History of the Pwll-y-Wrach Woollen factory
Gwaun - Cae - Gurwen
By Gareth Morgan ©
The factory can be seen in the background with the bridge crossing the river.
This history is dedicated to my Great Grandparents Elizabeth and Daniel Davies.
They married in 1889 and came from Llandeilo the following year to the Pwll-y-wrach factory.
Daniel was a woollen manufacturer and so was his Father Benjamin who owned the Birds hill factory in Llangathen just outside Llandeilo.
It also shows how the small water powered mills were put into decline with the advent of steam power that produced cloth cheaper and more efficiently.
It seems that a man called John Griffiths born 1795 from Llanginlo in Cardigan came to work the Pwll-y-pistill woollen factory situated in Cwmgors, but owing to problems over a will the factory was closed for good. John and his wife Hannah and their family then moved to the Pwll-y-wrach premises in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen.
From pre1841-1861 they ran the factory then called the Niagra factory in GCG.
John and Hannah went to Pontardulais leaving Joseph, his wife Elizabeth and family in charge.
Joseph’s chief vice to which he was subject was his fondness for hard liquor and his wild man appearance, he was also well known for his poetry writings.
In 1881 John, Joseph and families moved to Glynmoch Cwmamman where the family ran a weaving business from their home.
There were quite a few others that worked the factory over the next few years. The lease was owned by John Rees from Rhydyfro. On the Census of 1881 the occupants were John Jones and his wife Ann and family of 4 children from Llanddarog, he also employed 2 servants a boy of 20 and a girl of 13.
By 1886 the occupant was Henry Thomas.
My great grandparents came to the factory about 1890, on the 1891 census shows them and a lodger, Isacc Ambrose. The Pwll-y-wrach site was one of the last of its kind to be constructed in this part of the country. Daniel learnt his trade from his Father Benjamin. Daniel was born in Llanfynydd in 1859 at the Abersannan woollen mill his mother was Mary. On the 1861 census Benjamin's occupation is woolen factory master born Conwil Elvet and Mary his wife born Llangeler they had 5 children.
My great Grandmother Elizabeth was the daughter of William and Esther(called Hetty) Davies of Tirbach farm Llandeilo born 1863, although in her later years known as Mrs Davies ffatri, many other members of her family had moved to Cwmgors, they became known as the Tirbachs.
The Pwll-y-wrach factory was built on the edge of the river Garnant a tributary of the Amman. The river was the power source that drove the water wheel. To operate the wheel, water was directed in to a rill by opening a gate this would then turn the wheel thus powering the machinery. The property consisted of the main house that was on a bank overlooking the river it had a large garden with an entrance to both Water street and Quarry rd. The other 2 buildings were the weaving house which was a small 2 story building that housed the hand looms and the main building that housed the machinery powered by the water wheel.
Pwll-y wrach woollen factory
This is an impression of the Pwll-y-wrach woollen Factory from the other side of the river.
The house, the small weaving shed and the building that housed the machinery
The water fall at Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen
All the property was built out of stone with Welsh slate roofs. The building at the side of the river was approximately 50ft in length. This is where the carding and spinning machines were housed. Carding is a process that requires the opening out of the fibres of wool to break up all previous artificial or natural arrangement and to present every fibre disengaged and disentangled thoroughly opened out and free. This was a very important process in the manufacture of the wool as there were no points or places at which a carding fault could be redeemed or accounted for, the quality of the yarn therefore depended on the carding process, but the main function of the card was to produce a uniform web of fibre. The carding machine could also be used for mixing different quality and colours of wool.
The dyeing process for colouring the wool could be carried out at different stages of manufacture. It could be done when the wool was in its raw state by boiling in open vats it could also be dyed at the yarn stage by immersing the hanks or bobbins in the dyeing vat. The wool could also be dyed at the cloth stage.
Before the introduction of synthetic dyes woollen manufacturers were dependant on natural dyes extracted from plant materials such as madder, fox gloves and lichens together with different metallic mordants such as iron, alum and tin.
