1) Virtual Tour of Ironworker's Cottage


A number of early industrial houses immediately adjacent to Blaenavon ironworks have been preserved by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments. Known as Stack Square, they were first erected when the ironworks were established in the late 18th century to provide accommodation for some of the essential and most highly skilled workers. Although small and cramped by modern standards, they probably represent some of the best quality workers' housing built in the town during the period of industrial boom.

For this exercise, one room of one cottage was refurnished for a day and photographed in panorama, to provide a 'virtual tour' of an ironworker's home in about the middle of the 19th century. Time constraints prevented us from filming more of the house, but just about all the essential elements of home life are represented in this simple tour. The 1841 census record for this particular house has been included in the Homes and Health section of the Resource Bank.

The Virtual Tour Itself

As children travel around the room using their mouse, they will come across a number of 'hotspots', represented by an arrow; each of these, when clicked, will take the child into a closer exploration of that particular part of the room. This may take the form of a short video clip, a zoom-in on a part of the room (e.g. the kitchen range) and/or a close-up of an individual object which can then be revolved for closer inspection. NB Children with keen eyes and sharp brains may spot the 'deliberate' mistake in one of the video clips: the lady doing the ironing holds the flat iron without wrapping a cloth around the handle to protect her hand from the heat. Within each hotspot, children can also access a text file which will provide them with some key information about aspects of life in a house such as this.

Key Points

The main teaching points are:

  • no gas, electricity, running water, drainage or sewerage in this house. Water would have been collected from outside the house, from a stream, well, pump or perhaps a rain-filled water butt (see bucket hotspot).
  • One room was used for virtually all domestic functions, such as: working; cooking; eating; relaxing, washing (bodies and clothes) and even sleeping.
  • Lighting was provided by natural light through the small window and/or the door (not in bad weather). This was supplemented by burning rushes (cheap but fairly ineffective) or candles (more light, but expensive). See candle holder hotspot. The window does not open. Poor ventilation in houses was a universal problem, leading to constant problems with dampness. As a result, illness and diseases connected with the respiratory system were commonplace and often fatal.
  • Heating was provided by the fire in the kitchen range (fuelled by logs or coal) which was also the means by which all food was cooked (see kitchen range hotspot). In the left hand corner of the fireplace was a small oven for baking wheat bread, although in Wales in the 19th century oatbread was probably more common. This was baked over the fire on a bakestone (just like Welsh cakes) and an example can be seen in the main picture, just behind the bed. Vegetable soup or stew was eaten virtually every day in most Welsh households, and could be found simmering away in a hanging pot or cauldron over the range. The oven on the right hand side could be used to roast meat, although this would have been an infrequent luxury for many families in industrial Blaenavon. Notice also, the kettle on the centre of the grate; the range was the only source of hot water for the family, for cooking, drinking or washing.
  • Many industrial workers’ houses suffered from severe overcrowding, as parents usually raised as many children as they could. This was partly to increase the family’s earning power (see Resource Bank) and partly because the child mortality rate was extremely high (see Activity 2 below). Households were often further enlarged by the taking in of lodgers, again to add income to the family budget. Sleeping arrangements were generally pretty basic, with several (unwashed) people often sharing the same bed (see bed hotspot).
  • Some of the most important foods of an industrial worker’s household can be seen on the table. In addition to the food mentioned above (i.e. wheat bread, oat bread and stew) staple foods included: butter; lard; cheese; potatoes; vegetables; porridge; with tea and beer as the principal drinks. Food storage was primitive: meat could be salted or smoked, some foods could be pickled or made into preserves (see storage jar hotspot).
  • The sparcity of furniture, decoration and ‘creature comforts’. Rest and relaxation after an indescribably hard day’s labour must have been extremely difficult to obtain.
  • The labour intensity of the housework (see broom hotspot). With no electricity, all household chores, such as cleaning, washing and cooking, relied upon human muscle power and effort. N.B. Several female children mentioned in their testimony to the Royal Commission Inspectors that they had to help their mothers with the housework after returning from their day’s paid labour (see Servants of the Empire video and Resource Bank).

The Activity

The activity sheet should, again, help children to extract and record key factual information from the tour. Most of the 'answers' or relevant ideas are contained within the hotspot and text files, and extracting this information will test children's observation and note-taking skills.

2) Making Ends Meet Shopping Activity


The aims of this activity are two-fold:

  • to see how successfully children can manage a limited family budget and achieve the desired objective of ensuring that their family is well fed, warm and clean. Can they make sensible choices of how to spend their money in order to provide a balanced diet and a comfortable home environment (within the constraints of their budget)?
  • To help children to realise that, depending upon their skill, status and earning power, achieving this objective would have been considerably easier for some families and virtually impossible for others.

