Wales was the first industrial nation and as a result South Wales had a big impact worldwide, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the resources such as coal were mined in the valleys and shipped around the world from the busy ports of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.  This article highlights industrial heritage of South Wales and the various attractions your clients can visit to learn more and experience this unique area of Wales.

The South Wales valleys

Known locally as ‘The Valleys’, the landscape as we see today is the legacy of the Industrial Revolution.  Initially it was a rural area that was rich in many natural resources including iron ore, limestone, timber and coal. These were transported to key towns such as Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea and Cardiff.

By the early 19th century, South Wales was the world’s biggest producer of iron; a century later, a third of the world’s coal was mined in this area and much of the local population was employed in these industries. By 1851, Wales was the world’s first industrial society, this meant that more people were employed by industry than agriculture. By 1913 there were 232,000 working in 620 mines although the largest number ever to work in the mines was in 1920 with 271,000 men. 

Today, visitors can still see the legacy; the landscape and mining towns that have the iconic rows of terraced houses following the line of the valleys, grand chapels and often home to male voice choirs.  Some pit heads are still standing marking the site of some of the former coal mines. The industrial revolution changed the South Wales valleys forever, but it has created a unique heritage and culture that is still evident in this part of Wales today.

The Welsh Mining Experience is at Rhondda Heritage Park formally the Lewis Merthyr Colliery. Retired miners are the tour guides, they give an insight into coal industry of South Wales and life underground and of course ‘The Valley’s humour’ too. The ‘Black Gold Experience Underground Guided Tour’ takes visitors through the Trefor & Bertie Engine Houses and lamp room where your clients will collect a miner’s helmet for the journey underground. Group rates are available for groups of 10+. Onsite there is also Caffe Bracchi and a gift shop.

St Fagans National Museum of History is a living history museum that has many buildings from all over Wales that have been rebuilt on the site and some have links to the Industrial Revolution. Rhyd y car Terrace, built by Richard Crawshay, in Merthyr Tydfil, is a terrace of 6 houses depicting 6 different periods of history between 1805 through to 1985. The Oakdale Workman’s Institute was a focus for social, culture and education and many towns had similar venues, Gwalia Stores is a typical shop from the South Wales valleys. Soon to be built is The Vulcan Hotel, built originally in Cardiff in 1853 to serve the Irish community, many originally worked in the construction of the nearby docks. 

The ‘Life is’ gallery tells the story of Wales from different objects and includes an Italian coffee machine. Many Italians immigrated to the South Wales valleys in the 18 and 19th century and in many of these towns an Italian café became a social hub for the community.

People walking past a traditional store.

St Fagans National Museum of History

Merthyr Tydfil

As a result of the Industrial Revolution, Merthyr Tydfil became the centre of iron production.  By the early 1800s it was the most populated town in Wales with locals and migrants from around the world who came to work in the ironworks owned by the Guest and Crawshay families.

Cyfarthfa Castle was built by William Crawshay II in 1824 and was the family home overlooking the valley and the ironworks.  Today, it is a museum where visitors can learn more about the history of the town, including the world's first steam locomotive built by Richard Trevithick built in 1804.

Swansea

The Industrial Revolution resulted in Swansea becoming the centre for tinplate production it was where 90% of the word’s copper was smelted, giving the name ‘Copperopolis’. In addition almost all the world’s zinc and 75% world’s tin plate was produced in Swansea too.

The National Waterfront Museum is located on the waterfront in Swansea and tells the impact of the Industrial Revolution in Wales using a mix of modern technology and traditional museum displays.

Coal wagon displayed at a museum.

National Waterfront Museum

Blaenavon

Blaenavon was a major producer of iron and coal and as a result in 2002 the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. To find out more, visits to Blaenavon World Heritage Centre, Blaenavon Heritage Railway and Blaenavon Ironworks in the town are recommended. 

In addition, Big Pit National Coal Museum educates the visitor about life as a Victorian miner. There are the popular underground tours run by ex-miners, exhibitions in the Pithead Baths and historic colliery buildings that contrasts with a multi-media tour of a modern coal mine with a virtual miner.

Ironworks and row of white-washed cottages.
Colliery buildings and a pit head overlooking a town in the South Wales valleys.

Blaenavon Ironworks and Big Pit National Coal Museum

Cardiff

Today Cardiff is the capital city of Wales, but pre-industrial revolution (around 1801) it was a tired and remote town with a population of less than 2,000. Its small port attracted attention and grew to become the world’s most important and largest coal port due to the investment of the docks by the Bute Family. Transportation changed from horse, canal and then to the train as the quantities of coal and iron increased. 

Over the years, the focal building is the Pier Head building which was designed to be best viewed from the ships entering the port. It was made using distinctive Ruabon terracotta brick, from the town in North East Wales. It was originally built as offices for the Bute Docks Company and later Cardiff Railway Company. Today it is an interesting visitor centre where visitors can find out more about the history of the port.

Cardiff Bay was also known as Tiger Bay and was the birth place of the well-known singer, Shirley Bassey. Sailors from around settled in the area which became Britain’s first multi-cultural community. After the decline of the coal industry the area fell into disrepair but today it has been rejuvenated by the creation of the barrage into a vibrant waterfront with many bars, restaurants, cafes and shops. There’s also the Wales Millennium Centre, an arts centre, home to the Welsh National Opera with regular performances with a packed programme including west end shows. The Bay is also home to the Senedd, the seat of Welsh Government. Your clients can enjoy a 10km (6.2 mile) circular trail around Cardiff Bay, via the Barrage to Penarth Marina. 

The Coal Exchange, is the location of the signing of the world’s first £1m cheque.  It was built in 1886 for Cardiff’s leading businessmen to make deals with countries all over the world.  It has been renovated and today is a luxury hotel incorporating many of its historic features. 

Cardiff Castle, in the city centre was inherited by the Bute family in 1766. It was the 3rd Marquess of Bute who inherited his father’s fortune from the port and by 1860 he was said to be the richest man in the world. He also inherited Castell Coch situated on the outskirts of the city. His extravagant imagination and wealth with the help of the great architect William Burgess transformed both castles to the magnificent home today. Visitors can visit the castle today and take in the grandeur of the Victorian buildings as well as the Roman remains and Norman Castle.

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