Dowlais ironworks, mid-19th century

In the beginning

The GKN story began with the founding of the Dowlais Iron Co on 19 September 1759 in Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Few can have imagined how this small business would develop during the next 250 years.

The Dowlais Iron Co venture was capitalised at £4,000 by a group of merchants and ironmasters led by Thomas Lewis. Their venture involved constructing only the second coke-fired furnace in South Wales and took over land leased until 1848. Eight years later, in April 1767, the Guest family involvement in the business began when John Guest became works manager.

Josiah John Guest

The Dowlais works developed rapidly to meet the thirst for iron as Britain charged through the process of industrialisation, particularly under Josiah John Guest – later Sir John Guest – who took over the running of the company in 1807. During the Napoloeonic Wars, Dowlais supplied cannonballs to the British army and by the 1840s, had more than 7,300 employees manning 18 blast furnaces and producing almost 90,000 tons of iron a year.

But even as Dowlais prospered, a giant shadow loomed over the company. The lease was due to expire on 1 May 1848 and Lord Bute, who had inherited ownership of the land, was determined that Guest should have to pay a heavy price for continuing his business. The terms were so severe that Guest judged that they would make the company unviable and began to run the business down.

But then Bute died suddenly at his home in Cardiff Castle. The trustees who took over his affairs entered new talks. On 21 April 1848, 10 days before the lease was due to expire, a new lease was agreed and Dowlais was saved.

GKN and its antecedent companies have endured their share of crises, but never in its long history has the company come closer to extinction than in those dramatic weeks in 1848.

Industrial revolutions

Newcomen steam engine

Dowlais was at the forefront of the iron industry that helped build many of the Industrial Revolution’s major achievements – from railways to bridges. From the mid-18th century, there were a host of industrial innovations that would help revolutionise the world. In textiles, cotton spinning was transformed: first by Richard Arkwright's water frame, then by James Hargreaves' spinning jenny and Samuel Crompton's spinning mule – leading to the development of the mass production factory system. And the new factories came to depend on the steam power provided by the engines developed by Thomas Newcomen, James Watt and Richard Trevithick.

AROUND THE WORLD

1759 British Museum opened

1785 First balloon flight across the English Channel

1796 Beethoven lost his hearing

George Frideric Handel
Music: 1759
George Frideric Handel – famous for Messiah and its Hallelujah Chorus – died
Other sources of information
James Watt (BBC History)
A history of steam engines
James Watt (About.com)
The steam engines of Thomas Newcomen
Richard Arkwright
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