Children should be encouraged to consider the likely health implications for the poorer families of the fact that their weekly budget simply does not allow for a properly balanced diet and sufficient nutrition to compensate for the family’s daily exertions in the workplace. The Babies, Boils and Burials activity in the Homes and Health task should help them to explore this idea further.

An activity sheet has been provided to help to draw some ideas and conclusions together.


i) Occupations and Wages

For this exercise, we have assumed a fixed family size of six people (the sample census records provided in Activity 1 actually suggest a figure of seven). The three families are entirely hypothetical, but the occupations and wages quoted are taken directly from the 1842 Royal Commission report referred to earlier, and are therefore authentic for each family member. NB Both wages and prices are expressed in old pennies (d.) rather than pounds, shillings and pence (£, s. d.) simply because, in a modelling exercise such as this, everything must be expressed in a single unit of currency, to make calculations and comparisons feasible.

ii) Prices and Quantities

The actual prices and units of quantity for each commodity are something of a mixed bag, as we have been forced to draw evidence from a wide variety of sources and dates. Some prices/quantities are almost absolutely exact for Blaenavon in 1842. Records show, for example, that in 1840 the Blaenavon Truck Shop* was charging 24d. for 4lbs of mutton, 22d. for 4lbs of beef and 18d. for a 2lb bag of sugar. Others are accurate for the date, but not necessarily the location; the Illustrated London News, for example, quotes 10d. as the price of a 4lb loaf of wheat bread on October 1st 1843.

In some cases, however, we have discovered the price for a given quantity of a particular commodity, but at a slightly different date; in other cases, we know the proportion of weekly income that would have been spent on average on a particular commodity (e.g. potatoes), but not the actual units of quantity. Some guesswork has therefore been required.

*A Truck Shop was owned and run by the company which employed and paid the workers. Prices were always significantly higher than in private shops, but workers were often paid not in money, but in company tokens which could only be used in the Truck Shop. They were thus tied to the company's prices. The Truck System provoked bitter resentment and was eventually outlawed later in the century.

The Activity

Notwithstanding these complications, however, the validity of the exercise stands. Included in the price list are all the main commodities upon which a working class family would have relied, together with a number of less essential or luxury items which could have been available (and attractive) to it. Children need to make choices as to which of these are most important and how much of their income they will spend on each. By far the most important staple was bread. To make the exercise more realistic, and more difficult, we have therefore taken a fixed amount out of each family budget and set it aside for bread and for rent (the other aspect of the budget over which the family had little or no control). The actual amount consumed by bread has been calculated on the basis of one loaf per man per day and half a loaf a day each for women and children.

It is likely that children will find that, despite the fact that four of them are working, the labourer's family simply cannot buy everything it needs on a weekly basis, let alone put anything away for savings, clothing or furniture. Money for leisure time or recreation barely comes into the equation. The collier's family fares a little better, but can hardly be said to be comfortable. The puddler's family appears to be actually doing quite well at this time. Certainly, puddlers were among the industrial elite, but their wages were subject to huge annual fluctuations and could have plummeted or increased (perhaps considerably) by the same time the next year. Saving was therefore a wise precaution.

N.B. What we simply cannot calculate is the extent to which the family diet would have been supplemented by home grown produce, such as vegetables and perhaps the keeping of a pig. Children could perhaps be asked to think of ways in which the family could acquire food other than with money?

3) Babies, Boils and Burials Activity


Through the first activity in this task area, children will have identified the main characteristics of housing conditions and discussed their potential implications for health and family life; in the second, they will have seen how rates of pay curtailed the ability of many families to provide a balanced, nutritional diet and a healthy home environment. In this activity, children will examine and analyse evidence for the cumulative effects of these circumstances on life expectancy and identify some of the most common and serious types of sickness that afflicted working people in this period.


Burial evidence is taken from the register of deaths for Llanover* parish for the year 1841. Evidence for common illnesses are taken from the log books for St. Peter's School, Blaenavon. These records are from the latter part of the 19th century, however, as the records for our chosen period have been lost. This unfortunate, but an important part of the process of learning how to think like a historian is recognising that sometimes key pieces of the jigsaw are missing. In some cases, we can more or less fill the gaps by using evidence which is of a very similar nature; on this occasion, from the same place, the same source, but slightly later in date. It's not perfect, but it gets us pretty close to where we want to be.

*The ecclesiastical parish of Blaenavon was not created until 1860. It was formed out of parts of a number of other parishes, Llanover being one of them.

The Activity

Babies, Boils and Burials divides into three parts. In the first, children record data relating to the ages at which local people died in 1841. As they log the information on the tally chart, a bar graph automatically forms which illustrates graphically the high incidence of child mortality. In the questions window, the characteristics of this pattern are reinforced and children are asked to use the knowledge they have already acquired to explain some reasons for them. Having learned that large numbers of children were dying at this time, children then discover, through the school log book section, some of the illnesses that were responsible for this appalling death rate.