Blaenavon in old picture postcards

Blaenavon in old picture postcards

:   Roger Bowen
:   Torfaen
:   United Kingdom
:   978-90-288-2269-6
:   80
:   EUR 16.95 Incl BTW *

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Fragmenten uit het boek 'Blaenavon in old picture postcards'

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B1aenavon as a town is a product of the Industrial Revolution, the movement whieh changed the British economy from an agrarian to an industrial one. Although iron-making had been practised in South Wales since Elizabethan times, it was not until the mid 18th century, when coal replaced charcoal for smelting purposes, that the valley-head towns developed as major eentres of industry. It was in these places that coal, limestone and iron ore (the materials required for ironmaking) were found in close proximity.

In the area now known as Blaenavon, three Midlands businessmen - Hili, Hopkins and Pratt - set up turnaces in 1789. Houses were quiekly built to accommodate the workers who flocked to the area. Helped by the communications which the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal provided, Blaenavon's iron industry flourished - and so did the town whieh grew up there.

By 1800 a third of the town's population worked at the Blaenavon ironworks, and 1,000 tons of iron were transported to the coast each year. The tewn's development was rapid, for its high quality products found ready markets throughout the world. The educational and religious interests of the community were furthered by the philanthropie work of the Hopkins family.

There were slumps and periods of industrial unrest, but Blaenavon still succeeded in becoming a prosperous town. There was a rapid growth in housing and social facilities, and between 1800 and 1850 the population quadrupled, to more than 4,000. Meanwhile, a London financier named R.W. Kennard had come to play an important part in the town's affairs. From 1836 he headed the newly formed Blaenavon Coal and Iron Company, and a period of great expansion was initiated. Iron-making fared weil; among other things it was assisted by the growth of the railway system, which

welcomed Blaenavon's high quality iron (in fact, the iron was so highly regarded that other companies used to stamp their products with the name of Blaenavon).

In 1860, Big Pit was added to the other coalmines operating in the Blaenavon area. This was done to enable the Blaenavon Company to use coal sales to buoy up company profits at times when the iron industry was not doing weil. But it was not until the 1870s that developments occurred whieh were to ensure international farne for Blaenavon. The steel industries of the world were faced with the problem of removing the phosphorus which was found in many deposits of iron ore. The presence of phosphorus resulted in the production of brittie steel, and 90 per cent of the world's iron ore was phosphoric.

This barrier to progress in the steel industry was removed by a Londoner named Sidney Gilchrist Thomas. Thomas, who worked as a justices' clerk in London, had a cousin - Percy Gilchrist - who was employed by the Blaenavon Cornpany. Through his cousin, Thomas was able to secure lavish facilities for experimentation at Blaenavon, and it was there that he worked, in his spare time, to solve the phosphorus problem. This he did ev developing a new furnace lining. His discovery made him an extremely wealthy man: patents were sold throughout the world, and the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie bought the right to use the formula. But Thomas did not live to profit fully from his invention; he died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four.

With vast deposits of phosphoric ore now freed for use, the world production of steel grew rapidly, From 1880 onwards Blaenavon steel flourished likewise, for almost forty years. By then the massive New Side steelworks was in use; it was among the most advanced plants of its kind in the world. 'Thomas steel' had become established everywhere, but the

Thomas formula brought about the eventual destruction of the valley-head steel industry in Wales. The high-grade ores found in such places as Blaenavon were of less value than the cheap imported phosphoric ore which had now become usable. The steel industry gradually shifted to the coastal areas, as the transport costs involved in valley-head steelmaking made the enterprise uneconomic.

Blaenavon's eventual decline, however, was held off by the success of the coal-mining industry through a boom period which occurred in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The tewn's coal proved ideal both for steamships and for railways. lts steam-raising capabilities were high, and the French railway system in particular held Blaenavon's product in great esteern. But this period of success was shortlived. The depression of the 1930s brought massive unernployrnent to Blaenavon, as it did to other eentres of industry, and the town experienced a large-scale migration movement from which it has never recovered.

Today Blaenavon is recognised throughout the world for its contribution to industrial history. The ironworks are being restored, and Big Pit has become a mining museum; both are rapidly becoming places of international pilgrimage for those who are interested in our past. Among the many interested visitors to Blaenavon in recent times has been H.R.H. Prince Charles, who on the occasion of his visit met Francis Keen and was able to inspeet many of the photographs which appear in this book. Con tinued interest in the past of Blaenavon is ensured by the tewn's prime position in the Valley Inheritance 'Living Museum' scheme administered by the local authority, Torfaen Borough Council.

The photographs here are intended to give some impression of the vitality and prosperity that Blaenavon once knew. We

feel that these photographs, with a little limited help from the text, speak eloquently for themselves.


The historical summary in this publication is all too brief, but we acknowledge gratefully the help of the local historians A.A. Bowen, F. Percy and B. phillips in its composition.

In addition we have gained a great insight into the life of Blaenavon in former times from publications such as: E.J. Davies' 'The Blaenavon Story', Lewis Browning's 'Blaenavon', and Archdeacon Coxe's 'Tour Through Monmouthshire'. However, the author accepts full responsibility for any errors perpetrated herein.

We are of course deeply indebted to those who donated their photographs for use in the book, If we have omitted any donor from the following list, we ask them to accept our sineere apologies.

