History of Brynmawr, Wales

Excerpts from the Book "Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area,"
by Hilda Jennings

Photographs copyright 2004 by Jeffrey L. Thomas.

Above: A modern view of Brynmawr in a photograph taken from King Street just above Well Street. Although the houses here have changed over the decades, the hills seen in the distance would have been familiar to the town's early 19th-century residents.

Brynmawr, a town that lies on the northern fringe of the south Wales coalfield in what was formerly Breconshire, was one of dozens of communities that was irrevocably transformed in the 19th century by the region's iron and coal industries. According to most sources, in 1800 the village that was once know as Waun-y-Helegyn was little more than a collection of farm cottages, yet by the early 1830s this small village had exploded into a thriving industrial community due to the nearby ironworks at Nantyglo, Clydach and Beaufort.

In her book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area, Allenson & Co., London, 1934, Hilda Jennings provides an in depth examination of Brynmawr's social and economic history. Jennings analyzes the development of the town using a combination of standard texts and personal memories from some of the town's older residents, who at the time were only a generation or two removed from Brynmawr's early 19th-century roots. Most importantly, the book gives readers a good idea of what life was like in Brynmawr, particularly for the countless families employed by the region's iron and coal industries.

Below you will find a collection of excerpts from the book concentrating on the town's development in the early to mid 19th century, supplemented by photographs that were taken when my wife and I visited the area in April of 2004. The excerpts are presented here in the same order as found in the book.

Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area,
by Hilda Jennings,
Allenson & Co., London, 1934.

II. The Growth of the Community of Brynmawr

Brynmawr stands at the extreme northern edge of the South Wales Coalfield on the border of Brecknockshire and Monmouthshire. A few miles to the north lie the fertile valleys of the Usk, while in the more immediate vicinity coal and iron outcrop on the mountain side. Up to 1800 it was practically uninhabited. The great hill fringed on one side by the long line of willows gave it its early name of Waun-y-Helegyn, or the field of the willows, remained for centuries untenanted except by the inhabitants of two or three farm-houses and shepherds' cottages. The turnpike road running from Abergavenny to Merthyr passed through the little village of Clydach two miles away through the turnpike gate up the steep rock to the bleak upland plateau, which is now Brynmawr, and where stage and later a coaching-inn provided a change of horses.

The new settlement, in which lived some of the workers at the iron works and the men, women and children who were engaged in the extraction of iron-ore, were thus ringed round by a mile or two of uninhabited ground which divided it from the earlier settlements of Clydach, Beaufort and Nantyglo. At first the focus of social interests was in these settlements. A newcomer to Brynmawr in 1820 might have found work locally in the iron-ore gathering grounds, or have walked daily to one of the Iron Works. For his chapel, for his shopping at the Company Shop and even for his children’s school, if they were privileged to attend one, he would have been forced to go to Nantyglo. There he would have learnt history and gossip about local personalities and have taken part in the building up of the workers’ organisations and in the religious meetings and services of the Independents or Baptists. Insensibly, too, he would acquire the prevalent attitude, half admiring and half satirical, to the employers and their doings, expressed in the doggerel English song set to an old Welsh tune which told of the doings of Crawshay Bailey, who with his brother had purchased the Nantyglo Iron Works in 1813, and whose organising power and engineering exploits became famous throughout South Wales:-

“Crawshay Bailey had an engine
It’s a-puffing and a-steaming,
And according to its power
It can go four miles an hour.
Did you ever see, did you ever see
Such a funny thing before?”

Below: a 19th century painting of the iron works at Nantyglo, near Brynmawr. Artist unknown.

Yet the fact that the worker had his home and family at Brynmawr would have introduced him to a new set of interests. As the congested streets in the older part of the town sprang up, the neighbourhood would play an ever increasing part in his thoughts and conversation and those of his family. The children playing together in the narrow roads or on the mountain-sides, the women meeting at the wells from which they daily drew their water, he himself talking with his fellows in the public-house, would evolve new human interests as they grew to know each other in daily intercourse. Births, deaths and marriages would be made known, friendships and antagonisms would spring up, and in a very short time the fabric of thought and conversation would be tinged by the common knowledge and assumptions of the growing settlement.

Into the little community came a constant flow of newcomers from Wales and England, each the subject of speculation, and each adding some new ingredient to the common life. Difficulties in providing houses and house-furnishings, added hardships owing to the severity of climate and the poorness of roads would be common to all; all too, would have a tale of past history and their reasons for and difficulties in migrating to this isolated spot, which would provide the material of romance and adventure to be imagined and talked over in the home and public-house. Gradually the cleavage between English and Welsh was overcome as the English language gained ground and the habit of living together as pioneers in a strange place affected the customs of immigrants whatever their place of origin.

