Big Pit National Coal Museum

Task 4 - Growth of the Community

There are three elements to this section.

Interactive Mapping exercise

This is a 'drag and drop' exercise to create a map of Blaenavon to show its main buildings and features by the year 1842. Features can be added to the map in three time zones: before 1800; by 1825; by 1842. If features are dragged onto the map in the wrong time zone, they will be rejected and bounced back. A list of key dates in Blaenavon's development is included to enable children to build the map in the right order. The features themselves have characteristic shapes and will only fit into one place on the map. This is because the object of the exercise is to establish a sense of the chronological development of the town, and we did not want children to flounder because they did not know where, for example, each chapel was located.

The basic layout of the town used as a framework for the exercise is taken from the tithe map of 1843.

Having completed the exercise, learners can use the sliding tab on the timeline to review the composition of the town at any time between 1800 and 1842. This now provides them with a tool with which to learn more about the geographical layout of the town.

In its early years, Blaenavon must have been extremely basic and harsh, perhaps being something akin to a frontier town or mining settlement in the 19th century American West, such as we have all seen in films or on TV. It is likely that the town did not take on any truly recognisable urban form until after 1850. Even as late as 1876 a traveller described Blaenavon in this way:

"About six miles from Pontypool in the opposite direction to Cwmbran stands, or rather straggles, the unfinished town of Blaenavon. Blaenavon is completely a colony of colliers and ironworkers. No one could dream of residing there unless in some way connected with the miners or the works."

With cramped housing, no paving to the streets and a lack of proper drainage and sewerage, the living conditions for the townspeople would have been brutish, if not completely lethal.

Population Growth Activity Sheet

This is a simple activity which compares population figures for Blaenavon and the county town of Monmouth and asks for reasons to explain the differential growth of these two towns. Monmouth was the traditional capital of the county; an original Medieval settlement, a market centre for the surrounding countryside and the seat of the county Assize Courts. It played no real part in the process of industrialisation, however, so its size and population were not fundamentally altered throughout the Victorian period. Blaenavon, however, existed purely and simply because of the Industrial Revolution and as demand for iron, and then coal, increased, so the town grew at an amazing rate.

Return to Blaenavon Imaginative Writing Exercise

This is a creative writing exercise in which children have to imagine that they are an elderly native of the valley who moved away before the onset of industrialisation and who has returned for the first time in 1842. The task is to write a letter to a friend or relative describing the changes that have occurred at the place of your birth and your feelings in response to them.

In the sample letter provided in this section, we have taken a pretty negative view of the town, emphasising the noise, commotion, pollution and the roughness of its people. Children may, of course, take a different view. Archdeacon William Coxe, for example, who visited and described Monmouthshire in 1800, recorded the following sentiments in relation to the neighbouring Nant y Glo ironworks, which had been established in 1795 in a similarly rural valley (but was temporarily closed down at the time of his visit):

"The discontinuance of the works impressed me with much regret, as they had already given a new life and spirit to these dreary regions, and would soon have fertilised the surrounding districts."

Of course, Coxe visited the works for no more than a few hours and did not have to live in Nant y Glo. He was also much taken with Blaenavon:

"Although these works were only finished in 1789, three hundred and fifty men are employed and the population of the district exceeds a thousand souls. The hollow of the rocks and the sides of the hills are strewed with numerous habitations, and the heathy grounds converted into corn and pasture. Such are the wonderworking powers of industry when directed by judgement!"

There is no right or wrong attitude to take towards Blaenavon's growth (and teachers can of course choose to disregard the sample letter altogether, if they wish). Children may be moved by the plight of the working people; their long hours, dangerous conditions, dismal housing and poor wages.

Alternatively, like William Coxe, they may be impressed by the vibrancy and vitality of the industrial and urban developments and the part they played in the build up of British wealth and prosperity. Industry undoubtedly brought employment, facilities and new communication links to regions which were previously sparsely populated, undeveloped and remote. It created massive wealth for some and gave Britain an unparalleled status in the world. The pace of urban growth, however, was achieved at the expense of the quality of building, streets and hygiene, and the town of Blaenavon in 1842 most probably had little aesthetic merit.

Was the development of Blaenavon a towering monument to British endeavour, initiative and power or the 'rape of a fair country'? This could form the basis of a wonderful class discussion prior to the writing exercise.

Ultimately, children will react according to their own perspectives and feelings. In assessing their work, teachers should take note of the extent to which their answers are informed by the evidence they have gathered. Children's interpretations may be different to the teacher's own, but if they demonstrate an understanding of issues, are informed by factual knowledge and are well expressed, they should be given full credit.

Overall, in this section, we are seeking to develop an understanding that the establishment of industry led to the rapid growth of towns and a huge influx of people into previously empty areas. Drawing on knowledge gained in earlier sections, children will hopefully realise that this population explosion had consequences for the quality of housing provided, public health and town facilities.