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The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840-1920

The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840-1920: Power and Influence in the Porth-Pontypridd Region

Richard Griffiths
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
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  • Book Info
    The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840-1920
    Book Description:

    This is the first significant study of the entrepreneurial society created by the Welsh coal boom (most books up to now having concentrated upon the workers and the unions).

    eISBN: 978-0-7083-2291-8
    Subjects: Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. A note on the attachment of place-names to people’s surname
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Maps
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  8. Introduction

    • 1 The South Wales Coal Industry
      (pp. 3-12)

      It was in the early 1840s that the activities of the south Wales coalfield started expanding at an explosive rate. There had, of course, been extensive exploitation of the resources of the coalfield (which extends in a swathe from the Ebbw valley in the east to beyond Llanelli in the west) before this time. This had, however, mainly been for the benefit of the metal industries on its periphery, which had flourished from the mid-eighteenth century onwards: the extensive iron trade at the heads of the Valleys (Merthyr, Blaenafon, Tredegar, etc.) and the copper industry in the Swansea area. In...

  9. Dramatis Personae

    • 2 ‘A dogged will, a fixity of purpose, a tenacity of spirit’: Siamps Thomas (1817–1901)
      (pp. 15-36)

      James (‘Siamps’) Thomas was to become one of the most influential figures in the Rhondda Valleys. His origins, however, were very humble. He is an example of the ‘rags-to-riches’ opportunities that existed for a number of people in the southWales coalfield in the mid-nineteenth century. He was born in 1817, in a small farmhouse in the parish of Mynyddislwyn, Monmouthshire.¹ His father, Thomas John Thomas (1781–1851), a farmer and farrier, had six sons and two daughters by his wife Mary (née Smith, 1785–1859),² and their financial circumstances were poor. This was the time of a considerable agricultural depression...

    • 3 ‘A blunt, straightforward, and from head to feet an honest man’: Richard Mathias (1814–1890)
      (pp. 37-44)

      Richard Mathias, the father of William HenryMathias (who became one of Siamps Thomas’s sons-in-law) is typical of another important element in the development of the Valleys. He originally came to south-eastWales as an itinerant builder, but was to become a highly successful railway contractor, in the period of the great railway expansion of the mid-nineteenth century. His success story mirrors, in a different field and on a different scale, that of Siamps Thomas.

      Of the great influx of people who came to south-eastWales in the mid-nineteenth century, spurred on by all the opportunities provided by the explosion of industry in...

    • 4 The Rhondda Second Generation: William Henry Mathias (1845–1922), a Rhondda Notable
      (pp. 45-68)

      Richard Mathias’s eldest child, William Henry, was in many respects typical of the second-generation entrepreneurs of theValleys. By his middle age, he had already become what the French would call a Rhondda ‘notable’ – part of that inter-relating, networking group of prominent figures whom we find involved in almost every event or project of importance in theValleys in this period. His financial success was enormous. Little of it can have come either from his father (who left a moderate amount of money, which was shared between his seven children) or his ‘economical’ father-in-law, who left only six pounds to his daughter,...

    • 5 The Rhondda Second Generation: Some Other Major Figures
      (pp. 69-94)

      Fortunes were made in the Rhondda by various means: by owning property which was used for mining; by owning or exploiting mines; by becoming major contractors on the railways or in the townships; by property development; by opening prosperous shops. The early pioneers built their fortunes often by risks and usually by unremitting hard work. Their heirs, those people who built on their successes, constituted the recognisable middle-class society of the valleys in their heyday – a society in which everyone knew everyone, and where mutual interest could govern most decisions and alliances. Certain figures recur time and again in the...

  10. Aspects of Business and Political Life

    • 6 W. H. Mathias and Local Government, 1886–1919
      (pp. 97-112)

      This body had started life in 1877 as the Ystradyfodwg Urban SanitaryAuthority (YUSA), dealing mainly with sewerage, drainage and water supply in the parish of Ystradyfodwg, which covered a large proportion of the Rhondda valleys. Its name was changed to the ‘Ystradyfodwg Local Government Board’ (YLGB) in 1881, when it took on additional duties in relation to planning and public works. In 1895, subsequent to the 1894 Act which attempted to standardise and simplify the ad hoc system of local government that had grown up over the years, it became the Ystradyfodwg Urban District Council (YUDC). Finally, in August 1897...

    • 7 ‘The history of the undertaking is rather peculiar’: The Cowbridge–Aberthaw Railway and the Rhondda Connection, 1886–1892
      (pp. 113-126)

      Alongside the laudable vigour, enthusiasm and skill of the secondgeneration entrepreneurs in the Valleys, we find certain other characteristics of a different kind: mutual ‘back-scratching’, and exchange of favours; the use of public position to pursue private interest; insider dealing on a massive scale; the relentless driving of hard bargains once the upper hand had been gained; and ruthless treatment of anyone, however innocent, who stood in one’s way. In this and the next chapter, we will be looking at two specific examples of entrepreneurial practice, which reveal a few of the important characteristics of this period and this society....