Owing to the geographical position of the town at the head of the mining valleys, it was a natural meeting place of bands of workers, who were combining in the attempt to extort better wages and freedom from the Truck system. Since, whatever their place of work, almost all the inhabitants of Brynmawr were in some way dependent on the iron industry, these meeting and processions would be deemed of great importance and would help to relate the common interests of Brynmawr to those of the place of occupation. The workers living in the town soon found the need for a permanent local meeting-place, and the Brynmawr public-houses became the centres of local lodges and branches of the Secret Union Clubs.

In other ways also the centre of social interests and activities shifted from Nantyglo. The march of men, women and children bearing the chapel furniture from the Mother Church at Nantyglo to a separate chapel at Brynmawr in 1828 was symbolic of the inevitable transfer of interests to the home town and of the process of building up a body for the life of the new community. Buildings and organisations as well as social groupings were bound to spring up to provide a mode of expression for the common life. Thus chapel after chapel was built; little schools were held in chapels and cottages; the few shops in private houses were added to by a line of shops in what was to be the main street in the centre of the town, even if the Company Shop established a Branch in Brynmawr itself.

Moreover, common needs which could not be provided for individually began to make themselves felt. Cholera visited the town, and could not be stayed by either the precautions of individual families or the ministrations of the churches, to which new converts rushed in terror; the water supplies were polluted and insufficient; the chapel burial grounds became overcrowded. Thus, in 1851, a Board of Health was elected, and discussion of its doings, of the services which it instituted and the rates it imposed became a standing feature of the life of Brynmawr. To the social and industrial organisations was added the machinery of government, and thus on all sides the common life, which at first had been fluid and shapeless, acquired fixed methods of expression; groupings and activities were no longer altogether shifting and spasmodic but were stabilised in social institutions.

The many-sided expressions of community life touched the individual at so many points, that even when one bond was snapped, there were other close ties which bound him to the place. Thus, in the period when depression in the iron industry had not yet been counterbalanced by the growth of coal production for export, the community of Brynmawr showed a surprising stability, and civic pride and optimism even gave rise to new developments and experiments. Some workers left the town, but many were kept there by the fact that they had built or bought their houses, by family ties, attachments to a chapel, and by the more intangible attachments to place and people which played so large a part in their lives.

Closely related to the quality of social life and the generally accepted standards of family and neighbourhood relationships was the growing up of a conception of leadership. First the old Ironmasters assumed supreme power over the lives of their workers. Then leaders sprang up from diverse sections, exerting an influence sometimes over the lives of one or other of the various groups of citizens only, but in some cases guiding the aspirations of the community and influencing its fortunes at many points. From the workers sprang leaders in revolt, nameless leaders of the terrorist body known as “Scotch Cattle” and “King Crispin,” the Chartist shoe-maker; later Mr. Hicks, shopkeeper from Bristol and founder of the Boot Factory, known as the King of Brynmawr, and Chairman of its Board of Health, held sway for many years, while for nearly half a century John Thomas, the “stern, unbending Calvinist” and capable Town Clerk, combined leadership in religious and social movements with enthusiastic membership of the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion, the pioneer of the modern Welsh Renaissance. Towards the end of the nineteenth century workers, who not only influenced their fellow wage earners but took their share in guiding the fortunes of the town, came to the front. Such was William Davies (Bricks) who worked in the mines from the age of eight, and could neither read nor write, yet by force of character came to serve as a member of the local Council and even of a deputation to the House of Lords, which urged extension of the railway from Nantyglo to Brynmawr.

Old-standing religious ideals remain a force in some sections of the community and decline in others; new political ideas such as Communism are preached unremittingly by a few enthusiasts. Coal is slowly being dethroned in men’s minds as ten years’ mining depression in South Wales is recognised to be due to more than temporary causes; persistent unemployment since 1921 has altered standards of living and caused a heavier migration from the district than ever before. Yet the life of Brynmawr is still shaped by the dynamic force of nature, race, common traditions and common history. It remains a community and still exerts its power over individuals through community attachments. We cannot “pluck out the heart of the mystery” of Brynmawr, but it is well that we should study its history if we wish to plan a future for it instead of drifting down the stream of declining prosperity and disillusionment.

