Pontypool claims to be the home of the Welsh iron industry and can point to continuous existence of forges in the town since the year 1425, when David Gaunt and his cousin Jevan, both being described as being "of Trevthin" were stated to be engaged in the manufacture of iron in the neighbourhood of Pontypool. They operated small bloomery forges on the banks of the Afon Llwyd and from the nature of their occupations were known as Gof (i.e. smith), later changed to Gough and used as a surname.
David Graunt y Gof married Margaret, daughter of Jevan Lleia ap Rhys, by whom he had several sons and one daughter, Anne, who married John ap Thomas Gwilym, an ancestor of the Williams family of Llangibby. Morgan Graunt y Gof, eldest son of David, was followed by his son Llewelyn Morgan Graunt and a grandson of , John Llewelyn, who dropped the name Graunt and adopted that of Gough. He was living in 1563 and had one son, Roger John Llewelyn Gough of Trevethin, who however had no male heir to succeed him.
At this time the scarcity of timber, essential for manufacturing charcoal for use in the forges, was compelling Sussex ironmasters to look elsewhere and iron works at Pontymoel, probably those belonging to the Gough family, were acquired before 1587 by Thomas Fennor, John Challenor, Thomas Tate, Watkin Phillip and Thomas Watkin. The works had formerly produced "osmond" iron, a special brand for use in the wire works at Tintern, but they commenced to manufacture only merchant iron for which there was greater demand, The works were prohibited from doing this in 1590 and ordered to concentrate on Osmond iron for the wire works. Their stock at the time was 24 tons of sow iron, 3 tons of merchant iron and 260 loads of charcoal.
The Earl of Pembroke, owner of the lordship of Usk on 12th July 1576 leased 98 acres in the parish of Llanfihangel Pontymoel, 46 acres of mountain ground near Glyn Trosnant in Panteg parish, and 800 acres of woodland called Glyn Trosnant in the parishes Mynydd Islywn and Panteg, with all buildings, iron mines, iron ore, coals and coal pits for 20 years to an Edmund Roberts of Glamorgan, Richard Hanbury, goldsmith of London and Edmund Brode of Worcestershire. They were given the right to dig and carry away iron ore and coal and construct furnaces in return for an annual rent of 21s and 32 sound oxen of reasonable size of the Welsh breed or else 40s. for each ox at the choice of the earl.
A forge and a furnace were built in the parish of Trevethin in 1576 by Edmund Brode, perhaps a relative of Richard Hanbury who was the grandson of John Brode of Elmley Lovett in Worcestershire. Also Edmund Brode, Richard Hanbury and a William Nurth in 1577 leased to Robert Bracebridge for 3 years all their woods called Glyn Trosnant and Coed y Went with their forge and furnace in Trevethin. Soon after this date it is thought that a furnace was erected in Glyn Trosnant ("The Old Furnace") and another may have existed at Cwmffrwdoer near the old track from Rhiw Franc to Talywain since remains were discovered when excavations were made in 1825 for the Pentwyn furnaces.
Old records of iron manufacturers in Massachusetts state:- "The first adventurers from this country who were skilled in forge iron manufacture were two brothers, James and Henry Leonard. They came to Bristol County, Mass., in 1652 from Pontypool, and built the first forge in America."
Cast iron gates and railings were exported from Pontypool to Williamsburg, Virginia, as early as 1710, The first accounts of the regular sale of iron in Pontypool date from 1588.
The ironstone used in the furnaces was obtained by a process known as scouring, form the slopes of the neighbouring mountains where the edges of the different strata of minerals were exposed. Workmen loosened the soil on a patch chosen for the work and after damming up all the mountain streams in the area to form ponds they could produce so that it washed away all the loosened soil and rubbish and left the ironstone. The debris was carried into the river and sometimes in the time of flood it would be spread over adjoining fields in the more level parts of the valley - in 1659, the tenants of the manor of Wentsland complained of the damage done by the workmen of Capel Hanbury. The river thus acquired its characteristic colour which gave it the name Afon Llywd. The effect ceased on Sundays, a circumstance which was thought miraculous by strangers, though caused by damming up the water for the coming weeks work.
