The eighteenth century saw the start of the Industrial Revolution which caused major changes to the skills, environment and working conditions of the people of Great Britain. The town of Llanelli's own industrial revolution started when an Englishman crossed the town's Falcon Bridge with a train of wagons carrying his family, his possessions and a large chest of gold. [a] He was to be the catalyst that transformed the town from a small fishing village of 56 houses and a parish church into one of the major coal and steel towns of South Wales. Photograph of a Painting. Alexander Raby 1747-1835,Llanelli Library Collection ILL310Alexander Raby, 'tall, handsome, high-minded, eccentric, always doing strange acts of kindness'. These are a few of the words used to describe the man by past historians. [b] He was also an entrepreneur, ironmaster and coal baron who came to Llanelli around 1796 to gamble his entire fortune in the coal and iron industries but left in reduced circumstances.

Alexander Raby's first connection with the town is said to have begun when he financed John Gevers and Thomas Ingman, two iron-founders who had previously set up an iron furnace on the Stradey Estate in 1791. [c] Little is known about these men, except that they leased some farms locally where there were sources of ironstone. [d] According to early historians, Gevers and Ingman were not successful and were unable to repay Raby who then foreclosed on them and took over the iron furnace in 1796. John Gevers continued to work with Raby at the Stradey furnace and was to be associated with him for many years. Raby had business interests in other parts of Wales including Cilgerran, Neath, Swansea, Morriston, Saundersfoot and in England at Cobham. [e] The great revolution in iron making meant that good quality iron could now be made with coal in the form of coke. For economic and logistical reasons it was necessary for iron manufacture to be sited near the source of its raw materials. Coal was king!

The town of Llanelli was already known for its trade in coal. It was probably for this reason that Raby relocated there from Cobham. He worked a number of coal mines on the Stradey Estate, including pits called Caerelms, Caemain and Caebad. Indeed, it was on the Stradey Estate that he centred his industrial operations. The estate was owned during Raby's time by Dame Mary Anne Mansel, who bequeathed it to Thomas Lewis on her death in 1808. Raby's relationship with both these landowners can be described as being, at the least, stormy.

As well as building a second furnace at Stradey in 1800, Raby built his home there, in a valley called Cwmddyche, which has been translated as 'pleasant valley' or 'useful valley'. The village later became known as ‘Furnace’. The     contemporary plan shows the village, and the principal sites associated with the Raby family in 1814. Alexander Raby's house, named The Dell on the map, was originally called 'Furnace House'. Both his sons, Alexander junior and Arthur, lived close by, Alexander junior at Bryn-mor and Arthur at `Plas Ucha', which was on the site of Cae-mawr Cottage. One furnace, marked Old Furnace on the map, is still extant and was made a Listed Building in 1966 but little has been done to preserve it.

 After taking over the ironworks in 1796, Raby pushed them to their maximum output during the French wars, producing armaments for the war effort. A contemporary newspaper, The Cambrian, reports in February 1804: 'So prompt are the measures of government at this time, that four furnaces of different description are at work night and day at Llanelly, solely confined to the service of the Board of Ordnance'. Raby & Company (Carmarthenshire) were frequent contractors to the Board. Payments to the company for carronades and round shot have been noted in the Board's records and evidence has also been found of Raby carronades being carried by warships at Chatham Dockyard. Carronades were short, light guns nicknamed 'smashers' because they fired heavy shot at close range. They took their name from the Carron Iron Works in Scotland where they were first made. Raby's guns were marked on the trunnions with the letters R or AR. [f] The Cambrian also reports that one shipment of ordnance sent from Llanelli to London, on board the vessel The Mary Anne, was captured off Beachy Head by a French privateer in 1804. [g]

It is evident that at the beginning of the nineteenth century Raby's empire was expanding. By 1804 he had constructed a new forge at Sandy, where pig iron was converted into wrought iron and rolled into bars, rods and rails. He constructed a dock, once known locally as Squire Raby's Dock, later the Carmarthenshire Dock. He embraced new technology for, in that same year, he installed one of Trevithick's new high-pressure steam engines at Caebad colliery. His furnaces and forge were also powered by steam. Through his agents James Goodyear, George Walker and Robert Parkin, Raby owned four ships. [h] He set up an artery of tramways linking all his sites from his furnaces down to his dock. The small town of Llanelli experienced a population explosion, growing from under 500 inhabitants in 1795 to just under 3000 by 1801. To meet the demand for housing Raby built over a hundred cottages. [i] Some were sited near his collieries and furnaces but the biggest housing development was Forge Row, 34 cottages next to his forge which were demolished in the early 1930s. At the end of this row stood a public house appropriately called the Raby Arms. [j]

