Living and Working by Water
Modelling settlement and population-business renewal cycles in Sout Wales: a story-board for an interactive education programme being produced by the Natural Economy Research Unit, National Museum, Cardiff as an historical background to the regeneration of Cardiff Bay, and other communities of South Wales.
The time-line 1780-1939
In the 1979 Professor Denis Bellamy created a network of UK educators and organisations who were exploring new ways of handling and communicating cross-subject knowledge about the use of natural resources for human production (natural economy). This developed as the Natural Economy Research Unit in the Department of Zoology of the National Museum of Wales. One of NERU's first contracts was a consultancy to help produce a new examination syllabus about world development for the Cambridge University Local Examinations Syndicate (Natural Economy a subject in the Syndicate's International GCSE in Natural Economy).
From 1992 NERU's educational projects focused on new opportunities arising from the Rio Environment Summit environment to work with schools in Wales and England, and their communities, to create citizen's environmental networks for democratic participation in local economic development. This work is centred on the use of educational IT tools to promote systems thinking about 'sustainability'.
An important practical outcome was the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN), which is now an integral part of the education/interpretation work of the National Museum and Galleries of Wales. Current projects are concerned with packaging classroom resources, which have been produced and tested by teachers, to embed environmental education in the Local Agenda 21. SCAN makes the resources freely available on-line to help bring the study of systems for resource management off the side lines of the National Curriculum.
The Cambridge Natural Economy project led to the production and testing of an holistic self-navigating system (ethnoagronomics). This is a text-based computer system for voyaging world development problems centred on the global issues, problems and challenges of 'population, business, and natural resources'. Formatted on Longman-Logotron's Hyperbook software, it was used in 1994-96 as a basis for groups of teachers, and their sixth form pupils, to begin producing educational models of the relationships of jobs to local resources. The following account is their historical baseline for modelling the connections between natural economy and political economy. The school network was part of an all-Wales 'Water in Our Community' project sponsored by CCW, Welsh Water and the Nat West Bank. The following compilation was made by teachers and pupils of the secondary schools in Machynlleth, Newtown, Milford Haven, Hawarden and Cardiff (Willows High School).
The teaching model is based on the business settlement of S Wales and draws upon the research of the historians, R.O. Roberts, John Morris, Brinley Thomas and Charles Hadfield, together with some of the contributors to Volume 11 of the Glamorgan Historian. It was intended to be a time-line from which lateral inter-net connections could be made by other schools and their communities by describing their particular renewal systems which support 'life after heavy industry'.
The long-view is that the wealth of south Wales was created in the tropical swamps of Carboniferous times. It was made accessible to the first prospectors of coal and iron through processes of the last Ice Age when great sheets of moving ice laid bare the upper coal and iron-bearing strata, and sliced through the deeper ones in carving out the narrow valleys.
This wealth of natural resources was tapped by the great Glamorganshire canal fed by River Taff and its tributaries. This artery enabled the embryonic iron and coal industries of the upper valleys to gain access to the sea at Cardiff Bay. It was because people were drawn to live and work by water, from top to bottom of the remarkable system of glacial valleys, that the Welsh industrial revolution gained momentum.
By 1987 the coalfield was virtually exhausted and renaissance of the derelict docklands of Cardiff was launched on the premise that people are particularly inclined to invest in urban renewal projects where there is access to a waterfront.
In the valleys, disused arterial canals, and their feeder veins, the tramways and railways now offer tree-lined footpaths and cycleways for a population that is experiencing an increase in the quality of life through urban renewal projects in their communities.
The time-line: 1780-1939
Wales in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a mountainous country having a small, scattered peasant-farming population producing craft goods by traditional labour intensive methods, subsisting at a low standard of living, and virtually cut off from the outside world. Between 1780 and 1840, the industrial production of goods in workshops, factories, mines and quarries, came only to certain areas where there was already a concentration of larger scale production.
Private investment came in south Wales to the hills and valleys of north Glamorgan, to Monmouthshire and south Brecknock, and to the coastal area between Port Talbot and Burry Port. In mid-Wales it came to the lead-mining and woollen manufacturing centres. In north Wales it came to the coalfield of Denbigh and Flint, to the slate quarrying areas of Caernarfonshire and Merioneth, and to the relatively small north Anglesey mineral field.
Very occasionally, as in the case of Mynydd Parys and Amlwch, industrialism came only to depart again. Through its industrialisation, Wales became linked more closely with the outside world, and in terms of ideas, capital and manpower, the Welsh industrial revolution was inextricably bound up with that of England.
During, and immediately after 1780, there occurred notable bursts of activity. There was the production of iron and the associated digging for coal on the north-eastern outcrop of the south Wales coalfield. Businesses in metals, coal and textiles developed in Flintshire. Copper mining came to a small, mineral-rich area of north Anglesey. Copper smelting appeared in west Glamorgan. Slate was quarried on a vast scale in Caernarfonshire.