A certain amount of coal and iron was also carried down by the river and may women and children eked out a living by gathering the ore from the bed of the river; the coal that was found they retained for their own use. At one time during the rule of Cromwell a tax was placed on every load that was gathered, but Providence protested against such an imposition by withdrawing supplies for three years until the duty was cancelled.
Coal was being mined at this time by the tenants of the manor of Wentsland and while it was mainly for their own use some was sold to the iron works. Witnesses in a law suit in 1580 stated "that there is great plenty of sea coals to be had at Tir Stint, Fedw Fach, Cefn Llywd (Penyrhoel) and other places where a horse load of them is worth but a penny. All those places are not more than four miles from the town of Usk" - an exaggeration, since Pontypool, seven miles from Usk, marks the edge of the coal seams. Its main use was for burning with limestone to produce lime for the land, a practice which started about 1615; farmers from Herefordshire journeyed as for as twenty miles into Monmouthshire to obtain the lime.
The increasing scarcity of timber for conversion into charcoal for use in the furnaces caused a serious decline in the iron industry and in 1740 only two furnaces were still in operation in Monmouthshire, producing an annual output of 900 tons. Since the 17th century research had been conducted into the possibility of substituting coal and coke for wood and charcoal in iron manufacture; in 1735 Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale (Salop) succeeded in coking coal and using it in smelting the iron ore. Henry Cort discovered how pig iron could be converted into malleable iron by the use of coal in a puddling furnace and turned into bars by means of rollers instead of the forge hammers hitherto used.When his patents were thrown open there was a great development of the iron industry in Monmouthshire, particularly along the mountainous ridge from Blaenafon to Hirwaun, where coal and iron ore
were easily obtainable and water power available to create the necessary blast.
During the minority of Capel Hanbury Leigh his mother had in 1785 leased the Pontypool works to David Tanner, a speculator of Monmouth, who now established new coal furnaces at Blaendare where the cold blast was derived from bellows driven by a water wheel which was operated by an overflow from the Glyn Ponds. Tanner went bankrupt in 1799 and fled to the West Indies, whereupon John Barnaby, a native of Herefordshire, bought the Blaendare furnaces for £10,000. He sold the works again in 1804 to Capel Hanbury Leigh and concentrated on coal mining, calling in Edward Martin of Swansea to advise on the driving of a level. Martin was so impressed with the extent and value of the Monmouthshire coal field that Barnaby spent £30,000 on its development. By the year 1809 he was raising over 20,000 tons of coal annually but making only a very small profit.
The mother of Capel Hanbury Leigh had been married again in 1788 to Thomas Stoughton, who went into partnership with his son-in-law in sinking a colliery which produced a thousand tons a week.
After the failure of David Tanner, control of Pontypool works was again assumed by Capel Hanbury Leigh. He took into partnership a Robert Smith and Watkin George who had been engineer as Cyfarthfa in 1790 when Henry Cort had erected the reverbatory puddling furnace there. Watkin George proceeded to remodel the Pontypool works; he demolished the wire works at Pontymoel in 1808 and erected a tin works there, adding two more at Lower Mill in 1815. At Pontymoel he built a large water wheel like the one at Cyfarthfa and introduced the Dandy Fire and the Hollow Fire, both improving the quality of the iron and increasing the output. It is stated that the result of George's work at Pontypool was to "reduce the cost and double the production with the same outlay in machinery."
The pig iron produced at the Blaendare works or the Old Furnace was carried by pack horses up the track by Wentsland Cottage, over Birchhill ("The Salutation Inn") and down the Sow Hill; it then crossed the market place and passed down Crane Street, from where it went either through the hamlet of Trosnant to the Park Forge or up George Street and around Twyn-ty-du and Wainfelin to the old Osbourne Forge. At the Osbourne Forge it was converted into bars which were finally despatched to the rolling mills at Pontymoel from where the sheets might be sent to be tinned at the Plating Mill where the Town Forge was.
