mines as well. A Succinct description of the four iron operations is given in Owen, J.A., Merthyr Tydfil – Iron Metropolis 1790 – 1860.




As noted, the Dowlais Works were a major industrial activity – the largest employer in Wales at the time that Hopkin was presumably there. The history of the development of the Dowlais works and photos of the facilities are documented here. In his Brief History, P. N. Williams notes that almost all of the iron rails for the developing U. S. Railroad industry were made at Dowlais.


Painting of the Dowlais Iron Works


Cyfarthfa was located somewhat west of the center of the city – itÕs location is not shown on the above map. A major industrial operation, itÕs history is documented in a pictorial collection assembled by Alan George.


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The Cyfarthfa Ironworks – Circa 1877


We know that two of these iron works employed steam locomotive power.  In his essay, The Industrial Development of South Wales, A. H. John gives an account of the development of the tramroads in the coal areas. He notes that the Neath Abbey Iron works produced a locomotive used in coal transport at Penydarren in 1830.  This would have been the Stephenson engine, Eclipse. We also know that the Dowlais Works took delivery of the Neath AbbeyÕs engine Perseverance in 1832. Details of these developments are given in The Early Development of the Steam Engine where we speculate that Hopkin was connected with the Dowlais Works.


At whichever iron works that Hopkin was employed, it is assured that he was a successful man – his later career proves that point. So why did Hopkin opt to leave Wales for America?  If one studies the history of Wales at that time, the answer is clear – industrialized Wales, and Merthyr Tydfil in particular, was a horrid place to live. The squalor formed by the thousands of workers that were attracted from the rural communities in Wales, Ireland, and England resulted in high risk of disease, appalling infant mortality, starvation, riots and all sorts of civil disobedience. Conditions were so rotten that Vaughn reports the average life expectancy of a member of the working class was only 22 years. The social structure was generally that of a two-class system – the landed gentry, mine operators and iron-works officials and then the working class. Land ownership was not available  - either to the masses or to the growing middle class of shop-keepers, lawyers, etc. 


The most notorious of the social upheavals is known as the Merthyr Rising.

The Merthyr Uprising


Be sure to read the accounts of this tragedy – which occurred in 1831.


Hopkin left for America in 1834.



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Rev. November 2009