This activity been preceded, in the seventeenth century, and the earlier decades of the eighteenth, by various developments such as the smelting of copper in the Neath and Swansea area, the mining of lead in Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire, the fairly widespread production of iron in charcoal-burning furnaces and forges, and the digging for coal, especially in places where the coal measures were near navigable waters. There had also been a widely scattered development of domestic enterprises in water mills producing yarn, cloth and stockings, which together had a considerable output.
Between 1750 and 1788 the output of Welsh iron quadrupled, and from about the I780s onwards there were very large increases in the rate of expansion along many important lines of production. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a rapidly growing market for such industrial goods as Wales could produce due to increasing demand within and outside the principality. Notable additions to the demand came also from overseas markets, including those of the extended colonial territories.
The factors of production- land, labour, capital and enterprise, and changes in the way in which they were conjointly used, were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialism in Wales required an increased supply of the means of industrial production, and of the food necessary for maintaining workers who devoted all their time to manufacturing, mining, and quarrying. It also required adequate means of transport and satisfactory facilities for the buying and selling of goods. In addition there were needed sufficient educational facilities, stable government, and a culture favourable to industrial enterprise driven by penniless individuals with ambition and those with private wealth to invest
* there were notable developments in farming which greatly enlarged the food supply;
* transport was improved by the building of turnpike roads, and later by canals and railways;
* the supply of money and of banking facilities was greatly improved from about the I780s onwards
The rural landscape of the south Wales valleys was particularly affected by the beginnings of the industrial revolution with all its visible signs- works, with their relatively large buildings and tall chimneys; spoil heaps, smoke; polluted rivers; busy roads, canals, tramroads and railways; a large number of inhabitants; and a concentration of cottages, houses, shops, chapels and churches in the relatively small areas of land in the valley bottoms.
Industrialism in Wales was the consequence of the establishment and expansion of many separate enterprises. Those enterprises in turn resulted from the decisions, initiative risk-taking and managerial activities of a large number of business leaders. The leaders were men who saw the possibilities of using some of the great wealth of natural resources in Wales, and of producing goods like iron or coal or roofing slate. They saw the possibilities of selling such products profitably. They decided how much to produce and where and for what markets. They took the risks involved in producing in advance of demand.
The majority of the business leaders, the entrepreneurs, of Wales during the hundred years before I850 were Englishmen. They were largely members of a middle class which had by then developed in England but which hardly existed at all in Wales. Anthony Bacon, who founded the Cyfarthfa Iron Works at Merthyr Tydfil in 1765, was a London merchant. He had also dabbled in coal-mining, iron-making and other enterprises in his native Whitehaven and elsewhere. Richard Crawshay, who took over the Cyfarthfa Works in I784, was a Yorkshireman who had a flourishing business as an iron merchant in London. He was the most successful in building up a personal fortune. It has been calculated on the comparative values of his wealth extrapolated to the year 2000, that he was one of the top two hundred billionaires of the last millennium. In this respect he was on the same level of wealth as his contemporaries in north Wales, the Pagets (Marqueses of Anglesey). A number of the other Welsh ironmasters, like John Guest of Dowlais and Isaac Wilkinson of Bersham and Dowlais, had been producers of iron in the north and midlands of England before coming to Wales.
The Welsh copper industry drew its leaders largely from the copper-using firms of Bristol and the midlands of England and from the copper-mining firms of Cornwall. The Anglesey copper enterprises, however, did evolve local leaders - the Reverend Edward Hughes and Thomas Williams of Llanidan, the astute lawyer-industrialist who around 1790 dominated the whole copper industry of Britain. The production of coal for sale- was before 1850 also largely conducted by Welsh entrepreneurs. But Welshmen as business leaders were relatively rare. Even the slate industry, included a number of English entrepreneurs.
The business leaders themselves invested capital in their various enterprises, and others joined them as suppliers of money capital. Merchants, industrialists, professional people, for the most part involved English landowner who bought shares in Welsh industrial enterprises. London and Bristol merchants were prominent among the investors. Banks participated by providing short-term credit and, occasionally, they were drawn into making long-term loans.
In addition to the original investments, the capital of the enterprises was built up by re-investing or ploughing back some of the profits. It was mainly in this way that the capital of Crawshay's Cyfarthfa iron works grew from less than £15,000 in 1790 to just under £104,000 in 1798. The capital of the copper firm of Vivian and Sons of Swansea grew from £50,000 in 1810 to be over three-quarters of a million in the 1860s. Richard Crawshay quickly amassed a personal surplus of £30,000 to build the ornamental lake in front of the mansion he built at Merthyr Tydfil- a sum about equal to the cost of building his 'castle'.
