Hughesovka: A Welsh Enterprise in Imperial Russia

John Hughes, an engineer from Merthyr Tydfil, went to Imperial Russia in the 1870s. On the wide empty plains – the steppes – of the southern Ukraine, he set up an ironworks which developed into a huge industrial complex. Around the works grew up a town: Hughesovka.

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HRA/DX627/1: Portrait of John Hughes, founder of Hughesovka

John Hughes was born in Merthyr Tydfil about 1815. He was the son of an engineer at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks, and started his own career at Cyfarthfa before moving to the Ebbw Vale works, and then on to the Uskside Engineering Works in Newport.  By the mid-1860s, John Hughes was a member of the Board of Millwall Engineering and Shipbuilding Company in London, with a world-wide reputation as an engineer.

Hughes came to the attention of the Imperial Russian government, which was anxious to develop its railways and heavy engineering industries. In 1868, he took up a concession from the government and bought land and mineral rights in the Donbass (then southern Russia, now the Ukraine).  To finance his project, in 1869 Hughes set up the New Russia Company Ltd., with a capital of £300,000. In 1870 he travelled to the Ukraine to set up the works on the empty steppe.

John Hughes had married Elizabeth Lewis of Newport in 1844, and they had eight children. Four of Hughes’ sons – John James, Arthur David, Ivor Edward and Albert Llewellyn – were closely involved in the running of the works. When John Hughes died in St. Petersburg in 1889, they took over, sharing the responsibilities between them.

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HRA/DXGC239/3: John Hughes with family and Russian friends

John Hughes set up his works on the wide empty steppes of what is now southern Ukraine, but was then part of the Russian Empire. The area was rich in coal and iron ore deposits, but isolated and not industrially developed. Hughes had to start from scratch in 1870, but by the beginning of 1872 the first blast furnace was in production producing iron, and by September 1873 iron rails were being produced.  More blast furnaces followed as the works developed, and open hearth furnaces were built in the 1880s to produce steel. By the end of the 1890s, the works was the largest in the Russian Empire, employing 8,000 workers in 1896 and 12,000 in 1904.

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HRA/DX878/1: New Russia Company works, blast furnaces and workmen, post-1892

Hughes established the works as a self-contained industrial complex. The raw materials for the iron and steel production came from the company’s coal and iron ore mines and limestone quarries; brickworks were set up to supply building materials; repair shops and chemical laboratories serviced the enterprise.  In 1919, the works was taken over by the state; it continued in operation and the area remained a major industrial centre.

When Hughes was establishing the works he needed skilled workers, and he recruited many of these in Wales. Some stayed only for a few years, but others settled in Hughesovka, bringing out their wives and families. Over the years, although a Russian workforce was trained by the Company, it continued to employ skilled workers from the United Kingdom. A thriving expatriate community was established, with a school for the British children, an Anglican church, and an English club.

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HRA/DX628/10/4/1: Teachers and pupils at the English school, 1911. Leeza Wiskin, who taught English at the school, stands left back.

The town of Hughesovka grew up beside the works, with housing provided by the Company to house the British and some of the local workers.  The British workers lived in a separate sector, some in substantial houses.  By the first decade of the 20th century, the population of Hughesovka was around 50,000, most of them working for or dependent on the works.

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HRA/DX587/21: David Waters, originally from Swansea, and his children, all born in Hughesovka, c.1900

Some families stayed in Hughesovka for several generations, their children marrying there and bringing up their own families in the close-knit community.  Life could be difficult, with very cold winters and hot summers, and public health problems such as cholera and typhus, but the British families generally enjoyed a good standard of living.  In 1896, there were 22 Welsh families living in Hughesovka.

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HRA/DX694/12/1: Photograph of the wedding of Elizabeth Mary James and Charles Henry Perry, in Odessa, 1894. The bride was born in Hughesovka to Welsh parents, and the bridegroom came to Russia as a child with his family. Elizabeth and Charles went on to have 10 children, all born in the Ukraine.

Then in 1917 came the Russian revolution. Most of the British families left Hughesovka and returned home.  The works was taken over by the state and Hughesovka was renamed Stalino, and later on Donetsk.

Glamorgan Archives has collected together a large number of records relating to Hughesovka in the Hughesovka Research Archive (HRA).  The HRA is a collection of material brought together from a number of different sources, all relating to one theme. It contains papers and photographs deposited by descendents of Hughesovka families, copies of material acquired by the Archives, and material concerning the Hugheosvka-related activities of the Archives.  The collection illustrates the achievements of one group of the highly skilled Welsh emigrants who founded and developed industries around the world. It is a useful comparator to other Welsh enterprises abroad – the Welsh colony in Patagonia for example – and an indication of the strength of Welsh industrial enterprise.

The main strength of the collection lies in the light it throws on the members of the expatriate community in Hughesovka, but it also contains material relating to the career of John Hughes, to the New Russia Company and to the works, including some technical information. It is particularly strong in photographic material, including numerous photographs of the town and works, and of the British families.

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HRA/DX726/20/1: Photograph of Percy and Gwladys Cartwright in their carriage, 1913. On the back, Gwladys wrote ‘André has not had the leather apron for himself yet, so does not look quite tidy. Our next conveyance will have to be a new sledge.’

You can see the Table of Contents of the catalogue of the Hughesovka Research Archive on the Glamorgan Archives website. Note that the table shows main headings only. A complete catalogue can be consulted on the Glamorgan Archives catalogue Canfod.

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One thought on “Hughesovka: A Welsh Enterprise in Imperial Russia

  1. Hughesovka: A Welsh Enterprise in Imperial Russia - Glamorgan Archives

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