Friday 7 October 2011, 16:10
Most people in Wales have at least some idea about the significance of Merthyr Tydfil. These days around 30,000 inhabitants live in the town, with the Borough of Merthyr Tydfil hosting approximately 50,000 more.
Inevitably, most of Merthyr's glory rests in its past and there is no doubt that, at one time, this truly was a big town, the greatest iron producing centre in Britain, possibly even the world. With four huge ironworks, Merthyr was also a mining and railway hub and, at their peak, the Dowlais works alone were operating 18 blast furnaces and employing over 7,000 men, women and children.
The four great ironworks - Dowlais (1759), Cyfarthfa (1765), Plymouth (passing into the ownership of Richard Hill in 1788) and Penydarren (1784) - brought prosperity and hardship to the town. Conditions in the hovels of the working classes were dire, a far cry from the luxury enjoyed by people like the Crawshay family, sitting happily and comfortably in their mock Gothic castle at Cyfarthfa.
The oppression of the working classes, the terrible conditions endured by people like the brick girls of the town, has been written about many times - too many to warrant repeating here. Yet there was far more to Merthyr than just iron and coal. And if the interested tourist or the historian cares to look they will find a wealth of fascinating stories.
The town was named after St Tydfil, daughter of Brychan, ruler of Brecheiniog in the fifth century. She was martyred here, murdered by raiding Saxons some time around 480AD, but it was only with the coming of the industrial revolution that the town began to assume major significance - so much so that by the early years of the 19th century this was the largest town in Wales. Cardiff and Swansea, by comparison, were little more than large villages.
Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive
As an industrial centre, it is perhaps appropriate that Merthyr Tydfil was where the first steam railway locomotive in the world once ran. Despite those who scoffed or disbelieved, Richard Trevithick's huge engine pulled an incredible load of 10 tons of coal and 70 men between Penydarren and Abercynon, a distance of over nine miles.
It happened on 14 February 1804, the journey being undertaken as a result of a £1,000 bet between Samuel Homfrey of Penydarren works and Richard Crawshay of Cyfarthfa. Despite demolishing its chimney on a low bridge, Trevithick's engine won the bet for Homfrey.
Visitors to the present-day museum at Cyfarthfa Castle can see a replica of the machine standing outside the main entrance. Trevithick's Tunnel at the site of the old ironworks, complete with mosaic floor, is also worth a visit.
What many people do not realize is that Trevithick was not alone in creating new inventions within the town. Merthyr was also the site for another famous experiment nearly 200 years later when, in January 1985, Sir Clive Sinclair's C5 battery operated vehicle went into production at the Hoover works on the outskirts of the town.
The C5 was revolutionary and created huge media interest but it was a financial disaster. The idea did not catch on and, with only 17,000 units sold, production was halted in the summer of 1985, only six months after it had begun.
Although the machines were assembled at Hoover's, they were powered by motors made in Italy. The experiment, however dismal a failure, did give rise to one great urban myth - that the C5 vehicle was powered by a washing machine motor.
Hoover's, like the great ironworks, has closed now but for half a century the factory was a major employer in the town. The factory opened in October 1948, producing washing machines in the post-war boom when such luxuries became an expectation in most households. By 1973, when the Queen opened an extension, the factory was employing almost 4,000 people.
Hoovers in Merthyr was a community on its own, running sports teams, social clubs and even a library. The factory also had its own fire brigade. By the 1990s, however, the bubble had burst, and despite protests and marches by the work force, job cuts were made. On 13 March 2009 the last 337 workers left the factory and Hoovers closed its doors.
The lack of employment in the town was just one of many reasons why, in a television programme in 2006, Merthyr was voted the third worst place to live in Britain. It was a sad indictment and one that was also decidedly unfair.
Lady Charlotte Guest
The town has a wonderful literary heritage that far too many people tend to forget. To begin with, Lady Charlotte Guest, wife of one of the ironmasters, translated The Mabinogion, the famous collection of folk tales, from Welsh into English while living in the town. Suddenly, for the first time the stories that she enjoyed and loved reading were available for English speaking readers, making Charlotte Guest's work invaluable and richly rewarding.