Using this model, many economists take the view that industrialisation of undeveloped countries cannot be achieved by the injection of loans and training programmes from the developed world alone. That is to say, Welsh system of industrialisation driven by individual capitalists cannot be exported, or recreated, unless individuals and banks can visualise a good yield on their investments of time and money.
An increase in the supply of labour in the industrial districts came from two sources- excess of births over deaths, and inward migration. Wales shared in the growth of Britain's population. The population of Wales increased by about 40 per cent in the eighteenth century and by almost 70 per cent between the censuses of 180I and 1851, and by 1851 had reached just over a million inhabitants. The consequences of the increase in numbers are fairly clear. There was an increase in the demand for goods and services, and there were many more persons available to produce them.
Apart from the natural increase of the numbers of their inhabitants, the industrial districts obtained considerable additions to their labour force through in-migration. People moved often relatively short distances, from the farming areas to what were called the ' works'. They moved from the neighbouring farming areas, including those of England, to the valleys of Glamorgan and Monmouth, to the mines and works of the counties of Flint and Denbigh, to the slate districts of Snowdonia and to the lead and copper mines of north and mid-Wales. Some of the industrial workers had smallholdings which they and their families farmed, but a notable feature of the industrialisation was the development of specialisation- of what is called the division of labour. People came to specialise as miners, furnace keepers, puddlers, metal refiners, slate dressers and many more. A further feature of the industrialisation was the appreciable, and often growing, amount of capital used per worker in some of the Welsh works. In the metal works some hundreds of pounds' worth of capital was used per employee. Growth in this ratio of capital to workers was largely the result of developments in the techniques of production.
There had to be skilled employees. Such people with skills in the management and in the techniques of production were often brought in from outside Wales. But Welshmen also were acquiring industrial skills, sometimes in England. Thus in 1797 a certain Joseph Owen from Morriston wrote to Mathew Boulton of Birmingham to offer his services as a copper refiner. Owen stated that he had served his apprenticeship with his grandfather at Bristol.
The labour, capital and enterprise were brought into use by firms- which were the units of ownership and management. A number of the firms in Wales were large, and this was a direct consequence of the large size of the plants operated by them. Already around 1800 the largest ironworks -each employed some hundreds of workers, and a few decades later the average iron-works employed several hundred and the largest several thousand. However, the iron-producing enterprises were usually integrated concerns in which a large proportion, often more than half, of the workers were employed as coal and iron ore miners. Each of the largest slate quarries similarly grew from employing hundreds around 1800 to give work to a few thousands fifty years later. The Anglesey copper mines in 1797 employed some twelve hundred workers.
The rise of industrial towns on the one hand and rural depopulation on the other are two sides of the same coin; the deserted village is the price that has to be paid for a rise in the general standard of living. As a community gets richer the proportion of the people earning a living on the land becomes smaller. The countries with the highest living standards have only about one in ten of their workers engaged in agriculture, whereas in the poor under-developed countries eight out of ten workers give all their time and energies to tilling the soil and only manage to achieve a bare subsistence.
If the standard of living is to rise, labour must be increasingly employed in activities where productivity is highest, i.e., in industry where the production environment is organised so that each person delivers skills at the lowest possible cost; industry can develop only if labour is released from the land; and labour will be released from the land only when agricultural productivity is increasing faster than the demand for food.
The British industrial revolution expressed itself not only within each country but also in transfers of labour from one county to another. In the era when movement was relatively unimpeded, migration was essentially a transfer of people from agriculture to industry, at first within Britain, then mainly to N America, facilitated by the rise in agricultural productivity which was the condition of economic growth.
In the period ending in 1913, the driving force was the great demand for the incomparable steam coals. In every decade there was, a net migration out of the rural areas, the total for the six years amounting to 388,000 people; over the same period there was a total net inflow of 320,000 people from within Wales into the coal-mining areas of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, while the north Wales towns absorbed on balance 17,500 people. Our first conclusion, therefore, is that the considerable rural exodus in Wales in this period was counterbalanced by an almost equal inflow from Welsh agriculture into the vigorously expanding Welsh coalfields.
One way of comparing the development of different countries is to ask to what extent they were able to provide a living within their own borders for the natural increase in their populations, i.e., the annual excess of births over deaths. Taking the period 1881-1911, the record for the four parts of the United Kingdom was as follows. By far the worst was Northern Ireland, which suffered net emigration equivalent to 125 % of its natural increase, so that its population actually fell by 4 %. Scotland lost through emigration a third of its natural increase and England lost a tenth, but Wales kept the whole of its natural increase and added to it by immigration an amount equal to 7 % of its natural increase.
