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Industrial Anglesey

Anglesey as "Gwlad y Medra" -- "The Can-Do Country"

On the 2nd March 1768 a miner called Roland Puw struck an especially rich seam of copper ore at Parys Mountain. A shout went up that echoed around this rocky, windswept hill in the northeast corner of Anglesey. For the island, and indeed for all of Wales, the Industrial Revolution had begun.

It was the sheer scale of the workings at Parys Mountain that heralded this new age.  During the copper boom at the end of the eighteenth century, Parys Mountain became for a time the world's most productive copper mine, shifting about 44,000 tonnes of ore a year.

Amlwch leads the world

Parys platform 2Back then working conditions were perilous, and miners daily risked their lives. Local women, known as Copar Ladis  (Copper Ladies) worked to break and sort the ore. Copper from Parys Mountain sheathed the hulls of the Royal Navy's warships. High quality copper was also produced in precipitation pools around Parys Mountain.

The man who made it happen was The Copper King, a lawyer named Thomas Williams (1737-1802). Locally he was respected as Twm Chwarae Teg  (Tom Fair Play), but as his industrial empire spread across England and South Wales, his business rivals were ThomasWilliamscropsometimes less complimentary! Thomas Williams made a vast fortune.

The neighbouring town of Amlwch grew rapidly. It became an industrial enclave in rural Anglesey, notorious in its early years for its hard drinking and lawlessness and for the sulphurous pollution that hung in its air. The town's factories later produced chemicals, pigments and fertilisers.

Local men set sail across the world

Mine agents also established a shipbuilding industry around Amlwch's port in the nineteenth century. There were two shipyards at Porth Amlwch, and the tall masts of schooners and barquentines towered above the little harbour. As Britain's industrial power increased, local men became seafarers, taking 'flats' (sailing barges) or schooners around Irish Sea coasts, or sailing from Liverpool to brave the wild storms off Cape Horn, in South America. Trade was already becoming global.

Amlwch port drawingAnglesey could also offer resources other than copper, including china clay and coal. A small coalfield at Pentre Berw, on the Cefni estuary, provided fuel for local homes and industries, but poor-quality seams and flooding proved too problematic.

During the Victorian era many small village houses were built for quarrymen. Limestone quarries lined the coast from Penmon round to Llanddona, along the cliffs of Red Wharf Bay and Traeth Bychan.  From the late 19th century many Anglesey workers also rode the ferry from Moel y Don to Felinheli (Port Dinorwic), in order to work all week in the slate quarries of Snowdonia, which were the largest in the world.

Two "world's first" bridges transform transportation

Penmon limestone cladded the world's first big iron suspension bridge, the nearby Menai Bridge, which opened in 1826. Enginering genius Thomas Telford's elegant masterpiece 2Bridgescarried the new A5, a trunk road from London.  The bridge was built high, to allow tall ships to navigate the racing tides far below as they sailed from the quays of Porthaethwy.

Improved transport continually enhanced Anglesey life in the 19th century. In 1850, the Menai Bridge was joined by Stephenson and Fairbairn's Britannia Railway Bridge, another world's first, reknown for its daring use of twin wrought-iron tubes. (A road deck was added in 1980.) Both bridges led to Holyhead, now the chief port for Ireland.  Workers erected that town's 3km-long breakwater (the longest in Britain) from 1845 to 1873. All tolled, these new links - transforming local road, rail and shipping - ended Anglesey's long isolation.


New age, new challenges 

The 20th century welcomed new industries to the island. Saunders-Roe fitted out flying boats at Llanfaes during the Second World War. Aluminium was smelted at Holyhead from 1971, the year in which a huge nuclear power station opened at Wylfa Head. In 1973 an oil pipeline terminal was constructed offshore near Amlwch.

Anglesey's rolling green fields and rocky shores do not just tell a story of farming and fishing, but often reveal relics of lime kilns, brick works, quarries and quays. An old Welsh nickname for Anglesey is Gwlad y Medra  - "can-do country".  It was said that Anglesey men seeking work at mainland slate quarries used to push themselves to the front, saying 'Medra!'  - 'I can do that!'. They could indeed - and the island's rich industrial heritage still shows that they did.

-- by Philip Steele