History of Neath

The surrounding areas of Neath have a far older history of human activity than Neath town. Bronze-Age burial chambers and Iron-Age hillforts are to be found on the upland hills and the Romans constructed a fort at what is now Neath Abbey in the first century AD.

The history of Neath town commences in the early 12th century with the Norman Conquest of Glamorgan. Sir Richard de Granville defeated the local Welsh Lords and established a timber motte and bailey castle near Neath Abbey in 1129. This was later destroyed by the native Welsh Lords.

A second castle was erected on the east bank of the River Neath - the site of the present castle. A small village with a market and a church was developed by the Normans circa 1150. This later formed the nucleus of Neath town. Intermittent warfare between the Welsh and the Normans continued for the next 150 years and so hindered any development and population increase. The town of Neath was destroyed by the Lords of Afan in 1184, 1230, 1259. Peaceful conditions from the 14th century onwards allowed the village to develop and for commerce to expand. A river bridge was erected in 1320, trade flourished and regular markets were held.

The Tudor period saw the demise of the Marcher Lordships and the emergence of the gentry class of people who assumed control of trade and economic growth with a Portreeve and a body of Councilors to govern the town. Coal mining commenced around Neath in the early 16th century and copper smelting in the surrounding area at Aberdulais in 1584. Neath was still a small town clustered around its castle and church throughout the 15th and 16th centuries but huge changes were to take place in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Evans family of Eaglesbush expanded the small coalfield at the lower Cimla which were greatly improved and enlarged by the Mackworth family from Derbyshire. The Mackworths constructed one of the largest and most modern copper smelting factories in the country at Melincryddan in 1695, the refined pigs of copper were transported to the Gnoll mills where they went through a number of processes of battering, rolling and eventual manufacturing into pots and pans. Neath became an industrialized town at that time with coal mining and heavy metal refining as a major source of employment. The streets of old Neath remind visitors of the pre-industrial nature of the town; Cow lane, Duck Street, Cattle Street, Butter Street, Bull Ring. Some of which survive at the present time.

The Neath Canal was completed from Neath to Glyn-Neath in 1795 followed by the Tennant Canal in 1824 from Swansea to Aberdulais. These led to an increase in manufacturing industry reliant on coal as a fuel. Brick making, ship building and chemical production on the towns outskirts and iron manufacturing at Neath Abbey. In 1823 Neath's population was only 3000 persons which increased to 4000 by 1849 and to 14,000 in 1880.

The arrival of the steam railways was a major factor in the expansion of industry and population growth. The South Wales Railway 1850 and the Vale of Neath Railway 1851 encouraged industrial growth. An industrial suburb was created at Melincryddan due to the construction of the Melyn forge and foundry 1864, the Melyn tinplate works 1864, Eaglesbush tinplate work 1890 and later the Neath Steel Sheet and Galvanizing Company works adjacent 1896.

Neath also became a prosperous commercial centre and fine civic buildings were erected. The old Town Hall 1820, new market 1837, Mechanics Institute 1847 where Alfred Russell Wallace worked on his ideas on the evolution of man. Alderman Davies School 1858, St David's Church 1866, Gwyn Hall 1887, Victoria Gardens 1897. New streets were laid out - Windsor Road, London Road, Queen Street, Eastland Road, Cimla Road. Residential suburbs sprang up at Penydre, Tyn-y-caeau, Mount Pleasant and Hillside.

Later development included the Cimla and Westernmoor, Neath Abbey, and Caerwern. Neath is a pleasant town to shop in, it has many attractions for the visitors and local alike. The Victoria Gardens is a Victorian gem where one can relax away from the bustle of shopping. Neath Museum which occupies part of the Gwyn Hall houses displays that depict the areas history. The Gnoll Country Park, once the seat of the Mackworths is now a magnificent country park. Neath Canal which at one time was the lifeline of industry has been tuned into a linear park which offers boat trips in the summer months.

Neath is an historic town that retains much of its former character and charm and also its culture. Operatic societies and musical entertainment are frequently hosted at the Gwyn Hall and similar venues in the town. Neath is a town for all ages and interests and well worthy of visiting.

Clive Reed Museums Education Officer 25 February 2004

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Last Updated: 24.08.2009 at 14:27

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