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The Archaeology of an Early Railway System: the Brecon Forest Tramroads.

STEPHEN HUGHES. The archaeology of an early railway system: the Brecon Forest tramroads. 367 pages, 190 figs, 9 colour plates. 1990. Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments in Wales; ISBN 1-871184-05-3 paperback |pounds~8.95 hardback |pounds~14.95.

STEPHEN HUGHES. The archaeology of the Montgomeryshire Canal: a guide and study in waterways archaeology. 168 pages, 120 b&w figures. 1998. Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments in Wales; ISBN 1-871184-02-9 paperback |pounds~5.45 + |pounds~1.10 postage & packing.

STEPHEN HUGHES & PAUL REYNOLDS. A guide to the Industrial archaeology of the Swansea region 55 pages, 31 figures. 1989. Telford, Shropshire: Association for Industrial Archaeology in association with RCAHMW and South West Wales Industrial Archaeology Society; ISBN 1-8711840-1-0 paperback |pounds~2.35 + 80p postage & packing.

We are used to the concept of success in the Industrial Revolution, and like our forebears tend to promote our own industrial sites as the biggest, earliest or best. Yet here are two studies of enterprises which are neither large nor overtly successful, and yet of enormous importance. Neither this really about those great stalwarts of industrial archaeology -- the coal and iron industries; they are about agriculture. Both studies have as their subject the works of early 19th-century landowners and financiers who in effect colonized the landscape of Wales in an effort to industrialize agriculture. They are about great visionary attempts to reshape the countryside on a vast scale using the latest industrial technology; they are about the urge to hear the clank of machinery (and profits) in a very congenial setting. The industrial archaeology -- and indeed history -- of Wales is as much the archaeology of farming as it is iron and coal.

The Montgomeryshire canal and the Brecon Forest tramroad system were two extraordinary enterprises, intended primarily to bring lime to the great model farms of the early 19th century. The first was begun in 1794 by local landowners in the rich agricultural lands of the Welsh Borders, the second by a London banker, John Cristie, who enclosed part of the Brecon Beacons in 1819. Neither was seen as a profit-making venture in its own right; rather they both had as their broad objectives the 'extension of Agriculture' and the 'Advantage to the Public' -- aims which are reflected in the elegant architecture of even the most minor buildings of both schemes. Neither did in the long term make much of a profit, and both suffered terminally from the introduction of the standard-gauge railway network.

The Montgomeryshire canal is today an amalgam of four schemes, three of which were designed to link the Llanymynech limestone quarries with local farm yards. Unfortunately the proprietors, like John Christie of the Brecon Forest tramroads, had neglected to consider the need for supplies of coal in burning lime, and it was only when a link was built to the coalfields via the Ellesmere canal that trade began to pick up. Nevertheless, the canal remained of only local importance, perhaps because agricultural depression and flux, or its sheer remoteness, meant that North Wales never did become a great centre of activity.

Brecon Forest tramroads is the story of a network of horse-drawn tramways built in the 1820s, '30s and '40s to serve collieries, limestone quarries and ironworks, as well as to provide links with the Swansea canal. It is a tale of philanthropy and failure -- of grand schemes and great hopes foundering on lack of research and bankruptcy.

In 1819, John Christie, a London indigo merchant, purchased a sizable chunk of what is now the Brecon Beacons National Park, put up for sale by the Crown to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. Christie's motives were overtly philanthropic -- he hoped to make 'improvements of special benefit to the country at large', although behind this facade was no doubt an urge to establish himself as a local squire with a grand house and attendant manorial rights.

In order to make a return on his investment, Christie needed to improve this tract of moorland pasture: the soil needed lime, and a tramway link between the limestone sources and his farms would potentially supply it on a vast scale.

What Christie did not find anywhere near the line of the railway were the supplies of coal needed to burn the lime. He sat about rethinking the line, and abandoned three schemes before he hit upon the new, better idea of linking whole network with the busy port of swansea via the Swansea canal. He bought sailing ships and canal boats, extended his line and went bankrupt in 1827. The railway had cost |pounds~40,000 to build, and was only worth |pounds~25,000 at his bankruptcy.

His estates and tramway were taken over by his creditors, who valiantly tried to make the scheme work by extending the line south to connect with ironworks. By 1837 it had been discovered that the local anthracite coal could be used in iron-smelting and there was a short-lived boom in anthracite ironworks, but, yet again, the tramway network was in the wrong place to do more than benefit mildly from the new demand. During the railway mania of the 1840s the system staggered on, depending on a mixture of local foundry trade, some iron and coal work and the occasional passenger traffic. Various new and wildly idealistic schemes, such as the Banwen railway, came to little, and the scheme petered out in the 1860s.

