The Neath constituency extends from the Pelenna valley in the east via the central Neath and Dulais valleys to the upper reaches of the Swansea and Upper Amman valleys in the west. It is located in an area of great natural beauty, and has attracted many famous artists. At its heart is the town of Neath and its adjoining communities.
Neath has a longstanding political tradition of Labour, trade union and community activism. Recent MPs have included Donald Coleman and Peter Hain. Gwenda Thomas was Assembly Member from 1999-2016, and Deputy Minister for Social Services. Christina Rees is the present MP, and Jeremy Miles the current Assembly Member.
The constituency has been populated from the earliest times, as is highlighted by the presence of Carn Llechart in Pontardawe, a Neolithic stone circle from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. Bronze Age inhabitants left their mark in the March Hywel Hoard, a bronze leaf-bladed sword and axe head, and, nearby, the Cefn Celfi Standing Stones described in the 9th century Englynion y Beddau as the graves of Cynon, Cynfael and Cynfeli. Iron Age Celts left evidence at Alltwen of third century BC La Tene art. This was part of a pan-European culture, and employed natural forms in a free flowing style. This shows that strong links existed between the constituency and the European continent at this early time.
The Romans’ military occupation is evidenced by Nidum, a fort in Court Herbert, and numerous marching camps in Tonna, Clyne, Melincourt and Onllwyn. Another visible landmark is the famous Sarn Helen Road linking Neath with the European continent. The Normans were the next Europeans to leave a legacy. Neath Abbey, described by John Leland in the sixteenth century as ‘the fairest in all Wales’, was instrumental in creating the landscape around Neath. The original farms and communities were formed, moulded and created by the Cistercian Order’s expertise in sheep farming, and much of the wool produced was exported to Flanders. Neath Castle, another Norman construction, was destroyed during the ‘Despenser War’ in 1321, repaired in 1377, and continued to be used militarily until the mid-seventeenth century.
The coal industry from earliest times was important to the constituency. It was worked on the Neath Abbey estate at Cadoxton from an early date, and also on the west and east of the river during the 14th and 15th centuries. Leland, in about 1536, noticed considerable activity in coal-work and shipping. The second half of the sixteenth century saw the coal mining industry in Wales being organised, and the chief areas were Neath and Swansea. Here, the sea gave direct access to the interior of the coal field and initiated an overseas export trade. Between the rivers Nedd and Dulais there were two pits being worked before 1577, and, in 1632, developments took place at Bryndulais, Seven Sisters. Anthracite coal was worked at Gwaun Cae Gurwen in 1610.
The presence of coal as a readily available fuel stimulated other industries and saw Neath become the location of great industrial innovation. The first Welsh copper smelting works was established at Aberdulais in 1584, and in Neath Abbey in the late seventeenth century, copper smelting, refining and working first became a commercial concern in Wales. Neath Abbey Ironworks was built in 1792, continued in business until 1885, and produced machinery for a geographically wide client base; not just the United Kingdom but also for Mexico and South America, reflecting the trade between Neath and other parts of the world at this time. There was an extensive tin plate industry, and Gilbertson’s works in Pontardawe made the roof for the US White House in 1886. By the 19th century the area had become a world centre of metals manufacture and coal-mining. Coal was mined from shafts in every valley, and Neath had become a major port and commercial centre.
The decline of the constituency’s heavy and mining industries in the late twentieth century is well known and documented, but the area’s industries and commerce are re-inventing themselves in the technology of the globalised twenty first century world.