John James Hughes (1814–89)

John Hughes was a Welshman who gave his name to one of Europe’s largest heavy industrial complexes. He was born at Merthyr Tydfil where his father was an engineer at the Cyfarthfa ironworks. Initially he worked for his father, then at other ironworks in South Wales. He took out several patents, notably for armour plating, and by 1850 was the owner of a foundry in Newport, Monmouthshire. In the mid-1850s he moved to London, then an important centre for shipbuilding. He became involved with the Millwall Ironworks, and was influential in developing iron cladding for wooden warships and gun carriages for naval cannon.

His involvement with the Russian Empire began in 1868 when the Millwall Ironworks was commission to do work at the imperial fortress at Kronstadt on the Baltic Sea. In 1870 he moved to Russia to establish a new ironworks on the River Kalmium which runs into the Sea of Azov, an inlet off the Black Sea east of the Crimean Peninsula. He carried equipment for the works in eight ships and took with him about 100 workers from Britain, mostly from South Wales. He built eight blast furnaces, from which the first pig iron was produced in 1872, as well as associated collieries, brickworks, forges and rolling mills. By 1914 it was the largest ironworks in the Russian Empire. After he died, in St Petersburg, the works was managed by his sons, who, with most other Welsh workers, returned to the United Kingdom after the Bolshevik Revolution. The city that grew up around the works was named after Hughes ‘Yuzovka’, but later became ‘Stalino’ and is now Donetsk. It is currently a disputed area in the eastern part of Ukraine.

The ironworks was the subject in 1930 of the film Enthusiasm: the Symphony of Donbass, by Dziga Vertov (David Kaufmann) (1896-1954). Some of the letters home written by early Welsh settlers have survived and formed the basis of an exhibition and performances at Merthyr Tydfil in 2017.