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By the early twentieth century, Abertillery had become the second largest town in the county of Monmouthshire, exceeded only by Newport. In 1921, its population had grown to just a few hundred short of 40,000, an incredible figure considering that just 40 years before it was little more than 6,000 (1881 census - 6,003).



The view to the north east looking over the town and up the Tyleri valley - circa 1925



This massive increase arose from those seeking work in the town's coal mines, both from other parts of Wales, both industrial and rural, and from the west of England, particularly Somerset and the Forest of Dean. As they flooded in and settled in the area, so the town grew creating a scarred, ravaged, industrial landscape wildly different from that described by local writer Edmund Jones in 1779 and then Archdeacon Coxe on his travels through Wales some twenty years later.

Jones wrote: "And of the three valleys, the valley of Tileri on the East side of the parish is the most delightful. The trees which are the chief glory of the Earth, especially the beech trees, abounding about rivers great and small, the hedges and lanes make these places exceeding pleasant and the passing by them delightful and affecting; so that well built houses with gardens, trees and wall buildings about them in these warm valleys, with the prospect of the grand high mountains about them would make very delightful habitations."

At this time there were about 30 stone houses in the Tyleri valley and about 150 habited dwellings in total in the whole parish of Aberystruth (covering modern day Abertillery, Cwmtillery, Blaina and Nantyglo, and some of the eastern slopes of Ebbw Vale) with a population of about 500 (Edmund Jones, The History of Aberystruth, 1779).

Cwmtillery was still essentially rural in its setting when Archdeacon Coxe described it upon his travels through the area in 1799: "An extensive district well peopled, richly wooded, and highly cultivated, almost rivalling the fertile counties of England.... we looked down with delight upon numerous valleys which abound with romantic scenery..."



The ancient church of St. Illtyd situated on the mountainside high above Abertillery

[Picture by kind permission of the Friends of St Illtyd]
for more details on this beautiful ancient monument go to the Friends of St. Illtyd website (click here)


Until that time, it was relatively difficult to gain access to the area with few paths traversing through and over the densely wooded mountains. The area had essentially been used from the late twelve century for sheep and subsistence farming, administered by the Cistercians monks of Llantarnam Abbey, some fifteen miles to the south east. They had built the ancient church of St. Illtyd in 1213, thought to be on the site of a 5th century shrine (the church has been restored and can be visited - see picture above and website listed for further details).

Unlike some of the neighbouring valleys, the lower Ebbw Fach and Tyleri valleys remained largely unaffected by industrialisation in the early 1800s such that by 1840 very little had changed from the scene encountered by Archdeacon Coxe over 40 years earlier (see picture). Whether this was due to the difficult terrain in the vicinity of Abertillery where the mountainsides were steeper and more wooded is debatable, but certainly the area was less accessible than the heads of valleys where towns and villages, such as Merthyr, Blaenafon, Nantyglo and Beaufort had started to develop in the late eighteenth century due to the burgeoning iron industry. 

By the 1830s, the harsh conditions of working under ironmasters such as the Crawshays and the Baileys led to unrest amongst the workers in south Wales. In 1831 in Merthyr, there was an uprising in which soldier was shot. Richard Lewis, or Dic Penderyn as he is more usually known, was wrongly arrested and eventually hanged at Cardiff Gaol, becoming the first real Welsh working-class martyr. By 1839, the focus of unrest had switched to the valleys of western Monmouthshire culminating in the November with the Chartists' march on Newport. One of the major centres of this revolt was just a few miles to the north at Nantyglo where the leader was Zephaniah Williams, keeper of the Royal Oak Inn.


Abertillery - 1840 tithe map

The map shows the meeting, or confluence, of the rivers, Afon Ebwy Fach and Afon Tyleri, which gives the town its name, situated just below the field marked on the lower centre left of the map 1132. Note that there were very few houses.

The Bush Forge was on the same spot where the former Bush Hotel stands today. The inn, the Odd Fellows Arms is roughly opposite the Penndragon (Rugby Club) near to where the fire station is now.  Its name obviously suggests a public house, but is not listed in the 1841 census.

Of some interest is the Toll House on the track just to the north.





At this time, Abertillery was still a collection of just a few houses and a small ironworks (see 1840 tithe map opposite), but according to evidence at the ensuing trials there was a small rebel group located there. The Chartists march on Newport from the Ebbw Fach proceeded from Nantyglo and Blaina west over the mountain and down through the Ebbw Fawr valley to Pont Aber Big (Aberbeeg) where the two Ebbw rivers (Fawr and Fach) form the Ebbw itself, and then onto Newport. Despite its small contingent, the Tyleri valley unfortunately did not avoid the tragic consequences of the Chartists' ill-fated march for workers' rights. Of the twenty rebels who died in the fighting outside the Westgate Hotel in Newport with soldiers of the 45th Regiment sent across the border from Bristol, one was William Williams of Cwmtillery.

Continues - click here

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