The momentum of industrial advance in Wales in the Victorian period was stronger than in any other part of the United Kingdom. In the first ten years of this century Wales was one of the leading countries of new settlement; it was absorbing immigrants at a rate almost as high as the United States (an annual rate of 4.5 per 1OOO as against 6.3 per 1OOO). No country in Europe reached anything like that rate of growth. It did not, however, keep going at an even pace. There was an interesting fluctuation which was inverse to the course of events in England. This comes out clearly when we compare the phases of development in the English and Welsh coalfields. In the sixties and seventies progress in south Wales was comparatively slow: the big advance in coalmining took place in Durham, Wigan, Chesterfield and Barnsley. During those years the rural exodus from Wales was absorbed for the most part across the border. In the 1880s the centre of gravity in British coal mining was in south Wales where an enormous expansion occurred; and in that decade the net inflow into Glamorgan and Monmouthshire colliery areas from the Welsh countryside was seven times greater than in the 1870s. The English coalfields took the lead in the nineties, and the net absorption of immigrants by Glamorgan and Monmouthshire fell to half of what it had been in the eighties. The climax came in the great decade of 1901-11 when the south Wales coalfield completely dominated the scene by attracting a net total of 129,000 people, most of whom came from England.
The long cycle in the growth of industrial towns in Wales was inverse to the corresponding cycle in England. The reason was that industrialism in Wales was governed by the export trade in coal. When activity in the export trade in Wales was relatively depressed, activity in capital construction in England was relatively buoyant, and vice versa. Thus, the people who had to leave the land in Wales were absorbed in one phase by the towns depending on the export trade in Wales and in the next phase by the towns profiting from the upswing into capital construction in England. The belief that there was a comparatively large emigration of Welshmen to the United States is a myth based on one or two well-known episodes such as the experiment launched by from Llanbrynmair in 1856, and the outflow of tinplate workers after the McKinley Act of 1890.
The only annual statistical record of Welsh emigration overseas is to be found in the Annual Reports of the Commissioner General of Immigration in the United States as from 1875. As we would expect from the industrial expansion in Wales in the period up to 1913, the number who went overseas was negligible. If we take the decade I88I-I890 when America was absorbing immigrants at a record rate, the annual rates of emigration of workers (per 1O,OOO population) from the four countries of the United Kingdom were as follows: Ireland, 77; Scotland 20; England 12 ; Wales 3. Thus, in proportion to population English emigrants to America were four times as numerous as the Welsh, the Scots seven times and the Irish twenty-six times.
The Industrial Revolution is usually thought of as a period when many inventions were applied to the production of goods. Wales experienced many such applications, and its own inhabitants shared in the inventiveness: between I757 and I852 one hundred and forty seven patents came to Wales. The early development of the Welsh metal industries stemmed from the discoveries (in England) of means of using coal for smelting non-ferrous and ferrous metal ores. Their later development was marked by the use of the puddling process for making wrought iron, the application of hot blast, the use of steam engines; and the evolution of the so-called ' Welsh process ' of copper smelting. Such improvements in technique contributed greatly to the increase in the productive efficiency of the Welsh industries, and this increased their competitive power. It has been estimated that industrial output grew at the rate of about three per cent per annum in Britain in the early nineteenth century. There seems to be no reason to suppose that the rate of expansion was dissimilar in Wales.
In Wales as a whole the amount of industrial employment grew greatly. By 1851 some sixty-one per cent of Wales's occupied population of 558,000 were employed in occupations not connected with farming. Thirty per cent were employed in works and mines and quarries. And as a result of the increased activity Wales's total income increased greatly. So much of it, however, was devoted to enlarging the stock of all kinds of capital that we cannot be sure that there was any significant overall rise in the material ' standard of living ' of the enlarged population during the hundred years before 1850.
The I850s were also a momentous decade for steel. In August, 1856 Bessemer announced his discovery of how to make malleable iron and steel without fuel. It was an arresting, if misleading, claim. The prospect that, by the Bessemer converter, steel could be made cheaply and so made available for large industrial users, such as the rail makers or shipbuilders, aroused immediate interest in south Wales. " If this discovery is destined to benefit the industry, Dowlais must have it." Dowlais was, in fact, the first iron company to take out a licence to use the new method. The offer of the representatives of Ebbw Vale to buy Bessemer's patent rights met with a brusque refusal. Ebbw Vale therefore decided to devise its own methods of steel manufacture and to ruin Bessemer by competition. Bessemer's reply came in 1864 when Ebbw Vale was changing over to a limited company. He threatened to advertise his intention, to take out an injunction against the company, on every hoarding in the city of London and on fifty perambulating cabs, and so ruin the appeal of the company to the investor. Ebbw Vale yielded, undertook to use Besssemer's method, and sold him its own patent rights.