III. The Development of Natural Resources

Follow this link for a map of coal and iron mines/works in the vicinity of Brynmawr.

Right: A section of tramroad near Brynmawr

Iron-ore was the first mineral, the value of which was recognized in the district, and the Clydach Valley leading up to Brynmawr is still made beautiful by the thick line of beech trees planted to serve as charcoal for the Iron Works. With the discovery of the use of coal for smelting and its general adoption towards the end of the eighteenth century came the opening out of small coal levels by the ironmasters The coal produced was both used in the iron works and taken on the backs of mules and later by canal for sale as house-coal in Brecon and Abergavenny.

Many workers at the Clydach, Nantyglo and Beaufort Iron Works made their homes at Brynmawr, but the industry of the town itself was the gathering of the raw materials, iron-ore, blackband and coal. Clydach Dingle on the northern outskirts of the town was the first scene of this industry. Here the earth was "patched," or its surface removed, in order to reach the ironstone strata. Iron-ore and blackband was collected and stacked in great heaps which were burned to remove the grossest impurities before the minerals were sent to the furnaces. Streams were plentiful and sometimes the ironstone was scoured by rushing water.

At the same time levels were driven into the hillside and the hill gradually became honeycombed with subterranean passages. At first most of the work was above ground, and the little community of workers must have been well inured to the hardships of climate, torrential rains, piercing winds and falls of snow, as well as to the heavy manual labour. From Clydach and Llangattock would come the sound of blasting of limestone, while at night not only the fires of the burning stacks of mineral along the outcrop, but the greater glow from the furnaces would light up the sky.

Below: Two views of the "The Patches" above the town. Some of Brynmawr's earliest mining activity was concentrated here in the hills behind the town, where the earth was "patched" (the top layer of soil removed), and shafts were dug into the sides of the hills to extract coal and iron ore near the surface. Today this area stands as a stark reminder of Brynmawr's industrial past.

Unlike the industrial settlements of Nantyglo, Beaufort, Blaenavon, and to a lesser degree Clydach, where the iron works were actually situated, the dormitory town of Brynmawr owed little in the way of building enterprise to the great employers. Individual workers built their own cottages here and there along the tramroads in the very early days, and shortly afterwards tradesmen who, like the workers, were attracted by the central position of the town, began to build courts and rows of houses as a commercial speculation. Later still, thrifty workers, who built their own cottages, invested what was left of their savings in the building of an additional cottage which was inhabited by a married member of their family or let to a fellow worker, and speculative builders put up rows of houses. Thus the tied cottage belonging to the employers has never been a feature of Brynmawr life, and in consequence of this labour has been mobile and workers have been able to move from one colliery to another within traveling distance from Brynmawr in the search for work in bad times.

As usual in a rapidly expanding mining district the younger men came in greatest numbers; hence the tendency to impulsive action and the desire for excitement of whatever nature were greater than in the well established communities, where older and more experienced men formed a greater proportion of the population. Many of the newcomers were single men or had left their wives and families behind until they should have an assured living and a settled home to offer them. Males were thus in excess of females and this again influenced the social habits of the community and their reactions to the outward circumstances of their lives.

The women, whether married or single, took their share in the work of gathering iron-ore and in the coal levels. Often they took their babies to work with them and from an early age children were employed in the less skilled operations, such as turning over the rubbish and picking out the nodules of ironstone. Even today a local coal-level is known as "Peggy's Pit," the name being derived from that of a woman driver of outstanding personality who was employed as a haulier in the mine.

Early life in Brynmawr must have been both simple and lacking in comfort and security, and the iron-workers of the district seem to have experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining even the bare means of livelihood. Thus in 1800 two hundred men, women and children congregated along the Beaufort road, stopped the horses and mules which were being led to the Dowlais Company Shop, drove them into the Beaufort works and declared that the barley meal and bran which they carried should not be taken out of the county.

While the Ironmasters and Colliery Owners were transforming the once quiet hills and valleys and communities were being evolved by the joint influences of nature and man, the development of steamship and rail transport was bringing rival raw materials within the scope of South Wales Iron Works. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was found that iron-ore of superior quality could be brought in from England or even imported profitably from Spain. The local blackband contained only 37.8 per cent of metallic iron as compared with 55 and 60.3 per cent in the various iron-ores of Spain. In addition the working of the mines by the patchwork process was prohibitively expensive in view of the thinness of the veins and the thickness of the burden to be removed before they were reached. Already, by 1865 imports were one third of local products; by 1878 they were four times and in 1890 a hundred times the local product.

