The Book of South Wales, the Bristol Channel, Monmouthshire and the Wye
By Charles Frederick Cliffe, published in 1847
These selected extracts from this book were contributed by Josephine Jeremiah (May 2004)
Original spellings are used.
The places mentioned are;
A striking change has taken place in the character of the people since the commencement of the present century, especially during the last ten years, a circumstance which has partly arisen from the intermixture with the English in large towns and works.
In the Vale, English is almost universally spoken, but in many of the sequestered valleys and nooks of the hills, Welsh still prevails. The language of the southern portion of the Principality differs materially from that spoken in North Wales so that people of those districts cannot understand each other without difficulty. The South Walian dialect contains many words used by the people of Brittany, and Breton sailors can keep up a conversation with the Welsh at sea-ports.
The introduction of Railroads will gradually break down national peculiarities and in another fifty years South Wales, which presents vast capabilities, will no doubt be "revolutionised" a peaceful sense.
Aberdare, which is connected with the Taff Vale Railway, by a line and branches, eight miles and a half long, has long been famous for its iron-works and its collieries. There is also a canal. The scenery of the Vale of Cynon, through which the line runs, is charming.
The increase of Aberdare during the last few years has been so great, that there is a prospect of its ultimately becoming a second Merthyr. There are now eight blast furnaces in operation, six of which belong to Messrs. Thompson and Co.; and in the spring of 1847, Mr. Crawshay Bailey commenced new iron works on a very extensive scale.
The Aberdare Railway, which joins the Taff Vale line at the foot of the incline, at which point it will be met by the Newport, Hereford and Abergavenny Railway, was sold to the Taff Vale Company, on an estimated dividend of ten per cent,. a proof of the extent of the traffic.
The markets are held on Wednesday and Saturday; but the latter is the best day to visit Merthyr, as the people from the surrounding country to a distance of at least 20 miles visit it then, and peculiarities of national character can be observed.
In the year 1847, the place is in a state of highest prosperity. There are now four iron works in operation, viz. the Dowlais works of Sir J. Guest and Co., at which there are 19 blast furnaces; the Cyfarthfa works of Messrs. Crawshay and Sons, at which there are 13 furnaces; the Pen-y-Darren works of Messrs. Thompson and Co., at which there are six furnaces (this firm possess two other large iron works); and the Plymouth works of Messrs. Hill at which there are eight furnaces. There are always some furnaces out of blast. Messrs.Crawshay also possess the Hirwain works, six miles out of Merthyr, at which there are four furnaces.
The Plymouth works are seen to the right of the Taff Vale Railway before reaching the station from Cardiff; the Pen-y-Darren works stands near the commencement of the long defile which leads up to Dowlais; Cyfarthfa is situated on the outskirts of the town, near the Neath and Hirwain road.
The iron trade
Merthyr is one of the great seats of the bar iron trade; and so extensive are the rolling mills, now almost exclusively occupied in the production of railway bars, that it is found necessary to import a quantity of pig iron, chiefly from Scotland, to supply the demand as well as large quantities of iron ore of various qualities.
The exports at Cardiff afford an idea of the extent of the iron trade; but the quantity of iron produced is of course much larger. The chief firms sometimes accumulate large stocks, which they work up when times are very prosperous.
The make of blast furnaces varies greatly according to circumstances, and according to the quality of iron produced. Thus a furnace that will make 120 tons of forge iron, is not capable of producing more than 65 tons of foundery iron.
The average make of pigs at Dowlais (where no foundery is made), amounts, we believe, to between 80,000 tons of pig iron per annum; the average make of pigs at Cyfarthfa and Hirwain somewhat exceeds 60,000 tons. Dowlais
The town, which mainly consists of workmen's houses, is of an irregular form, and lies in the midst of a group of bleak mountains: Dowlais occupies the upper part, and is approached by a long street stretching for considerably more than a mile, up a steep ascent beyond the Pen-y-Darren works.
This narrow valley is blocked up to a great extent by enormous black banks of cinders &c. compared with which the largest railway embankments are mere pigmies. Additions are of course constantly being made to these banks, and it appears to a looker-on to be a hazardous operation to bring a horse and tram close to the edge of the lofty ends or "tips" for the purpose of shooting the contents over the precipice.
As the "tips" in progress are formed of hot cinders, they are on fire from nearly top to bottom -- glow like lava. Rivulets of hot water -- once a sylvan trout stream! -- wash the bases of these gloomy banks.
