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.

The Aeolus Waterwheel – Merthyr’s Great Wonder

When Rev Sir Thomas Cullum (8th Baronet Cullum) visited Merthyr Tydfil in 1811, one of the sights he was most taken with was the mighty Aeolus Waterwheel at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks, and he even called it ‘the wonder of the place’. Some contemporary accounts actually refer to it as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World‘. I wonder how many people in Merthyr have actually heard of it nowadays?

‘Cyfarthfa Works and Waterwheel’ by William Pamplin. The Aeolus Waterwheel can clearly be seen at the centre of the illustration. Photo courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery

When Richard Crawshay became sole owner of the Cyfarthfa Works in 1791, he began making plans to extend the works and come up with innovative ways to increase iron production. In 1792, he made the engineer Watkin George a partner in the firm, and the latter began making significant progress in maximising the potential of the works.

His major contribution was the construction between 1793 and 1797 of a huge overshot waterwheel to provide the air for the four blast furnaces.

According to volume 5 of Rees’s Manufacturing Industry (1819-20):

“…..the water-wheel is 50 feet in diameter and six feet wide: it is chiefly made of cast iron, and has 156 buckets. The axle is a hollow tube, and is strengthened by twenty-four pieces of timber applied around it. On each end of the axis is a cog-wheel of twenty-three feet diameter, which turns a pinion. On the axis of these are two cranks, and fly-wheel twenty-two feet diameter, and twelve tons weight; each of the cranks gives motion to a lever, like that of a large steam-engine, and works the piston of a blowing cylinder or air-pump 52½ inches in diameter, and five feet stroke, which blows air into the furnace, both when the piston goes up and down. The work on the other side being the same, it actuates in the whole four of these double cylinders; the wheel makes about two and a half turns per minute, and each cylinder makes ten strokes.”

At the time, it was the largest waterwheel of its kind in the world and was named Aeolus after a character in Greek Mythology. Aeolus, as mentioned in the Odyssey and the Aeneid,  was the keeper of the winds and king of the island of Aeolia, one of the abrupt rocky Lipara islands close to Sicily. Later classical writers regarded him as a god.

The wheel was operated by water fed from streams across the river and transported by a massive iron and wood double aqueduct mounted on stone piers between 60 and 70 feet high. This was the famous Gwynne Aqueduct. Sir Charles Manby (later Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers) visited Merthyr and commented that the aqueduct:

“…..maintained an apparent lightness of the whole that contrasted with the massy [sic] boundary of the river, has not only a singular, but also a very interesting and pleasing appearance.”

Gwynne Aqueduct from a painting by Penry Williams

This is the same aqueduct that was mentioned in the previous post about the Pont-y-cafnau (

The Aeolus Waterwheel continued to power the blast furnaces until the 1820’s when it was replaced by a steam powered engine, and was subsequently demolished.

Merthyr’s Chapels: Bethlehem Chapel, Caepantywyll

We continue our regular look at Merthyr’s chapels with an aptly named chapel in the run up to Christmas – Bethlehem Chapel in Caepantywyll.

Bethlehem Chapel was one of the oldest Welsh Calvinistic Methodist movements in Merthyr.

In 1840, a number of the congregation of Moriah Chapel, Cefn Coed decided to start a new cause in the rapidly growing area of Caepantywyll, a chapel was subsequently built in 1841 and called Bethlehem.

During the mid 1800’s, the residents of Caepantywyll, mostly employees of Cyfarthfa Iron Works, had established a unique educational network, with three ‘front room’ schools as well as six schools held in public houses.

Rev John Roberts

Bethlehem Chapel was in the forefront of the education of the residents of Caepantywyll, and indeed its first minister Rev John Roberts was a strong leader in education.

Rev Roberts, who was also known by the bardic name Ieuan Gwyllt, was also famous as a musician. As well as composing many famous hymns, he founded the Cymanfa Ganu and also in 1859 he produced “Llyfr Tonau Cynulleidfaol” which took him six years to complete.

The publication of this book began a new era of Welsh congregational hymn singing.

By the 1960’s, with the number of residents of Caepantywyll decreasing, the small congregation dropped to such an extent that the chapel closed and services were held in the vestry of the chapel until that too closed in 1979. The chapel was demolished in the early 1980’s.

The derelict remains of Bethlehem Chapel in 1981

The Cyfarthfa Mystery

What better for a cold winter’s night than a gruesome tale of murder and it’s ghostly aftermath?

