A history of Nantyglo, Wales
By Martin Sims, Nantyglo & Blaina Town Councillor
Nantyglo stands at the head of the Ebbw Fach river with the village of Blaina to the south and Brynmawr to the north. Hills rise steeply on either side of the valley in places to over 1,500 feet. Nantyglo projects itself against a strong Welsh background and local histories have repeatedly told of their customs, romantic legends, passion for education, quick wit and considerable contribution to culture in our country of music and song.
The growth and subsequent decline of the iron and coal industries have dominated the history of Nantyglo during the last two centuries. Because of the almost insatiable demand for the iron and coal produced in the area, new and vibrant communities grew up through the nineteenth century in what was hitherto a largely unpopulated region of South Wales. By 1800 the greatest upheaval in the area’s history was well underway. Yet only a few decades earlier the area was unspoilt: milkwort and harebell covered the gentle slopes of the Mulfrean mountain, red kite flew silently and swiftly on the breeze, whilst below the Ebbw river, teaming with trout, meandered through the wooded valley.
However, beneath the surface of the land lay the time bomb of substantial mineral wealth awaiting exploitation. With the advent of industrialisation, sulphurous smoke made the daytime sky yellow and the nights red. The sounds of sweating workers and beasts of burden mingled with the clatter of drams carrying raw materials to feed the furnaces.
In 1795 the first ironworks in Nantyglo was opened by Harford, Hill & Co. It was comprised of two furnaces, several forges, a steam engine and other buildings and other machinery necessary for the smelting and forging of iron. The first workers’ houses were built in Marked Road and were known as the Long Row. They were constructed against a rock ledge forming two tenements one above the other. However, in 1796 the works closed due to continued dispute and investment and they remained closed until 1802 when they were purchased by Joseph Harrison. Yet Harrison, too, had insufficient financial backing and the works were not reopened for long. It was not until 1811 when Joseph Bailey, together with Mathew Wayne, came to Nantyglo and bought the works for £8000 ($12,000) that a period of sustained development was able to begin. In 1820 Wayne retired from the works and his place was taken by Crawshay Bailey, brother of Joseph. By 1825, as the pace of industrialisation continued, there were seven blast furnaces in Nantyglo, 500 houses stood on 5,000 acres of surface property, eleven seams of coal were worked above and below ground, and an estimated 150 miles of tram road had been laid. In total, the Baileys then employed 3,000 men and 500 women and children. In 1844 the famous Lion Mill was opened, consolidating Nantyglo as one of the most important iron producing centres in the world.
Earlier, about 1820, the Baileys had turned their attention to the construction of a personal residence, Ty Mawr or Nantyglo House, which would reflect their burgeoning wealth and dominance of the local community. This mansion contrasted greatly with the miserable dwellings lived in by the ironworkers and colliers. Compelled to adhere to the Truck system and buy only from the company shop, most workers were at this time, before legislation began to ease their conditions, virtual slaves of the ironmasters, working long shifts at the works or mines and seeing precious little daylight during the winter months.
However, because of these harsh and brutal conditions, violent protest was never far from erupting from beneath the surface. Riots and disturbances were quite common and such was the resentment felt against Crawshay Bailey that he feared for his life and built, for his own protection, two fortified towers - the Nantyglo Roundhouses. Cyclical slumps in the demand for iron, allied with falling wages and rising bread prices, often produced a mood of militancy in Nantyglo. The area was roamed by bands of men with blackened faces and wearing animal skins, men known as the Scotch Cattle, who tried to enforce the acceptance of trade unions and who attacked any workers who opposed their ideas. In 1822 a “combination” of Nantyglo workers led by Josiah Evans and Harry Lewis defeated local militiamen and reinforcements had to be summoned to restore order. For almost a fortnight the Scots Grays were billeted in the stables of the Roundhouse complex.
In the late 1830s a new protest organisation had emerged in Chartism, and one of the movement’s leading figures was Zephenia Williams, landlord at the Royal Oak Inn in Queen Street, Nantyglo. The local ironmasters and clergy organised anti-Chartist meetings at Coalbrooke House. Crawshay Bailey made an impassioned speech in defence of the status quo and attacking Chartism. “ I owe all that I have to my own industry,” he stated defiantly, if somewhat deceitfully, “and I would risk my life rather than lose my property.”
However, it was at Nantyglo, outside the Royal Oak, that the Heads of the Valleys column of Chartists led by Williams gathered on 3 November 1839 for the march on Newport. The following morning the Chartists stormed the Westgate Hotel, seemingly unaware that well-armed soldiers were stationed inside the building. Volleys of shots were fired into the crowd, killing 22 and wounding 50 more. Among the dead were Abraham Thomas, Isaac Thomas, and Jon Jonathan, all from Nantyglo. The ringleaders of the rising were arrested by the authorities and charged with high treason. On 32 February 1840, his death sentence commuted to transportation for life, Zephaniah Williams, together with John Frost and William Jones (Chartist leader from Pontypool), set sail for Australia. He was never to see his native land again, and died in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1874.
Today, many acres of the land damaged by the iron industry and mining have been reclaimed for the use of the present inhabitants of Blaina, Nantyglo, and Brynmawr. The slag and coal tips and the tiny workers’ houses clinging to the hillside have become part of the past of our community.
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