Blaenavon Ironworks is a former industrial site which is now a museum in Blaenavon in Wales. The ironworks was of crucial importance in the development of the ability to use cheap, low quality, high sulphur iron ores worldwide. It was the site of the experiments by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas and his cousin Percy Gilchrist that led to "the basic steel process" or "Gilchrist-Thomas process".
The site is under the care of Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service.
History of the works
The land on which the Ironworks reside was at one time the property of Lord Abergavenny and was leased in 1787 by three Midlands businessmen, Thomas Hill, his brother-in-law Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt. Work constructing the Ironworks began immediately and included several "luxury" cottages. It is believed that Blaenavon Ironworks was the first to be designed as a multi-furnace site from the outset, with three furnaces, calcining kilns, cottages, and a company shop. Archdeacon Coxe visited Blaenavon during 1798-99 and enthusiastically described the small town as an opulent and increasing establishment, which was surrounded with heaps of ore, coal and limestone. The reason for the growth of Blaenavon from a rural to an industrial community lay in the rich mineral deposits found in the surrounding area, which outcropped at the surface making extraction a relatively cheap process. The iron works demanded a skilled and permanent labour force, which the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire lacked. Previous iron works at nearby Pontypool, for instance, had relied on charcoal and water. The nature of the work introduced to Blaenavon was different. The changes involved the coal-using technology and the application of steam power, not used until that time in the Eastern Valley. Skilled workers came mainly from West Wales, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset and Ireland. Unskilled men, often with families came for the promise of work. The population of the district expanded from a little over 1,000 in 1800 to 5115 in 1840 with 61% speaking Welsh and the remainder English. By 1800 Blaenavon Ironworks contributed greatly to South Wales becoming the foremost iron-producing region in the world. Two new furnaces were added over the next decade and in 1804 a forge was constructed in nearby Cwmavon. By 1833 the company owned 430 houses and employed 1000 workers but suffered economic boom-and-bust that accompanied iron-making with wage cuts, strikes and the emergence of "Scotch Cattle".
In 1836, the works was bought by the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company, financed by Londoner Robert Kennard, later an MP. Led by new managing director James Ashwell, a huge investment was made in the ironworks, including the construction of the impressive Balance tower which utilised a water displacement lift to carry pig iron from the base of the site to the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal system, which offered lower tolls to Newport than the Monmouthshire Canal. After this £138,000 investment the site showed little sign of profit and so Ashwell was forced to resign in 1841. In the following years, iron rails produced at Blaenavon were exported all over the world, including India, Russia and Brazil but also in projects closer to home such as the construction of Crumlin Viaduct.
When Ashwell resigned Mr. Scrivener became manager of the works and production picked up for a short while. In 1845 sales reached a peak of 35,549 tons out of which 20,732 tons were sold. This was a rise of 5,000 tons on sales for the previous year. However, fluidity was uncertain. By 1847 sales had declined to 18,981 tons. The works continued to suffer. A lower amount of pig iron was produced in 1849, partly due to the furnaces being out of action for three months. However, it was claimed that this was the consequence of workmen refusing to submit to a reduction in wages, which the depressed state of the iron industry had rendered necessary.
The company was relaunched in 1870 as the Blaenavon Iron & Steel Company and was one of only six south Wales ironworks that successfully made the change to steel production. By 1878 the company employed 5,000 people but had greatly overreached itself financially and failed amongst tough competition. With financial ruin just around the corner the company was given some respite thanks to the discovers of Sidney Gilchist Thomas and Percy Carlyle Gilchrist which enabled the use of the previously uneconomic phosphoric iron ore. This was short lived as it meant Germany and North America were now able to utilise their own phosphoric ores and ironically accelerated the decline of Blaenavon Ironworks.
In 1880 the Blaenavon Company opened Big Pit and moved away from iron production. In 1904 the ironworks finally ceased production, restaring briefly in 1924 but was unsustainable. The forges at the site were still being used and helped with the production of steel shell during both world wars but was mostly used as a storage yard for the National Coal Board.
In 1959 novelist Alexander Cordell set his most famous novel, Rape of the Fair Country at the Ironworks and the surrounding area at the height of the industrial revolution. At around the same time, industrial archaeology began to emerge as a discipline and the site was spared the fate of so many other 18th-19th century industrial works. In 1974 the conservation of the ironworks began. Shortly after statutory protection was provided for various sites in Blaenavon including the Ironworks.
In 2000 Blaenavon was awarded World Heritage Site status for the industrial landscape including the Ironworks and are now under the care of Cadw and open as one of only two free admission staffed sites.
Coal House was a reality TV series shown one BBC One Wales. In October 2007 three Welsh families were transported back to the south Wales coalfield of the 1920s. The Stack Square cottages located at the Ironworks were transformed into authentic 1927 coal mining family homes.
In October 2008 this series was followed by Coal House at War where three new families were transported back to the second world war era conditions of 1944. This time they were joined by evacuees and Bevin Boys.
The furnished cottages used for both series are open to the public at the Ironworks.
- Coxe, W. (1801) An Historical Tour of Monmouthshire.
- Atkinson, M., and Baber, C., (1987) The Growth and Decline of the South Wales Iron Industry: 1760-1880, pp36-45
- Coxe, W., (1801) An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire, Part 2, p.228.
- Reports to the Commissioners on the Employment of Children (1841) p.610.
- Lewis, S.A. Blaenavon Iron Works 1837-1880, Gwent County Record Office, MISC.MSS.1066.
- Minutes, Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company, 27 April 1849
- Listed Buildings in Blaenavon, Torfaen, Wales, britishlistedbuildings.co.uk.
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