History of Cwmbran up to 1949


Today around fifty thousand people call Cwmbran home, but it was not always this way.

Although the story of the inhabitants in the Eastern Valley area can be traced back several thousand years there is very little reference to the name “Cwmbran” itself before the turn of the 18th Century.

The first actual reference to Cwmbran dates from 1707 and there is also an oblique reference to a “Nant Brane” in 1652. Whilst the name Cwmbran is usually referred to as meaning “Valley of the Crow its actual origins are not known with certainty. The few historical references to Cwmbran suggest that up to the late 18th Century the area was little more than a group of farms and few scattered large houses whose families owned most of the land. The streams in the area provided power for water wheels driving corn mills, and outcrops of coal were mined from the hillside of Mynydd Maen especially.

By the mid-18th Century several small collieries were working the slopes of the hills around Cwmbran.

19th Century Prosperity

The first real signs of industrial growth in the Cwmbran area are found on a map from 1811 although there are sketchy records mentioning “coleworks” from 1634 and 1793.

A big tin works was established in Pontnewydd by George Conway in 1802. Others followed and by the early 19th Century industrialisation had made South East Wales was one of the most prosperous areas in Britain.

The industrial revolution happening in the Welsh Valleys in the late1700’s required an extensive transport network that would enable it to get its products to the docks in Newport.

On June 3rd, 1792 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing a twelve-mile stretch of canal to be built linking Pontnewydd with Newport which was completed and became operational in Feb1796. This had a series of tunnels and many locks to help traffic navigate. This was the start of the Monmouthshire Canal which would eventually become the “Monmouth and Brecon” canal system. Crucially, however, as well as building canals, the company also had rights to build local railway and tram lines from the canal to any coal mines, quarries and ironworks within an 8-mile radius of the canal.

This dual benefit of canals and railways not only provided a much faster means of transport, it was also the catalyst for a mass of small industries to spring up along canal banks which used the canal to obtain resources and mobilise their finished products to Newport.

These canal-side/railway-side industries were again bolstered significantly when Cwmbran Colliery was opened in 1879.

Also in the mid-1800’s, a network of main-line railways was expanding all over Britain connecting every part of the country together, further allowing the flow of raw materials, finished goods and labour to reach places much further away than had been possible before.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that you cannot really understand Cwmbran and the Eastern Valley without appreciating the importance of both the canal and rail networks that ran through it. Coal, collieries and tram-roads all played their vital part in creating a thriving network of inter-dependent industries and communities. By the 1880’s Cwmbran was serviced by two main railway lines and a spur running between them, and four railway stations (Upper and Lower Pontnewydd, Llantarnam and Cwmbran). These carried both passengers and goods until they were phased out in the 1950/60’s.

In summary, natural resources, industry and a superb transport network together with proximity to the much larger market in England, ensured that both the population and prosperity of the area rose significantly as people from north and mid-Wales, together with some from Ireland and the west of England flooded into South East Wales on the trains chasing employment and a better lifestyle.

With this increased prosperity and people, came waves of building activity. Colliery owners built houses, to support the workers and chapels sprung up everywhere.

Pressure for more amenities and organised schools, mounted throughout the mid-nineteenth century. The Local Government Act of 1858 introduced a local board of health which gave a stimulus to providing improved sanitary conditions, drainage and public utilities together with reservoirs to provide clean water. This was further enhanced by Disraeli’s Public Health Act of 1875 which led to Blaen Bran Reservoir being built in 1884 to combat a potential cholera outbreak. This remained the main source of water to upper Cwmbran and Pontnewydd until Llandegfedd Reservoir was opened in 1965.

With the help of the mine owners, small groups began teaching children and these eventually moved into purpose-built schools such as The Square in Upper Cwmbran (1866) and Henllys School (1883). Basic education was not free to everyone though until 1891. The weekly cost of schooling a child in 1878 was 2d (about 1p in today’s currency) with a risk of punishment for any outstanding fees.

Although life was hard for the average Cwmbran family, industry continued to prosper for over a century and it provided a constant stream of employment for a rapidly growing population. This would continue right up to the First World War when everything would change. In 1883 Samuel Lewis commented that Cwmbran was a “region rich in mineral treasures in the midst of forges and collieries”.

The Effects of the 1st World War

The coal and steel industries relied on overseas export markets to remain viable. Together these industries accounted for almost all Cwmbran’s income and prospects. However, one of the outcomes of the First World War was to cause a sudden and dramatic world-wide decline in export markets for coal, iron and steel. This immediately plunged the Eastern Valley into economic hardship and eventually into a depression that would last decades.

As the war ended and the markets contracted unemployment suddenly escalated and a poverty level that had not been felt for over a hundred years swept through the Welsh valleys with no prospect of preventing it or escaping from it. This decline is shown most vividly in the table below which shows the decline in the amount of rail traffic through the old Cwmbran station from 1903 through to 1933. In particular, the tonnage of coal shipped out of the station also other (non-coal) goods received by the station per year.