After the death of Smith in 1825 the Pontymoel Tin Works were joined to the Pontypool Iron works under one management and connected by a tram road along the side of the Afon Llywd, running form Pontymoel to the Park Forge, and from this part through a tunnel to the new Town Forge which in 1830 replaced the old Plating Mill. A few years afterwards it was extended to the Osbourne Forge, crossing and re-crossing the river by two bridges which were later to be abolished and the tram road made on the west side of the river. A tunnel was constructed at the upper end of Cwmynyscoy to connect the Blaendare furnaces with Pontymoel and finally Sow Hill was pierced by a tunnel which connected the works at the Glyn with the Osbourne Forge, so that pack horses were finally dispensed with.
The Park Forge was dismantled in 1833 and the land thrown into the park at the time when Capel Hanbury Leigh was extending and improving his mansion. At the height of the railway mania in 1851 when iron rails were in huge demand the Pontypool Iron Works, collieries and tinplate works, consisting of three blast furnaces and three tin works, were let to the Staffordshire firm of Messrs. Durmack and Thompson. They in turn re-let them in 1855 to Messrs. Darby, Brown and Robinson, who later became the Ebbw Vale Iron Company.
At Abersychan, Messrs. Shears, Small and Taylor leased land form the Wentsland estate and on this site in 1826 they commenced to build an Ironworks for the manufacture of merchant bars, the directors claiming that the minerals under the three acres alone were sufficient to supply four furnaces for a hundred years, consuming 40,000 tons of ironstone and 60,000 tons of coal a year.
A new British Iron Company was formed in 1829 to take over the Abersychan ironworks; it consisted of between two and three thousand people who in the main were not local and who bought shares at £50 each. For the first eleven years no profit was made.; in 1838 it was £13,926 17s 8d and in 1839 £19,754 0s 5d but it declined in 1840 to £3,292 0s 11d. In that year they commenced to make iron rails and both rails and bars were manufactured in various proportions down to 1850 when the making of bars ceased except for use in the works, and rails became the sole product. The rails were made from cold blast iron and had the strength and tenacity of the best merchant bars, equal to steel rails of today. When first manufactured the average selling price of the rails was £8 15s 0d per ton and this rose to £10 0s 9d in 1846, but by 1851 had dropped to half this price. Hot air was first applied to the blast furnaces in 1848 so saving fuel and increasing the make which was now 120 to 130 tons per furnace weekly.
The losses of the Company continued to rise; in 1851 they went bankrupt after spending £400,000, and were taken over in January 1852, by Messrs. Darby and Co. (the Ebbw Vale Company) for £8,500. The amount paid for the buildings, plant and machinery, workman's cottages, and stocks of material represented barely one-fifth of the value of the concern. The stock of ironstone on the pit banks alone was said to be worth the amount paid for the whole works. The royalty paid by the British Iron Company to the Wentsland estate had been about 4s 6d per ton on the make of pig iron, but the Ebbw Vale Company now agreed to pay 5 1/2 d "per ton on all coal and ironstone raised and on all foreign ores used."
Iron works were erected at Pentwyn in 1825 by Hunt Bros.; at Pontnewynydd John Lawrence and William Morgan of
Llanfoist in 1837 set up more furnaces; in 1845 these were bought by William Williams of Beaufort who had formerly kept the Company's shop for Crawshay Bailey but now owner of the Golynos works at Abersychan and living at Snatchwood House. He manufactured bars and rails but failed when the Mon. and Glamorgan Bank collapsed in 1851 and W. T. Henley, a London speculator, bought them for conversion into wire mills. Henley is said to have rolled the Atlantic Cable there, but they were soon closed down and remained idle for many years. At Varteg, Kendricks & Co. started five furnaces about 1830 and John Vipond, a young man from Cheshire sank the Varteg Pits.
