The Banwen Iron Works was a short-lived and essentially speculative venture in the mid 19th century
The ten years from 1841 are important as it is now that the most major industrial developments here took place, setting the scene for the following century, and for what now follows. It would mean the landscape and settlement pattern would change, farms and houses would be bought and sold off maps in London offices, names and even locations would change, houses would be built and demolished and the demographic profile would change considerably. Firstly, from the late 1830s, the horse-drawn Brecon Forest Tramroad was extended to Onllwyn to allow proper exploitation of the developing Onllwyn Colliery, which expanded in tandem with the new transport links. Secondly, from the early 1840s, ironworks were also developed at Onllwyn, benefiting again from ready access to coal, ore, limestone and transport. Hughes (1990) describes Onllwyn as a community “entirely dependent on the tramroad for its existence and indeed owed its very origin to its building and development…without the Brecon Forest tramroad there would have been no industrial employment at the head of the Dulais Valley.”
The ironworks already established at Onllwyn was fairly successful until an abrupt decline in the 1870s, when its major market – the Swansea valley tinplate works – began to use steel instead of iron. But back in the 1840s, there was a feverish rush to build ironworks and so in a rather speculative, perhaps rather corrupt venture, the Banwen Iron Company was also launched. In 1848, it acquired much of the surrounding land and the license mentions “all messuages, farms and lands called Pantyddrainen…Tir Bach farm late in the occupation of John Hopkin…” but the reference here is, confusingly, almost certainly to the farm that became known as Camnant farm, and which remains so. This is shown simply as “Tirbach” on the 1846 prospectus map, but actually relates to the different farm recorded in 1841 as “Tir Bach y Camnant” and which would be known henceforth just as Camnant Farm. Disappointingly, the “other” Tir Bach where Richard and Ann Jones are recorded in 1841 is not shown on the 1846 map, but the two locations are definitely distinct and in different places. Interestingly, the Banwen Ironworks was located at some distance from the current village settlement of Banwen – it was over at Tonpyrddin farm, as it had to be next to the water supplied by the Afon Pyrddin. The proposed plan was to take limestone from Penwyllt Quarry, iron-ore from local quarry patches and coal from the Maesmarchog colliery. The resulting pig-iron – the crudest form of product - would be transported by the Banwen ironworks’ own railway to the existing Brecon Forest tramroad, then to the Swansea Canal and on to Swansea docks. However, no Banwen iron ever reached Swansea and indeed very little iron was ever produced, what was may have been sold more locally to the larger works at Ystalyfera and Onllwyn for further processing (Hughes, 1990). The works was first sold on in 1854, lay derelict until repurchased in 1861, but never went back into serious production.
“The most complete example of an ironworks to survive on the anthracite coalfield, which it owes to its early failure...It stands as a monument to a financial scandal that extracted money from many unsuspecting shareholders” (Hughes, 1989, also photo)
By 1870, the market was all over for such small-scale local iron. Parts of the ruined works now form part of Tonpyrrdin Farm. Because the works was so short-lived, there is no trace in any census of a small row of workers’ cottages known as Tae Garreg (“stone houses”) put up just south of the works towards Banwen: they escaped both 1851 and 1861 censuses, as did their inhabitants. Records also do exist of a rudimentary school, located in one of the end houses, rather similar to the first school in Onllywn, in one of the cottages in Back Row.
G. A. HENTY IN SOUTH WALES.
FUTILE ATTEMPT TO BECOME AN IRON MASTER. UNFORTUNATE ENTERPRISE ON THE BANWEN.
BY FRANKLEN G. EVANS, J.P.
