Merthyr’s Chapels: Elim Chapel, Penydarren

In our regular feature on the chapels of Merthyr, we next take a look at the history of Elim Baptist Chapel in Penydarren.

In 1841, Rev William Robert Davies, minister at Caersalem Chapel in Dowlais decided that a new Baptist cause should be started in Penydarren to cater for the ever growing population there. Land was leased from the Penydarren Iron Company and the chapel, named Elim was built in 1842.

In 1849, the infamous cholera epidemic struck Merthyr which caused the death of 1,682 in Merthyr and Dowlais alone (see previous entry – www.merthyr-history.com/?p=123). On 4 August, cholera struck Rev Davies’ household, when his daughter died of the disease. Despite his grief, Rev Davies continued to visit the sick and comforted their relatives. One of the results of the cholera was a sudden upsurge in chapel attendance, and on the last two Sundays of August alone Rev Davies baptised no less than 150 people.

By this time he had begun discussing with the deacons the possibility of appointing another minister to help him continue the work at Caersalem. However, before this could be acted upon, Davies was himself struck down by the cholera on 1 September. He became suddenly ill at nine o’clock in the morning, and by seven o’clock that same evening he was dead. He was buried in the same grave as his daughter at the graveyard at Elim Chapel. He was 51 years old.

Elim continued to be considered as a branch of Caersalem until it gained its independence in 1852. The congregation continued to grow however, and the chapel was rebuilt in 1858.

By the 1930’s it had become obvious to the members that the chapel needed a new schoolroom to accommodate the burgeoning Sunday School at Elim Chapel. The materials necessary to build the school room were offered to the chapel at a very reasonable price on the condition that the members of the chapel could collect them. As this was the time of the Great Depression, and the Dowlais Works having recently closed, most of the men at the chapel found themselves unemployed, so they collected the materials, and built the school room themselves. The women of the chapel organised many activities to raise money towards the building. The schoolroom was opened on 18 July 1933.

Elim Chapel, Penydarren in 1933 showing the recently built new schoolroom

On the night of 23 December 1977 Elim was severely damaged in a storm, the roof was blown off. The chapel was beyond repair and had to be demolished the following year. Services were subsequently held at Williams Memorial Chapel until that chapel closed, and the remaining members of the congregation rejoined their mother church at Caersalem.

Elim Chapel following the collapse of the front wall as a result of the storm

A development of flats for senior citizens has now been built on the site of the chapel and is called Hafan Elim.

Merthyr’s Girl-Collier

One hundred and sixteen years ago today, the following story broke in the Evening Express, and went on to grip the town for several weeks.

Six days previously, on Monday 30 September 1901, a fifteen-year-old girl had been found working as a boy in one of the Plymouth Ironworks’ collieries.

When interviewed, the girl, Edith Gertrude Phillips, said that she lived with her father, a pitman, her mother and five siblings at the Glynderis Engine House in Abercanaid, but was beaten and forced to do all the housework by her mother when her father was at work. On the previous Friday, her mother had ‘knocked her about the head, shoulders and back with her fists’ for not finishing the washing, so Edith decided to leave home. She dressed in some clothes belonging to her older brother, cut her hair, threw her own clothes into the Glamorganshire Canal, and walked to Dowlais Ironworks to look for a job.

Unable to secure employment in Dowlais, Edith then went to the South Pit of the Plymouth Colliery, and got a job with a collier named Matthew Thomas as his ‘boy’. She found lodgings at a house in Nightingale Street in Abercanaid, and it was there on Monday 30 September that she was discovered by P.C. Dove. The alarm had been raised about Edith’s disappearance by her father on the Friday evening, and following searches throughout the weekend, someone recognised the disguised Edith at her lodgings in Nightingale Street. Edith refused to go back to her parents, and in the ensuing arguments, collapsed from nervous exhaustion and was taken to Merthyr Infirmary.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children immediately started investigating the case, and Edith’s parents were questioned thoroughly. In the meantime, as news of the case leaked out, there was an outpouring of support for Edith, and dozens of people came forward with offers of support for her, some from as far afield as Surrey and Sussex. A committee was formed to start a fund to help Edith, and the met at the Richards Arms in Abercanaid, just a week after the news broke, and a public appeal was made for money to help her.

