Site of Penydarren Ironworks/Trevithick Street
When he first came to Merthyr Tydfil in 1782, Francis Homphray(1725 – 98)
was already a successful Shropshire ironmaster. Hailing from Broseley, only
a few miles down the River Severn from Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, he had
heard of Merthyr’s potential as far as iron making was concerned. Meeting
first with John Guest the Dowlais ironmaster he entered into an agreement
with Anthony Bacon, then the proprietor of the Cyfarthfa ironworks to lease
a foundry, forges and mill for boring cannon.
This enterprise however, was
somewhat short lived, for two years later he assisted his sons Jerimiah,
Thomas and Samuel to rent land in a narrow, steep-sided stretch of the
Morlais brook at Penydarren (meaning the top of the narrow rocky defile).
The original lease of February 1784 was for ninety-nine years and gave the
brothers the right to mine ore “upon or under the lands called Pwllywheaid
in Merthyr Tydfil, with full liberty to sink pits, erect engines, to use
water and construct dams and weirs.”
The Dowlais furnaces, already an enterprise established some twenty-five
years previously, was situated on the high ground upstream of Penydarren and
difficulties existed between the two concerns right from the outset.
1784 a further lease gave John Guest rights of passage for horses and
wagons, while the Homphrays were allowed to divert water from certain
springs. Because the original lease did not include the mining of coal, as
early as 1786 Francis was forced once again, to negotiate with John Guest in
order to secure rights to mine 5,616tons annually at a rent of £140-8s-0d.
Thomas, although continuing to be a partner, took no active part in managing
the works and by 1789 Jeremiah had left to follow his interests elsewhere in
It seems that Samuel, possessed of an unpredictable and
domineering character, was not the easiest of men to work with. Despite
this, he showed great skill and enterprise in the management of Penydarren
and by 1796 a second furnace was added. In that year the woks produced
4,100tons of iron, two thousand more than Dowlais.
Samuel Homphray, always a man to welcome innovation, invited the Cornish
engineer Richard Trevithick to come to Penydarren as early as 1800. He was
to erect a forge engine to his own design and it seems that the two men,
possessed of similar temperaments, struck up a friendship.