In your interesting account of the varied career of the late George A. Henty in the Surveyor's Department in the Crimea and as war correspondent, novelist, and writer of tales for boys you incidentally mention that at one time he was engaged in mining in South Wales. With regard to his mining experiences, it may interest your readers to learn something of his short residence in Wales and what happened to him there. It is a curious and romantic story. In the autumn of 1852, after a time of depression, a revival in Welsh ironmaking set in. There was an old ironworks on the Banwen, a place situated on the ridge that separates the Vale of Neath from the Swansea Valley, and not far from the Onllwyn Ironworks. This Banwen property was advertised to let, and the announcement caught the eye of Mr. Henty's father, who had made a moderate fortune in some business in London, but was absolutely ignorant of the smallest knowledge of the iron industry. Mr. Henty, senior, having heard of the large fortunes made by Welsh ironmasters, seems to have thought that he had only to embark in the business and do likewise; so be took the place, and shortly came into the district. He brought with him Mrs. Henty, two eons, George A., aged twenty, and Frederick, aged eighteen, and a daughter scarcely grown up; and they resided at a. farmhouse near the works. The Banwen was a wild, bleak, desolate region, with a large amount of bog in the neighbourhood, a. startling contract to the smiling beauty of the Neath Valley close by. The works were old, obsolete, and in poor repair. The description given by Dickens of Eden in "Martin Chuzzlewit" would not have been very wide of the mark applied to this locality, and the Hentys required all Mark Tapley's capacity for being jolly under adverse circumstances to be able to endure it. Operations were commenced in January, 1853, and throughout the whole of that year the result was one monotonous record of loss and disaster. There was no proper approach to the works, and materials had to be hauled in sledges over the hills. In doing this they came into collision with a neighbouring land- owner, who denied any right of way, and had a deep trench out in the yard of a homestead through which the mountain track passed, so as to prevent the traffic. This trench was filled up again by the Hentys, and in turn emptied by the landowner. So things went on, but there was no legal action, and the dispute was only brought to an end by the complete collapse of the undertaking. In spite of these troubles and anxieties, the young folks of the family, who were high-spirited and enterprising, managed to get some little brightness into their lives in rambling through the charming scenery of the Neath Valley, and visiting the numerous waterfalls, the renowned Ystradfellte Cave, where the Fellte River runs underground, completely lost to sight, for 300 yards, and other objects of interest. These amusements, with an occasional picnic or musical evening, helped to make their sad lot endurable. The whole business only lasted a twelvemonth, and Mr. Henty lost a large amount of capital, and then returned with his family to London, a sadder and, unhappily, a much poorer man. This unfortunate adventure destroyed all hope of the young Hentys becoming iron- masters, so they had to look out for some other opening for their talents and energies. The opportunity soon offered. In the late summer of 1854 Great Britain and France threw in their lot with Turkey against Russia, and an expedition to the Crimea was determined on, and the two young Hentys obtained appointments in the Oommissariat Depart- ment of the Army and sailed for the Crimea,. During that memorable winter the hardships of the campaign proved too much for the younger brother, Frederick Henty, and he died of typhoid fever. The elder - George A. Henty—weathered the storm of battle and the elements, and gradually began to take notes "of passing events” and sent them to the news- papers. With this instructive experience he soon blossomed out into a full-blown war cor- respondent, and continued in that capacity for several years on many battlefields. He afterwards took to writing novels and boys' books, in all of which he met with great success and popularity. Some of your contemporaries are in error in assuming that Henty's mining episode was after the Crimean War. His brief adjourn in Wales occurred when he was only 20 years old, and it was his first experience of real life. The derivation of the word Banwen, I take it, is from Ban (a high place) and Wen (white), from the bleached appearance given to it by the long grass that abounds there when it is withered. This grass is called "Gwynion Waun" by the natives, and is or at least was extensively used by the poorer inhabitants for filling beds, for which purpose it was cut in the dry weather of March and April. It is interesting to reflect how people's destinies are governed by events, which lead them on inexorably without their knowledge or consent. If the ironworks had succeeded we might have known Henty as a prosperous ironmaster, but we should probably have lost his literary labours, and certainly his exciting adventures as a war correspondent in many distant lands.