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Merthyr Tydfil

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Map ReferenceSO00NE
Grid ReferenceSO0500007000
Unitary (Local) AuthorityMerthyr Tydfil
Old CountyGlamorgan
Type Of SiteTOWN
Merthyr Tydfil was the first true iron town in the world, growing up around a series of different ironworks. The adoption of coke fuel permitted the conglomeration of numerous furnaces and forges on a band of outcropping coal, iron ore and limestone at the head of the South Wales coalfield, transforming Merthyr from a village in the 1750s to the largest town in Wales by 1801.

Dowlais Ironworks, established in 1759, was probably the first to use coke fuel in South Wales. The other great works were Plymouth (1763), Cyfarthfa (1765), and Penydarren (1782), but a number of subsidiary works were constructed during the early nineteenth century. All of these ironworks grew into multi-furnace sites, and by 1840 Dowlais, which was the largest at the time, had 18 furnaces and employed 10,000 people and 100 steam engines. The King of Prussia, who visited in 1844, described Merthyr as 'the fiery city of Pluto', but introduction of Bessemer steelmaking in 1856 began its decline, since local phosphoric ores could not be used until the introduction of the Thomas process in 1878. Several works closed, while others converted to steel production using imported ores. Several monuments and buildings of importance lie within this area, including Cyfarthfa Furnaces, Ynysfach Engine House, Cefn Coed Viaduct, Cyfarthfa Castle, Dowlais Stables, Pontycafnau Iron Bridge and aqueduct of 1793, and typical early workers' houses at Chapel Row in Georgetown. These are integral to a much larger landscape of tramroads, railways, canals, settlement, quarrying and mining. The town retains its incoherent pattern of development between the separate ironworks' communities, dictated by the routes of tramroads and the extent of slag heaps.

The whole area has been included on the advisory Register of Landscapes of Outstanding Historic Interest in Wales. However, major opencast mining, land reclamation and development schemes are under consideration, and the planning process is being challenged to balance this with heritage interests if extensive areas of characteristic tips, transport features, watercourses and mines are to be retained.

(Notes via D.K Leighton for TICCIH 2000 Conference)
Site visited B.A.Malaws, 05 September 2000.

The Welsh Assembly Government has recently opened a major office in the town near a large telecommunications call centre. Hoover (now part of the Candy Group) has its Registered Office in the town and remained a major employer until it transferred production abroad in March 2009, resulting in the loss of 337 jobs after the closure of its factory.

RCAHMW, 2009.

The area around Merthyr Tydfil shows evidence of small scale settlement from the prehistoric periods onwards, and the name originates in the tale of the martyred Saint Tydfil, one of the many daughters of the fourth-century ruler Brychan Brycheiniog. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the valley was sparsely populated with farming and the rearing of livestock forming the main economy, though a small village had formed on the site of the modern day town.

In the early eighteenth century abundant deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone were discovered, making it an ideal location for the relatively new ironwork industry that was leading Britain Industrial Revolution.

In 1759, the first major ironworks, Dowlais, was founded. Other works, including Plymouth, Cyfarthfa and Penydarren, followed in quick succession and Merthyr Tydfil changed beyond recognition. Under the ownership of John Josiah Guest between 1807 and 1852, Dowlais rose to international fame as the largest ironworks worldwide employing 8,800 workers and producing 88,000 tonnes of iron a year. By 1820, Merthyr was producing 40 per cent of Britain iron exports, while in the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the works converted to the production of steel.

As a result of the rapid expansion of industrial production and mining activities, the population of Merthyr Tydfil increased dramatically. The 1801 census recorded 7,000 people in the parish ? by 1910 Merthyr Tydfil had almost 90,000 inhabitants.

Due to crammed living conditions in the terraces of workers housing and the lack of proper sanitation, disease was rife and life expectancy low. The low wages of the industrial workforce, poor working conditions and the implementation of the `truck system? by the iron masters, in which workers were not payed real money, but vouchers and tokens valid only in their masters? own shops, contributed to ongoing social unrest. In 1831 the increasing tension came to a head, triggering the Merthyr Rising. For the first time, workers united under the red flag and effectively took control of the town for four days. The situation spun out of control as soldiers were moved in to suppress the movement. One of the leaders, Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis) was arrested and hanged while others were sentenced to transportation to Australia.

Although lacking the picturesque beauty of medieval ruins or the grandeur of the mountain landscapes of Snowdonia, Merthyr Tydfil drew a steady stream of visitors from mainland Europe. During the day, the travellers carefully studied the cutting edge production methods in the numerous factories, while at night they stared in wonder at the `hell-fire spectacle? of the furnaces illuminating the entire valley.

Thanks to its international industrial reputation, declining steel and iron production in the mid twentieth century was replaced by manufacturing industries. Today, major land restoration projects are under way to enhance landscapes formed by largescale coal mining and metallurgic production, while museums, such as the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, keep Merthyr Tydfil's industrial heritage alive.

Record updated as part of the AHRC-funded project 'Journey to the Past: Wales in historic travel writing from France and Germany'.
R. Singer (Bangor University) and S. Fielding (RCAHMW), 2017.
application/pdfETW - European Travellers to Wales ProjectDescription of visit to Merthyr Tydfil by Alphonse Esquiros,from 'L'Angleterre & la vie anglaise:Le sud du Pays de Galles & l'industrie du fer'(c.1850s).Text available in Welsh,English, French & German.Produced through European Travellers to Wales project.