Wales’ industrial heritage changed the world – so why is it being allowed to decay?

Chris Andrews. The historical Merthyr Synagogue. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Joe Williams

On 7th September, over a thousand people are expected to descent upon Merthyr Tydfil for the largest independence rally the Valleys have ever seen.

The eyes of the Welsh national movement, at least for the day anyway, will be on this historic town… my historic town.

And what a history it has!

From the Merthyr Rising of 1831, in which the red flag of revolution was flown for the first time, to the great ironworks which powered the industrial revolution, the town has definitely secured its place in Welsh, if not world, history.

It came as no surprise to me, as well as many others in Merthyr when, in 2013, the town was voted ‘the most important place in Welsh history’ by a panel in the Hay Festival.

But what does Merthyr have that show for being the boiler room of an industrial revolution that swept the globe? And what of Rhondda, or Ebbw Vale, or so many of these important communities that so drastically altered Welsh, and indeed British life?

Looming over the town like an ancient ruin, the great blast-furnaces of Cyfarthfa Ironworks lie derelict. The largest and most complete surviving specimens of their type anywhere, they are left to be consumed by weeds, to be worn down by the elements, and fall foul to continuous vandalism.

Move further north, and you’ll encounter Pont-Y-Cafnau, the world’s oldest surviving iron railway bridge. Where is it? At the back-end of an industrial estate, with a graffitied information sign and strewn with litter from the Taff Trail.

What about the Jewish Synagogue? The oldest purpose-built synagogue in Wales and a Grade II listed building?

It’s abandoned –  it has been for over fifteen years. The windows have been covered in steel grating to protect them from the numerous rocks that have been thrown at them over the years.

Even the Old Town Hall, where Keir Hardie spoke as Labour MP for Merthyr, and where press-conference after press-conference were held during the Miners’ Strikes, lay derelict until just a few years ago.

Even now, the site is at risk, with some voicing fears that the charitable trust administering the site had been “running it into the ground”.

And this isn’t just in Merthyr. Across the Valleys, our nation’s heritage and history are under threat from dereliction and decay. From abandoned former-Baptist chapels in Rhondda, to the Treforest Tin Works – another one of Crawshay’s industries – they are all left in ruins.

It’s shocking that while Wales’ medieval history – our castles and keeps – are looked after, some of the most significant industrial sites in the world’s history are being forgotten, abandoned, and left to the elements.

Dowlais Ironworks by George Childs (1840).

Value

Even when these sites are re-developed, it isn’t often to remember the history of these sites, but because they offer an opportunity for developers.

Many of Merthyr’s derelict places of worship have been bought to be turned into flats, and many have been bought for that purpose but then left to decay.

Others have been demolished and nothing built to replace them, such as Santes Tydfil, a perfectly preserved late Victorian schoolhouse, and St. Tydfil’s Hospital, a Grade II listed building that originally served as a workhouse. Overgrown grass, rubble-heaps and dumped black bin bags are all that are left.

So, what can be done? Austerity-hit councils are already strapped for cash. And you may argue that at a time when poverty and child mortality rates are so high in the Valleys, why should we focus on a few old buildings?

Often, it’s fallen upon the community itself to deal with the burden of its many derelict heritage sites. Recently, Reverend Robert Stivey spent up to £200,000 of his own money purchasing twelve derelict chapels across the Cynon Valley, hoping to repair them from the sorry state they’d been left in. A noble act, but one that shouldn’t have to be necessary.

In today’s Wales, where more and more people are becoming aware of our nation’s long history, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the loss of these historic sites.

Ultimately, as long as people walk past these sites, ignoring the history behind the walls, they will remain abandoned and forgotten. When we think of the grand castles and houses of Welsh history, we too often forget the historic industrial sites that shaped world history in the depressed, decaying Valleys.

For as long as we are ignorant of our own history, the people in power – be it government or council – can ignore our crumbling heritage.

So, for those who are coming to Merthyr in September, amidst a strong desire for change, and a celebration of Wales’ history, make sure to notice some of the many historic sites left to decay here.

And as we strive for independence a central part of that movement needs to be to remember and value our own great history, and to preserve what is left of it for future generations so that they can remember, too.

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SibrydionmawrSian GaleaBenjiman AngwinCatherine LloydJonathan Gammond Recent comment authors
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Liz
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Liz

Thank you Jo for this trip down memory lane, completely agree with what you say, shame on us and our narrow minded leaders, ignor and forget our history, teach our children English history, leads us to become a defeated Nation..

jr humphrys
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jr humphrys

The synagogue looks worth restoring. We’ll have to be selective?

Earl Carr
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Earl Carr

It will be a good investment.

Norm
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Norm

Wales did nothing that wasn’t done in a much larger scale in England, the old industries that brought people to wales have died as they have in the midlands and northern England but wales has held itself back with its obsession with the past.

Liz Bowen
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Liz Bowen

When we talk of industrial heritage i think we automatically think of Merthyr Tydfil and having been born in Merthyr i am very proud of that. We tend to forget the industrial heritage of the countryside of Wales like water mills, blacksmiths, coopers etc

Earl Carr
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Earl Carr

Invest in hydrogen fuel cells.

Jonathan Gammond
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Jonathan Gammond

It is possible to be interested in the past without being obsessed in it and a society that forgets its own history is suffering from a kind of collective dementia. There is also a big difference between seeking to understand the past and either wallowing in it or misusing it to justify one’s own beliefs and world view. There are plenty of groups involved in preserving our rural and industrial heritage. Here in north-east Wales, a few paid specialists and a large team of volunteers that together form the Brymbo Heritage Group, are working hard to persuade the Heritage Lottery… Read more »

Catherine Lloyd
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Catherine Lloyd

Well said Joe!! I am in France at the moment and the way they preserve they’re heritage is amazing, we could learn so much from them, so sad to see ours being lost bit by bit.

Benjiman Angwin
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Benjiman Angwin

Wales’ industrial history is not merely a story about a red flag. Wales voted Liberal for 60 years in a row during much of this time. Great forms of architecture and gardening were developed. Welsh newspapers spreading ideas of progress, prosperity and private property flourished. And the Welsh Language expanded in places.

Sibrydionmawr
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Sibrydionmawr

And then the working people of Wales woke up and realised that the Liberals didn’t have their interests at heart. The Liberals back then were no more trustworthy than the Liberals are now. Let’s not forget how recently it was that the Liberals enabled a decade of Tory ideological austerity.

Sian Galea
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Sian Galea

Great article. Totally agree. It’s important to preserve our past so we can help inform our future. Our history is more than castles & huge houses – it’s about working people too. We need a more balanced story. Great for our tourism industry – we have lots of stories to tell…..

Sibrydionmawr
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Sibrydionmawr

It might be great for the tourism industry, but shouldn’t it be far more about people knowing their own history?