The following story is one of those tales that has been passed down through many generations (I have certainly heard about it from several different sources), and has passed into Merthyr folklore.

As most people know, Cyfarthfa Ironworks was founded in 1765 by Anthony Bacon, a rich London merchant, and in around 1770 he had a home built for himself on the banks of the River Taff, next to the works, and called Cyfarthfa House.

Cyfarthfa House in the 1790’s from a drawing by William Pamplin. Photo courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery

Soon after it was built, one of Anthony Bacon’s maid-servants began a love affair with a young man named William Owen, who, on one occasion presented her with a pair of silver shoe-buckles and a black silk neckerchief. The couple visited the Cefn Fair, but Will noticed that his lady-friend was very reticent towards him, and was paying far more attention to another young man – Benjamin Harry, obviously another would be suitor. To make matters worse, Will noticed that his rival was wearing the fancy buckles and the very silk neckerchief he had presented to his beloved!

On the Sunday following the fair, Will decided to confront the maid. Having attended the evening service at Ynysgau Chapel he went to Cyfarthfa House for an explanation of her behaviour. Will declared his love to the girl and proclaimed his faithfulness to her at all times, but accused her of being unfaithful to him. A heated argument ensued, culminating with Will plunging a knife into her chest. The injured girl managed to get into the house, and climbed the stairs to join the other maids. As she ascended the stairs, faint through loss of blood, she rested her bloodstained hand on the wall for support, before dying.

Ever since then, so the story goes, that subsequent generations who occupied the house decorated the hallway many, many times over, but no matter what they used, be it paint or wallpaper, the bloody hand-print would always show through.

Sir Frederick J Pedler, former mayor of Merthyr and historian, says in his book ‘History of the Hamlet of Gellideg’, that he actually visited Cyfarthfa House in 1926, and was shown the spot where the maid rested her bloodied hand on the wall, and sure enough, there was the shape of a hand print on the wall.

Cyfarthfa House was demolished in the 1930’s, and with it went the hand-print for good.

Many thanks to Chris Parry at Cyfarthfa Museum with additional information about Cyfarthfa House.

Treason and Bloodshed in Merthyr

The article transcribed below appeared in The Glamorgan and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian 178 years ago today. Would you say that this is an objective and unbiased piece of journalism?

MERTHYR TYDVIL (sic) AND BRECON, Nov. 9, 1839. Treason and bloodshed have again been the order of the day. Birmingham could not satisfy the dupes of the Melbourne Government; and Newport has been added to the riotous list. It wanted only that the spark should have been applied to the train at Cyfarthfa; it wanted only one word at a meeting on Penrheolgerrig, and Merthyr also had been the scene of similar disgraceful occurrences.

The few Chartists we have, are chiefly to be found in the neighbourhood we have alluded to. They have latterly been more cautious as to their places of meeting. The wicked and traitorous individuals, who from the mere love of spouting, and the petty gratification of the cheers of an ill-educated, we might almost say a non-educated populace, inflamed their passions, and rendered them dissatisfied with their condition, are skulking lest they should be arrested by the arm of the civil power, and suffer the punishment their crimes so richly deserve. The conduct of the magistrates of the neighbourhood, during the week, has been beyond all praise. Every precaution which it was proper to take has been resorted to; and they have given their almost undivided attention to the preservation of the peace of this locality.

We beg to direct their special attention to the beer-houses in the upper part of Merthyr, and in the neighbourhood of George Town and the Cyfarthfa works. There is where they will now find all the mischief concocted. It is matter of notoriety that these houses are kept open till one, two, and three o’clock in the morning. Surely this fact alone proves the necessity of having an effective police force; and, with all due deference to certain lovers of darkness, well- lighted streets also. But even more important than these would be the establishment of regimental barracks within four or five miles of Merthyr.

The idea is horrible, that the respectable tradesmen of a large town should be exposed, as they now are, to the brute force of a mob, led on by one or two traitors, who ought long since to have been made examples of at the bar of their county and that it might be several hours before a sufficient military force could be obtained. If the inhabitants are true to themselves, they will not rest till they have remedied this state of things.

A military depot between this place and Newbridge, would by its presence do more than thousands of special constables, towards keeping the misguided rabble within bounds. To this should be added a prison within the precincts of the town. At present if a prisoner has to be remanded, he is sent off to a public-house, with very fair chances of escape or rescue, because the place called the lock-up house is too beastly to turn a pig into.

