Pontypridd as a town name did not exist prior to 1856. The old name for Pontypridd was Newbridge which relates to the bridge built by William Edwards in 1756. The name implies that there was previously a bridge crossing the river Taff in the area and in John Leland's Itinerary (1536-42) listing bridges over the river Taff, we find evidence for this. He refers to a wooden bridge at Pont Rhehesk. In those days they tended to spell as they heard, so we can assume the site was near present day Craig-yr-Hesg, a short distance upstream from Edwards Bridge. Reasons for the siting of that bridge may well have been for the use by pilgrims travelling to Saint Mary's Monastery at Penrhys. When Henry VIII closed the monastery in 1538 the local population would have had no need for a bridge, which would have fallen into decay without the pilgrims. It would be more than 200 years before the need for a crossing would encourage the building of another bridge.
The builder of the new bridge, William Edwards was born at Ty Canol, Groeswen and was baptised on the 8th February 1719. When William was 7 years old his father was drowned fording the river Taff while returning from Llantrisant Fair on horseback. Was this the catalyst for his later obsession with the bridge at Pontypridd?
The family moved to Bryntail, which was sited just south of Eglwysilan Church overlooking the site of the present day Treforest Trading Estate.
As a youngster William worked diligently on the farm and soon showed an interest in dry stonewalling and building work in general. When builders visited the area he would learn from them the techniques that were to stand him in good stead in later life. He started building himself and one of his many projects was a mill at Craig y Fedw just east of Abertridwr. During the period when he lived in Cardiff he also built a furnace at Cardiff Castle .
In 1746 William Edwards was commissioned to build a bridge over the river Taff at Pontypridd for the sum of £500 on condition that the bridge stood for 7 years.
The first attempt was a three arch structure, which stood for 26 months before being washed away by debris carried by the river Taff in flood. The second attempt was to span the Taff without any supporting pillars midstream. Staging collapse caused the failure of this attempt when the structure that was used to support the heavy bridge during the building phase gave way.
The next attempt was also to end in failure when the centre section collapsed because it could not support the weight of the large side haunches. This gave Edwards the idea for his fourth attempt. He would modify the design and create large tunnels through the haunches on each side to reduce the weight transfer to the centre section. These tunnels measuring 9 feet for the bottom, 6 feet for the middle and 3 feet for the top were to prove successful and the bridge was finally completed in 1756.
The bridge has a very steep entry and exit that was acceptable for livestock but heavily loaded horse drawn wagons often found it difficult and would use a heavy chain to slow them on the downhill side. This caused continual wear to the road surface of the bridge.
Because of the increase in traffic over the river Taff a second bridge was constructed alongside in 1857. Later, circa 1900, the use of the William Edwards Bridge was restricted to pedestrians after the road surface was repaired and steps added.
The structure still stands to this day as a monument to William Edward's ingenuity and perseverance.
Evan James and James James - the joint composers of 'Hen Wlad fy Nhadau'
It was Evan James who composed the words and his son James James that composed the music for what we now know as the Welsh 'National Anthem'. Evan James was born in 1809 in the parish of Eglwysilan near Caerphilly as one of a family of eleven children. The family moved many times during his early years, first to a public house the 'Ancient Druid' near Holybush, Argoed. From there they relocated to 'Ffos-yr-Hebog', a smallholding northwest of Deri in the parish of Gelli-gaer. Circa 1847, his father, who was a weaver by trade, purchased premises in Mill Street, Newbridge (later to be renamed Pontypridd in 1856) where the family moved and Evan was to remain for the rest of his life. He was a natural poet, producing numerous works over many years.
