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The ironmaster of Yuzovka

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:24 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010

Imagine the scene. It is 1870 and a hundred ironworkers from Merthyr Tydfil, Dowlais and Rhymney suddenly find themselves in the wilds of Czarist Russia, in the area we now know as the Ukraine.

The culture is strange, the climate is brutal, the people are distant and cold.

Everything is vastly different from anything they have ever encountered in the Welsh valleys and along the coastal industrial belt of their now very distant homeland.

Those intrepid and, probably, rather tentative ironworkers were accompanying a 55 year old Welsh industrialist and entrepreneur who had just won a contract from Imperial Russia to provide armour for a new naval fortress at Kronstadt.

His name was John Hughes and within the space of ten years the township he established around his new ironworks would be christened Yusovka (or Hughesovka as it is sometimes called) in his honour.

John Hughes was born in Merthyr in 1815, his father being an engineer in the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. John followed in his father's trade at Cyfarthfa before taking up senior positions in Ebbw Vale and at the Uskside Foundry in Newport.

Such was his success at Uskside that he was given a seat on the board of the company and when, in due course, he moved on to become Director of Millwall Engineering and Shipbuilding in London, his company quickly earned a massive reputation for the making of composite ships - vessels that had wooden framework overlaid with iron armoured plating.

In 1870, thanks to the worldwide reputation of his company, the Russians decided that this was the man they needed to build their new fortress. It was too good a chance to miss and Hughes obviously loved a challenge. A challenge this would certainly be as there was, quite literally, nothing waiting for him in Russia, just an empty wilderness and a burning desire to succeed.

Undaunted, excited even, Hughes sailed to the Ukraine with eight shiploads of equipment and a team of specialist ironworkers and miners from his native land. As well as the fortress they were to build and run a new metallurgical plant and rail factory. It was the beginning of a dynasty.

The town that was created alongside the ironworks - originally intended for the Welsh ironworkers - quickly grew. From bare and basic beginnings it soon boasted hospitals, schools, churches, bathhouses and tearooms. There was even a town fire brigade! And the driving force behind the new community was John Hughes who planned, designed and oversaw much of the development.

The Imperial Russian government was delighted with the work of John Hughes and his team, a team that was soon augmented by Russian workers, keen to learn the iron trade from the Welsh specialists.

However, Hughes was nothing if not a driven man and it is quite possible that he pushed himself too far and too fast. On 29th June 1889, whilst on a visit to the Imperial city of St Petersburg, he died suddenly. He was 74 years old.

The company was taken over by Hughes' four sons and the work continued, the ironworks expanding several times in the years before the First World War. Then, in 1917, came the Bolshevik revolution. Although the works continued to prosper, most of the Welsh workers - or the descendents of the Welsh workers - soon left the country.

Despite this, the company and the ironworks prospered under Communist control and although, since 1969, the town has been known as Donetsk, it was, for many years, one of the largest metallurgical centres in the USSR. And it all came from the efforts of one amazing Welsh industrialist - John Hughes of Yusovka.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Good piece of history Phil. It reminded me of another industrial link with Wales and Russia. In the 1980s I was involved in a restoration scheme on the east side of Merthyr. Part of it was on the site of the old ‘Goat Mill’, part of the Dowlais Ironworks, (which gave its name to Goatmill Road.) Apparently the Goat Mill specialised in making rails, a large proportion of which were exported all over the world to feed the great Railway expansion in the 19th century. I think 50,000 tons of rails were produced here in a single year in the 1840s. One of the major customers was Russia and a substantial part of the Trans-Siberia used rails produced in Merthyr. So your John Hughes may have travelled around Russia on rails made in his home town of Merthyr.


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