Of all the great “iron dynasties” that helped turn Wales into an industrial centre of world-class proportions – along with all the suffering and deprivation that went with the process – none is more fascinating than the Homfray family.
Strangely, the Homfray's are less well-known than their rivals – and, sometimes, friends - such as the Crawshay and Guest families. Yet their story is both interesting and illuminating, one that is worthy of any romantic or historical novel. It can be argued that these men, three of them in particular, were instrumental in creating modern Wales – for good and for bad.
The founder of the dynasty, as far as Wales was concerned, was Francis Homfray. Born in the Midlands in 1726, he established and ran successful iron works in both Worcester and Staffordshire.
Encouraged by his friend John Guest, who in 1767, had already left Staffordshire to take over and develop what was then the small iron works at Dowlais on the hills above Merthyr Tydfil, Homfray took out a lease from Anthony Bacon of Cyfarthfa. He created a mill, foundry and several forges in the town of Merthyr. This was in the autumn of 1782.
The Homfray brothers
One of Samuel Homfray's intentions in coming to Wales was to create an outlet for the dynamic and sometimes dangerous energies of his two sons Jeremiah and Samuel. These were the men who ran the works at Merthyr but they were quarrelsome and litigious individuals. One of the first to feel their wrath was their landlord, Anthony Bacon, with whom they soon quarreled, their lease duly being transferred to a man by the name of David Tanner.
Shortly afterwards the brothers took out another lease, this time at Penydarren on one of the richest iron ore deposits in the area. The enterprise was funded by their father, Samuel Homfray, and by another brother, Thomas, who now became a partner in the enterprise.
The new iron works soon grew and prospered, producing some of the best quality iron in the country. However, the mills were still small when compared the giant Dowlais iron company of the Guests. Situated further up the valley and sitting, like Penydarren, on the flanks of the Morlais stream, the iron works at Dowlais had first call on the water that was essential in producing iron.
Arguments and law suits
In hot weather the Morlais stream sometimes dried up while, more often, it became clogged by the waste from the Dowlais works. On many occasions, there were arguments and law suits between the two sets of owners – law suits that were usually won by the Guests.
There was also little or no coal available on the Penydarren site and the ludicrous situation arose where the managers of the Penydarren works had to buy their coal from their rivals at Dowlais. It was perhaps inevitable that the Homfray's looked elsewhere for their profits.
In 1789 Jeremiah Homfray was the prime mover in initiating iron working at Ebbw Vale. He gave up management of Penydarren to his brother Samuel. Although he was still nominally involved until 1796, when he and Samuel were involved in a bitter and heated quarrel over the way the works were run.
The combative side to Jermiah's nature often came to the fore and soon his partners at Ebbw Vale also pulled out. That left him as the sole manager until new supporters could be found. And it was not long before he was involved in other developments, creating new iron works at places like Abernant, Rhigos and Hirwaun.
These enterprises, too, were soon abandoned and, perhaps predictably, Jeremiah was soon in financial difficulties – despite an annual annuity of £2,500 he had been given as part of the agreement when he left Penydarren.
Jeremiah, who was High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1809, had a large family to support and enjoyed an extravagant life style. He was finally declared bankrupt in 1813. His house in the Rhondda – and its contents – were duly sold off to pay creditors but the debts continued to mount. He then fled to France to avoid those creditors and died at Boulogne in 1833.
Samuel Homfray had continued to successfully run the works at Penydarren after the quarrel with his brother.
Samuel was one of the main architects behind the creation of the Glamorganshire Canal, a far more effective way of transporting raw materials to the docks at Cardiff than the traditional mule and packhorse that had been used in the past. Digging and building the canal was a long, slow process and it was only finally finished and opened in 1795 at a cost of over £100,000.
World's first steam powered engine
Samuel Homfray, however, will always be remembered as the man who famously made a wager for £1,000 with his rival Richard Crawshay of the Cyfarthfa works. It was a wager that resulted in Richard Trevithick running the world's first steam powered engine, pulling ten tons of coal and 70 men, for the nine miles along a tramway that snaked from the works at Penydarren to Navigation (now called Abercynon), at the head of the Glamorganshire Canal. And, of course, Trevithick's invention secured for Homfray the cheque for £1,000.
Cinders and slag
Samuel, like his brother, was famously litigious and was involved in many law suits during his career. Perhaps the most notable was when he sued the Dowlais Iron Company in 1811, for blocking the Morlais stream with “cinders and slag”.
Through a very advantageous marriage to the daughter of Lord Tredegar of Tredegar House outside Newport, Samuel Homfray managed to obtain a huge parcel of land in and around the town of Tredegar. Here he quickly established the Tredegar Iron Works. High Sheriff of Monmouthshire on two occasions, in 1813 and 1818. He later became MP for Stafford and died on 22 May 1822.
By then, the Homfray's had already left Penydarren, the iron works being sold to the Foreman and Thompson Partnership in 1814.
The Homfray family created and ran several hugely successful iron workings across the valleys of eastern Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were a family of dynamic and energetic proportions, quarrelsome and argumentative; a family that cared little about their workforce. But they were symbolic of their age. And one day, perhaps, somebody will take their story and turn it into a book or film. They deserve nothing less.