A place that changed the world: a visit to Neath Abbey Ironworks

Neath Abbey Ironworks is a unique and beautiful historic site. Peter Richards, secretary of The Friends of Neath Abbey Iron Company, gave us a guided tour.

Neath Abbey Ironworks

You don’t get much closer to our rail network than Neath Abbey Ironworks: a viaduct designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel carries the mainline from London right over the site. It’s just one of many remarkable architectural features at the Ironworks, which is home to two impressive blast furnaces, a large engine manufactory – one of the earliest buildings to have cast-iron roof beams – and a row of partially excavated workers’ cottages. 

The site of the ironworks has been looked after by the Friends of Neath Abbey Iron Company for the past six years, and in that time the volunteers have achieved massive improvements, clearing away overgrown plants to make the buildings visible, carrying out archaeological digs, excavating one of the ruined workers’ cottages, and adding safety barriers and a profusion of information boards to ensure a visit to the site is safe and informative.

With money from the South West Wales Connected Community Changemakers Fund, they have also added two sturdy benches that are used by the team for refreshments breaks on their work days, and by the visitors who come to enjoy picnics in this extraordinary location. Neath Abbey Ironworks has a fascinating history going back centuries, as Peter Richards, Secretary of The Friends of Neath Abbey Iron Company explains:

Secretary Peter Richards and his sister Cathryn Richards, treasurer.

“In 1694, a lease was signed on this land, stating that a copper rolling mill was going to be built here,” he says. “One of the owners was an MP. He was the master of the Royal Mint and he wanted to introduce copper coinage – so he wanted to have a mill to make the coinage so he could make lots of money!

“The lease stated that prior to this, there had been a blast furnace here. That would have been a charcoal-burning blast furnace, as opposed to the ones you can see today, which are coal-fired. This charcoal blast furnace would have devastated the whole area, because you needed to chop a lot of trees down to make the charcoal.”

The site is now so leafy and beautiful, it’s hard to imagine what it must have looked like when it was a hive of industry – and the copper mill was just the beginning of an industrial story that would continue well into the 20th Century.

The Fox family, who were Cornish Quakers, built the ironworks you see today in 1792, to supply their own foundry and the open market – but iron was soon not its only product.

Its work building steam engines made it world-famous, and its 8000 engineering plans in the West Glamorgan Archives are inscribed by the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

Locally, it made the engine for the Hafod Works and for the iron works in Ebbw Vale – but its engines travelled far and wide.

It made its first high-pressure stationary steam engine in 1806 and went on to make marine steam engines, initially for ships built elsewhere – but later, ships were made on-site too. It launched the world’s first 1000-ton iron sailing ship in 1853. The ironworks was famed for its quality workmanship; the SS John first sailed in 1849 and was the oldest steamship in commission before its loss in 1945.

In 1829 the Ironworks began building steam locomotives too: over 65 were made, and some were world design firsts.

“The Foxes could see the need for steam power; the Industrial Revolution had taken off and they initially founded the ironworks because they wanted to build their own engines cheaper for their mines in Cornwall,” says Peter.

The Fox family were great believers in vertical integration, whereby you own all the businesses in your supply chain – which in their case meant owning everything from the mines to the end products made with the iron: the engines and ships. This business model made them hugely successful and brought Neath Abbey Ironworks worldwide renown.

Besides its products, the site has many other claims to fame: it played an important role in the development of the gas industry, and its counting house was one of the first places to be lit by gas – by William Murdoch in 1795.

Joseph Tregelles Price, the company’s managing director from 1818, was a famous philanthropist. He co-founded the Peace Society (a predecessor of today’s International Peace Bureau) in 1816 and tried to win a reprieve for Dic Penderyn, who was arrested in the Merthyr Rising and hanged in Cardiff in 1831.

Tregelles Price also campaigned for the abolition of slavery, which finally happened in 1833. The next year, Price set up a fund to buy a Bible for every freed slave.

In its heyday, the site would have been full of noise and fire. The heat inside the blast furnaces was so intense that the men would work in relay, taking it in turns to run in and tap the furnace until the heat got too much, after which a worker would run out, to be replaced by another. 

Walk up the valley under the viaduct and you can see the remains of the workers’ cottages – tiny dwellings that housed up to 12 people at a time. There would have been no inside sanitation; the nearby river would have performed this function. Whole families used to live on site, which remained inhabited well into the 20th Century.

Further up the valley, the path narrows and takes you off the site owned by Neath Port Talbot Council, up to the derelict woollen mill and the beautiful, tumbling waterfall – in use until the 1970s – which provided water and power for the site. The loom from the mill is now at the Gower Heritage Centre.

In contrast to the overgrown route to the waterfall, the site looked after by the Friends of Neath Abbey Iron Company is pristine thanks to the group’s workdays, which take place every Sunday from 1pm to 4pm. Free refreshments are provided, and the team work hard to weed the site, litter pick, and make it more accessible and informative for visitors.

Their work also encompasses archaeological digs and open days for schools and the public – and they have also created a mini heritage centre, housed in a decommissioned phone box in Longford, Neath Abbey, where you can learn more about the site.

“Neath Abbey Ironworks is utterly unique,” says Peter. “The site’s importance encompasses its engineering, its science and technology, and we mustn’t forget the people who worked here. They believed that, under the leadership of Joseph Tregelles Price, they could match anything in the world. Joseph Tregelles Price was a remarkable man in his own right, due to his work to abolish slavery and his fight to save Dic Penderyn’s life. 

“They trained marvellous engineers here too – the man who designed the Firth of Forth Bridge trained here. They also founded a school here for the workers’ children in 1801, making it one of the earliest industrial schools. This is a place that changed the world.”

How to get there: Neath Abbey Ironworks is a 25 minute walk from Neath Railway Station;


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