Sirhowy Valleythe archaeology of industrial Wales

Wales  was  central to  the world’s first industrial revolution; the abandoned remains of 200-year-old coal and iron industries litter the valleys. Frank Olding reports on the Green Mines Project, which is conserving and presenting the physical remains in Blaenau Gwent and regenerating this once-plundered landscape.

An 18th century ironworks; a wealthy ironmaster’s  mansion; poignant memorials to workers buried in the Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery; a fortified residence at Nantyglo–the last private  defence-work built in Britain. All are vivid reminders of the bitter class war that sometimes raged in these idyllic, Welsh  valleys. So it is that in one corner of Britain the  history of the industrial revolution is represented in physical remains–a history of technology and  production, of  wealth and  power, and of poverty and resistance.

 

The modern county of Blaenau Gwent occupies the far north-western corner of the old historic county of Monmouthshire. Bounded by the Brecon Beacons National Park to the north and by the Blaenavon World Heritage Site to the east, the area is rich in archaeology of all periods; but it is, of course, its industrial archaeology that rightly attracts most attention.   Pioneering industrialists were drawn to the area by the presence of ample supplies of the raw materials needed to make iron on an industrial scale–iron-ore, coal and limestone. Between 1778 and 1837, no less than ten ironworks were established in an area measuring little more than 6km by 3km.   By 1840, this unique landscape was one of the most intensively industrialised areas in the world. The large-scale exploitation of the area’s natural resources brought a flood of immigrant workers, destruction of the famously beautiful landscape, conditions so grim that cholera flourished, and the highest infant mortality rate in Britain.

Sirhowy Ironworks
The story of the Industrial Revolution in Blaenau Gwent begins with the establishment of the Sirhowy Ironworks. Work on the site began in 1778 and the first furnace went into production in 1779. Early in its history, Sirhowy was run in tandem with the Tredegar Ironworks, established about a mile away in 1800. The site was taken over by the Ebbw Vale Ironworks, in the adjacent valley in 1818, and by 1841 just over 1,000 people were employed here. Sirhowy pig iron was sent to Ebbw Vale via ‘Harford’s Tunnel’ – a two-mile long tunnel built under the mountain in 1835. At Ebbw Vale, the pig iron was worked into wrought iron and, from the late 19th century, into steel. Iron making ceased at Sirhowy around 1882.  
The impressive remains at Sirhowy represent the only 18th century ironworking complex still visible in the County Borough. They comprise the ruins of two stone-built blast furnaces, a dramatic range of arches in the furnace wall, the housing for a waterwheel and the remains of a large, iron-clad blast furnace built in about 1865. This structure was taller than the adjacent furnace wall and a revolutionary pneumatic lift was constructed to carry the raw materials up to the top of the furnace.

The site, now managed by Blaenau Gwent Council, has been extensively consolidated and conserved, and has been opened to the public. There is on-site interpretation and a comprehensive information pack is available from the council on request.

Bedwellty House and Park
Indicative of the vast wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution is the elegant Regency mansion of Bedwellty House, set within its own park just to the south of Tredegar’s town centre. The house dates to about 1800, with significant alterations and extensions carried out in 1825. It was built as a family residence by Samuel Homfray, one of the founders of the Tredegar Ironworks–established in 1801 on land owned by Homfray’s father-in-law, Lord Tredegar. In 1901, both house and park were gifted to the people of Tredegar and have been in public ownership ever since.    

The Grade II listed building is a rare example of a Regency-period mansion in South Wales. When originally constructed, it incorporated elements of an earlier vernacular building–a farmhouse known as Ty Lodwig Rees. It is also a rare survival of an ironmaster’s house, not just in South Wales, but in Britain as a whole and formed a central element of a planned townscape of about 1800. The park is a designated conservation area and a registered historic park that includes landscaped walks, a walled kitchen garden, an ice-house, two fountains, Chinese-style limestone arches and five listed structures. It is also home to the biggest lump of coal in the world, cut for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and weighing in at a thumping 15 tons.

In September 2008, Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council secured £3.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £1 million from the Welsh Assembly Government and £125,000 from Cadw to restore both the house and garden. The conservation and refurbishment of the house and park, due to start this summer,   will transform a dilapidated historic building, as well as assist in regenerating one of the most deprived communities in Wales. Bedwellty House will also include the new Registry Office to keep a record of future generations hatched, matched and despatched in Tredgar.

For the full article, please see CA 234

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