The scene is strange and impressive in broad daylight, but when viewed at night it is wild beyond conception. The mind aids the reality -- gives vastness and sublimity to a picture lighted up by a thousand fires.
The vivid glow and roaring of the blast furnaces near at hand -- the lurid light of distant works -- the clanking of hammers and rolling mills, the confused din of massive machinery -- the burning headlands -- the coke hearths, now if the night be stormy bursting into sheets of flame, now wrapt in vast and impenetrable clouds of smoke -- the wild figures of the workmen, the actors in this apparently infernal scene -- all combine to impress the mind of the spectator very powerfully. Houses
Almost the only assemblage of houses in Merthyr deserving of the name street -- tramroads generally run along the lines of the dwellings -- is the High Street, in the lower part of the town, which is the creation of the last few years. In 1836, the site of the present commodious Market House -- which was built by two individuals -- was a fine hay field. Some attention is now being paid to appearances; but there is great room for improvement. The sanitary regulations are wretched, notwithstanding the natural situation of the town; bad ventilation, bad drainage prevail. Fever existed to a great extent during the winter and spring of 1847. The interiors of the workmen's houses have been improved within the last ten years; more attention to comfort is displayed.
In 1847, the rate of wages is nearly 40 per cent. higher than it was two years previously, owing to the advance in the value of iron; yet the workmen are dissatisfied, and there have been many mutterings about a strike. The variation of wages in the mineral districts is very great. An average is struck every five or six years, at periods when the wages are lowest; but it is so difficult to arrive at accurate conclusions, that we shall only give the present rates.
Colliers earn from £3 to £5 10s. per month, averaging about £1 per week. Miners earn about 18s. per week. Furnace men at the blast furnaces, 20s. to 30s. Finers and Pudlers, from 25s. to 35s. Ballers from 20s. to 45s., averaging 30s. Rollers from 25s. to, in a few cases, five pounds, averaging about 50s. per week
The average earnings are considerably reduced through the "hill country" of Glamorgan and Monmouth by intemperance, which leads to much loss of time.
Some serious riots, which led to loss of life, occurred here in 1831, owing to certain differences between the masters and men. Until the Chartist outbreak occurred in 1839, education was at a low ebb, but the wealthy employers have since "for the most part done much" -- we quote the substance of Mr. Tremenheere's report -- "to improve the moral and social condition of their workmen."
The "small" employers, a numerous class possessing collieries in various parts of the hill country, have however, done nothing for the mining population, and drunkenness and other vices prevail to a lamentable extent. In Merthyr, however, the number of public houses seemed to us smaller than in most Welsh towns. In cases of accident, the workmen are generally exceedingly kind to one another.
There are four National Schools in Merthyr and Dowlais and other day schools and many Sunday schools are maintained. A book canvasser informed us that there is little or no taste amongst the people for modern publications, such for instance,as those of Messrs.Chambers, but that the books in demand are the "Pilgrim's Progress," Baxter's "Saints Everlasting Rest," in Welsh and in English, and other works of a similar character; and that the "religious" part of the community are the chief book buyers. Places of worship
The Church -- for there is only one -- is dedicated to St. Tydvil, and it is an uninteresting structure; but a new church, which has been chiefly erected by subscription on one side of the High-street, is nearly completed, and will form the chief ornament of one of the most thoroughly utilitarian places in the world.
The proprietors of the Dowlais iron works have erected a church with 450 sittings, half of which are free...
In Merthyr and Dowlais there are about twenty large meeting houses, the majority of which belong to the Baptists and Independents.
A Roman Catholic chapel has lately been erected.
Pontypridd (formerly Newbridge).
The Vale of the Taff abounds with picturesque scenery, especially along its upper half, where the wild beauty of the country offers a refreshing contrast to the noisy public works and ugly assemblage of dwelling houses said to be three thousand in number, which are scattered about Pont-y-Pridd or Newbridge. The Taff falls rapidly, the descent between Merthyr Tydvil and Cardiff, a distance of 24 miles, being 568 feet.
Tourists should halt at the Newbridge Station. The singular Bridge, from which the place derives its name, is worth inspecting. It was the work of a self-taught mason and architect named William Edwards, who became before his death one of the most famous bridge builders of the last century. He failed twice here -- first in 1746, when he built a bridge of three arches which was swept away by a flood; secondly in 1751, when he constructed a single arch with too thin a crown. The third attempt succeeded perfectly.
