The political Constituency of Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney was created in 1979 after a Boundary Commission Report, the first General Election for the newly described Constituency being held in 1983. The history of the valleys that makes up the constituencies is though far from new. Politically our valleys are known for their radical Socialist past, the raising of the Red Flag in the Merthyr Rising and the election of the first Labour MP and Party leader Keir Hardie. Some of that rich history is set out below.
Industrial Innovation and Production:
The valleys have a rich history and made a huge contribution to the Industrial Revolution. The area was originally made up of tiny villages in an agricultural area and remained this way until the 18th century when ironworking began on a large scale. Merthyr already had a history of small-scale ironworking from as early as 1583. At the hamlet of Pontygwaith, six miles south of the town of Merthyr, on the banks of the river Taff, Anthony Morley established a small iron works. It is uncertain for how long production continued. For a long time wood was used in the production of iron, however, with the invention of the 'welsh process' of puddling in the late 1780's, to make malleable iron using coal, coke fired furnaces were introduced the iron industry located and developed in coalfield areas like the valleys of Merthyr & Rhymney.
Iron in Merthyr:
Investors soon saw the potential of Merthyr as a site for iron production - the ore, the deciduous, oak wooded hills, the much-valued Steam coal and other types of coals. In 1759 a partnership led by Isaac Wilkinson, an ironmaster from Clwyd opened the Dowlais Works.
The location initially seemed a curious one, but the partnership had acquired an extensive mineral lease for only £31 per annum. Wilkinson in partnership with John Guest an ironmaster from Shropshire built another blast furnace in 1763 on the banks of the Taff on land belonging to the Earl of Plymouth. Lack of progress meant they sold it to Anthony Bacon in 1765. Anthony Bacon had by this time already established another local works called Cyfarthfa, on another part of the river Taff with his partner William Brownrigg.
Richard Crawshay from Yorkshire, who was to become one of the best known ironmasters of Merthyr, first came to Merthyr in 1783, buying out Francis Homfray who had now taken on the lease of the Ynysfach works. Homfray had decided also to establish another works at Penydarren which was the last of the big four opening in 1784.
When Anthony Bacon retired Crawshay took control of the Cyfarthfa Works, and Richard Hill gained the Plymouth works. The Cyfarthfa Works turned out to be the best location in Merthyr of all four of the iron works, because of its ready supply of water from the river and a mineral lease extending over 4,000 acres at an annual rent of £100.
The main use for iron during this early period was for war, casting cannons and cannonballs for the American War of Independence on contract to the Royal Navy.
Crawshay dominated iron in Merthyr in the early days, the Guests turn came later because of the Dowlais works ability to change and invest in the future. The Homfray and Hill families and their works were always second place but their contribution is not to be underestimated.
Iron in Rhymney:
The Rhymney Valley was the last Valley to establish an ironworks mainly due to it being unfavourably situated for obtaining limestone for fluxing in the blast furnace. The start of the Napoleonic Wars changed this when the demand for iron was so great and the profits so huge that it meant these extra costs could be easily overcome.
The first iron works in Rhymney was established by a group of Bristol merchants; the four partners put forward £1,000 each with the promise of a further £6,000 between them as needed. The partnership was known as the Union Iron Company and the furnace that was completed by June 1801, was know as the Rhymney Furnace.
Richard Crawshay of Cyfarthfa became interested in the furnace and became a partner; it is thought his main reason was so that he could use this as a dowry for his daughter Charlotte when she married Benjamin Hall. The early five partners involved with the Rhymney Furnace left for various reasons and in 1810 when Crawshay died Benjamin Hall was left as sole beneficiary of the works.
In 1825 the Bute Iron Works was established in the Upper Rhymney Valley, on the opposite side of the bank to the Rhymney Furnace and by 1837 the Bute Iron Works was amalgamated with the Union Iron Company (Rhymney Furnace) works. The new company became known as the Rhymney Iron Works.
