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Water Balance Tower, Blaenavon Ironworks
Blaenavon, Torfaen, Wales, UK
Water Balance Tower, Blaenavon Ironworks
associated engineer
Not known
date  1839
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Water Tower/Tank  |  reference  SO248093
photo  Alan Stanton (own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Blaenavon Ironworks (founded 1789) was the first purpose-built multi-furnace ironworks in Wales. Its Grade I listed masonry water balance tower dates from 1839, and is the best preserved example of its type that we have. It incorporated a form of hydraulic lifting technology, enabling the raising of iron from the works up to the tramway used for onward transportation to barges on the Brecknock & Abergavenny Canal.
The water tower is a masonry structure, T-shaped in plan and topped by a cast iron framework. Its front wall, the bar of the T, tapers in elevation and is pierced centrally by three large lozenge-shaped openings with shallow arches top and bottom and vertical sides. The lowest opening has had a secondary arch constructed across it at mid-height. The base of the tower contained a pit for water tanks.
The lifting mechanism consisted of two balanced cages with wrought iron water tanks underneath them, connected overhead by a chain that ran up over a flywheel at the top of the tower. Each tank held 3 tonnes of water. The cages ran up and down in the central cavity of the tower. The mechanism was known locally as the 'guillotine' owing to the slicing action of the cages passing the openings in the fašade.
To move the cages, water was piped into one tank to the make it heavier than the other, causing the lighter one to rise. Once the lighter cage reached the top, both cages were locked in place and the water drained from the lower tank, now at the base of the tower. A loaded wagon moved into the lower cage and the upper tank was filled with water. Once the weight of water exceeded that of the wagon, the brake could be released and the loaded cage would rise up. The lifting distance is about 25m.
The tower is constructed on rising ground, with the land higher to the rear. A ground-level tramway delivered iron to the base of the tower at the front and another tramway on the high ground collected it from the top. The same procedure could be used in reverse for the delivery of raw materials.
The top of the tower was originally connected to the tramroad by a timber bridge but that was soon replaced by the masonry one we have today. It is single span with vertical sides and a semicircular arch.
The tramway ran between the ironworks, Garn Ddyrys Forge (SO256118) and the Brecknock & Abergavenny Canal (built 1796-1812) at Llanfoist. Pig iron and coal from Blaenavon were delivered to the forge to be made into wrought iron, which was then taken to the canal for export.
The tower was constructed during James Ashwell's (1799-1881) tenure as managing director of the Blaenavon Iron & Coal Company, when the ironworks was being modernised. However, when a new steelworks opened at Forgeside (SO241086) in the 1860s, Blaenavon's importance began to decline. Iron production ceased in 1904, steel production ended in 1938 and the site closed in the 1960s. It was marked for demolition in 1970 but was saved by Blaenavon Urban District Council in 1974.
Blaenavon has been restored and is now a World Heritage Site and Scheduled Ancient Monument (Mm200). It is managed by Cadw Welsh Historic Monuments and is open to the public all year.
Research: ECPK

Water Balance Tower, Blaenavon Ironworks