Our next explore was at Blaenavon Ironworks, were you can find out how the materials where made and how they were used, walk back in time inside the ironworkers’ cottages and discover their story told through cutting-edge interpretation, the site lies at the heart of an industrial landscape so unique it’s been made a World Heritage Site, join us for a wander and more!
The history of Blaenavon Ironworks, an iconic manufacturing landscape in a small welsh town. It begins in 1782 and the land where it stands is owned by the lord of Abergavenny, he went on to lease the land to three midland based businessmen, Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt. They all decided to build a huge and impressive ironworks with multiple blast furnaces, this took a number of years to build and it opened in 1789, using steam power it was the second largest ironworks in wales and later on was producing over 5,400 tons of iron a year, you can still see the horse drawn railway tracks that connected the ironworks with the Abergavenny canal.
It would quickly become key for international production and although Blaenavon had a small glitch in 1806 after Napoleon, the emperor of France, introduced the continental system, this meant the British Empire was blockaded from trading with the rest of Europe. But after the failure of the system, Blaenavon managed to produce and distribute its iron ore to the whole of the world, which caused an industrial bloom within the village, due to it being very rich in iron, coal and limestone. Following on from this it was discovered that it would be considerably cheaper to make iron ore in Wales than elsewhere due to all its easily sought natural resources. They opened mines and quarries and dug for miles and miles and houses were thrown up wherever they were needed.
Blaenavon was made to exploit the local reserves of coal and iron ore, at its peak it employed thousands of men that worked day in day out operating the huge blast furnaces and making pig iron, wrought iron and later steel, that would fuel the industrial revolution and send British power around the world to keep it running. By the 1840’s thousands upon thousands of people had flocked to the Brecon Beacons, lured in by the new collieries and ironworks that was pushed into the forefront, both lives and landscapes were transformed and by 1851 more welsh people were employed in industry than in agriculture, giving wales their claim to be the first ever industrial nation. It was hellish and gruelling work, the mortality rate was extremely high and the working conditions were unthinkable too, think Twelve hours a day, seven days a week and in constant danger from fire or molten metal, poisonous fumes and heavy machinery. Especially nowadays in our modern times it’s thanks to those people, the local minors who have paved a better and fairer future some that we may take for granted nowadays like education, pay, good working hours.
It’s here that one of the most important developments of the entire industrial revolution happened, one of the young chemists, Percy Gilchrist along with his cousin Sidney invented what’s known as the basic or Thomas process, which was a way to smelt the steel using iron ore, but first lining the pit with limestone bricks, this was a way that you could create very high quality steel out of poor quality iron. Initial experiments were conducted and proved the concept and was then undertaken on a much larger scale.
It wasn’t just the adults who suffered. Children as young as five were put to work. In 1842 Government inspectors discovered 185 children under the age of 13 working at the ironworks and its surrounding mines. The first building we enter is the foundry; iron could be cast directly from furnaces 1 and 2 through the side arches near the back, now it is a room with a lot of iron work that’s been stored, some chimney towers, wheels and lovely ornate fireplaces are something to definitely explore.
These stone towers were built to withstand some serious heat especially when considering the air pipes adding to that heat and they would typically reach a piping hot temperature of 1,600 degrees Celsius, the blast furnaces are charged with iron ore and charcoal made from coal and limestone, the air would then blast at the bottom of the furnace and the calcium in the limestone will combine with the silicates to form what’s known as slag. Liquid iron is then collected at the bottom of the furnace and it’s let out to flow and cool, once cooled down into a bed of sand the metal is known as pig iron. The low walls in the front mark the former cast houses where the hot molten iron ran out and was often taken away in wagons on the rail tracks lines around the site.
Here is what’s known as the balance tower, it was constructed to be a lift to connect the lower and upper yards which was powered by the weight of water. It really is the main architectural feature of the ironworks and was built in 1839 by James Ashwell, who was at the time criticized for overspending on the construction of the tower. It was of course intended to take raw materials to the top area of the furnaces but it also provided access to the export route through a tunnel 500 meters to the north, unfortunately it was cordoned off as it was flooded and we couldn’t get access around and inside but we are still able to marvel at the incredible stonework in front. The tower at is the best-preserved example of this type of technology, which was widely used in Welsh mining.
Stack Square was built between 1789-92 to house part of its workforce. It is a U-shaped block of which the south row is known as Engine Row, with a truck shop at the south-west corner. It was originally known as Shop Square but acquired its more recent name when a boiler stack was built in the middle of the square in 1853. The 2 rows that make up Stack Square incorporate houses of different sizes and status. Some had upper floors with separate bedrooms, and some were unfortunate and made do with smaller more cramped bedrooms with no privacy, amongst these cottages is a modern visitor centre that explores the history of iron making and the Blaenavon site.
There are scale models of the ironworks and the surrounding industrial areas as well as a visit the re constructed company shop where the workers were able to spend their wages and clothe and feed their families, it’s really beautifully repurposed and fascinating to see the old replicas and the difference to today’s modern convenience store. It was a sad reality that back in the day these company shops kept their prices high and kept people in debt to the company, workers were not paid in cash, so they had no choice but to spend their money here.
One of the best bits was to visit the houses, throughout the different eras letting you time travel across 200 years, it was incredible to see how every year things improved, adapted and became more furnished, some of the objects you can see on show you would recognise having yourself, or like us it was a trip down memory lane visiting the grandparents and seeing and playing with items that were here, I think its amazing how they have reconstructed these cottages and eye opening too especially considering our luxuries nowadays.
We haven’t been everywhere here as we would absolutely want to encourage you to come explore and spend the day around Blaenavon and although we didn’t get to visit ‘The Big Pit’ or the world heritage centre we would love for you to do so if you’re in the area and looking for something to get lost in!
Till next time!