Difficulties with regard to the quality and cost of extraction of local ores, together with the gradual superseding of iron by steel, led to a decline in the iron trade which culminated in the closing down of the Clydach and Beaufort Iron Works in 1861, and the sale of the Nantyglo Iron Works by the Baileys in 1870, followed by the end of their activities shortly afterwards. The neighbouring works at Ebbw Vale and Blaenavon were converted into steel works.

Below: The ruins of the Clydach Iron Works near Brynmawr are the closest surviving iron works to the town, and can be seen as part of the Clydach Gorge walk.

The communities which had grown up around the Iron Works were by this time not entirely dependent on them, but the demand for coal was also diminished temporarily by the closing of the works, and for the twenty years between 1860 and 1880 there was great distress in Brynmawr. Thus, while in 1821 males between the ages of twenty and forty constituted .3 of the total male population of the Crickhowell district, after the twenty years' depression due to the closing of the Iron Works in 1861, only .13 of the male population of Brynmawr Urban Sanitary District were in this age group. On the other hand, by 1891, when the coal mines were beginning to call for more men, the proportion had already risen to .16.

IV. Origins and Nationalities

It is not generally realised in England how great has been the admixture of peoples in the South Wales Coalfield, nor how cosmopolitan is the present population. The ports of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport are understood to contain foreign seamen and other immigrants; Pembrokeshire is known to include the curious phenomenon of "Little England," but the Coalfield generally is assumed to be almost entirely populated by persons of Welsh stock. No assumption could be more mistaken. In the early-developed districts on the northern borders of South Wales the mixture of peoples has persisted for over a century and a quarter. The extent to which persons of various origins and nationalities have immigrated into these districts can be judged by the example of Brynmawr.

Surrounded on three sides as the place was by swiftly developing iron works and itself possessing supplies of iron-ore on its northern slopes, it was almost inevitable that it should be used both as the home of some of the workers who were crowding into the works in the narrow valleys near by, and as the gathering ground of the raw material.

The first workers at the Iron Works were drawn from the surrounding agricultural districts and were of Welsh nationality. The distress which was present among agricultural labourers in Breconshire and Monmouthshire between 1795 and 1801 made them glad to exchange their average weekly wage of 6s. to 9s. a week for the 2s. 6d. or 3s. a day which they could earn at mining collieries or in line kilns.

Something of their mode of life, interests and characteristics is revealed in the accounts of Monmouthshire and Breconshire written by Archdeacon Coxe and Theophilus Jones in the early years of the nineteenth century. A simple diet, to a great extent produced by their own exertions, pride in the appearance of hose and garden, a love of poetry, story and music, and a cheerful sociability, are portrayed by both writers. The Welsh language was predominant and Archdeacon Coxe says that when he visited Blaina, two miles from the site of Brynmawr, the English language was so little known that without assistance the Parish Clerk could scarcely understand or answer his questions intelligibly.

As early as 1801 there were as many as 937 people living in Llanelly Parish, and 1,000 in Llangattock Parish. During the next thirty years the growth of the settlement of Brynmawr accounted for part of the increase in population in the two parishes in which it was included. This increase averaged 1,000 for each decade in Llanelly and over 500 in each decade in Llangattock, and was largely due to immigration. The immigrants came not only from Breconshire and Monmouthshire, but from more distant Welsh Counties such as Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, and both worked in the Iron Works and crossed the mountains for purposes of trade. In this way the preponderance of the Welsh workers was maintained, and their racial characteristics can be seen in the history of the early chapels of Brynmawr. The devotion of the ministers shown in their long and lonely journeys over the mountains with utter disregard of wintry weather, scanty clothing and poor food, was equaled by the self-sacrifice of the scattered congregations which at first met in cottages but whose zeal soon found the means to build little chapels. Perhaps the very repression of the natural lighter interests and the degradation of enjoyment of a secular nature, intensified the force of emotion in its narrow channel; at any rate, religious fervour rose periodically to a high pitch of intensity. A typical Welsh "Revival" took place immediately after the building of the first Brynmawr chapel in 1827, when "an indefinable wave of feeling swept over the place and scenes of hysterical ecstasy were witnessed." By 1832 the membership of the chapel, which was entirely Welsh, had risen to 250, and, with industrial prosperity, religion also seemed to prosper, new members constantly flowing in at the rate of 20 or 30 a month.

Jeff's Note: The church being referred to here is Rehoboth, the first non-conforming chapel built in Brynmawr in 1827 (shown below). Follow this link to learn more about the early history of this important church.

