The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
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Gwent Local History No. 49, Autumn 1980
Caerleon Mills and Ponthir Tinplate Works
by Eija Kennerley
Pontypool had its industry since the end of the 16th century at least, but Caerleon had nothing before John Griffiths arrived from Abercarn, about 1750. (3) In the north of the county, in Dowlais and Merthyr, English ironmasters started works with their capital, employing the local Welsh and drawing thousands from the Midlands and south-east Wales to work for them.
There was a slight connection between Caerleon and the Pontypool works, starting at the end of the 17th century: the Hanbury family began using the port of Caerleon. There is a statement of iron loaded aboard the Gwyne Trowe, for Capel Hanbury, in 1698. (4)
Most of the industry in South Wales was started by Englishmen, with English money. In Caerleon, John Griffiths was Welsh. He had worked for Hanbury in Abercarn and was familiar with the iron industry. The wars of the 18th century - the Seven Years War and the American War of independence in particular - stimulated the development of iron industry in Britain, and the Napoleonic wars, from 1790 onwards to 1815, made it a necessity. Although Caerleon did not produce anything directly for these wars, the growth of industry in Caerleon and its neighbourhood was an indirect result of the general thriving state of iron industry.
In 1755 John Griffiths sent a letter to a Mr. Cross who most probably was the agent of Herbert Mackworth. In it he suggested he would take the lease of three farms in Ponthir and "will pay in One hundred and twenty pounds in Order to bring the Rent down to ten pounds per ann." It seems that Mr. Cross - or Mackworth, on whose land the farms were - was not interested, because John Griffiths had to write again in a month's time, reminding him of the offer. In that letter he mentions a farm held by William Knights and "the old Mill" of which he says it is not worth 12d. per annum, but "as it is convenient I will give more for that and the farm held by Knight than any other person will," and he offers for all three farms altogether £23. (5) In an early map we see this land John Griffiths desired to have and the road from Caerleon to Llanfrechfa running along the east side of the land, as well as the river Afon Lwyd limiting the area in the west. (6)
In his work "The industry in South Wales before the Industrial Revolution", J. F. Rees says that the "Caerleon Forge at Ponthir" was originally founded as copperworks but turned to tinplate in 1747. He does not say where he got this information. He may have connected in his mind the Ponthir works, through the Mackworth name with some other copperworks, e.g. Ynyspenllwch near Clydach on the river Tawe, where Herbert Mackworth had copperworks until 1739. (7) Bradney tells that John Jenkins of Ponthir who became the manager of the tinplate works originally came from Ynyspenllwch (8), so there is a possibility of some confusion here. There is no evidence of any copper-industry in Ponthir, in the local documents. Nor is there anything to tell of tinplate industry there before 1758.
John Grifiiths did not stay in Caerleon very long but emigrated to America. The reason for this could have been his wife's death which occurred some time before 1759. (9) After that year, there was another John Grifiiths in Caerleon, whose name frequently appears in the Caerleon Mills Books. (10) He is always called Mr. John Grifflths - as opposed to the workmen whose names have no Mr. in front - and he seems to be in charge in some way or another. He could be the first John Griffiths' son, left in charge and to teach all the mysteries of the works to the next owner's son, Hamman Davies.
John Griffiths sold his works to Lewis Davies who originally came from Denbighshire but had lived in London and been in the service of Charles Williams, the founder of the Charity School. Charles Williams left a £150 annuity to Lewis Davies whom he in his will calls "my man." Davies bought the manor of Gwernesney in Monmouthshire, some time before 1754. (11)
We are confronted by a difficulty at this point. The works for some reason were called Caerleon Mills, although they were not in Caerleon at all but one and a half miles away in Ponthir. It is possible that there was a forge in Caerleon, at the site still called by that name, on the road to Ponthir. The Caerleon Mills Cash Book of the year 1756 tells that the Caerleon "New Mill" or the 'Plack Plate" (sic!) mill existed but does not define its situation. The works probably were in different places, not too far from each other.
Indeed, according to A. H. John, the tinplate mills were in most cases established "as an appendage to the forge", and the tinplate industry became distinct owing to the influence of coke smelting and puddling. (12) He also thinks that the tinplate industry grew only at the end of the 18th century. However, we can see in the Caerleon Mills Books that it existed here for forty years before the end of that century. In any case, finally there were three departments, namely the forge which prepared the bar iron, the black plate mill in which the plates were rolled, and the tinning house where they underwent the tinning process. The three of them indeed appear in separate Mill Books: in the year 1758 there was a book each for "Caerleon Forge" "Black-Plate Mill" and "Tin Mill".
The iron bars for plates were probably brought at first from Pontypool. Other materials from Pontypool were e.g.: castings (1785), hoop gudgeons, boxes for feet of upright shaft and interspindles, small cog wheels, brasses for shaft gudgeons etc. (1783 & 84); oak timber, "used for Caerleon Forge, delivered from Pontypool Park" (1786).
