: Industry & Transport

Birth of the Railway Locomotive

Jennifer Protheroe-Jones Principal Curator – Industry, 16 May 2020

Before the invention of the railway locomotive, the speed and pulling power of horses represented the maximum that land transport could achieve. Steam-hauled railways introduced entirely new concepts of speed; vastly more goods and people could be transported further, faster and more cheaply.

Steam-hauled railways revolutionised many aspects of peoples’ lives. Within less than a single lifetime, steam-hauled railways went from remarkable novelties to being mainstays of everyday life.

The railway revolution began in Merthyr Tydfil on 21 February 1804 with the first recorded steam-hauled journey on rails. The key personalities were the talented Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick and Samuel Homfray, owner of the Penydarren Iron Works.

The forges and rolling mills at Penydarren Iron Works, with the blast furnaces in the left background. In front of the buildings at the right is a horse pulling three loads of bar iron at the start of the journey to Abercynon where it would be transferred onto a boat on the Glamorganshire Canal for transport to Cardiff and loading onto a ship. It was just such a consignment of iron that Trevithick’s locomotive successfully transported. Etching by John George Wood for his book “The Principal Rivers of Wales”, 1812.

Trevithick had developed a compact high pressure stationary steam engine that could be built more cheaply and produce more power that pre-existing designs of similar size. Homfray formed a partnership with Trevithick to manufacture the stationary engines. In 1801 and in 1803 Trevithick had built and demonstrated experimental steam-powered road vehicles but had failed to arouse public enthusiasm. In south Wales he encountered a dense network of tramroads serving the ironworks, quarries and mines – all horse drawn and all built with iron rails. He hoped there might be an additional market for his high pressure steam engines if he could demonstrate their usefulness on railways. Homfray, seeking to widen demand for the engines he was beginning to build and market, agreed to fund the construction of a railway locomotive.

The pioneering locomotive was designed and built at Penydarren Iron Works over the winter of 1803-04.

The locomotive successfully pulled five wagons loaded with ten tons of iron and 70 men who had hitched a ride on the wagons for the 9¾ mile journey. Over the following weeks the locomotive made a number of further journeys the length of the tramroad.

The locomotive was widely reported at home and abroad.

Frequent breakages of the brittle cast iron track by the unsprung locomotive resulted in it being converted into a stationary engine within a few months. Two further Trevithick-designed locomotives were built in England in 1805 and 1808 but he found no commercial backers.

“The Miners’ Express”, Saundersfoot Railway, 1900s. This primitive service harked back to early 19th century practices and may capture something of the atmosphere of the Penydarren locomotive’s trial run in 1804 when 70 men hitched a ride on the five wagons. This Saundersfoot Railway service was introduced in 1900 to enable coal miners from Kilgetty to travel to Bonville’s Court Colliery. The ironic name was created by the postcard publisher.

Despite Trevithick’s failure to commercially develop his locomotives, a seed had been planted. Engineers in the North East of England, notably Timothy Hackworth and George Stephenson, built a succession of viable locomotives in the 1810s that reliably hauled coal wagons from collieries to shipping places. These developments enabled the Stockton & Darlington Railway to use steam locomotives from its opening in 1825, and lead to the first long distance steam-hauled railway opening between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830.

In 25 years steam-haulage had progressed from experimental to reliable. Within a few decades more, railways employing steam locomotives were in use on every continent.

The conjectural reconstruction of the Penydarren locomotive on display in the  Networks gallery at the National Waterfront Museum at Swansea.      

A conjectural reconstruction of Richard Trevithick’s pioneering Penydarren locomotive is displayed in the National Waterfront Museum at Swansea, where it is periodically demonstrated in-steam.

You may also be interested in this short film about Richard Trevithicks Steam Locomotive:



Coal and Climate

Jennifer Protheroe-Jones Principal Curator - Industry, 15 May 2020

While Wales is working hard to drive forward a positive climate agenda, with a target of 100% renewable electricity by 2035, our industrial past casts a long environmental shadow. Here Jennifer Protheroe-Jones, Principal Curator – Industry looks at our industrial history and its impact.