Evening Express – 17 October 1901

Despite the ongoing investigation by the N.S.P.C.C. and the countless offers from people to provide a good home to Edith, the Merthyr Board of Guardians, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the girl should be sent home to her parents upon her release from the Infirmary. Edith was indeed released and sent home to her parents on 31 October, but within hours, she was removed from the house by the N.S.P.C.C. and taken to the Salvation Army Home in Cardiff.

No more is mentioned in the newspapers about Edith until 8 February 1904, when the Evening Express reported that she had been living in Cardiff, but as the money raised to help her had run out, she had to leave her home. As she was in very poor health, she was unable to find work, so she had appealed to the Merthyr Board of Guardians to allow her to come back to Merthyr, and to enter the Workhouse. A doctor told the Board that Edith didn’t have long to live, so they agreed to allow her to return.

This is the last report about Edith in any of the newspapers, but thanks to the sterling work of Mike Donovan of the Merthyr Branch of the Glamorgan Family History Society, I have been able to discover that Edith didn’t actually die at the workhouse, she recovered and went on to work, in service, at a house in Penydarren, and  died in 1963 at the age of 77.

Evening Express – 4 November 1901

Councillor Isaac Edwards, J.P.

Today we look at another important Merthyr resident – Isaac Edwards, business man, magistrate and mayor, who died 74 years ago today.

Isaac Edwards was born in Dowlais on 10 May 1872. Educated at the Dowlais Works School, at the age of thirteen he began working at the mill manager’s office at the Dowlais Ironworks.

At the age of 25, he left and opened an accountancy and auctioneering business in Dowlais. Within two years he was joined in the business by his elder brother and they began trading as Edwards Bros. As the business grew they purchased the practice of Mr Henry Lewis, auctioneer in Merthyr and opened a branch office in Market Square Chambers, Merthyr.

In 1910, he accepted an appointment as district valuer for the Caernarvonshire, Anglesey and West Denbighshire area in the Wales Division Board of the Inland Revenue. He remained in the position until 1916 when he returned to Merthyr and acquired the business of Messrs J M Berry & Son.

As a boy and young man, Isaac Jones was a member of Bethania Chapel, Dowlais where he continued to worship until he moved to North Wales. Upon his return to Merthyr he became a member of Zoar Chapel where he was elected as a deacon and became a Sunday School teacher. He was also elected President of the North Glamorgan Association of Independents; president of the Glamorgan County Association; chairman of the Independent Union Sustenation Fund, treasurer of Bangor College and in 1930 was elected president of the Welsh Congregation Union – only the fourth layman to be elected to the position since its formation.

He also made his mark outside the chapel. He was elected president of the Merthyr Chamber of Trade, as well as serving as secretary South Wales and Montmouthshire Federation and vice-president of the National Chamber of Trade. He was also appointed as a magistrate for the county in 1922. An Independent councillor since 1921, Isaac Edwards was elected as mayor in 1938.

Isaac Edwards died on Sunday 19 September 1943.

James Neilson’s Hot Blast: Pierre Armand Dufrénoy and Lady Charlotte Guest – part 2

by Victoria Owens

In September 1836 advertisements for On the use of hot air in the Ironworks of England and Scotland […] appeared in the London newspapers. Published by the august firm of John Murray, it was a modest octavo, priced at 5s 6d. To all appearance, the English text was anonymous, the title page stating only that the work was ‘Translated from a report made to the director-general of mines in France, by M. Dufrénoy in 1834 [sic]’ without naming the translator. The entries in John Murray’s ledgers were equally uninformative about the origin of the English version, referring to the work only as ‘Hot Air (On the use of)’ with a caret mark adding the scribbled note ‘By M. Dufrénoy’. The illustrations, however, carry some mark of Lady Charlotte’s involvement. Murray’s publication re-cycles the engravings which had appeared in Dufrénoy’s Rapport, but with an addition. Examination of the English text reveals the initials ‘C.E.G.’ – Charlotte Elizabeth Guest – in her distinctive handwriting beside each picture, presumably as confirmation to the printer that the image is to be bound in with the text.

