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Cyfarthfa Ironworks
Cyfarthfa, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK
Cyfarthfa Ironworks
associated engineer
Charles Wood
Richard Crawshay
James Cockshutt
Watkin George
date  1765
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Factory/Industrial Plant  |  reference  SO037068
photo  Cyfarthfa Steelworks c.1890s courtesy www.alangeorge.co.uk
Cyfarthfa Ironworks was one of five important iron and steel works in the Merthyr Tydfil area and, like Dowlais, was for a while the largest ironworks in the world. The location was ideal, with abundant raw materials. Cyfarthfa operated for more than 150 years and was run by members of the Crawshay family for almost a century. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the remains of furnaces, kilns and other structures can still be seen.
The Cyfarthfa Ironworks date from 29th August 1765, when Anthony Bacon (bap.1717-86) and William Brownrigg (1711-1800) leased 405 hectares of land, 13km long and 8km wide, for 99 years at a rent of £100 per year from William Talbot (1710-82, 1st Earl Talbot) and a Michael Richards.
Cyfarthfa was the third of five ironworks in the vicinity — the others were Dowlais (established 1759), Plymouth (1763), Ynysfach (1769) and Penydarren (1784). The locality provided coal, iron ore, limestone, clay and water from the River Taff.
Bacon and Brownrigg engaged ironmaster Charles Wood (1702-74) to build a leat, a forge and a 15m high blast furnace for smelting iron ore. Wood, who had pioneered the potting and stamping method of refining pig iron into wrought iron, and patented it in 1763, supervised the construction between April 1766 and May 1767. Initially ore was smelted with charcoal but as supplies dwindled the works began to use coal instead.
Bacon evidently wanted to expand his industrial empire. In 1766, he bought a share of the Plymouth Ironworks (SO055050), south Merthyr Tydfil, from its owners Isaac Wilkinson (1695-1784) and John Guest (1722-87). On 22nd July 1777, Bacon bought Brownrigg’s shares in Cyfarthfa for £1,504 15s 5d (£1,504.77) and went into partnership with Richard Crawshay (1739-1810). They began to manufacture cannon for the Board of Ordnance.
On 1st July 1780, Bacon acquired the lease of Hirwaun Ironworks (SN957058) in the Cynon Valley, west of Merthyr Tydfil, with Richard Hill (d.1806) as its general manager. On 27th September 1782, Bacon agreed that Francis Homfray (1725-98) could build a "mill for boring cannon at Cyfarthfa, as also the lower works, called the Foundry, with a pool of water and other premises, for a term of fifty years at £20 per annum". In addition, Bacon would supply Homfray with iron from the blast furnaces at Cyfarthfa, Plymouth and Hirwaun.
However, within two years Homfray claimed the quantity was insufficient and tapped metal directly from the Cyfarthfa furnace. Not surprisingly, Homfray's action caused argument. In October 1784, he transferred at least part of his lease to David Tanner, and Crawshay acquired it in March 1786.
When Bacon died on 21st January 1786, he had no surviving legitimate heir. He did have five natural children with Mary Bushby — Anthony Bushby (1772-1827) who adopted the Bacon surname in 1792, Thomas Bushby (b.1775) later also Bacon, Robert Bushby, Elizabeth Bushby and William Bushby (b.1785).
In his will Bacon bequeathed Cyfarthfa to Anthony junior, Plymouth to Thomas, Hirwaun jointly to Anthony junior and Thomas, and his mines in Workington to Robert, which his sons were to inherit when they reached the age of 21. In the meantime, Bacon’s executors leased the ironworks at Hirwaun to Samuel Glover (d.1808), Plymouth to Hill and Cyfarthfa to Crawshay. Crawshay’s co-lessees at Cyfarthfa were William Stephens and James Cockshutt (1742-1819).
Cyfarthfa produced bar iron, a form of wrought iron made by laboriously hammering pig iron to lower its carbon content and alter its malleability. Cyfarthfa's growth took a new direction in 1787, when Crawshay and Cockshutt visited the Fontley Foundry at Gosport in Hampshire, where Henry Cort (c.1741-1800) had developed a balling (reverbatory) puddling furnace (pat. 1784) for refining pig iron. Used in conjunction with Cort's grooved rolling mill (pat. 1783), the process facilitated the manufacture of good quality bar iron.