The Caerleon Mills Books start in the year 1758. None of them give any indication of the site of the works, even in the later years (they go on until 1783). The leet from Afon Lwyd to the grist mills off Mill Street in the town had been there for hundreds of years, but whether it was utilized for any other purpose than for the corn mills, at the period 1758-1800, we do not know on evidence. In some documents of the Mackworth Estate, year 1750, there is a reference to "a farm in possession of Barbara Yeorath mearing to the Highway leading from Caerleon to Ponthyr the Pound (=the pond, i.e. the leet) Conveying water to Caerleon Mill the Land of Penrose the lands Late George (Morgan?) of Caerleon and the Lands in possession of Francis Richard on all Part" and, in the same document: "A parcel of arable and meadow formerly (i.e. 1707) in the possession of Ignatius Cornelius. But late in poss. of Catherin Giles mearing to the lands poss. of Mr. Morgan of the Bull the Lands of Richard Jones of wernhyd in poss. of Henry Pranch the little Common by Caerleon Mills (i.e. corn mills) and river called Avon Lloyd." (13)
In the next century the situation of the works is indicated by the Land-tax Assessment. In 1805 we read, at Lanvrechva Lower: "John Butler, Esqr. for 3 Plate Rolling Mills," £13.10.-. In 1817, the Assessment for Lanvrechva Lower reads: "Messrs. Jenkins & Co., for 3 Rolling Mills & Tin works, £l3.10.-. (14) Both John Butler and John Jenkins had their warehouses in town, as well as the use of the wharf and slipway. Butler leased the slipway from the Hanburys in 1801. (15) There also were warehouses in Ponthir, at the end of the road now called Station Road. (16)
In the Caerleon Mills Cash Book (1758-63) we find a workman Abraham Jenkins, a tinner and roller. His wife supplied the Mills - or the owner - with butter, and Abraham was paid his wages at "Pontheer House." (Pontheer House was actually the farm. The first reference to the public house of that name is of 1837 - Clytha House.) According to the Will of Mary Butler (Davies) John Jenkins the younger (later the Deacon) who was the manager of the works in 1797, also lived in Ponthir. (17) In the Caerleon Mills Sales Book (1756-65) John Jones, smith or blacksmith of Pontheer, is mentioned often, buying crop ends. He almost certainly is the same John Jones who was asked to give advice before a stone bridge was built at Ponthir, and in his answer he "says he was Surveyor about forty years ago" - which indeed takes us back to the years 1756-57. (18) Before 1797 the bridge had been of wood but the growing industry and the traffic connected with it no doubt required a more lasting structure. So, in all these documents only Ponthir is indicated as the situation of the works and Caerleon is not mentioned except as a general name of the mills.
H. John continues: "All three departments (i.e. the forge, the black-plate mill and the tinning house) were subject to a stream of invention which speeded up the process of production but it was only in the forge that any marked change was accomplished." According to John the tinplate industry was markedly improved only after 1807. He says it was usual to have three men working at the rolling of the iron bars into plate and mentions Caerleon as an example. (19) However, it seems that there was no special clear division of work at Caerleon, judging by the Mills Books.
Archdeacon Coxe visited the works soon after John Butler had become the owner, and tells in his Tour: "The town contains no manufacture: but it is greatly benefited by the tin works of Mr. Butler, which are established in the vicinity. These works are capable of manufacturing annually from 14000 to 20000 boxes of tin plates, containing each from 200 to 300 plates. Iron plates are rolled, also patent iron rods, ship bolts, and square iron bars. The machinery of the mill is worthy of notice: it is wholly iron; the two fly wheels, with the water wheel and their combined powers, weigh seventy-five tons, and make forty-five revolutions in one minute. It is proposed to annex another system of powers to the same water wheel, by which a weight of twenty tons will be added, and the whole will revolve with the same velocity." Coxe does not tell how near or far "in the vicinity" the works were, but Donovan a few years later gives us definite information: "Mr. Butler, who has a house in the town, is proprietor of a considerable tin-work, long since established in Lanverchra (sic!) parish, at the distance of a mile and a half from the town, in the road to Pontypool." (20) So, according to this, there was no forge on the Caerleon side of the boundary in the early years of the 19th century.
The works used water power, as is clear from Coxe's mentioning the water-wheel. It is not possible to say whether the old Ponthir grist mills had been converted to this new use. But, the grist mills were actually slightly lower down the river, at the Ponthir farm, as the small map drawn of the farm area at the beginning of last century, seems to show. (21) At least in the last period of the tinworks they were higher up, as the ruins still visible testify.