Illustration of the Dundivan Heating Apparatus from On the Use of Hot Air in the Iron Works of England and Scotland […] (London: John Murray, 1836). The initials ‘C.E.G’ and date ‘March 1836’ appear below the engraved diagram.
To remain anonymous may have been her choice. Not only were mid-nineteenth century publishers apt to view women writers dismissively – it was why the Bronte sisters took masculine pen-names – but her mother had been less than happy about her marriage. For all his acumen, the industrialist John Guest was not the husband she would have chosen for her daughter – she preferred Robert Plumer Ward, a barrister-cum-novelist, whose proposal Charlotte resolutely declined. Charlotte, what was more, had loved South Wales from her first sight of the ‘blazing furnaces’ of Dowlais and the ‘broad glare of the fires.’ By contrast, when Lady Lindsey visited in August 1834, she thought the Glamorganshire countryside ‘wild enough for banditti’ and likened the ironworks to ‘a den of thieves.’ It seems unlikely that she would have viewed her daughter’s work on the Rapport sur l’emploi de l’air chaud with much enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Charlotte’s achievement did not remain secret for long. In December 1836 the local newspaper jubilantly identified her as the translator of On the Use of Hot Air and carried a story full of praise for her disregard of all ‘temptations to indolence’ and ‘frivolities of fashion,’ and ready devotion of her ‘time and talents to useful […] works by which mankind may be benefitted, and the interests of Science advanced.’

Her book had a print run of only two hundred copies but in iron manufacturing circles, it sparked considerable interest. On 1 October 1836, when it had been out for less than a month, John Wilson, co-proprietor of the Clyde Ironworks and member of the syndicate which held the patent rights to the Hot Blast process, called on Lady Charlotte to request a copy of her translation. He was apparently ‘anxious to see [it], as he did not understand French.’

If it yielded little financial return, the engagement with Dufrénoy’s survey of the British iron trade nevertheless set the course of Charlotte’s future. It is no coincidence that in her journal entry for 26 September 1836 – just when the book went on sale – she should mention having ‘undertaken the office of Merthyr’s secretary, to write all his letters and keep them copied and arranged.’ It was, she thought, a ‘beginning in earnest’ for which she had ‘been training for some time.’ Her remarks were prescient indeed, for on John’s death in 1852, she succeeded him as head of the works, and would soon have to bring all her acuity to bear on resolving a strike. Disputes aside, commerce gave her immense satisfaction. ‘I am happy to see we are at the head of the iron trade,’ she wrote in April 1839. ‘Otherwise I could not take pride in my house in the City, and my works at Dowlais, and glory (playfully) in being (in some sort) a tradeswoman.’

James Neilson’s Hot Blast: Pierre Armand Dufrénoy and Lady Charlotte Guest – part 1

by Victoria Owens

Many thanks to Victoria Owens who provided the following fascinating article.

When James Beaumont Neilson, engineer of the Glasgow gas works, patented his ‘hot-blast’ of 1828 – the system of pre-heating air by passing it through a hot ‘vessel or receptacle’ before it entered the blast furnace – he was confident that it would save fuel and reduce costs. Encouraged by three Scots iron manufacturers – Colin Dunlop of Tollcross, Charles McIntosh of Crossbasket, and John Wilson of Dundyvan, all of whom acquired shares in his patent rights – Neilson conducted  experiments at the Clyde Ironworks which demonstrated that use of the hot blast could reduce fuel consumption by about a third. News of its merits spread fast. Not only did many English, Scots and Welsh ironmasters adopt Neilson’s system, but the French inspector of mines, Ours-Pierre-Armand Petit-Dufrénoy, (1792-1857), visited Britain to analyse the economic and metallurgical consequences of its application.

