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Site of Penydarren Ironworks/Trevithick Street

Site of Penydarren Ironworks/Trevithick StreetWhen he first came to Merthyr Tydfil in 1782, Francis Homphray(1725 – 98) was already a successful Shropshire ironmaster. Hailing from Broseley, only a few miles down the River Severn from Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, he had heard of Merthyr’s potential as far as iron making was concerned. Meeting first with John Guest the Dowlais ironmaster he entered into an agreement with Anthony Bacon, then the proprietor of the Cyfarthfa ironworks to lease a foundry, forges and mill for boring cannon.

This enterprise however, was somewhat short lived, for two years later he assisted his sons Jerimiah, Thomas and Samuel to rent land in a narrow, steep-sided stretch of the Morlais brook at Penydarren (meaning the top of the narrow rocky defile). The original lease of February 1784 was for ninety-nine years and gave the brothers the right to mine ore “upon or under the lands called Pwllywheaid in Merthyr Tydfil, with full liberty to sink pits, erect engines, to use water and construct dams and weirs.” The Dowlais furnaces, already an enterprise established some twenty-five years previously, was situated on the high ground upstream of Penydarren and difficulties existed between the two concerns right from the outset.

Site of Penydarren Ironworks/Trevithick StreetIn May 1784 a further lease gave John Guest rights of passage for horses and wagons, while the Homphrays were allowed to divert water from certain springs. Because the original lease did not include the mining of coal, as early as 1786 Francis was forced once again, to negotiate with John Guest in order to secure rights to mine 5,616tons annually at a rent of £140-8s-0d. Thomas, although continuing to be a partner, took no active part in managing the works and by 1789 Jeremiah had left to follow his interests elsewhere in south Wales.

It seems that Samuel, possessed of an unpredictable and domineering character, was not the easiest of men to work with. Despite this, he showed great skill and enterprise in the management of Penydarren and by 1796 a second furnace was added. In that year the woks produced 4,100tons of iron, two thousand more than Dowlais. Samuel Homphray, always a man to welcome innovation, invited the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick to come to Penydarren as early as 1800. He was to erect a forge engine to his own design and it seems that the two men, possessed of similar temperaments, struck up a friendship.

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