The Swansea Canal

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The Swansea Canal

From The History of Pontardawe and District by John Henry Davies 1967

Swansea Canal Navigation

When the canal was constructed along the Tawe Valley, there were no roads, navigable river nor railways. About 1780, Mr. William Padley, a successful Swansea merchant, conceived a project of constructing a canal along the Tawe Valley from Swansea. When he imported merchandise, he returned his ships in ballast. At that time, coal, metal, ore, etc., were brought to the Port of Swansea in panniers upon the backs of ponies ( History of the Port of Swansea, W H Jones, 1922). Mr. C. Roberts of Swansea made a survey and prepared a report dated August 15, 1794, in which he stated that " a narrow canal would be best adapted to the narrow valley through which it would pass where the ground was uneven, rocky and porous ". He designed the canal for barges 70 feet long by 71/2 feet wide, which would carry over 20 tons, and to accommodate the barges, the canal would be constructed 30 feet wide at the surface, and five feet deep; the dimensions in places being reduced. The canal was constructed above the highest water-mark of the River Tawe, which was liable to occasional floods.

On the plan of the proposed Swansea Canal Navigation, names of places and their spelling were interesting: Ynisymwyn, Kilhendre, Alltwen, Pontardawe, Ynisderrw, Clydach Uchaf (river), Pontclydach, Ynismedw, Graig Forest, Graig Arw, Cwmtawe, Pantyffynon, Stalvera, Yniskedwin, Ystradgynlais.

The aldermen and burgesses of Swansea, on March 18, 1793, declared that the canal would be of great utility to all places within reach of it, that it would greatly improve the lands and increase the trade and enrich the country.

The Bill became an Act of Parliament, 34, George III on May 23, 1794, " for making and maintaining a Navigable Canal from the Town of Swansea to the parish of Ystradgynlais ". Some of the proprietors were Fleming Gough, John Nathaniel Miers, William Padley, John Bennett Popkin, Edward Martin, etc. The proprietors were known as the Company of proprietors of the Swansea Canal Navigation. The canal, completed in 1798, was 16 miles, 45 chains in length from Swansea to Ystradgynlais. It " goes from the town of Swansea by Llandwr, being the copper works of Mr. Morris Town, and thence runs parallel with the River Tawe, crosses the River Twrch, and ends at Hen Noyadd ". It has 373 feet rise; that is to say, from Swansea to opposite Pont-ar-Dawe, which is 83/4 miles, it has 105 feet rise; thence to Pont Gwaunclawdd, 8 miles, and has 230 feet rise, the other three-quarters of a mile rises 31 feet. (Phillips, 1805) There were six one-arch aqueducts, and one four-arched aqueduct over the Twrch River at Ystalyfera. The Proprietors expended £70,000 in making and completing the canal, but the whole length did not belong to them, because the Duke of Beaufort constructed a part on his land. The length of canal from Swansea to the Duke of Beaufort's part is 4 miles 44 chains; the Duke's part one mile 30 chains, and thence to Hen Noyadd, 10 miles 51 chains, a total of 16 miles 45 chains. The Duke exacted wayleaves on barges going over his portion of the canal. ('A Statement of Facts' in the Royal Institution of South Wales, Swansea).

In the early days, the wharves witnessed busy scenes, for not only was coal transported over them to the riverside, but there were constant and large shipments of iron from Pontardawe, Ystalyfera and Ynysgedwyn, all of which answered for an extensive business of their own (Jones, W. H., 1922).

In 1798, By-Laws and Orders of the Canal stated that every boat had to get a steerer, and a rope had to be fixed to the mast pole four feet above the sides of the boat. In 1800, every barge navigated had to be drawn by a rope not less than 24 yards in length ( By-Laws and Orders of the Swansea Canal Navigation, Voss and Morris, 1800).

Horses drew the barges on the left bank of the canal at an average rate of about two miles an hour when full, and nearly three miles an hour when empty. At speeds of 31/2 miles an hour, the " wash " of the barge caused excessive erosion of the banks.