Ours-Pierre-Armand Petit-Dufrénoy

Dufrénoy’s Rapportsur l’emploi de l’air chaud dans les mines à fer de l’Ecosse et de l’Angleterre’ appeared in the 1833 issue of the French Annales des Mines. By chance, Edward Hutchins, nephew of Josiah John Guest of the Dowlais Iron Company, obtained a copy, in autumn 1834 and, recognising the British iron trade’s likely interest in its content, asked his uncle’s wife Charlotte to translate it into English.

The previous year, John Guest had married Lady Charlotte Bertie, daughter of the late ninth earl of Lindsey. An able linguist, she was fluent in Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew. Soon after her marriage, she began to learn Welsh from the Revd. Evan Jenkins, Rector of Dowlais, and would in time publish a best-selling translation of the mediaeval Welsh story-cycle known as the Mabinogion. That she had a fair working knowledge of French goes without saying.

She started work on her translation of Dufrénoy’s article on 3 December 1834, while John Guest, MP for Merthyr Tydfil, was canvassing votes for the coming general election. She found the text ‘full of technicalities’ and foresaw that producing an English version would take a long time. Nevertheless, she continued throughout the following day, and calculated that by the evening, she had completed about a sixth of it. Here, to give some flavour of the task, is Dufrénoy’s description of Neilson’s methods:- ‘Dans la première experience,’ he writes

l’air fut chauffé dans une espèce de coffer rectangulaire en tôle de 10 pieds de long, sur 4 pieds he haut et 3 de large, semblable aux chaudières des machines à vapeur. L’air provenant de la machine soufflanteé tait introduit dans cette capacité, oùil s’échauffait avant de sa render dans le haut-fourneau. Malgré l’imperfection de ceprocédé, qui ne permit d’élever la temperature de l’air qu’a 200⁰ Fahrenheit (93.3 cent), on pouvait déjà pressentir que l’idée de M. Nielson était destinée à produire une revolution dans le travail du fer.

‘In the first experiment,’ offers Lady Charlotte, ‘the air was heated in a kind of rectangular box of sheet iron, ten feet long, four high and three wide, similar to the boilers of steam engines. The air proceeding from the blowing machine was introduced into this space, where it was heated, previous to being conveyed into the blast furnace. Notwithstanding the imperfection of this process, which did not admit of the air being heated above 200⁰ Fahr, it became immediately apparent that Mr Neilson’s idea was destined to produce a revolution in the manufacture of iron.’

If terms such as tôle [sheet metal] and chaudières [boilers] sent her to the dictionary, her rendition of the idiomatic phrase on pouvait  déjà pressentir, [literally, ‘one could already foresee’] as ‘it became immediately apparent…’ shows her ready command of the syntax.

Lady Charlotte Guest. Photo courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery

First caught up in the excitement surrounding the election and, later, dismayed by an outbreak of cholera, Charlotte does not mention the hot blast again in her journal until February 1835. By this time, she and John and their infant daughter Maria were visiting Charlotte’s mother and step-father at their Lincolnshire home – Uffington House near Stamford. ‘Wet Day,’ Charlotte wrote on Friday 13 February; ‘Merthyr (her private name for her husband) […] corrected iron hot air [sic] for me.’

For all its brevity, her statement raises intriguing questions. That John Guest should have been interested in the observations of a highly qualified mining engineer from a rival nation upon the production process of every ironworks from Calder to Merthyr Tydfil by way of Monkland, Codnor and Wednesbury was understandable. Whether he also wished to explore Dufrénoy’s account in the hope of discovering some means of using the hot blast technique without having to pay Neilson royalties is a matter for speculation. The fact that on 12 March 1836 an injunction was issued against Guest and partners restraining them from infringement of Neilson’s patent suggests that by the time Lady Charlotte was translating the French treatise, the Dowlais Ironworks had already introduced the hot blast. In the event, John Guest, was quick to settle with Neilson and his fellow patentees, and pay the shilling-per-ton royalty on iron produced by their method.

