Fuelling the Empire
From the late eighteenth century onwards, Caerphilly county borough experienced the most dramatic changes of its past. In the space of little more than one hundred years, it was transformed from a rural backwater into an industrial heartland. Few areas were left untouched by this onslaught. Fuelling this growth was the ready supply of iron ore and coal. These were consumed by the Industrial Revolution and were needed to support the British Empire's expansion around the globe.
The iron industry began to flourish in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Near Rhymney in the north of the county borough, this led to the building of New Town, better known today as Bute Town. This 'model town' provided housing for workers at the nearby Union Ironworks. Both were situated within the area known as the Heads of the Valleys. This was world renowned for its iron industry. By the mid-nineteenth century, the coal industry had swept into the county borough. This industry alone would totally dominate life here for at least the next hundred years. Local coal had now been identified as the ideal fuel for the great Victorian 'steam age'. This industry's impact on the county borough's green and tranquil landscape was devastating. Typically the valley bottoms were engulfed by collieries and railways. Stone was quarried from the hillside and woodlands stripped, whilst bustling mining towns hugged the valley slopes. Above, the black spoil heaps crowned the ridges and grew ever more foreboding. This was a scene repeated across the county borough. However there were exceptions. In the early twentieth century, the design of Oakdale and the Garden Suburbs, Pontywaun, were influenced by the garden city movement.
Essential to the success of industry was a good transport network. Before the mid-eighteenth century, only roads and trackways existed and these were notoriously poor. From the mid-eighteenth century to 1844, Turnpike Trusts were established to improve the roads. People were now charged to use them and this was an unpopular move. With the coming of industry came the tramroads which ran throughout the county borough. These used teams of horses to heave wagons along iron tracks. The Sirhowy Tramroad for example was built in 1805. This transported iron ore and coal down the Sirhowy Valley from the Tredegar Ironworks in the north, to the port of Newport. Traces of this can see still be seen today along the route of the Sirhowy Valley Walk. These tramroads linked into the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. This ran from Crumlin to Newport and was completed between 1794 and 1799. Sections of this still exist today, such as from Pontywaun to Risca. By the mid-nineteenth century railways were becoming the premier mode of transport and an intricate network of routes began to criss-cross the landscape. With the railway came the need to tackle the difficult terrain. This was achieved through some exceptional feats of engineering. The Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway's Taff Vale Extension ran due west across the county borough, cutting across the valleys. This resulted in the construction of the spectacular Crumlin Viaduct and the Maesycwmmer to Hengoed Viaduct. At Llanbradach, Barry Railway's viaduct was equally impressive. Sadly, only the Maesycwmmer to Hengoed Viaduct survives. Mountains too proved no obstacle, as by 1871 the Rhymney Railway had cut a tunnel through Cefn Onn, linking Caerphilly directly to Cardiff.
With the growth of industry came an influx of people. Some would make their fortune here, others a fair living, some lived in poverty, whilst many suffered disease, injury and often death in pursuit of a wage. It was these harsh conditions and often unjust treatment that led to the rise of the Chartist Movement. Their actions would in time lead to improved rights for the 'common people'. Among the leaders of the south Wales' Chartists was Zephaniah Williams. Born in Argoed in 1795, he spent his youth in Blackwood. Williams, along with John Frost and William Jones, would lead the ill-fated and bloody uprising at Newport on November 3rd 1839. Allegedly, an army of five thousand men marched on Newport that day, many would have passed through the east of the county borough. In 1840, Williams was transported to Tasmania for his part in the uprising. Industrial unrest continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as workers struggled for their rights against often ruthless and greedy industry moguls. By the late nineteenth century, the emerging trade unions were gaining strength and championing the workers' cause. This coupled with increasing 'working-class' militancy, led to countless local and national strikes.
A disregard for human life was evident throughout the Industrial Revolution. The most tragic example of this was the disaster at Universal Colliery, Senghenydd. In 1913, a devastating explosion ripped through the pit killing four hundred and thirty nine workers. This was the largest death toll of any mining disaster in Britain. Beyond the pit the community was devastated. Solace could be found in the Nonconformist chapels that were now common place throughout the county borough. These had first emerged in the seventeenth century and provided an alternative to the Anglican Church. Many of the chapels are still used today. Amongst these is Groeswen, the first purpose built Calvinistic Methodist chapel in Wales.
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