Heenan family in Rhymney: the early years

Until 1800 the settlement of Rhymney was largely rural. There were a few sheep farms and a few farm houses scattered along the hillsides.

All that began to change in 1800 when the foundations were laid for a huge ironworks. Over the next fifty years or so, the area was transformed into an industrial community of ironworkers and coal workers. Blast furnaces, steel works, churches, houses all sprung up to house thousands of people drawn to Rhymney by the prospect of work. They travelled from mid Wales,  from the nearby Sirhowy valleys and from across the English border from the Forest of Dean and Gloucester. They arrived too from Ireland having heard that that workers were needed to build railways. Empty coal boats returning from Cork brought hordes of labourers.

Among them came my great great grandparents.

The ironworks was a venture by a group of partners. john Lloyd’s Early History of he Old South Wales Iron Works said that the partners in the venture were Thomas Williams, Richard Cunningham who became the first manager, and Richard Crawshay of Cyfarthfa. in 1803 the three, together with Crawshay’s son Benjamin Hall and a Watkin George, they formed The Union Iron Works Co Ltd with a venture capital of £29,000. When Crawshay died in 1810, the works passed to Benjamin Hall and subsequently to his son Benhamin after whom the Big Ben bell in Parliament is named.

A new set of furnaces were built in 1825 on the opposite side of the river, on land belonging to the Marquis of Bute. The design was so unusual they attracted widespread notice. Drawings of them hung in the Royal Academy . The works suffered during the 1830s as a result of over-production around the country. In 1835 a new company was created known as the Rymney Iron Company which led to a rapid rise in population Most of the streets were to be built over the next 20 hers. In 1839 the Lawn Cpmpany Ship, the brewery and the Parish church were constructed

A key mover in all the developments was Andew Buchan, a Scot who had trained as a carpenter. he hd been engaged as a contracter to divert the course and deepen hthe bed of the river to make room for the Bute furnaces and as flood prevention. for this enterprise he employed Irish labourers –  their prescence led to rioting and soliers were quartered in huts to keep the peace. to provide for the navvies, Buchan gve them notes for the Carno shop for small amounts of groceries.

By 1838, according to the Rymney Iron Company annual meeting, noted that they had located on ‘what were before almost barren mountains, a population of 8,000 souls and increasing daily, they were bound to provide and endow a church’

Catholics did not get a school until 1863 when the Roman Catholic community erected one for 150 children.


In search of Patrick Heenan’s marriage

Discovering where and when my great great grandfather Patrick Heenan married is proving a mystery.

His first son Patrick was born in March, 1868 according to the baptism records of St John’s Roman Catholic Church in Rhymney, Monmouthshire. So I know he was living in Rhymney at the time though for how long is unclear (all I can establish with any confidence is that he wasn’t there are the time of the 1861 census since there are no families with the surname Heenan in Rhymney on that date).

Using his son’s baptism as a reference point, it’s possible therefore that he married either earlier in 1868 or before.  In the 1911 census – the first to record number of years a couple had been married – indicates he and Ellen had been married 45 years. That would put their marriage in approx 1866 (though if the information they provided to numerators for other census years is any test, I wouldn’t want to bet any money this was an accurate piece of information). But was this in Ireland or in mainland UK?

Limerick Regional Archives did a search of both the county and the city of Limerick for a marriage in the 1860s between Patrick and Ellen O’Brien on the basis that both partners stated their area of birth was Limerick. But failed to find anything. They also searched for me a marriage of a Patrick Heenan to any bride with the first name of Helen or Ellen irrespective of the maiden name. But again drew a blank. Their conclusion was that any marriage was more likely to have taken place in England or Wales.

But my search of the marriage records for England and Wales doesn’t show any relevant marriages  between a Patrick Heenan and a bride with the name of Ellen/Helen O’Brian/O’Brien or any variation of that. There are numerous Heenans in the Liverpool area but none with a match to a bride of that name. Maybe they never got married? It’s a distinct possibility……….

Arrival of the Heenans

The first ancestor with the name of Heenan that I’ve been able to trace is my paternal great great grandfather Patrick Heenan who settled in the town of Rhymney. According to information provided on census returns, he came from Limerick county in Eire Exactly when he the first arrived in Rhymney or even in Wales is unclear however.

The first record I’ve been able to trace of him is in March 1868 when his son Patrick was baptised at St John’s Roman Catholic Church in Rhymney. The entry reads

Die 16 Martin 1868 baptizavi

Patricus Heennan filius Patricus et Helena Heenan (born) et die 16 Martin

Helena Heenan (olim OBrien)

conjugam a me Alfred Wilson (the priest)

Patrinus fuit: (godfather) Thomas  Brown

Matrina fuit: (godmother) Margaret  (Coghlam) surname could be Eaghlam

Patrick was about 23 years old at the time (though even this is questionable since he gave his age differently in each census return). His wife Ellen (or Helen) was a few years older  and came from the same part of Ireland.


Had they only recently arrived in Wales or had they been living somewhere else first?  There is no record of them in the 1861 census either in Rhymney or elsewhere in Wales or even England. It’s been impossible to discover their path because the Irish were not classed as immigrants and so were not recorded on any passenger logs. Popular routes were from Cork to Swansea or into Liverpool but that’s as far as I’ve been able to go. And the baptism records don’t give any indication of where they were living at the time – it may well have been with another Irish family of which there were a number in Rhymney.

It isn’t until the 1871 census that we get any real information. By then, they are living at Upper High Street, they have a second child – called Murial who is two years old. Patrick is an ironworker which is expected given that Rhymney was the location of the huge Bute ironworks which had opened in 1801.