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British Industrial History

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Ebbw Vale Ironworks

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of Ebbw Vale, the site of a major producer of iron and then steel, the first in the Britain to integrate both iron and steel production.


1789 The first Ebbw Vale Ironworks emerged out of a partnership established in 1789 between Walter Watkins (of Danygraig) former High Sheriff of Breconshire, his son-in-law Charles Cracroft, a capitalist in a small way (residing at Sunny Bank, Crickhowell) and Jeremiah Homfray, an iron master, who had connections with Penydarren Ironworks at Merthyr. Watkins was the owner of a forge at Glangrwney. The lack of an adequate supply of pig iron for the forge led the partnership to lease land from John Miles at Pen y cae farm, Ebwy Fawr, in the parish of Aberystruth; they also had permission to erect furnaces.

Situated on the northern outcrop of the South Wales Coal Basin, the raw material for iron-making could be found in abundance in the Ebbw Valley and, at first, was easily accessible. Coal and iron ore were obtained by ‘patch’ workings and by drifts and levels. Limestone was transported by mules from Llanelly Hill, near Blaenavon. A single blast furnace and casting shop was constructed against the hillside near the river with a weekly output of between 25 – 30 tons of pig iron per week. That led the local inhabitants to call its emergence (and the community which grew with it) ‘Pen y cae’ after the farm. But from manorial times the locality was referred as ‘Ebby Fawr’ then later ‘Glyn Ebbw’. But the usage and anglicised reference by the ironmasters to their enterprise as ‘The Ebbw Vale Furnace’ brought acceptance of the name by which the Works and township was to develop.

1793 The original partnership was dissolved. Homfray was joined by the Harford, Partridge and Co, Quakers from Bristol[1].

1796 The entire operation was taken over by the Harfords

1805 A second furnace was constructed

1818 A legal dispute between the Sirhowy and Tredegar companies resulted in a split between them; the Sirhowy works were acquired by James Harford of Harford, Partridge and Co of Ebbw Vale and, from this date on, were operated as part of the Ebbw Vale Ironworks in the valley to the east. Sirhowy supplied Ebbw Vale with pig iron and there it was worked into wrought iron.

1818 – 1820: The forge, and extensive iron bottom puddling furnaces for refining iron were introduced, and rolling mills for bars and plates were built. The single furnace operation was expanded and four blast cupola furnaces were subsequently built. The Sirhowy Iron Works and Collieries, which had been in operation since 1760, was acquired by James Harford of Harford, Partridge and Co of Ebbw Vale and, from this date on, were operated as part of the Ebbw Vale Ironworks in the valley to the east. Sirhowy supplied Ebbw Vale with pig iron and there it was worked into wrought iron and, from the end of the 19th century onwards, into steel.

1823 A third furnace was built

1829 – 35: These years heralded the start of the railway era. Ebbw Vale Works was well equipped to supply rails for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Stockton and Darlington Railway. A tunnel for a horse tram road was driven for over a mile under the hillside to the Sirhowy Works enabling iron to be brought to the Ebbw Vale forge speedily. The Works also introduced steam locomotives on its own tram roads.

1839 A fourth furnace was built

1842 Messrs Harford’s business in the southern states of the USA was in commercial difficulty. The Ebbw Vale Works was taken over by Trustees.

1843 Messrs Harford and Davies - the Ebbw Vale Co - failed with the prospect of making 2000 - 3000 workers redundant, which caused much concern locally[2].

1844 The Company was bought by Abraham Darby (1804-1878) and others of Coalbrookdale. The partners were Abraham Darby, Henry Dickenson, Joseph Robinson, J. Tothill and Thomas Brown, the latter being designated managing partner. Total workforce of about 1600.

1848 The lease of the Victoria Iron Works (Ebbw Vale) was acquired from Lord Llanover (Sir Benjamin Hall). The works, which was located two miles south, consisted of three blast furnaces and puddling mills built in 1836 by the Monmouthshire Iron and Coal Co

1850 Great economy in blast furnace practice was achieved at the works. George Parry, Darby’s chemist, was the first successfully to adopt the cup and cone on blast furnaces.

1851 Ebbw Vale Co: award at the 1851 Great Exhibition. See details at 1851 Great Exhibition: Reports of the Juries: Class V.

1852 The Ebbw Vale Co bought the Abersychan Works (British Ironworks) consisting of six blast furnaces.

1853. Iron ore fields were purchased in the Brendon Hills, Somerset, followed by the acquisition of ore fields in Bilbao, Spain and the Forest of Dean.

1855 The Ebbw Vale Co expanded, acquiring extensive interests in Pontypool consisting of four furnaces, a forge, tinplate works and collieries.

1857 George Parry of Ebbw Vale conducted experiments in converting iron into superior wrought iron or steel. He was one of a number of chemists who successfully produced a process. It was Henry Bessemer who patented one which was commercially viable and afterwards it was adopted at Ebbw Vale. The Steel Age had arrived.

1857 Bought Pentwyn Ironworks

1859 The Pontypool Iron and Tinplate Co works were purchased by Messrs. Levick, Brown, Darby and Robinson of the Ebbw Vale Co Ltd.

1863 Approximately 100,000 tons of rail and merchant bars were being produced per annum. Apart from the Iron Works and Collieries at Ebbw Vale, Sirhowy, Victoria, Abersychan, Pontypool and Abercarn, the Company also had six wharfs at Newport, the Hematite mine in the Forest of Dean and Spathic ore mines in the Brendon Hills. There were 19 blast furnaces, 192 puddling furnaces, 99 heating furnaces and 1200 workmen’s houses. The colliery leases comprised 7500 acres of land.

1864 Bought Pontypool Ironworks

1864-1871 Darby converted the whole enterprise into a limited Company - the Ebbw Vale Co Ltd - under the general management of William Adams. He also erected a new blast engine (see below), the most powerful blowing engine in the world to serve four of the Ebbw Vale furnaces, new rolling mills and a Bessemer converter shop which produced the first steel ingots. It was also the first time ‘spiegel-eisen’ (mirror iron) was successfully manufactured and commercially produced at Ebbw Vale for use in high carbon steels.

1865 Massive blowing engine installed, built by Perran Foundry, designed by Loam & Son. See below for further details [3]

1868 Restructured as the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Co

1873 Abraham Darby (1804-1878) retired.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. In the Footsteps of the Iron-makers 4 - The Darby Trail [1]
  2. The Times, 21 June 1843
  3. 'The Cornish Beam Engine' by D B Barton (D Bradford Barton, new edition, 1966)