Iron production required large quantities of coal, limestone and iron ore. Coal was obtained locally from collieries on the Stradey estate and was initially transported by mules and oxen, but Raby had to go further afield to obtain the limestone and iron ore. There were quarries for both on Mynydd Mawr (Great Mountain) 13 miles north of Llanelli. An economic method of transportation was essential to move the large quantities required for the furnaces. Although a canal was initially considered, it was finally decided that a railway or tramway would be most efficient[k] and, as the enormous expense would have been prohibitive to Raby himself, it was decided to fund it by public subscription. A petition was presented to the House of Commons for a railway or tramroad to be constructed from Llanelli to Mynydd Mawr and an Act of Parliament was passed on 3 June 1802 allowing its construction. [l] Its motive power was horse power — although the stationary steam engine was in use, it would be another two years before Richard Trevithick's famous steam locomotive was to run on the Penydarren Tramroad at Merthyr Tydfil.

Raby had everything to gain. Not only would he sell his existing tramway linking his dock and his furnaces to the newly formed Carmarthenshire Rail Road Company, but also the potential local demand for cast-iron rails, plates and wheels would provide a ready market for the iron from his furnaces. Raby sold his section of railway to the company for £3117:[m] This section became the oldest public railway in use in Great Britain:[n]

Business was booming. Raby's workers were well paid — so well paid that they were said to 'eat pound notes on well buttered sandwiches'! Alexander Raby was well-liked by the town's populace. Who was this Englishman who initiated the town of Llanelli's industrial revolution? Arthur Mee paints him as a kind and benevolent character, quoting a number of his charitable deeds. He once met a travelling pack-boy and was so impressed by the boy's sharpness that he gave him a job as a clerk in his counting house. While visiting Carmarthen Jail on business he became acquainted with a gentleman who was locked up for debt and was, once again, so impressed by the man's conversation that he obtained his release by paying off the debt and giving the man a clerkship. While visiting London he met an old friend and employee who had fallen on hard times; Raby brought him back to Wales and put the man up in his own home, employing him as his confidential agent:[o] Samuel Smiles states that Raby was 'the best authority on the iron trade in the last [eighteenth] century'. [p] The Raby family were part of the Llanelli gentry, attending many a social function at the town's Falcon Hotel. Alexander and his sons, Alexander junior and Arthur, were involved in the early administration of the town as they were town burgesses and active members of the Harbour Trust. In 1809 Raby's eldest son, Alexander junior, married Jane Rees, daughter of the local squire John Rees of Cilymaenllwyd [q] and in 1813 Arthur married Henrietta Jane Smith, whose family is said to have owned estates in the West Indies. [r]

Box Colliery 1828,  Llanelli Library Collection

Although Raby's empire appeared to be flourishing, storm clouds were gathering, for by 1806 the shareholders of the Carmarthenshire Rail Road Company were not receiving the expected returns on their investments. Alexander Raby faced a financial crisis from which he never fully recovered. He had misused the assets of the railway company. In effect, he had installed unauthorised tramways and railways at his furnaces, forge and collieries and, to make matters worse, had avoided the payment of tolls to the company. All these criticisms were included in a damning report to the company in August 1806. [s] At the same time, Thomas Lewis of Stradey was pursuing Raby for £1000, for non-payment of rents on the Stradey estate. By June 1807 Raby was forced to convene a meeting of his creditors at which he had to assign to them his principal estates, including some of his properties in London and Cobham, although he was allowed to retain control of his works. However, he was given some respite from this crisis as he had developed the Box Colliery, which boasted a 9-foot seam of coal. [t]

