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A walk through the history of the Cynon Valley

The Cynon Valley is surrounded by the history of an industrial age it is for this reason that there are many different avenues of that can be explored. AberdareOnline's history pages will hopefully provide you with a brief insight into the history of the Cynon Valley.

The town of Aberdare is located within the Cynon valley, Cardiff the capital city of Wales lies 23 miles to the south. Aberdare grew from a hamlet built around the parish church of St John the Baptist, the church which is thought. to have been built about 1200.

Farming was the principal employer within the valley until 1757 when an iron works opened at the head of the valley at Hirwaun. In the early nineteenth century on the northen slopes of the valley, iron works opened at Abernant and Llwydcoed. Iron made at the iron works transported out of the valley on pack horses at first. When tracks improved, horse drawn carts were used. Improved routes known as tramways were constructed with cast iron rails laid on stone blocks. Early trams were made out of timber with later ones being made of iron. The trams were drawn by teams of horses.There was a plentiful supply iron ore, timber, limestone and coal within the valley, making Cynon valley a prime region for the iron industry at that time.

Transport was a key element in getting finished goods to market and Aberdare was no exception. In 1793 the Aberdare canal act was passed, with the canal opening in 1812. The canal head was at Aberdare, the canal then winding its way down the valley to Abercynon a distance of six and three quarter miles, joining the existing Glamorganshire canal that ran from Merthyr to Cardiff docks.

The canal passes through lock gates at Mountain Ash not far away from Duffryn house which stood out supreme. This distinguished house must have looked picturesque. The original house dated from 1400 and a number of extensions were built over the years. In 1720 Mr William Bruce purchased the estate including Duffryn house for the sum of £1800, later it became the home of his descendant Lord Aberdare. The estate was probably one of the largest employers at the time, I recall Mrs Edith Davies saying that she was in service as a chamber maid at Duffryn House, and Mrs Charlotte Ryan was employed as one of the cooks.

The estate gamekeeper's house was sited at Aberffrwd Road Mountain Ash. It is said that Daniel James was a guest at the house when he wrote the Welsh hymn "Calon Lan". In 1926 Duffryn House was sold to the Glamorgan Education Authority and became the County Grammar School. The house was used as a school for 60 years until the building was found to be unsafe, and was eventually demolished in1986.

Mountain Ash was cut in two when the Aberdare canal was constructed, Aberpennar on one side and Caegarw on the other. Two bridges spanning the canal were at Strand Street, and Ffrwd Crescent. Later the Ffrwd bridge appeared to be the more popular of the two by the number of photographs taken of the bridge with St Margaret's Church in the background. The church was built around 1862 at a cost of £3000.

Coal was mined in a small way in the valley with coal seams close to the surface and in 1837 the first deep mine in the Cynon valley was sunk at Cwmbach by Thomas Wayne of Gadlys iron works. The mine produced steam coal, ideal for the developing steam engine. The Gadlys iron works was opened in about 1827 and the Aberaman ironworks was established in 1845 "known as Crawshay Bailey's Aberaman ironworks". More collieries were opening up with coal masters and iron masters all eager to transport goods via the tramroads to the canal, with the increase in industrial development the age of the steam engine arrived.

Cynon Valley witnessed on the 6 August 1846 the official opening of the Aberdare Railway. As with the canal, the railway operated from Aberdare to Abercynon, joining the existing line, the Taff Vale Railway, already constructed, which ran from Merthyr to Cardiff. Sadly the Aberdare canal closed in 1900. With the arrival of the railway, journey time from Aberdare to Cardiff docks was greatly decreased. Branch lines were developed throughout the Cynon valley linking collieries to the Aberdare Railway line running through the valley from Aberdare which was operated by the Taff Vale Railway.

It was now apparent that Cynon valley was rich in mineral wealth. "black gold" some called it. Extensive labour was required to work the coal seams and men came from all parts to mine the black gold. A number of them were farm workers attracted by the higher wages paid by the Coalmasters.

Where the colliery shafts were sunk, villages grew with rows of stone built terrace houses topped with Welsh slate roofs, the stone being in plentiful supply as can be seen from the number of redundant quarries dotted about the Cynon valley. Coal was King and in 1851 the Vale of Neath Railway had completed a line in to Aberdare, a new outlet for the mass of coal that was being exported out of the Cynon Valley.

