The Cradle of the Industrial Revolution - in Wales, in Britain, and in the Global Economy

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), April 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Cradle of the Industrial Revolution - in Wales, in Britain, and in the Global Economy


The history written about the Industrial Revolution has been a very English affair. In most of the well-known textbooks Wales gets barely a look-in. The scene of the action is nearly always located in England. In the self-styled "birthplace of industry" at Ironbridge Gorge and nearby CoalbrookdS ale; in the "dark satanic" cotton mills of Lancashire; and in the shipyards and factories of Tyneside.

As in so much historical work on "Britain", the perspectives offered are usually Anglo-centric, and examples or evidence from Wales are usually conspicuous by their absence. As a result, there is little in the literature to help sustain any claims that Wales might have been the world's first industrial nation. And we are left with a very powerful myth which suggests that the driving forces of the all-transforming processes of industrialisation were located in England.

1750 and all that Of course, Welsh history has more than a few myths of its own, and one of the most enduring ones is that in Wales the coming of the Industrial Revolution was all about iron and Merthyr. Indeed, during an otherwise excellent BBC Wales television series on the history of Welsh towns, the rugby commentator Eddie Butler recently told us that: "The industrial revolution in Wales began in 1750 with the ironworks at Merthyr Tydfil."

Began in 1750? With all due respect, this is nonsense! Industrialisation did not begin with a big bang, and it certainly did not begin in Merthyr. Such Mertho-centric views of the world completely ignore the vitally important contributions made by other places to modern Welsh industrialisation in earlier years. They ignore the Redbrook in the Wye Valley. They ignore Neath Abbey and Aberdulais in the Neath Valley. And, as usual, they ignore north-east Wales, and especially Bersham and the Greenfield Valley. But above all such views they ignore the Lower Swansea Valley where industrial activity of world significance was already in full swing well before a single furnace went into blast at Dowlais or Cyfarthfa.

This is not to deny the undoubted importance of Merthyr in Welsh history. Indeed, later in this series my colleague Chris Evans makes a compelling and passionate case in support of that unique iron town. And in his marvellous book on work and social conflict in early industrial Merthyr, Professor Evans notes that, rightly or wrongly, Merthyr now has powerful "totemic value" in Welsh history because of what it symbolises for working-class traditions and politics.

But if we look beyond the emergence of radical politics, and then extend that view to the period before iron and coal came to dominate Welsh industrialisation in the 19th century, the reality is it was the copper industry that led the way. Propelling Welsh copper on to the world stage was a unique combination of natural resource, capital, labour, and entrepreneurial vision that came together in the Lower Swansea Valley during the first half of the 18th century.

It was the copper industry that first effectively harnessed coal technology to facilitate mass production of a high-quality metal. It was copper that led the breakout of Welsh heavy industry into world markets. It was the copper kings who created the first purpose-built workers' accommodation and townships in Britain. And it was the copper industry that created in Swansea the 'intelligent town' shaped by science, art, culture, and an insatiable thirst for all forms of new practical knowledge.

A place in Welsh history Why the Lower Swansea Valley? There were of course no deposits of copper ore in the valley. But the valley possessed two critically important natural assets that acted as a magnet for the early industrialists. The sides of the valley possessed rich outcrops of easily accessible coal, while on its floor the wide river provided plenty of water and the necessary short transport link to the sea. This convinced some visionaries that it made much more financial sense to bring copper ore to the valley than it did to carry large quantities of coal to the source of that ore in the mines of Cornwall and Ireland. …

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