Hirwaun Ironworks Timeline

Picture of Hirwaun Ironworks

Hirwaun Ironworks

General Description

Hirwaun was an important ironworks of national and international significance; as the first coke-fired ironworks in South Wales, being founded in 1757. The site is also notable for its historic associations with numerous ironmasters associated with the early development of the South Wales coke fired iron industry, there were four blast furnaces there.

A massive tramroad causeway was built and two limekilns. A tramroad was built, between 1806 and 1808, by the engineer George Overton to replace an earlier bridge, and tramroad built-in 1793, upon which raw materials were carried to the furnaces of Hirwaun ironworks and limestone was brought from the quarries at Penderyn.

Historical Background

The Hirwaun Ironworks dates from 1757 when John Maybery leased land at Hirwaun to erect a furnace. The furnace at Hirwaun was initially constructed on a site just outside Bute land but a new lease in 1760 incorporated the land on which the single furnace stood. The partners, John Wilkins, John Maybery and Mary Maybery passed the Hirwaun Ironworks to John Wasse and William King in 1775. Their lease was to run for fourteen years and this new partnership agreed to repair the waterwheel and cylinders that blew the furnace. These and other conditions were unfulfilled, and the lease was terminated in 1777.

In the American War of Independence started in 1775, Anthony Bacon was M.P. for Aylesbury, the law forbade him from making arms. He overcame this problem by producing them in the name of his partner, Francis Homfray. It was under this name that the cannons were taken along bridle paths by mules and packhorses to Abercynon, which met the new turnpike road which ran from Merthyr to Cardiff, a distance, of 26 miles, and a proper shipping wharf was constructed there, called from the “The Cannon Wharf.”  When Anthony Bacon died in 1786, the lease then passed to Samuel Glover of Abercarn.

In 1780 the concern was leased to Anthony Bacon of Cyfarthfa. It is unclear as to whether Bacon was responsible for the conversion of the works from charcoal to coke, or whether this change in fact dated to the previous occupiers, the Mayberry’s. However, it is known that Bacon put the works in repair and continued the production of iron on the site until he died in 1786. The lease of Hirwaun then passed to Samuel Glover of Abercarn. Although the ironworks was assessed as producing 1,050 tons of iron in 1796, the production seems to have seldom risen to over 10 tons per week.

Drawing of Blastfurnace

In 1805, when under the control of a new partnership (Francis William Bowzer, Simon Oliver, Lionel Oliver and Jeremiah Homfray, later George Overton) the ironworks remained a single furnace affair, producing 450 tons of iron.

The site is thereafter developed and when the Hirwaun Ironworks was put up for sale in 1813, this comprised of two well-constructed furnaces 40ft, two cast houses, and an air furnace and two fineries, a blast engine with ten puddling furnaces and five balling furnaces and a Trevithick steam engine working with a 6ft. stroke, two pairs of puddling and a pair of finishing rollers capable of rolling 80 to 100 tons weekly, the engine was, obviously put in by Homfray’s involvement with the works as he and Birch were building Trevithick type engines for sale at their Abernant Ironworks, Aberdare. There was a waterwheel for turning a lathe for the rollers and grinding clay, a brick kiln, four calcining kilns, mineral yard, coke banks, two counting houses, three limekilns, four collieries, iron ore levels.

Bankrupts 1812

William Bowzer, George Overton, and Lionel Oliver, of Hirwaun, in the parish of Brecknock, iron-masters, dealers and exporters, to appear October 21, and November at the Commercial Rooms, Bristol. Attorneys, Messrs. Powell and Jones, Brecon.

TO be LET, the HIRWAUN  IRON-WORKS, 03.11.1817

Together with the veins of coal and iron-stone under Hirwaun  Common. These works are situated on the borders of the Counties Glamorgan and Brecon, and on the tram-road, which connects the Aberdare and Neath Canals, thereby opening easy communications with the Ports Neath and Cardiff, and are distant from the former 18, and the latter 25 miles: the works consist of two furnaces, with fineries, blown steam-engine on Bolton and Watt’s principle, and the rolling mills, &c. moved a steam-engine on Trevithick’s principle; with the necessary puddling and balling furnaces.