Crawshay agreed to pay Cort a fee of 10s (50p) per tonne of iron made in accordance with his patented method, though at that time Cyfarthfa was producing only 10.1 tonnes of bar iron a week. In 1787, Cockshutt designed Cyfarthfa's first bar rolling mill, powered by the works' first Bolton & Watt steam engine. The partnership of Crawshay, Stephens and Cockshutt improved Cort’s process and, in 1788, a second furnace was built to cope with increasing production.
However, the partnership was dissolved on 22nd September 1791, and Crawshay continued alone. In 1792, the works’ foundry manager Watkin George (c.1759-1822) became a partner, a position he would hold until around 1805. In 1794, Anthony junior sold the ironworks to Crawshay and he became the outright owner.
Cyfarthfa prospered under Crawshay, rapidly developing into an important iron manufactory and armaments maker for Britain's ongoing naval conflicts. New furnaces were constructed in 1795 and 1797. In 1798, James Watt (1736-1819) visited and noted that the works had only one steam engine but seven waterwheels to provide power. Mill races fed the waterwheels from Tai Mawr Leat, a 1.35km long canal connected to the River Taff Fawr at Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer.
In 1801, Cyfarthfa started expanding Ynysfach Ironworks (SO045060), to the south east, to act as a supplier of iron for its refineries. It was designed by Watkin George and built by Thomas Jones, and featured steam-powered blast furnaces.
Cyfarthfa's weapons output had become so important to the country's war effort that in 1802, Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) visited the works. In the same year, Crawshay handed responsibility to his only son William Crawshay (1764-1834). By 1803, Cyfarthfa had become the largest ironworks in Britain, making almost 100 tonnes of bar iron each week.
In 1804, the site had four furnaces in blast plus an array of refining furnaces, forges and mills. The furnaces were powered jointly by the Bolton & Watt engine and George's Aeolus waterwheel, 15.2m in diameter and 1.8m wide. By 1806, Cyfarthfa had six blast furnaces and two rolling mills, and employed some 1,500 people earning up to 30s (£1.50) per week. The following year it was the largest ironworks in the world.
William Crawshay quarrelled with his father in 1809, and was replaced as his father's executor and residuary legatee by Richard's son-in-law Benjamin Hall (1778-1817). When Crawshay senior died in 1810, William inherited only a 3/8 share of Cyfarthfa and appointed his son, William Crawshay II (1788-1867) as works manager in his stead because he was apparently "extensively engaged in foreign speculations". Richard’s remaining shares were bequeathed 3/8 to Hall and 2/8 to his nephew Joseph Bailey (1783-1858).
In 1813, Cyfarthfa had seven furnaces in blast and was producing 224 tonnes of bar iron a week, almost double the output of Penydarren Ironworks. In 1817, William Crawshay senior finally gained full financial control of Cyfarthfa. His son was still running the works, which operated under the name Crawshay Brothers, as his other sons Richard Crawshay junior (1786-1859) and George Crawshay (1794-1873) also had managerial roles.
By 1823, the works’ had eight blast furnaces producing 24,587 tonnes of pig iron and was also manufacturing wrought iron rails. However, it was to be overtaken by Dowlais as the world’s largest ironworks.
In 1824-25, William Crawshay II, dubbed the "Iron King", spent £30,000 on building the ornate Cyfarthfa Castle at Merthyr Tydfil. It was designed by English architect Robert Lugar (1773-1855) and located on a parkland estate north east of the ironworks. It remained the family seat until 1899. To match this grandeur, by 1830, the ironworks site employed 5,000 people and reputedly had 193km of tramways and 11km of canals. Its industry consumed 91,440 tonnes of iron ore, 40,640 tonnes of lime and 20,320 tonnes of coal annually.
In 1839, William Crawshay II’s eldest son William Crawshay III (b.1810) drowned, and so his fourth son Robert Thompson Crawshay (1817-79) became acting manager at Cyfarthfa. Under his supervision, the "largest bar of iron ever made" was rolled in February or March 1843. It was a gable bolt for a house in Holland, 7.9m long and 1.8m diameter, weighing around one tonne.
In 1845-46, Cyfarthfa had 11 blast furnaces making 46,492 tonnes of iron per year. Orders continued to pour in as demand for iron escalated in the railway mania of the 1830s and 1840s. In 1847, the works had 18 balling furnaces and 20 puddling furnaces producing 6,242 tonnes of wrought iron rails annually. In 1857, a new rolling mill was built. By this time, Robert was in full control of the works.