Yet the change over to steel was not quick. Bessemer's converter was not a uniform success, as it was not realised at first that it could be used only with non-phosphoric iron ore. Some of the iron firms were short of capital, and the expense of the conversion was beyond their reach. Others were reluctant to admit that their ironworks, in which huge sums were invested, were obsolete. Yet as steel proved itself it was change or perish. In the seventies the iron rail trade to America ended, and home railways, too, turned over to steel. In the eighties they were followed by the ship-builders. By 1885 Dowlais and Ebbw Vale, the pioneer steel makers in Wales, had been followed by Cyfarthfa, Blaenavon, Tredegar and Rhymney. But south Wales w as dotted with the sites of derelict or dismantled iron works. The Nantyglo company now lived on royalties from coal and iron; Penydarren had become the haunt of shooting galleries and of a circus. " Llwydcoed is a ruin," a contemporary wrote, " Gadlys a wreck' Treforest rusting to decay, Abernant more forlorn than Nineveh, Hirwain more desolate than the Cities of the Plain." Most of the small ironworks in north Wales suffered a similar fate. Borrow had referred to the helpful glare from their furnaces during his night walk from Wrexham to Ruabon in 1854. But their production had been stationary in the thirty years preceding his tour, and their financial reserves were too exiguous for them to adapt themselves to the new age of steel.
Already a rival method of manufacturing steel had been pioneered in south Wales. This was the Siemens open hearth furnace, which was first proved a commercial success at Landore in I869. More costly than the Bessemer process, it was, however, more easily controlled and produced a better quality steel. In the eighties the tinplate manufacturers were changing over from iron to open-hearth steel. A cluster of steel works grew up near the coast of south-west Wales. Some were set up by steel makers to serve the tinplate works; others were built by the tinplate manufacturers themselves, anxious to secure a supply of sheet steel.
On the basis of its coal and mineral resources south Wales had already, by 1850, made a long stride towards industrialism. The iron industry, with its flourishing rail trade, was still paramount and, indeed, nearly half the coal mined in south Wales went to provide power for the ironworks or heat for their furnaces. Second to iron, and a market for it, came tinplate, an industry in which south Wales had nearly a world monopoly and, consequently, a flourishing export trade. It was in these industries, and in the households of south Wales and adjoining regions, that coal found its chief markets. As yet the export trade was a mere trickle- less than 1000.000 tons in 1840 ; less than half a million tons in I85I.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century these industries had been showing an abounding vitality. Growth continued after 1850 ; it was growth, however, which contained new elements. Iron was dethroned from primacy, first, by the development of a coal trade independent of it, and here the dynamic was the export trade in smokeless steam coal; second, by the establishment of the steel industry, rising like a phoenix from the ruins of the decaying iron trade.
At the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, when England was celebrating the triumphs of her leadership in the Industrial Revolution, Wales had a population of just over one million, with two-thirds of it in rural areas. Incidentally, Wales made a poor showing at the Exhibition being represented only by a few large lumps of coal and some pit gear.
The largest town was Merthyr Tydfil, the centre of the iron industry; Cardiff was a mere township of only 20,000. Between 1851 and I911 the population of Cardiff grew ninefold- from 20,000 to 182,000 ; and her annual coal exports rose fourteenfold- from 708,000 tons to nearly I0 million tons. Few areas in the kingdom could rival the rate of expansion in the Rhondda valleys. Their population in 1851 was less than 1,000 : in 1921 it was 163,000.
Before coal began to be mined these valleys were famous for their natural beauty; the hillsides were covered with thick woods and the rivers were rich in salmon and trout. After two generations of mining most of the trees had disappeared, the rivers were black with pollution and the density of human habitation was as high as 24,000 persons per square mile of area built on. In addition to the growth of mining in the south Wales valleys and around Wrexham, there was substantial investment in the making of steel, using the Bessemer and the Siemens processes.
With the increasing dependence on imported iron ore, there was a shift in location of steel works towards the coast, the most spectacular example being the migration of the Dowlais works to East Moors in Cardiff in I89I. By the end of the nineteenth century almost the entire output of British tinplate was produced in south Wales. In the north the slate industry had expanded until at the end of the nineties the annual output reached 500,000 tons of slates. In 1911 the population of Wales was 2,421,000 ; it had doubled in sixty years and two thirds of it was now in urban areas. Moreover, in the half century ending in 1913 the average real wages of workers doubled, thanks to the rise in productivity brought about by industrialism and the growth in the power of trade unions.
A journalist in 1873 wrote " The world is stretching out its hands to us for coal, and a plethora of gold may be obtained in exchange." There was a growing world demand for coal as the steamship was gradually driving sail off the high seas, as railways were gradually girding countries and continents, and as the number of factory chimneys multiplied. The new conditions inevitably favoured south as compared with north Wales.
