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A History of Carmarthenshire

Lloyd, Sir John E., (Ed.). 2 vols., Cardiff, London Carmarthenshire Society (1935, 1939).

With the kind permission of the publishers sundry extracts from this book have been extracted by Gareth Hicks.

Here is a list of the book's contents and contributors.  


Economic and Social Life


By E G Bowen

This chapter attempts to tell the story of the economic and social life of the county in post-medieval times. Such a task is necessarily a very complex one, and no single chapter can give more than a generalised picture. But, however general the picture may be, it must be remembered that the outline is, in the main, but a reflection of the major economic changes in Britain during the period under review. Outstanding among these are the composite changes which we usually term the Industrial Revolution.

This process was initiated in no spectacular manner. It would appear that technical improvements were made, roughly about the same time, in a number of separate industries, as far removed from each other as iron smelting and cotton spinning. That these improvements occurred about the same time appears to be purely fortuitous, but its significance was enormous, for it soon became clear that a technical advance in one industry facilitated further progress in another. Thus the discovery of how to use coal to smelt iron led to an enormous increase in coal mining and to better methods of casting, which in turn improved the fire engine; this, when applied to the iron industry, increased the power of the furnace and so made for a greater output of iron. The improved steam engine was applied to the pumping of water out of coal mines and so made deep mining possible, thereby increasing the output of coal when it was much needed in the iron industry. The application of the steam engine to the new inventions in the textile industry resulted in the rise of the factory system. The resulting increase output is linked with the rise of railways and the steamboat for transport and export. These developments themselves were dependent on further adaptations of the steam engine and the large supplies of iron and coal which were now available. It was this interdependence of technical discoveries that gave rise to the complex network of new industries and new conditions of working which we associate with the Industrial Era.

It was hardly to be expected that any of these initial discoveries should take place in Carmarthenshire, though on a priori grounds this was by no means deemed to be impossible. Actually, they all took place in northern and western Britain, and South Wales as a whole must not be entirely excluded in this respect. The significant point, however, is that, even though Carmarthenshire did not contribute an initial discovery of major importance, it shared, nevertheless, to the full in the changes that resulted from successful experiments conducted elsewhere. Furthermore, it must be realised that the changes, however momentous, were slow in their operation and that time elapsed before an industry successfully started in one area migrated to another. Such migration was always dependent on the natural endowment of the region in coal and other mineral resources. Following on the establishment of new industries came the new population gathered into large towns around the factories, furnaces, and pitheads. The gathering in one region depleted another. All these factors, and many more, worked for great social and economic changes in Carmarthenshire, as in many other areas in Britain at this time. By the third decade of the 19th century, all these changes were at least in their initial stages in Carmarthenshire, and after that time we can say that the age of industry was in full swing.

Before this date, agriculture was unquestionably the chief occupation of the people of the shire. Closely related to it, and partly dependent upon it for its raw material, was the woollen industry, which, until the second and third decade of the 19th century, was in Carmarthenshire a home not a factory industry. Agriculture must of necessity receive considerable attention in this chapter, but no attempt is made to deal with its development after the early decades of the 19th century, when it became impoverished and its importance to a large extent overshadowed by the changes brought about by the age of industry.

A section is devoted to the early iron and coal industries, which before the industrial era functioned independently of each other. In like manner, a brief account has been given of the slow process by which the communications of the county were improved before the iron works migrated to the edge of the coalfield as a result of the introduction of new methods of smelting. The later movement not only initiated the industrial era, but also quickened the pace by which communications were improved, and it was ultimately associated with the introduction of the railway system and the development of docks and ports.

In the first half century of the industrial era in Carmarthenshire (that is, up to about the year 1870), we find that the iron industry, even under its new conditions, was overshadowed by the development of the non-ferrous metal industries, especially that of copper smelting. It was characteristic of the new developments that this industry did not exist alone. There were associated with it a number of others of lesser importance. In course of time, many of these passed away, but they seldom did so without leaving some descendants in the form of new industries closely related to the parent. It is consequently extremely difficult to find a convenient halting place, where one section of the work can end and another begin. However, in spite of the absence of any real break in the narrative and, indeed, some considerable overlap (particularly in the case of the tinplate industry), it has been found convenient to devote a whole section to the non-ferrous industries as representative of an outstanding phase in the industrial history of the area. A subsequent section deals with the later tinplate, steel , and coal industries which became the outstanding feature of the economic development of the region in the second half century of the industrial age. In this section, too, it is convenient to treat of the minor industries, and to outline the extent of the enormous changes in transport conditions that accompanied the new era.

Throughout this period there were great changes also in social conditions and in the organisation and administration of capital and labour. Many of the former have already been discussed in Chapter I of this volume, but it was felt that the coming of public elementary and secondary education was a feature worthy of special consideration. The organisation and administration of capital and labour on the coalfield and in the heavy industries is primarily a feature of the 20th century as far as Carmarthenshire is concerned, and since the present century is considered to be beyond the scope of this History, such matters could not have special sections devoted to them. On the other hand, while trying to trace the development of industries whose beginnings are found in the 19th century it became essential in some instances to continue the story well into the new century so that the reader may appreciate the rapid manner in which such industries have reached maturity in our times.


Gareth Hicks