Financial problems continued to plague him and by 1809 he was once again in serious financial difficulty. In October and November of that year his entire iron works and collieries at Llanelli and Neath were advertised for sale in The Cambrian. The sale was to take place by auction at Garraway's Coffee House, London, on 16 November. It was at about this time that Raby was forced to sever connection with his industry at Cobham. Although his failure is generally attributed to his misuse of the Carmarthenshire Railway assets, the onset of his financial problems appears to have occurred in 1803. [u] It was then that he dissolved a partnership with a certain Colonel John Dumaresq, who owned a quarter share in the works and collieries in Llanelli. Raby had, in effect, bought Dumaresq out, on a long-term basis, by paying him fixed amounts with interest. Following the Carmarthenshire Railway enquiry in 1807, Raby's entire concern at Llanelli was put into the hands of trustees. These were Messrs Hammet, Thompson, Day, Handasyde & Birch, who took over management of the concern in 1808. Raby also faced considerable debts from his iron and coal concern at Neath in Glamorganshire, where he was pursued by Lord Vernon for arrears of rent in 1810. [v] By this time, Raby was insolvent. His trustees then took over management of the works, to their great loss, [w] and were probably responsible for the attempted sale at Garraway's Coffee House, which did not appear to attract any buyers. By 1811 Raby's empire had become a 'hot potato'.

It appears that the trustees were a wealthy group of personal friends of Raby and were happy to sell the property back to him and his new partner, his son Arthur, now aged 21, hoping that he might obtain some income from it. As Raby was insolvent, he sought finance from another group of friends, Charles Druce and Richard Janion Nevill. The latter and his father Charles Nevill were proprietors of a large copper works to the south of Llanelli, which they had erected in about 1805. Druce was a wealthy London attorney who had been a lifelong and 'zealous' friend of Alexander Raby. From time to time, Nevill and Druce provided financial support for the Rabys throughout their remaining years in business. [x]

Raby and son continued in partnership in their iron and coal concern, producing coal for both the home and export markets and manufacturing such items as tram wheels and iron naves for wheels for local collieries. Problems continued to befall the Rabys. Lack of orders for their iron works must have been the reason for the stoppage of the furnaces, which were said to have been blown out by 1815, the same year as the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. [y] The Rabys now sought assistance from Arthur Raby's brother-in-law, George Haynes, of Haynes, Day, Haynes & Lawrence, a Swansea bank. Along with Nevill and Druce, initially they must have seen the Raby empire as a potential investment for their monies for they continued to support both Alexander and Arthur for some time with the expectation of some returns on their loans. However, Richard Janion Nevill of the copper works had another motive. The copper works relied on the collieries of a certain General George Warde for their supply of coal. Had Raby gone under, the copper works would have been at the mercy of Warde who would then have had a monopoly of the coal market at Llanelli. Furthermore, had Raby's collieries closed, all his collieries would have sustained permanent damage by flooding, thus reducing any chance of recovering monies owed to the increasing number of creditors who were awaiting payment. The pumps had to be kept going!

By 1820 the Rabys were in debt to Nevill and Druce in sums exceeding £10,000 To help pay off these debts the Rabys agreed to supply coal to the copper works at reduced rates. The next five years proved to be the end of the Raby empire. The year 1820 also saw the stoppage of the forge. All that now remained to support the Rabys were the leases that they held on their collieries at Llanelli and the coal sales from these mines. By now they were termed `coalmasters'. At the age of 76, Alexander senior decided to retire and on 1 December 1823 consigned the concern to his son Arthur, who continued to be financed by his brother-in-law George Haynes of the Haynes Bank. The following year saw the death of Alexander's wife Ann aged 78. Her grave can still be seen today at Llanelli Parish Church. This sad loss to Alexander may have prompted him to make his will, in which he consigned all to his son Arthur, subject to his paying allowances to his brother and cousin. That same year, 1824, saw the destruction of Arthur's house by fire. The house, roofed with thatch, was totally consumed in a short time. [z] This was not the only disaster to befall the family for the final nail in the coffin was a crisis of national importance. The economic markets of the banking world were thrown into confusion by over-speculation in new markets in South America. This crisis caused the failure of the Haynes Bank of Swansea, which in turn caused the ultimate failure of the Raby empire in 1825. [1]

Raby and his son, now owing very large sums of money to Nevill, Druce, Messrs Haynes and an extraordinary number of workmen, tradesmen and shopkeepers, were forced to hand over their entire concern at Llanelli to Messrs Broom & Guthrie. [2] who acted as trustees for Nevill and Druce. The Rabys were forced to leave the country and spent the next five years travelling to-and-fro between France and Jersey. They finally returned to England and settled at Burcott House near Wells in Somerset where Alexander was said to be 'seen now and then' in the streets of Bath. As he approached the age of 88, the pages closed on Alexander's busy life at Burcott on 24 February 1835. [3] His remains were laid to rest in St Cuthbert's Church, Wells.