Wales was an early and unwitting contributor to climate change.

The 1851 Census showed that Wales was the first nation to have more people employed in industry than in agriculture, the important switch having probably occurred in the mid to late 1840s.

Wales was a notable international centre of industry in the mid 19th century, being one of the most important iron producing nations, and the centre of both the world copper and tinplate industries. Plentiful easily worked coal underpinned all these industries – to fuel furnaces, to power steam engines that drove machinery and locomotives that hauled raw materials and finished products.

An ocean of railway wagons loaded with coal in sidings adjacent to Roath Dock, Cardiff, awaiting shipment in March 1927. The initials on the wagons identify a range of major colliery companies: Burnyeat, Brown & Co Ltd; D.Davis & Sons Ltd; Nixon’s Navigation Coal Co Ltd; United National Collieries Ltd.

Welsh steam coal is ideally suited to steam-raising. It burns with relatively little smoke, produces limited amounts of ash and produces a great deal of heat. As it burns, steam coal fissures but does not crack into small pieces. The fissures allow the coal to burn from the inside as well as from the outside, considerably increasing the heat output and so increasing the steam-raising properties of the fuel. Because steam coal does not break into small pieces as it burns, it sits on top of the fire bars and burns, rather than trickling through the bars as small fragments of unburnt coal which would go to waste amongst the ash. This property of not breaking into small pieces is specially relevant to fuel used in locomotives, because the vibration of the locomotive as it moves along the track tends to make poorer quality fuels break into small pieces which are wasted when they trickle through the fire bars into the ash pit. These properties made Welsh steam coal a premium fuel in wide demand.      

A few decades later, exports of Welsh coal would outstrip the large amounts being used by industries within Wales. By the start of the twentieth century, south Wales was the most important coal exporting coalfield in the world, supplying diverse countries with steam coal. In energy terms, the Bristol Channel was at this time the equivalent of the Persian Gulf a hundred years later. If high quality fuel capable of powering the widest range of machinery was required, then the coal-exporting ports of south Wales were key places to obtain it.

Aerial view looking south east over Cardiff (East Moors) Steel Works around 1960.

In the 19th century the sight of smoke from works’ chimney stacks was regarded as a sign of prosperity. By the early 20th century smoke from burning coal was increasingly recognised as a nuisance but regarded as unavoidable. It was not until after the second world war that serious efforts began to be made to reduce the volumes of smoke from industries and from coal fires in houses – and by this time oil was globally becoming a more important energy source than coal.

The burning of coal, oil and natural gas releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. Internationally, today the largest uses of coal are in electricity generation, cement manufacture and in steel making. Coal ceased to be used to generate electricity in Wales in March 2020; coal continues to be used in the steel and cement industries. 

Tipping a railway wagon of coal at Cardiff Docks, early 20th century. Some coals tended to break up so, instead of tipping the wagons directly into ships’ holds from a considerable height, the coal was tipped into a Lewis Hunter patent ‘coaling box’ (just visible below the copious coal dust) which was picked up by the dockside crane on the left and lowered into the ship’s hold, minimising the height that the coal was dropped.

The Welsh coalfields were intensively mined in the 19th century and output peaked in 1913, declining thereafter due to exhaustion of accessible reserves of coal. Output in 1913 was 60 million tons, half of which was exported; in 2018 output was down to 1.1 million tons. Welsh coal output was in steep decline by the time climate change was widely recognised as a major global issue. Each year the world now produces over a hundred times as much coal as Wales did in 1913, when the Welsh coal industry was at its peak. Even back in 1913, Wales was only producing around 5% of world coal output – its importance at the time was that half of it was exported and that it was regarded as the premium fuel of its time.   

