The Bessemer Process – part one

Quite often when you study Merthyr’s industrial history, you will hear about ‘The Bessemer Process’. If, like me, it is a mystery to you, here is an excellent article (in two parts), courtesy of Alan Banks of the Wirral Model Engineering Society explaining the mysteries of the process.

The Bessemer Process

The Bessemer process was the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass-production of steel from molten pig iron. The process is named after its inventor, Henry Bessemer, who took out a patent on the process in 1855. The key principle is removal of impurities from the iron by oxidation with air being blown through the molten iron. The oxidation also raises the temperature of the iron mass and keeps it molten.

Henry Bessemer

The process is carried on in a large ovoid steel container lined with clay or dolomite called the Bessemer converter. The capacity of a converter was from 8 to 30 tons of molten iron with a usual charge being around 15 tons. At the top of the converter is an opening, usually tilted to the side relative to the body of the vessel, through which the iron is introduced and the finished product removed. The bottom is perforated with a number of channels called tuyères through which air is forced into the converter. The converter is pivoted on trunnions so that it can be rotated to receive the charge, turned upright during conversion, and then rotated again for pouring out the molten steel at the end.

Bessemer Converter


The oxidation process removes impurities such as silicon, manganese, and carbon as oxides. These oxides either escape as gas or form a solid slag. The refractory lining of the converter also plays a role in the conversion—the clay lining is used in the acid Bessemer, in which there is low phosphorus in the raw material. Dolomite is used when the phosphorus content is high in the basic Bessemer (limestone or magnesite linings are also sometimes used instead of dolomite). In order to give the steel the desired properties, other substances could be added to the molten steel when conversion was complete, such as spiegeleisen (an ironcarbon-manganese alloy).

Managing the process

When the required steel had been formed, it was poured out into ladles and then transferred into moulds and the lighter slag is left behind. The conversion process called the “blow” was completed in around twenty minutes. During this period the progress of the oxidation of the impurities was judged by the appearance of the flame issuing from the mouth of the converter.

After the blow, the liquid metal was recarburized to the desired point and other alloying materials are added, depending on the desired product. Before the Bessemer process, Britain had no practical method of reducing the carbon content of pig iron. Steel was manufactured by the reverse process of adding carbon to carbon-free wrought iron, usually imported from Sweden.

The manufacturing process, called cementation process, consisted of heating bars of wrought iron together with charcoal for periods of up to a week in a long stone box. This produced blister steel. Up to 3 tons of expensive coke was burnt for each ton of steel produced. Such steel when rolled into bars was sold at £50 to £60 a long ton. The most difficult and work-intensive part of the process, however, was the production of wrought iron done in finery forges in Sweden.

This process was refined in the 1700s with the introduction of Benjamin Huntsman’s crucible steel-making technique, which added an additional three hours firing time and required additional large quantities of coke. In making crucible steel the blister steel bars were broken into pieces and melted in small crucibles each containing 20 kg or so. This produced higher quality crucible steel but increased the cost. The Bessemer process reduced to about half an hour the time needed to make steel of this quality while requiring only the coke needed to melt the pig iron initially. The earliest Bessemer converters produced steel for £7 a long ton, although it initially sold for around £40 a ton.

Sir Henry Bessemer described the origin of his invention in his autobiography. According to this book at the time of the outbreak of the Crimean War many English industrialists and inventors became interested in military technology and Bessemer himself developed a method for grooving artillery projectiles so that they could spin without the use of rifling in the bore of the gun. He patented this method in 1854 and began developing it in conjunction with the government of France. After a successful day of testing of his method at the Polygon in France he had a conversation with Claude- Etienne Minié who stated that a key barrier to the use of the larger, heavier spinning projectiles would be the strength of the gun and in particular “… he [Minié] did not consider it safe in practice to fire a 30-lb. shot from a 12-pounder castiron gun. The real question, he said, was; Could any guns be made to stand such heavy projectiles?”. This is what started Bessemer thinking about steel.

At the time steel was difficult and expensive to make and was consequently used in only small items like cutlery and tools. Starting in January 1855 he began working on a way to produce steel in the massive quantities required for artillery and by October he filed his first patent related to the Bessemer process.

