The Industrial Shape of Wales

September 10th, 2019

Industrial landscapes were once considered a blot on the stunning serenity of the Welsh Coast, but digging a little deeper than dusty chimneys and steel structures reveals important and fascinating histories of the industries and the people that helped to shape Wales.

The coastline of Wales has been nominated one of the most stunning in the world; an accolade it’s difficult to argue with. Wide and sunny beaches meet dramatic, jagged cliffs which hide secret coves and sparkling rock pools, and tiny bays and pretty villages nestle along wild and remote stretches.

But hidden behind the natural beauty and the wild legends are real stories and histories that helped shape Wales and its people into the proud and unique nation it is today. The industrial landscapes and buildings that dot the coast are testament to a time when the sea was the living, beating transport system for the Welsh industries, which all helped to bring wealth, prosperity and modernity to our small and rural country.

Copper Principles

Anglesey’s history is a long and varied one; the little island off the North Wales coast has some of the oldest rocks in the world, dating from 4,500 million years ago. And it is the treasure buried in the depths of these ancient rocks that eighteenth century industrialists and entrepreneurs exploited to make Anglesey the largest exporter of copper in Europe.

Parys Mountain is a low hill near the north-eastern coast of the island and the treasure that lay underneath its rocky surface went largely undiscovered until laws that decreed all rights to copper mines were owned by the crown, were changed at the end of the seventeenth century.

In 1764 a wealthy Cheshire businessman bought the rights to mine the land around Parys Mountain for copper, although it was four years before a rich, workable vein of copper was found by a miner called Roland Puw. For his efforts he received a large bottle of whisky and a rent-free cottage for the rest of his life.

Mining began in earnest and by the 1780’s Parys Mountain was the largest copper mine in Europe; it dominated the world copper market and even proved to be serious competition for the Cornish mines.

The nearby town of Amlwch quickly grew around the expanding mine. By the late eighteenth century it was one of the largest towns in Wales, second only to Merthyr Tydfil. And it wasn’t only the mine that provided employment. The harbour was extended so that the copper ore could be transported around the country, and ship-building became a flourishing industry. Amlwch was also famed for its tobacco houses, pubs and breweries that fed and watered the hard-working miners and dockmen..

The population became a diverse mix of local workers, wealthy landowners, aristocracy and immigrants from Cornwall, South Wales and Northern England, all of whom brought some of their local customs, architecture and language to the little corner of the Welsh Coast.

Fiery Furnace

On the edge of the tranquil Dyfi Estuary lies the tiny hamlet of Furnace, which takes its name from the small blast furnace that once belched its smoky breath across the green hills of the Dyfi Valley.

The furnace was built in the mid eighteenth century and was owned by a family of ironmasters from the Midlands. Iron ore from Cumbria was shipped around the coast and to the furnace along the River Dyfi. It was used along with limestone to create molten iron; much of which was sent back to the Midlands for use in the factories and warehouses of the industrial towns and cities.

The furnace was built next to the River Einion so a constant water supply could power the wheel, and the trees in the nearby forest provided a steady source of wood to fire the furnace. It’s thought that to produce a tonne of iron, the wood from a whole acre of trees was needed.

The furnace is one of the best preserved in the country, thanks to extensive restoration work by Cadw, and is an impressive reminder of how this sleepy hamlet in Mid-Wales helped to fire the unstoppable wheels of the world’s industrial revolution.

Cardiff Bay

Our final stop on the industrial map of the Welsh coast is the area of docklands to the south of Wales’ capital city; the site of what is now considered one of the most successful redevelopment projects in Europe. The Cardiff Bay area was once known as Tiger Bay, and it was here that the real industrial heroes of Cardiff lived and worked.

The dockland area was hugely important for the city’s export industries, specifically the millions of tonnes of coal that were mined from the valleys of South Wales. At its peak it was one of the largest and busiest docks in the world, as the appetite for coal roared into life during the Industrial revolution. The vast sums of money made from exporting coal not only helped to secure the title of Wales’ capital city for Cardiff, but made the docks’ owner, John Crichton-Stuart, one of the richest men in the world in the mid nineteenth century.

As the docks and the industry grew, so too did Cardiff’s population. Tiger Bay was home to a large cosmopolitan community, as sailors and dockworkers flooded to Cardiff from across the world. The fusion of a huge variety of cultures and ethnicities created an eclectic and vibrant area, with nationalities from Irish to Caribbean and Somali to Spanish making Tiger Bay their home.

However, a transient and ever changing population combined with the beginning of the decline of the docks led to Tiger Bay being regarded as a notoriously dangerous part of Cardiff, rife with brothels, gangs, dens and crime. By the end of the Second World War, the docks had all but closed and much of the area wasted into dereliction. In 1999, the entire area was transformed and renamed as Cardiff Bay, and now boasts a thriving business and cultural zone, is the home of the Welsh Assembly and is lined with modern shops, bars and restaurants.

Today, the rough industrial history of the docks has largely been replaced with a modern and fashionable future; but the fascinating legends of Cardiff’s industrial past is forever bound in the sand, sea, and spirits of a city that powered the revolution that changed the world.