History

Blaenavon – A Brief History of a World Heritage Site

Blaenavon is almost certainly the best-preserved example of a traditional South Wales iron-making town. It is probably unique in Europe in possessing one of the best preserved late 18th and early 19th century ironworks in the world and a mine, now a museum, that still provides genuine underground tours rather than a mock-up. The ironworks was never amongst the largest in South Wales but it was of world importance more than once and survived far longer than most of its competitors.

Although part of the town dates from the late 1780s, most of the buildings in the town are representative of an early to mid-Victorian Welsh industrial community with much of it built before 1870. Except for some modern shop fronts, most of the buildings in the main shopping area, Broad Street, are almost as they were by the mid-1860s and serve as a reminder of what was a flourishing, vibrant and prosperous South Wales industrial community.

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Blaenavon lies on the very edge of the South Wales coalfield. Seams of coal and bands of iron ore are shallow and outcrop on the Blorenge hill overlooking Abergavenny. Iron would have been made in the area around Blaenavon at the time of the Romans and possibly before. One of the earliest recorded iron-mines in Wales was mentioned in 1325 in the Elgam area of Blaenavon. In the latter part of the 16th. century, the Hanburys of Pontypool, who owned early furnaces at Pontypool, Tintern and elsewhere got iron ore from Blaenavon. Some of the local farmers who took the ore to the furnaces became quite wealthy.

The ironworks was built in 1788 by three partners from Staffordshire, Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt who rented a site from the Lord of Abergavenny. The first two furnaces were working a year later and were the first multiple furnaces to be blown by one blowing engine. They added a third furnace a few years later and another two by 1810. In 1812 they were claimed to be among the most productive in the world. The ironworks still has the remains of three of the early furnaces, cast houses, a square of cottages provided for key workers and a magnificent water-balance lift.

 

In 1836 the ironworks were sold to a new company which came to be dominated by the Kennard family. They had big plans for expansion but it was not until around 1860 that they constructed a forge at Forge Side on the opposite side of the valley to where the old works stood. This was the start of the building of a highly integrated ironworking site where the mining of coal and iron ore took place alongside the smelting and forging processes. Bar iron and rails were then taken by the railway, which ran through the works to Newport for sale.

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It was at Blaenavon that Sydney Gilchrist Thomas made one of the last major breakthroughs in steel making in the 19th century. In 1878, he and his cousin Percy discovered how to remove phosphorous from steel. This revolutionised steel making in Europe and America. There is a large memorial to Sydney Gilchrist Thomas on the ironworks car park.

There were many pits around Blaenavon. Big Pit, now part of the National Museum of Wales, was just one of them. It was sunk sometime between the late 1830s and 1860. By the early 1870s the Blaenavon Iron & Coal Company was the second largest coal producer in South Wales.

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In 1805 the ironmaster, Thomas Hill, built St Peter’s, the first church in Blaenavon. It was replete with decorated iron pillars, an almost unique cast-iron font and iron tomb covers. In 1815 the first industrial school in Wales was built near the church.

The town started to grow in the 1850s to provide an alternative to the truck shop. The town thrived and by the 1860s goods of all kinds and all sorts of entertainment could be had six nights a week.

The Workman’s Hall was opened in 1894. It was paid for by workers’ subscriptions. It is still one of the finest in South Wales.

Blaenavon reached the height of its population by around 1913. This coincided with the peak of the South Wales coal industry.

The ironworks, a colliery and extensive remains of the industrial infrastructure are all still present. But so are the company shop, the company farm with its accompanying fields, company hospital, managers house, late eighteenth century worker’s houses, the company church, the first industrial school in Wales and a magnificent example of a workman’s hall. There are very few other examples of South Wales industrial townships which retain such a high proportion of their original structure. Blaenavon stands as an example of the industry and endeavour that made Britain great.

The Blaenavon area is now a World Heritage Site. It has been chosen as the World example of the growth of the coke-fuelled iron industry alongside Ironbridge where coke-smelting first became a practical technology.