The coalfield of Denbigh and Flint was limited in extent, with its seams of bituminous coal thin and fragmented by faults. By I850 even its small trade to Ireland had dwindled away and the horizon of its mining villages was narrow and local. The north Wales colliers served the needs of the stagnating iron industry, and the demands of the local householders. Later years brought a growing demand from the gas works of north Wales and of the adjacent English counties, and some industrial demand from, for example, the steel works at Brymbo and those of John Summers at Shotton. Output crept up almost imperceptibly to the 3.5 million tons of I9I3; the number of colliers employed showed only a modest rise to nearly 15,000. The industry maintained this position until 1929. Then followed the gentle decline of the 1930s, and stability, in recent years, of production and employment at a level considerably below the peak-if so it may be called-of 19I3
The coal resources of the south were immeasurably richer and more varied. Within the thousand square miles of the field lay reserves of anthracite, unrivalled by any except those of distant Pennsylvania (which fuelled the N American industrial revolution); smokeless steam coal which had no real rival anywhere, and deposits of excellent coking coal. G. T. Clarke of Dowlais remarked, that the quality was qualities fitted " in the highest degree for the purposes of manufacture, of commerce and of war." The winning of these resources presented little difficulty when they outcropped on the surface at the rim of the coalfield. As the deeper seams were mined- as the coalfield became more justly referred to as " the valleys " rather than " the hills "- then they were rendered more accessible, either by levels into the mountainside or by shafts sunk in the valley bottoms, by the deeply incised valleys.
Signs of change were already in the air during the early years of Victoria's reign. The opening of the West Bute Dock in 1839 marked the birth of Cardiff as a modern port. Two years later the Taff Vale Railway had been opened to Merthyr. Already in I837 the Waynes of Aberdare had sunk a pit to the famous Four Feet Seam for the sale-coal trade- an unusual venture for an ironmaster's family. Thomas Powell, at the Duffryn pits, was one of the first to follow Wayne. It was to Powell that John Nixon came after he had noticed that the Thames steamers which were stoked with Welsh coal emitted no smoke. Nixon's aim was to establish a coal trade between France and south Wales, and he and Powell were prepared to give the coal away at first, so sure were they that its merits would win permanent custom from the French fleet and French industrialists .
In 1851 appeared the final report of Henry de la Beche and Dr. Lyon Playfair, who had been carrying out scientific tests on various coals for the Admiralty. Their verdict was unequivocally in favour of the coal of south Wales as that best fitted to naval requirements. The knowledge that where the British Admiralty bought, scores of other users would buy too, led the north of England coalowners into a prolonged struggle to reverse this damaging verdict. By the I870S they had secured the concession that a mixture of coal- two-thirds Welsh and one-third north country- should be used. The following report of a vice-admiral was representative of naval opinion. " The smoke produced by the present mixture of north country and Welsh coal, combined with that from guns in action, renders seeing signals, or even ships, impossible.'' No wonder, then, in I885 when war with Russia seemed imminent, that Admiralty purchases of north country coal stopped. Four years later the inevitable northern deputation was told by the First Lord of the Admiralty that the decision could not be reversed. Wales had the best steam coal in Europe. " Having that advantage, I do not think that it would be advisable in any way to throw it away."
The I850s saw the beginnings of the trade in steam coal from the Rhondda. It was a widespread belief that the steam coal lay so deep here that it was beyond the reach of economical mining. This illusion was dispelled when the But Merthyr pit was sunk, and the first train of steam coal left the Rhondda for Cardiff on the 21St December, I855, marking the birth of a trade which was to send millions of tons of coal to Cardiff and later to Barry.
The opportunities Welsh coal offered attracted into coal owning men from all walks of life. Occasionally the unwary speculator found that Welsh coal could not only soil the hand, but could also burn it. Richard Attenborough of Piccadilly, who retired from his trade of pawnbroker and money lender in 1874, included among his speculations the purchase of Lower Resolven colliery. By I885, extravagant living and ignorance of the trade brought their nemesis when he failed, with assets negligible and debts of nearly a quarter of a million. By contrast, there was Evan Evans, described as one of the good old school of Welsh coalowners. First a collier, and prospering, he started the Six Bells Brewery near Merthyr. He became partner in the Dinas Main colliery and, later, sole owner. His word was his bond, it was said, and his generosity to those who came to him for help unfailing. His obituary, though effusive, has the ring of truth. Pre-eminent among the pioneers stood Thomas Powell. Starting at Newport as a timber merchant, he became in turn coal merchant, and coal owner, first in Monmouthshire and then in the Aberdare valley. By 1851 his comfortable though not ostentatious prosperity is suggested by the four servants, and governess, cook and groom who tended him and his large family at the Gaer, Newport. " My friends were not born before me," he said in 1857. " I had nobody who ever gave me anything; I began the world with very little. I have been now forty-eight years in the coal trade, and I must have made very bad use of my time if I had not made a little." The day before his death, at the age of eighty-three, he was working at his Newport office. He died the owner of thirteen collieries and the largest coal exporter of the world. A year later, in 1864, the newly-formed Powell Duffryn Company bought his steam-coal collieries for £365,000. It was a sign of the times as the coal industry was growing out of the age of the individual pioneer and small partnerships. The future lay with the limited company- the Ocean, the Cambrian, and a host of others.