To be continued……

Many thanks to the Wirral Model Engineering Society for this article

The Gethin Pit Explosion – 1862

One hundred and fifty six years ago today, on 19 February 1862, Merthyr was rocked by the news of a horrific explosion at the Gethin Colliery in Abercanaid.

Gethin Colliery comprised of two seperate pits – Lower Pit (Gethin Colliery No 1) and Upper Pit (Gethin Colliery No 2). The Gethin Pit was established in 1849, when it was sunk by William Crawshay II to provide coal for the Cyfarthfa Works.

An 1875 map of Abercanaid showing the location of the Gethin Colliery

As the coal had been worked the gas had drained away naturally. At the time of the explosion the mines were being sunk to a greater depth and giving off greater quantities of gas which demanded greater skill and attention in their management.

At the time of the disaster, the mine was being managed by John Moody and various others including his son (Thomas Moody). Thomas Thomas, the fireman who ran the safety checks of the mine reported: “All is right, but there is a little gas in John Jones’ heading…….No.20 about 10 yards back from the face there had been a bit of a fall above the timbers and gas was lodged there.”

Thomas Thomas was actually at work when the explosion occurred. He had just examined the Nos. 16 to 19 cross headings, found everything all right and was on his way for his dinner. He reached the No. 14 heading when he was knocked down from behind and burnt by the blast. It was about 2 p.m.

Mr G.H. Laverick, viewer at the Plymouth Works heard the explosion at 2 p.m. He went to the pit where he met Mr Bedlington Kirkhouse, mineral agent of the Cyfarthfa Colliery, and went down the pit. He examined the doors at the No. 13 and 14 headings and a great many bodies had been brought there. He reported:

“I then proceeded to the No.18 when I got up about 50 yards on the road I picked up a burnt handkerchief. At the bottom of the No.19 heading there was a horse blown across the level. Attached to the chain was a train of coal the train was off the road, about eight or nine feet from the north side level. On the west side of the heading saw a portion of what seemed to have been a door did not observe anything of the other doors there had been a fall of earth between the level and the windroad could not proceed any further because of the chokedamp. I believe that the door at the bottom of No.19 must have been kept open at the time, otherwise it would have been shattered to pieces. The haulier was jammed between the rib and the trams. They had to left the tram to remove his body. The horse was blown across with it’s head inclined to the west, indicating that the blast had come down the heading from the north. Further up we came across four men who appeared to have had their dinners, for the stoppers being out of their bottles. They appeared to be suffocated.”

In all, 47 men and boys were killed in the explosion.

The enquiry into the explosion, which took nine days, found that the presence of poor ventilation, fire-damp (an accumulation of gases, mostly methane, that occurs in coal mines) and the irresponsible use of naked flames for lighting were the root causes of the explosion.

John Moody, after testifying, was acquitted of two charges, however he was found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Later, a grand jury heard the evidence and produced the verdict of “No true bill”.

Just three years later, on 20 December 1865, another explosion occurred at the Gethin Colliery, this time at No 2 Pit, killing 36 men and boys. The cause of the explosion was found to be exactly the same as the first, yet once again John Moody was acquitted of manslaughter at the subsequent trial.

Coal production ceased at the Gethin Colliery in the 1920’s and it was used as a pumping station until its closure in 1947.

Jack Jones – Merthyr’s Literary Great

by Laura Bray

Many of you reading this blog will have heard of the book ‘Off to Philadelphia in the Morning’ charting the early life of Joseph Parry and his family as they try their luck for a new life in America. Some of you reading this blog may have been on the cast of the television series that was made in the late 1970s.  Remember that?

But how many of us know anything about its author – Jack Jones?

It’s an interesting story.

Jack’s given name was John Jones, and he was born on 24 November 1884 at number 14, Tai Harri Blawd, which, from what I can work out, is somewhere around the Theatre Royal/Taf Vale Brewery/ Dan y Parc area of town.