We shall not lose sight of this subject; and in the mean time we would remind the inhabitants of Merthyr that a meeting of the parishioners is called for Tuesday next, to consider some propositions respecting a police or constabulary force and we trust that every tradesman will be present, determined to support any reasonable proposition remembering that a moderate expenditure now may be true economy in the end.

If anyone has anything they would like to contribute to the blog about the Chartists in Merthyr, please get in touch.

Merthyr’s Chapels: Hen Dy Cwrdd, Cefn Coed

We continue our series on Merthyr’s chapels with a look at one of the oldest causes in the Borough.

Hen Dy Cwrdd is the oldest chapel in the borough of Merthyr Tydfil. The chapel was originally built in 1747 when the Unitarians split from the congregation at Cwm-y-Glo and built their own small chapel at Cefn Coed.

This original building was built in a clearing in the wood between the Taf Fechan and the Taf Fawr rivers. It was a small barn-like structure, similar to the chapel at Cwm-y-Glo, with very small windows and a thatched roof. Indeed, the thatched roof wasn’t replaced by tiles until 1792.

An artists impression of the original Hen Dy Cwrdd Chapel

In 1765, Anthony Bacon built the first furnace at Cyfarthfa Iron Works and the wood was stripped of trees, and a small village began to grow in the clearing which became Cefn Coed y Cymer. Just over a century later, amid the rapid population explosion, a new chapel was built to cater for the ever growing congregation. The architect was John Lewis of Vaynor. £434 was collected via subscriptions by the members of the chapel and the new building opened in December 1853.

This chapel was very badly damaged in a storm and major repairs were necessary. The opportunity was taken to carry out various alterations and the chapel was virtually rebuilt in 1894/5 at a cost of £750, and so the present building took shape.

Hen Dy Cwrdd is considered to be an outstanding building and in 1985 it was listed by CADW Grade II, as being of Special Architectural and Historic Interest, and they made a considerable contribution to extensive refurbishment work, and in 1995-7 the chapel was re-erected using the masonry and fittings of the 1895 structure and is an almost exact replica of that building.

The reopening in 1997 coincided with the celebration of the chapel’s 250th Anniversary.

Hen Dy Cwrdd Chapel

The Meaning of Cyfarthfa

by Carl Llewellyn

Our Welsh laws refer to the “Tair Helfa Cyfarthfa” or the “Three Barking Hunts. The hunts were so called because the animals could either run fast, climb trees, or find safety in underground burrows, the hunter would bait his prey then send his dogs who would signal the position of the baited prey by barking.

Cyfarthfa has two meanings, either the ‘barking place’ as outlined above, or it could have been so called from the ‘echoes’ the rocky escarpment face of the Cyfarthfa Rocks made. We have been unable so far to trace any reference to the place name Cyfarthfa Rocks before the arrival of Anthony Bacon around 1765.

Another theory of the meaning Cyfarthfa was given by an old inhabitant of the Cyfarthfa district over 200 years ago. He stated that on the site of the Cyfarthfa furnaces there was formally a quarry with a fine echo, if a dog barked in the area it was repeated so strongly that one fancied that a large number of dogs had congregated in the locality.

The etymology of Cyfarthfa, according to Mr. Thomas Stephens, Merthyr poet, bard and chemist is the place of barking dogs – pretty well indicating the character of the place before the days of ironmaking. Game and vermin abounded, and the dogs held high revel there in the dense thickets and impenetrable copses.

Note that cyfar means ‘arable land’; cyfarth means ‘to bark’ or ‘to cough’ as a verb and ‘a barking’ as a noun; cyfarthwr means a ‘barker’ or ‘shouter’; cyfarch means ‘greeting’ or ‘request’ and cyfarchfa means ‘a hailing-place’.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Cyfarthfa Works in the 1870’s. Photo courtesy of

Merthyr Memories: Cyfarthfa School part 1

by Mary Owen

The classroom where I taught in Cyfarthfa High School (Castle site) was at the back, looking on to an area, darkly shaded by old trees. They had been planted circa 1824 when the mock-Gothic edifice, Cyfarthfa Castle, was built by William Crawshay, the ironmaster of the Cyfarthfa works. Less than a century later the family and iron-making disappeared from Merthyr Tydfil and their magnificent, unwanted home became a grammar school.