The iron works in both valleys had to build housing for their workers because the area was so rural. The housing was often criticised in later years but the actual buildings were the lesser part of the problem. The main problem was the lack of proper sanitation and clean water. This was to cause major outbreaks of diseases such as Cholera and Typhoid.
Railway Tracks and the First Steam Locomotive to run on Rails:
The industrial revolution helped create some of the greatest inventions and certainly helped to shape the world as we know it today. Many of these inventions and inventors are celebrated and Merthyr can claim to have been the home of one of the greatest inventions that would have profound effects across the world - the first steam driven railway engine, invented by Richard Trevithick and later developed by Stephenson and others, transforming transport across most of the world.
The quantities of iron being produced were rapidly increasing. At the Cyfarthfa Works for example, production had risen from 2,300 tons in 1790 to 6,000 in 1798. With such vast quantities being produced it was necessary to find a method of transporting the goods. In 1790 Parliament passed 'The Glamorganshire Canal Act' which established a canal from Merthyr to Cardiff. Richard Crawshay held the largest share and there quickly developed an argument about tariffs with the other three ironmasters. These three iron masters decided to construct a tramroad from Penydarren to the canal at Abercynon where the goods were transferred to barges. Originally horse drawn trams were eventually to be pulled by the now legendary 'Penydarren' steam engine.
Samuel Homfray of the Penydarren Works had met Richard Trevithick in Coalbrookdale, where he had moved to from his birthplace in Cornwall, attracted by its reputation for hard work and a willingness to experiment.
Trevithick was born in 1771 in Carn Brea in Cornwall he was a hard worker and had an inventive vision and genius for engineering. Homfray persuaded Trevithick to come to Penydarren and showed his faith in Trevithicks abilities when he waged 500 guineas that the locomotive Trevithick would design would be able to pull a load of 10 tons of iron for 9 ½ miles along the tramroad from Penydarren to the Navigation House in Abercynon - the locomotive also ended up carrying a number of passengers.
The date was 21st February 1804. The locomotive was not only successful on this journey but also went on to do the journey four more times, and is now accepted as the forerunner to George Stephenson's locomotive. Unfortunately Trevithick died in relative poverty in London after a complex life which is a tale in itself but suffice to say here, money was never the most important issue for Trevithick.
Creating these methods of transport meant that output from the iron works could be increased and this coincided with both the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. These wars, however, would not provide the greatest demand for iron, this was to come, ironically from the development and expansion of the then steam driven railways. Iron from both Merthyr & Rhymney was to travel to almost every continent to supply the rails for the new railways that were being laid all around the world.
As production of iron in Rhymney started much later than Merthyr, when production took off in this valley a railway was constructed rather than any other form of transport and remains the railway line still in use today.
In Merthyr a railway line was also constructed along side the valley but the original tramroad is also still in situ, now known as the 'Taff Trail' it is part of the network of cycle ways and leisure trails that stretch through Wales from North to South. Suitable for both walking and riding a bike it passes some of the remains of the industrial sites that can still be seen. It is also a great walk for nature lovers with spectacular flora and fauna.
How They Lived
Housing: Most of the houses of that time have been demolished and the valleys changed out of all recognition but three types of the original houses survive and are worth a visit. One is very different from the other two and all three show the social contrasts and history of the time.
Bute Town: At the top of the Rhymney valley near to the original location of the Union Iron Works is a small village called Bute Town. It was originally called New Town but the name was later changed to commemorate the Marquis of Bute on whose land the Union Works and the Dowlais works were built. Bute Town consists of three rows of terraced cottages and were located some distance away from the works making air cleaner to breath.
For its day Bute Town had relatively wide streets, each house had rear gardens and a 'ty-bach' (outside toilet) for each cottage, they were well built, well lit, ventilated and reasonably spacious. There was also a small pub and a chapel. Two of the houses have now been converted to a museum at the back of which a Victorian garden has been created. This little town, just of 'the heads of the valleys' road (A435) is easy to over look and in what can appear quite a bleak location, but is fascinating example of the living spaces created at that time. With the exception of the part set aside as a museum the houses are still lived in today.