He was the eldest son of David, who was a collier from Merthyr, and Sarah, who was from Swansea and only 19 when Jack was born. David and Sarah, both Welsh speakers, had 15 children, only 9 of whom survived beyond infancy, and by the time Jack was six he already had three brothers – William, Francis and baby David – and also shared his home with two cousins, the eldest of whom, aged 15, was also a collier. By 1901 the family had moved to Penyard, by which time Jack, and his three brothers, had been joined by three more brothers and two sisters.

By this stage Jack was 16. He had left St David’s Elementary School three years earlier and gone to work underground, but was of an age to enlist and so joined the army – Militia Battalion of the Welch – and was sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Hating it, Jack went AWOL, but was recaptured and sent to India, where he remained until his demobilisation in 1906. He then returned to Merthyr. In 1908 he married Laura Grimes Evans, who was 6 years his elder, and for the next few years the family moved between Merthyr and Builth Wells, their two eldest sons being born respectively in these places. Times must have been hard – Jack worked as a bark stripper and then as a general labourer for the Railway Service Company in Builth Wells before finances forced Jack back underground, this time in Pontypool. These were turbulent times however – and when war broke out in 1914 Jack, as an army reservist, was called up back to his regiment, and sent to the Western Front, where he was mentioned in dispatches. After suffering shrapnel wounds, however, he was invalided out and returned to Merthyr where he became the recruiting officer.

During his 20’s Jack was becoming more interested in theatre, writing and in politics, and by 1920 had joined the Communist Party, representing his Miner’s Federation Branch at Pontypool in the formation Conference of the British Communist Party in Manchester 1921, from where he was chosen to become temporary corresponding secretary for the South Wales coalfield. For months he sought to establish a branch of the Communist Party at Merthyr, and gave active support to the Communist parliamentary candidate for the Caerphilly constituency.  But Jack was not a life-long communist and his political affiliations vacillated. By 1923 he had left the Communist Party in favour of the Labour Party, and had been appointed full time secretary-representative of the miners at Blaengarw, a job which necessitated him moving his family again, this time to Bridgend.  Although active in the Labour Party, criticism of his controversial first article for the press, ‘The Need for a Lib-Lab Coalition’, and his increasing disillusionment with Labour’s stance over nationalisation, resulted, towards the end of 1927, in his resignation from the post at Blaengarw, another house move – from Bridgend to Cardiff – and another political move – from the Labour Party to the Liberal Party. In the meantime he had also written and submitted a play, ‘Dad’s Double’, into a competition in Manchester where is had favourable reviews.

1929 saw Jack working as a speech writer for the Liberal Party and standing as a (defeated) Liberal candidate for Neath in the election but only a year later, Jack was unemployed and having to make ends meet by doing whatever he could – working as a platform-speaker for Oswald Mosely’s far right party, as a salesman, a cinema manager, a navvie and also as a writer. Now nearly 50, these must have been tough years, but Jack persevered and in 1934, he had his first novel published: ‘Rhondda Roundabout’.

More success followed and by 1939 Jack had written two more novels – ‘Black Parade’ (1935) and ‘Bidden to the Feast’ (1938); a play ‘Land of My Fathers’ (1937) and the first volume of his autobiography ‘Unfinished Journey’ (1937). A short run of the stage-version of ‘Rhondda Roundabout’ on Shaftesbury Avenue added to his fame.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Jack carried out lecture tours in the USA and Canada, worked as a speech writer on behalf of the Ministry of Information and the National Savings Movement, wrote radio-scripts and articles, visited troops on the battlefields and also had to deal with the death of his son Lawrence, who was killed in action in 1942. He also changed political allegiance again – this time supporting the Conservative, Sir James Grigg in the 1945 election. Jack still found time to write, producing ‘The Man David’ an imaginary presentation, based on fact, of the life of Lloyd George, in 1944, and then after the war, and in quick succession, two volumes of autobiography (‘Me and Mine’ in 1946 and ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ in 1950), three new novels (‘Off to Philadelphia in the Morning’ (1947), ‘Some Trust in Chariots’ (1948), and ‘River out of Eden’ (1951) and a play (‘Transatlantic Episode’ (1947). Personally these years were difficult: Laura died in 1946 and his other son, David, in 1948; although Jack did find love again, marrying Gwaldys Morgan, a library assistant from Rhiwbina, in 1954.

