Report on Resolfen History Society’s January Meeting

It is arguable whether this was the first meeting of a new decade or merely the start of another new year, since there wasn’t a year “zero” by all accounts. What is certain,is that the History Society were reacquainted with an old friend in Jeff Childs, this month’s speaker. Jeff is a very well-known local historian and some years ago gave an annual and much awaited talk to the Society until his extensive cupboard of lectures was bare. Luckily, the cupboard is now replenished and hopefully we will enjoy his highly informative and detailed talks for years to come.


A native of Pontardawe, Jeff took “steel and sheet tinplate” of that town as his topic. He started his illustrated journey with an aerial photograph of Pontardawe which had been fortuitously rescued from a bin following the closure of the steelworks in 1962. The image showed clearly that rather than being one works, Pontardawe in fact included three tinplate works ( Glanrhyd, , Ynysmeudwy and the Parsons “Ynysderw”), a steelworks and a chemical works alongside other industrially related enterprises. The site extended over 120 acres on land acquired by William Parsons in 1830 from the Cilybebyll Estate, formerly Ynysderw farm. Parsons and his brother had interests in Rhos, and a dram road can still be seen which carried the coal from the Primrose colliery to the Ynysderw works. This was also facilitated by a private canal. Parsons also built Ynysderw House, which was used by the Gilbertsons when they acquired the site in 1862.


William Gilbertson came to Pontardawe in 1861. He was a lawyer by trade and hailed from Hertfordshire, though the family had its roots in Thirsk, Yorkshire. It is unclear how he arrived in Cwmafan to successfully run the local tinplate works, but he quite quickly turned his sights on Pontardawe where his family is viewed as the architect of the modern town. His son Arthur was a very strong character and took up the running of the works. He was either loved or despised in equal measure. He gave lavishly to local good causes including both Anglican and non-conformist causes. St Peter’s Church is a striking epitaph with its steeple standing at 197’, thus making it taller than the tallest chimney stack in the works. However, woe betide trades unions or worst still, the foreign influenced syndicalists (which he despised with a vengeance) after their philosophy based on workers taking over the running of the works, arrived in the area during the early twentieth century.


Arthur Gilbertson married an heiress of the Cilybebyll Estate, Elen Lloyd, and they had fourteen children. He built Glanrhyd House as a home for his large family, however unfortunately she died during the birth of her final child. Arthur, burdened by grief and the strain of the work suffered a stroke and the business was subsequently managed by his three eldest sons. During the first world-war, the house was used as a convalescent home for soldiers. Francis his son took on most of the management duties, and also moved to a house in Langland. Having a great interest in education, he later played a major part in the foundation of University College, Swansea, in 1929.


In the 1930s the works was taken over by Richard Thomas and Baldwins (RTB) ,and it was also known as the Baldwin’s works and it was operated by RTB until 1962 when the works closed ( a century since Gilbertson arrived) This was mainly caused by the fact that newer tinplate works at Trostre and Velindre had come into operation.


The Chairman gave a vote of thanks in which he thanked Mr Childs for a fascinating account of a very detailed and interesting topic. He recounted that he vaguely remembered the steelworks as a young child passing over the bridge near the now Pontardawe Inn (“Y Gwachel”), which  is one of the few buildings now remaining near where the steelworks stood.


Trefor Jones.