Cyfarthfa Castle: The second example of housing from this period is on a far grander scale. Cyfarthfa Castle, was built in 1825 at a cost of £30,000by William Crawshay II, the grandson of Richard, and much against the advice of his father. The 'house' is a splendid and fascinating building. After the Crawshay family moved out the local Council bought the buildings and grounds and used it as a school. It is still partly used as a school, but now also houses a museum that is open to the public.
With the house interiors restored to much their original glory, displays of historical items of the time and the basement now housing a fascinating history of Merthyr Tydfil's development it makes for a great day out. The landscaped grounds, which include a fishing lake, are also open to the public and used for shows, open air concerts and as a park for locals.
The house was set across from the ironworks but is in strong contrast to the living style and conditions of the workers employed by those who occupied it.
Merthyr had its Typhoid and Cholera cemeteries and the working and living conditions of that time prompted many changes in public health, particularly sanitation.
Joseph Parry: The third example is the cottage where the world famous musician, composer and conductor Joseph Parry was born and lived for his first 12 years is an example of one of the developments of the housing that had to be established by the owners of the ironworks. The row of cottages in which Parry's cottage is set has been preserved as a small museum.
Parry's father was a puddler at the Cyfarthfa Works a skilled job that entitled him to a large cottage with four rooms. Mr & Mrs Parry and their five children along with five lodgers occupied the four room cottage, until the family moved Pennsylvania, in the USA.
The story of Joseph Parry is probably best known and remembered in the film, 'Off to Philadelphia in the Morning'. With his parents married in 1831 the year of the 'Merthyr Rising', his mother being the niece of the first 'working class' MP for Merthyr - 'The Apostle of Peace' - Henry Richard, caught up twice in the American Civil War and with the Welsh Bardic name of 'Pencerdd America', Parry's story from pit boy to world famous musician is a tale in itself.
Every Day Life:
As the communities grew it became necessary to provide other facilities. The Iron Barons would eventually agree to give land for various chapels and churches. The Chapel became a central part of many of the workers lives for both religious and cultural reasons. For children 'Sunday School' provided the only education they would receive. The earliest school was opened by the Guests using a room in the Dowlais Stables and retained a schoolroom in 1828. Many choirs and bands were formed through associations in the Chapel.
The Rhymney Iron Works established a brewery in 1839 and appointed Andrew Buchan as manager who was also supervisor of the Company shop. The brewery thrived under his management and in 1858 it was thought to be the largest in Wales with the beer it produced sold not only in the company shop but also in many public houses and inns throughout the country. By 1878 the Company owned 29 public houses and were producing 12 ½ thousands barrels of beer a year. Originally the beer was delivered to its pubs by horse that in the summer would parade in full-dress through the town, their coats like silk, and some wearing earmuffs, others straw bonnets and decorated with tinkling bells. As the company took over more licensed houses delivery by horse became impossible and eventually steam driven vehicles took over. Many of the horses the company employed were later used in the First World War.
In 1929 the Brewery became an independent concern and was named the Andrew Buchan Breweries Limited after the first manager. The brewery continued to expand amalgamating and acquiring other companies. Firstly they took control of the Western Valley Brewery in Crumlin, then the Taff Vale Brewery and the Tredegar Brewery followed shortly by the Crosswell Brewery which took the Breweries interests into Cardiff. The Second World War proved to be a difficult time but after the war expansion continued by amalgamating with the Ely Brewery. In 1951 the Brewery became associated with Whitbread & Company a London based company and when these two amalgamated with the Vale of Neath Brewery Company the firm became known as Whitbread (Wales) Limited still a well established brewery today.
