Chapter 15


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The Changing Face of Wales: The Coming of Industry

Before the end of the 19th century, all this feverish activity meant that Wales was about to undergo momentous changes that were to transform it from a quiet backwater on the western edge of Europe to one of the foremost centres of industry in the world in a few short years. It possessed what Ireland did not --- coal. And it was coal that brought about so many changes and so rapidly that there was hardly time to realize just what was happening to the economic, political, social and literary life of the nation, not to mention the language.

In light of its subsequent history, it is with an amused detachment that we read what a customs official at Cardiff said of his town in 1782:
We have no coal exported from this port nor ever shall, as it would be too expensive to bring it down here from the internal part of the country.
At the end of the next century, Cardiff would be exporting more coal than any other port in the world, and more than a million people had crowded the valleys that radiated out in the valleys north of the city. South Wales coal was the ideal fuel for the domestic fireplaces of London and other rapidly growing urban centers of England. It also was the preferred fuel for the ever-expanding navies of the world when steam replaced sail and iron replaced wood.

In 1839, to export the vast amounts of coal now reaching the city from the Rhondda Valleys, there was feverish activity to complete the Bute Docks at Cardiff out of the mud in the Severn Estuary. Many impressive fortunes were made from South Wales coal; not all the profits went over the border to England. The foremost coal owner was David Davies of Llandinam who founded the Ocean Coal Company and built a rail link from the coalfields to a purposely-built new port at Barry, near Cardiff.

According to historian Gwyn Williams, Wales was transformed practically overnight from "a marginal province into a sector of an imperial economy." Professor Davies also describes its growth as the result of having become a central part of a capitalist system that "spread its tentacles... to all corners of the earth." Along with industrialization came a dramatic increase in the numbers of inhabitants -- from approximately 500,000 people in the 1750's to over 1,600,000 in 1851 and 2,600,000 before Word War One.

The rural northwest and central areas of Wales, however, did not share in this growth. They began a process of continually losing people to an increasingly anglicized and urbanized southeast, where iron, coal and tinplate, steel and rails made the area one of the most prolific in the world in terms of industrial production, or to industrial communities in England. The movement into the five great valleys of the South was so great that Wales ranked second to the United States as a world center of immigration in the latter half of the 19th century.

It was around Merthyr Tydfil (the town of Tydfil the Martyr) that most of the industrial growth in Wales took place. The insatiable demand for iron led the small country village into overtaking Swansea as the largest town in Wales early in the 19th century. It was in the Merthyr district that the great iron works of Cyfartha, Pen y Darren and Blaenavon produced an inordinate share of British Iron, and at Dowlais was made practically the sum total of all iron rails for the fledgling United States railroad industry.

South of Merthyr, and greatly profiting from its heavy industry and relentless toil of its workers, was Cardiff, its outlet to the sea at the bottom of the five valleys (Rhymney, Rhonda, Cynon, Taff, and Ebbw) and the main center of export to the overseas empire. As early as 1794, the two towns were connected by the Glamorgan Canal; two more canals were constructed to link Ebbw Vale with Newport in 1796; and Swansea to its rapidly growing industrial hinterland in 1798. In less than 19 years, by 1839 the Glamorgan Canal alone increased its traffic seven-fold, to 350,000 tons.

By that date, the railways had begun to take over much of the burden of transporting the raw materials to the ports and centres of production: the Taff Vale and the Rhymney were constructed by the middle of the century. It seemed as if everyone would benefit, especially after the discoveries of David Thomas, working under George Crane at the Yniscedwyn Iron Works in Ystradgynlais, in the Swansea Valley, opened up the West Wales coalfield by making it possible to use anthracite coal in the smelting of iron ore.

Thomas's discovery, that the hot blast, invented by James Neilson in Scotland, could be also used to smelt iron ore with anthracite, transformed the Swansea Valley, where ample supplies of anthracite had remained unused, but had its greatest effect in the iron industry of the United States. Thomas was invited to set up a blast furnace in 1839 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where his expertise and management skills soon led to the Lehigh Valley becoming one of the world's great centres of iron production in the second half of the nineteenth century. The future of the New World looked bright; its promises beckoned a new wave of emigration from Wales.

At home, at the same time, progress was much more sporadic. There were all kinds of problems in the iron and coal industries, and a period of great unrest came to the valleys. This unrest led to their becoming known as one of the premier centers of British radicalism, an unrest that led to a particular Welsh kind of political activity and that, in time, would lead to a socialist-thinking, Labour-voting electorate that was still predominant in the 1990's. The Merthyr Rising began in 1831; for the people of Wales it was a new struggle, of a different kind true, but a struggle as intense as any that had gone before.

Chapter 16: The Great Rising
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