The complex web of communications that enabled Welsh coal to be traded internationally is explained in the Coal gallery at the National Waterfront Museum at Swansea.



Chwarelwyr – Quarrymen

Carwyn Rhys Jones, 14 April 2020

Like so many events during these unprecedented times, our Quarrymen exhibition was curtailed last month when Waterfront Museum closed its doors for lockdown. We wanted to find a way to continue to share it with you, so here’s some background to the exhibition by Carwyn Rhys Jones, who developed it. In it speaks about how it came about and how it was shaped by the stories and memories of five quarrymen. We’ve illustrated this with images from the exhibition and hope you enjoy the experience.

I began this project as a development of some work I’d previously done at university about the landscape of quarries. The project included some quarries in North Wales including Parys Mountain, Dorothea, Penrhyn, Alexandra and Oakeley. It focussed on how the natural landscape had changed due to industrialisation and how a new landscape formed around the quarries. The natural next step was to look at the people of the quarries. Sadly, few quarrymen remain, so it became timely to capture and record this important history and heritage.

Ideas for this project were driven by the quarrymen I interviewed, so it was only fitting that it would be titled Chwarelwyr which means Quarrymen. The exhibition is formed of two key parts: a short documentary and photography stills to accompany it with. The first quarrymen I interviewed was based in Trefor. He was known locally as Robin Band due to the fact that most of his family were in bands. He worked in the stone quarry of Trefor for a few years, and shared fantastic memories of the good, bad and humorous times there.

The next was Dic Llanberis, which, as his name suggests, was based in Llanberis. Dic had years of experience and so much knowledge about the history of the Dinorwic quarry. I used the same process for each of the five quarrymen, interviewing, filming and then photographing them. Dic worked at the quarry even after it had closed down in 1969, helping to clear the remaining slate.

Then it was the turn of Andrew JonJo and Carwyn. They had both worked at Penrhyn quarry in Bethesda on the outskirts of Bangor. I interviewed them both at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis where they both now work. Andrew is the last of six generations of quarrymen in his family that had all worked in two quarries: Dinorwic and Penrhyn. As you might imagine, he spoke movingly of how he was bread into the industry. Carwyn also comes from a large quarrying family, some of them had worked at the slate hospital in Llanberis for injured quarrymen. A number of his ancestors’ signatures can be found in the slate hospital museum’s books, recording surgical procedures.

Finally, I met up with John Pen Bryn, based in Talysarn just outside of Caernarfon. This quarry was so large that it contained a village, and John had been raised there. He now owns the quarry and has lived in Talysarn all his life. He showed me around the quarry and where the village used to be – difficult to imagine now that it was once a bustling place with three shops, within the quarry. John was full of stories and knew everything that had happened in his quarry over the years.

Sadly, both Robin Band and Dic Llanberis have passed away since completing the exhibition, and so the film that accompanies it finishes with their images. They, and I are very glad that we managed to capture some of their stories and document this important heritage and history just in time. I am very grateful to all who were involved in making this exhibition possible. I hope you enjoy it.  

Mining Memories - The Big Pit guides tell their stories.

Rhodri Viney, 20 March 2020

We invited some Big Pit Miner guides - Barry Stevenson, Richard Phillips and Len Howells - to share their memories of working underground.

These films include photos from the Cornwell Collection, and were originally made for the 'Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions' exhibition, along with this guide to the workings of the headgear:

The Big Pit Headgear - a timelapse film

Rhodri Viney, 6 December 2019

Work was carried out in September 2019 to repair, clean and paint the iconic headgear at Big Pit. Watch a timelapse film of the process!

The headgear required restoration to prevent damage and corrosion. The work ensures visitors can continue to explore an authentic and unique underground experience, and that Big Pit carries on telling the important story of how the coal industry shaped communities, society and the industrial world.

If you're wondering how it all works, we also made this film about the headgear for the exhibition 'Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions'.

The project was supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a restoration grant from The Association for Industrial Archaeology.