Chapter 15


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The Changing Face of Wales: The Coming of Industry

It was impossible to have foreseen the changes that industry would bring to Wales in the mid-19th century. While the diggings on the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth) at Llandudno show that there had been a deal of industrial activity going on since the Bronze Age in that region and elsewhere, it had been small scale and extremely localized. The Romans had extensive quarries for lead and other ores in Flintshire and had sought gold in various locations throughout Wales. They made little impact on the landscape and very little on the social structure of the country. After the middle of the 18th century, however, there was an explosion of mining, quarrying, iron manufacturing and all their related industries.

In northwest Wales, on what was then the green, unspoiled Island of Anglesey, the huge Mona and Parys copper mines helped transform both the economy and the landscape: copper smelting employed hundred of workmen and poisoned the hillsides around Amlwch. Even today, hideous scars remain on now derelict Parys Mountain. In the ancient kingdom of Gwynnedd, also in the northwest, huge quarries began to disfigure the landscape, but also helped employ thousands of men to dig out the slate that roofed houses and municipal buildings throughout Europe.

Today, the mining and manufacture of copper has disappeared. Welsh slate is no longer extensively mined, roofing materials being produced much more efficiently and cheaply elsewhere, though the mountains of waste remain. Elsewhere, the landscape is still being altered immeasurably by monstrous stone quarries to build English roads. Whole mountains near Penmaenmawr are being torn apart in a process that seems to have no end.

Before the end of the 18th century, the Greenfield Valley, below St. Winifred's shrine at Holywell in Flintshire, fed by an ample supply of water, sustained a long line of industrial workings. Copper and brass foundries, supplied by ships brought raw materials from the Thomas Williams mines at Parys Mountain to join the older more traditional woolen and flannel mills. Collieries at nearby Flint and Bagillt; iron foundries at Mostyn, on the Dee estuary; the beginnings of extensive coal mining at Llay, Gresford, and Point of Ayr; and the pioneering John Wilkinson iron works at Bersham, near Wrexham also helped make the Northeast corner of Wales a center of industry. (A stronghold of the English language long before the area attracted the Merseyside hordes as a place of retirement or holiday homes).

Much of the products of the Welsh quarries and the Welsh woolen mills was exported overseas; a flourishing maritime trade kept the weavers of Bala (whose stockings were famous all over Europe); the flannel workers of Llanidloes and Newtown; and the quarrymen of Gywnedd and Anglesey fully occupied. In the South, rapidly-growing Swansea, (Abertawe) became the chief copper producer of Britain, if not the world; the Tawe Valley became notorious for its hell-like appearance that even today continues to stubbornly resist attempts at regreening its bare, blackened slopes.

The Seven Years' War of 1756-63, involving most of Europe, accelerated the demand for domestic iron, and all the raw materials necessary for its production were found in a narrow band at the northern edge of the Southeast Wales coalfield. The process of puddling invented by Henry Cort in Hampshire, England in 1783 finally ended the iron industry's reliance on charcoal, at that time in increasingly short supply throughout Britain.

The bituminous or semi-bituminous coals of the Welsh Valleys provided a perfect solution: they provided an extremely valuable, readily available fuel in prodigious quantities. Investment capital came mainly from London, bringing in to southeast Wales and influx of experienced iron masters and their workers, mainly from the Midlands, to supply the technical know-how to produce high quality iron.

Other workers flocked in from all parts of Britain, though a large supply came from the farming districts of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire. Some of the major iron masters that helped develop Welsh industry were John Guest, associated with the Dowlais and Plymouth works; Anthony Bacon and William Brownrigg, who began the Cyfartha Works; Richard Crawshay, who later bought and expanded Cyfartha; and the Homfrays, who owned Penydarren.

The work of such industrial giants was in great demand, not only during the aforementioned war, but also during the War for American Independence, the Napoleonic Wars and especially for the coming of the railways that were to change Britain (and the world) forever. Professor John Davies has commented that the investment of London bankers in the Welsh iron industry, in at least a dozen large-scale enterprises, was "a concentration of capital in heavy investment without parallel anywhere in the world." And with this investment in industry, of course, came the accompanying investment in methods of transporting the finished products to the waiting ports and ships. By the year 1827, the south Wales iron industry was producing one half of all Britain's iron exports, much of it to the United States.

Chapter 15 Continued
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