© This Month - October

David Cartwright's talk - The Man from Merthyr who founded a town in Tsarist Russia - can be heard in the Borough Theatre on October 18th starting at 7.30pm. Non-members may join on the night.

The following article can also be seen in the October edition of the Abergavenny Focus   

From Dowlais to Donetsk

Welsh emigrants heading West to find a new life is a familiar tale, but John Hughes was a pioneer with a difference. He went East having been headhunted by the Russian Tsar and founded one of the largest cities in Ukraine. Helen Morgan:

Born in Dowlais in 1815, John Hughes was the son of a Cyfarthfa ironworks engineer and followed his father into the world of furnaces and fiery labour: first in Ebbw Vale before owning his own foundry in Newport where he earned a reputation for patenting inventions in armaments and armour plating. This led to a directorship of  the Millwall Engineering and Shipbuilding Company in London which was winning worldwide acclaim for its iron cladding of wooden warships for the Admiralty. Again Hughes won plaudits and attracted  the attention of the Russian Tsar Alexander II who was fortifying the Baltic naval base of Kronstadt near St Petersburg.

Having won the contract, Hughes arrived at the chosen site in eastern Ukraine in 1870, having sailed via the Black Sea with about a hundred specialist ironworkers and miners. Most came from Wales. With them went eight shiploads of equipment and metallurgical know-how. Within two years they had built eight blast furnaces. Collieries, mines, brickworks and railway lines followed. Soon their families joined them and a city grew in the shadow of the industrial complex. The thriving ex-pat community of Hughesovska, renamed Donetsk in 1961,  soon had its own schools, hospital, bath houses, tea rooms, fire brigade and Anglican church. When John Hughes died aged 74 in 1889 while on a business trip to St Petersburg, his four sons took over the business. They expanded the works in the 1890s producing thousands of miles of railway track, and artillery shells  at outbreak of war in 1914.

The unskilled workforce, however, were not the local peasantry. Instead, Hughes chose to employ labourers from across the Russian empire. This had repercussions in both the 20th and 21st centuries — while many Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi invasion in 1941, the Russians defended their city to the death. That blood debt probably goes a long way to explain Vladimir Putin’s military support for this Russian-speaking self-proclaimed state, says David Cartwright whose grandfather was among the last to leave during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

British Workers, 1890 - with kind permission of David Cartwright

Abergavenny Local History Society 
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