Water Balance Tower

Water Balance Tower

Blaenavon Ironworks - 1800

Blaenavon Ironworks - 1800

Blaenavon Ironworks is a former industrial site which is now a museum in Blaenavon in Wales. The ironworks was of crucial importance in the development of the ability to use cheap, low quality, high sulphur iron ores worldwide. It was the site of the experiments by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas and his cousin Percy Gilchrist that led to "the basic steel process" or "Gilchrist-Thomas process". The ironworks is on the outskirts of Blaenavon, in the borough of Torfaen, within the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape, a World Heritage Site.


The land on which the Ironworks reside was at one time the property of Lord Abergavenny and was leased in 1787 by three Midlands businessmen, Thomas Hill, his brother-in-law Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt. Work constructing the Ironworks began immediately and included several "luxury" cottages. Blaenavon Ironworks was the first to be designed as a multi-furnace site from the outset, with three furnaces, calcining kilns, cottages, and a company shop. Archdeacon Coxe visited Blaenavon during 1798–99 and enthusiastically described the small town as an opulent and increasing establishment, which was surrounded with heaps of ore, coal and limestone. The reason for the growth of Blaenavon from a rural to an industrial community lay in the rich mineral deposits found in the surrounding area, which outcropped at the surface making extraction a relatively cheap process. The iron works demanded a skilled and permanent labour force, which the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire lacked. Previous iron works at nearby Pontypool, for instance, had relied on charcoal and water.


The nature of the work introduced to Blaenavon was different. The changes involved the coal-using technology and the application of steam power, not used until that time in the Eastern Valley. Skilled workers came mainly from West Wales, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset and Ireland. Unskilled men, often with families came for the promise of work. The population of the district expanded from a little over 1,000 in 1800 to 5115 in 1840 with 61% speaking Welsh and the remainder English. By 1800 Blaenavon Ironworks contributed greatly to South Wales becoming the foremost iron-producing region in the world. Production at Blaenavon was second only to Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, the largest iron producer in Wales. Two new furnaces were added over the next decade and in 1804 a forge was constructed in nearby Cwmavon. By 1833 the company owned 430 houses and employed 1000 workers but suffered economic boom-and-bust that accompanied iron-making with wage cuts, strikes and the emergence of "Scotch Cattle". Scotch Cattle was the name taken by bands of coal miners in 19th century South Wales, analogous to the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania, who, in disguise, would visit the homes of other local miners who were working during a strike or cooperating with employers against the local mining community in other ways and punish them by ransacking their property or attacking them physically.


In 1836, the works was bought by the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company, financed by Londoner Robert Kennard, later an MP. Led by new managing director James Ashwell, a huge investment was made in the ironworks, including the construction of the impressive Balance tower which utilised a water displacement lift to carry pig iron from the base of the site to the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal system, which offered lower tolls to Newport than the Monmouthshire Canal. After this £138,000 investment the site showed little sign of profit and so Ashwell was forced to resign in 1840. In the following years, iron rails produced at Blaenavon were exported all over the world, including India, Russia and Brazil but also in projects closer to home such as the construction of Crumlin Viaduct. When Ashwell resigned, Mr. Scrivener became manager of the works and production picked up for a short while. In 1845 sales reached a peak of 35,549 tons out of which 20,732 tons were sold. This was a rise of 5,000 tons on sales for the previous year. However, fluidity was uncertain. By 1847 sales had declined to 18,981 tons. The works continued to suffer. A lower amount of pig iron was produced in 1849, partly due to the furnaces being out of action for three months. However, it was claimed that this was the consequence of workmen refusing to submit to a reduction in wages, which the depressed state of the iron industry had rendered necessary.


The company was relaunched in 1870 as the Blaenavon Iron & Steel Company and was one of only six south Wales ironworks that successfully made the change to steel production. By 1878 the company employed 5,000 people but had greatly overreached itself financially and failed amongst tough competition. With financial ruin just around the corner the company was given some respite thanks to the discoveries of Sidney Gilchrist Thomas and Percy Carlyle Gilchrist which enabled the use of the previously uneconomic phosphoric iron ore. Their experiments were carried out at Blarnavon between 1877 and 1878. This was a short lived respite as it meant Germany and North America were now able to utilise their own phosphoric ores and ironically accelerated the decline of Blaenavon Ironworks. In 1880 the Blaenavon Company opened Big Pit and moved away from iron production. In 1904 the ironworks finally ceased production, restarting briefly in 1924 but this was unsustainable. The forges at the site were still being used and helped with the production of steel shell during both world wars but was mostly used as a storage yard for the National Coal Board. In 1959 novelist Alexander Cordell set his most famous novel, 'Rape of the Fair Country' at the Ironworks and the surrounding area at the height of the industrial revolution. At around the same time, industrial archaeology began to emerge as a discipline and the site was spared the fate of so many other 18th–19th century industrial works. In 1974 the conservation of the ironworks began.


Today you can view the extensive remains of the blast furnaces, the cast houses and the impressively restored Water Balance Tower. Through exhibitions, advanced interpretation features and reconstructions, you can learn about the international significance of the iron industry and the scientific processes involved in the production of iron. A fascinating insight into the social history of industrial Britain can be gained by glimpsing into the past at the reconstructed company shop and the refurbished workers’ cottages, at Stack Square and Engine Row.Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult. Dogs on leads welcome, as are assistance dogs. No smoking. A toilet is available for users with a disability and limited mobility. The site is fully wheelchair accessible. The disabled toilet is accessed via a ramp. Disabled parking is permitted within the site.


Location : Blaenavon Ironworks, North Street, Blaenavon, NP4 9RN

Transport : Cwmbran (National Rail) then bus (30, 31). Bus Routes : 24, 30, 31 and X24 stop near by.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00

Tickets : Free

Tel. : 01495 792615