John Hughes (1814-1889) was a Welsh industrialist, inventor and pioneer. More surprisingly, however, he was also the founder of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a man who kick-started an industrial revolution in the southern Donbass, which changed the course of history for this corner of Eastern Europe.
So, who was the man whose curious rags to riches tale made such an impact 2000 miles from home?
Hughes’ start in life was relatively humble, born in 1814 in Merthyr Tydfil, the son of the Chief Engineer at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. Merthyr Tydfil was a centre of the British Industrial Revolution, but was also massively overcrowded, and the dreadful living conditions there were notorious throughout the country.
Despite this, after a move to Ebbw Vale and Newport, Hughes quickly distinguished himself as a skilled engineer and metallurgist, developing new designs and patents that would give him the financial capital and reputation to raise his family’s fortunes. By his mid-30s, Hughes had risen from an engineer’s apprentice to owning his own shipyard and iron foundry.
A misfortune for Brunel brought opportunity for Hughes
In 1858 Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern, was being constructed at the Iron and Shipping Works of John Scott Russell. Whilst the ship was revolutionary in both design and size, being the largest ship ever constructed at the time, the project was overly ambitious and ended up bankrupting Scott Russell.
Brunel would die of a stroke before he could see the ship launched, and the ship would be broken up ahead of its time in 1889. Charles John Mare took over the company, now listed as the Millwall Ironworks, and appointed Hughes as director. The works were a great success, inspired by Hughes’ innovations and his attention to improving workers’ living conditions.
More iron than the whole of France
With Hughes at the helm, the Millwall Ironworks became one of the largest concerns of its type in the world, producing more iron cladding than the whole of France. The ironworks held the contract to ironclad the Royal Navy, and others for which they became internationally renowned. Hughes, being responsible for much of the new innovations in the field, gained the lion’s share of the credit.
Despite this success, and Hughes’ continued inventions revolutionising the Royal Navy, the great ‘Panic of 1866’ saw markets around Europe falter and the works went into receivership. Hughes, however, once again found victory in defeat, emerging as the manager of the viable arm of the newly re-established Millwall Ironworks.
He was only semi-literate
Perhaps the most remarkable fact from an already incredible life story was that Hughes remained only semi-literate throughout his life, supposedly only able to read capitalised text. He relied heavily on his sons to conduct the paperwork necessary for the business.
Nevertheless, it didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the leading industrialists of his age and one of the pioneers of the industrial revolution in the Russian Empire.
A midlife adventure to Ukraine
In 1869, at the age of 56, when many wealthy Victorians would have considered taking a step back, Hughes embarked on his greatest venture yet: the founding of the Hughes Works in the Donbass and the subsequent town of Yuzovka (also spelled Hughesovka, it was named in his honour).
Recognising the enormous potential of the region, with its large coal reserves and easy access to the Black Sea, Hughes took a gamble on a Ukrainian future.
In 1869, accompanied by over a hundred loyal workers, he set off for a then remote corner of the Ukrainian steppe. This small settlement would grow to a population of 50,000 by 1914, with workers pouring in from the Russian heartland, but Hughes continued to ensure the skilled and managerial staff came from his native Wales.
Hughes, inspired both from his time at Millwall and perhaps from his own humble beginnings, ensured the new town was equipped with hospitals, quality housing, schools and facilities, emulating the best model industrial towns in the UK.
A family affair?
During his time in Newport, Hughes had married Elizabeth Lewis and together they had 8 children. Whilst some of his 6 sons and their families would make the move to Yuzovka with their father and would run the business with him, Elizabeth would remain in London seeing her husband only on his infrequent visits to the UK.
Nonetheless, when Hughes died in 1889, on a business trip to St Petersburg, his body made its final return to the UK, to lie next to Elizabeth at West Norwood Cemetery. Hughes’ family would continue to run the works in Yuzovka until forced out by the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Despite many changes both in politics and name – to Stalino in 1924, and finally Donetsk in 1961 – the people of the region and in Wales have maintained a strong interest in the Welshman who ventured to Ukraine.