In 1789 a lease for twenty-one years at £1,300 a year was agreed upon between the landowner, Lord Abergavenny, and Hopkins, Thomas Hill, and Isaac and Benjamin Pratt, who then commenced to build the first purpose-built multi-furnace works in Wales. Three furnaces were constructed and by 1796 it was the second-largest iron producer in Wales with an annual output of 5,400 tons of iron. In about 1810 another two furnaces were added to bring output up to 12,254 tons of iron a year. This increase continued reaching 14,560 tons in 1825. The value of the company had also increased reaching £250,000 by 1816.

In 1836 the Works were sold to the newly formed Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company under the chairmanship of William Unwin Sims. This new company carried out a major reconstruction programme from 1839 with three new furnaces being constructed at Forge Side. Between 1861 and 1868 new engine houses and furnaces were installed and the forges moved from Glandyrys to Forgeside.

Two Bessemer Converters were installed in 1881 for steel making and the old works were closed for iron making in 1904. The Works had new owners in 1911 but its fortunes continued to decline with only coke and chemicals being produced between the two world wars. In 1937 the steelworks was re-opened and produced shell casings during the Second World War.

In contrasting ways the Blaenavon Company was different to its neighbouring contemporaries; whereas the Ebbw Vale Company initially expanded from out of its homeland, contracted, expanded and finally sold off its mining assets, the Blaenavon Company remained entrenched in the Blaenavon area. The Tredegar Iron and Coal Company wisely saw the end of the iron-making boom and concentrated on coal mining, the Blaenavon Company didn’t.

By 1878 the Blaenavon Company was still only running 13 small mines primarily to feed itself, and even in the “boom year” of 1913 it was still a comparatively small company in mining terms employing 2,280 men in Big Pit, Clay, Forge, Kays and Milfraen collieries and ranking as the 28th largest coal mining company in south Wales. By now coal production was its main money spinner it advertising its coals for use with locomotives, ships bunkers and for manufacturing purposes. In 1935 the Company employed 2,200 miners producing 600,000 tons of coal from the Big Pit, Kays and Garn Collieries.

Along with all the other mines in the U.K. that employed over twelve men the collieries of the Blaenavon Company came under National Coal Board control in 1947.



Surely the early iron makers couldn’t believe their luck when they investigated the South Wales area. Around the rim, or outcrop, of the Coalfield there lay in abundance all the ingredients necessary for iron making; iron ore, water, limestone, wood and later coal. Siderite or clay ironstone had been extensively mined by the time of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th Century. Welsh Mine ore had an iron content of 30 to 35%, with impurities from sulphur, carbonic acid and water. In very early times it was left lying in the open for some time to purge it of its impurities, it was later purified by roasting it in large ovens or kilns which gave an approximate loss of 20 to 30%. The early ratio of iron ore to make iron was 3:1. The veins were numerous but very thin, in the Rhymney to Tredegar area nine iron ore veins were recorded between the Five-Feet/Gellideg and Garw coal seams alone, but none of these were more than approximately 24 inches thick. An advert for the sale of the Hirwaun Iron Works in 1813 states “there are several veins of iron ore 5 inches to 8.5 inches thick, the mouths of the levels no further than 2.75 miles from the works and the nearest 1,200 yards away.” In the area of the Abersychan Iron Works the yield of iron ore was estimated to be 15,000 tons per acre. All the major iron works were sited in the area of the outcrop of the coal seams of the Lower and Middle Coal Series in which iron stones occur m both thin tabular beds, called pins, and as nodular concretions, or balls. It was firstly made available simply by turning over the soil but as demand grew and supplies diminished it was then dug up from a kind of opencast mine called a patch, and then by levels and pits. Another method used to expose the shallow-lying ores was to damn or contain a stream until a considerable head of water was accumulated, and then release it so that it washes away the topsoil and exposed the iron ore beds. This method was known as scouring (Scwrfa) or racing (Rassa), current place names reflect the use of this method in the past as in Rassau and Scwrfa in Ebbw Vale, and Upper Race in Pontypool.

In the early days the ore would be brought to an excavation on the side of a bill and placed in a fire of wood or charcoal, heated, and then hammered free of its impurities. In Roman times ironstone, charcoal and limestone were placed in clay chambers with a draught forced through the bottom of the chamber. As man’s knowledge increased through the ages there were gradual adaptations to the methods of iron making that is until the explosion in demand for iron from the mid 18th Century. The ‘great’ Works were established, coal replaced charcoal as the fuel for smelting, and technology provided the means for mass production that has resulted in the highly productive and scientifically advanced steelworks of today. These technological advances eventually brought about the demise of the old iron works of the northern outcrop, when from about 1850 the bar iron trade died out because the pig iron produced was inferior to that made from foreign ores. Initially, ores from countries such as Spain, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Greece and Algiers were imported in ever increasing amounts until it was realistically assessed that it was financially sound to close the old works in the north of the Coalfield and develop modern steel making ones nearer the ports. A temporary respite to this process was made at Blaenavon where the Gilchrist-Thomas method of smelting allowed local ores to be used in steel-making, but eventually, the Blaenavon Works closed and South Wales’ proud heritage of iron/steel production is now mainly based on the coast, particularly at Port Talbot and Llanwern. All the original works of the northern outcrop have now closed.

