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The History of Merthyr Tydfil and its Steel Heritage

Back in the mid 1700’s, Merthyr Tydfil was only a small Welsh farming community in the upper Taff Valley.

Similar to the Seven Valley further north, at Ironbridge in Shropshire, the upper Taff valley consisted of all the required ingredients for a prosperous iron industry – iron ore, limestone for lining furnaces, mountain streams to supply water power and forests to provide timber for the production of charcoal.

With such essential components established, ironworks were set up at Dowlais in 1767 and at Cyfarthfa by John Guest under the charge of the Crawshay family. It was actually John Guest that found coal in the valleys and made use of this to replace charcoal for smelting, improving production rates.

Cyfarthfa Castle Merthyr

Thomas Guest succeeded his father in 1787 and he brought steam power to Dowlais to blow the furnaces with a Watt steam engine in 1795, boosting manufacturing rates even more.

In contrast to the competition in Ironbridge, Merthyr Tydfil along with the other iron manufacturers of the South Wales coalfield were badly positioned in regards to the transportation of their goods to the ports. As ridiculous as it now appears, pig iron was first transported to the coast by pack horses.

Roads were subsequently built but, while a wagon pulled by four horses could carry two tons of iron, a canal barge pulled by one horse could pull an enormous twenty-five tons of cargo and freight.

Canal Building and Barges

So by 1800 all of the major valleys of South Wales ended up being connected to ports by canals, and it turned out the canals were responsible for the fantastic growth of the iron and coal industries of South Wales.

Even bigger changes were ascertained when Josiah Guest, the only remaining son of Thomas Guest, took control of his father’s ironworks in 1807.

Josiah was a sharp businessman and by the 1830s the Dowlais Ironworks was actually the biggest on the planet, employing over 5,000 people.

And because of the increased scale of the ironworks, hence the size of Merthyr soared upwards. In 1801 a population of 7,700 was documented, which increased to 22,000 in 1831 and to 46,000 in 1851, proving Merthyr as by far and away the biggest town in Wales.

Merthyr's ironmasters were pioneers in addition to good businessmen, implementing new production processes (Bessemer) that considerably increased the speed at which iron and steel could be manufactured. The procedure became so widely used that it come to be referred to as the Welsh method.

By the 1820s, Merthyr was the foundation of 40% of Britain’s iron exports. It was a place that manufactured iron as opposed to items made of iron: the ability necessary to work the metal guaranteed the success of cities like Sheffield and Birmingham.

When the railway era emerged, Guest instantly realised the benefits in directly connecting his ironworks with Cardiff docks. And therefore, together with Anthony Hill the proprietor of another close by ironworks, they established the Taff Vale Railway Company and hired a gifted young engineer from just down the road at Bristol, one Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to construct the railway for them.

Merthyr's Railway Innovation

Merthyr Tydfil attractions

Brunel finished the Taff Vale Railway in 1841, which enabled Guest and Hill to move their iron and steel from Merthyr to Cardiff in under one hour. Later on, branch lines were constructed that connected the mining valleys with the Welsh ports and into England’s fast developing towns and cities, supplying the raw materials that continued to power the industrial revolution.

The railway system impacted transportation costs so much that it also proved lucrative to export Welsh coal to countries as far away as Argentina and India.

Merthyr retained its supremacy as the world’s no 1 ‘Iron and Steel Town’ until the 1850’s when brand new manufacturing procedures requiring purer iron ore saw it lose this symbol.

Merthyr Tydfil was a thriving industrial town in those days. Now, it relies on visitors to see the relics of yesteryear and respect the heritage of this great area of South Wales.

Check out the places to visit around Merthyr.

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