The Decline of Iron
After the railway boom of the 1830's and 40's iron was never to be so profitable and inevitably went into decline. In some Works they tried to continue by making steel, but in the Rhymney Valley the iron works owners had already sunk some pits and were finding that the production of coal was more profitable. In 1890 the iron and steel making plants of the Rhymney Iron Works were closed down although the company continued producing coal until it was taken over by the Powell Duffryn Steam Company in 1920.
In Merthyr it was the small Penydarren works that was the first hit. This couldn't continue and in 1854 was shut down and sold to the owners of the Dowlais works for £60,000. It was at this time that both the Cyfarthfa and Dowlais works started selling coal for the export market. By 1865 Dowlais had also started producing limited amounts of steel. The Plymouth works didn't have the capital to convert to steel and closed in 1880 again the company continued trading in coal. Iron production ceased in Merthyr altogether in the 1870's. In 1900 the Dowlais works was taken over by Arthur Keen and in 1902 the new company took over Nettlefolds woodscrew manufacturing business to form GKN and acquired the Cyfarthfa Works. The Cyfarthfa works could not be worked profitably and closed in 1910 The Dowlais works didn't last much longer and was unable to stand the slump in trade. It eventually closed in 1930.
The booming age of iron had lasted only about 100 years before it had started to decline. Then coal mining became a big employer in the valleys. In the small area of the Rhymney and Darran Valley there were up to 30 pits - not necessarily all open at once. These pits were opened up from the mid 19th century and had started to close by the end of the 19th century, although the larger ones continued to produce coal well into the 20th century and new pits were continually sunk.
The coal industry was no better for the health of the people of the valleys than iron had been and between the two industries Merthyr in particular had grown in size with a population of over 40,000 people twice the size of Swansea but with nowhere near the facilities.
Political Change - The Red Flag and a Labour Representation:
In 1831 the then Whig government had introduced the first Reform Bill as part of which decided that Merthyr simply be a contributory of Cardiff. This was overturned following the Merthyr Rising in June 1831, now correctly termed 'The Merthyr Rising' not a riot. Merthyr was at this time the largest town in Wales and the 'Rising' concerned and involved all the workers of the Upper South Wales Valleys. Possibly the spark that ignited a growing feeling of unhappiness in Merthyr was when Crawshay laid off 84 puddlers. It was also at this time and by one of these unhappy puddlers that a red flag was raised, the banner of the working classes.
The newspapers of the time had been full of the Peterloo massacre; however, they barely mentioned the 'riot' in Merthyr. On June 2nd the workers held a mass rally on the hills above the town holding their red flag. This turned into an insurrection that forced a massive redistribution of property, destroyed the debtors' court and forced a general strike at the iron works that was to last for two months. 24 people died and 70 were injured in the rioting but for four days the rebels held Merthyr and the District. The new aspect of the Merthyr Rising and the reaction of the ruling classes was surprising in many ways. For the first time the demands of the workers were not just about wages but working and social conditions coupled with representation and social and political reform.
Within two weeks of the rising the first trade union lodges were reported in south Wales. A decision was made not to prosecute the rebel leaders for High Treason, but a handful were imprisoned and 4 men were transported to Australia. One man who was to become infamous was called Richard Lewis a miner aged 23. He was known locally as Dic Penderyn and he became the only person hanged for activities in the 'Merthyr Rising'. The seminal work, 'The Merthyr Rising' by Gwyn A Williams, and the novel 'The Fire People' by Alexander Cordell are not only readable but powerful descriptions of the social conditions, politics and human stories that made that rich period of our history.
The following year saw the Reform Act of 1832. Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdare & Cefn, the core of the then Vaynor parish, became a parliamentary constituency. The first MP was Josiah John Guest the ironmaster of Dowlais and the second was H A Bruce (later to become Lord Bruce), not the type of people that would first spring to mind as representatives of this Labour strong hold. The reason for this was firstly the Labour Party hadn't been formed but secondly and more importantly the right to vote was still limited to those who owned property making most residents ineligible.