James James was the musician of the family and an excellent harpist but there appears to be no evidence that he had any formal musical training so we can only presume he was self-taught with help from his friend John Crockett. During the period from 1849 to 1863 James kept a book containing musical scores which is kept at the National Library and it is in this book that we find the score of 'Hen Wlad fy Nhadau' The story of the words and music is best told by his son Taliesin in a letter to John Crockett dated 4th December 1910:
'I have often heard my father say that on a Sunday afternoon in that month and year (January 1856), he went for a walk up the Rhondda Road and that the melody came to his mind. Returning to my grandfather's house, but a few doors from his own, he said to him, "Father, I have composed a melody which is in my opinion a very fitting one for a Welsh patriotic song. Will you write some verses for it?" "Let me hear it" said grandfather, who added, "Fetch your harp, James." My father brought the harp to the Factory House and played the air on that instrument. My grandfather was greatly struck by it, and at once took down the slate, which I dare say you know, always hung aside of his armchair by the fireplace, and in a few minutes the words of the first verse were written ...The second and third verses were written the next day'
Whether the story is completely correct we will never know but the fact is that the father and son collaborated in producing what is probably the best-known song in Wales along with 'Cwm Rhondda'. Over the years it has been suggested that James James's melody may not be completely his own work and may have been derived from an old Irish dance tune 'Rosin the Beau (Bow)' which was quite well known at the time. Candid comments from people like Phyllis Kinney, circa 1989 tend to dispel this. She states: 'On the whole there is only one musical phrase which is identical in both tunes, the phrase on the words 'Tros ryddid gollasant eu gwaed', which is repeated at the end on the words 'O bydded i'r hen iaith barhau'. There is a similarity but in my opinion 'Hen Wlad fy Nhadau' is not a variant of 'Rosin the Beau (Bow)'. It is more probable that the musical phrases of 'Rosin the Beau (Bow)' were familiar generally, because of the popularity of Irish airs in the last century and that James James was familiar with them. However, there is a great difference between saying that a composer was influenced unknowingly by a piece of music and saying that one composition was a copy of another.'
After James James died in 1902 it was suggested that a memorial should be erected to both the father and son. It took almost 30 years to see this completed when the memorial designed by Sir William Goscombe John sited in Ynysangharad Park was unveiled on the 23rd of July 1930. The beautiful memorial consisting of two life size figures of bronze representing poetry and music fixed in Blue Pennant stone. The inscription reads:
In memory of Evan James and James James father and son, of Pontypridd, who, inspired by a deep and tender love of their native land united poetry to song and gave Wales her National Anthem, 'Hen Wlad fy Nhdau'
A gravestone marking Philip Thomas's place of burial today stands in Glyntaff Cemetery. However, a gravestone intended for him also stands on Pontypridd Common. The story behind the stone that overlooks his workplace on the common has become part of the folklore history of Pontypridd.
The stone reads:
I am placed here to commemorate the virtue and abilities of who after managin the chain work on my right hand side for the space of 21 years much to the benefit of all mankind died and was buried herein 1840 Aged 69
Brown Lenox Chainworks
Known locally as "The Chainworks", Brown Lenox and Co. Ltd enjoyed a long association with Pontypridd and played a significant part in the town's history. The company's origins date back to the beginning of the nineteenth century when Samuel Brown, then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, designed and patented the wrought iron chain that was to replace the hempen rope cables that were then used to hold a ship's anchor. Unable to finance the project to completion he enlisted the aid of relatives and friends. This led to the formation in 1806 of a partnership between Brown and his cousin, Mr Samuel Lenox that was, in effect, the beginning of the Brown Lenox company.
To demonstrate the superiority of iron chains, Brown installed iron rigging and marine cables on a vessel called the Penelope and sailed to the West Indies. The Admiralty were so impressed on his return in 1808 that they immediately ordered four vessels of war to be fitted with chain cables. It was to mark the beginnings of an unbroken series of annual contracts that lasted for over a century between 1808 and 1916. Unsurprisingly, larger works were constructed in 1812 at Millwall on the river Thames to meet the demand. However the manufacture of chains continued to increase at such a rate that an additional site was required.
Pontypridd was chosen as the site of the chainworks because of the proximity to supplies of iron and coal. The works, constructed in 1816, were located at Ynysangharad beside the Glamorgan Canal. Two canal basins were constructed, one for the receipt of fuel and iron and the other for the despatch of the finished product. The 20 feet difference between both canal basins was responsible for a large fast moving volume of water sufficient enough to provide all the power required through water wheels and then turbines.
The manufacture of chain cables was facilitated by the introduction of a machine for bending and scarfing links in preparation for making them into chains. This machine was invented Samuel Brown with the assistance of Philip Thomas, the chainworks first manager. As the coal industry developed and the demand for winding and haulage engines increased, the company broadened its activities and produced different kinds of equipment. The company continued to develop rapidly and further extensions were made including the introduction of steam hammers for forging heavy anchors. During the nineteenth century the censuses show how the people of the district depended almost entirely on the works. Indeed the Ordnance Survey map of 1875 and the 1881 census show the row of houses on the opposite side of the canal to the works to be known as Chainworkers Row.