Troedyrhiw : Some historical notes

Up until 1750 the whole Merthyr Valley was predominantly a farming area with the settlement now known as Troedyrhiw consisting principally of Troedyrhiw Farm , a corn mill and a bridge at Pontyrhun. Pontyrhun (Rhun’s bridge) is so called because it reputedly marks the spot where Rhun, son of Brychan, was killed during his attempts to defend his sister Tudful and other family members from a murderous band of Picts at an even earlier time. It is interesting to note that, whilst the few inhabitants had hitherto been occupied in a totally agricultural economy, as early as the 16th century ironmakers from Sussex were already smelting iron on a small scale at Pontyrhun. Although these pioneers of industry did not stay long they represent the first link in a chain which was to lead to the huge expansions in iron working and coal mining that made the Merthyr Valley for a time into one of the foremost industrial areas in the world. In the space of 100 years the population had rocketed from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

In that part of the valley from Pentrebach to Troedyrhiw these immigrants were needed to supply the labour force for the Plymouth and Pentrebach Ironworks and the increasingly important Duffryn Collieries all of which were owned by the Richard Bacon and Anthony Hill. But it was the opening of the Castle Colliery by the Crawshays in 1866 which provided the most significant impetus to the growth of Troedyrhiw. This continued throughout the latter part of the 19th century as the development of the coal industry reached its peak.

Troedyrhiw as we know it today was, in fact, three separate communities up until the middle of the 19th century. These consisted of ‘Pontyrhun’ on the west bank of the Taff and up to the railway bridge, ‘Tir Taldwyn’ on the eastern side of the railway bridge and ‘Troedyrhiw’ to the south in the locality of Troedyrhiw Farm which is now occupied by Afon Taf school.

The Merthyr and Cardiff Guardian on 30th October 1852 described Troedyrhiw as ‘a star of the first magnitude ….. formerly with only a chapel, two taverns, a few cottages, an engine house, the remnant of a mill and a miserable shed dignified by poetic licence with the name of a Railway Station’. The newspaper goes on to state that ‘certain speculators fixed their eyes upon the little place ….. the result has been that it has risen into a place of some little magnitude’. This assertion is backed up by reference to newly erected houses, a new church and two or three new meeting houses and the addition of a policeman and a ‘receiving house for letters’ to the local amenities. By 1868 Slaters Trade Directory tells us that Troedyrhiw is a populous village where the inhabitants are principally employed in the adjacent coal mines and ironworks.

It would be tempting to conclude from the above descriptions that the inhabitants of Troedyrhiw at this time lived in some sort of ideal world. This notion could not, of course, be further from the truth. Even a passing acquaintance with the lives of ordinary people in Victorian Britain informs us that a rapidly increasing urban population almost inevitably leads to high rates of various diseases and a high mortality rate. Poor sanitation, a lack of awareness regarding personal and public hygiene and woefully inadequate levels of medical care all conspired to take their toll. The available statistics certainly lend support to this view. For example the Medical Officer of Health’s reports for the period 1889 to 1897 show that in the Troedyrhiw division which included Troedyrhiw, Abercanaid and Pentrebach the population fluctuated between a low of 6,000 and a peak of 8,690. The effects of poor housing, overcrowding and lack of sanitation were manifested in high death rates from contagious diseases such as scarlet fever,whooping cough, typhoid, diarrhoea and cholera. If we add to this grim picture the facts that the concept of safety at work as we understand it today was non existent and that children commonly began work at the ages of 8 or 9 and sometimes as young as 4 we can better appreciate what the realities of everyday life were for people during this period.

Having considered some of the changes which shaped the lives of Troedyrhiw people in the period up to the end of the 19th century it now seems appropriate to move on in time. It will perhaps not be surprising to learn that the evidence suggests a close link between levels of prosperity and the changing fortunes of local industry. The impact of two world wars and a range of political and social upheavals can also not be overlooked. After Anthony Hill’s death in 1862 the Pentrebach and Duffryn works had been acquired by the Hankey family. When iron making on this site ceased in 1880 priority was given to the exploitation of large coal reserves at the company’s collieries and from levels driven into the valley sides. Although some levels such as Brazil Level high on the mountainside were abandoned as early as the 1890’s many others including Saron Level, South Duffryn (Boat) Level and the Taldwyn Levels continued to be worked into the 20th century with a halt finally being called to this in the 1930’s.

To be continued ..................