The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Character Areas


HLCA 006 Blaenavon Ironworks and Upper Brick Yard

Blaenavon Ironworks: view to west.

HLCA 006 Blaenavon Ironworks and Upper Brick Yard

Internationally important industrial processing and extraction area (including waste tips). Nationally significant industrial transport links (tramroad network). Characteristic industrial housing. Historic associations.Back to map

Historic Background

The historic landscape area of Blaenavon Ironworks and Upper Brick Yard is defined by the extent of the surviving remains of the 18th century Blaenavon ironworks and its immediate surroundings including Upper Brick Yard.

Land for an ironworks, with all its necessary sources of raw materials (iron ore, limestone and coal for coke), was leased from Lord Abergavenny during 1787-89 by Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins and Benjamin Pratt, the first partners in the Blaenavon Company. The initial works comprised two blast furnaces, a third being added in 1789, with casting sheds and a blowing engine built by Boulton and Watt. Steam power rather than water was employed to operate the furnace bellows; at the time this was a relatively new technology pioneered a decade earlier at Snedshill in Shropshire. By 1796 the works was one of the largest in the world, producing 5,400 tons of iron a year. By 1812 there were five furnaces capable of smelting 14,000 tons of iron a year.

In 1836 the Blaenavon ironworks was sold and taken over by the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company, James Ashwell was appointed managing director. He was responsible for an extensive programme of improvements to the company's furnaces and forges, to its transport systems and to the houses provided for its workpeople. A sixth furnace was built in 1860 following the characteristic form of that time with a masonry base, above which was a circular structure of firebrick. Although the company encountered monetary problems in the second half of the 19th century and much of the work was taken to the newer ironworks at Forgeside, activity at this site continued until 1900. The ironworks (SAM: MM200) is now a guardianship site in the care of the state and is currently undergoing a programme of conservation.

Upper Brick Yard (SAM: MM296) was the main brickyard serving the ironworks at Blaenavon; the site, depicted on the map of 1814, may date from as early as 1788. It comprised drying sheds, brickmaking sheds and kilns together with clay pits and coal levels served by a network of tramroads and pathways. While the brickworks itself was demolished in the 1960s, substantial buried remains are considered likely to survive.

Other industrial features in the area include John Williams' level (shown on the map of 1812 with tramroad extending south to the blast furnaces) and Cwmdwfn colliery also of pre-1850 date.

A dense network of tramroads, which developed from the 1780s onwards, served Blaenavon Ironworks. This area includes the southern entrance to the Pwll Du Tunnel (SAM: MM223); originally a mining level, it had been extended through to Pwll Du by c.1815. At 2,400m it was (apart from mining adits) the longest tunnel on any British horse-drawn tramroad.

Of the late eighteenth century industrial workers' housing, which developed in association with the ironworks, little survives within HLCA006 apart from Stack Square and Engine Row. Stack Square was built between 1789-92 to house part of the Blaenavon Ironworks workforce and comprises a U-shaped block of which the southern wing is known as Engine Row, with a truck shop at the southwest corner. Previously known as Shop Square, it acquired its present name in 1853 after the construction of a boiler stack in the centre of the square.

Eighteenth century housing, now demolished, formerly included Bunker's Row, Quick Buildings, Stable Row, Staffordshire Row, Coaltar Row and houses on the east side of North Street. Other early houses included a row of back-to-back houses at Furnace Yard, demolished before 1880. The remains of early nineteenth century housing have faired little better, Upper Brick Yard houses and Little Quick buildings now demolished, though Limekiln Cottages, Osbourne Cottage and Tunnel Houses survive in a ruinous condition. West View Terrace (1911) is a surviving example of early 20th century improvements to the ageing housing stock of the area and replaced the 18th century Quick Buildings.

Historic Landscape Characteristics

Blaenavon Ironworks and Upper Brick Yard is essentially characterised as a relict industrial landscape dominated by iron processing. The dominant landscape feature is the 18th century Blaenavon ironworks with its characteristic remains, including furnaces, balance tower, casting houses, engine house and kilns. The majority of the area was until recently unenclosed, except for a small area of regular enclosures with dry-stone walls and hedges at Upper Brick Yard. The furnaces at Blaenavon form an important group; unique in their completeness and with high quality ashlar outwork, they provide the best example in Britain. The current state of these structures makes it possible to understand their complex nature. These were built in a way typically characteristic of South Wales; against a high stone-walled bank cut out of the hillside. Furnaces 2, 4 and 5 are largely intact and demonstrate the early stone and brick square plan style. A very rare survival of circular furnace form is represented by the lower part of furnace 6, while 'throat-armouring' survives at furnace 5. The rail tracks leading to the furnaces also survive.

The most impressive monument to Ashwell's work at Blaenavon Ironworks is the water balance tower of 1839, the best-preserved example in Wales. The stonework of the tower is of high quality, and it is topped by the remnants of the cast iron frame with Tuscan columns.

Among many features surviving at the site are cast houses (that of furnace 2 remains intact, demonstrating the characteristic arched form); the foundations of blowing engine house with the chimney base and cast iron pillars and brackets which carried blast pipes to the furnaces; post-1860 foundry with remains of a cupola furnace; two core drying kilns and calcinating kilns; pay office; storage shed and the base of the firebrick structure of a hot blast stove. A building used for storing lift chains may be a surviving coke oven. Industrial extractive features are also characteristic of the area including levels, tips and clay pits at Upper Brick Yard.

Characteristic of the area is an extensive tramroad network serving the ironworks and links to the Pwll Du tunnel including its southern entrance portal. The now-cleared industrial housing in the area was built in a variety of different forms, styles and plan scattered through the area, with a concentration near to the ironworks and along North Street. These included back-to-back houses, single-fronted, three room properties of one and a half storeys, double-fronted four room cottages, two-storeyed, usually built from stone with slate roofs. There is potential for the survival of buried archaeological remains at some of these sites. Of the surviving remains Stack Square and Engine Row are the most intact, offering a rare example of 18th century industrial housing and have undergone substantial restoration work.

Stack Square, originally Shop Square, comprises two rows of houses of different size and status for housing workers and managers. These are essentially of rubble stone with oak structural timbres, slate roofs and have door and window patterns characteristic of the West Midlands as well as incorporating characteristic local buildings styles. Many of the smaller, two-room dwellings were later extended. The east row comprises five single-fronted two-storey houses in reflected pairs with brick detail to windows and restored windows. The north row comprises four double-fronted, originally four-roomed, two-storeyed houses with later brick stacks, surviving fireplaces, segmented brick detail to windows and replaced small-pane glazing. All formerly had split boarded doors and wooden stairs. Some original stone steps survive to the rear of the properties.

Engine Row is similar to the north row of Stack Square and comprises four double-fronted, two-storey houses of rubble stone with slate roofs and retain two brick stacks. Doors and lower-storey windows have segmented brick detail while upper-storey windows are beneath the wall plate. Doorways have split doors and small-paned windows with iron-framed glazing. The rear has two added lean-tos providing a rear room for each house.

Historic associations include important industrialists such as Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins, Benjamin Pratt, James Ashwell, Samuel Hopkins, Percy Gilchrist and Sydney Gilchrist Thomas among others, and technological developments associated with the iron and steel industry.