In the book "Pontypool and Usk Japanned Wares", by W. D. John and Anne Simcox. we find a description of the actual tinning process. It gives us to understand that the conditions could indeed be almost unbearable and that the occupation was "hazardous". Women and children were used for the slightly lighter and less skilled tasks of scouring the sheets of iron and moving them from place to place for different stages in the process. The same book also gives the following information: "In 1747 the grease pot technique was introduced at Pontypool by John Jenkins: it was the idea of a South Staffordshire manufacturer." Whether this is the same John Jenkins who later became the manager at Ponthir, is doubtful. It could have been his father, also John, if at all connected with our Jenkins family.
The wages of the tinners were surprisingly high. According to the Caerleon Mills Cash Book, a tinner received, in the years 1758-63, 2s. 4d. per box, it was possible to tin even up to 30 boxes in a week, although this could not be done every week by any means. The following shows John Jenkins' wages from May to July:
May 20 - By Tin Mill paid Ino. Jenkins tinning 25 boxes
Although the wages appear high, in reality they were very much lower because the system meant that a tinner bought material and was paid back and, on the other hand, had to pay the wages of those under him. However, if we compare the wages of these industrial workers to those in agriculture, they do appear to have been higher in industry.
Capital was sunk into the mills fairly regularly by Mrs. Mary Davies, later Butler. In the Cash Books 1781-82 and 1782-83 we see that she invested nearly £400 from the beginning of May to the end of 1781. The next Cash Book is "in Account with Mr. Butler" - they married that year - starting 9th September. Mr. Butler paid in cash during seven months, from October to April, £364. Others, e.g. Evan Pritchard in 1783 gave £250. The profits, on the other hand, remain a secret. They must have grown, as the production grew.
Also, it seems that several people, even those working at the Mills, bought corn from it (wheat, bran, malt) or actually from Mrs. Davies and Mr. Butler. Mr. Butler had other farms, e.g. Penllan in Christchurch, so the corn could have come from there just as well.
Sometimes the wages were paid partly in money, partly in the form of drink. E.g. "drink to men working in ye river"; "for moving Boxes and Coal from ye flood". There also was agricultural work: for "Laboring and haymaking" ten men received 1 s. per day each, and for "Laboring and Harvest Work" 16 men received the same amount.
Coxe and later Evans and Britton who actually used Coxe's words, extolled the benefit the tin-works brought to the town of Caerleon. This was of course firstly employment, secondly profit to the owners, and thirdly connection and trade with the surrounding area. The kind of trade that certainly profited during the period was brewing and the public houses.
There also were less favourable sides to industry. The "Monmouthshire Merlin" reports many accidents caused by machinery even to children, and the tramway seems to have caused deaths among cattle. (22)
It is uncertain when the tramway actually was built. It is mentioned in the auction sale of 1814 and may have then existed for some years already: the lease of the area through which it ran, "the Forge Lands and Forge Orchard", was granted to Messrs. Fothergill & Co., "for the Term of 71 years from the Second of February, 1800." (23) The tramway ran across the Afon Lwyd at the east end of the tinworks, then along the road to Caerleon, crossing the Usk road and joining Mill Street, turning at the bend of the river Usk and running to the site on the west side of the present bridge.
Whether the Fothergill family had the Forge working since 1800, is not known. The yearly rent was £101.11 .9, clear of all taxes. The exact situation of the Forge does become clear in the sales notice 1814, although the size of the area is still rather vague:
"Freehold Estate, called the Forge Lands and Forge Orchard, situated in Part in the Township of Caerleon, and in part in the Parish of Llangattock-juxta-Caerleon and containing by estimation 49 acres & 17 perches (or modern measurement 45a. 2p.) in the Occupation of Messrs Parry."
In the list of lands are mentioned:
"Waste Side of Rail Road (i.e. tramroad) la. lr.
The Fothergills, Richard and Thomas, developed the Forge which in 1833 was taken over by the Moggridge family. In the County Record Office is a Mortgage document:
"1) John Moggridge Esq. of Gabalva, Glam.
The tinworks came into the hands of the Jenkins family after John Butler's death, and remained so until after the middle of the 19th century.
An interesting note concerning the sales of the products was found by the writer while studying the notes left by the late Mr. Gabriel. In a letter from Mr. Glen A. Taylor to Mr. Gabriel, Mr. Taylor tells that there was an advertisement in the Bristol Constitutional Chronicle of January 25th, 1781, of Tinplates, by Mr. Hamman Davies, Proprietor of the Plate Works near Caerleon in Monmouthshire, "having for a series of years sold all his Tinplates sent into this market (under the burned brand D) to the house of Crofts, Watson & Co., of Redcliffe St., which house has now ceased and disposed of their business," etc., stating he was later selling direct. (25)
1. J. F. Rees, How South Wales became Industrialised,