A FAMILY argument that created two competing Japanware works in Gwent and two bustling villages for iron and coal workers that have vanished from the landscape, BECKY CARR looks at the industry which has shaped South Wales.
FROM the late 17th to mid 19th century, Pontypool and Usk were important manufacturing centres for the Japanning industry.
Japanned goods were the European imitation of varnished and lacquered furniture from the Orient.
The products were produced through heating a hard coating of coloured varnish or lacquer to metal, wood, or papier mâché. In the case of Pontypool Japanware, powdered oxides from iron ore were used to colour the material.
The origins of the Japanware industry in South Wales stemmed from the abundance of natural resources in the Torfaen valley, with the help of its successful iron industry.
The Hanbury family first set up ironworks in Pontypool in 1576. In the late 17th century, tinplating, with the production of thin and regular blackplates was introduced to the mills, providing a perfect material for the purpose of providing Japanned goods.
In the early 18th century, Edward Allgood, who worked at the Hanbury’s ironworks in Pontypool, experimented with techniques his father Thomas had developed and discovered the technique of giving ironware a brilliant polish, which invented the Japanware process.
He and his brother Thomas then went on to open the first Japanning works in a cottage in Trosnant, their manufacturing processes a closely-guarded secret.
Pontypool Japanware provided a cheaper alternative to silver and Chinese porcelain and could withstand heat.
It was well-established by the time manufacturers in the Midlands took up the industry.
In 1761, a family argument led to Edward Allgood, the grandson of the original Edward, to set up a rival industry in Usk with his brother Henry. Another quarrel in 1779 led to Henry joining a rival firm in Birmingham. Meanwhile, the Pontypool works switched to mass producing techniques, in order to cope with increased competition.
In the early 19th century the Usk works, under the direction of Londoner John Pyrkes, raised their standards and items were sold to The Duke of Wellington and King Louis XVIII of France.
The Pontypool works were eventually closed in 1820 with Usk following in the 1850s as the production of cheap painted tinware sparked the end for Japanning.
Today, rare examples of Pontypool Japanware can be seen at the Pontypool Museum.
IN a time before blueprints and power tools, the Spanish workmen who built the Newport Medieval Ship used skills that had been passed down through the generations.
Each piece of wood, from an oak tree that had been growing in a Spanish forest for hundreds of years, was cut to length by hand and by eye.
Newport Medieval Ship curator Toby Jones said that no-one can really say how long the ship builders would have taken to put together a merchant ship such as the one found under the Riverfront Theatre in 2002, with estimations varying from six months to four years.
It is believed the ship was built in around 1449 and found its way to Newport by 1468.
Thirty-one men would have been needed to sail the ship from Portugal to Bristol and back to trade in iron, wine and cloth.
Mr Jones said: “They had to move the cargo by hand but they didn't seem to have a problem loading the barrels.
“These were big merchant ships, most things would be carried in wooden crates.
“There was such a demand for iron and wine. Wine would have been preserved in August or September. The wine wouldn’t have aged well so they had to ship it here as quickly as possible. It didn’t last and it would taste terrible after a few months.”
The Newport ship could have transported 200 tonnes of cargo.
Mr Jones added: “Ships like this would pay for itself on a single voyage. The profit margin would be huge if you had the money to build one of these ships. We don’t know who built or owned the Newport ship.
“Newport was a 1,500-person town. The reason they bought it here was to repair it as there was lots of natural resources and labour. They could bring it up in a high tide.
“During the repair work, the ship fell over and they couldn’t lift it. They just didn’t have the technology or physical power to do it.”
A WELL known beauty spot near Blaenavon used to be home to more than 1,000 iron and coal industry workers but if you were to visit there today, there would be little sign of them.
The villages of Pwlldu and Granddyrys are now home to only five or six people, but were once a hive of activity morning, noon and night.
The area has been immortalised in Alexander Cordell's Rape of the Fair Country, which depicts the iron workers of the 19th century.
Historian John Evans said: "At one point there were 50 small mines near Pwlldu and because they were small and shallow, you would have had lots of people working in them - men, women, girls and boys from six to seven years old."
Pwlldu started to grow in about 1840 with Granddyrys soon after.
A forge was built near Granddyrys to convert the iron ore in a blast furnace. The workers who manufactured iron, known as puddlers, were some of the best in Britain and had been brought into Gwent from across South Wales.
Some Welsh puddlers had previously sought work in Sweden and France but were bought back to Blaenavon as the industry began to grow.
Mr Evans said the communities would have been happy ones, with each village having its own chapel, school, pub and shop.
Following the decline of the iron and coal industries, the villages began to decline with residents of Pwlldu being told to leave their homes in the 1960s as they were no longer habitable.
One of the only buildings now left in Pwlldu is a pub called the Lamb and Fox, which is said to be haunted by one of the village's residents.
In the winter of October 1880, Mrs Bridgewater had become worried that her young son was late coming home from work.
Mr Evans added: "There was a terrible snow storm and she froze to death looking for him. Her son was actually only a few yards away from where she was found, sheltering from the storm in the Lamb and Fox pub.
"When it snowed these villages would have been completely cut off from everywhere."
THE completion of the new South Lock in Newport docks 100 years ago allowed ships to enter directly from the Bristol Channel for the first time.
At more than 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide, it was claimed that the lock was the largest in the world and helped Newport accommodate any size ship.
The South Lock was officially opened on July 14, 1914 by Prince Arthur of Connaught, King George V’s son.
It was Lord Tredegar’s steam yacht The Liberty that got the honour of being the first ship to pass through the lock, transporting Prince Arthur during the celebrations.
Newport was now able to handle both coal and general cargo in the docks system.
Larger ships used the South Dock for direct access to the Bristol Channel while smaller vessels used the North Dock, Town Dock and the River Wharves via the River Usk.
The new South Lock was the last major work carried out on the development of Newport’s docks.
In 1922, control of the docks passed from the Alexandra Docks and Railway Company to the Great Western Railway.
The depression saw the GWR faced with a sudden downturn and a decision was taken to concentrate resources on the Alexandra Docks causing the Town Dock to be closed in 1930.
In 1948, control passed to the British Transport Commission following nationalisation.
During the 1950s and 1960s, iron ore became an important cargo following the construction of the Llanwern works which ceased in 1975 when all trade was diverted to the recently completed Port Talbot Tidal Harbour.
By the early 1990s Newport had become established as one of the major timber handling facilities in the UK.
The docks are now owned by the Associated British Ports and handles a wide variety of general cargo, including timber products, minerals, ores and steel products.