Up until the 1850s the local iron ore was still in great demand with around 1,000,000 tons of it being used annually, compared to the 240,637 tons of foreign ore imported through Newport docks. This figure declined dramatically until in 1900 over 1,300,000 tons of ore was imported into south Wales from Spain alone, with the total imports for 1903 being; Cardiff docks: 804,000 tons, Newport docks: 346,000 tons, Swansea docks: 196,000 tons. In 1970 a new harbour was constructed at Port Talbot able to handle iron ore bulk earners of up to 100,000 tons. The last, and probably the most productive iron ore mine in South Wales was at Llanharry, it produced high-grade iron oxide ores (hematite and limonite) and closed in the 1970s.

The Iron Ore Veins Between The Five-Feet/Gellideg And Garw Coal Seams of the Northern Outcrop:

  • Depth  – Vein
  • 14 feet – Five-Feet/Gellideg Coal Seam
  • 28 feet – Spotted Vein of Ironstone.
  • 44 feet  -Yellow Pins of Ironstone.
  • 50 feet – Red Vein of Ironstone.
  • 68 feet – Black Vein of Ironstone.
  • 80 feet  -Blue Vein of Ironstone.
  • 90 feet – Big Vein of Ironstone.
  • 95 feet – Bottom Vein of Ironstone.
  • 95 feet – Knappwg Vein of Ironstone.
  • 99 feet – Garw Vein of Ironstone.
  • 103 feet – Garw Coal Seam
  • 119 feet – Upper Rosser Vein of Ironstone.
  • 127 feet – Lower Rosser Vein of Ironstone.


In 1842 the Royal Commission into Women and Children Working Underground

belonging to the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company, employing about 2000 people
and making about 400 tons per week in five furnaces. May. 3rd.


No.31. Thomas Deakin, aged 65, mine agent and John Samuel, aged 31, coal agent, were examined together.

There are about 230 young persons under 18 years of age employed in mine works and about 136 in the coal works. Their parents take their children into the works very young, when not more than six or seven years old but we do not employ them under the company before eight or nine and then but a very few to keep the doors or something like that. We sometimes have girls to keep doors but not many. There is only one door at present on the mine works but there a great many at the pit top and on the mine banks. There is only one girl at present employed in the coal works. She is about 14 years of age and tips or empties the rubbish trams on the banks. There are in the colliery 10 or 12 boys at the air doors. The youngest of from seven to eight years old. The boys, when they get from 9 to 15 years of age, go to drive the horses.

The door boys and most of the drivers are paid by the company. The door boys get 10s. or 12s. a month. They do not burn a light but are in the dark except when the trams come out when they see the driver’s candle. They work 12 hours from six o’clock in the morning to six in the evening. They sometimes come up at five o’clock and do not always go down as soon as six. We do not work the night turn in either mine or coal works.

The driver of “haulier” get about 10s. or 12s. per week. Some are employed and paid by the men when they work by contract. After the age of 15 or 16 years, the boys go to assist the miners and colliers in getting the mine and coal and bringing it out. We have no boys working with the “belt and chain.” He had himself worked with the belt and chain in Shropshire at nine years of age.

The children do not work here one fourth part as hard as they do in Shropshire. I would not allow my children to work as I did fifty years ago. I would sooner send them to the West Indies as slaves. We have no children in our works in any way overworked and they are in general well clothed and well fed. The pits are stopped for an hour at dinner time but the miners and colliers take their dinners at different times, when they like, as they work by the ton and the boys working with them do the same.

The air in the works is generally pure and free from damp. There have been explosions. One happened within the last two years when one man was burned to death but no others were hurt at the same time. There have been other small explosions but no boys have been hurt. The boys are seldom ill and they lose very little time from sickness, not so much on the whole as the men. Many of the men are ruptured but we do not think they get so before they are grown up. The only particular complaint that we think the colliers and miners are affected with more than other men is a complaint of the chest and lungs, like asthma, when they get about 50 years old. There are levels in the horse roads into every part of our works but the men and boys prefer going down the pits and we have had no accidents by their so doing.


No.32. William Lloyd, aged 36.

I have been the furnace manager at Blaenavon for two years. I was three years in the same situation at Abersychan, the British Works and five years before that at Bilso Brook Ironworks in Staffordshire. I have about 37 children working on the furnaces under my charge and the youngest are about seven years of age. I think I have only one so young as seven years. He cleans the tram road and is paid by the company 5s. per week. I have some boys from 10 to 12 years helping the “fillers” at the furnace top. They fill limestone barrow and assist the filler in pushing it from the yard to the furnace. They do not go into any heat or danger. There are 14 girls from 10 to 16 years of age in the coal and coke yard. They are paid by the cokers from 6s. to 9s. per week. There are six boys in the cast house and refinery from 10 to 14 years old. The refinery boys work in some heat in the summertime and sometimes get burned but not very badly.