In the 1970s, when I was appointed to teach French at Cyfarthfa, by then a comprehensive school, one of those old trees became a particular favourite of mine and I admired it often as I glanced, or even took some time to gaze, at the shady woodland scene, just outside the window of Room 15: it was a cedar of Lebanon, the tree that indicates that the landowner, who paid for it was seriously wealthy. In quiet moments in that room I would muse on the Mediterranean land, from which the tree had sprung and of the time when the millionaire owner had bought it and many other specimens of exotic trees and plants. These had been transported, at great expense, to Merthyr Tydfil, his ugly, industrial town, for the beautification of his estate. Thanks to those past extravagances we had the most wonderful – looking school, a grey stone turreted castle, with lawns and a lake in front of it and well- established trees and gardens all around.

Cyfarthfa Castle in 2013

My north-facing room was dark and the ceiling strip – lights were often switched on to lighten and brighten it. In the well-used fashion of making the classroom a pleasant place in which the pupils can learn and where the teacher can impart knowledge, I made sure that the walls of the dingy room were colourfully decorated with scenes relating to France: pictures of famous buildings and work that the pupils had spent time creating in class or at home. As time passed the walls of the room were pinned with a collage of memorabilia, which gave great delight to me and, I hope, to the children, entrusted to me. Some of my own postcards were there – of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Mona Lisa; a map of France was in the place of honour in the centre of the back wall and it was mounted by two crossed ‘Tricolore’ flags. These had been drawn, painted and cut out by some enthusiastic pupils in break times. They had tried not to forget that Mrs Owen had said “ the colours of the French flag are blue, white and red (bleu, blanc, rouge), in that order from the flagpole, not red, white and blue. You must get it right.” There were wine bottle – labels, cheese – box labels, Orangina advertisements, photographs of the annual 24- hour, autumn trip to Boulogne, with many pupils and several teachers and where, if my allotted group of eight pupils could order their drinks in good French at the first café stop up in the old quarter of the town, I paid the bill; there was Richard Probert’s print of the Sacré-Coeur, bought especially for our classroom, on his and his brother Michael’s family trip to Paris. They would not forget it in a hurry because their Aunty Norma’s handbag, with her money and passport in it, was stolen in that beautiful white basilica, overlooking the city.

Another aunty had been snapped colourfully for posterity by her eager nephew, Owain Rowlands, as she was eating her way through a huge dish of ‘moules’. She was in the restaurant of the Hôtel de la Plage in the harbour town of Dieppe. This town featured in the Longman’s textbook, which was the basis of French language learning in Mid-Glamorgan schools. Aunty Jean was not to know then that she would be up there on the wall in our classroom, eating those mussels for many years to come. She was a French teacher and she had entered into the spirit of the family trip with gusto. The photos were rushed to school at the end of the holiday and there in front of us were the hotel, the town hall, the church, the swimming pool, the harbour in Dieppe and Jean eating those mussels – more visual aids for learning the ten French words of vocabulary that were expected to be known at the end of each chapter. La plage, le port, l’hôtel, l’hôtel de ville, i.e. the town-hall, surmounted with two crossed French flags etc… And so it went on until the end of the book and there were always creative hands, ready to change the scene a bit and to add an item about France and the French language to our décor. There was a notice, written carefully in good, correct French, announcing to all that Mrs Owen’s favourite character in Coronation Street was Mike Baldwin and her favourite television programme was Only Fools and Horses.

One chapter was about clothes. The required new points of grammar were introduced and the ten words for articles of clothing were there, to be learned through looking, listening, saying, repeating, writing, drawing and even singing. And of course there were volunteers for drawings of shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts, dresses, shoes, socks, macs and hats. Teaching French, especially in the first years to children of eleven and twelve, some at the start of even becoming clever linguists is a delight. One amongst several of these, was Sharon Rogers, who found it so easy to master the tricky French ‘r’ sound as soon as she heard it. It usually took a great deal of practice.

To be continued……….

Merthyr’s Bridges: Pont-y-Cafnau

The Grade II* listed Pont-y-Cafnau over the River Taff in Cyfarthfa is thought to be the world’s oldest iron tramroad bridge. An influential early prototype and is a unique survivor of its kind, it is also an aqueduct, with a water trough below the deck. Its designer was Watkin George (c.1759-1822), the chief engineer of the nearby Cyfarthfa Ironworks, which it served, and the bridge/aqueduct enabled the movement of limestone on its tram rails and a water supply, both for the ironworks. The limestone came from the Gurnos Quarries, and the water from a leat supplied by the Taf Fechan. The water was used to drive waterwheels to generate power to run machinery for iron smelting.