Even before 1830 some English workers had entered the district, and at Clydach a purely English Wesleyan Sunday School was opened in 1807 in what had been a roadside inn called the "Trap," and a chapel was built for the joint use of English and Welsh Wesleyans in 1822. In Brynmawr itself, an English and Baptist Church was built in 1836. There are no records available to show the places of origin of the early English immigrants into the Brynmawr district, but references to workers from Staffordshire and other industrial areas in neighbouring iron works, such as those at Merthyr, seem to indicate that the English pioneer immigrants into South Wales were not drawn direct from the land as in the case of the Welsh immigrants to the iron-ore districts. In any event, they must have brought with them very different traditions and habits of life, influenced not only by their different racial characteristics but by the different nature of the country from which they came. The wild and rugged mountain scenery, great, lonely spaces, and poor roads may well have affected the imaginations and courage of all but the more hardy newcomers. Again, the difference in language must have been a bar to speedy assimilation, and to the growth of understanding and unity between the two racially divided sections of the population of Brynmawr.

V. Industrial Relationships and Community Life

As has been said, the early iron workers and collieries in the Brynmawr district, as elsewhere in Monmouthshire, were almost all owned and developed by English or Scotch employers, while the first workers were mainly Welsh. Strikes over the truck system arose as early as 1801, 1810 and 1816, and in 1830 all the collieries in the Western Valleys of Monmouthshire struck. A chain of "Union Clubs" was established from Swansea and Neath in the West to Pontypool and Brynmawr in the East.

It does not appear, however, that the original Welsh workers initiated the movement of industrial revolt. Probably the difference in outlook between the Ironmasters and the English immigrants was as marked in some ways as was the difference between them and the Welsh workers from the moorlands. Richard Crawshay, the "Iron King," complained that "inflammatory tracts" were circulating among the workers from Derbyshire and Staffordshire, who had already known Unions in their native places, and there are other indications of the active part played by the English workers in the early attempts at combination against the masters.

The struggle was a violent one; the military was called in again and again by the employers, and the workers in their turn, with the law and organised religion both against them, resorted more and more to secret terrorist methods. The ardent sprits of the movement organised themselves as "Scotch Cattle" and disguised with blackened faces, sallied forth at night to paint the sign of the red Bull's Head on the doors of blacklegs, and sometimes, as at Nantyglo during the strike of 1832, to raid their houses, destroy their furniture and beat the inhabitants. Even the house of the manager who had introduced the blacklegs was stoned, and neither military nor the heavy rewards offered for information as to the identity of the ringleaders sufficed to quell the workers.

The far-reaching nature of the employers' power over the lives and intimate concerns of the workers made the issue of the struggle of direct importance to their families and to all in the community. To be forced to procure goods at the Company Shop at prices 20 to 30 per cent dearer than those charged by the private tradesman was a grievance which the women as well as the men understood. Moreover, in those early days women and children took a large share in the actual work of the mines. In other ways the employers allowed their workers little personal freedom. Even such children as attended the Works Schools at Nantyglo found that their parents' Nonconformist views did not prevent their being beaten if they failed to learn the catechism or attend the Parish Church at Blaina on Sunday mornings. Yet, the Sunday School children of Brynmawr went annually for an outing in Crawshay Bailey's trams drawn by one of his famous engines and in an autocratic fashion the employees were ready to work for the well-being of the community, as was shown by Henry Bailey's energy in agitating for a Board of Health for Brynmawr after the cholera outbreak of 1847.

Seen from the orthodox point of view of the surrounding clergy and magistrates, the town "presented a frightful picture." In evidence given before the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales, in 1847, the "immoral and corrupt state of what is generally termed the Hilly District, more especially the locality designated as Brynmawr" was described with horror by more than one witness. "The elements necessary to produce a contented, well-disposed and orderly community" were said not to be in Brynmawr, with all its "dense population" and many licensed public-houses and beer houses. Bouts of drunkenness lasting from Saturday to Monday or even Tuesday night as long as wages were high, "strife, jealousy, bickerings, assaults, grumblings, oaths and profane language," characterised the town. On the other hand, "Disaffection and sedition" were said to have subsided since the last Chartist movement, since the people "Have seen the error of their ways and felt the effects of insubordination.