Furthermore, Lady Charlotte’s reference to her husband’s ‘correction’ of her work, suggests that, rather than treat her translation of the treatise as a work of private reference, the two of them thought it deserved publication. Certainly the English edition of On the use of hot air includes a number of observations – each designated ‘Note by the Translator’ –which, to judge from their detailed knowledge of the ironworks and coal deposits of South Wales, are the work of an industry insider. The remark, for instance, that before they introduced the hot blast, both Guest at Dowlais and Samuel Homfray of the Penydarren ironworks were using raw coal rather than coke to fuel their furnaces evinces considerable local knowledge. Incidentally the concluding ‘Note by the Translator’ not only gives a complete overview of the hot blast apparatus in use respectively at Dundivan in Scotland and Pentwyn, Clydach and Dowlais in Wales but also appraises the efficiency of the system and the quality of the iron produced in each place. Dufrénoy includes no corresponding commentary and this state-of-the-art survey of British iron manufacture offers an authoritative epilogue to the English version of his treatise.

To be continued in the next post……

Merthyr’s Trams

78 years ago today saw the last tram journey run in Merthyr. To mark the occasion, local historian Keith Lewis-Jones has provided the following fascinating article.

Trams at Pontmorlais Circus

The first thoughts of a tram system in the Merthyr area were in 1878, when a scheme was proposed by Messrs. Taylor, Forester and Sutherland, to construct a horse or steam tramway between Merthyr and Dowlais. In 1879, a public meeting was held at the Bush Hotel in Dowlais for the three promoters to explain their plans and to canvass support for the proposed system. The tramway failed to materialise for a variety of reasons, both financial and fear that the toll on the horses hauling trams up gradients, as steep as one in eleven, would make the tramway unprofitable to work.

By 1890, the population of Merthyr was 60,000, and the service of horse cars and brakes was wholly inadequate for the transport needs of such a large population. By this time a large section of the working population was employed at the Dowlais Works, with many living along the Brecon Road corridor and in Cefn Coed

It was therefore proposed to lease out, to a private company, the right to construct Light Railways between Cefn Coed and Dowlais, with a branch running to the centre of Merthyr at Graham Street. As is always the case with such progressive ideas, a great deal of vigorous and influential opposition was forthcoming from vested interests. It was decided to set up a commission to hear evidence and propose a way forward.

In May 1898 the Merthyr Tydfil Electric Traction and Lighting Co. Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of British Electric Traction (BET), made an application for a Light Railway Order under the Light Railways Act of 1896, and the order was granted on 16 May 1899.

The Light Railway Order authorised the construction of three railways.

Railway no. 1 was to be 3 miles 1 furlong 2.8 chains long and was to run from opposite the Morning Sun public house in Cefn High Street via Cefn Bridge, Brecon Road, Pontmorlais Road West, Penydarren Road, High Street Penydarren, New Road & High Street Dowlais to a terminus opposite the Bush Inn.

The section from the Morning Sun to the Merthyr side of Cefn Bridge was not to be constructed until Cefn Bridge had been re-constructed or replaced.

Railway no. 2, 3 furlongs 3.5 chains in length, was to run from the north side of the Owain Glyndwr on Pontmorlais Road West to Graham Street via High Street, terminating at the west end of Graham Street.

Railway no. 3 was 1.7 chains in length and formed the third side of the triangle at Pontmorlais, joining railway no. 1 with railway no. 2 on the east side of the Owain Glyndwr.

Trams at the terminus in Graham Street

The Tram Depot, known as the Traction Yard, was constructed on the site of Penydarren Ironworks and was reached by way of a branch line which left the Dowlais route at the Trevethick (sic.) Street Junction. As well as providing facilities for tram maintenance, the site also housed the generating station for 550 volts direct current. As can be seen in the Company’s name, not only was it set up to operate trams but also to provide lighting within the area.

Traction Yard

For the opening of the system, thirteen single deck and three double deck trams were obtained. The single-deckers, nos. 1-13, were built by the Midland Railway Carriage & Wagon Co. Ltd., of Shrewsbury. They seated twenty-six passengers.

The open top, double deck trams came from the Electric Railway & Tramway Carriage Works Ltd. (ERTCW), of Preston – part of Dick, Kerr & Co. Ltd. They were numbered 14-16 and seated forty-eight passengers.

