The Blaenavon landscape constitutes an exceptional illustration in material form of the social and economic structure of 19th-century industry. The area around the Blaenavon ironworks provides an extraordinarily comprehensive picture of the South Wales coal and iron industry in its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was one of the world's largest iron and steel producers. All the necessary elements can be seen in situ : coal and ore mines, quarries, a primitive railway system, furnaces, the homes of the workers, and the social infrastructure of their community.
From at least 1675, iron ore was extracted on the mountains of Blaenavon. However, the area was virtually unsettled and used only for small-scale iron mining and grazing. In 1788 Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins, and Benjamin Pratt built a major new ironworks at Blaenavon, putting into practice the latest technology and organization of the Industrial Revolution in a new and resource-rich setting. By 1789 the ironworks consisted of three blast furnaces using steam power, making it one of the largest in the world.
In 1817 adit mining for iron ore and coal developed on a larger scale, replacing surface scouring, and shaft mines were introduced, with sophisticated drainage, haulage, and ventilation arrangements. Population grew rapidly through the migration of workers from rural areas of Wales, from the industrial Midlands, Ireland, Scotland and rural England. Blaenavon parish, which had been minuscule before the ironworks was built, had grown to 11,452 in 1891. The social development of the area created a thriving urban culture. A rapidly created industrial landscape grew up of iron-ore patches, coal mines, limestone quarries, iron forges, brick works, tram roads, watercourses and workers' houses, all controlled by the Blaenavon Company, which was reorganized as a joint stock company in 1836.
During the 1840s and 1850s the scattered housing of the workers and the works' school, church and chapels were complemented by the evolution, on land outside the company's ownership, of a town with a variety of urban functions. There were three principal clusters of buildings in the area, one around the Ironworks, one along the east-west axis, now King Street, and one around St Peter's Church.
Relative decline in steelmaking from around the turn of the century permitted the growth of coal production for export. Steel production ceased in 1938, and Big Pit, the last substantial working colliery, closed in 1980. Big Pit is now a museum of coal mining of international significance, and one of only two mining museums in the United Kingdom where visitors can be taken underground. The conservation of Blaenavon Ironworks has contributed to economic regeneration. The town and the surrounding landscape have survived little altered to represent the story of their past.
The improvement of transport systems was a key component of the Industrial Revolution and was vital to the success of the coal and iron industries with their bulky goods and requirement to exploit new regions. Much evidence remains in the landscape of the transport systems by which Blaenavon Ironworks was supplied with raw materials and its products were conveyed to the coast.
In an upland setting like that of Blaenavon, which lies high on the watershed, the careful management of water was vital to provide sufficient and reliable supply, even in drought, to operate water-balance lifts, carry out scouring, and feed steam engines. Surface and underground drainage was also of the utmost importance for mining operations. Watercourses and drains can be seen in many places on the hills above Blaenavon, often with relationships to one another.
A variety of workers' housing remains within the Blaenavon landscape. The company usually built dwellings very close to its ironworks, mines, quarries or transport routes. Adjacent to the Ironworks stands Stack Square and Engine Row, a small group of solidly constructed stone cottages.
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