Some aspects of life of the canal workers may be gleaned from Roger Thomas's humerous verses
submitted to the National Eisteddfod in Ystalyfera in 1860

Os byddwch yn fwyn, gan adael bob cwyn,

Adroddaf yr hanes er iechyd i'ch crwyn,

Yn mhen ol y llestr, fel cadben mewn bri,

'R oedd Dic yn ysmocio tra'n llywio trwy'r lli

Gan edrych mor fedrus fel pe bai, yn wir,

Llyngeswr y Gamlas, neu Arglwydd y tir;

'R oedd ganddo dan glo, ond elai o'i go

Pe d'wedwn ar gyhoedd ble cafwyd y glo.

Ond buan gorfodwyd i'w fawredd gyffroi,

A dysgyn o'i orsedd er mwyn iddynt ffoi;

O'i ol gwelwyd badau yn rhwygo trwy'r dwr,

I ennill blaenoriaeth, er gwaethaf pob stwr.

Y lock oedd gerllaw, yn rhoi iddo fraw

Rhag iddynt gyrhaeddyd o'i flaen i'r porth draw.

Yr oeddynt yn rhegi nerth esgyrn eu pen

Ac Ann Hopkin Bowen yn curo'r gas' wen;

A Shon Wyllys Adda, yn chwyrnu ar Wil,

A Shoni a Mocyn yn lluchio at Phil,

A'r cyfaill Phil Rees yn codi ei fys,

Nes peri i Shiwi ymguddio mewn brys.

Dryswyd y rhaffau, anafwyd un gwr,

A Josi a gwympodd fel hwyaden i'r dwr;

A dyna'r oedd Twm o'r Brynant a'i frawd,

Yn gwneuthur eu gorau i achub Jos dlawd.

Ond dal mae y crew fel mulod " Wern Driw ",

Er gwaethaf Griff Watcyn grochlefain ar Shiw.

Ar ambell ddiwrnod bydd ganddynt mewn bad

Farilaid o gwrw, i'w gludo i'r wlad;

Pryd hynny bydd syched ofnadwy yn bod,

A rhaid cael ei brofi - er anglod neu glod;

Mae ganddynt hwy ddawn i'w ollwng yn iawn,

A rhoi dwfr i wneuthur y baril yn llawn.

Mae Phil, meddai'r bobol, mor styfnig a mul,

Er hynny blaenora yn selog dydd Sul;

Ac felly fe welwch fod rhai yn ein mysg

Yn feibion llawn rhinwedd - yn berchen ar ddysg,

Ond rwy'n d'wedyd y gwir, chwi fyddwch yn hir

Yn gwybod beth dd'wedant, ai anwir neu wir.

The rise of industry in the Tawe Valley brought the canal into being, and the construction of the canal as a means of transport for coal, ores and manufactured articles provided a great spur to local industries. From the year A.D. 1550 to the end of the eighteenth century, the population was almost stationary, but after the opening of the canal and the swift growth of industry, the population rose rapidly until 1860, when it rocketted up after the opening of the railways. For materials carried down by the barges and stored at wharves, payments for wharfage were at the following rates:

For all ironstone, iron ore, coal, culm, stone coal, tilestones, bricks and clay, one farthing for every ten tons a day. For all calcined ore, coke, cinders, charcoal, rottenstone and limestone at the rate of one farthing per ton per day. For bar iron and iron castings, at the rate of three halfpence per 10 tons per day. For manure, timber, and all other goods, at the rate of one penny per ton per day.

The prosperity of the canal was assured, for in 1824 the £11 shares of the canal were priced at £250 ( Gentleman's Magazine, Sept 1824). £16 on each share, exclusive of income tax, was paid in 1846 (History of Ystalyfera, D. G. Williams, Llais Llafur). The trade on the Swansea canal was sometimes interrupted in dry seasons for want of water, and in severe winters, like that of 1854, the canal was frozen for three weeks. During this period, the Crimean Pit was sunk to the Red Vein at Godre'rgraig.

