Sunday, 10 July 2016
A Blast from the Past: Dol-y-Clochydd
A little while ago, a friend mentioned to me about an ancient blast furnace near Ganllwyd. This gentleman is a very knowledgeable and precise fellow, not given to flights of fancy, so I felt that I had to go and look. I couldn't imagine a blast furnace in such a beautiful spot; my mind would insist on conjuring up images of the old John Summers works in Shotton, or the furnaces at Port Talbot. What I found surprised me.
The story starts back in the first half of the C16, when it is known that a bloomery was sited at the Dol-y-Clochydd site. What is a bloomery? It is the site of a small-scale iron furnace, where iron ore is heated and reduced to form iron-rich slag. This slag or "bloom" is heated then reduced again by hammering the waste, or gangue, away repeatedly until finally a reasonably pure iron bar (wrought iron) is produced. There are still many impurities such as phosphorus, nickel and arsenic which are partly reduced to the iron, leading to some interesting alloys. One thing all this heating needs, though, is a great deal of fuel. Charcoal.
Enter the first notable player in our story, Hugh Nanney, whose increasing status in 1586 as Sherrif of Meirioneth allowed him to acquire a great deal of land, including some of the lands belonging to Cymer Abbey. Dol-y-Clochydd was situated in one of these parcels and he wasted little time in leasing the furnace off to a couple of English fellows, John Smith and William Dale . The deal was sweetened by including " all the trees on Penrhos Common, a low hill to the north, adjoining the said iron mill’ Here's a thing- you might be wondering why there was all this iron activity here, of all places- perhaps there were deposits of iron ore? After all, there were a number of other bloomeries operating at the same time in Coed y Brenin. There were iron deposits on the slopes of Cadair Idris, and further up the mawddach valley, but, no...the crucial factor was the availability of timber in large stands of trees. Oak, that is, not the monotonous Sitka that pervades the area today. In a post-Elizabethan England where most handy timber had been used to build ships, resources were scattered in less convenient places, such as the upper Mawddach valley, although that still isn't quite all the story, as we shall see.
So, our Englishmen lost no time in cutting down a great deal of timber to make charcoal However, Hugh Nanney was either unscrupulous or careless, as it quickly came to the attention of the Crown that these woodlands were being decimated, and they sent a deputation to Nanney to serve a notice of theft on him- it turned out that the trees on Penrhos common belonged to them! The hapless Nanney was fined £1200 and sentenced to two years in the Fleet prison; it couldn't have been a comfortable billet. The fine was later reduced to £800 after the quality of the wood was disputed...it was decided that Nanney's tenants had taken 10,000 oaks at a cost of 3 shillings each, but a carpenter, brought to give evidence by John Smith, claimed that many of the oaks were unsuitable, and that the wood was difficult to extract from the steep hillsides.
Nanney didn't seem to be ruined by his spell at her majesty's pleasure, because soon afterwards, he was back on the scene. In 1596, he is brokering a deal to convert the site at Dol-y-Clochydd into a blast furnace, bringing William Grosvenor on the scene as a financial backer. By this time, Smith and Dale had taken out a new 21 year lease on the site. Sadly the new furnace only had a short life and it is reported to have been blown out by 1604, although this may have been because of a scarcity of wood to use as fuel- certainly, nobody would be thinking of taking timber from Penrhos common....
Coming back again to the question of why these men had developed the furnace in such an out-of the way spot; granted, the wood was a factor. But Nanney was a something of an entrepreneur, and despite his new status as an ex-jailbird, had many influential friends at court. For instance, he was patronised by Sir James Croft, formerly Lord Deputy of Ireland and Comptroller of the Royal Household under Elizabeth. The aforementioned William Grosvenor, one of the backers of the project, had forges and warehouses in Chester, for the supply of arms for use in Ireland- so perhaps Nanney was making use of what was available to him locally at the time and using his contacts to find a market for his iron. What happened to Nanney, Smith and Dale afterwards is probably an interesting story, but for now, let's take a look at the site as it is today.
The furnace lies near the bank of the Mawddach at the foot of a very steep slope, which has probably contributed to it's survival, as it is difficult to access the place with agricultural machinery. We stopped our truck at the side of the road while I squinted down to the river banks, not quite knowing what to look for. Then, I saw it. Nothing more than a low, squarish mound, but undoubtedly something worthy of investigation. We scrambled and stumbled down, slipping and then sinking ankle deep in mud, but soon we were at close quarters with a furnace that was last blown in 1604. I was quite excited to finally see this, after reading about it beforehand. It was excavated by a team of archaeologists in the 1980's, firstly by a group from Plas Tan-y-Bwlch who found evidence of "glassy blast furnace slag in the riverbank" and latterly by Peter Crew who has made a definitive study of the subject, referenced at the end.
There are the feint remains of a loading bank, or charging platform. The wood posts at each corner are obviously relatively new, but mark the king posts which would have supported a wooden structure around the furnace. The blowing arch can just be made out, with its sandstone lintel, while the lining of the furnace shows signs of sandstone blocks, vitrified by the intense heat. It is certainly a lesson in industrial archaeology brought to life with the help of a little imagination. Grass has grown over all the excavations, but in the 80's, signs of a casting floor were found and evidence of a water powered bellows. Today there are remains at the top of the bank of a stone built ore hopper where iron ore and bloomery slag would be offloaded from the road and sent down a chute to the furnace. It's not hard to imagine the activity and smoke here back in the very early C17.
I would like to apologise for the poor quality of the photos, it was a very dull and drizzly early spring day when we visited and no amount of C21 technology can quite make up for the lack of sunlight!
By the way, Dol-y-Clochydd means "the Sexton's Meadow".
Dol-y-Clochydd blast furnace, grid reference SH 734 220
P. Crew and M. Williams. "Early iron production in north-west Wales". In Medieval Iron in Society II. Stockholm: Jernkontorets Forskning H39, 1985, 20-30
"Ironworking in Merioneth from prehistory to the 18th century"
by Peter Crew Plas Tan-y-Bwlch