The Harfords were a very "prominent family in the Bristol area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and later. They had many interests including banking and the branch of the family that became involved in iron manufacture in the Monmouthshire valleys were merchants who already had ironmaking interests in South Wales. In 1768 a partnership including James Harford developed and extended the original works at the Melingriffith site. One of the original partners with James Harford was Richard Summers, the father of James' wife, Anne, and by 1775 more Bristol men joined the partnership as well as John Partridge of Ross and his son, also John, of Monrnouth. Most of these men were to form the core of Harford, Partridge and Company, later to appear at Ebbw Vale. In 1781 the partnership took over a furnace in Caerphilly and forges at Machen and Bassaleg. It is likely that the experience gained in these works enabled the partnership to make the transition from charcoal furnaces and forges to the larger coke fired furnaces they were to be involved with at Nantyglo and Ebbw Vale. The Harford partnership was one of the few such partnerships to make this transition successfully in this region of South Wales.
The Harfords at Nantyglo.
Although the Harfords had already become involved at Ebbw Vale in 1791 when they formed a partnership with Jeremiah Homfray, it was at Nantyglo that they first became actively involved in iron making in the area. Thomas Hill and his partners at the Blaenavon ironworks decided, in 1792, to utilise a section of the land they rented from the Earl of Abergavenny which they did not need themselves, by forming a partnership with the Harfords.
The partnership was to build a furnace at Nantyglo and it was to be run by John Harford and Richard Summers Harford. Local historians such as Arthur Gray-Jones and Sir Joseph Bradney believed that this John. Harford was the brother of James Harford, the principal partner, rather than John Harford, James' son. There must be some doubt about this assumption however as John Harford is listed as a partner in an agreement of 29 April 1796, after Samuel Harford, unlikely if John was Samuel's uncle. Further, there is an absence of evidence of a John Harford, James' brother, leaving the partnership after 1796.
The Harford's agreement with Hill was that each party would put up half the cost of erecting a furnace. Apparently Messrs. Hill and Company believed that their share of the cost of the works should not exceed £10,000 but by 1793 the Harford partnership had already expended £16,831 compared with [Ell's contribution of £10,483. Much correspondence took place between the two sides without agreement and on 27 January 1795 Messrs. Harford and Co. decided to layoff the miners and to put the furnaces into blast only to run down the stocks of iron ore that had been mined by that date. The Harfords obtained legal advice from Lincolns Inn, the advice confirming their right to use the proceeds of the sales of pig iron to offset their over supply of capital to the Nantyglo concern.
The works were stopped in 1796 and after a period of inaction an accommodation must have been reached with Thomas Hill around 1800, the works finally passing into the hands of Joseph Harrison. The future of the Nantyglo works was not secure however until 1811 when control passed to Joseph Bailey and Matthew Wayne, both of whom had worked for Richard Crawshay at Cyfarthfa.
The Harfords - The early years at Ebbw Vale.
John Harford left Nantyglo for Ebbw Vale when the partnership with Jeremy Homfray broke down and he started the extant Ebbw Vale Memorandum Book (Gwent Record Office) in 1796. This book gives an insight into how the works was run in its very early days. From the book it is clear that John Harford, as ironmaster, worked very closely with the men, signing agreements himself with masons, iron ore miners and others. The day labourers' schedules listed in the Memorandum Book give an indication of how small the workforce was in 1796 with the works employing according to demand probably between 30 to 60 men at the furnace site that is excluding external workers such as colliers and miners.
There were some key changes in the partnership in the first twenty years of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century the principal partners were James Harford, who was the leading partner although he did not reside at Ebbw Vale, Samuel Harford, John Partridge and Phi lip Cracker. However John Partridge of Monmouth retired from the Ebbw Vale partnership on 1 July 1807, the partnership then becoming Harford, Cracker and Company. James Harford's son, Richard Summers Harford had joined the partnership by 1810 and by this time also, the John Harford listed as a partner, must certainly have been the son of James Harford. In 1810. the partnership shed some of their other interests such as the Melingriffith works and their involvement in Cornwall ended at the same time.
Richard Summers Harford had been the key active member of the Harford partnership in this period having moved from Nantyglo to Ebbw Vale around 1800.
From about this time he started to sign agreements and it seems likely that John Harford left the area probably returning to Bristol.
Demand for iron nationally was high in the early years of the century in view of the need for ordnance, and the iron industry in Britain and in Monmouthshire, was expanding rapidly.
