Report On Resolven History Society’s March Meeting

A Report on the March Meeting of Resolven History Society

A brief history of Dowlais

This month’s speaker needed no introduction since it was the ebullient Huw Williams of Dowlais, who this year chose to speak on the history of his own community. He began by stating that everyone had heard of Dowlais, mainly because of the roundabout on the A465 at Dowlais Top. However, as in all communities the settlement includes areas and districts which have all contributed to the huge history of such a small place.

Huw then proceeded to describe the geography of Dowlais and how it was separated from its larger neighbour, Merthyr Tydfil. The hill at Pen-y-darren , was crucial in this respect, as was the limestone plateau at “Twyni Gwynion”, which supplied much of the limestone to the iron industry and was now better known for its restored steam railway. The Morlais brook, now covered ,was remembered as being highly polluted from the prevalence of industry , yet was still a popular play area for the children of the area. The area known as the “Bont”, which featured a long forgotten bridge was now the site of the Martyr’s football ground, Penydarren Park. Much of the old settlement of Dowlais was now subsumed by modern developments such as the OP chocolate factory, the Stevens and George printers and the Pant industrial estate which hid the far older site of “Ffair y Waun”, the old hiring and horse fair. This was also the site of a market “Ffair y pêr a’r fala”, which supplied Merthyr Tydfil should the harvest be good.

In 1757, the Merthyr Furnace was sited at Dowlais, as a result of investment by a group of Bristol investors, a purely capitalist and speculative venture. This was taken over by John Guest and his son Joseph John Guest , who was born in Gellifaelog House in Dowlais, and became sole owners in 1830. The Guests spoke Welsh and communicated well with the workforce of the ironworks. Indeed, Charlotte Guest the wife of the second John Guest is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion after she also mastered the language. The connection with the pioneering work of the Cornishman Richard Trevithick and his development of the steam engine in 1804 at Dowlais was also noted as was the development of the huge static steam engine at Dowlais which powered the site. By 1840, the Dowlais Iron Works was the largest works in the world and employed some 15,000 workers. This was serviced by the Brunel built Taff Vale Railway which took the iron to be exported from Cardiff Docks. To put it mildly there was no love lost between the Guests and the Bute Family (see last month’s report) and indeed the titanic battles over leaseholds led to the early death of both the first Marquis and Guest himself in 1852. Former MP for Merthyr, and now Lord, Ted Rowlands has recently published a book based on the journals of Charlotte Guest, which recount this period. They finish abruptly on the death of her first husband as the younger Charlotte quickly eloped with a new beau.

Agents then took control of the works which now became part of a greater industrial concern, Guest Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN) which still exists today, (though has recently severed its last ties with steel. Ed). This enabled the works to diversify to become a steelworks as against an ironworks. The point was made that the Crawshays of Merthyr had abandoned the Cyfarthfa works and never became a steelworks. The crucible of the industrial revolution was now beginning to decline and the point was made that the possible results of the emissions from this industrialization had returned with a vengeance in recent months owing to the recent floods at Pontypridd ( of course, few of the settlements would have existed without industry , Ed.).

The twentieth century, heralded a great change. The Guests largely abandoned the area and became part of London society. Even the Dowlais Steelworks largely decanted itself to Cardiff East Moors , in order to avail itself of a more economically favourable location. By 1930, the Dowlais works closed its doors for the last time putting some 8,000 workers on the dole and increasing the unemployment rate of the area to 80%. This led to mass deprivation and a visit by a monarch Edward V111, who stated bleakly that “Something must be done”, shortly before abdicating and retiring with an American divorcee (that would not happen today, would it? Ed.)

Following the second world war,Hoover came to Merthyr and provided another mass employer for a few decades. Dowlais, is now to all intents and purposes, part of Merthyr, though the last remnant of the steel industry in the specialised steel unit at Dowlais prevailed until 1987.

The Chairman ,thanked Huw Williams for a very interesting and stimulating talk.

Trefor Jones.