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Robert Thompson Crawshay

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Robert Thompson Crawshay (1817–1879), British ironmaster.

1817 March 8th. Born at Cyfarthfa Ironworks, the youngest son of William Crawshay (1788-1867) by his second wife, Elizabeth Thompson.

He was educated at Dr. Prichard's school at Llandaff, and from a very early age manifested a great interest in his father's ironworks, and spent much of his time among them. As years increased he determined to learn practically the business of an ironworker, and in turn assisted in the puddling, the battery, and the rolling mills; he carried this so far that he even exchanged his own diet for that of the workmen.

On the death of his brother William by drowning at the old passage of the Severn he became acting manager of the ironworks, and at a later period when his brother Henry removed to Newnham he came into the working control of the entire establishment.

1846 May 15th. Married Rose Mary Yeates (1828–1907), a gifted organizer, and a lover of music and literature, who exuded sensibility and foresight, something in which her husband was particularly lacking. They had three sons, William Thompson Crawshay (1847–1918), Robert Thompson Crawshay (1853–1944), and Richard Frederick Crawshay (1859–1903), and two daughters, Rose Harriette Thompson (1848–1943) and Henrietta Louise (1851–1883).

1864 The original lease of Cyfarthfa lapsed, and was renewed at Crawshay's earnest entreaties.

On the death of his father, the active head of the business, in 1867 he became the sole manager, and not only considerably improved the works, but opened out the coal mines to a greater and more profitable issue.

At this time there were upwards of five thousand men, women, and children employed at Cyfarthfa, all receiving good wages, and well looked after by their master. Crawshay was often spoken of as the 'Iron King of Wales'. His name came prominently before the public in connection with the great strikes of 1873–5. He was averse to unions among masters or men, but assented, as a necessary sequence of the action of the men, to a combination among the masters. Unionism became active at Cyfarthfa at a time of falling prices; Crawshay called his men together and warned them of the consequences of persisting in their unreasonable demands; but as they would not yield the furnaces were one by one put out. Soon after came the revolution in the iron trade, the discarding of iron for steel through the invention of the Bessemer and Siemens processes, and the thorough extinction of the old-fashioned trade of the Crawshays and the Guests.

Crawshay would have reopened his works for the benefit of his people had it not been very apparent that under no circumstances could Cyfarthfa again have become a paying concern. The collieries were, however, still kept active, employing about a thousand men, and several hundreds of the old workmen laboured on the estates.

For the last two years of his life he took little interest in business; he had become completely deaf and broken down by other physical infirmities.

1879 May 10th. Died. While on a visit to Cheltenham for the benefit of his health he died rather suddenly at the Queen's Hotel

1879 June 21st. His personalty was sworn under 1,200,000 Pounds.

His son, William Thompson Crawshay, succeeded to the management of the extensive coalfields, and inherited his father's estate at Caversham in Berkshire. He left estate valued at under £1,200,000, his eldest son, William Thompson, succeeding to his father's estate at Caversham and to joint control of the business with his two brothers. Operating under the title Crawshay Brothers they reopened the works in October 1879 and proceeded to effect a changeover to steel production at Cyfarthfa. This move, however, did not prove to be an unqualified success and was insufficient to secure long-term survival of the works, which eventually closed during the early twentieth century following its acquisition by Guest, Keen, and Nettlefolds (GKN) in 1902.


1879 Obituary [1]

Mr. ROBERT THOMPSON CRAWSHAY was the youngest son of the late Mr. William Crawshay, of Cyfarthfa, Merthyr Tydvil, and Caversham, Oxon, by Elizabeth, sister of the late Alderman Thompson, formerly of Penydrenan Ironworks, and also largely connected with those of Rhymney and Tredegar. Miss Thompson was Mr. Crawshay's second wife, and the subject of our sketch was her only child.

He was born at the old house at Cyfarthfa Ironworks, on the 8th March 1817, and had therefore just passed his sixty-second year. He was a delicate child, and it is related of him that his father went into his little room when he was a couple of years old, and very ill, and came away with the conclusion that he was dead. But in order to strengthen his constitution, he was encouraged in outdoor exercises without restraint. He was sent to school at Llandaff, at an establishment kept by Dr. Prichard, father of the present architect of that name, but he did not go to any other school to complete his education.

From a very early age he manifested the liveliest interest in the ironworks, and spent a great deal of his time amongst them. As years increased, and strength also, he determined to know what it was to work as an ironworker, and the old Cyfarthfa men relate with pride how their young master came to the work—now to the puddling, now to the battery, and next day to the rolling mills, and, taking a workman's place, performed the whole of his "turn" for him, whilst he stood looking on, or went home for a holiday. He carried this so far that he even exchanged his own diet for that of the workmen. In this way he acquired an immense store of practical knowledge in the manufacture of iron, and, what was of greater importance, a real experience of the toiling drudgery of the work, which begot in him sympathies for the workmen which he cherished to his latest day, and which governed his whole conduct towards them, rendering him the most accessible of employers, the kindest of masters, and a sincere well-wisher of the hardy sons of toil.

Every morning he was at the office from nine to twelve o'clock, and any workman who had a grievance to state or a favour to ask, had only to wait his turn for audience. In his youthful days his elder brother, William, was manager, but upon the death of William by drowning at the Old Passage of the Severn, Robert was appointed manager of the ironworks, and his brother Henry (now of Newnham) of the collieries and mines; and at a period later he came into the sole management on the removal of Henry to Newnham to a similar appointment there, Francis, another brother, taking to the Hirwain and Treforest Works.

In 1864 the original Cyfarthfa lease lapsed, and Mr. William Crawshay personally was indisposed to renew it, but at the urgent entreaties of Mr. Robert Crawshay he did so, and the townspeople made a grand demonstration to Mr. Crawshay in gratitude for the event. Necessarily there is little further to be noted in his life, because for seventeen years he was obliged to abandon public work. Nevertheless he took considerable interest in what was passing.

Upon the death of his father, eight years ago, he succeeded to the Cyfarthfa property. His name came prominently before the country in connection with the great strikes of 1873-75. He was averse to union amongst masters or men, but assented as a necessary sequence of the action of the men to a combination amongst the masters. Unfortunately the wave of unionism struck against Cyfarthfa at a critical time of falling prices, and, as the men would not yield, one by one the furnaces were put out, until the greatest picture of prosperity and industry in the whole of South Wales was transformed into one of utter stagnation, so far as regarded the make and manufacture of iron. No time could have been more unpropitious for the welfare of Cyfarthfa. Prices continued low, the ironmasters firm, petition after petition of the men was placed on one side, and then, when the abject condition of things around, and the appeals of town and trade had begun to move even Mr. Crawshay to reconsider his decision, and to reflect that even though the men erred foolishly, wantonly, still it was from ignorance and not bad feeling - then came the revolution in the iron trade, the discarding of iron for steel rails, the Bessemer and Siemens processes, and the practical extinction of the old-fashioned trade of Cyfarthfa.

Mr. Crawshay, who had been in failing health for a number of years, breathed his last on the 10th of May, at Leamingon.


1879 Obituary [2]



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