After the acquisition of the Abersychan and Pontypool Ironworks the Ebbw Vale Company increased their interest in the Eastern Valley by taking over the Cwmbran Forge and Mills but these were soon resold to Messrs. Weston and Grice who remodeled then for the manufacture of nuts, bolts and fishplates - a business now merged in the Guest, Keen & Nettlefords combine.
At Abersychan the Company connected up its various works by constructing railroads which linked up the newly opened Monmouthshire Railway by means of an incline plane from Talywain to Twyn-y-frwd, between Varteg and Abersychan. This was operated by a stationary engine and since working was slow it was eventually replaced by the High level railway line from Pontypool through Talywain to Brynmawr.
Improvements at the British Ironworks allowing the utilization of the waste gases and the application of hot blast to the furnaces raised the weekly output by 1876 to about 250 tons from each furnace. The character of the pig iron produced however had greatly changed and was unfit for the production of best quality bar iron so that this trade died out the works concentrated on the manufacture of iron rails. After the introduction of the Bessemer steel process in 1864 the demand for steel rails led to the collapse of the trade in iron rails and the stoppage of many works. The Pontnewynydd works and the Golynos works, then owned by Crawshay Bailey, closed in 1860. The Abersychan works closed in 1876 and soon afterwards were completely dismantled, the buildings, plant and machinery being broken up and sold.
During the era of the ironworks the production of iron bars and their conversion into tinplate were two branches of one industry, but after the perfection of the steel making process tinplate works became separate establishments where the manufacture started with the rolling of mild steel bars brought from outside firms. In Pontypool the two tin works at the Lower Mill were converted into sheet iron mills in 1861 and continued as such until after the 1914-18 War when they became derelict and were finally demolished in 1944. The tin plate works continued until 1868; in 1871 the Company let them to Messrs. Josiah Richards, John Jones and David Williams, trading as the "Pontypool Iron and Tinplate Company." The iron was produced at the Town Forge for the manufacture of the tinplates; the sheet mills and tinning department were at Pontymoel until acquired in 1894 by Thomas Bennett who established a foundry to produce crucible steel and iron castings for steel works and collieries. When steel had replaced iron in the production of tin plate about 1884 the Town Forge was converted into a tin plate works and had since been operated by Messrs. Partridge, Jones and John Paton Ltd. This firm had started by acquiring the Varteg Colliery and ironworks in the 1860's and had later bought the Pontnewynydd works which now specialised in the manufacture of steel sheets for the car bodies and electrical apparatus.
Greenhill House and the surrounding land were sold on June 4th 1874, for £2,020 to Sampson Copestake, a former Lord Mayor of London, who proceeded to erect a new steel works. He first purchased the Pontypool Road Engineering Works, later called the Panteg Foundry, form Messrs. Davies and Pratt, and erected a steel smelting furnace to serve the steelworks that he started to lay down on adjacent land. The largest casting ever made in Monmouthshire, one weighing 100-120 tons, was made in his foundry as a foundation block for No. 1 Hammer. Twelve furnaces, each of ten tons capacity, were erected to manufacture steel rails and fishplates, most of the work being done by hand, but the venture was unsuccessful and closed down in 1879. After three years J. R. Wright and Isaac Butler,
two of the former managers, formed a new company to take over the foundry and steel works for the purpose of manufacturing tin bars. Larger furnaces, mechanically charged, were installed - a charging machine introduced in 1902 was the first of its kind in Wales.
Tin mills were laid down on the site adjacent to the steel works, where the present sheet works stand, by Alfred Baldwin, Ltd, in 1885. Trading relations between the two firms developed, the bars of the steel works being manufactured into high class tin plate by the other, and in 1902 the two amalgamated, trading as Baldwins Ltd. The Pontymoel Lower Mills sheet mills and the Phoenix Galvanising Works had been acquired from The Ebbw Vale Company by Wright & Butler, but the work done at these plants was later absorbed by the
At the end on the 19th century the McKinley tariff in the USA was a grievous blow to the tin plate industry, virtually stopping exports to America and compelling the manufacturers to seek new markets in Europe and elsewhere.