The first passengers were carried 6 April, 1901 with Dowlais route trams displaying a triangle and Cefn route vehicles a square on the front. The trams ran between 5.15 a.m. and 10.15 p.m. Passengers fares were one penny per mile or part thereof. Some examples being – Merthyr to Dowlais 2d and Cyfarthfa to Merthyr 1d. The fare for a journey from the Morning Sun in Cefn to the Bush Hotel in Dowlais would be 4d.

A tram outside the Bush Hotel in Dowlais

1903 saw the only serious accident to affect the tramway. On 22 January car number 10 left the rails while descending New Road, Dowlais causing no serious injuries, but the tram was badly damaged.

Passenger numbers had declined to 2,086,684 by 1936. The 1930’s had seen a decline in the number of passengers carried, partially due to the high rate of unemployment in the Borough – 41.7% in 1936.

The Corporation had been prevented from competing with the trams under the provisions of the Merthyr Tydfil Corporation Act of 1920 and so the tramway was eventually purchased by the Corporation for £13,500 in 1939, and abandoned on 23 August, leaving the Company to continue electricity generation until 1948.

Merthyr’s Last Tram

During its life, the tramway carried an estimated 85 million passengers and the tramcars covered a distance of around 8 million miles. Apart from the system in Cardiff, Merthyr’s tramway was the longest lasting in South Wales.

A fuller account of Merthyr’s Tram system by Keith Lewis-Jones can be found in Merthyr Historian volume 20.

All photos courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Royal Visit of 1912

105 years ago today, Merthyr was honoured with a visit from King George V and Queen Mary.

On 25 June 1912, the Royal Couple had embarked on a three day visit to Wales, the primary reason for which was to lay the foundation stone for the new National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. The King, however, had expressed a wish to see the social conditions of the area and Sir William Thomas Lewis (see previous posts) arranged a tour.

The Royal Train at Treherbert

On the 27 June they travelled on the Royal Train, first visiting the Lewis Merthyr Colliery at Trehafod, then on to the Mines Rescue Station at Dinas. The tour then continued by train through Pontypridd, Llancaiach, Bedlinog, Cwmbargoed, to Caeharris (Dowlais) Station where the King and Queen were scheduled to visit the Dowlais Works.

Dowlais Works decorated for the Royal Visit

To mark the occasion, craftsmen at the Dowlais Works had specially constructed two monumental archways for the Royal Couple to pass through – one made of coal and one made of steel.

The Coal Arch (left) and the Steel Arch (right)

They entered the works on foot, through the ‘Coal Arch’, and were greeted by a rousing rendition of ‘God Save the King’ by the Penywern Choir, who had been invited to entertain the Royal party. A message was later sent by the King and Queen to the conductor of the choir – Mr Evan Thomas, complimenting them on their singing, saying that the Penywern Choir “were the best choir of voices they had heard on their tour of South Wales”. The Royal Couple then entered Dowlais House where they met several invited distinguished guests and were served a sumptuous lunch. The Penywern Choir entertained the visitors during the lunch from a marquee that had been specially erected in front of the dining room.

Following lunch, the King and Queen were given a tour of the Works by Sir W T Lewis and Mr Arthur Keen, the owner of the works (he had purchased to Dowlais Iron Company from Ivor Bertie Guest in 1899, and the Works were now operating under the management of Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds). Having visited the Blast Furnaces, the Bessemer Plant, Goat Mill, Sleeper Mill, Sole Plate Mill, Fishplate Mill and the Siemens Plant, the Royal Couple exited the Works via the ‘Steel Arch’, and proceeded to Merthyr in their own Daimler car, to arrive at the Town Hall steps at 4.00pm where Sir W T Lewis presented them to the Mayor and Mayoress, Mr & Mrs J M Berry.

The King and Queen at Dowlais Works
Crowds outside the Town Hall in a specially erected stand

The Dowlais Works have since closed, the Steel Arch was dismantled in the 1920’s and the Coal Arch was dismantled in 1960.