The iranmasters of the region held meetings to discuss iron prices and Richard S. Harford represented the Ebbw Vale works at such meetings. For example a meeting of ironmasters held at Newport on 2 November 1811 settled the price of three-foot tramplates at £7.15.0 to £9.0.0 Harford was still signing agreements with particular workmen or artisans right up to 1817 and beyond and was thus still very close to the workforce on a day-to-day basis. James Harford, the principal partner for decades died on 17 May 1817 and he left his shares in the partnership to his three sons, Richard Summers, Samuel and John.
It was about this time also that Richard's two sons, Summers Harford and Charles Lloyd Harford appeared on the scene.
In 1818 Samuel Rogers, one of Monmouthshire' s industrial inventors, announced a change to the bottom of puddling furnaces, by substituting an iron base for the sand based units that had been the norm. The iron base which was water cooled had a much longer life than sand based ones and was cleaner. Rogers' invention was to improve the productivity of puddling furnaces considerably but he did not patent his invention and he offered it freely to the local ironmasters.
It was only the Harford partnership that showed interest initially indicating that the Harfords were not slow to look at potential innovations. The Harford partnership also had a strong sense of responsibility for their men and they sponsored the Ebbw Vale and Beaufort United Society, a friendly society set up in 1812. They also gave opportunities for men of obvious ability such as John Thomas, son of Thomas Thomas a mine weigher, who in January 1819 was to be apprentice to Samuel Harford in Bristol for seven years.
The acquisition of the Sirhowy Ironworks.
The major change in this period however was the expansion of the business due to the acquisition of the Sirhowy ironworks. The Sirhowy works had been run jointly with Tredegar ironworks since the latter had been built and the Sirhowy lease came up for renewal in 1818 but some years earlier the Harford partnership had acquired this lease. A dispute arose between the Harfords and the ironmasters of the Sirhowy works who thought that the rental proposed by the Harfords was not acceptable, to them. The result of the dispute was that the Sirhowy works passed to the Ebbw Vale Company.
Communication between the Ebbw Vale works and Sirhowy was 'very difficult at that time and eventually the Harford partnership were forced to construct tunnels through the mountains to assist transference of ore and metal. The first such tunnel was opened in 1832 at considerable cost to the Ebbw Vale Company. Local historians assert that as a result of the 1818 dispute there was antagonism between many of the men of Sirhowy and those of Tredegar for a number of years. Large stones with 'SI818' etched into them were placed, marking the boundary between the two towns and one such stone can still be seen today where Dukestown Road meets the main Beaufort Road in Sirhowy.
The later years at Ebbw Vale.
A feature of the British iron industry in the first half of the nineteenth century was the continual fluctuations in demand for iron products. In boom times the ironmasters tended to increase their capacity, increasing the supply but often demand would fall away leaving the ironmasters in an oversupply situation. The Harford partnership, like some of the other ironmasters in difficult economic circumstances, had to borrow from time to time. In 1822 the partners arranged a loan facility of up to £20,000 with their bankers, Jones, Jones and Davies of Abergavenny and in the 1820s the Harford partnership took out loans of £30,000 and £20,000 on the security of their properties.
These loans were called up for payment in May 1829 and the Harford partnership agreed to payoff an amount of £10,000 themselves and negotiated with the Baileys of Nantyglo ironworks for a loan of £40,000 to payoff the remainder. Philip Crocker died in the early 1820s and for a time the partnership seems to have been known as Harford Brothers and Company, the brothers being Richard Summers Harford, Samuel Harford and John Harford, though William Green and William Weaver Davies were also partners at the time. The period to 1830 was one of considerable growth of iron output in South Wales and for the ironworks ofMonmouthshire.
The figures for 1796 are clearly estimates and can only be used as a guide. The figures for 1823 and 1830 were supplied for specific purposes, there being no official annual returns of iron output until the 1850s. The figures show how important the local group of ironworks were producing 45% of the South Wales pig iron output in 1823 and 36% in 1830. This latter percentage is lower because of output by the newer works established lower down the valleys such as those at Coalbrookvale, Blaina, Bute, Abersychan and Pentwyn.
By 1830 the Ebbw Vale/Sirhowy concern was the largest producer
of the local group. Competition, however, increased substantially in the 1830s for the ironworks of South Wales following the invention of the hot blast process by James Beaumont Neilson. This process greatly assisted the Scottish ironmasters as it allowed the use of raw coal in blast furnaces and Scottish coals had never made good coke.
Throughout the 1820s and 1830s the brothers, Summers and Charles Lloyd Harford were the active ironmasters in the area with Summers tending to look after Sirhowy and Charles largely based at Ebbw Vale. Their father, Richard Summers Harford whilst not being so active remained a partner, the concern becoming known as Harford, Davies and Company. William Weaver Davies joined the partnership in around 1819 and remained until 1843 when the company went bankrupt. Samuel Harford retired from the partnership on 30 June 1830 and his shares, rights and interests were transferred to the remaining partners at that time, Richard Summers Harford, John Harford and William Weaver Davies.