He renewed the lease on the ironworks for a further 60 years, commencing on 25th March 1864. Three years later, he inherited Cyfarthfa from his late father. It was a difficult time for the company, local sources of iron ore were depleted and the costs of importing it were rising, and foreign competition was driving down the prices of finished products. Robert was also reluctant to follow Dowlais Ironworks’ lead and produce steel, perhaps owing to a lack of foresight or his own ill health.
Cyfarthfa suffered further setbacks as south Wales endured a period of economic depression and strikes. Robert tried and failed to sell the business and, in April 1874, it was closed for a modernisation programme costing £150,000 in an attempt to regain its former market position. After Robert died on 10th May 1879, his eldest son William Thompson Crawshay (1847-1918) inherited the estate and the ironworks. William Thompson and his brothers Robert Thompson Crawshay junior (1853-1944) and Richard Frederick Crawshay (1859-1903) re-opened it in October 1879, controlling its management jointly under the Crawshay Brothers name.
Crawshay Brothers (Cyfarthfa) Limited instigated a change to the manufacture of steel using the refining process patented by Henry Bessemer (1813-98) in 1856 for blowing air through molten iron. In 1882, William Evans (1843-1915) was appointed works manager. Steel production commenced at Cyfarthfa in 1883-84, over a quarter of a century later than at Dowlais, using five new blast furnaces and four 8.1 tonne Bessemer converters (rounded containers with a top spout). A new rolling mill was built in 1885 and, by 1887, the works employed 4,000 people and had an output of up to 76,200 tonnes a week.
Though the move to steel had been a partial success it was not enough to secure Cyfarthfa’s long-term survival. In 1902, Crawshay Brothers was bought by Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds (GKN) and Evans took over as general manager of both Cyfarthfa and Dowlais.
Diminishing profits prompted GKN to close Cyfarthfa by 1910, but in 1913 it re-opened to combat a steel shortage. During World War I (1914-18) the works' output included pig iron and steel for shell cases. In 1919, Cyfarthfa closed again and never re-opened causing financial hardship in the local community. In 1924, Thomas William Ward (1853-1926) bought the site for demolition and over the next four years the ironworks was dismantled and materials salvaged for scrap.
In 1938, the land was cleared in preparation for the erection of industrial buildings. During World War II (1939-45), the Rotax factory manufactured aircraft instruments. In 1945, the rolling mills site was occupied by a Tri-ang Toys factory and was later redeveloped as Cyfarthfa Industrial Estate. In 1947, the steelworks coking ovens site was occupied by Thorn Electrical Industries with a light bulb factory, which closed in 1992. In the second half of the 20th century, a Hoover Transport Limited factory was built over the steelworks blast furnaces.
In the 1990s, the Groundwork Trust developed the section of the Taff Trail running through the Cyfarthfa Ironworks site and the Taff Fawr Valley. The factories were demolished and, by 2000, the site was ready for restoration work on the blast furnaces. The area has enormous significance for engineering history, and has been designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument. In 2013, the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd undertook excavations, exposing the remains of forges, smithies, coke ovens, calcining kilns, coal stores, a marshalling yard and office buildings.
Cyfarthfa Castle is now a museum open to the public. Previously it had been used as both school and museum but had not been a private house since the Crawshays left in 1899. In 1902, it was purchased by Merthyr Tydfil Corporation and eventually, in 1992, it was refurbished to some of its original Regency splendour.
RCAHMW_NPRN 34078, 34081, 34082, 34083, 275868, 275881
Research: ECPK
"Industrial South Wales 1750-1914: Essays in Welsh Economic History" ed W.E Minchinton, Routledge, November 2013
"Cyfarthfa Conservation Management Plan" by The Conservation Studio, for Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council, July 2009
"Economic History of the British Iron and Steel Industry" by Alan Birch, first published 1967, reprinted by Routledge, Abingdon, 2006
"Bacon, Anthony (Bap.1717, d.1786)" by Jacob M. Price, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
"Crawshay, Richard (1739–1810)" by Chris Evans, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
"The History of Merthyr Tydfil" by Charles Wilkins FGS, Joseph Williams & Sons, Merthyr Tydfil, 1908
"The History of the Iron, Steel, Tinplate and Other Trades of Wales" by Charles Wilkins FGS, Joseph Williams, Merthyr Tydfil, 1903
reference sources   CEH WalesBDCE1

Cyfarthfa Ironworks