Cwmbran Station Throughput 1903-1933

Cwmbran Station1903191319231933
Passenger Tickets100,000135,000147,00053,000
Goods Out (tons)18,00042,00033,00012,000
Goods Received (tons)24,000102,00028,0005,667
Other Goods (tons)84,00066,00059,00031,000

Furthermore, for over a decade nothing meaningful was done to try to rectify the situation. Successive governments simply ignored the problems of Wales, choosing rather to focus their attentions elsewhere. It was not until the 1930’s that the government began to seriously consider what to do to alleviate the situation. In 1931 a survey was commissioned.

The “Special Areas” Act of 1934 (amended in 1937) provided a means of getting aid to the areas of Britain with the highest unemployment, outlining strategies to encourage industries to designated areas. These strategies included offering financial inducements to attract them to come and offered recommendations about improving the public transport systems and roads as well as amenities like playing fields, allotments, swimming pools and sewerage systems etc. Several sites in South Wales were considered where factories and services could be sited. These included Cwmbran, Panteg and another site east of Cwmbran . Eventually a larger site was chosen at Treforest between Cardiff and Pontyprydd.

One of the major problems any potential developers faced in South East Wales was the land itself. After a century of mining, much of the land was unsuitable to build upon due to possible subsidence. This together with the need for large “flattish” areas for housing estates which simply did not exist in the traditional valley towns, made the area unattractive and potentially very costly for potential investors.

Whilst all these initiatives during the 1930’s had a marginal effect on the economy of the region it was nothing like the scale of development that was required. It did however lay the foundations and vision for the infrastructure that would be beneficial in the late 1940’s when the site for the new town was considered. Also, in the late 1930’s the looming prospect of another World War meant most developers were even less willing to invest. Nevertheless, some major companies did arrive in Cwmbran in the late 1930’s.

  • Garfield Westerns Biscuits opened a factory in 1937 in Llantarnam, initially employing 450 people.
  • In 1937 Saunders Valve declared its intent to open a 60,000 sq.-ft factory in Grange Road Cwmbran because of the “very favourable geographical location and proximity to raw materials and abundance of employable labour”. The new complex opened in 1939 with 200 employees.
  • Birmingham based Lucas Girling also opened its Cwmbran factory in 1938/39.
  • A Royal Ordinance factory was built at Glascoed and another was built alongside Saunders Works which was run for the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MOP).
  • British Nylon Spinners opened a large factory in March 1945 in Mamhilad.

These factories had a significant impact on unemployment in Cwmbran – halving it by the summer of 1939. Companies chose to set up in Cwmbran for a variety of economic and other reasons, which also included the feeling that in the event of war the area would be relatively safe from air attack. When war eventually broke out in 1939 the factories in Cwmbran switched from making their own products to assisting the war effort. For example, the Saunders factory switched over to making gun turrets for aircraft.

All the factories and companies began working flat out during the war which meant that unemployment was eliminated again from the Eastern Valley for the six years between 1939 and 1945. However, when the troops returned home, and markets again shrank unemployment rose again and the question of re-building the infrastructure of the Country needed to be addressed.

1945 Onwards

Even before the War ended plans were being made to deal with the aftermath. The question of what would happen when the “war factories” finally closed was extensively discussed. It was said that if the MOD factory were to shut, Cwmbran’s unemployment would immediately rise to 56% This represented about 1800 men unemployed and without prospects of earning an income.

During the war and immediately afterwards there was also an acute shortage of building materials which further frustrated large-scale house building. Although some homes were built in the Cwmbran area during this time, mainly in Pontnewydd, Llantarnam and Oakfield where 100 prefabs were built, nothing approaching the required number of houses were built. The vast majority of the existing houses in Cwmbran were old, substandard and in urgent need of refurbishment or replacement. Rented accommodation was especially in short supply. An enormous amount of investment was required to transform the housing situation in the Cwmbran area.

Throughout the 1940’s there had been discussions about how to regenerate regions in the UK and how to deal with the urgent need to re-house families living in sub-standard congested conditions in the deprived regions. Part of the answer was seen as a series of ‘New Towns’ each to be built using a similar blueprint and each with a population c.35,000. The building would take place in separate phases over several decades.

Discussions took place during the late 40’s and Phase 1 Ten towns were identified in England, six in Scotland and one (Cwmbran) in Wales to be the first wave of “New Towns”.

The eventual choice of Cwmbran was by no means a straightforward and unanimous one. Cases for other sites were considered and heated debates took place before a deal was struck selecting Cwmbran as Wales’ only New Town. Even then there was opposition from both Newport, who felt it would reduce the labour pool they needed to refurbish the docks and Pontypool who felt it would kill development in the town and surrounding area.

There was also much opposition and resentment from the farmers and landowners in the villages that would make up the town of Cwmbran and many public meetings were held to answer people’s concerns. In the end the decision to endorse the Cwmbran project was made in Westminster and finally, in late 1949 after much wrangling and debate, 3,100 acres of land enclosing the 7 villages around Cwmbran received designation as the 1st (and only) New Town to be built in Wales under the New Towns Act 1946.

It was decided that the new town would take its name from the largest of the settlements, Cwmbran. Cwmbran was designated by Lewis Silkin, the minister of Town and Country Planning Wales’, as only new town on 4th November 1949.