Merthyr's meteoric rise

19th May 1995 at 01:00
BREAKING THE MOULD. Age group: 11-14 Channel 4, Mondays, 11.40-12noon Repeated Tuesdays, 11.40-12 noon Teachers' guide, Pounds 4.95. Educational Television Company, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ.

Scarcely anything can be conceived more grand than the descent on a dark night into the Vale of Merthyr," wrote an 18th-Century traveller. "Numberless volcanoes breathing out their undulating pillars of flame and smoke" were breathtaking testament to Merthyr's rapid transformation from a sleepy backwater to a boom town at the heart of the industrial revolution.

By concentrating on the turbulent economic, technological, social and political changes that affected Merthyr from 1760-1914, the five programmes in this new series offer a portrait, not just of Merthyr but of British industry's meteoric rise and long decline. The programmes also provide a useful insight into how historians make use of source material.

The first programme asks why the town grew so quickly. It had easy access to all the raw materials for iron production, and it also had the likes of Richard Crawshay, an entrepreneur who saw the easy money to be made in meeting the world's insatiable iron and steel appetite.

Not that it was easy for the poor souls men, women and children who actually had to do the work, and make lives for themselves in the squalor of the sprawling shanty town. Their commentary is voiced by actors, performing in cottages that originally stood in Merthyr but which are now rebuilt and refurbished, with meticulous care for period detail, in the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans, Cardiff.

In the first programme, pupils are also taken to archaeological digs and the furnaces at the Ironbridge Museum in Shropshire. They are shown how to analyse census data (replicated in the excellent teachers' notes), and Mari Griffith at the National Gallery explains to them how Richard Crawshay's portrait can tell us much about the man. Other programmes deal with the impact of canals and the railways; the importance of coal to the Welsh economy and the rise of Chartism. An additional programme examines the slate industry in north Wales.

Of necessity, a short series dealing with such a long and turbulent period can do little more than touch upon a multitude of topics. No sooner is your interest aroused by a new smelting process or the ludicrous ostentation of Crawshay's home than you're hurried along to the next item. The approach can be a little frustrating but will certainly whet appetites and leave pupils wanting to know more.

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