If the coalfield had an irresistible lure for the entrepreneur, so too did the employment and wages it offered- particularly in years of thriving trade- make it appeal as an El Dorado to the workman. Coal production in 1854 was 8.5 million tons, rising to 56.8 million tons in I9I3. The trickle of exports had swollen to a flood, as nearly two-thirds of the I9I3 output went overseas, either as exports or in bunkers of ocean-going ships. This output was achieved by an army of 233,000 men. There was some mechanisation, particularly of underground haulage, but work at the face still depended on the hewer. Productivity per head was tending to decline, as shafts became deeper, thinner seams were worked, and the working day was shortened. The call for more men led colliers' sons to follow their fathers into the pits; often, indeed, there was no alternative occupation available for them. There was in addition a steady inward flow of men from rural Wales or from other areas where employment opportunities were limited.
From this army of workers the fiery seams and unsafe roofs of south Wales exacted their grim toll. There was the inundation at Tynewydd colliery in 1877, where five men lost their lives, but four others were saved only after rescue operations lasting nine days. The courage of the rescuers was such that they were awarded the Albert Medal, the first occasion of the award of this medal in recognition of bravery in rescue work on land. The years, too, are scarred with the holocausts arising from explosions- over one hundred lives at Cymmer in 1856, over two hundred and fifty at Abercarn in I878, and over four hundred at Senghenydd in I913. Less noticed, but more tragic, were the falls of roof which stole away a life at a time. More tragic, because the frequency of these accidents made them, over the years, the greatest single cause of death in the mines.
What effect did the growth of towns have on the nation's language and traditions? It is usually taken for granted that industrialism was an anglicising force which swept over the country, leavening the rural areas of the north and west as the last strongholds of the Welsh-speaking tradition. According to David Williams: " While Wales was isolated geographically and was almost self-sufficing economically, the influence of England was not strong. But the building of roads and railways, and the enormous growth of Welsh industry as part of the economic development of Britain, profoundly affected Welsh life; so much so that there is a marked tendency to regard Welsh culture as being in essence the culture of rural Wales and not of the industrial areas."
Is it really true that industrialisation and the accompanying flight from the land undermined the language and culture of Wales in the period 1850 1913? According the Brinley Thomas, the truth of the matter is probably that the Welsh language was really saved by the growth of industrial towns which enabled most of the people uprooted from the Welsh countryside to be absorbed within the boundaries of Wales. In 1911 there were in the three coal-mining counties of Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire 556,000 people who could speak Welsh; this was 57 % of the total number of Welsh speakers in Wales at that time. The vast majority of these people would simply not have been there but for the pull of industrialism. If Wales had remained completely agricultural like Ireland, the whole of her surplus rural population which was Welsh to the core (400,000 people in the sixty years up to 1911) would have had to go to England or overseas; these people together with their descendants would have been lost to the land of their birth for ever. This would have been a grievous blow to the Welsh language; the number speaking it would have been well below half the figure recorded in I911. The reason why this did not happen was the growth of industrial areas in Wales.
Industrial development was on such a scale that Wales was able to provide a good living for the great majority of the native stock displaced from the countryside. The Bethesda quarrymen, the Cardiganshire lead miners, and the farm labourers from all parts who flocked into the Rhondda took the Welsh way of life with them and brought up their children to speak the mother tongue. Describing the Rhondda valley in I896 the Report of the Welsh Land Commission said: " .. speaking broadly, the characteristics of Welsh life, its Nonconformist development, the habitual use of the Welsh language, and the prevalence of a Welsh type of character, are as marked as in the rural districts of Wales." In I905 there were in the Rhondda no less than 151 Nonconformist churches with a seating capacity of 85,105 ; these churches alone could accommodate three quarters of the entire population of the Rhondda Urban District. Indeed in the whole of Wales in 1905 the seating capacity of Nonconformist churches was equal to 74% of the total population. The mining townships were so Welsh in character that many of the English immigrants- not to mention Italian shopkeepers- were rapidly assimilated. And it is worth noting that even in 1951 54 % of the 7I5,000 recorded as Welsh-speaking were in the south Wales industrial areas.