By 1835 Richard Summers Harford who by virtue of his age and infirmity had not been active in the management of the firm for some time passed control of his assets and concerns to his two sons. Although they were still not partners, this meant that Summers Harford and Charles Lloyd Harford were able to affect decisions at partnership level. In 1836 Richard Summers Harford's sons finally became full partners though he died in the following year. Apart from household furniture etc., which he left to his wife, Richard left the vast majority of his property and lands to his sons.
The failure of the Harford Partnership.
There were times in the 1830s and early 1840s when the ironmasters of the area experienced considerable difficulties due to falls in demand and it is not surprising that some of the iron companies were put up for sale. In 1833 the Blaenavon Company was put up for sale though it was not sold until three years later when it became a joint stock company. In 1833 also an unsuccessful attempt was made to sell the Clydach ironworks and in the same year the Beaufort ironworks was sold to the Baileys of Nantyglo.
Rhymney ironworks was put up for sale in 1835 and like Blaenavon it was converted to Joint stock status. 1841 was also a bad year for the area with the Victoria ironworks, the British Iron Company at Abersychan and the Coalbrookvale works all in difficulties. In 1842 the Monmouthshire Merlin recorded distress amongst the people of the hills of North Monmouthshire and reported on 11 June 1842 'The Abergavenny workhouse has its full complement of paupers and the neighbouring iron masters, with the exception of the Messrs. Bailey (of Nantyglo ironworks]) are discharging their workmen continually and those remaining are little better than half employed'.
The same newspaper commented on 16 June 1843 that the ruinous state of the iron trade in Britain that had already marked the failure of some ironworks in other areas has now finally taken its toll on the population of 'the Hills' with the stoppage of the Sirhowy and Ebbw Vale works. The paper claimed that the failure of these two works would have been a disaster for the area with about 3,400 people employed by these works and many more thousands dependent on these concerns.
Fortunately it was decided at the bankruptcy court at Bristol that the works should be carried on as usual. The creditors of the Ebbw Vale Company met in August 1843 and agreed to press for the works to continue until a further decision might be arrived at, the works thus being saved.
Loan capital had been vital for some of the ironworks of the area, such as Clydach and the Ebbw Vale Company. In fact the historian A. H. John stated that the Ebbw Vale Company in the period 18l0 to 1842 was financed up to about one half by loans and this reliance on loans and mortgages seems to have been a major factor in the eventual bankruptcy of the Ebbw Vale partners in June 1843.
The Bath Chronicle reported in July of that year that the Ebbw Vale partnership had unsecured debts of £349,000 whilst available assets of the company were then only £93,000. There was also a secured debt of £100,000. However, very welcome news reached the hills of Monmouthshire in early 1844 when it became known that the Ebbw Vale and Sirhowy concern had been taken over by a partnership lead by Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale.
Both Summers Harford and his brother, Charles Lloyd Harford, had left the partnership in 1841 and hence the partners at the time of the bankruptcy in 1843 were John Harford and William Weaver Davies. It is not clear why the two brothers left the partnership, they had been the active partners at Ebbw Vale and Sirhowy until then. Summers who had been a magistrate became the MP for Lewes in Sussex on June 1841 though he was unseated in the following March. He was also Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 184l. Whatever the reasons for their departure, the two brothers had a claim against the estate of the partnership in 1843.
It should be said that despite the unfortunate end to the Harford period at Ebbw Vale, in general their term of around fifty years was remarkably successful. In the thirty five years from 1805 to 1840 their works had achieved considerable growth in output per year on average, a performance only slightly lower than that of the Nantyglo concern, the most successful works of the local group.
They had provided employment for increasing numbers of men over their term and by 1843 they had a stock of about one thousand workers and agents' houses in Ebbw Vale and Sirhowy. According to the sale document, they passed on to the Darby partnership iron making sites which included nine blast furnaces, three blowing engines, fineries, a mill, and nearly 3,000 acres of mineral land.
The Harford family were Quakers and this fact influenced their attitude to the development of the Ebbw Vale area, they were opposed to the sale of alcohol on their land or in their works. They were a Whig or Liberal family politically and as such they were more sympathetic to the political reforms of the period.
In fact, remarkably, at one Chartist meeting at Dukestown near Sirhowy, Summers Harford was referred to as the Chartists' friend with considerable cheering coming from the crowd. The ironmasters of South Wales in this early period have been the subject of considerable criticism by some writers in recent years but possibly, with the Harfords as an example, a more balanced view might be appropriate.