The depression in the iron industry that followed the closure of ironworks in the 1870's led the proprietors to continue to work their collieries and to compete in the coal market. Here they had an advantage over the old colliery owners who had been compelled to raise wages to compete for labour with the ironworks when these were flourishing. The effect of the coal owners to reduce wages in 1873 led to a great demonstration of colliers in Pontypool attended by brass bands from Pontymoel, Abercarn and Cwmtillery when they expressed their determination not to rest until it was made compulsory to pay wages weekly in current coin without deduction. The coal owners gave notice expiring on 1st January 1875, to reduce wages by 10%, the third reduction in six months. A great Strike and Lockout lasting five months ended only with the miners being compelled to accept a 12 1/2% reduction. In order to provide work for the unemployed during the depression, John Capel Hanbury planted the American Gardens at Trevethin.
The price paid for coal was brought home to the public twice in a fortnight in 1890. Five colliers lost their lives in the Glyn Pit on the 23rd of January and on the 6th of February an explosion at the Llanerch pit resulted in the deaths of 176 men.
Coal production in South Wales reached its peak in 1913 and during World War I, Eastern Valley coal was used all over the country; the steelworks were in full production and Pontypool experienced an era of prosperity. Soon after the Armistice however a depression set in which was accentuated by the General Strike and Miners Stoppage of 1926. An industrial survey of 1931 showed the necessity for the introduction of new industries and a Special Areas Act in 1934 placed certain parts of Wales under a Commissioner responsible for their social and economic development. An interesting experiment was tried in the Pontypool area when the Eastern Valley Subsistence Scheme with its headquarters at the Old Brewery, Cwmavon, encouraged the unemployed in a movement for mutual assistance.
Legislation passed in 1937 permitted Treasury help in the erection of factories in the Special Areas. Messrs. Pilkinton Bros. were encouraged to establish a branch of their St. Helens Glass Works at Pontypool Road; in 1948 it was doubled in extent and at one stage employed over 600 workers in making glass for buildings of all types and for motor car and horticultural purposes. The Royal Ordnance Factory that was established at Glasgoed to fill naval shells covers two square miles and employs many ex-miners, drawn from all the valleys of Monmouthshire.
The most important postwar development had been the establishment at Mamhilad of the new factory of British Nylon Spinners Ltd, a joint venture of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. and Courtaulds Ltd., which started production in 1948. On a site of 112 acres amid beautiful laid-out gardens in a rural setting, had been erected one of the finest of modern industrial buildings. The original block, with a floor space of one million square feet one of the largest in Europe to be contained under one roof. Approximately 5,000 people were employed either directly or indirectly in the production of the new textile. It was the largest factory in Europe producing nylon yarn. Ropes and other equipment that accompanied Hilary and Tensing to the summit of Mount Everest were of nylon; carpets and transmission belts, tarpaulins and fire hose, are all articles in addition to clothing that rely on the yarn.
At Pontypool Road Messrs. H. G. Stone & Co. built a modern factory covering 35,000 square feet and employed 300 people, mostly females, in the production of soft toys and playsuits; 12,000 toys of all shapes and sizes were produced weekly.
An eighty-feet high new Gas Works had been built an New Inn at a cost of £600,000. It produced 5,294,590 therms of gas annually and replaced the works established at Pontypool in 1823 and Abersychan in 1857.
These industrial developments were symptomatic of the revolution that took place in Pontypool. Even before the amalgamation with Panteg the population was being compelled by the shortage of building sites in the older parts of the town to move to more level district lower down the river. Large new housing estates sprang up in these areas to which industry migrated.
The Iron and Tinplate industries on which the prosperity of Pontypool was founded have made was for a wide range of new manufactures which will not be subject to the violent fluctuations of trade which so typified the older industries. Change has overtaken even the works that have survived. Panteg Works was taken over by the nationalised Richard Thomas and Baldwins Company before British Steel.