Photographs courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway

By the second half of the 19th century, Merthyr was served by several railway companies, one of which was the Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil Junction Railway (B&M) which, as its name implies, ran from Brecon to Merthyr.

A 1905 map showing the Railways around Merthyr and Dowlais

As early as 1836, Sir John Josiah Guest, of the Dowlais Ironworks, had written of his proposal to construct a railway linking Dowlais to the valley of the River Usk, and possibly also running into Brecon. The line would have pretty nearly covered the same route as was eventually adopted by the B&M. A similar proposal suggested a line running up the Taf Fawr valley over the Brecon Beacons via Storey Arms and thence to Brecon.

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway Company was established by a Bill of 1859, financially supported by several prominent Brecon citizens, and the complete route from Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil was authorised the following year. The first section to open was a 6.75 miles (10.86 km) section between Brecon and Talybont-on-Usk in 1863, which reused a section of a horse-drawn tram line. The Beacons Tunnel at Torpantau opened in 1868. Officially named the Torpantau Tunnel, at 1313 feet above mean sea level, it is the highest railway tunnel in Britain.

The system eventually came to comprise two sections of lines:

  • The Southern section, effectively the consumed Rumney Railway, which linked Bassaleg (where there were connections with the GWR and the London and North Western Railway) and the ironworks town of Rhymney, near the head of the Rhymney Valley.
  • The Northern section linked Deri Junction by means of running powers over a section of the Rhymney Railway in the Bargoed Rhymney Valley to Pant, Pontsticill and Brecon via a tunnel through the Brecon Beacons. From the tunnel the line descended towards Talybont-on-Usk on a continuous 1-in-38 gradient known as the “Seven-Mile Bank”. For southbound trains this presented the steepest continuous ascent on the British railway network.
Pontsticill Station. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Initially, the only connection to Merthyr Tydfil was by means of a horse-drawn bus from Pant, but by 1868, a connection with Merthyr at Rhydycar Junction had been established by sharing lines with Vale of Neath, London and North Western and Taff Vale railways. This involved the building of nearly seven miles of single line from Pontsticill to Merthyr, with an almost continuous descent of 1 in 45-50, two complete reversals of direction, and the construction of two viaducts to carry the line over the Taf Fechan at Pontsarn, and the Taf Fawr at Cefn Coed.

North of the Pontsarn viaduct, a connection was made with the LNWR’s Merthyr Extension line at Morlais Tunnel Junction from where the latter’s double track entered the 1034 yard Morlais Tunnel and beyond routed along the double line to Dowlais High Street and thence to Tredegar, Brynmawr and Abergavenny. The sections from Merthyr to Pontsticill and Bargoed through to Brecon were laid as single lines with passing loops and usually locomotive watering facilities at principal stations. For those single lines, tokens were issued to drivers from signal boxes at such locations and being essential for safe working over single lines.

A train leaving the Morlais Tunnel. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The line was eventually amalgamated with the Great Western Railway in 1923, and by 1958, the line was running three services each way on weekdays, increasing to four on Saturdays, taking around 2½ hours to run from Brecon to Newport. Although surviving nationalisation, the service had run at a substantial loss for most of its lifetime, and was an obvious candidate for closure. Passenger services were closed from Pontsticill Junction to Merthyr Tydfil in November 1961, with the remainder of services stopping at the end of the 1962. The line was closed completely after the withdrawal of goods services in 1964.

Towards the end of the 1970s, a private company, the Brecon Mountain Railway, began to build a narrow-gauge steam-hauled tourist line on the existing 5.5-mile (8.9 km) trackbed from Pant through Pontsticill to Dol-y-gaer. The initial section of 1.75 miles (2.82 km) from Pant to Pontsticill first opened in June 1980. After more than 30 years of hard work and extra-funding, passenger services finally extended to Torpantau in April 2014, bringing the BMR to a total of approximately 5 miles in length.

For more about the Brecon Mountain Railway, please follow the link below:

https://www.bmr.wales/

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

Sir Josiah John Guest

Today marks the 164th anniversary of the death of one of the most famous figures in Merthyr’s history – Sir Josiah John Guest.

