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Images of Wales                          Back to Webpage Archive

The feature below was first shown on my website on 8 June 2001


Images of Wales

Where's that?? - locate Blaenavon on a map of Wales.

Water balance
Old Ironworks, Blaenavon,

Photography by John Ball, 18th April 2001
(with Sony Mavica MVC-FD91 digital camera)

Blaenavon is the home of Europe's best-preserved 18th century ironworks and coal mines. The ironworks was the first purpose-built multi-furnace ironworks in Wales.
In 2000, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee added the Blaenavon Ironworks to its World Heritage List of sites "of exceptional universal value" in 122 countries world-wide. The award is highly prized, and helps in the securing of grants for the management and protection of sites.
The Blaenavon Ironworks joins illustrious attractions on the list, such as the Grand Canyon National Park (USA), the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Palace and Park of Versailles (France), the Pyramids (Egypt), Stonehenge (England), and the Taj Mahal (India).

The ironworks site is now in the care of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments.

Ironworks in 1798
Above: Blaenavon Ironworks in 1798 (engraving based on drawing by Sir Richard Colt Hoare)

Industry developed in Blaenavon from the late 18th century, when Thomas Hill, Benjamin Pratt and Thomas Hopkins, entrepreneurs from the Midlands of England, decided to establish the ironworks to exploit the mineral wealth of the area. Nearby Pwll Mawr (the "Big Pit" colliery) began operation in 1812 supplying the ironworks with coal. Most of the men in the local community were employed in the mines, and many migrants and refugees flocked to the area in search of work. By 1830, the Blaenavon works was the largest producer of pig iron in the world.
In the years that followed, Blaenavon's influence extended overseas. Workers from the 'Iron Town' headed for America and other countries in times of economic recession, particularly during the 1820s and 1840s. The migrating population spread the expertise and knowledge of this South Wales mining community all over the world.


Right: Contemporary newspaper announcement describing the unusual circumstances of the death in May 1794 of Benjamin Pratt, one of the founders of the Blaenavon Ironworks:
Suddenly, at the Angel inn, Abergavenny, on his road to Blaen-Avon, Benjamin Pratt, esq. of Astley, near Stourport, co. Worcester, and one of the proprietors of the ironworks at Blaen-Avon, co. Monmouth. He had just dined, in company with a friend, at the above inn, and rose from his chair to ring the bell for the waiter, when, on sitting down again, he found himself very giddy, and exclaimed "I am going to die — but I die an honest man!" and instantly expired.

Model of Ironworks
Above: This wonderful model, on display in the information centre at the ironworks heritage site, shows the late 19th century appearance of the ironworks when it was in full production. The features labelled are described below.

In 1789, Blaenavon ironworks had three furnaces, depicted in the Colt Hoare engraving of 1798. In 1810, furnaces 4 and 5 were added.
Parts of furnaces 4 and 5 still have their facing of massive gritstone blocks (see below). Inside the facing of square blocks is a stone rubble core covering the brick lining of the actual furnace. In 1911, after the furnaces had been out of use for a decade, they were stripped of much of their stone casing to build St James's Church in Blaenavon, leaving the rubble exposed. The church itself is now disused.

No. 4 FurnaceNo. 4 Furnace
Above: The base of Number 4 furnace at Blaenavon.

Furnaces 4 and 5 were remodelled circa 1880 to produce iron ingots to be used for the manufacture of steel by the Bessemer process at the nearby Forgeside works.
Once during each shift, white-hot molten metal was run from the base of the furnace into sand "pig beds" in the floor of the casting house. The casting channels and the row of pig moulds leading off them were thought to resemble a sow and her piglets - hence the term "pig iron". A special iron tool (see below) was used to impress the name of the iron company into the sand mould so the name would appear in relief on the pig iron. This served both as an advertisement and as a precaution against theft.

Below: Special tool used to impress the word BLAENAVON into the sand pig iron moulds (see explanation above).

Water balance

The Water Balance Tower (right) was built by James Ashwell in 1839. Although most ironworks had a similar tower very few have survived in such a good state of preservation. The tower housed a hydraulic lift to raise and lower trams (wagons) containing iron or casting sand between the floor of the furnace yard and the high level furnace top.
The iron gantry at the top of the tower originally supported a large wheel over which was slung a chain. Each end of the chain carried a cage consisting of a tram platform, under which an iron watertank was attached. Draining water from the tank under the lower cage would make it lighter than the upper cage, causing it to rise. Similarly, adding water to the tank under the upper cage made it heavier than the lower cage, causing it to descend. A pit at the bottom of the tower accommodated the water tank under the tram platform so the tram would be correctly aligned with rails on which it could be wheeled away.
The sight of the cage falling past the oval openings in the brickwork gave it the local name of "the guillotine".

Cast House
Above: The surviving cast houses in front of the remains of furnaces 2 and 3.

The cast houses above date from the 18th century. They provided protection from the weather for the casting floor, where white-hot molten metal was run into the pig-beds. The cast house façade is constructed of rubble masonry with good quality ashlar dressings and a triple-arched front. Above the entrance arches are round openings which vented smoke and fumes from the interior.

Engine Row
Above: The cast houses viewed from Engine Row.

Blaenavon was built on desolate moorland, so the ironmasters and their subcontractors erected rows of cottages to house their workers. Most of the original housing has gone, but Stack Square, named after a chimney stack serving a blast furnace set in its middle, has survived (see earlier photograph of model). Houses were built around three sides of Stack Square, forming a U shape. Engine Row (above) was the name given to the cottages on the south-west side of the square.

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Details of each website feature (for newcomers) Direct links to each website feature (for regulars) Advance news of new developments on my website Summary of all the latest updates Gateway to Welsh Family History Archive Help for those having problems accessing my website A link to the main 'gateway' page to my entire website