Aberdulais: An Industrial Revolution since 1584
Queen Elizabeth I 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's 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.
" ...far from the pryinge eyes of his competitors"
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 their 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.
Except it didn’t turn out quite like that. A century on – in 1980 – the National Trust acquired Aberdulais Tinworks and Waterfall and today the power of water generates ‘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; interpretation and films paint vivid pictures of what life was like.
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.
And then there’s the waterfall. When it rains, it thunders. The awesome power of nature is all too apparent as 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 Heron's.
As the water of the Dulais river continues to flow, so too is the tradtion of using the waterfall as a source of power - driving Europe's largest generating waterwheel, and creating green energy.
Aberdulais - An Industrial Revolution since 1584!