The Big Pit Museum, The National Museum of Wales, The Valley Inheritance Museum (Curator A. Babbidge), G. Allsop, W. Aston, D. Bayliss, A. Bollen, Mrs. D. Bowen, G. Cornthwaite, H. Edwards, Mrs. S. Edmunds, D. Evans, Miss Green, P. Holder, J. Howard, C. House, Gwyn. Jones, Gordon Jones, Miss McKenzie, C. Miles, W. Mitchell, B. Morgan, C. Morgan, D. Morgan, E. Morgan, W. Morgan, O. Parker, A. Parry, Mrs. L. Parry, F. Percy, B. Phillips, Mrs. E. Shaw, M. South, Mrs. Whitcombe, E. White, Miss J. Whitney and G. Williams. Other photographs used are from the compiler's own collections. Editorial assistance by Malcolm Bowen, M.A. (Cantab.),

1. Blaenavon ironworks at the North Street site was illustrated in Archdeacon William Coxe's book 'A Historical Tour Through Monmouthshire' (1801). AIready in production for twelve years at the time this print was made, the ironworks employed three hundred men at a time when the tewn's population was about 1,000. Approximately 1,000 tons of iron were then being produced annually, but only eight years later production had risen to over 12,000 tons. Coxe said in his work: "The ironworks have the appearance of a smal! town .. .'

2. Above: The North Street site, opened in 1789 and now being restored, is generally regarded as the finest remaining example of an 18th century ironworks in Europe. Blaenavon was at the head of most major developments in both iron and steel production for one hundred and forty years. lts works were the last to use 'cold blast' in the manufacturing process; this method was superseded by the more efficient 'hot blast'. At one time eleven furnaces were in existence in Blaenavon: five on the North Street site and six on the New Side. Visible in this photograph are (at left) the fumaces and (at right) the water balance, which was used for raising drams. Running across the centre of the picture are the blast pipes. Below: A further view of the Ironworks at North Street. This photograph, taken in 1896, depiets to the right the Pattern Shop and to the left the Blast Engine House. The stack, which gave its name to the workers' housing adjacent to the works, is seen on the left.

3. Back in the 1870s few people could have believed that the work of a police clerk and part-time chemist would have an immense effect on the industrial development of the world. Sidney Gilchrist Thomas (1850-1885) came to Blaenavon in 1877 to conduct experiments on the elimination of phosphorus from iron ore. He finally succeeded with a furnace lining of dolomite and tar. This development freed the world's phosphoric iron ore deposits for high quality steelmaking; among the countries to benefit were France, Germany, and most other Western European countries, as well as the USA and Russia. Gilchrist Thomas's work was instrumental in bringing about the tremendous rise in world steel production which took place from the 1880s onwards. Thomas's company profited to the extent of f:138,000 from worldwide patents of the formula, but Thomas died at the age of thirty-four, before he could enjoy his wealth. His name is gratefully remembered by foreign industry, although it is largely unknown in Britain.

4. Above, right: The blast fumaces at Blaenavon in 1896. This was during the period of massive modemisation, which was to ensure the tewn's continued success into the next century. Yet in two years following 1920, the price of iron halved as the industry went into decline.

Above, left: A rare and superb view of the Blaenavon steelworks at the New Side during the 1880s. At this time the site was undergoing a modemisation process which was to make the works the most advanced and productive in the world. The picture shows only a very few members of the total workforce, but it does give some idea of the massive scale of the construction. Following modernisation the Blaenavon Cernpany's profits rose rapidly, to re ach JÄ3,OOO in 1890. In 1897, the Company paid an Ordinary Share Dividend of 57.5 per cent.

Below: A group of Blaenavon furnace workers, who display a remarkable variety of working clothes and headwear. They appear to be the very same men pictured at the fumaces on the previous photograph.

5. A view of the 23-metre blast furnaces of Blaenavon steelworks at the 'New Side' (now known as 'Forge Side') in the 1920s. It was at that time the largest furnace in Wales. The photograph was taken in the decade immediately after the peak of the coal boom. It was then that Blaenavon's population reached its highest level at approximately 12,500 - twice the present figure. Decline of the local coal and steel industry was soon to lead to considerable migration from the town.

6. This extremely rare industrial scene shows men working at the Besserner converters of Blaenavon Steelworks in 1896 (the converter having been invented in the mid 1850s). It is ironie that the name Bessemer is synonymous with steel-making in Britain, but that the work of Gilchrist Thomas (described elsewhere in this baak) goes a1most unrecognised by the general public here. In Germany there are few large steelworks which do not have sorne farm of memorial to the man whose work in Blaenavon so revolutionised steel production. Throughout Europe genera1ly Thornas's name is weIlknown.

7. Blaenavon steelworkers at the 'Rail Bank' in the 1880s. The so-called 'railway mania' of the 1840s did much to fuel Blaenavon's prosperity as a supplier of iron to the newly developed British railway systern, and later to foreign railways too. When steel started to replace iron, B1aenavon's high-quality products still found a ready market. Among other things, a 'tyre mill' was built at Blaenavon to pro duce wheels for railway rolling stock.

8. A group of blast furnace workers taking refreshment near the charging end of the furnace, where the furnace was replenished. Boys were often sent to the public houses to fetch beer for the men to drink when working. The drink must have been most we1come to the furnacemen, who had to endure infernally hot and dirty conditions in their work. Vet a blast furnaceman's job was a skilled one which carried considerable prestige. In fact, many men refused relatively well-paid jobs in other areas of work in order to retain their socia! status.

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