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National Library of Wales journal


Cyf. 7, rh. 1 Haf 1951

The uncrowned Iron King : (The first William Crawshay) /

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(The first William Crawshay)
In the history of the iron and steel industry of South Wales few men have been
more neglected-and unjustly so-than the first William Crawshay.
Indeed, if it were not for the mention of his name as the undoubted son of the
great Richard and the father of the still greater second William Crawshay in the
genealogical references of the Dictionary of National Biography and in Burke's
Landed Gentry, one would find little evidence that he ever actively controlled what
was in his life-time the largest iron-making concern in the world.
Wilkins, the historian of Merthyr and of the iron and steel trades of South
Wales, has done ample, if rambling, honour both to Richard and to the second
William, but the first William he dismisses in a half-dozen lines as vague as they
are almost wholly erroneous. Of the first William Crawshay he writes:
William Crawshay never resided at Merthyr. He was one of the richest
men in England, and so extensively engaged in foreign speculations that the
growing works even of Cyfarthfa had no interest for him and he was quite
satisfied that under the care of his son William they would be successful.
The financier and West India merchant did not long survive his father Richard.
(Hist. of Iron, Steel &J Tinplate Trades, pp. 79-80).
Wilkins declares elsewhere, in his History of Merthyr Tydfil, that William
Crawshay I survived by only four or five years his father's death in June, 1810.
Actually, twenty-four years were to pass before William Crawshay was gathered
to his father. In the meantime, far from dabbling in speculative foreign invest-
ments, he ruled the external, and sometimes the internal, policy of Cyfarthfa and
Hirwaun works with an imperious and adamantine hand; and until his death, save
for one brief and acrimonious period of partnership, his son, the second William
Crawshay, wielded only the vice-royalty of the works, as the efficient and trusted
executive-in-charge. Beyond this, he played such a stabilising and statesmanlike
role in the affairs of the British iron trade as a whole that far more truly to him
than to his son can we apply the words of the Dictionary of National Biography:
He was of all the Crawshays the finest type of iron king'.
Very largely, the undeserved obscurity which attaches to his name is due to
the fact that he did not reside at Cyfarthfa, but ruled its affairs from his warehouse
at George Yard, Upper Thames St., London. To the Merthyrians he was but
a legendary figure of fabulous wealth. He left no personal impress, no familiar
memory, no local traditions to be picked up and chronicled by such local historians
as Wilkins, whose parochial attention was in any case captured by the dominant,
buoyant personality of the William Crawshay who actually lived among them.
It was hard for them to realise that the shadowy figure in the background was in
very truth a greater man, stronger ruler, and a vaster iron king than the immediate
king of Cyfarthfa Castle. But so it was.
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