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.


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