by Alquin M.J.Grubb
Various records point to the existence of coalworks some one hundred years before the Industrial Revolution affected the Valleys. In 1684 there was an agreement signed, which allowed the opening of a coalwork at Cwmtillery. The Rev. E.Jones , in 17779 also mentions coalworks on the eastern side of the Ebbw Fawr valley, and at one place on the Ebbw Fach.
On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, the economies of these valleys were mainly agricultural, and contained only a few scattered farms and cottages, with the valley bottoms being used for the grazing of sheep and cattle. Immediately prior to 1780 there were only 150 houses in the whole of the Ebbw Fach valley.
The first definite record of the setting up of ironworks in the region exists in a lease of 1779, whereby the Duke of Beaufort leased to the Kendall family, several 'messuages' and lands leading from Beaufort to Gilwern. The lesees were empowered to erect one or more iron furnaces and any other works and buildings necessary to carry on their trade. The furnace was to be erected within eighteen months and was to cost no less than 1,000 UK pounds. The rent was 406 UK per annum, and 2/- for every dozen (1 doz. To contain 34 cwt, 1cwt to contain 120lbs) of iron ore and stone used, except on the first 2,320 dozen in any year. A payment of 300 horse loads of coal at the pit mouth was also to be made, and there was a special covenant on the part of the lesees that they would not advance the price of coal above 3d per bag or horse load at pit mouth, without the Duke's consent. The lesees also agreed to plant yearly 10 Oak, Ash, Elm, Beech, Poplar or Sycamore trees and 10 perches of quick Whitethorn hedge or 5/- per annum for every tree not planted, and 2/6 for every perch of hedge not planted.
Ten years later a very large area of land was leased by the Earl of Abergavenny to Messrs. Hill, Hopkins and Pratt. Under this lease 'all the mines, beds, veins and quarries of iron ore, iron stone, coal, limestone, slate, clay and marl, lying or being within, under or upon all that tract of mountainous or hilly land, containing 12,000 acres, commonly called Lord Abergavenny's Hills' were to be rented for a sum of 1,300 UK pounds per annum. The reason for he high annual rent seems to be because no royalties were to be paid. The lease was to be for an initial period of seven years, after which it could be extended for a further twenty-one years. That the leases were of such short duration is probably a result of caution on the part of the ironmasters, since it was a new area, and they could not be sure that their investments would show a profitable return.
Under this lease Hill, Hopkins and Pratt, had possession of all of the Aberystruth area, except for the west side of the Ebbw Fawr valley, and those parts covered by the Duke of Beaufort's lease, ie. It covered the lands of the Afon Lwyd (Blaenavon), Ebbw Fach (Nantyglo to Abertillery) and Ebbw Fawr (Ebbw Vale to Cwm).
The first ironworks that they erected were those at Blaenavon in 1789. In 1791, finding that the area they had leased was too large for thier purposes, they sub-let the Ebbw Fach valley to Messrs. Harford and Partridge.
Harford and Partridge intended to set up two blast furnaces and workmens houses at Nantyglo, thus bringing into existence the Nantyglo ironworks, which at the height of its prosperity would rival Dowlais as the world's largest ironworks. The financing of the Nantyglo works was to be shared by Harford and Partridge with Hill et al. However, after operating for one year a financial disagreement between the backers led to a drying up of capital, leading to Harford and Partridge discharging all the miners and putting the furnace in blast to work out their stocks. The stocks of ore did not last very long and in 1796 the works closed down, and were to remain idle for the next fifteen years.
Harford and Partridge had also been in a partnership with Jeremiah Homfray, owner of the Ebbw Vale ironworks, whom they bought out in 1796.
Thus by 1800 the foundations of the industrialization of the three valleys had been laid, with ironworks at Ebbw Vale, Beaufort and Blaenavon all in full blast, producing pig iron. Also started up in 1800 were the Clydach ironworks on land sub-let to Messrs. Frere and Cooke.
In 1801 Archdeacon Coxe visited the area and in his 'Tour Through Monmouthshire' describes the Balenavon works as having 'the appearance of a small town, surrounded with heaps of ore, coal and limestone, and enliven with all the bustle and activity of an opulent and increasing establishment'.
The production of all the ironworks at this time was not very great, with Blaenavon ironworks sending 21 tons of pig iron per week to Newport in 1802. At the same time Ebbw Vale and Beaufort sending on average 31 tons per week, and Clydach only 9 tons.
After remaining idle for fifteen years the Nantyglo ironworks were finally leased by Joeph Bailey and Mathew Wayne, of Cyfarthfa. At this time the works consisted of two blast furnaces, one steam engine and the workmens houses. The works were rapidly expanded by the addition of seven forges, together with rolling mills and refineries. In 1820 the partnership broke up and Mathew Wayne was replaced by Crawshay Bailey, a nephew of Joseph Bailey, and it was under their management that the Nantyglo ironworks was to become one of the greatest in the world.