The unrest for political reform continued and the Second Reform Act of 1867 extended the rights to working men and also gave the constituency a second representative. This provided Merthyr with its first "working class" MP in the person of Henry Richard - often called 'The Apostle of Peace' - the other MP was the ironmaster Richard Fothergill of the Plymouth works.
Merthyr continued this tradition of two Liberal MP's until in 1900 when, partly because the two Liberal candidates couldn't co-operate, they provided the opening for James Keir Hardie to become the first Labour MP to be elected to Parliament. The second Labour MP to be elected in that 1900 election was Robert Bell (Derby) a railwayman born in Merthyr. This was the start of a long tradition of Labour MP's for the Merthyr and Rhymney Valleys.
Modern Political Representation:
The Rhymney Valley was then part of two constituencies. New Tredegar was part of the Bedwellty constituency with its most famous MP Neil Kinnock. The rest of the Rhymney Valley was part of the then Ebbw Vale Constituency which produced another famous Labour MP's in the form of Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot.
Decline of Heavy Industry:
By the time of the Second World War the Valleys were in a deep depression, lack of work and continual strikes in the coal industry made both valleys a very poor place to live. After the war the Labour government actively encouraged large manufacturing to the area in an attempt to ease the poverty and the migration from the valleys. See my predecessors book 'What is to be done' by Lord Ted Rowlands, as a description of the struggles to establish new industries in the area. Large companies such as Thorne and Hoovers came and prospered and along with a couple of large pits life in the valleys became far more pleasant again.
Depression hit the UK again in the 1980's and seemed to hit the valleys areas worst of all. Manufacturing declined and all the remaining pits were closed by the early nineties.
The history of this period and the brutality of the Tory administrations of the time are well documented elsewhere but are not forgotten and will not be forgiven by me and most of those who lived through them and live still with the adverse consequences.
Re-Building the Valleys:
Now, however, the valleys are starting to transform themselves yet again. On the site of three pits there are parks. In the Darran Valley on the site of the Ogilvie Pit, which shut in 1975, is the 'Parc Cwm Darran' Country Park. This is a well established park again great for walking and generally relaxing. On the site of the Deep Navigation Pit in Treharris at the bottom of the Merthyr Valley is the start of the 'Taff Bargoed Millennium Park' which has markers of where the various seams in the pit were, a bridle path and general walking area crossing in to Trelewis where the River Bargoed runs and fishing lakes have been created along with a children's play ground. The walk continues up to the site of the Taff Merthyr Colliery where the Welsh International Climbing Centre is located with its indoor climbing walls, cave and gym complex.
On the site of the Elliot Colliery the original winding hose and gear has been preserved. This site has now been turned into a museum and like all other museums in Wales has free admission.
There is some industry, mostly manufacturing, but all on a much smaller scale than previously. For such a long time these valleys have relied on one or two big employers that make the valleys prosperous while they last but leave devastation in their wake when they decline and leave. Investment in our valleys has been 'episodic' when what was and is needed is 'sustained' investment over-time to consolidate a balance of activities in an environment that is greening up again and repairing its nature and communities.
The local authorities in both valleys have made progress in land reclamation and environmental schemes that are slowly healing scars on the landscape and returning the area to its original beauty. The service industries are starting to take off and are making use of a rich and varied industrial past that most areas of the UK would find hard to match. There are good and improving communication links and plenty of facilities for new business. The area is probably now a more pleasant place to live and work than it has been for 200 years.
The History of Tomorrow:
There are many other historical episodes and stories that could be told, like that captured by' The Byrds' rendition of 'The Bells of Rhymney' and people produced by our communities like modern day opera star Jason Howard and designer Julian MacDonald.
Our history is rich and varied but whilst we look to the past we learn for the future, to find allies to combine with to build an equally varied but healthier, prosperous and peaceful future. A future as ever that is vested in our people that will I am sure provide a new history that will benefit, inform and amaze us all.