Dyeing of wool at the hank stage
The top floor of the building at the side of the river housed the machinery for spinning. It's recorded on the books of John Davies from Dol-Goch, Llanbrynmair that he supplied the Pwll Y Wrach factory with machinery. He and his son Robert supplied a wide range of textile equipment from the 1840s and 50s. It is most certain that it was a spinning jack that was used at the Pwll Y Wrach mill the price of this equipment, depending on the number of spindles, was from £11 to £15. Although connected by a large wheel and belt to the water power it still required the full strength of the operator to pull the carriage along its rails. The rolls of condensed wool slivers were placed in slots resting on the tin lined rollers on the fixed frames at the back of the machine. Each thick and soft strand of wool was passed between a number of metal dividers connected to the bobbins placed on one of the 80 spindles on the movable carriage of the jack.
The Spinning Jack
In the smaller building across the road the hand looms for weaving the wool thread into cloth were housed. Whether a loom is power driven or hand driven the process of weaving is essentially the same. Threading or beaming the loom was a painfully slow task requiring considerable skill. To operate the loom the weaver would sit on the bench ( ffwrwm'iste') attached to the back of the loom the weaving would commence by throwing the shuttle ( Y wennol) back and fore between the warp threads letting them out and winding the finished cloth on the cloth beam
Hand operated weaving loom
My great grandfather employed 3 men, 2 worked in the weaving house and the third worked in the main building where the carding and spinning processes took place. At that time employees were either paid on a piece work basis or they received a yearly sum in settlement of work done. Rural mills were more often than not run by the mill owner and his family and for as long as these mills remained in production they would carry on working them using the machinery and water power installed in the factory when it was built. The blankets and carthenni in constant demand in west Wales were of the double bed variety, but the small rural mill did not have the equipment to produce them. So the blanket was woven on the narrow looms and then sewn up the middle I have still in my possession one such blanket made at the Pwll-y-Wrach factory. In addition to bed cloths they produced striped shirting flannel (gwlanen crysau) to rough suitings (brethyn cartref) from knitting yarn to underwear flannel (gwlanen drosus). The factory also had a stocking- knitting machine.
Stocking knitting machine circa 1880
The customers for the products made at the factory were local people, and also importantly the woollen fairs (fair lanen). One such fair was in Brynamman and this was a good opportunity to sell and advertise. Some of the small factories were dependant on these fairs. There were also fairs at Llangyfelach, Clydach, Llansamlet, Aberdare and Maesteg with Llangyfelach and Maesteg regarded as particularly important.
On the 1901 census it shows Daniel age 39, woollen factory master, Elizabeth 37, Benjamin 7, William 5, Mary E.3 and Hetty Margaret 3mths. Living there also was Elizabeth's father William Davies 75 and 3 servants Sarah 16, John 74 and Samuel 57. In July of 1903 Daniel died at the age of 41, his death was registered by his brother in law John Davies (Cwmgors) present at his death. This must have been a tremendous blow for my great grandmother as she was left a widow at the age of 38 with a young family and a business to look after. At this time there was also increasing competition from the larger steam powered mills producing cheaper cloth and in less time.
Practically all the wool for manufacture at the factory came from local farms. One such farm was Blain Garnant which overlooked the factory on the Cawder mountain. One of the oldest residents of the Waun, Mrs Llewellyn the cafe who was over a 100 when she died remembers as a young girl living at the farm and taking wool to the factory to be processed.
The charges made for processing farmers wool between 1890-1910 was as follows, 1shilling per pound for dyeing, carding and spinning, 5p for spinning, 4p a yard for weaving and 6p a yard for piece dyeing. Many of the farms settled the account with meat, butter, eggs etc. Some wool would also come from as far as Llandeilo. On arrival the wool would need to be sorted by hand this would require experience as it was a highly skilled process as wool has different strengths and textures. Next the wool was scoured, the most common method of scouring practised in all parts of Wales, at least until 1914, was to immerse the raw wool in a solution consisting of one part urine to three parts warm water, the washing process would take about 2 hours. The wool would then be rinsed in running water. Once dry it would be ready for willowing or teasing, this involves disentangling and opening out the fibres of wool ready for the carding process.
The willowing machine resembled a barn thresher and was known by a variety of names such as willey, willow, devil (diafol or diawl)
Mid-nineteenth century willey
Once the willowing process was complete the wool was ready for carding and then spinning, but before spun yarn could be used for weaving blankets and carthenni it required a three-ply yarn so it had to go through a machine known as the twister. For cloth, flannel and shawls only single ply yarn is required. There was also a machine for producing the skeins of wool sold for knitting yarn.