Probably the violent character of the struggle with the masters as well as the secret conspiracies, terrorism and suspicions of spies and blacklegs, and the constant incoming of new workers, had all conduced to bring about this state of affairs. Yet, the picture must have been one-sided; the habit of mutual loyalty, the pursuit of common interests, the contact with the industrial and political movements in the wider world, even the discussions in the public houses, centring round the personalities of the masters, and the struggles of workers in other parts, and the fact that the geographical position of Brynmawr made it a meeting place for the workers of the district, must have provided some education in affairs and in social life.

VI. Local Administration And The Political Movement

The local gentry who gave evidence of the “frightful state” of the morals of Brynmawr in 1847 made no mention of the probable connection between this and the lack of the elementary conditions of decency, comfort and good health from which many workers suffered. The town had sprung up haphazard at the bidding of the industry; it was perhaps less fortunate than Clydach and Nantyglo in that the employers did not live within its bounds and had therefore less personal knowledge of its condition and needs and less incentive to remedy obvious evils. The workers coming in from different areas with different traditions had no common ideal of what was desirable or even essential for the purpose of public health.

There was no town sewerage, scavenging or water system, but the inhabitants drew their water from numerous wells, some of which were seriously polluted. Under such primitive conditions, outbreaks of disease were to be expected, and in 1847 there was a bad epidemic of cholera. In 1849, an “Enquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage, Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Town of Brynmawr in the County of Brecon,: was made by a Superintending Inspector to the Board of Health. Even in those days of primitive ideas of the requisites of public health, conditions in Brynmawr seem to have been exceptionally bad, since the inspector wrote:-

"It is scarcely within the power of pen or pencil to convey to the apprehension of those who are dependent upon such sources of information, an adequate idea of the condition of the cottage tenements which constitute the town, as they presented themselves to my examination during the visit."

The inspector recommended that a Board of Health should be formed to remedy these evils and, owing largely to the initiative and organising ability of Mr. Henry Bailey, this was done in 1851. The Board was one of the first twenty-one in England and Wales and the first three in Wales to be elected. Brynmawr thus owed its position as a pioneer town in public health administration to one of the industrialists who had helped bring it into being.

The Board set to work with great energy. It found that most of the wells could not profitably be put into a state of repair. A water system was therefore devised, although from that time until now the problem of securing an adequate and pure supply has never been wholly solved, and in exceptionally dry weather people still “Besiege the springs and wells all day long.” The condition of the town was improved by the employment of a man to sweep the main streets, requiring the owners of property to put roads and highways in repair, by “street-leveling” at the public expense, by penalising persons who deposited “filth or rubbish” in the roads, and by efforts to educate the public generally in town cleanliness. Permission was sought from the Duke of Beaufort as ground landlord to tip rubbish at suitable spots, street lighting was attempted, a cemetery was provided and steps were taken to restrict and finally prohibit in the old and overcrowded chapel burial grounds. A sewerage system was installed, and, here perhaps, the early start made by the Board of Health was not altogether an advantage, as the science of sanitary engineering had not yet made great strides, and complaints were constantly received from persons who stated that sewers leaked or discharged near their houses or polluted their water supply.

The establishment in 1894 of the Urban District Council in the place of the Board of Health coincided with the beginning of the direct influence of the workers on town affairs, and in that year a miner was for the first time elected as a member of the local Government body. The point of view of the organised workers began to come to the fore in Council meetings from that time onwards. In the following year it was resolved as a result of a letter from the Secretary of the Tin plate Workers’ Association that as far as possible hands thrown out of employment in consequence of the stoppage of the Tin Plate Mills at Nantyglo and Blaina should be employed on works of improvement in the district. In the same year the Trade Union rate of wages of 3s. 4d. per day for a week of fifty-four hours was adopted by the Council for its able-bodied labourers. Trade Union influence thus began to play an increasing part directly and indirectly in town administration.

With the growing up of a generation educated in the Elementary Schools and with the dissemination of the political and economic theories of the Independent Labour Party, both Trade Unionism and the political outlook of the workers changed. Liberalism was ousted by a definitely class-conscious and separatist creed, and the belief of the Unions in the political movement - varying in degree from time to time - was expressed in the attempt to secure political dominance in local as well as national government. During and after the War, speakers from England and Scotland visited Brynmawr and did much to introduce more “advanced” political and industrial ideas.

VII. Housing

Follow this link for a map showing the growth of the town, 1800-1930.