Drawing of Steam Engine

There are agents houses, workmen’s houses, storehouses, &c. and, in short, all buildings necessary for making Bar Iron; the materials are conveyed the works by private tram-roads and are be obtained cheap and in any quantity. These Works, which are capable of making from 4 to 5,000 tons of Bar Iron yearly, offer the peculiar, advantage of this being put into action almost immediately, with comparatively a very small advance of capital. There is a Farm of about 69 acres, be Let with the Works, on which there is a good roomy dwelling house. For Particulars apply to Messrs. Vizard and Blower, Lincoln’s Inn-Fields; Messrs. Powell, Jones, and Powell, Brecon; and Mr J. Watkins, the spot, who will show the Premises.

The site was unoccupied between 1814 and 1819 when William Crawshay of Cyfarthfa took over the lease. The two furnaces were rebuilt, the output was improved, to around 4,160 tons of iron being produced in 1823, and the site developed with more furnaces built-in 1822.  Output continued to rise with 7,020 tons of iron being produced in 1826 and 9,370 tons in 1830.

Fraught with fire,
That now casts out dark fumes and pitchy clouds,
Vast showers of ashes hovering in the smoke.
Now belches molten stones and ruddy flame.


We have great pain in recording that, in consequence of resolutions lately adopted by the Welsh ironmasters, to discharge from their employment all workmen who should not, on or before Saturday last, sign a declaration abandoning all connection with Trades’ Unions, the furnaces of two extensive establishments in this district have since our last publication been blown out. On Saturday last the Hirwaun  Iron Works, consisting of four furnaces, of which only three were in work, were blown out, as were also on Monday night the Blaenavon Works, consisting of four furnaces all in full operation, from the same cause. At a moderate computation, the number of persons subsisting by the former works, including the families of the men employed, may he about 2,500, and at the latter about 3,000.

The Hirwaun  ironworks, we are informed is under the spirited proprietor, William Crawshay, Esq. first undertook them, little better than an unsightly ruin, which, by the application of the vast capital of that gentleman, has been converted into a populous hive of productive industry. We also hear it mentioned that during the whole period that these works have been in action, they have yielded no profit and that the supposed inducement which has led Mr Crawshay at a great sacrifice hitherto to keep them in work, has been the honourable motive of raising the employment to the numerous population subsisting by them.

Hirwaun  1834

We rejoice in being enabled to state that Mr Crawshay, in compliance with a requisition couched in very respectful and proper terms by the workmen of that establishment, has consented to put two of the furnaces in, blast in readiness.


The intelligence of an unfavourable description has been received from Hirwaun, near Merthyr. Some accounts say the men had put out the blast, whilst all concur in stating that the Chartists have turned out and refuse to work.

Drawing of Four Furnaces

The four furnaces continued in, blast during the 1830s and 1840s, around this time another blowing engine was installed in 1839 and certainly a 24in. x 1ft., high-pressure engine was purchased by the Hirwaun Ironworks from Neath Abbey in 1849.

During the mid-1850s relationship between the Marquis of Bute, who owned part of the site, and Francis Crawshay became strained with severe consequences for the works; the blast furnaces and mills were on Bute property with the furnace yard and limekiln on Crawshay property. The Crawshay’s were thereafter intent on abandoning Hirwaun in favour of their Treforest plant. The furnaces were in blast for the first six months of 1859 and then the Crawshay’s abandoned the site.

The works reverted to the landowner, the Marquis of Bute, and later in 1864 was leased to Handel Cossham and Thomas Challender Hinde who put two furnaces, in blast. Between 1865 and 1866 when the works became under the control of the Hirwaun Iron and Coal Company the remaining two furnaces were repaired. However, operations were short-lived and in 1867 the word iron was dropped from the title of the company. When the Hirwaun Ironworks was advertised for sale in 1870 it was described as having four furnaces with a powerful blast engine, arrangements for utilising waste gases, hot air stoves, a spacious forge and mills with a powerful engine, trains of rolls, nineteen puddling furnaces, forges and steam hammers. No interested parties came forward and the Hirwaun Coal Company was wound up.