Another product made at the factory was flannel, but this was required to go through a process known as fulling (pannu), this involved having to take the cloth to Rhydyfro near Pontardawe as this was the closest fulling mill to the Pwll-y-Wrach factory. The process closed up the fibres in the cloth and the fabric thickened, this required an apparatus known as Fulling stocks, consisting of 2 x 8ft long wooden mallets. The actual fulling took place, with the cloth passing beneath the wooden mallets, usually three times. The first time the trough beneath the mallets contained urine. The second fulling was with the fuller's earth and the third with hot soapy water. Each pounding lasted two hours, with a final thorough rinsing in clean water.
Local deliveries were made using the pony and trap. Uncle Will (Ffatri) remembered when they came to take Doll the horse in 1914 as a requisition for the Great war. In the first 12 days of war special purchasers went out across the country buying draught animals left, right and centre and at the end of these 12 days, over 165,000 horses had been acquired for military service and the factory's horse was one such recruit. This meant that my great grandmother had to rent a horse from Pwll-y-Wrach farm.
When researching information about the factory, living next door to me was Tommy Jones who was then in his 80s. He remembered as a young boy the pony and trap being filled with woollen products so much so he recalled my Great Grandmother and my Grandmother Hetty would start the deliveries by walking the horse and trap, but he was allowed to sit on top of the goods. As they called at each house Tommy's job was to stay with the horse, for this he would receive sixpence (2½p) and a meal back at the factory.
In the 1960s I can remember visiting an old lady known to me as Auntie Becca in Upper Colbren rd GCG with my Mother. I was told that she was a house maid ( morwm) at the factory, it also seems that at the time of the building of the viaduct, one of the workers was lodging at the factory he was known as Julian the Frenchman, in fact his surname was Gourmil and he married Rebecca. She and her family remained close friends of my Grandmother and would often visit, she died in the late 60s.
(This is done from my memory as a young boy)
There were also other members of the Davies family living in various parts of Carmarthenshire manufacturing wool.
My great grandfather's sister and her husband were living at the Nantybaste factory at Llanegwad, there was also a family in Porth-y-Rhyd.
A family wedding at the Nantybaste factory in 1902 the wool blankets were made at the factory.
On the 1911 census it shows Elizabeth as widow 47 with sons Benjamin 18 and William 15 both working in the coal mines, also daughters Mary Elizabeth 13 and Hetty Margaret 10. There was also William Evans 52 a Wool spinner, John Davies 61 wool weaver and Elizabeth's widowed nephew Johnny Haines 29 also working in the coal industry. Although my uncle Will would recall that as young children they would have to help with filling the bobbins amongst other jobs, the boys chose to go and work in the coal mines as this was a growing industry with a guaranteed wage. It was only in later years that they would realise the price they paid as did so many other miners.
The actual closure of the factory is a little uncertain, but members of the family think it was about 1917-18. Its demise was blamed on the larger steam powered woollen manufacturers such as Rowland's of Pontardulais producing cloth at 9p (4½p) a yard and in larger quantities. The small water powered factories would need to charge 1/3p (9p) a yard and were limited in output.
Most of the rural factories that were still powered by water wheel could not afford to convert to steam power and in some cases this was not an option due to the size and age of the building. Most of the machinery at the Pwll y wrach factory was sold to relatives who had a factory in Porth y Rhyd near Carmarthen.
Elizabeth then moved from the factory with her family to open a shop at 20,Carwen street and continued trading in woollen goods. She stocked blankets, carthenni, knitting wool, silks, women and men's clothing, stockings and socks, toiletries and tobacco. The shop was situated on the main road opposite the old school. The family remained at Carwen street until 1924, great grandmother had bought a house at Standing terrace in 1911, later known as Stanley street and the family moved there that year. She lived at the house for only a short time and died on the 23 rd of June 1925 at the old Swansea hospital. She was buried at Siloam chapel Brynamman with her husband Daniel. Daniel and Elizabeth were both founder members of Sion chapel Cwmgors.
The shop at 20 Carwen Street ( middle of the row left)
Some of the suppliers for the shop