The distinguishing features of Brynmawr

One of John Davies's 100 places to see before you die, the town of Brynmawr has a rich and interesting history which ranges from depression and hardship to some of the most notable and influential designs in Wales.

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Brynmawr tallboy and dressing table, 1930s

Just your average town...?

Named by John Davies as one of the 100 places in Wales to see before you die, the Blaenau Gwent town of Brynmawr has a rich and interesting history. From inauspicious beginnings during the nineteenth century, the town can boast several 'claims to fame' which tell the story of its varied past.

Lying at the northern fringe of the south Wales coalfield, Brynmawr is one of dozens of communities that were transformed by the industrial boom that swept the country during the nineteenth century. By mid-century, the collection of iron ore had led to the growth of the town and the inhabitants were accustomed to the same hardships and problems of the rest of the coalfield. In many ways there is little to distinguish Brynmawr from other towns and villages in Wales; Chartism had its day in the town, criticism of immorality and corruption were thrown at it from the Commissioners of the Blue Books and cholera ravaged its residents, leading to the establishing of the first Health Board in Wales.

Highs and lows

There are, however, many distinguishing features which make Brynmawr an intriguing town. The first is that it can lay claim to being the highest town in Wales. According to John Davies, it is one of the few towns in Wales not located in a valley and its highest point lies 410 metres above sea level. This also apparently trumps Buxton, reputedly the highest town in England, and makes Brynmawr, with around 5500 inhabitants, the highest town in Britain.

Brynmawr was also singled in Elizabeth Jennings’ ‘study of a depressed area’ (1934) during the depression which gripped the country in the interwar period. An unenviable yet unsurprising reason for notoriety as, in 1932, over 98% of the insured male population were unemployed, compared with 67% in Ferndale in the Rhondda.

Brynmawr Quakers

There are two, more notable and honourable, reasons why Brynmawr is known further afield. The first is thanks to the work of a group of Quakers who, seeing the mass unemployment affecting the area, sought to relieve it with a unique experiment. In 1929 they set up a furniture-making enterprise employing twelve local untrained men to produce furniture on demand, mainly for other Quaker companies and organisations. A small factory called the Gwalia Works produced furniture designed by Paul Matt, the son of, and apprentice to, Charles Matt, a Polish immigrant cabinet maker who was heavily influenced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. They made simple furniture, clearly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and the first order was for 400 chairs for a Quaker school in York, which were produced for £1 each. Today, the furniture produced at Brynmawr is considered some of the most influential in the history of Welsh design and culture.

The Chair for the 1938 National Eisteddfod was designed and created by the Brynmawr furniture-makers.

The world-renowned factory

Another outstanding example of design is another of Brynmawr’s claims to fame. It cannot be often that a factory is described as ‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful’ but the design of the Brynmawr rubber factory was applauded far and wide and was considered to be one of the most innovative buildings in post-war Britain. Designed by the Architects’ Co-Operative Partnership and engineered by the Dane Ove Arup, the mastermind behind the Sydney Opera House. The factory was a huge, open space covered by nine, thin concrete domes.  Built as part of the urgent regeneration of the South Wales coalfields after the war, the factory, though beautiful, was somewhat misguided. Brynmawr was too remote from the rest of the world, and the envisaged rubber boom never materialised; the factory never came close to employing the 1,000 hoped-for workers. Sold to Dunlop in 1952 after just a year of operation, the factory closed in 1982 and was listed by the Government as Grade II four years later.

Sadly, the factory was de-listed in 1996 and, despite being one of the most notable buildings in post-war Britain, and despite much outrage and objection, it was demolished in 2001.

Today, Brynmawr furniture is much sought after and collected across the world.

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