A brief description of making an iron bar.

The first process is as follows: “Ironstone, previous, to being used in the furnace undergoes a process called calcining, which is performed in kilns similar, to those used for burning lime, in order, that the sulphur, and other foreign principles which are combined with the ore, may be discharged. The coal is likewise coked, on a principle nearly, similar, to that of making charcoal. The limestone is generally used in the state it comes from the rock.” The loss in weight sustained in the calcining of ironstone is from 26 to 30 per cent., that of coal from 45 to 50. When these materials are brought into the state above mentioned they are fit for use in the furnace.

The inside of the building is circular, tapering like a cone, and from 40 to 50 50 feet high. After the furnace is thoroughly heated and dried it is filled with coke and set on fire at the bottom when the fire has made its way through this body of coke a quantity of calcined mine with limestone is put on the coke; a small quantity of coke is then taken from the bottom of the furnace, which causes it to sink at the top, and this space is tilled up with fresh coke, with the addition of limestone and mine. This process is continued until, such time as the furnace becomes one continued stratum of coke, ironstone, and limestone.

When this is the case the bottom part is shut up, except a hole for the introduction of a blowpipe, and another for the cinder to flow off. The blast is now applied, and continues blowing from 18 to 20 hours, by which time a quantity of iron collects in the hearth; when full it is let off into moulds, and the furnace is kept filled with the materials as before. This is the first stage of ironmaking, and the material thus produced is called pig iron.

Second process: The pig iron is taken to a place called the finery, where a strong blast is used. Here the pig iron is melted with coke in a low fire, and when brought to a very fluid state is let off into moulds, this is called finers metal.

Third process: The metal which is, very brittle, is broken into small pieces, and thrown into an air furnace by the workmen called a puddling furnace; here it is exposed to a violent heat until it melts; the men now keep stirring it about, and expose it to a current of air, by which process it loses its brittleness, and becomes malleable. When they judge it sufficiently worked, they divide the mass into balls of from 80lbs to 100lbs and either run it through heavy iron rollers or beat it with a large hammer, three tons weight; it is again heated and drawn through iron rollers. This is the best process, and the iron thus produced is called merchant bars.

Main story

The ironworks site remained unoccupied until 1880 when the Stuart Iron, Steel and Tin Plate Company took it over. The Hirwaun Ironworks was renamed the Stuart Ironworks and some work was carried out on the furnaces. These were altered to make them 54ft. high and 16ft. diameter across the boshes with six tuyères. It was thought that the efficiency of a furnace could be improved if the volume of air thrown into the structure could be increased, hence the multiplication of the tuyères. However, the result of adding more tuyères at Hirwaun is not known as little production of iron took place and the works later became a general foundry.

A short time ago nobody believed Hirwaun, in its ironworking aspect, was likely to rise again. But since the appearance of a small paragraph about a month ago regarding contemplated changes, hope has sprung forth again in Hirwaun, and the grey-haired watchman who looks after the solitary wild walks about with a, more, sprightly step. Time does work wonders even at Hirwaun, and, if half what is said about the prospects of the place prove to be true, I should not be surprised to hear of festive dances on the common to celebrate the good news. But I must say Hold on because I found that Hirwaun  was greatly inclined to exaggerate. For instance, “it also declared that the three old furnaces were to be set going again,” and that Mr Corbett, the solicitor to the landowner (Lord Bute) had that morning gone over the noiseless works in close consultation with Mr Henry Watkin Lewis, a brother to Sir William. These were statements that contained but few grains of fact Mr Henry Watkin Lewis had come up from Cardiff, and he examined the works, but “Mr Corbett” was no other, I believe, than Mr J. Corbett Long, of Rhymney, who is interested in the new departure.