By introducing three circular openings in each of the abutments the weight was reduced, and the key stones relieved. The span or chord of the bridge is 140 feet, forming the section of a circle of 175 feet in diameter, the height from the water 34 feet, and the width of the roadway about 11 feet. There is an echo under the bridge, which is said to repeat a single sound nine times.
In 1816, Newbridge was an insignificant village; but the advantages of its situation became visible to capitalists, who erected iron and chain-cable works here, and since the opening of the Taff Vale Railway, the progress of the place has been wonderfully rapid.
The tin-works of Messrs. Crawshay, at Treforest, are said to be the largest in the kingdom; a distinction which was formerly enjoyed by the Melin Griffith tin-works of Mr. Booker, lower down the river. The chain cable works of Messrs. Brown and Lenox ought to be visited.
Inns -- the New Inn, near the Railway Station, and the Bridgewater Arms, once a famous road-side house.
The Copper Works
The Swansea Valley is the chief seat of the copper trade in Great Britain. There are eight works here (the Whiterock, the Middle Bank, the Hafod, the Upper Bank, the Morfa, the Landore, the Rose and the Forest), two at Neath, three near Port Talbot, two at Llanelly, one in Anglesea, and one at Liverpool, for smelting foreign ore.
Until the year 1827, the ore smelted at Swansea was exclusively British, at which period the consumption for South Wales was about 200,000 tons annually; in 1845, the import of foreign ore exceeded 45,000 tons; and in 1846, this quantity was increased to 58, 456 tons, which yielded £668,267. 1s. in money ...
The trade gives employment to a large population. Messrs. Vivian, who have one of the largest works near Swansea (the Hafod, which is the most easily accessible) employ about 500 men and 300 women and boys.
The women are chiefly engaged in wheeling the ore in barrows to be crushed, and receive 9s. or 10s. per week; children earn from 3s.6d. to 6s.6 1/2d. ; furnacemen from 28s. to 32s.; and the men whose duty it is to ladle the liquid metal from burning fiery furnaces into moulds, are paid £2 and upwards. The wages are paid at the Messrs. Vivian's works, and we believe at others, every Friday -- an excellent plan.
A certain number of men rest on Saturday, and work a given task, to keep the furnaces in, on the Sunday; tasks are called "watches." The people appear more healthy than could be imagined, but those not bred to the work from childhood cannot stand the sulphureous atmosphere and heat, and generally die early. A number of instances of longevity are recorded. An old woman lately died at the age of 103; and a number attain the age of 80 years and more ...
A very large capital is required to conduct a copper work; and it is said that those of Messrs. Vivian, at Swansea and Taibach, make a profit of £70,000 a year.
Very few persons who visit the county of Glamorgan -- nay, few of its inhabitants -- are aware of the existence of a Valley in the heart of the hill-country, which is the gem of South Wales and hardly surpassed throughout the alpine North.
At the Newbridge Station of the Taff Vale Railway, the Rontha (Rhondda), one of the joyous mountain streams that excite the ardour of the fly-fisher, joins the Taff. The distance from hence to Glyn Neath, which we shall describe anon, cannot be far short of thirty miles; and the difficulties presented by the rudeness of the road, but above all by the pass over the mountains at the head of Ystradyvodwg parish, are such that almost everyone prefers travelling by the round-about-way through Aberdare, more to the north.
Into this wild solitude we shall conduct the reader; premising that those who do not wish to proceed to the Vale of Neath, may explore Ystradyvodwg, to the source of the Rontha Vawr, and return to Newbridge in the course of a summer's day. An early start is indispensable, and it is advisable to take provisions, for there is only one primitive hostelrie in the Vale, which is not always prepared for hungry and thirsty guests.
The road up the Rontha (sic) Valley lies for some miles along a tramway, the outlet of an extensive colliery at Dinas, about six miles off, and other works of similar nature. The scenery along this part of the Rhontha is wooded and pleasing. About three miles up there is a famous salmon-leap, worth looking at.
Wild river scenes succeed -- fretful "runs" -- lanes of deep still water -- lofty banks half undermined by floods -- fantastic rocks. The mountains begin to open abruptly. You approach the foot of a hill, near which the greater Rontha is joined by the lesser (Rontha Vach) which flows along another beautiful valley, almost parallel to that of its sister stream, in a direction north by north west.
