In the 19th Century, the South Wales valleys underwent dramatic industrial change. People arrived in their thousands, looking for work and ruthless Iron Masters made fortunes. Workers were expendable and open to mistreatment. Wages in the ironworks were minimal and depended on output. Men were paid with tokens that could only be used in company owned shops.
The northern roundhouse, still
intact and a formidable bastion
These ‘Truck Shops’ as they were known, sold goods with inflated prices to increase the Iron Master’s profits even more. Overcrowded and insanitary housing, owned by the Iron Masters, came with the job. To lose your job meant that your family became homeless. There were no unions to protect the men from exploitation and a surplus pool of immigrant labour made it possible for the Iron Masters to drive wages down to subsistence levels. South Wales was booming but it was a powder keg, waiting to explode.
Joseph Bailey was a young man when he left his family home in Yorkshire and walked to Merthyr Tydfil to visit his rich uncle, Richard Crawshay. Crawshay, also a Yorkshire man, had made a vast fortune and was possibly the most famous of the Iron Masters. The two men got on well and Crawshay took Joseph into the business. Crawshay died in 1810 and left a quarter of his iron foundry to Bailey. Joseph Bailey, who wanted to be his own boss, sold his share for £20,000 and bought Nantyglo Ironworks. Nantyglo means ‘brook of coal’ and the area was rich in the natural resources needed to feed a foundry. The works had been closed for some time but was soon brought back into production. Iron production slumped in the 1810s but, perhaps because of Bailey’s ruthless approach, Nantyglo prospered and was the only foundry to increase its output. The foundry supplied much of the railway track needed to connect North America together and went on to become one of the most important ironworks in Britain. At its peak, the foundry employed 3,500 workers including 500 women.
The southern Nantyglo roundhouse was blown up in the 1940s
As the business prospered, resentment and industrial unrest increased. Militant workers, known as ‘Scotch Cattle’, accused immigrant Irish workers of stealing jobs and threatened to kill them. The situation looked ugly. In 1816, Bailey attempted to reduce his men’s wages again, resulting in a riot at the Nantyglo foundry. Eventually, the Iron Master withdrew the threatened wage reduction and things calmed down. It was a warning that Joseph Bailey did not ignore. In response, he built two roundhouses at Nantyglo. The roundhouses were fortified redoubts, designed as refuges; he and his family could retreat into the event of any insurrection. The Nantyglo Roundhouses would be the last private fortifications to be built in Britain.
The stone roundhouses had cellars, well stocked with provisions to withstand a siege. The outer walls were four feet thick and were reinforced with cast iron beams. Both towers had a cast iron roof, overlaid with bricks and pitch. The windows had cast iron frames and tapered outwards, making them easier to defend. The doors, also cast iron, incorporated firing slots from which muskets could be fired to deter attackers. When not being use, shutters covered the inside of the firing positions.
More civil unrest followed in 1822 when Joseph Bailey arbitrarily cut his men’s wages. Troops were billeted near the roundhouses to intimidate the workers and deter them from reacting. Worse was to follow.
The musket firing slots in the door, at knee height, can be clearly seen
In 1831, an event, known as ‘The Merthyr Riots’, erupted and brought the tense situation to a violent climax. Armed workers took to the streets and before long much of South Wales was in open rebellion. The authorities reacted by ordering the army to put down the insurrection. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were shipped from Scotland to deal with the rioters. To begin with the soldiers were poorly prepared and routed by the well organised rioters. The inevitable showdown came when 450 troops, with fixed bayonets, broke up a mass rally at Dowlais and crushed the workers resolve. The rebellion had effectively ended.
There was another, vindictive, final act to follow. Lord Melbourne, a leading political figure, insisted that at least one rioter should be executed as an example to the rest. Several men were tried as conspirators and Richard Lewis, a 23 year old miner also known as Dick Penderyn after his home village, was charged with stabbing a soldier in the leg. He protested his innocence throughout the trial but was convicted and sentenced to death. A huge public outcry against the punishment produced an 11,000 signature petition pleading for his release. Despite this, he went to the scaffold still shouting that he was innocent of any crime. Years later, a witness who helped convict Penderyn, admitted that he lied, on the instruction of Lord Melbourne, sending a blameless man to the gallows.
It’s not clear if the roundhouses at Nantyglo were used as redoubts during the riots. Later, they served as houses and for storage until, in 1885, the contents were sold off. Joseph Bailey retired from business to live on his country estate at Glanusk, Crickhowell. Having passed the responsibility of running the foundry on to others, he went into politics eventually becoming Lord Glanusk. He died in 1858. In 1869, the Bailey family disposed of their shares in Nantyglo Ironworks and the foundry eventually closed. It was dismantled in 1878.
In 1831, Parliament passed legislation known as a ‘Truck Act’ outlawing the practice of paying workers in company tokens but it was not until 1867 that a Royal Commission recommended trade unions, which could protect working men’s right, should be decriminalised. They were legalised four years later, in 1871.
In the 1940s, explosives were used to partially demolish the southern roundhouse so that scrap iron could be stripped from the ruin. The northern roundhouse was restored in the 1980s. Today, it’s a grade II listed building and a potent reminder of a time when men lived in fear of their masters and masters were afraid of their men.