    • 8 Further peculiar undertakings: Windsor Colliery, Abertridwr and the Parc Newydd Estate
      (pp. 127-138)

      From the 1890s onwards, William Henry Mathias had considerable business interests in the Aber valley, just north-west of Caerphilly. These included a directorship of the Windsor Colliery at Abertridwr, ownership of a strategically-placed farm, Parc Newydd, and the development of workers’ housing in the area. All in all, these various activities give us some prime examples of Mathias’s business methods.

      Some time before or in the year 1892 W. H. Mathias and his friend Walter Morgan, the Pontypridd solicitor, jointly bought the 104-acre Parc Newydd Farm, near what was to become Abertridwr.¹ This was to turn out to be a...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. 139-146)
  11. Two Disasters

    • 9 Heroism or negligence? Siamps Thomas and the Tynewydd Disaster, 1877
      (pp. 149-178)

      When one peruses the index toThe Timesfor the second half of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear just how common, and how expected, mining accidents were. For each three-month period of the index, there is a major section headed ‘Accidents’, the greater part of which comes under the sub-heading ‘Mining’. Hardly a week went by without, somewhere in the United Kingdom, a mining accident occurring of a magnitude that warranted a report inThe Times.

      In any history relating to the coal trade, then, pit disasters are bound to have a role to play. In this and the...

    • 10 The Albion Disaster, 1894
      (pp. 179-208)

      On 23 June 1894, the Albion colliery was to be the scene of one of the greatest disasters that had taken place in the south Wales coalfield up to that time. As with the 1877 Tynewydd disaster, the Thomas/Mathias family was closely connected with events. A marked difference had taken place, however, within this period of twenty years, not only in the nature of mining enterprises, but also in the relationship between owners and the mines under their control.

      Compared with the Tynewydd colliery, the Albion was a vast enterprise. Where, in 1877, theTynewydd had employed about 150 men, and...

  12. Two Strikes

    • 11 The 1893 Hauliers’ Strike
      (pp. 211-222)

      The early 1890s were a time of considerable unrest in the coalfields. In August 1893, a strike hit southWales, the like of which had not been seen for almost twenty years. The experiences of the Albion colliery, of W. H. Mathias himself, and of Siamps Thomas’s Standard Collieries, are illustrative of the coalfield as a whole in this period.

      The strike took place because of the steady decline in miners’ wages over the past three years.¹ This was as a direct result of the system known as the ‘sliding scale’, whereby wages were set according to the average selling price...

    • 12 The 1898 Strike
      (pp. 223-240)

      The miners’ strike of 1898¹ marked, in the words of JohnWilliams, ‘a watershed in the development of industrial relations in south Wales’.² The intransigence of the employers, leading to the almost total capitulation of the strikers within six months, made of it the most bitter dispute in the south Wales coalfield in the whole of the nineteenth century. After it, even the moderates who had believed in co-operation rather than confrontation (including Mabon himself) were forced to realise that the old ways no longer worked. The formation of the SouthWales Miners’ Federation (‘The Fed’), affiliated to the Miners’ Federation of...

  13. Sir William James Thomas and the New Century

    • 13 ‘One of the greatest of the Welsh coalowners’: William James Thomas’s business interests, 1900–1925
      (pp. 243-258)

      William James Thomas’s life, after his inheritance of his grandfather Siamps Thomas’s wealth and mining interests in 1901, divides neatly into two parts. In the first part, he remained in the Valleys at Brynawel until he was almost 50, and was seen by all as very much a Valleysnotableon the model of his uncle W. H. Mathias; in the second, after the war he joined with the many other capitalists who had made money in the Valleys and who moved to the coastal towns. He left the coal trade and proceeded to live on the proceeds, becoming a...

    • 14 ‘Ynyshir’s most noted citizen, the Principality’s most noble benefactor’: William James Thomas’s many benefactions, and later years
      (pp. 259-276)

      While he was to be as concerned as his grandfather with making money, Willie Thomas at a very early stage showed signs of wishing to give it away as well. At first, his munificence was directed at the Christian religion. Shortly after his grandfather’s will had been proved in 1902, he gave £600 (almost £40,000 in modern values) to be divided among the chapels and churches of Ynyshir. The largest amount was, of course, given to Saron Welsh Independent chapel; but considerable sums were given to the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists and to twoWelsh Baptist chapels, while lesser amounts were given...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 277-284)

    Sir William James Thomas’s decision to withdraw from active involvement in the coalfield was not an isolated case. Many of those people who had been prominent in the coal industry retired on their laurels at about the same time, as the big combines gradually took over from the smaller individual owners. Before the war the trend towards consolidation had already been under way. From 1906 onwards, D.A. Thomas had formed the Cambrian Combine, which within ten years was producing over a fifth of the Welsh coal output. About the same time David Llewellyn (son of an Aberdare coalowner, Rees Llewellyn),...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 285-318)
  16. Family Trees
    (pp. 319-320)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 321-332)
  18. Index
    (pp. 333-352)