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Upper Swansea Valley
David "Papa" Thomas 1794-1882


David Thomas was born at Ty Llwyd farm in the hamlet of Wern-Ddu between Pontardawe and Neath. After a local education he worked on his father’s farm until 1812 when he commenced work at the Neath Abbey Ironworks. In 1817 he transferred at the age of 23 to the Ynyscedwyn Ironworks (see pages on The Story of Iron) where he stayed for the next 22 years building a reputation as an ironmaster of note. It was here that Thomas experimented with ways of using local anthracite instead of bituminous coal brought in by pack animal or canal. At first he met with little success but after a visit to the Scottish engineer James Beaumont Nielson who had patented a hot-blast system using coke, he persuaded mine owner George Crane to invest in further experimentation.
From 1836 one furnace at Ynyscedwyn was converted to a hot-blast system using anthracite. He thus produced the first anthracite iron in the world and soon had six furnaces using this technique. An Ynyscedwyn iron pig of this type was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

 David Thomas
in later life

Photograph from the collections of the late
John Morris

News of this development interested the Pennsylvania industrialists who had large anthracite deposits in that state. After one of their number visited Ynyscedwyn in 1838, the directors of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company offered David Thomas an opportunity to develop an ironworks in Pennsylvania. Thomas emigrated with his family in June 1839 settling in the town of Catasauqua and had the first anthracite furnace in America working at Pottsville in January 1840. He was so successful that he founded his own Thomas Iron Company at Hokenauqua which soon became the biggest anthracite iron producer in the USA. By 1856 half the iron produced in the USA was produced using his methods first developed in Breconshire.
  By 1864 the USA was producing more iron than South Wales. Thomas was president of the American Ironmasters Convention in 1874 and widely revered as the founding father of the American iron industry. This accounts for the affectionate nickname Papa Thomas. A furnace museum at Lock Ridge in the Lehigh Valley commemorates his work. He was widely respected in his home community of Catasauqua being elected the first burgess of the town when it achieved incorporation, and running for Congress - albeit unsuccessfully- in 1866.