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British Industrial History

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Blaenavon Ironworks

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Blaenavon Ironworks, an early ironworks.

North Street, Blaenavon, Torfaen, NP 9XP.

From at least 1675, and probably earlier, iron ore was extracted on the mountains of Blaenavon.

The Hanbury family, ironmasters and tinplate manufacturers of Pontypool, had mineral rights over the common lands of the lordship of Abergavenny to supply their charcoal fired furnaces.

1782 Three industrialists, Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt, opened the first coal mine at Blaenavon.

1788 Lord Abergavenny leased land to Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt, to build a new ironworks at Blaenavon; the area of the lease (12,000 acres) was much greater than needed for one works so 2 tracts were sub-let - one became site of the Nantyglo Ironworks; the other, a large area to the west of the valley, and south of Blaenavon, was sub-let to a partnership which founded the Varteg Ironworks in 1802[1].

By 1789 there were 3 blast furnaces at Blaenavon, using steam power, the second largest ironworks in Wales.

1796 the furnaces were producing 5,400 tons of iron a year. Workers moved in from rural Wales, from the industrial Midlands, Ireland, Scotland and rural England.

1812 the 5 furnaces were capable of making 14,000 tons of iron a year. A horse-drawn railway connected the ironworks with the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal.

1817 The Garn-Ddyrys Forge was built to make wrought iron, located on the slopes of the Blorenge Mountain. It was located on the tramroad between Blaenavon and Llanfoist primarily to take advantage of cheaper cargo rates on the canal than if the cargo was loaded at Pontypool.

Pig iron was brought to Garn-Ddyrys from Blaenavon, along with coal, and turned into wrought iron.

Adit mining for iron ore and coal was developed on a larger scale.

By 1820 the Blaenavon partnership was distinct from that at the Wilden Forge.

Between 1818-21, Thomas Hill opened a tramroad tunnel to bring limestone from Pwll Du to Blaenavon with a roadway link for pig iron from the Blaenavon furnaces to the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal via the Garn-Ddyrys Forge. This was the longest tunnel of its kind in Britain at just over 2km[2].

1824 Thomas Hill died; links had been cut with the Wilden Forge at Stourport.

1837 The Blaenavon Coal and Iron Co was formed which acquired the Iron and Coal Works.

1839 A water balance tower, still standing, was built to raise the pig iron to Hill’s Tramroad, which carried it to the forge at Garn-Ddyrys.

1840s - 1850s The town of Blaenavon grew up outside the company's land.

1841 300 tons of wrought iron was produced at Garn-Ddyrys Forge each week; rolled into bars, rails and plates.

1846 A forge in Govilon, on the other side of the mountain, was well established; it made wire rod and nails from bar iron. The works had its own water wheel fed from a large rectangular reservoir; the site also housed a lime kiln; it was known as Wilden Wireworks (sic), which suggests a Stourport connection[3].

1853 the expanding railway network offered quicker and cheaper transport. Garn-Ddyrys Forge became obsolete.

By 1860 operations had ended at Garn-Ddyrys.

1860 Production began at the new steelworks on the other side of the valley at Forgeside. The Big Pit was sunk on or before this to serve the new Forgeside works with coal; the company built the new settlement of Forgeside.

1864 The entire property was purchased by Mr C Waring; Blaenavon Iron Co was established to manage the Blaenavon Works.

1870s The Govilon forge closed.

1878 Sidney Gilchrist Thomas invented the 'Basic' or 'Thomas' process, which was of world-wide importance in permitting phosphoric iron ores to be used in bulk steelmaking. He communicated his theory to his cousin, Percy Gilchrist, who was a chemist at the Blaenavon Ironworks. Initial experiments proved the concept. Edward Martin, manager of the Blaenavon Works, gave facilities for conducting the experiments on a larger scale and undertook to help in taking out a patent[4].

By 1880 Blaenavon had taken second place to the new foundry across the valley that also had 2 Bessemer Converters for steel production. The number two furnace at Blaenavon was retained to produce cold blast pig iron, whilst the newer number four and five furnaces were converted to produce iron ingots for the steelworks.

1891 Blaenavon parish had a population of 11,452.

1904 Iron production at the Blaenavon site ended.

20th century: The demand for high quality steam coal continued to grow, displacing steel as the major local industry.

WWI Blaenavon produced shell steel.

1938 Steel production ended.

The Blaenavon area, including the town and the ironworks, the Big Pit Museum, Pwll Du tram tunnel and Hill's tramroad, were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in November 2000[5]. Parts of the Blaenavon ironworks are claimed to be the best-preserved example in the world. The water balance tower still exists[6].


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Gwent local history: The Cwm Ffrwd Rail Road [1]
  2. The Tunnel History [2]
  3. Govilon History [3]
  4. Wikipedia [4]
  5. Pwll-Du History[5]
  6. World Heritage Blaenavon [6]
  • Historic Landscape - Blaenavon [7]
  • Blaenavon's History [8]