You leave the tramway -- cross a rude bridge of one arch, and ascend the hill on the right, round which the Rontha Vawr curves; it is desirable to enquire the road to Ystradyvodwg here. The hill is steep and lofty, and forms the south-east end of a long chain Cefyn Twym Rontha, which divides the rivers. We shall never forget our first impression of Ystradyvodwg, when we had walked over this hill. It was a fine morning after a heavy day's rain. The clouds which had been down on the hills began to "lift;" and suddenly the glorious "Green Valley," for that is the translation of its unmusical Welsh name, unfolded itself before us with one of those exquisite effects peculiar to mountain scenery -- which a Claude could not transfer to canvas.
The Vale stretched for a distance of eight or ten miles between two nearly parallel lines of hills, broken by a succession of bluffs of singular beauty, apparently terminated by a vast alpine headland feathered with trees or copse wood to its summit -- a mountain chief keeping watch.
As we descended, the emerald greenness of the meadows in the valley below was most refreshing. At last we got into a narrow cart road, and soon reached the tavern of the district, an ancient place, the "sitting room" of which had a mud floor, kept by a true specimen of a mountaineer, one John Pickernell, where we obtained comfortable refreshment for "man" but wretched fare for "horse." Rest here. A rough cart-road runs parallel with the river, which is fringed with much brush-wood, to Blaen Rontha, a large farm near the head of the Vale, the last traces of "civilization."
The scenery when explored in detail realizes the first impression; there are some fine waterfalls and when you reach the frowning headland that towers at the end, which like most of these hills seems loftier than it really is, owing to its perpendicularity, the composition of the landscape is dignified and bewitching. The people of this solitudinous and happy valley are famed for their hospitality -- a pastoral race, almost entirely dependent on their flocks and herds for support. The chief farmer, Mr.Edwards, has no less than three thousand sheep, but most of the farm houses are rude and small -- the population thin and scattered. The parish church stands in the middle of the vale, and we believe the Dissenters have only one meeting-house. The air is aromatic with wild flowers, and mountain plants -- a sabbath stillness reigns.
The country now becomes "untameably wild." You ascend a steep, narrow, broken path on the right, leaving the infant Rontha Vawr far below; and hard work it is to thread your way on foot, or to lead a horse, if so encumbered, along the shaggy sides of the huge mountain -- a chaos of rocks.
A glen of the wildest beauty carries the eye to the source of the river -- the sweetest of the many pistylls, the silver threads or chords of the hills, which have charmed the heart of the wayfarer with their music, on his day's journey.
You halt, with a feeling of awe, at a modern cairn by the side of the path. A winter rarely passes without the occurrence of two or three deaths on these mountains. This cairn commemorates the death of a poor fellow, who had lost his way and perished here in the gloom of a snowy March evening in 1838, and whose body was not discovered for three weeks. We followed the time-honoured custom, and threw a stone on the heap.
At last we reached the moorland or peat-moss, diverged to the left to Cairn-y-Moesey (said to be the grave of a Bard) at the edge of Craig-y-Llyn, the highest mountain of Glamorgan, which makes a bold horse-shoe sweep here, visible at great distances. Our path, however, lay to the right, so we descended a break in the hills -- were refreshed by some country people milking, a couple of miles from their farm -- and after encountering many difficulties, reached the "Lamb and Flag," at Cwm Neath, in about twelve hours after leaving Newbridge. Under Craig-y-Llyn there are two small lakes, some distance apart, the largest of which, Llyn Mawr, nearly a mile round, is passed, on descending the way we have described. There is, we believe, good fishing, with a breeze. The Rontha rivers are limed or poached by men from the iron-works at Hirwain and Aberdare, so the sport is indifferent.
There is a small hamlet, the centre of a parish of 12,000 acres, called Glyn Corwg, in the depth of the hills about two miles and a half south east of Cairn-y-Moesey, and nine from Neath. We once descended with horses to the Vale of Neath, about two miles beyond Craig-y-Llyn, but we advise no one to attempt to thread the mazes of the ravines of this chain of hills.
During the Railway mania of 1845, a company was formed to carry a Railway from Blaen Rontha down the Vale to the entrance of the Ely Valley on the south side, from whence the course of the River Ely was to be pursued to a point of junction with the South Wales Railway below Llantrissent.
These hills are of the carboniferous group, and will no doubt ultimately be invaded, and perforated with coal levels. We trust that it may not happen in our day.
[Last Updated : 14 May 2004 - Gareth Hicks]