Wales’ Industrial Heritage – W. E. Bowen’s Photographic Collection

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

In August 1981 the British Aluminium Factory at Glynneath rolled out its last week of production and another chapter in Wales’ industrial heritage was closed. We are fortunate to be able to publish the late W. E. Bowen’s collection which documents this last week at Rheola Works on the People’s Collection Wales website. In this blog, his son, Roy Bowen, shares his thoughts on his father’s work and the importance of celebrating the contribution made by the workforce in his community.

The fantastic setting of Rheola Works in the Neath Valley is captured nicely in one of Roy’s favourite photographs:

Although surrounded by a largely rural area, there’s evidence of industrialisation in Glynneath as far back as 1793 when coal mining began – both in mines and open casts. The Rheola Works site lay a mile north-east of Resolven and was opened for work by the British Aluminium Company in 1939, originally as a strip mill. In its hay-day, it employed 1500 people, and even though the numbers had gone down to 590 when this photographic collection was taken, the factory had been an important employer in the area for decades.

Roy Bowen passed Rheola Works every day for several years as he travelled to his job in a different factory based in Resolven; it wasn’t until he was bequeathed his father’s collection that he saw the inside of the factory.

“This collection is important for me as it is by far the largest collection of photos taken by my father for one particular event,” explains Roy. “To capture the last day of production is very unusual I would think, especially for the people working there, it was a historic day for them. My father was also the local barber for a number of years so would have known the majority of people working there. I don't know if this was a professional job or whether he was just asked along for the sake of posterity."

William Emlyn Bowen (1929-2012), or Billy as he was known, joined the family’s long-standing hairdressing business in Glynneath and trained as a barber. On his return from completing his National Service, he continued to work at the shop in Glynneath. Billy also became interested in photography around this time and enrolled on a photography course in Barry. He opened a hairdressing shop in Cwmgwrach after he married Roy’s mum, and this remained open until the local pits closed and he lost much of his trade. Later he was employed at a local factory (which became known as TRW Steering Systems), but all this time he continued to work as a professional photographer. His photographs reflect this keen interest in fishing and history, and he was a member of Glynneath Angling Society and also Glynneath and Cwmgwrach History Society.

According to Roy Bowen, his dedication to preserving his father’s photographic collection was driven by Billy’s passion for photography in general and his passion for recording the history of the local villages. “After he passed away, I realised that if I didn't do something about it, the photographs might be lost to time. I originally created a website for his photographs which has been viewed many times with many positive comments from people praising me for preserving my father’s work, and it has created many discussion and memories for people on social media when I have posted some of the pictures.”

Roy adds: “The other important point for me was that by sharing my father’s collection to the People Collection Wales the photographs will be preserved after my time and my father’s work will be viewed by a wider audience; the events he recorded will be held for future generations from the local area and further afield.”

W. E. Bowen’s collection carefully documents different stages of the aluminium production line, and the machines used – from the furnace and smelting to casting slabs of aluminium, then running the aluminium through the breaking down mill until the required thickness was achieved, and producing aluminium rolls. These photographs here show aluminium going through the water jacket which freezes the metal:

But his collection also captures factory workers at work, both on the aluminium production line and elsewhere in the factory, where aluminium products were produced:

In these photographs of workers by their workstations we get a real sense of the pride that they felt, standing their ground, despite the fact that elsewhere in the factory, contractors had already begun clearing out and demolishing some parts. After production at the site ceased altogether and demolition work progressed, Billy returned for one last day to witness the skeleton what was left of the factory building.

Also included in W. E. Bowen’s collection are some photographs byJim Giddings, himself a factory worker who also documented events during that last working week at Rheola Works – the factory which had been at the heart of most of the men’s working lives. One of Roy Bowen’s most treasured images, however, is the photograph that his father took of the electricity being switched off for the last time: “For me, from a purely historical point of view, this is very poignant.”

When the power supply was turned off, a lifeline to the factory workers and the wider community was also cut off. Despite what was lost with the closing of the factory, we are able to celebrate the lives of Rheola factory workers by making sure that their work lives on in people’s memories, and that their stories will continue to be told.

Do you recognise any of the men in this photograph? Or do you have items to share about your experience or your family’s experience of factory work? Get in touch with us via Facebook or Twitter.

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