The History of Pontypool
Pontypool was one of the largest and most influential towns in South Wales for most of the 18th and 19th centuries and is one of the oldest industrial towns in South Wales.
A sixteenth century map in the National Library of Wales names the area as ‘LePool’ and we know there were some forges established in the area by David and Ieuan Graunt in 1425.
There are local stories about how Pontypool came into being, one tale tells about a local man called Dafydd ap Howell building a bridge across the Afon Lwyd. He was a strong man and one night he went down to the river and met Satan. They had an argument over who was strong enough to build a bridge. They agreed to join hands across the river and play a tug of war and the one who was pulled across the river would build the bridge. Dafydd was very strong and so won the contest to build the bridge, and it was named after him, Pont ap Howell Another tale is that a parish priest called Dafydd ap Howell built the bridge for the residents of Trevethin to attend church when the river flooded.
It is far more likely that the bridge was called Pont y Pwll, meaning the bridge over the Pool and that was where the name Pontypool came from.
William Coxe stated that “before the present town, the place contained very few houses”. The area was at the bottom of a steep valley and had sparse woodland all around.
Pontypool was ideally situated for the production of iron. There was iron ore and coal in the ground, thickly wooded hills for the production of charcoal, and the fast flowing Afon Llwyd, a tributary of the Usk, provided power for the forges and furnaces. We know Richard Hanbury opened iron furnaces and forges in the area in 1577, and his family continued to expand their business from that time onwards. The town really began to expand from the time when John Hanbury took over the family business in 1685 and moved his family to Pontypool, which he did to directly manage the ironworks. He gathered around him a group of experienced ironworkers and his factory soon began to produce significant amounts of iron goods that were of a superior quality. He and his team pioneered the introduction of tin plate and Japanware and the town was on the road to becoming a major industrial centre.
By 1799 there were 250 houses and about 1500 people living in the area. There was also a market to serve the people and assembly rooms, making Pontypool a “Market Town”. As the UK wide industrial revolution spread, Pontypool continued to expand.
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The Rise and Fall
As the Hanbury family settled in the area and set up iron furnaces and forges, people came to settle and work in the area. Conditions were reputedly very good at the time unlike in other industrial areas.
The population began to grow and by 1841 Pontypool was larger than Newport or Cardiff and was a hive of industrial activity. The town at this time mainly consisted of the cottages of workers and was confined to a smallish area. However, as the population grew and the area became more prosperous, Pontypool expanded. This had an impact on living conditions which declined substantially, as shown in George Kendrick’s address saying “wherever there is a large mass of persons congregated in ill ventilated, confined premises, there misery, disease and want are sure to abound”.
As more people moved into Pontypool the town grew. Buildings such as the Civic Centre and Glantorfaen House show how wealthy the town was. With the increase in population, there was also an increased need for drinking venues, and by 1885 there were 254 licenced houses in the town. One of the most famous of these was the Bristol Beer House. This was supposedly one of the social venues that leader of the Chartist movement William Jones used. Jones moved to Pontypool as a watchmaker and had been involved in the Chartist movement. Jones set up a Working Man’s Association to campaign against poor pay and working conditions. These groups had drawn up a ‘People’s Charter’ in 1838, which asked for six points to be addressed including a vote by ballot for all adult males, and they became known as ‘Chartists’. On the day of the chartist uprising we know the working men of the area gathered in the Bristol Beer House before departing for Newport.
During this time the town centre developed as well, and was connected by two main streets which met at the “The Cross”. The modern town is very much the product of this 19th Century growth. The modern map grid pattern was set by 1836 with Commercial Street (originally Caroline Street) and George Street being the main axis and the second axis being Crane Street. Development within the valley floor was limited, however outside the valley floor Pontypool increased. The market also outgrew itself, and so a new one was built in 1894.
The railway replaced the original canal and tramway (you can still see parts of the old tramway in the park) to link and open up Pontypool with the rest of Wales, mainly for industry. The line of the railway did not follow the line of the canal, it ran along the east side of the town, and it may have introduced a barrier between Pontypool and its western settlements.
As the industrial revolution expanded across the UK, other areas began to out compete Pontypool. The Hanburys left the area in 1851 and although other people took over, Pontypool began to decline. Over the 20th Century Pontypool declined further with its population dwindling,