During the 1820's industry also began to spread down the valley of the Ebbw fach. In 1827 George James of Wolverhampton acquired lands around Blaina (not yet in existence) together with their mineral rights. He set up the Blaina ironworks, and it was around these that the town of Blaina grew up.
In 1833 the Beaufort ironworks were purchased by Crawshay Bailey for 45,000 UK pounds and thereafter the Nantyglo and Beaufort ironworks were run as one concern, with the Beaufort works mainly employed in supplying pig iron to the new rolling mills erected at Nantyglo. Much of the iron was used in making iron rails for the rapidly expanding settlement of the United States.
The prosperity of the iron trade began to attract other industries to the area, and in 1834 an ironworks was set up between Blaina and Nantyglo at Coalbrookvale.
Wages paid rose and fell with the price of iron. In 1796 the average wage was 12 shillings per week and rose to 35 shillings in 1810. A slackening of demand for iron and consequent fall in price led to a drop in average wage levels to 15 - 20 shillings per week in 1819. Such reductions were purely arbitrary and reflected attempts by the ironmasters to maintain their profits at the expense of their employees. Strikes to prevent such wage declines were futile in a declining market. When iron prices rose wages also tended to rise, reflecting not so much the benevolence of the ironmasters so much as the greater potency of a strike, which would lead to the ironmaster losing out on increased trade and also the possible loss of workmen to other expanding mills unless wages were increased.
In 1846 a new industry appeared in the area with the opening of a tin plating works at Abertillery. About twenty years later another small tin plate works set up in Blaina.
Although the Bessemer steel making process was discovered in 1856 (suited to phosphoric ores), it was not until 1868 that the first steel plant was set up at Ebbw Vale. The other iron works were slow in switching to the new production techniques.
In 1871 Bailey sold the iron works at Nantyglo and Beaufort for 300,000 UK pounds.
In late 1873 the ironmasters and coalowners of south Wales agreed on a general wage reduction of 10%. This led to a three month general strike and forced the owners to back down. The Nantyglo and Blaina ironworks company now found itself in financial difficulties, aggravated by the heavy rains of late 1872 which had flooded several of the companies coalmines. The company reported a financial loss of 25,311 UK pounds in 1873 compared to a profit of 62,892 UK in 1872. The Nantyglo ironworks was by now very antiquated. The Nantyglo and Beaufort works were both closed by 1874. The rationalization being that it was now cheaper for the company to sell the coal from its mines than to make iron. The only ironworks to remain in production was the Blaina works which made use of small coal not suitable for the market.
Continuing economic difficulties, including the imposition of restrictive tarrifs in the US led, by 1916, to the closure of all the metal works in the Ebbw Fach valley with the exception of the tin plate works at Abertillery, essentially bringing to an end a century which saw the Ebbw Fach valley transformed from a pastoral to a scarred and industrially ravaged landscape.
Up until the 1870's coal had been less important than the iron industry. From 1870 onwards however, the coal industry assumed a greater importance. A boom in the demand for coal led to the sinking of many large pits. These were down the valley away from the largely worked out north crop, which had been accessed by adits rather than by shafts. The following are some of the pits that opened in this era - Rose Heyworth (1872), Waun Lwyd (1874), Gray and Vivian (1885), Six Bells (or Arrail-Griffith 1889), Marine (1889), and the Llanhilleth (1891) which was the last pit sunk in the area before the outbreak of the First World war. By the 1880's coal had overtaken iron as the greatest employer of labour in the area. The three largest pits in 1911, were the Vivian, Gray and Penybont (Tillery) pits (worked as one unit) with 2,777, Waun Lwyd (2,509) and Marine colliery (2,407).
In 1801 the parish of Aberystruth had 805 people compared to Llangattock 1046, and Llanelly 937. However, the population of Aberystruth had increased to 4,059 in 1821.
Introducing industry into these remote rural valleys meant that mine owners had to make provision for the needs of the workers from housing to groceries etc. In the early 19th century the ironworks houses built in Nantyglo were rented for 1/- and 1/3 per week. The absence of a retail trade network also led the ironmasters to provide a company shop, intended to supply the iron workers with the necessities of life, that would not otherwise be available at reasonable prices. However, as with many monopolies the system was often abused by the ironmasters, who often inflated prices in times of slackening iron demand.
It had always been the custom of the ironmasters to pay their workers on a monthly basis, but few of the workmen could budget successfully over such a long period, and consequently had credit extended to them. These advances were known as 'draws' and took the form of a 'truck note' which could only be exchanged for goods in the company shop. Most companies were in favour of giving credit since it meant the workmen were almost permanently in debt to the company and not likely to leave for another job. At first, the objectives of the truck system seem to have been threefold, ensuring an intact labour force, reducing the amount of cash that had to be kept idle to pay the men and solving the problem of obtaining large quantities of small currency. Later on the system was abused when the ironmasters began to pay their men entirely in truck notes, and by supplying the truck shops with shoddy goods at inflated prices.