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Sir Josiah John Guest

Josiah John Guest was born in Dowlais on 2 February 1785, the eldest child of Thomas Guest, manager and part owner of the Dowlais Ironworks, and Jemima Revel Phillips. His grandfather John Guest had moved from Shropshire to South Wales, where he helped to start a furnace at Merthyr Tydfil in the 1760s; he then became manager at Dowlais, which was transformed over successive decades by the Napoleonic wars and the international development of the railway, from a modest venture into the largest ironworks in the world. In turn Guest followed his father into management of the Dowlais Iron Company in 1807, having gained a valuable informal apprenticeship in the works after attending Bridgnorth grammar school.

From the mid-1830s to the late 1840s the Dowlais Works were in their heyday. By 1845 they boasted 18 blast furnaces (the average number for ironworks was three), each producing over 100 tons weekly. The site covered 40 acres and the workforce numbered more than 7,000. A second works, the Ifor works (the Welsh spelling of Guest’s eldest son’s name), had been erected in 1839 at a cost of £47,000. As the railway network expanded at home and abroad, so the Dowlais Iron Company seized opportunities for new contracts both within Britain and further afield, notably in Germany, Russia, and America. In 1844, for example, an order was placed for an unprecedented 50,000 tons of rails for Russia.

Guest was forward thinking, engaging with key figures in scientific and technological development. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1818 and of the Royal Society in 1830. In 1834 he became an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers. His business interests included coal mines in the Forest of Dean and he was the first chairman of the Taff Vale Railway Company.

Guest’s first wife, Maria Elizabeth (née Ranken), whom he married on 11 March 1817, was Irish, the third daughter of William Ranken. She died in January 1818, less than a year after their marriage, aged only twenty-three. There were no children. On 29 July 1833 Guest married into the English aristocracy: Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie (1812–1895) was the eldest child of the late Ninth Earl of Lindsey; she was twenty-one and remarkably gifted. They went on to produce ten children.

The Guests lived in Dowlais House in the 1830s and 1840s; in 1846 they also purchased Canford Manor near Wimborne in Dorset for over £350,000. With the help of the architect Sir Charles Barry they turned Canford into their main home (although Dowlais House was retained). Guest was made a baronet on 14 August 1838 but his eldest son, Sir Ivor Bertie Guest, was elevated to the peerage, becoming the first Baron Wimborne in 1880; and a viscount in 1918.

Dowlais House. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Guest was also a politician. Between 1826 and 1831 he represented Honiton, Devon, initially supporting the Canningite Tories, but then becoming increasingly independent and in favour of parliamentary reform. During the reform crisis he lost his seat but he was returned in the new reformed parliament of 1832 as a Whig, the first Member of Parliament for Merthyr. He retained his seat until his death twenty years later. He won some support from the non-voters as well as from the small electorate, adopting a fairly progressive stance on a number of issues. He had helped to mediate during the Merthyr Rising of 1831.

The Dowlais Iron Company did not, however, own the land on which the Dowlais Works stood. In the 1840s its proprietor, the Tory Marquess of Bute, prevaricated over the renewal of the lease, endangering the livelihoods of about 12,000 families now dependent on the Dowlais Works. Annual profits were consistently high from the mid-1830s until 1848—in 1847 they exceeded £170,000—but fears over whether the lease would be renewed in 1848 resulted in the deliberate running down of operations. By the end of the decade profits had plummeted, and for 1849 amounted to less than £16,000. When the dispute was settled in 1848, the Guests were greeted in Dowlais like triumphal feudal lords returning from battle.

In his last years, severe kidney problems forced Sir John to rely increasingly on his wife’s business skills, and on the management structure he had evolved. When he died on 26 November 1852 an estimated 20,000 gathered for the funeral in Dowlais and The Times attributed to his foresight much of the wealth and prosperity of mid-nineteenth century Britain.

Sir Josiah John Guest’s Tomb at St John’s Church, Dowlais. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm