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.


The Early Iron and Coal Industry

By L W Evans

"We have seen that the most significant feature of the economic life of Carmarthenshire during the 16th and 17th centuries was the dominant importance of agriculture and its associated industries, such as the woollen manufacture. There are, of course, references during this period to the beginnings of coal mining, especially in the Llanelly district, but this industry hardly becomes important until the use of coal for the smelting of iron ore towards the end of the 18th century attracted the iron masters to these parts.

Therefore, in describing the early phases of the heavy industries in the county, we must begin with iron smelting and pass on to describe the early coal industry. Finally, it will be shown how these two became inter-dependent, and so with the migration of the ironworks to the coalfield, the way was prepared for the great metallurgical industries of the south-east of the county in the 19th century.

The Iron Industry in Carmarthenshire

The dependence of ironworks, especially the smelting furnaces, on woodlands led to their location in the interior of the county. Water was also of prime importance, for it provided the necessary power to work the bellows in the furnaces and forges, the hammers and the rolling mills. The rivers were also used to transport the heavy raw materials, such as limestone and iron-ore. Thus in pre-industrial times the iron industry had a very scattered distribution throughout the county, dependent primarily on supplies of timber and water power.

Before dealing with the ironworks in detail, it is important to note the main processes in the manufacture of iron, in order to summarise the changes that have taken place in the industry.

The blast furnace contained iron-ore, charcoal (or coal or coke) and limestone, and this produced (Allen, GC, British Industries and their Organisation, 1933);

  • (a) Foundry pig-iron, which was made into various castings;
  • (b) Forge pig-iron, which was used in a puddling furnace to produce puddled bars, which in turn passed to the rolling mill to be converted into wrought- or bar-iron;
  • (c) Hematite iron-ore, which, smelted in a blast furnace, produced steel-making pig-iron, for conversion into steel. After 1875, the new process evolved by Bessemer and Siemens and Martin, made it possible to manufacture tinplates from steel-bars (called tin-bars), with the result that the iron-forge became obsolete.

It becomes increasingly clear, after sifting all the available literature, documents, and private letters of the iron masters, that charcoal was originally looked upon as the best fuel for producing the highest grade pig-iron. Evidence from the stock books and accounts of the Carmarthenshire iron masters shows that the timber used for smelting in the early stages was oak and elm, containing 23% and 19% respectively of charcoal. Since the bark of the oak was considered the best for tanning purposes, a large trade arose in the export of bark. Rural ironworks such as Cwmdwyfran and Cwmbran used a mixture of charcoal and coke.

In Carmarthenshire, the change-over from charcoal to coal was not sudden, but very gradual. Coal was used in the ironworks as early as 1750. It is interesting to note that in the middle of the 19th century, when ironworks became re-established in and around Llanelly, charcoal was used to produce the bar-iron for the manufacture of tinplates.

At the end of the 18th century, when certain technical changes took place in the iron industry owing to the changes in fuel supply, the steam engine was being introduced into the mining and manufacturing industries. The blowing apparatus of the early ironworks was worked by water raised by the Newcomen engine, and these works depended on water supplies. Watt's new steam engine enabled iron masters to rely more and more on coal for their industries.

In 1838, the hot blast was introduced for the smelting of iron, in the face of great prejudice. This enabled anthracite coal to be used, and the furnaces of Carmarthenshire in the anthracite area were established after this date. This new method effected a great saving in fuel, for two tons of coal produced one ton of pig-iron, whereas eight tons of coal had been needed before. A further saving in fuel was effected in 1845, when Budd of Ystalyfera (Swansea Valley) introduced a process whereby the hot gases released during combustion were economically burned in the blast furnace. Previously, the gases were burned wastefully at the top of the furnace. Cort in 1784 invented the puddling furnace, which produced bar-iron for the manufacture of tinplate. Cort's invention changed the whole character of the iron industry. Fifteen tons of bar-iron could now be produced  in the time formerly required for producing a single ton, and, moreover, 'this could be produced by the use of coal in the place of charcoal'.

This brief summary of the processes of iron-working reveals that it was an elaborate and highly technical business. In Carmarthenshire, the stages are sufficiently well-defined to enable us to describe each in turn. In the early stages, iron-working in the county was mainly in the interior, and with later developments the major centre became localised on the south-eastern seaboard. With the exception of the ironworks at Whitland Abbey, Kidwelly and Cwmbran, almost all the other early works in Carmarthenshire owe their origin to the Morgan family. It has been asserted that Robert Morgan of Kidwelly (1708-77) was related to his contemporaries, the iron masters of Dowlais and Merthyr. If this be true, then the ironworks of Carmarthenshire are part of the great tradition of iron-working which was so successfully carried out in the north-eastern part of the South Wales coalfield in the pre-coal period.

Iron-working was on a very small scale in Carmarthenshire as compared with Glamorgan and some English areas at this time. Statistics of iron production show clearly that there were no furnaces  in Carmarthenshire comparable with those of Dowlais, Merthyr and Hirwaun. Although the Carmarthenshire furnaces were smaller, and produced small quantities of iron, yet the iron produced, and later on, the tinplates, were known in many parts of Europe for their fine quality."

The next sections of the book relate to particular forges/ironworks and can be accessed on the respective parish pages;

The book contains a section giving production figures for several the above works for various years between 1740 and 1796.

There are also comparative figures  given for charcoal pig-iron in South Wales and England in 1788........it was clear that coal and coke had definitely ousted charcoal. In that year there was 1 charcoal based furnace in Carmarthenshire producing 400 tons of pig-iron, but no coke based furnace. Whilst in Glamorgan there were 3 charcoal based furnaces producing 1800 tons, and 6 coke based producing 6,600 tons.

One writer shows that pit-coal blast rapidly supplanted charcoal towards the end of the 18th century. There was a great deal of prejudice against the use of 'coaked' coal, and people expressed the opinion that the puddling methods had increased the ' aggregate annual quantity of iron..............at the expense of quality' "


The Coal Industry in Carmarthenshire

"We must now turn to describe the early coal mining industry, which, as we have seen, became closely linked to metal smelting at the end of the 18th century. We will begin by describing briefly the Carmarthenshire coalfield. The Carmarthenshire coalfield is a westerly extension of the coal measures of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, the whole of which is generaly termed the South Wales coalfield. Coals varying in volatile content are mined , but in Carmarthenshire the two outstanding types of coal are bituminous and anthracite.

The Carmarthenshire coalfield may be divided into two well-marked regions;-

  • (1) The 'Llanelly Coalfield', the bituminous region, occupies the area around Llanelly and extends north-eastwards to, and includes Llangennech. A section drawn across the Carmarthenshire coalfield shows that the workable coal seams are divided into an upper and lower series by a thick band (3,000-4,000 feet thick) of the hard Pennant Grit formation. The upper coal series is worked in a belt from Pembrey-Llanelly on the west to Neath on the east, all these coals being bituminous.
  • (2) The anthracite or 'Gwendraeth Coalfield'. The north crop of the lower coal series in Carmarthenshire extends along the Gwendraeth valley in a gentle curve towards the upper valleys of the Tawe and Neath. This northern crop is wider, and the dip of the seams less steep than on the southern crop. The coal is anthracite in character.

In these two coalfields of Carmarthenshire there have been two totally different lines of development. The 'Llanelly Coalfield' was developed long before the anthracite area, and its coal was mined long before the early iron masters came into the region, by the local wealthy families. It was through the activities of these local gentry and the reputation of the coal in London and other cities that the English iron masters and their capital were attracted into the area. The local bituminous coal played an important part in the establishment of the iron industries in the region and there are references to show that the iron-masters depended on the coal and used steam engines to combat the inflow of water in their mines.

Anthracite coals did not play an important part in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. This is only to be expected, because their slow combustion prevented their ready use in the furnaces and forges. Consequently, the exploitation of anthracite appears to be a new 'revolution' within the age of industry, or, at least, a clearly defined subsidiary episode in the general spread of industrial civilisation. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the anthracite coalfield of Carmarthenshire played quite a secondary role in the initial stages of the industrial development of the county. It was after 1835, particularly in connection with the discovery of Neilson's hot blast, that anthracite began to be utilised in the manufacture of iron.  Its use, therefore, does not figure very much during the early period. Yet it would not be true to say that no anthracite was mined or used. The Great Forest colliery, owned by Kymer, just outside Kidwelly, was working in the last quarter of the 18th century, but the anthracite was used mainly for domestic purposes and lime-burning."

(There is a separate chapter on the  Llanelly coalfield on the Llanelly parish pages)

(The book has diagrams showing cross sections of the Carmarthenshire coalfields)


Gareth Hicks