Most of the trade of the canal came from the upper part of the valley, where coal and other materials were transported in 24 ton barges, and care was taken not to obstruct this transport in the lower parts at the termination. John and William Parsons, Pontardawe; James Palmer Budd, Ystalyfera, and George Crane of Ynysgedwyn, paid tolls for the year ending June 30, 1846, as follows :

John Parsons, £703.10.5d.; William Parsons, £72.1.7d.; Ystalyfera Iron Co., £1,568.8.8d. ( List of Traders, 1846)

Materials from Parsons works travelled shorter distances than those of Budd and Crane. After January 1, 1861, the tolls changed on the Swansea Canal and were tabulated as below : ( Schedule of Tolls on the Swansea Canal. 1861)


Under five miles 

pence per ton 

Five miles and upwards

pence per ton






1 1/2



1 1/2



1 1/2



1 1/2



1 1/2



1 1/2



1 1/2


2 1/2 



2 1/2



1 1/2

1 1/2


1 1/2



1 1/4



2 1/2


The Ystalyfera Iron Co., of Budd, paid tolls in 1862 on coal, iron-stone, iron mine, culm, iron ore, limestone from near Swansea at 3/4d. per ton per mile. In September 1864, he paid 8d. per ton for all stone coal or stone culm conveyed down the canal any greater distance than 101/2 miles.

Mr. Lloyd, a shipwright, constructed canal barges on Cae'r Doc, Pontardawe, and during launching of new barges, boys jumped in while the boats slid sideways into the canal. (Conversation with Mr Hapgood)

Branches and wharves from the canal were constructed for the convenience of users. A basin had been made above the eighth lock to the tinplate works, Trebannws : a branch of the canal to Parsons works, and one for the Primrose colliery and another to Ynysgedwyn tinplate works. Many short jetties projected like the one on Cae'r Doc, Pontardawe; one to Ystalyfera Iron and Tinplate Works, Ystalyfera, and a small one under the cellar of a grocer's shop by the road bridge at Ystalyfera. At the iron works, the barge, after being drawn into the jetty, was discharged by men who threw timber on to shutes and shovelled coal which slid down into storage boxes. The Duke of Beaufort charged wayleaves on all passing barges, but this discontinued when the Great Western Railway Company bought the whole of the canal in 1872.

It is of interest to know who levied the rates paid for the canal and its branches in the early 1840s. On February 23, 1842, before James Bicheno and Lewis Weston Dillwyn, Justices, the overseer of " Mawr Languke ", Llewelyn Rees, reported that W. Crane's branch of the Swansea Canal 400 yards in length was rated £5.10.0d.. per annum. The main part of the Swansea Canal situated in the Mawr Ward, Llangiwg, being less than a mile in length, was rated at £13.10.0d. At the same meeting of the Quarter Sessions, the overseer for " Alltygreeg ", Owen Gethin, stated that in this hamlet, about 2 1/2 miles of the canal was rated at the same amount paid for adjoining lands according to Act of Parliament. In Rhyndwyglydach, J. Parsons had a 300 yards branch canal to bring coal from his collieries to the main canal, on which the coal was conveyed in barges up and down the Tawe Valley.

Wharves at Clydach, Pontardawe and Gurnos were busy centres. From the canal at Gurnos, railroads conveyed coal from Cwmllynfell and Cwmtwrch to be loaded into canal barges. Horses drew empty waggons up to the collieries, and the loaded waggons ran down by gravity, the speed being controlled by brakes. On one occasion a brass band who had been playing in the upper part of the valley rode down. On the way, the brakes failed, the waggons ran wild and the bandsmen and waggons fell into the canal. Messrs. Hill, Clydach were the last faithful clients who continued to use the canal into the twenties of this century. For many years the canal provided water for industries in the valley, but this water was dirty, and now the almost stagnant water has become pestilential.

Gareth Hicks © Copyright notice

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