The structure was designed sometime in 1792 and construction began in January 1793 and the bridge was completed some time before 1796.

The distinctive appearance of the bridge is created by two large cast iron A-frames, which span the river, their raking ends embedded in the coursed rubble abutment walls on either side. The span measures 14.3m. Three transverse iron beams, at the halfway and quarter-points, connect the A-frames and support the deck. George was originally a carpenter and he used carpentry techniques for the ironwork – mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints can be seen.

The deck consists of rectangular aqueduct trough, 1.9m wide and 610mm high, made of long iron plates. The trough is covered by an iron deck, cast in sections, on which was laid the 1.22m (4ft) gauge tramroad. Wagons ran on straight iron rails carried on iron chairs. Some chairs and sleepers are still in place along the full length and segments of rail survive at the southern end.

The cast iron handrails were supported at the centre and quarter points of the span. Most of the original cast iron railings have now been replaced.

In 1795, a second bridge was cast from the same patterns to carry an extension of the tramroad and aqueduct from the ironworks to the Glamorganshire Canal. This bridge, sadly, no longer exists.

Shortly after Pont-y-Cafnau was completed, the Gwynne Water Aqueduct (completed 1796) was constructed over the top of it. Gwynne Water was 185m long, built entirely of timber and used the cast iron uprights of the bridge for support. it supplied water to the 15m diameter Aeolus waterwheel, also designed by George, which powered an air pump for the blast furnaces. Presumably, the extra bracing that has been added to the bridge dates from this work. Nothing of the second aqueduct remains.

Pont-y-Cafnau is a Scheduled Ancient Monument as well as a Grade II* listed structure. The iron trough no longer carries water. However, its name means “bridge of troughs”, testifying to its former life.

The bridge influenced the construction of other, better known, aqueducts. In 1794, Shropshire ironmaster William Reynolds (1758-1803) made a sketch of it. Reynolds’ involvement in the rebuilding of Thomas Telford’s (1757-1834) navigable Longdon on Tern Aqueduct on the Shrewsbury Canal in 1796 seems to have led Telford to reconsider using stone and to opt instead for cast iron. It was also the prototype for Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which opened in 1805.

Pont-y-Cafnau in March 2017

The Puddler

Many thanks to prominent local historian Joe England for the following article:-

The Puddler

Who or what was the Puddler? He (always male) was a worker who in his day was central to the making of iron and a person of some importance in Merthyr and the other iron towns.

One writer reminisces: ‘One puddler I knew at Dowlais filled the chapel with his presence . . . a Cyfarthfa man stood in the Star parlour with his coat tails to the fire in the presence of Admiral Lord Nelson … another of the species used regularly every week to ride down to the seat of an influential county gentleman whose daughter he came very near marrying . . . it was by the merest accident in the world they found out, just in the nick of time, that the son-in-law elect was only a puddler.’

Puddling was a method of turning pig iron into much more malleable wrought iron. It was invented by Henry Cort but perfected by Richard Crawshay at Cyfarthfa in the 1790s. The puddler stirred the molten metal in a puddling furnace with an iron bar, working in conditions of tremendous heat and agitating the metal as it boiled and then gathering it at the end of a rod while the molten metal thickened.

This was arduous, strength-sapping work, but the puddler’s special skill was his judgement of when to bring out the congealing metal, a decision crucial to the quality of the finished product. He therefore held a key position in the manufacture of iron. They were usually young men in their twenties and thirties. By their forties they were physically burnt out.

In the early years of industrialisation their key position in the manufacture of iron made them workplace militants, although later they accepted the wage cuts imposed by the ironmasters. The reasons for that I have explained in my forthcoming book The Crucible of Modern Wales: Merthyr Tydfil 1760-1912. But the masters, nonetheless, were determined to find ways of getting rid of them. Puddlers were expensive and too powerful.

The opportunity came with the Bessemer process of making steel which would replace wrought iron in making rails. When the first steel rail was rolled at Dowlais in 1858 it broke while still hot ‘to the undisguised rejoicing of the assembled puddlers.’  But the writing was on the wall. Steel rails began to be successfully manufactured and by 1876 the iron rail was seen as a thing of the past. So was puddling. In 1885 the number of puddling forges at Dowlais was 19. There once had been 255.

Joe England