What it -- and indeed the Montgomeryshire canal -- left behind was a legacy of archaeological remains which the Welsh Royal Commission have surveyed in loving detail. The illustrations are excellent -- wonderful three-dimensional reconstructions of tramway depots and inclined planes, archaeological analyses of embankments and cutaway diagrams of aqueducts which do much to humanize a dry and complex subject. The buildings, enterprises, landscapes and people of the canal and railway are all brought together in a way which firmly abandons the silly, traditional boundaries of archaeology.

Of course the underlying question is, why archaeology -- what can the humble trowelster add to this catalogue of financial dealings and unwarranted optimism? Some answers are there. A good archaeological survey of limekilns along the route which shows very firmly that they are a product of place and circumstance rather than evolving typology; an analysis of the Brecon Forest tramroads' place in the overall development of hybrid railway technology, somewhere between the early wooden railways and the great public railways; and most importantly, the overall exercise of setting the railway very firmly in its physical landscape context.

However, it is up to the rest of the profession to take this work a step further. The role of agriculture in the industrial revolution (if indeed the latter still exists!) is one of some debate. Did British agriculture play the role of prime mover in the whole process, by creating a surplus of labour, production and capital which in turn fuelled the need for investment and workers created by an expanding industry? Or was the relationship very much more complex (Hudson 1992: 97)?

Certainly, the evidence produced by these studies implies a rather different picture to that created by the wide-ranging studies of economic historians such as Wrigley (1988). The enclosure of the Brecon Beacons was part of the late enclosure movement of the Napoleonic wars. This was the enclosure not of the former open field systems, but of the marginal lands and uplands.

The aggregation of Welsh agriculture into larger and larger units must have had a knock-on effect on the local labour market. Although the proprietors of the Montgomeryshire canal created a superior brand of workers' housing, it can only have been for the few male labourers now needed on the larger, more mechanized estates. The unskilled younger sons or the women who worked in dairies would have been no longer employed; the additional income from harvest time, or the ownership of a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables or keep a cow, would have been no longer possible. Commoners on the Brecon Beacons would have lost traditional grazing rights and lands which had been vital to their livelihood.

The changes imposed by big landowners in the interests of 'agriculture' may have been the source of much misery, and indeed of the need for income which in turn fuelled the expansion of the local industrial enterprises such as the Newtown textile industry, employing the unskilled and family members in desperate need of additional income. Perhaps this was a local form of proto-industrialization which grew not in the tightly controlled and intensive agricultural hinterland, but in odd bits of land in the towns, not controlled by big landowners. Agricultural changes may also have generated the conditions which made many local people flood to the new anthracite ironworks. The role of domestic labour in industrialization -- particularly the role of women -- is now increasingly recognized (Berg 1985), and studies such as this can contribute directly to the debate by producing small-scale pictures of where people lived and worked.

Equally, the failures of these schemes -- particularly the Brecon Forest tramroads -- belie the impression that agriculture was funding industry, at least by the 19th century. Huge amounts of capital must have been absorbed by these enterprises and the later model farms, such as Leighton, which common sense and archaeological survey suggest were in effect exciting and costly hobbies; they cannot ever have functioned in the way that their visionary proprietors had hoped.

The link between these big agricultural enterprises, the labour market and the rapid industrialization of areas of the south such as the Swansea Region, is one which can be explored just as well through the remains which exist on the ground as through national statistics and the vague averages of economic history. They show only too well the gap between intention and reality, between gentlemanly philanthropy and financial viability, and enable us to question whether agriculture was the major success story promoted by historians for so long. But until we as archaeologists are prepared to tackle economic historians on their own ground we will continue to be peripheral to the main debates over the events of the last 200 years.

There is another way in which works such as this can be taken further. Stephen Hughes finishes both his books with gazetteers -- an increasingly unfashionable habit amongst archaeologists. But what such gazetteers do is provide a blueprint for the conservation of these remains, not just because they may be listed or scheduled, but because the information about the many small and seemingly insignificant parts which make up the whole, is now in the public domain. Of the 24 sites identified at the Newtown canal basin, only 7 have fragmentary remains; none of the dry docks survive, one of the 44 stables noted in the 1840s may be seen, and none of the weighbridges and warehouses have fared better.

Until we link the conservation agenda with the academic agenda, there is no hope that the archaeology of complex landscapes such as this will even have the data left to make a significant contribution to a period in which Britain played a central role in world affairs.


BERG, M. 1985. The age of manufactures 1700-1820. London: Fontana.

HUDSON, P. 1992. The industrial revolution. London: Edward Arnold.

WRIGLEY, E.A. 1988. Continuity, chance and change: the character of the industrial revolution in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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Author:Clark, Catherine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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