The rapid growth of population owing to successive influxes of workers from outside Brynmawr meant that houses also sprang up rapidly and without any conscious planning. Fortunately the intersecting tramroads built for industrial purposes provided a skeleton town-plan, as the worker's dwellings, apart from those in outlying districts such as Clydach Dingle, where the iron-ore industry of the town was concentrated, naturally grew up along the existing tracks. The streets tended, therefore, to be at right angles to one another, and the town escaped the monotony and congestion of the ribbon-like neighbouring settlements along the narrow valleys to the south and west. The situation on a spacious plateau allowed of subsequent expansion on all sides and of a central square, as well as of the use of outlying land for gardens, allotments and recreation grounds. Hence a centre for community life as well as means of outdoor recreation and spare time occupation were available.

Below: 19th century map of central Brynmawr showing the layout of the streets.

Unlike the industrial settlements of Nantyglo, Beaufort, Blaenavon, and to a lesser degree Clydach, where the iron works were actually situated, the dormitory town of Brynmawr owed little in the way of building enterprise to the great employers. Individual workers built their own cottages here and there along the tramroads in the very early days, and shortly afterwards tradesmen who, like the workers, were attracted by the central position of the town, began to build courts and rows of houses as a commercial speculation. Later still, thrifty workers, who built their own cottages, invested what was left of their savings in the building of an additional cottage which was inhabited by a married member of their family or let to a fellow worker, and speculative builders put up rows of houses. Thus the tied cottage belonging to the employers has never been a feature of Brynmawr life, and in consequence of this labour has been mobile and workers have been able to move from one colliery to another within traveling distance from Brynmawr in the search for work in bad times.

Below: modern view of Glamorgan Street in Brynmawr.

Building in Brynmawr seems to have kept pace with the growth of population throughout the nineteenth century. Both in 1811, 1821 and 1831 the houses of Llanelly Parish were almost equal to the number of resident families, while between 1831 and 1841, when the population of the Parish increased by an amount exceeding the whole increase in the previous thirty years, the number of houses built was also unprecedentedly great. In 1861, when the industry of the district was declining, there were actually 127 uninhabited houses, and in 1881 at the end of the period of depression prior to the expansion of the coal-mining industry, there were as many as 305 uninhabited houses in the Brynmawr Petty Sessional Division. A separate house for each family had thus been the normal condition in Brynmawr, and this has been a constant factor in the maintenance of family solidarity and self-sufficiency.

The types of property built at different times reflect the economic conditions prevailing in the community. To the original farms and shepherds' cottages further cottages and a few shops and inns, including the important Coaching Inn, the Griffin Hotel, were added prior to 1830. In the period of industrial and trading prosperity between 1830 and 1840 were added not only cottages, but the shops in the present main street, and two important chapels. The next decade brought three more Chapels, the British Foreign School, and some larger houses. Between 1860 and 1880 there was less building of cottage property, but the railway station and all the present elementary school buildings were erected. With renewed industrial prosperity and growth of the town as a trading centre from 1880 onwards a wide new street was added with substantially built cottages on each side; existing shops were re-modelled and others were built, together with a new Market Hall and the Secondary School.

Below: the old Griffin Hotel at the corner of Beaufort and King streets.

VIII. Transport, Communications and Trade

Follow this link for a map of the tramroads formerly radiating from Brynmawr.

The influence of transport and communications upon trade is apparent throughout the history of Brynmawr. From its early days it was brought into touch with the outside world by the fact that the coach-road from Merthyr to Abergavenny, which was used by Nelson on his way from Pembroke Dockyard to the north, ran through its site and horses were changed at the Grand Stand there. Very soon an important Coaching Inn grew up to cater to travelers along the main road. This road has remained the shortest route from England to the South Wales Coalfield and has thus brought traders and goods through Brynmawr.

The tramroads leading to the iron works and other rough local roads also passed through the town and along them came Breconshire farmers bringing produce for sale to the Company Shops and to the residents of both Brynmawr and Nantyglo. The greatest bulk of trade in farm produce in the early days, however, appears to have come from West Wales. Carriers from Cardiganshire and West Carmarthenshire brought dressed pigs and casks of butter to the "hills" of South Wales, and every week the open-sided red "Cardy" carts drawn by the free-stepping, light brown "Cardy" horses might have been seen in strings of ten or twelve on their way from Teivy-side through Brecon and Llangyndir to the Company Shop at Nantyglo.

The early shopkeepers in Brynmawr found their trade somewhat restricted by the competition of the Company Shops at Clydach, Llanelly Hill and Nantyglo, and from about 1840 onwards in Brynmawr itself. Although the Truck Acts of 1817 and 1820 made payment in kind illegal, the fact that wages were drawn in money only once in six or eight weeks and also that debt at the Company Shop was recognized as a kind of security for continued employment, made it difficult for workmen to trade elsewhere.

