Watkin George
born  c.1759, Trevethin, Pontypool, Wales, UK
died  10th August 1822, Trevethin, Pontypool, Wales, UK
buried  24th August, St Cadoc's churchyard, Penygarn Road, Trevethin, Pontypool, Wales, UK
era  Georgian
A biographical summary
Today, Watkin George is remembered for his contribution to the development of early iron bridges. His works include the world's oldest-known cast iron tramway bridge, Pont y Cafnau (1792-3) over the River Taff at Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. It served the Cyfarthfa Ironworks (est.1765), where George's technical advice helped expand the business. By 1806, it was the largest ironworks in the world.
George began his working life as a village carpenter but was soon indispensable to local ironmasters through his expertise with metal structures. His skills earned him well-paid positions in Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypool, where his ideas for streamlining production in ironworks were well received. As well as bridges, his works include water pumps, water wheels, aqueducts and machinery — and all are in Wales.
Little is known of George's childhood, and unfortunately almost nothing of his character. He emerges in his thirties, when his name is linked to the design of cast iron beam-frame bridges over the Glamorganshire Canal (built 1790-4), used for transporting iron south from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff docks.
He was foundry manager at Cyfarthfa Ironworks, where Henry Cort's (c.1741-1800) reverbatory puddling furnace was developed and used — refining ore to produce iron with fewer impurities than by other methods. In 1792, Cyfarthfa's then owner, ironmaster Richard Crawshay (1739-1810), took George into partnership.
One of his first projects as partner was Pont y Cafnau (Bridge of Troughs), a combined tramroad and enclosed aqueduct built to supply the works with limestone and water. Though cast in iron, its structural design uses A-frames rather than the arches used for earlier iron bridges (such as Iron Bridge (1781), Shropshire). The bridge is still in place, though now only used by pedestrians. The remains of the tramway rails can still be seen.
Not long afterwards, George was responsible for a much larger timber aqueduct at the same spot. It spanned the River Taff high above the cast iron bridge and provided water to power a 15m diameter waterwheel, used to work an air pump for blowing the iron smelting furnaces. He later designed Crawshay's Ynysfach Ironworks at Merthyr Tydfil.
In about 1805, having helped Cyfarthfa Ironworks expand, George left the partnership. Reports vary on the amount of money he amassed for his 13 years of service, either £40,000 or £100,000 — "equal to one share". He joined Pontypool Ironworks as partner to its owners Capel Hanbury Leigh (1776-1861) and Robert Smith, restructuring the works and making great improvements to balling and refinery operations.
George's last known work dates from 1811 — a cast iron bridge to cross the River Wye on the existing piers at Chepstow. He died 11 years later, aged 63.
c1759 Born in the village of Trevethin (Trefddyn), north of Pontypool, son of Watkin George senior (d.1787)
1789 Marries (20th September) Anne Jenkins (1760-1845) at Llanhiledd, west of Pontypool, and they will have at least two children: Hannah (b.1793) and Watkin (b.1795)
c1790-94 Possibly working on iron girder bridge(s) over Glamorganshire Canal
1792 Becomes a partner to Richard Crawshay at Cyfarthfa Ironworks
1792-93 Constructs Pont y Cafnau, a combined tramway and aqueduct bridge, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument
1793-96 Works on Gwynne Water Aqueduct, a timber trestle structure 185m long that ran over the top of Pont y Cafnau
1793-97 Designs Aeolus waterwheel at Cyfarthfa Ironworks (15.2m diameter, 1.8m wide, 156 buckets, cast iron with additional timber spokes, developed 37.3kW (50hp), used 25.4 tonnes of water/min, said to have cost £4,000 and equalled the power of a Bolton & Watt engine in use, replaced early C19th by a steam engine)
1799-1800 Constructs Ynysgau Bridge (Old Iron Bridge, Merthyr Tydfil, dismantled 1963), commissioned by Richard Crawshay
1801 Designs Ynysfach Ironworks, Merthyr Tydfil, constructed by Thomas Jones of Merthyr Tydfil, including two steam-powered blast furnaces
c.1805 Joins Pontypool Ironworks as a partner, undertakes restructuring, including the demolition of the wire works at Pontymoel (1808), builds a large waterwheel and tinplate works at Pontymoel and two tinplate works at Lower Mill (1815)
1811 Prepares a design for Chepstow Bridge — a series of cast iron spans on the existing (c.1704) piers, not adopted (present Chepstow Bridge designed by John Urpeth Rastrick)
1822 Dies 10th August, buried two weeks later at St Cadoc's churchyard, Trevethin