The “three furnaces” item may be set aside altogether for the present. Some repairing work is now going on, and it is purposed to utilise a portion of the works as a steel foundry for crucible castings, which will embrace colliery requirements as far as practicable, and tool steel the project having the countenance and support of an influential Sheffield firm. I understand that Sir William Thomas Lewis has taken some interest in the promotion of this undertaking and that he has offered, on the part of the Bute estate, a lease on easy terms. Let us hope the new beginning will lead to greater things than are at present contemplated. There was a time when about 400 or 500 hands were employed at the Hirwaun  Iron Works. The establishment by Mr W. Crawshay, grandfather of the present Crawshay Bros., of Cyfarthfa it was then managed for many years by Mr Francis Crawshay.

Blast furnaces and rolling mills were then kept going. The stoppage came, and the works remained closed for a long time. In or about 1881 a company called the Stuart Company, of which Mr W. Powell and Sir W. T. Lewis were prominent members, re-started the furnaces with a hot blast (they had been worked by Mr Francis Crawshay with cold blast), but operations, after continuing about 12 months, again came to an end. As an inland site for furnaces, the position is considered very good. as it is about an equal distance from Cardiff, Swansea, and Briton Ferry. It is interesting to note also that the Hirwaun  Foundry, of which the lessee is Mr J. W. Morgan, is likely to become the scene of enlarged operations.

Those works have had their vicissitudes, but there is reason to believe that there is something good in store. I was also informed that the Silica Brick Work, now the proprietor of Messrs Brock, and to which a new kiln was added not long since are doing a progressing business with a brick that possesses a continental reputation. The local coal workings have redeemed the place from absolute ruin, but they have not been very extensively developed. Now, improvements are anticipated in this direction, and the Park Pit line, mentioned in the Taff Vale Railway Bill, is something to be remembered in connection with Hirwaun  prospects.

There is a large area of virtually virgin coal that extends into the Garw Valley. At the steam coal colliery, a pair of driving engines for the fan is being put in place, and arrangements are being made for working the measures with greater economy and safety. Full time is being worked at Lord Bute’s colliery, and the demand for local coal is increasing appreciably.

Re-Starting of the Stuart Ironworks, Hirwaun

Saturday was a red-letter day in the annals of Hirwaun . After five years of stagnation, of rust and decay, the old works improved and re-named, have again given forth life, the beat of the engine has again been heard, and flames poured forth where weeds had begun to gather the history of the works can be given briefly. At the time when Lewis had a small work’s at Caerphilly and in the Merthyr Valley, and just before the works at Dowlais were started in a very small way, all of which small performances were a kind of back wave of the greater adventurers who started ironmaking in Llanvabon parish and Merthyr parish in the seventeenth century, one Mayberry, member of an old Breconshire family, and founder of the Mayberry’s who succeeded, started a furnace or two at Hirwaun . Just as the discovery of iron mine in a nodular state in the faff river after a flood suggested to Bacon the starting of works at Merthyr, so did unquestionably the “crop” of the minestone at Hirwaun  point out the eligibility of works in that quarter.

The works flourished, and after various ownerships, one Browser from Carmarthenshire being at the one-time proprietor, they passed into the hands of Richard Crawshay. When William succeeded to the Cyfarthfa and other estates Francis Crawshay for a time managed the Hirwaun  Works until removed finally to Treforest. Recollections of Francis at Hirwaun  and Treforest exist amongst old inhabitants, and they are worth telling, especially as they have not been told before.

He had a skeleton always behind his chair, not in the closet. The Crawshay’s had none in that quarter, and to the question of a friend why he had such a repellent attendant, he said, “Ah! now, that chap (the skeleton) is most useful, before he came there, I could keep nothing, but the beggars are afraid of him, and I am wonderfully well off.”

In the rude epoch of early ironmaking, when a shoemaking constable represented the majesty of the law, and a great deal was done which would not be done now with impunity, it was essential that the ironmasters should hold the reigns tightly. Anthony Hill’s rule was that if one of the workmen betrayed a too-confiding damsel he should “marry or march;” with Francis it was different, the offender was put in a coffin and buried, and after a rather close approach to suffocation the rascal was taken out and glad enough to repair his crime. Cases are related yet to the typical burial being occasionally, very, near a genuine one.