The passage of time has made it difficult to pinpoint the actual cause or causes of the failure of Raby's industrial empire but historians have put forward various suggestions: the fact that there was an economic depression following the end of the war with France; that the distance from Raby's furnaces to his ironstone mines was too great; that the quality of the iron ore was poor, giving a poor yield (he had been importing ore from Lancashire and Anglesey). It could be that Raby had put all his eggs into one basket. He had restricted his market to the production of tram plates for the Carmarthenshire Rail Road and the supply of armaments to the government, so that when both these markets dried up he had no customers. Recent research by Davies failed to reveal orders for cannon or shot for the Board of Ordnance later than 1805. [4] This may have been because the victory at Trafalgar meant that the threat of invasion was over and lessened the demand for ordnance.

Although Alexander Raby's business empire failed in Llanelli, he is credited by most historians as being the pioneer of the town's industrial development. By 1886 the once small fishing village had grown into one of the major industrial towns of South Wales, boasting seven large tinplate works, a large copper works, four large foundries, a lead and silver works, a ship-building yard, three steam-powered saw mills and half-a-dozen collieries which exported 87,500 tons of coal in that year. [5] Now all that remains in the town in connection with Alexander Raby is the ruin of his blast furnace and the name of the village, Furnace, in which it stands. Both are fitting memorials to this great industrialist.

For further reading see: Alexander Raby, Ironmaster. Surrey Industrial History Group (2000).

Acknowledgements and thanks to: The Surrey Industrial History Group, Glenys Crocker, Dr. M. V. Symons, Dr. J. D. Davies,  Dr. David Taylor, Peter Benians, John Edwards, Caroline Streak, Robert Ephgrave, Caru F. James and the staff of Llanelli Public Library. Mr, Mrs D. Thomas of 'Tudor Cottage'.

Notes and Citations

[a] Old Llanelly p75 (1904) J. Innes
[b] Llanelly Parish Church A Mee (1888) ch VI
[c] Hanes Llanelli D. Bowen. (1856 English translation)
[d] Coalmining in the Llanelli Area (1979) M. V. Symons.
Gevers & Ingman letter. Brian Cripps, postal historian, private collection
[e] Thomas Mainwaring Papers (Llanelli Public Library) LC1572
[f] Gunfounding and Gunfounders (1986) A. N. Kennard
[g] Britannia’s Dragon p85 (2013) J. D.Davies pers comm.
[g]The Cambrian Sat 31 March 1804 p3 c2 ‘with guns & shot’
[g]The Cambrian Sat 7th April 1804 p3 c2 ‘captured ordnance’
[h] The Cambrian 25th February 1804 p3c4
The Carmarthen Antiquary Vol III (1959) p18 Footnote 2
[I] ibid. Thomas Mainwaring
[j] Pigot’s Directory 1844
[k] Rees’s Cyclopaedia (1812), Canals pp354,358
[l] 42 Geo, cap80 (3 June1802)
[m] ibid. Symons The company is sometimes referred to as the Carmarthenshire Railway Company
[n] The Llanelly and Mynydd Mawr Railway M.R.C. Price. p17
[n] Cadw Scheduling entry CAM 1/1/6616
[o] ibid. A. Mee chap iv
[p] Iron Workers and Toolmakers S. Smiles (1897) p121
[q] Burke’s History of the Commoners vol 3 (1836) p267
[r]The Cambrian, 16 October 1813 p3 c5 ‘Married’
[s] Notes on the Llanelli furnace LC257 Llanelli Public Library
[t] Box Colliery M. V. Symons LC575 Llanelli Public Library
[u] Nevill Industrial Records Item 7 Llanelli Public Library
[v] A Romantic valley in Wales-The History of the Vale of Neath(1925) R.A. Phillips p305.
[w] Nevill Industrial Records Letter Llanelli Public Library Ltr 442, 9/4/1838
[x] Nevill Industrial Records Llanelli Public Library Ltr 458, 30/5/1838
[y] Old Llanelly p 105  (1904) J. Innes
[z] Nevill Industrial Records Llanelli Public Library Ltr 557, 29/7/1839
[z]The Cambrian,29 May, 1824 p3 c 3
[1] Chronicle of Britain, p837 Ed Henrietta Heald (1992)
[2] Nevill Industrial Records Llanelli Public Library Ltr 497, 2/2/1839
[3] Bath Chronicle 26 Feb 1835
[4] Dr David Davies pers. comm.
[5] The South Wales Coal Trade and its Allied Industries (1888) p42, 43. C. Wilkins.