“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.” – T.S.Eliot
Leaving Vaynor my pal had another interesting story for me about a Welsh industrialist, a man called John Hughes who actually was a Welshman rather than an English industrialist, born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, where his father was head engineer at the Crawshay’s Cyfarthfa Ironworks.
He was so successful that by the 1840s he had made his reputation and his fortune by patenting a number of inventions in armaments and armour plating. By the age of twenty-eight he owned a shipyard and eight years later a foundry in nearby Newport. During the 1850s he won worldwide recognition for the iron cladding of wooden warships for the British Admiralty.
Now we are coming to the best part of the story – In 1868 Hughes received a commission from the Imperial Russian Government of Alexander II for the plating of a Russian naval fortress and a concession to develop a metal works industry in the Country. No mean feat I imagine, there must have been a lot of competition from nearby Prussia with Otto Von Bismarck’s industrialisation policy of Blut und Eissen.
Hughes formed the New Russia Company Ltd. and in the summer of 1870, at the age of fifty-five, he moved with his family to live in Russia. He sailed with eight ships, with not only all the equipment necessary to establish a metal works but also much of the skilled labour, a group of about a hundred hand-picked specialist iron workers and miners from South Wales.
He quickly identified a suitable site for development in the Ukraine and started to build a modern metal works that had eight blast furnaces – a huge financial investment for that time. During the 1870s collieries were constructed, iron ore mines were sunk and brick-works and other facilities including a railway infrastructure were established to make the works a self-sufficient industrial development.
The factory complex gave its name to a new town – Yuzovska or in English (Welsh if you prefer) Hughesovka and Hughes personally provided a hospital, schools, bath houses, tea rooms, a fire brigade and an Anglican church. The land around the metal works quickly grew to become an industrial and cultural centre in the region and by the start of the First-World-War the works were the largest in the Russian Empire, producing three-quarters of all Russian iron.
Just a few years later the Bolshevik Revolution Reds chased the Hughes family out of Russia but during the Soviet period the steel industry was expanded. In 1924, it was renamed Stalino and It was renamed again in 1961 as Donetsk, the city today remains an important centre for coal mining and the steel industry.
I have always been fascinated with the way that in Russia they just rename places on a whim. St Petersburg to Leningrad and back again, Tsaritsyn to Volgograd to Stalingrad and back to Volgograd. The city of Rybinsk, two hundred miles north of Moscow has had nine name changes in the last two hundred years. If we did this sort of thing in the UK then Grantham in Lincolnshire would be Thatcherville and Tredegar in Wales would be Kinnockstown.
After bypassing the once great town of Merthyr Tydfil (still the tenth largest in Wales) we entered the second Rhonnda Valley, Rhondda Fach and headed south towards the town of Ferndale where, after missing it the first time, we took a narrow mountain road towards the village of Llanwonno.
Now I had been to two Rhonddas this year, Ronda in Andalusia in Spain and now the two Rhondda Valleys in South Wales – three Rhonddas in fact!
On the way we stopped several times to look down into the valley below and reflect on mining history of the towns in the valleys of South Wales. One time we stopped near an old spoil heap built dangerously high above the houses below and this was especially significant because we were close now to the fiftieth anniversary of the nearby Aberfan disaster.
On October 21st 1966 there was a terrible tragedy in South Wales when after days of heavy rain a primary school was engulfed with waste from a coal tip that had become dangerously unstable and eventually collapsed.
As the mountain slipped and the earth roared can you imagine anything so terrifying? I don’t think that I can. Like an earthquake perhaps as buildings are demolished or a volcanic eruption and a stream of deadly lava but instead of molten ash a stream of cold wet coal dust. The slurry slid down Merthyr Mountain behind the village at about nine o’clock just as the school was starting the business of the day, killing one hundred and sixteen children and twenty-eight adults. A whole generation swept away in a matter of seconds.
I can remember the day quite clearly because I think it was the first time in my life (I was twelve years old) that such an incident made an impact upon me and I recall watching the television news footage and the terrible despair of the community. I visited the memorial cemetery there in 1973 when I was living in Cardiff.
The old slag heaps have been stabilised now and planted over with trees to make them blend in but there is no really easy way to disguise them and even now they can be easily identified by the conical man-made peaks which do not sit so well with the undulating rhythm of the natural environment.