Meetings of local government within the parish of Aberdare were held until 1832 in Saint John's Church in the Vestry a room adjoining the church. The governing body was called the Vestry which comprised two church wardens, members of the parish with overseers appointed for the four districts. The Vestry was responsible for the appointments of the early parish constables who were local trades people. It was not until 1841 that the Glamorgan Constabulary was established at Bridgend and Mountain Ash Police Station was built in 1865. Doctors were appointed and help given to the poor.

Roads were a major problem in the early 1800's. A main road was planned and constructed in the valley taking 5 years to build. It was completed in 1811. The road was built by the Turnpike Trust and it was their responsibility for the road maintenance. The Board of Health was set up in 1854 and one of its major road building accomplishments was the road over the Graig Mountain completed in 1892 at a cost of £3.500. The Board of Health was the forerunner of the Aberdare Urban District Council which was set up in 18. The former Mountain Ash Local Board then became the Mountain Ash Urban District Council with the first meeting held on 31 December 1894 in the. Workman's Hall now demolished and replaced by the Town Hall built in 1904 at a cost of £5.000.

In 1811 the population was just under 3.000. By 1871 in the parish of Aberdare the population had grown to 37,774, families moving into the valley found accommodation hard to find, with many families sharing one of the small stone terrace houses with one or possibly two other families.There was virtually no sanitation or running water until well into the second half of the nineteeth century. Eventually a piped water supply was constructed with a reservoir at Bwllfa holding seven million gallons and Nanthir reservoir constructed at Llwydcoed.

In 1864 Lord Aberdare established a water works for Mountain Ash, with a reservoir at Darranlas. John Nixon also constructed two reservoirs. However, there was insufficient water storage for the increasing population of Mountain Ash and surrounding area so the Board of Health established a large reservoir by damming the River Clydach near Llanwonno Church. By 1893 the project was completed .The first major sewer line was constructed down the valley in 1893 at a cost of £38,910.

I remember many houses in the early Sixties which still had the out side toilet sited at the bottom of the garden the water supply no more than a cold tap out side the house with an earthenware sink (known as the bosh) with nothing changed for nearly 100 years. As well as building houses from local quarried stone, other facilities were constructed since the needs of the workingman had to be catered for. The first ale house in the valley was said to be sited in Abercwmboi called the Cap-Coch Inn, Inns opened up all over the valley. 1809 the first inn at Mountain Ash was constructed called the Mountain Ash Inn, but the oldest surviving pub in Mountain Ash is the Mariner Hotel. Other public houses include the Mount Pleasant Hotel (1835) Trecynon, Whitcombe Inn (1861) Aberdare, White Lion (1841) Gadlys, Tonglwydfawr Holford inn (1854) Cwmdare, Plough Inn (1848) Aberaman, Shepherds Arms (1850) Cwmaman, to name but a few. With local breweries opening, Abergwawr brewery and the Rock brewery to name but two all to satisfy the thirst of the collier and the hundreds of workmen who were supplying all the other skills required to create a community.

Religion played a major part in the community in the nineteenth century, St. Michael's and All Angels College was established in Aberdare in 1892 at Abernant House the former residence of ironmaster Richard Fothergill. The Theological College was opend to train clergymen for the four Welsh Dioceses. The College founded by Miss Olive Talbot of Margam Park was transferred to Llandaff in 1907. Chapels were built in Cynon Valley and every village wanted its own, Baptist Chapels, the Welsh Independent Chapels, Methodist Chapels, towering buildings dominating the Towns and villages. Built out of local stone some with dressed stone frontage, one can imagine how they looked when newly constructed the variety of colours within the stonework standing out soon to be blackened by the soot and grime of the industrial revolution that was taking place. Many of the chapels have survived and some have been restored to their former splendour. Sadly a large number have disappeared and some derelict chapels were converted into living accommodation. Others became small units for industrial use.

There were Hospitals in Mountain Ash and Aberdare. In 1892 The Fever Hospital was built at Llanwonno Road its primary use was to treat infectious diseases. The Cottage Hospital was constructed in 1894 at Granville Terrace Caegarw and the General Hospital at Duffryn Woods was opened by Lord Aberdare in 1924 at a cost of £56.000. Aberdare General Hospital opened in 1917 but unfortunately on September 12th 1929 fire damaged the historic building and took the lives of two firemen. The hospital was reconstructed and officially opened by the Duchess of York in April 1933.

