UNESCO World Heritage Site #259: Blaenavon Industrial Landscape

UNESCO World Heritage Site #259: Blaenavon Industrial Landscape
UNESCO World Heritage Site #259: Blaenavon Industrial Landscape

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Blaenavon landscape constitutes an exceptional illustration in material form of the social and economic structure of 19th-century industry. The area around the Blaenavon ironworks provides an extraordinarily comprehensive picture of the South Wales coal and iron industry in its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was one of the world’s largest iron and steel producers. All the necessary elements can be seen in situ : coal and ore mines, quarries, a primitive railway system, furnaces, the homes of the workers, and the social infrastructure of their community.

From at least 1675, iron ore was extracted on the mountains of Blaenavon. However, the area was virtually unsettled and used only for small-scale iron mining and grazing. In 1788 Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins, and Benjamin Pratt built a major new ironworks at Blaenavon, putting into practice the latest technology and organization of the Industrial Revolution in a new and resource-rich setting. By 1789 the ironworks consisted of three blast furnaces using steam power, making it one of the largest in the world.

In 1817 adit mining for iron ore and coal developed on a larger scale, replacing surface scouring, and shaft mines were introduced, with sophisticated drainage, haulage, and ventilation arrangements. Population grew rapidly through the migration of workers from rural areas of Wales, from the industrial Midlands, Ireland, Scotland and rural England. Blaenavon parish, which had been minuscule before the ironworks was built, had grown to 11,452 in 1891. The social development of the area created a thriving urban culture. A rapidly created industrial landscape grew up of iron-ore patches, coal mines, limestone quarries, iron forges, brick works, tram roads, watercourses and workers’ houses, all controlled by the Blaenavon Company, which was reorganized as a joint stock company in 1836.

During the 1840s and 1850s the scattered housing of the workers and the works’ school, church and chapels were complemented by the evolution, on land outside the company’s ownership, of a town with a variety of urban functions. There were three principal clusters of buildings in the area, one around the Ironworks, one along the east-west axis, now King Street, and one around St Peter’s Church.

Relative decline in steelmaking from around the turn of the century permitted the growth of coal production for export. Steel production ceased in 1938, and Big Pit, the last substantial working colliery, closed in 1980. Big Pit is now a museum of coal mining of international significance, and one of only two mining museums in the United Kingdom where visitors can be taken underground. The conservation of Blaenavon Ironworks has contributed to economic regeneration. The town and the surrounding landscape have survived little altered to represent the story of their past.

One of my favorite type of world heritage sites to visit are industrial sites. Sites which preserve and commemorate advancement in industry from the 18th-20th centuries. One of the most important industrial heritage sites in the world is at Blaenavon.

In the 19th Century, southern Wales was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. Here you had the two building blocks of early industry: coal and iron.

Within the town on Blaenavon are two preserved facilities: The Blaenavon Ironworks and the Big Pit National Coal Museum.

The Ironworks started business in 1789 and is the world’s best preserved 18th century ironworks. (The ironworks are seen in the photo at the top of the page.) The ironworks are also famous for being the first place where the Bessemer process was used to make steel. It was discovered by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas in Blaenavon and was the foundation for global steel production through the 1960’s.

The Big Pit National Coal Museum is just a short trip up the road from the ironworks. It was a working coal mine through the 1980’s and is one of the most popular museums in the UK. In addition to the surface buildings you can also take a tour underground and it is one of the only places in the UK which does underground tours.

However, the scope of the world heritage site goes beyond the industrial sites in the town of Blaenavon, it also includes many square miles of the surrounding countryside which was influenced by industrial development. This includes everything from iron and coal mines to centuries of medieval ore digs and ponds built during Roman times.

This might be the only world heritage site which preserves a sizable tract of land precisely because of human impact upon it.

Blaenavon can easily be visited by train from any major city in Great Britain. It is currently the only world heritage site in the UK which has a dedicated visitors center. It is also adjacent to the Brecons Beacons National Park, which should also be included to any trip to the region.