Aberdulais: An industrial revolution since 1584

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It’s the winter of 1584 and Queen Elizabeth I needs to indulge in a bit of what we now call quantitative easing. She needs hard cash to spend on warships to combat the threat from Philip of Spain’s Armada

Luckily, a German engineer, Ulrich Frosse, has a solution.

He has perfected a new method of smelting copper to turn into coin of the realm. But it’s hush-hush stuff and he needs somewhere quiet and secluded to ply his trade. The place he chooses is... Aberdulais.

What happened next

That was 200 years before the industrial revolution. And ever since, this narrow gorge at the mouth of the Dulais River outside Neath has been at the heart of the Welsh industrial story, thanks to its bountiful supplies of coal, timber…and water.

Copper-smelting gave way to ironworking, the milling of textiles and grain and – most significant of all – the manufacture of 19th century tinplate.

How things change

It’s difficult to imagine today the heat, dust, noise and dirt that must have dominated the scene back then. Today, its picturesque surroundings are a haven for wildlife, native plants and visitors with curious minds, keen to explore. Back then, as one young Victorian tinplate worker observed: “It was so hot the sweat ran out of our shoes.” 

In its heyday, tinplate from Aberdulais was exported across the globe, until the Americans moved to protect their own infant industry and slapped huge tariffs on tinplate imports. Aberdulais’ days were numbered.

Restoration

Except it didn’t turn out quite like that. A century on – in 1980 – the National Trust acquired Aberdulais Falls and today the famous waterfall is back in business, generating ‘green’ electricity for the nation. History is repeating itself (although the Spanish are welcome visitors now rather than mortal enemies).

Little remains of Aberdulais’ early history. But 30 years of restoration and conservation by the Trust have brought the tinplate era back to life. The waterwheel turns in the original wheel pit; interpretational panels paint vivid pictures of what the scene before you would have been like back then.

Local schoolchildren recount on film the stories of their forbears, who were put to work from the age of eight. And descendants of the tinplate workers recall the tales handed down to them by their great grandmothers and fathers.

Mother Nature

And then there’s the waterfall. When it rains, it thunders. The awesome power of nature is all too apparent as 160,000,000 litres of water plunge over the rocks daily.

On quieter days, it becomes more benign, offering food and refreshment to the resident colony of Daubenton bats, not to mention a host of birds like dippers, wagtails and even the occasional kingfisher.

And another innovation by the Trust – a fish pass – has enabled spawning grounds to be established up river for salmon and sea trout.

So - 400 years and more after the story began - there’s still much to see, do and learn during a visit to Aberdulais, one of the few tourist destinations that actually prays for rain!