It is difficult to comprehend the huge changes that the South Wales Valleys have undergone during the last 250 years and Merthyr Tydfil is probably one of the best examples of this.
Until the mid 18th century, Merthyr Tydfil was a small village in the upper Taff Valley, inhabited by an agricultural community. Fortuitously, the surrounding districts had everything that was needed for a thriving iron industry – iron ore, limestone for lining furnaces, mountain streams to run water wheels, plenty of timber for the manufacture of charcoal and, later some of the best quality coal that the world has ever seen.
Ironworks were established at Dowlais in 1749 and at Cyfarthfa in 1765; Dowlais came under the management of the Guest family and Cyfarthfa under that of the Crawshay family. Both families were to attain incredible wealth and influence as a result.
By 1801, Merthyr had a population of 7,700, a figure which rose to 22,000 in 1831 and to 46,000 in 1851. This meant that it was incontestably the largest town in Wales, with a population that was roughly six times that of Cardiff. By the 1820s, Merthyr was literally the iron capital of the world and the source of 40 per cent of Britain's iron exports. Ironically, It was an area which produced iron but hardly made anything from it, unlike the cities of Sheffield and Birmingham, where metallurgical crafts blossomed.