The Crawshay epoch ended, and Hirwaun  Works underwent the “limited liability” experience which has proved fatal in so many cases of industrial enterprise, and finally figured under the control of the Landore Siemens Company for the make of Spiegel, and also of grey iron. In 1874 this came to an end, and since that Hirwaun  has been left despondent, with its few collieries and sparse agriculture. It is not the loveliest place in the world, A great treeless waste surrounds it, and what there is of vegetation struggles through a mineral soil with great difficulty. There, too, hedgerows are feeble imitations, for instance, and trees after a cautious and desultory growth stop abruptly as if further progress was injudicious. One can see like a far-off Mecca the outlines of the mountains that overlook the fairy Vale of Neath, but here there is little to please the eye, and one can imagine with little effort the weary past five years of semi-famine in this dreary spot, which had not even the redeeming elements of industrial life. But that weary put has been brushed aside, and with the spring of 1880 now life has sprung forth, and hundreds of homes soon. I hope, thousands will be places of comfort, instead of misery.

Mr W. T. Lewis, the leading spirit of this new enterprise, is a man of deeds and not of words, of practical work and not of airy demonstrations There was, no bunting flying on Saturday, no cannons roaring, no bands of music playing. Hirwaun  looked, as usual, a few more men with hands in their pockets, perhaps, opposite the Cardiff Arms, and a little more hurrying to and fro in the streets. But at the works, the change from desertion to action was a notable one. A crowd of men and boys and girls stood opposite one of the renovated furnaces, and men well known in Welsh ironmaking passed to and fro, directing here and there, disappearing occasionally in the rear of the great mass, which was lit, and in readiness for the blast.

Then came the ceremonial, all in the same quiet undemonstrative way. Three young ladies, the daughters of the directors, took each of the handles of a valve, the signal was given, the handles are drawn down, there was the roar of an unseen power streaming on through a network of tubes, and then forth leapt the flames, the blast was on and the great event of a restart consummated. There are times when from the most stolid and uninterested great nature forces expressions either of the lament of joy It was so in this instance. Involuntarily men roared hurrah, and little boys and girls danced, and the roaring of the men and delight of the children told only too truly what they thought. it meant “bread come” at last, it meant “thank God that the night is over, and the new day opened, and the shadows scattered, and pain and suffering ended;” “it meant decent clothes as well as full stomachs, and cheeky of childhood tinted once more and the sunken, hollow eyes gone.” Was it a spasm of agony that passed athwart that rugged face of one standing near me, or a film that dimmed the eye of that p or cotton dressed woman?

It was joy, deep heartfelt gratitude, keen and, I trust a long enduring, that lived and shone around me, speaking more eloquently than the waving of flags or roar of cannon. There are times when oven stem men get what is called “something in the throat,” some little emotional feeling, from which ironmasters or ironworkers, or any other class of men, are not exempt; and when to this is added the effects of dense volumes of smoke and clouds of dust, the worthy landlady of the Cardiff Arms may well be praised for her forethought in sending down to the works a memorial of Francis Crawshay in the shape of a huge nine-gallon jug of homebrewed This jug it was Francis’s custon to send to the works on every special day, and this time, filled again and again, it did much to make the host of furnace men, coke burners, and others rejoice, the renovated works, I may briefly state, are constructed on the most modern principle.

The first furnace now started is 51ft. and 16ft. in the boshes (in the lower part of a blast furnace). It is served with first-class stoves known as the Middlesbrough stoves, is blown with six tuyeres, and will turn out from 250 to 300 tons per week of the best grey iron. The boilers are supplied with sufficient gas to generate all the steam required, and, besides, there are 32 coke ovens, a blowing engine equal to three furnaces, good calcining kilns, and every wise and modern appliance tor filling at top and for the expeditious and perfect make of good iron which the experience of our best men has devised and formed.

The works occupy the centre of a wide circumference of several acres in extent, move filled with coke, coal, and Spanish ironstone than I have been. It is evident, therefore, that this enterprising company means energetic business, and that when tin-plate is added Hirwaun  will be as well placed as any of the ironworking establishments amongst the hills.

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