Wood then coal was the primary source of fuel in the area. In1873, the Aberaman Gas Works was built on the site now used by Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council. Called The Aberdare and Aberaman Gas Consumers Company, the former works were sited at Tudor Place Abergwawr. The Nixon Company established their Gas Company at Navigation Yard Mountain Ash and this was taken over by the Board of Health in 1887. A new works was established at Penrhiwceiber providing gas for Abercwmboi and Ynysybwl. Before the invention of the gas light all industry homes chapels etc., used candles or oil lamps for illumination. On the 30 March 1911 Aberdare Council opend an electricity undertaking for the valley with the operating of a power station generating DC. electricity. The power station was converted to AC. electricity completely by 1933 In 1911 tram rails were laid down, and electric trams ran from Trecynon to Aberaman, passing through Cardiff Road Aberdare. Electric trolley buses were used to ferry passengers from surrounding area to the nearest pickup points on the trams route. Later trams ran to Cwmaman and Abercwmboi. The last Council tram ran in 1935.

The Powell Duffryn Company was established in 1864 and became a leading name in Cynon Valley. The founder, Thomas Powell was a timber merchant from Newport who sank his first deep mine at Tir-Ffounder Cwmbach in 1842 where he found the famous Four Foot seam. He had moved to Cwmbach from Llanhilleth where he had started coal exploration with two other men with pick and shovel at the age of sixty. In 1863 Thomas Powell died. At the time of his death over six thousand people were said to be in his employ, Thomas Powell was said to be the worlds largest coal exporter at the time of his death. "In 1946 Powell Duffryn was the largest coal company in the United Kingdom. It owned forty eight collieries in south Wales, which produced 37% of the region's annual output." The Phurnacite plant at Abercwmboi was developed in 1937 by Powell Duffryn. A photograph showing a partly constructed section of the first part of the works opened in 1942. The design was by the French company Disticoke and it produced smokeless fuel in ovens known as batteries. The Phurnacite plant dominated the middle of Cynon Valley and in 1942 it was seen as the saviour of the declining coal industry in the valley. It used fine coal dust, pitch as a binding agent and numerous other ingredients in its manufacture. A by-product of the Phurnacite was gas, the surplus gas was piped to Aberaman Gas Works for household use. Nationalisation of the British coal industry happened in 1947.

In 1860 Mr Evan Thomas opened an ironmongers shop in Cardiff Street Aberdare. Later he was joined by Mr L N Williams and together they manufactured the safety lamp approved by the British Government for use in coal mines. E Thomas & Williams Ltd as it is known today operate from the Cambrian Lamp works at Robertstown. The firm is believed to be the oldest surviving manufacturing concern in Cynon Valley having produced lamps for the mining industry for over 130 years.

St Johns The Baptist Church School was constructed on the site of the former Dr Barnardos Children's Home. The three men looking at the photographer are in the process of hand digging the foundations for Beechwood Avenue, part of the first phase of the new development at Glandare in the early sixties and observe part of Glan Road also undeveloped. The first building contractor on the Glandare site constructed bungalows and houses they were called Jones & Kemmery Ltd, a local company who had offices at the rear of Lewis Street Aberaman.

This brief look at the history of Cynon Valley doesn't begin to explain the wide and varied changes that have occurred throughout the valley over the last 200 years, and the small number of photographs displayed may bring back memories to some. The spoil heaps have disappeared landscaping has been carried out and thousands of trees planted throughout the valley. The history of Cynon Valley will always stand out, with the last deep coal mine producing the finest coal from part of the extensive world renowned South Wales Coal Field. A museum for anyone wishing to know more on the history of Tower Colliery and surrounding area can be found on the site of this world famous colliery. There is also a museum at Aberdare on the site once occupied by Gadlys Iron Works.

Bibliography

  • Old Aberdare, Volumes 1- 8, The Cynon Valley History Society
  • Aberdare Pictures from the Past, Cynon Valley History Society, 1986
  • Aberdare Pictures from the Past (Vol 2), Cynon Valley History Society, 1992
  • History Of Mountain Ash 1896, Alan Vernon Jones 1990
  • Mountain Ash, Penrhiwceiber and Abercynon, Bernard Baldwin and Harry Rodgers, 1994
  • The Story of Cwmdare, John F Mear
  • Aberdare the Railways and Tramroads, John F Mear, 1999
  • The Aberdare Railway, Eric R. Mountford And R.W.Kidner (The Oakwood Press)