A Short History of a Welshman in Ukraine
The unlikely founder of the city of Donetsk came from nowhere near the Donbas, but from the Welsh valleys...
AS THE world watches Russia and Ukraine fight for the future of Donetsk in the Donbas region, very few will be aware that this mighty industrial city – with its million inhabitants and huge smokestacks – was in fact founded by an engineer and businessman from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales.
His name was John James Hughes, who was born in 1814 and would transform a barren piece of steppe in what was then part of Russia into one of the richest cities in the whole country.
Unsurprisingly for a man who would found a metropolis, Hughes was a tireless worker. The son of an engineer at an ironworks, Hughes learned his trade under his father, but he was not content to be a mere employee.
At the age of 28, Hughes bought an engineering company in Newport in south Wales, where he began to make a good living. Within eight years he had left Wales, and had become the president of the Millwall Engineering Company – a major firm based on the Thames.
It was there that Hughes was to make his name. Specialising in marine engineering, Hughes developed many inventions that made him wealthy. In the early 1860s, Hughes and his firm won a competition held by the Government to make armour plating for the British Fleet, and the resulting contract made him richer still.
By the time he was fifty, Hughes looked every inch the prosperous Victorian engineer. With the physique of a bulldog, he cut an impressive figure. His strong features were augmented with a greying beard, and his voice was said to be commanding. Like many well-to-do Victorians, he had a large family, and he and his wife Elizabeth had six boys and two girls.
A lesser man might have chosen to relax and enjoy his good fortune, but the invention of the armour plating had attracted the attention of the Russian government, who asked Hughes whether it could be used to improve the fortifications of Fort Konstantin near St Petersburg.
However, during his visit to Russia, it emerged that the Russians had other ideas for the Welshman. The Crimean War of the previous decade had made the Russians realise that they urgently needed to develop their own coal and iron industries, but what they lacked was expertise.
Hughes was asked whether he would be willing to modernise a huge metal works near St Petersburg, but Hughes said that the task was impossible. During the course of the discussions, it was suggested that perhaps Hughes could start his own plant in the Donbas.
The area was hardly a beauty spot. In the late 1860s, according to one observer, it was ‘a totally open area bare of any sort of growth’. Peasants worked the land, living in huts that were little more than piled up bales of straw. The summers were extremely hot, and thanks to frequent strong winds, an enormous amount of dust blew about.
However, what made the Donbas potentially lucrative was what lay beneath it – coal. The fuel had been discovered in the area by an Englishman called Nixon in 1724, but at the time the remoteness of the region and the lack of infrastructure meant that little significance was attached to the discovery.
But with Russia wanting to industrialise and to build a railway network, a coal-rich backwater like the Donbas could be transformed into a place where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of iron and steel could be produced.
Hughes would have immediately seen the opportunity to make himself almost absurdly rich. However, he would have also known that the challenges were awesome. He would literally have to start from scratch, in an area that was hundreds of miles from any major city, and with a complete lack of infrastructure.
Throughout 1868 and the following year, Hughes embarked on a complex series of negotiations with the Russians, and by July 1869, the New Russia Company was registered in London. Under the control of Hughes, the company had bought the Donbas concession for £27,000 – worth about £14 million today. Although that was a vast amount of money, Hughes had got himself a bargain.
In 1870, Hughes moved to the region, and settled in a small shepherd’s cottage in what would become the heart of today’s vast city. From this humble dwelling, Hughes masterminded the construction of blast furnaces, mine workings, and factories.
Owing to a recession in the Welsh mining industry, Hughes was able to entice scores of his fellow countrymen to the area, all of whom were able to lend their much-needed skills and knowhow.
Over the next few years, the work force grew steadily, and by 1874, Hughes was employing some 1,800 miners and factory workers. By the June of that year, the company was producing 160 to 170 tonnes of pig iron per week, and had become the centre of rail production for the whole of what was then southern Russia. Coal mining expanded rapidly as well, and in 1874 the company extracted around 64,000 tonnes.
Although Soviet historians would later claim that Hughes was purely motivated by the bottom line, the truth is somewhat more complex. The working and living conditions were undoubtedly tough, but Hughes did his best to ensure that they were better than in similar plants in Russia. Hughes built schools, hospitals and churches, and he even allowed some workers to buy their own homes.
However, it would be wrong to present Hughes as a man before his time. Despite being relatively enlightened, his rule over the factories and settlement was absolute, and he was no champion of workers’ rights.
One visitor recalled how the men and their families lived in little more than dugouts, in which the air was so unpleasant that it was impossible to stay in them for little more than two to three minutes. Women and children were dressed in rags, and when the men received their weekly wages, it was often spent on vodka, which inevitably fuelled many a fight.
A scarcity of water also meant that sanitation was poor, and public health was hardly helped by the proximity of rubbish and sewage dumps near to the workers’ homes. Cholera was a frequent visitor, and it took a riot to ensure that a new dump and a reservoir were built.
The conditions in the factories and mines were predictably tough, especially in the latter. Gas explosions, floods and collapses were common, and the fatality rate in the Donbas mines would rise to twice that in Great Britain.
Although full strikes and stoppages were relatively infrequent, Hughes made sure he firmly squashed any trouble. In April 1874, Hughes ordered some sixty of his British and Russian factory workers to mount what was little less than a cavalry charge against a group of unruly miners who had occupied a factory. The result was a success, and sixty of the miners were expelled from the area.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, a town grew up, and it was to be named Yuzovka after its founder. Hughes built himself a large red brick home, where he fathered two children with his housekeeper.
Hughes was to die in 1889, leaving an estate worth £90,550 – worth some £50 million today. At the time of his death, the New Russia Company was producing a quarter of a million tonnes of coal per year, and 32,000 tonnes of rails for Russia’s rapidly expanding network. It was an astonishing achievement. In less than two decades, Hughes had turned a wasteland into one of Russia’s richest and most productive regions.
What made his achievement even more extraordinary was that Hughes was barely literate. A journalist friend once wrote that ‘to the day of his death he could not write; and could only read print with difficulty, script not at all’.
After Hughes’s death, the company was run by two of his sons, and by 1913, the works were producing three-quarters of all of Russia’s iron.
However, the sons were smart enough to realise which way the political wind was blowing, and they sold the company to a French firm in September 1917 – one month before the Revolution. It was a lucky escape, because the works were nationalised the following January.
Naturally, the Soviets regarded the likes of Hughes as capitalist exploiters, and the city was renamed as Stalino in 1924, and changed to Donetsk in 1961. However, during the Soviet period, the city and its industry continued to grow, and the city became the centre of Ukraine’s coal mining industry. The steel works employs some 13,000 people, and today, it is renowned not for making rails, but for church bells.
As well as the city and its factories, Hughes left two other legacies. The first is football, for it was the British who introduced the game to the region. And for the second you will have to look carefully at the hands of the residents of Donetsk. If they have a bent little finger, then you can be almost sure that they have inherited the genetic quirk of their city’s founder.
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