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No. 1275:
An Old Company Town

Today, let's visit Merthyr Tydfil. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You and I look at the wake of the Industrial Revolution with justifiable revulsion. We think of mill workers enslaved by heartless companies in squalid factories. We remember Charles Dickens's pictures of England in the 1840s -- images of a life barely better than the slavery still going on in America.

Let's go back and watch one of those towns growing up. Let's go to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. A quick check of the Internet yields home pages of the Merthyr Tydfil sailing club and their internationally known men's chorus. The town also happens to be where the TV series Dr. Who was produced.

One web site shows a bucolic gem of a hotel, once a lodge owned by the Morgan family. For centuries, the Morgans owned everything in this region. Historian Bruce Thomas tells how an enterprising cleric named Thomas Lewis negotiated a lease for 2000 acres of Morgan's hunting lands in 1759. He knew there was coal here, and he wanted to set up iron forges.

That same year young James Watt went to the University of Glasgow as an instrument maker. Modern steam engines would soon be in the picture. Industrialization would create the new town of Merthyr Tydfil here. In a few years it'd become a showplace powered by a huge iron water wheel, fifty feet in diameter.

Local peasants left their primitive medieval lives in the isolated outback. They came to work the forges. They built small stone row-houses. Their standard of living advanced by a light year. Now they had minimal medical care and schooling. They bathed daily. (They had to in their filthy work, but that set them far apart from the rest of England.) They whitewashed their new houses and outhouses. Bookstores appeared in the new town. People read.

But the forges came and generated filth. Soot covered everything. Visitors who'd been impressed were now appalled. Thomas Carlyle called Merthyr "a vision of Hell [that'll] never leave me."

Towns like this were raising the standard of living and raising expectations. The first dwellers in Merthyr Tydfil had left an unimaginably primitive life. The second generation was raised in a world transformed by the fruits of these new industries.

In 1831 the citizens finally rose up to demand some semblance of public service. They wanted their streets cleaned and lit, they wanted public bathhouses, they wanted city government. Blood soon flowed in the streets; then cholera followed. Finally, in 1856, the Bessemer process took steel-making away from this now-miserable town. Changing the industry is what finally undid the slum. The workers left, and Merthyr Tydfil grew bucolic again.

Now the town means TV, choral music, and sailboating -- amenities of the good life it helped to create. In the end, Merthyr Tydfil really has done what it set out to do, over two centuries ago.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Thomas, B., Merthyr Tydfil and Early Ironworks in South Wales. The Company Town: Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age (John S. Garner, ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 17-41.