As early as 1844 a Market Hall was built and after various alterations was replaced by a new and larger hall in 1894. The trade done in the market was largely wholesale, but in addition several local shopkeepers had stalls there, and applications for places in the market were received from as far afield as Sheffield. Christmas poultry fairs were held in the hall, and stock fairs on the adjoining ground. The comfort of the country buyers and sellers was catered for by an enterprising Brynmawr tradesman who provided meals for them on the premises. The importance of the market to the town was so fully recognised that the Board of Health continually pressed for special Saturday market fares from Blaenavon, Blaina, Abertillery and even as far afield as Aberbeeg, and in 1889 the rights of the Market Company were bought out by the town. The new hall was built at the public expense and was opened by a civic ceremony and lunch to which two hundred guests were invited.

XII. The Region to the North of Brynmawr

Follow this link for a map of villages and sites of former industry works in Clydach Valley.

From the start Brynmawr has had close ties with Llanelly Parish and other parts of the Crickhowell Rural District. Hundreds of years before the town of Brynmawr existed, a small farming population lived at the lower or northern end of the Parish, where a church was built, which is now some distance from the main villages and hamlets. The principal aggregation of population are now to be found at Gilwern, the centre of the farming, trading and residential part of the parish; at Clydach, where a forge was erected as early as the seventeenth century and where the opening out of the Iron Works at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, caused a rapid increase of population together with an admixture of stocks similar to that which took place in Brynmawr; and in the smaller scattered hamlets which make up the district of Llanelly Hill, the home of the iron-ore and coal-mining in the Parish.

Owing probably to the existence of a plentiful water-supply, Clydach was the scene of industry earlier than Brynmawr; Works accounts dated 1711-12 are extant, and in 1800 the Iron Works and forge employed four hundred hands. At the time of the 1811 census, the population of the Parish was already mainly occupied in industry, and by 1822 the proportion of industrial workers has still further increased. Owing to lack of capital many difficulties were experiences at the Iron Works, and the early records reveal fluctuations in trade and sometimes difficulty in affording steady employment to the workmen.

As in Brynmawr, nonconformity was predominant among the workers, and chapels were built early in the nineteenth century. In the Gilwern district, however, there was a tradition of church membership among the wealthy residents as well as some of the families of farmers and tradesmen, and at one time a stream of carriages could be seen every Sunday making their way up the hill to Llanelly Parish Church.

Below: Beautiful Llanelly parish church near Brynmawr dates from the late 12th century and is dedicated to Saint Elli.

From the earliest days of industrial development there has been a social and occupational cleavage between the Gilwern district with its rich beauty and wooded valleys, fertile fields and river and the more rugged mining districts of Clydach and Llanelly Hill. The Gilwern area early became the home of members of landed proprietors and of the great employing families, the Crawshays and Jaynes, and later even a few of the wealthier Brynmawr tradesmen; the social makeup of the population was thus varied and included a local aristocracy of leisured and well-to-do people, which is conspicuously lacking in mining towns in South Wales. In addition, there were not only farmers and small shop-keepers but rural craftsmen such as farm carpenters, blacksmiths, clog-makers, wood-carvers, and sawyers. Colliers and quarrymen also penetrated the district, but not in sufficient proportions to make the outlook predominantly industrial as in Clydach and Llanelly Hill.

The industrial parts of Llanelly Parish have perhaps suffered even more severely than Brynmawr from successive failures of industry. After the Clydach Iron Works were closed down in 1861, the distress of the population, congregated in the district almost entirely owing to the local demand for labour, was very great and was reflected in the increase of persons receiving Poor Law Relief between 1861 and 1871, and in the sudden decrease in population due to migration. Efforts were made to revive the trade of the Works on other lines, first by the opening out of a gate and hurdle department and later by the development of entirely different industries on the former site, such as a Flannel Factory and Soap Factory. None of these efforts were for long successful, and the district sank back to the status of a dormitory for workers in distant collieries. Since Clydach was even further from the developing mines of the Western Valley than was Brynmawr, the difficulty in obtaining and retaining employment was accentuated. Many of the workers indeed found the expense and difficulty of traveling so great, especially before motor transport was developed, that they returned to their homes and families only at week-ends.

Visit the Nantyglo Round Towers page to learn more about Brynmawr's industrial history
View photographs of Brynmawr & surrounds.
Return to the Brynmawr, Wales page
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