Writers, artists and musicians
The writers Glyn Jones and Leslie Norris are also famous literary sons of the town. Glyn Jones' book The Island Of Apples is largely set in Merthyr, although he calls it Ystrad. The novel gives a superb evocation of the streets of the town and life in what, in the early 1900s, was still a thriving and bustling community.
Glyn Jones himself attended Cyfarthfa Grammar School and the school, the teachers and the educational system also find their way into what is arguably his greatest book. Leslie Norris, like Jones a teacher as well as a writer, is more circumspect in his comments about the town but his collections of short stories still present a fascinating picture.
Of course, Merthyr did not just produce writers. Artists also worked in the town - the museum at Cyfarthfa has a superb collection of town views and, in particular, a series of cartoons by Sydney Vosper. He was not a Merthyr man but married Constance James, the daughter of the town Mayor. From there his connections and contact with Wales, and Merthyr Tydfil in particular, increased rapidly, his picture Salem garnering him eternal fame.
And then, of course, there was also the musician Joseph Parry, so beloved of Welsh male voice choirs, who lived for many years in a small cottage with his family before emigrating to America and then returning to find fame in his native Wales.
InnovatorsHowever, two of the least known of Merthyr's sons - at least by people outside the town - are John Hughes, the ironmaster of Yuzovka, and Dr Merlyn Pryce.
In 1870 John Hughes took 100 iron workers from Merthyr and nearby Rhymney, and transported them to the wilds of Czarist Russia. Here they founded the Russian iron and steel industries, even creating a town, named Hughesovka (or Yuzovka) in their leader's honour.Merlyn Pryce was the assistant to Alexander Fleming and was the man who, in 1928, drew the attention of his chief to a blue-green mould in one of the petri dishes in their laboratory. Arguably, that makes Pryce, not Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin.
Both Hughes and Pryce were born in Merthyr Tydfil Borough, Hughes in the town and Pryce in Troed-y-Rhiw. John Hughes worked, like his father before him at the Cyfarthfa ironworks, while Merlyn Pryce left the area at the age of 19 in order to study medicine. Both men are renowned sons of the town but both are often overlooked when lists of famous Merthyr people are compiled.
Champion fightersSport, of course, has often provided the town with heroes. The names of Howard Winstone and Eddie Thomas are rightly renowned, in particular Winstone who became World Featherweight Champion, but another great fighter who is sometimes overlooked is Johnny Owen, the Merthyr Matchstick as he was known.
The Bantamweight Champion of GB and the Commonwealth, in 1980 Owen was knocked out in the 12th round of a World Championship fight and lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered. He died a few days later on 4 November.
Merthyr Tydfil has always had great sporting facilities. Not least amongst these are two well known golf clubs, Morlais Castle and Cilsarnws. This latter course, one of the highest in Britain, has fairways littered with rocks - all of them an integral part of the course, from which golfers do not receive a free drop. Members, so the story goes, always carry a "rock iron" in their bag, an old and battered club that they use when playing a shot from close to one of these boulders. After just one trip to the course, all visitors quickly learn to add a rock iron to their bag!
Merthyr Tydfil will never escape its tag as one of Britain's greatest iron towns. And nor does it want to. The iron foundries may have gone, closing and going out of business as the iron trade declined in the face of steel production in the second half of the 19th century, but the people and the town remain.
The coal mines that were created down the valley in the wider Borough of Merthyr Tydfil - at places such as Bedlinog and Treharis - have now also closed, part of the economic downturn that hit Wales in the last few decades of the 20th century. And at times the people of Merthyr must have felt that a gigantic black cloud had settled over their community.
Places such as Dowlais soldiered on for a while, the works only finally closing in 1987, but the heart of the industry had gone many years before that. And yet the people battle on. There is history in the town and the Borough, real and vibrant history that is rich and compelling. If visitors care to search for it they will not be disappointed.
Phil Carradice will be joining Roy Noble on BBC Radio Wales on Tuesday 11 October from 2pm to talk about the history of Merthyr Tydfil.
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Friday 7 October 2011, 10:58
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