Parys Mountain

15: The industrial revolution

The Welsh economy in the mid 18th century

In 1750, Wales was still an overwhelmingly rural country. Its population of about 500,000 was, however, gaining an expanding industrial base.

In the early 18th century, the industries established during the reign of Elizabeth I experienced a new vigour. Iron-making in Pontypool and Bersham, lead and silver mining in Flintshire and Cardiganshire, copper smelting in Neath and Swansea and coalmining in west Glamorgan and Flintshire increased substantially.

Nevertheless, they remained marginal in comparison with the agricultural economy. That economy was also developing, with the adoption of crop rotation, the use of lime, the enclosure of waste land and the development of proto-industrial production, especially in the woollen industry.

By 1851, Wales was the world's second leading industrial nation, behind England.

The industrial take-off

The take-off into self-sustained growth occurred in the second half of the 18th century. Yet development should not be predated. The counties of Wales were divided into hundreds; there were 88 in all and, as late as 1811, 79 of them had a majority of inhabitants still directly dependent upon the soil for their livelihood.

By 1851, however, two thirds of the families of Wales were supported by activities other than agriculture, which meant that, after the English, the Welsh were the world's second industrial nation.

The growth in heavy industry was fuelled by the wars - the Seven Years' War (1756-63), the American War of Independence (1775-83) and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1802, 1803-15).

It was north-east Wales which developed the greatest range of industries. By the late 18th century there were 19 metalworks at Holywell and 14 potteries at Buckley; Holywell and Mold had cotton mills; lead and coal mines proliferated. Bersham, where the Wilkinson family were pioneers in the use of coke rather than charcoal in the smelting of iron, was one of Europe's leading ironworks.

By 1830 Monmouthshire and east Glamorgan were producing half the iron exported by Britain

In the long term, however, the developments in the south east were more important. The ironworks of Merthyr Tydfil - Cyfarthfa and Dowlais in particular - gave rise to Wales's first industrial town. By 1830 Monmouthshire and east Glamorgan were producing half the iron exported by Britain.

Economic development was also significant in the Llanelli-Swansea-Neath area, in Amlwch with its vast copper mine, in Snowdonia where slate quarrying overtook copper mining, and in parts of central Wales where factory methods were replacing domestic production in the woollen industry.


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