There are a few girls at the mine kilns and unloading the mine from the trams into the kilns. They all work for 12 hours and the furnaces and refineries work at night. There are only four boys and two girls working at night. They change every other week. They all take an hour for dinner and half an hour for breakfast. I do not think that the children are put on to do more than they are able. I have not seen an instance of it here.

I went to work when I was about eight years old to help fillers at an ironworks in Staffordshire. I worked a good deal harder at it than the boys do here. I had all the mine and limestone to fill into boxes. The boys fill only the limestone here, not one third of the work so that I must have worked harder. I worked at it for two or three years. It did not hurt my health. I am stout enough. The boys are very seldom ill and lose very little time. We work the blast furnaces on Sundays. I have seen the furnaces in Staffordshire stopped for 12 hours on a Sunday and also at the Abersychan Works for a few months. It threw the furnaces back a good deal at Abersychan but not in Staffordshire.

The materials are better there and more suitable for stopping. I do not think we could stop the furnaces here for two or three hours without suffering great inconvenience. If we did stop for 12 hours on a Sunday, the men in the next night’s turn would have double the work and we would very likely at times have to employ double hands. Our materials are not so good enough for stopping others that burn hotter. The coals differ in quality at almost every works. We do not use the hot blast.


No.33. Timothy Macarthy, aged 35.

I am a “filler.” I fill the mine, coke and limestone into the furnace. I work 12 hours and work at night every other week. I come from the county of Cork but have been working at the ironworks for some time. I have a large family, six here and one in Ireland. I have two boys working with me here, Thomas 10 years old and Timothy, 14 years old. They help in pushing the barrows called “dandies” back and forward to the top of the furnace. Tom is rather young to come to work but I don’t put him to do much and I have a large family and am obliged to put them to do something as soon as they are able. He has not been to work long, not a year. If I had not him, I should be obliged to employ a boy, which I could not afford.

They both work at night every other week and they work hard enough but not more than they are able. They are very seldom sick but the little one, Tom, is ruptured. I don’t know when he got it at the works or by playing about. I got a truss for him from the surgeon, Mr. Steel, but it did not answer so I made one myself which is better and the little chap does very well now.


No.34. Timothy Macarthy, aged 14 and Thomas Macarthy, aged 10, sons of the last witness.

We help the father and the fillers at the furnace. It is not very hard work. We work at night some weeks and we work as long as the men. We have plenty of time to eat our dinners. We fill limestone into the barrows and help to push them to the furnace. We don’t go too near the fire. We are not tired when we go home from work and we are sick very seldom.

We go to Sunday School but can’t read much. [Thomas stated that he did not do much work and had not been long coming to work. He did not know how long, but would rather come to work than stay at home. He did not know how he got hurt (ruptured) nor how long is happened. He did not feel it much.]

No.35. Mary Daniel, aged 14, and Margaret Thomas, aged 15, examined in the Welsh language.

We fill the mine off the bank in the trams. We have been working here a long time. It is not very hard work. We work 12 hours but go to breakfast and dinner out of that. We live near and go home to meals. Mary Daniel has not been employed at any other work but Margaret Thomas has been working in the levels under-ground pushing the trams in and put. Working in the levels was harder work than working on the mine bank. The levels were mostly wet, sometimes wet sometimes she went through mud and water in them “half leg deep.” She worked barefoot. There were many girls as young as her in the levels. They did not often take cold and were not in the habit of losing much time for sickness. They went to the Sunday Schools but could not read. They worked for the man that took the mine to fill by the ton. They sometimes had 10s. per week and sometimes less. They would rather come to work that stay at home or go out to service.


No.36. Mary Deakin, aged 16, and Mary Tanner, aged 15.

The receive the trams as they come out of the mine pit. There are four or five girls working together. They have a house or lodge and a fire in it at the pit mouth to go into when waiting for the trams to come up. They always have a fire in cold weather. They take the trams from the carriages when they come up the pit and put the empty trams back on the carriages to go back down the pit.

They are about 10 minutes coming up and they are about the same time taking them off the carriages, They then wait in the lodge for the next to come up. They are brought up by a water wheel. They do not work hard but are there from six o’clock in the morning until six in the evening. The have an hour for dinner and the most of them go home to meals. They do not work at night.


No.37. Lucretia Jones, aged 8.

Her work is to call out, “haul up” to the man at the water wheel when the signal is given in the pit that the trams are ready. She has not been there long. She waits in the lodge while the trams are coming up and runs about. She is by the pit all day but goes home to her dinner.


Information supplied by Ray Lawrence and used here with his permission.

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