If the steam engine hadn’t been invented I wouldn’t have been born in Wales. Maybe I’d be a native of Ireland instead. Or perhaps American or Australian. But as a result of one of those significant turning points in history, I became Welsh.
Bear with me while I explain the connection. There is one, I promise.
Development of the steam engine drove demand for coal for industrial use and ushered in the commercial exploitation of the rich mineral ore deposits lying under the surface of the hills and valleys of South Wales. Wily investors were keen to cash in on the opportunity so they sunk more and more coal shafts. Throughout the Industrial Revolution and into the 19th century, the coal mining industry burgeoned in South Wales.
End Of The Green Fields
Where there were once green fields and farms, there were now pit wheels and mine shafts. Nearly every town had its own colliery; some more than one. They were a magnate for people desperate for employment since each mine employed hundreds of men and boys as young as 13. Migrants from the border counties of England like Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, flooded the area, as did people from Ireland and Scotland.
Among them were my great great grandparents, Patrick Heenan and Ellen Brien (O’Brien) who came from County Limerick, arriving in Wales late 1867/early 1868.
I suspect they were part of what’s called ‘chain migration’ where an individual or a family follow others from their home town/community to a new settlement. There were already sizeable Irish communities in South Wales by the late 1860s. Many had arrived in the 1820s and 30s to help with construction of new ironworks in the Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire valleys. Representatives of the iron company apparently travelled through villages in Ireland ‘advertising’ for workers.
The Great Famine of 1845-49 brought the biggest influx. In the ten years between the censuses of 1851 and 1861, the Irish born population of Wales increased by 113%. These incomers were drawn to the coal export ports of Swansea, Cardiff and Newport and inland towns like Merthyr Tydfil
According to my father, Patrick and Ellen may have themselves settled in Merthyr Tydfil, a town about 25 miles north of Cardiff. It makes sense: Merthyr Tydfil was a major centre for iron production as well as coal mining so there was opportunity for work. But there was also the comfort of knowing they would be living near fellow countrymen who shared their traditions and way of life.
If they were in Merthyr Tydfil it could only have been for a short time because they were still in Ireland in Feb 1867 and by March the following year, they were living in the small town of Rhymney, about eight miles south east of Merthyr Tydfil.
The town would have been attractive to the newcomers for two reasons
- It offered good prospects for finding employment and
- There were plenty of other Irish people living in the neighbourhood.
Rhymney was a centre not only for coal mining but for iron manufacture. It also had limestone quarries and brickmaking yards.
A huge enterprise known as the Bute ironworks was established by the Marquis of Bute in Rhymney in 1825. It was intended to have 24 furnaces but although only six materialised, it was still a major employer. At its peak in 1875 – just a few years after the Heenans arrival – the iron works and the nearby coal mines employed more than 5,000 people. At night, the sky was said to have been lit “with a crimson glow from the furnaces'” (Echoes of Rhymney, Edwards, EE) .
But by 1890 the iron works had declined in profitability to such an extent that a decision was taken to close down the operations and work began to dismantle the equipment.
As iron declined, coal picked up the slack. By the early 20th century collieries in and around Rhymney employed nearly the entire local population.
Patrick Heenan had a variety of jobs between 1871 and 1891. According to the census returns and baptism records he was occupied as:
- Fireman (1871)
- Railman (1872)
- Engine tenderer (1881)
- Engine driver (1891)
It’s not evident from these records whether he found employment in the iron works or the coal mines. I strongly suspect however given those job titles, that he was involved in mining. .
The term fireman doesn’t have the same meaning that it does today. It refers to someone whose duty it was to examine the workings of a mine to see that no fire-damp was present, and to attend to the blasting. It was also used to describe a person who stoked the boilers that raised steam for the winding engines at the mine.
A railman could denote someone responsible for the rails upon which the trams carrying the coal ran from the seam to the base of the winding gear. He then seems to have qualified to look after the engines (the mechanism that winched the coal up from the shaft) and subsequently took on the greater responsibility for operating the mechanism.
When. his sons became of an age to start work, it was into the coal mines they went. Four of the sons who reached adult hood worked all their lives as coal hewers, as did Patrick’s grandsons.
By the time Patrick and Ellen Heenan arrived in Rhymney, there was a well established Irish community in the town. There were sufficient numbers by 1861 to support the establishment of the first Catholic Church in Rhymney. In the records of St John’s the surnames are distinctively Irish. This church was frequented by the Heenans: it was where five of the couple’s eight children were baptised.
There was also a small Catholic school though the records of this no longer seem to exist.
The Irish inhabitants settled mainly in the lower part of the town near to the main iron works site. But the Heenans chose the upper part of the town, initially in small terraced houses directly facing onto the street. They then moved and for a long time lived at Upper Cross Row , in a house which had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. Personal space would have been at a premium – in 1891 there were eight adults in this house.
This street, and most of the others in which my great great grandparents lived, were cleared in the 1970s. But we get a glimpse of what Upper Cross Row looked like from the work of local historians. Apparently the row was constructed so that each house backed onto a similar house under the same roof, meaning neither had a rear exit. They had fairly large gardens attached where the outside toilet for each property was located and where chickens were commonly kept for eggs. Some of their neighbours may have also kept pigs.
The Story Continues
But for the steam engine and the consequent industrial development of areas around Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, my great great grandparents would not have left their homes in the farmlands of County Limerick and travelled to Wales. It’s conceivable they might have considered emigration to a destination further afield as did so many other Irish people. But Wales had one significant advantage over the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – it was closer and thus cheaper to reach.
I know why they came to Wales. I know, within a year or so, when they arrived. I know where they lived and how they earned a living.
But what I don’t know is how they got from Limerick to Wales. I have some ideas that I’ll share in my next post.