Selected works
Iron girder bridges, Glamorganshire Canal, Wales, UK .... c.1790-1794
Melingriffith Water Pump (probably), Whitchurch, Cardiff, Wales, UK .... c.1793-1795
Pont y Cafnau, River Taff, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK .... 1793-c.1796
Gwynne Water Aqueduct, River Taff, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK .... 1793-1796
Aeolus Waterwheel, Cyfarthfa Ironworks, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK .... 1793-1797
Ynysgau Bridge, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK .... 1799-1800
Ynysfach Ironworks, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, U .... 1801
Chepstow Bridge scheme, River Wye, Monmouthshire, Wales, UK .... 1811
All items by Watkin George
Everything built ... 1759 - 1822
Alec Skempton ed., George, Watkin (fl.1790-1811), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500-1830, Thomas Telford Publishing Limited, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, pp.247
Stephen K. Jones, Celebrating Pont-y-Cafnau, Cast-Iron Bridge and Aqueduct, in ICE Panel for Historical Engineering Works Newsletter, Number 132, London, December 2011
Further reading
Stephen Hughes, The Archaeology of an Early Railway System: The Brecon Forest Tramroads, Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Wales, 1990
Benjamin Heath Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography of South Wales, from Materials collected during two Excursions in the Year 1803, 2nd edn, Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London, 1807
Thomas Rees, The Beauties of England and Wales: South Wales, Vol.XVII, London, 1815
Charles Wilkins, History of the Iron, Steel, Tinplate and Other Trades of Wales, Cambridge University Press, January 2011
drawing top left  © Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales | © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru

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Watkin George
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Cyfarthfa Ironworks
Aerial view of Cyfarthfa Ironworks
in the 1920s, looking northwest from above Merthyr Tydfil, with the River Taff winding through the middle of the shot. The Crawshay estate (now Cyfarthfa Castle) is located off to the right, and Pont y Cafnau in the upper half of the image (not visible). The ironworks was founded in 1765, and produced weapons for the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) by which time it was the largest such works in the world.
Photo: courtesy www.alangeorge.co.uk
Cyfarthfa Ironworks
Interior of Cyfarthfa Ironworks in 1825, as painted by Penry Williams. Watkin George, who had become a partner, left in about 1805 after helping the works expand.
Photo: public domain
St Cadoc's Church, Trevethin
St Cadoc's Church, Trevethin, founded in the 12th century. It has a large graveyard, where Watkin George was buried in 1822.
Photo: © Jaggery and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
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Pont y Cafnau
Pont y Cafnau from the south-west bank of the River Taff. The cast iron bridge carried a tramroad for the movement of limestone (from nearby Gurnos Quarry) above a cast iron trough for water supply, both heading west to Cyfarthfa Ironworks. George was a former carpenter and he used joining techniques more-familiar in timber work than iron: mortise and tenon, and dovetail joints.
Photo: © Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales | © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru
Pont y Cafnau
With Pont y Cafnau completed, George designed a timber trough aqueduct that ran for 185m — Gwynne Water Aqueduct (dem.). Where it crossed the Taff, Pont y Cafnau was used to support it.
Rendering: © Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales | © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru
Gwynne Water Aqueduct
A B&W reproduction of a Penry Williams painting showing Gwynne Water Aqueduct. The A-frame of Pont y Cafnau can just be seen on the right.
Photo: private collection and Cyfarthfa Castle Museum
Ynysgau Bridge
The Old Iron Bridge in Merthyr Tydfil, also known as Ynysgau Bridge, a single-span shallow cast iron arch, each rib consisting of three main sections around 7m long and 1.5m high. The photo dates from 1963, just before the bridge was dismantled. The components that remain are stored on the Cyfarthfa Castle estate awaitng a decision on their fate.
Photo: courtesy www.alangeorge.co.uk
Ynysfach Ironworks
Painting by Penry Williams of Ynysfach Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, also owned by Richard Crawshay. George designed the works that replaced a forge on the site, including two huge steam-powered blast furnaces.
Photo: courtesy www.alangeorge.co.uk