Without iron and coal, what would have been the fate of the native population in the great agricultural depression of the 1880s ? It is probable that Wales would have been caught in the cumulative downward spiral of mass emigration which, in the case of Ireland, reduced the population by half. Wales would have become an impoverished and aged population of about half a million, annually exporting most of its sons and daughters to England or America.
It has been said that the massive growth of industry which saved Wales from that fate. Because of the spectacular rate of economic growth up to 1913, and particularly its phasing in relation to that of England, emigration from Wales to overseas countries was negligible as compared with the outflow from the rest of the United Kingdom. Moreover, without the wealth and productivity of the industrial sector, is it conceivable that resources could have been found for that Wales' national institutions, the national library, the university and the museum.
Behind the development of coal mining and metal working, however, there were three elements of insecurity. The first was the dependence of tinplate on export markets, and, above all, on the American market. It was this market which was practically closed to south Wales by the McKinley tariff in 1891. Within a decade America was supplying its own needs, but it took south Wales nearly twenty years before compensating markets could be found elsewhere and before recovery from this set-back could be regarded as complete.
The second insecurity arose from the growing dependence on imported ores, which increased the costs of the Bessemer works on inland sites at the valley tops. This led the Rhymney company to close its plant in I890 and to concentrate solely on the coal trade. It led Dowlais in I89I to move its main works to Cardiff. The attraction was partly cheaper ore supplies, partly the more abundant water supplies, and partly the hope, destined to remain an illusion, that Cardiff would provide a market by developing as a shipbuilding port. Social consideration, sometimes alleged to be omitted from the make-up of Victorian capitalists, led to the retention of the rail-rolling plant at Dowlais, to avoid the community there being wholly bereft of employment. Newcomers to Wales naturally chose coastal sites- Nettlefolds at Newport in I886, John Summers at Shotton in I895, and John Lysaght at Newport in I896.
Thirdly, insecurity arose from the loss of British leadership in steel being overtaken first by America and then by Germany. Ironically it was a Welsh inventor who created the German steel industry. In 1878 Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, a London police court clerk but also a chemist, announced his process which enabled steel to be made from phosphoric ores. Brymbo, the exception among the north Wales ironworks, adopted this process in 1885 ; but far more significant was the new and menacing value given to the orefield of Lorraine.
The real weakness of the Welsh economy, however, was not apparent until the I920s. It rested overmuch on a few basic industries, over-dependent on export markets. These industries failed to adapt themselves to the strains of the post-war world. The tendencies of the Victorian age went into reverse. Output declined, the numbers of unemployed mounted, the more enterprising workers were deserting Wales for Slough, or Birmingham, or Coventry. Even had the older industries possessed the will to reorganise, the funds to finance reorganisation were not available, nor could they be attracted From this slough of despond steel was rescued in I932 by a tariff. This bred the confidence which brought about the rejuvenation of the industry and enabled it to produce nearly a third of the crude steel output of Britain. Coal, which no tariff could aid, has become a leaner but healthier industry with the policy of concentration and mechanisation, initiated by the coalowners, pushed forward with even greater vigour since nationalisation. For coal the wheel turned full circle as exports have declined to insignificance and as the local industrial demand has once again become dominant. From 1934, heavy industry began to be overshadowed by an immense variety of new industries which were been attracted or guided into Wales by government aid.
In July 1935, when the number unemployed in south Wales was over 203,000, Thomas Jones published anonymously a masterpiece of satire called " What's wrong with South Wales ? " After going over possible remedies only to reject each one as either physically impracticable or politically inconceivable, he concluded that there was only one solution- that the First Commissioner of Works should schedule south Wales as a Grand National Ruin. This is how Jones put it.
" For the Rhondda and Merthyr area we urge that the First Commissioner issue an irrevocable Standing Order, once all human beings have been evacuated to the Hounslow- Dagenham green belt. The Office of Works should then proceed to protect all approaches from souvenir hunters and should invite His Majesty to declare the area an open Museum or Exhibition to illustrate the Industrial Revolution of the Nineteenth Century. We claim this as an original suggestion. The march of science is such that old landmarks are constantly being removed or blotted out, and if we are not alert we shall have few traces left of what nineteenth-century industrialism and individualism combined were able to achieve."
The depression of the inter-war years completely reversed the previous population trend. The net outflow from the Welsh countryside continued on the pre-1913 scale, but to it was now added an enormous movement of 421,000 people out of the distressed industrial areas. The only redeeming feature was the net inflow into the non-industrial towns, mostly in north Wales, such as Bangor, Caernarfon, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Rhyl, Conway, Prestatyn and Abergele. Between 1921 and 1939 Wales lost on balance 450,000 people through emigration; the natural increase was 259,000, so that the population fell by 191,000.