Jack wrote five novels during the 1950’s although these were not as well received and although he continued to write until his death, his last published novel was in 1956 – ‘Come Night, End Day’.

In terms of accolades, Jack received many. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1948, the first president of the English section of Yr Academi Gymreig; and, in February 1970, he received an award from the Welsh Arts Council for his distinguished contribution to the literature of Wales. He died on 7 May 1970 and is now all but forgotten outside Merthyr.

Perhaps it is time to reappraise this lad from Merthyr, who led a life so unlike many of ours and recorded his experiences so skilfully, depicting, in the words of Phil Carradice, “…an accurate and powerful picture of life in the industrial valleys of South Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arguably, it has never been done better.

Merthyr’s Chapels: Ebenezer Chapel, Cefn Coed

The next chapel we look at in our continuing feature is Ebenezer Welsh Independent Chapel in Cefn Coed.

Ebenezer Chapel in 1983

The cause at Ebenezer started in 1836 when four members of Bethesda Chapel called Jededia Jones, Thomas Williams, Morgan Morgans and Henry Thomas started meeting in two small rooms in Cefn Isaf, Cefn Coed belonging to the ‘Hen Dafarn Bach’.

In 1837, as the congregation grew, they decided to build their own church, and a piece of land was bought from Lady Gwyn Holford, and a chapel was built at a cost of £400. The first minister was Mr Evan Williams, a teacher and part time preacher at Bethesda Chapel.

In 1838 the Chartist Rising began, and as many in the church supported the points of the Charter and Evan Williams the minister opposed them, it was agreed that it would be better for him to leave. Following this Mr William Moses took over as minister, but the arguments over the congregation’s support of the Chartist’s methods of violence to enforce social reform continued.

More disagreements occurred over Mr Richard Evans and Mr Walter Williams, members of the chapel, going to preach at Adulam Chapel in Tredegar which strongly supported the chartists. The East Glamorgan Association of Independent Churches strongly disapproved of this, but the chapel continued to allow them to preach in Tredegar with the result that Ebenezer was excluded from the Independent Union for many years, effectively cutting them off from the other Independent chapels in the area.

The disagreements culminated with the minister Mr Moses leaving the chapel with a number of the congregation and starting their own chapel at Tabor in Cefn Coed in 1842.

That same year, Richard Evans and Walter Williams were ordained as joint ministers at Ebenezer which further angered the Association, and both men were excluded from preaching at any other chapel in the area.

After the chapel had been outside the Independent Union for five years, reconciliation was made, Ebenezer joined the Independent Union and Richard Evans and Walter Williams were accepted as ordained ministers. The congregation subsequently grew and a larger chapel was built in 1861 at a cost of £700.

In 1913 a burst water main undermined the foundations of the chapel and the front and one of the side walls gave way. The front wall and most of the side wall had to be rebuilt at a cost of £500.

During the 1960’s the number of members severely declined, and they were unable to maintain the fabric of the building. The chapel closed in 1970 and services were held for a number of years in the Chapel’s schoolroom in Holford Street, until that too closed.

Ebenezer Chapel is still standing, but is in a very sorry state.

Ebenezer Chapel in 2012

The Meaning of Grawen

by Carl Llewellyn

Although there is a farm in Cwmtaf called “Grawen”, most residents living in Merthyr Tydfil would recognise the name being associated with the area around the Quar, Brecon Road, known as the “The Grawen”.

The Welsh word for “rough” is “garw”, and in the old Welsh language meadow is “gwaen” or “waen”. If these two words are combined we have Garw-waun, drop one “w” and the “a” in waen we have “Grawen”. In the old Welsh the “r” frequently changes its position  and so “Garwen” would become “Grawen”.

This is conjectural – the word “garw” (rough) combined with “nant” (a valley or a brook), gives us “turbulent brook” with the word “rough” associated with water – hence Nantgarw, Pontypridd, and an area near Cwmtaf is known as “Garwnant”. In Dewi Cynon’s history of Farm names the word “garw” or “rough” refers to the bed of the brook being “coarse” hence “rough brook”.

The ‘Round House’ in the Grawen, Brecon Road