AS Britain headed towards the 1950s it was ready to put the misery of the Second World War and austere post-war years behind it and welcome a new age. 

Just months after victory in Europe Britian rejected the war time leader Winston Churchill and gave the socialist Labour Party its first ever majority in a sure sign that the old order had been swept away with the misery and sacrifice of the first half of the decade. 

As the 1950s dawned, and before even the first teenagers would emerge to buy rock and roll records, or the Queen would ascend to the British crown and begin a new Elizabethan age that's lasted until this day – and which kickstarted the boom in televisions at home - a Welsh town was preparing for the new technicolor world and a domestic revolution. 

Work on the Hoover factory at Pentrebach in Merthyr Tydfil had begun in summer 1946 when the American firm – which had so popularised the electric vacuum cleaner the device became commonly known as a Hoover – arrived in the depressed town. 

The site had been an ironworks, the industry which gave birth to the industrial town, which closed in the 1880s. 

By the mid 1940s, with Hoover keen to expand its operations in Britain, the government’s Board of Trade had suggested the long disused Plymouth ironworks site, alongside other towns, as a possible base for its new factory. 

But rather than make vacuums, the new Hoovers would be washing machines. 


As a newspaper article from the time reported: “The good news for British housewives of probably the lowest price, good quality washing machine on the market was announced by Mr C B Colston the managing director of Hoover (Limited).” 

The machines promised to replace the hard, physical labour of washing clothes by hand with a white goods revolution - a compact machine, capable of being used in the “smallest house or flat”,  in an age when, for many, the wireless radio  was the height of technology. 

Merthyr had long been associated with heavy industry.

Its surrounding villages and valleys were still dominated by coal – and a workforce that was just beginning to enjoy enhanced pay and conditions as Clement Attlee’s Labour government nationalised the pits that had previously made only a handful wealthy.

The American firm planted a modern, Art Deco inspired factory on the southern side of the town. 

By October 1948 the site was in operation and C B Colston, and other dignitaries, travelled on a special train from London for the grand opening of the factory that would begin operations with 350 employees. 

The Merthyr Express however reported that the borough’s committed socialist MP, S O Davies, had boycotted the opening, alleging the firm had overlooked skilled local craftsmen for employment. 

It appeared Merthyr’s business community also saw the factory as the dawn of a new age. 

Mr John H Edwards, president of the chamber of trade, “severely criticised” the MP at the chamber’s meeting and “welcomed the coming of this factory of world repute” giving employment “to hundreds if not thousands in the very best conditions”. 

The local business leader asked who had been “victimised” as the MP alleged and claimed: “The coming of Hoover's will be a definite blessing to us all so long of course, as cranks who believe that the only solution of industrial disputes is by striking, do not have their way”. 

The MP may have avoided the factory opening but in its first week an estimated 10,000 people “from all parts of the borough” had accepted the open invitation to tour the new site, with thousands having also turned out to see the special trains arrive for the grand opening. 

By the end of the 1960s, more than 5,000 people would be employed at the factory making and distributing washing machines, which every year became more and more common in households across Britain. What was once a luxury item was for becoming a household essential. 

The National Wales: Trad union members fought to save production in Merthyr Picture: Huw Evans AgencyTrad union members fought to save production in Merthyr Picture: Huw Evans Agency

In 1973 the Queen opened a further extension at the Pentrebach site, though the stated ambition of employing 8,000 people never materialised. 

Hoover and its site, which was already expanding by the 1950s, became a key part of the town. Not only did it provide employment, including for families and eventually generations, but it was a social hub – with Christmas parties for local children and pantomimes. 

READ MORE: Dafydd Wigley: 50 years ago I began work at Hoover

The factory grounds were also home to the finest cricket pitch in the borough and Hoover ran football, rugby and athletics teams. 

Merthyr was synonymous with Hoover, and when the town’s non-league football side defeated mighty Italians Atalanta in the European Cup Winners Cup, having won the 1987 Welsh Cup, they did so with the company’s famous red dot logo and distinctive ‘H’ across their chests. 

The factory, in a Welsh Development Agency-brokered deal, also welcomed a new partner in the 1980s. 

In 1985 the electric Sinclair C5 tricycles were manufactured at a state of the art assembly line as it appeared a factory that once led a home revolution would be at the forefront of the new wave of transport. 

But the invention of entrepreneur Sir Clive Sinclair was ridiculed and within a year the assembly line in Merthyr was mothballed and the bankrupt C5 Vehicles firm owed Hoover around £1.5m. 

The National Wales: Sir Clive Sinclair in one of his Merthyr assembled electric vehicles Picture: PASir Clive Sinclair in one of his Merthyr assembled electric vehicles Picture: PA

By the 90s Hoover would be in bigger trouble - the result of one of the most disastrous sales promotions ever launched. 

Marketing executives in Merthyr came up with the idea that customers could buy a Hoover vacuum cleaner for at least £100, and receive two free flights to America or Europe. 

In terms of boosting sales it worked perfectly - and the firm even had to take on extra staff to keep up with demand - but while it generated £30m in vacuum sales, Hoover had to spend £50m on flights. 

It would cost the European division its independence, and eventually the firm would be taken over by the Italian company Candy in 1995. From the 1990s onwards job cuts and fears for the plant’s future became a common theme. 

Eventually production would close at the factory, with 337 staff clocking off for the final time in March 2009, less than a year after the factory’s diamond jubilee. 

The National Wales: Workers leaving the factory on a final march to save their jobs in 2009 Picture: Huw Evans AgencyWorkers leaving the factory on a final march to save their jobs in 2009 Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Members of the Unite and GMB trade unions led a final defiant march, more to demonstrate the strength of feeling than in any hope of changing company minds, as the fate of production in the factory, which had been hit by a fire in 2002, was sealed. 

Once Merthyr’s business leaders thought strikes were staged by “cranks” but in 2004 union members downed tools in a bid to preserve their jobs and the factory that for nearly 60 years had been the icon of manufacturing in the area. 

READ MORE: The Welsh language on Gelligaer and Merthyr Common

Today a smaller number remain employed with the site used as a distribution centre though production moved to cheaper sites abroad. 

Since manufacturing ceased in 2009 the giant site has been subject to speculation about new uses which could once again regenerate the town. 

The arrival of Hoover marked an important chapter in the history of manufacturing in Wales – as well as the adoption of white goods in households across Britain and further afield – and it still provides important employment today. 

Only last week the Unite union announced its members at Hoover Candy in Merthyr had won a three per cent pay rise, back-dated to April, and defeated amendments to their terms and conditions. 

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