An historical time line for the Neath Canal from its early beginnings in 17th century to its final closure to commercial traffic in 1934.
Sir Humphrey Mackworth constructed a wind way with wooden rails from his colliery in the Llantwit area down to the River Neath. The wind way was probably a tram road system by which wagons were let down under gravity and wound back up using a mechanical winding means such as a horse gin.
1695 – 99
Sir Humphrey Mackworth canalised the tidal Melyncryddan Pill, which ran from the River Neath towards his copper works at Melyncryddan. The tidal cut was approximately 300 yards long, 18 to 20 feet wide and capable of taking sea going ships of up to 30 tons. Soon after construction, heavy floodgates were fitted converting part of the cut into a dock. A wooden railed wagon way ran for 400 yards from the dock into the copper works, but the cut and dock were disused in 1720 as shown on O’Connor’s map of that date. The cut and dock were replaced by a cartway, which ran from an ore wharf on the River Neath into the copper works as shown on Wm. Jones’ map of 1766.
1700 – 51
The River Neath has been navigable up to the Neath town bridge for sea going ships since Roman times. The river was also navigable up to the bend at Aberdulais at spring tides for smaller craft such as barges and lighters.
In about 1700 a lock was constructed from the river at Aberdulais into the Dulais Forge, which allowed the smaller lighters and barges to bring in raw pig iron and trade in the iron products produced. Fifty years later, in 1751, the leat feeding water from the River Neath to power the forge hammers at Dulais Forge was converted into a navigable channel and ran parallel from the forge to the River Neath for 600 yards to a location above the confluence of the Neath and Dulais rivers. A weir was built across the River Neath below the confluence with the Dulais to allow navigation on the river from the Dulais Forge to the newly established (1751) tinplate works at Ynysgerwen. This navigation was used to transport bar iron to the Ynysgerwen works and finished tinplate from the works through the Dulais Forge site to the port of Neath, and was one of the earliest canal navigation in Wales.
William Kirkhouse built the Tennant Canal and an aqueduct was constructed across the River Neath at Aberdulais to connect with the Neath Canal. This aqueduct has ten stone arches in it’s construction to cross the river with an additional span of cast iron trough to cross the old cut of 1751, indicating that the old cut was still in use at this time (1824) if only as a water supply to the forge hammers.
On 14 August 1788 a lease was granted by Lord Vernon to Richard Jenkins to build a canal from his colliery at Glan-y-wern to Trowman’s Hole (Red Jacket Pill). Richard Jenkins died on 14 August 1788, the day the lease was granted, and his equal partner, Squire Edward Elton, took over the colliery and was left to build the Glan-yr-wern Canal, completed in 1790.
Lewis Thomas, Lord Vernon’s agent was instrumental in securing this lease for his friend Richard Jenkins and probably played a significant role in the canal’s construction.
A meeting held at the Ship and Castle, Neath, on 12 July 1790 discussed the building of a canal from Pontneddfechan to the town of Neath.
A further meeting was held on 13 September 1790 where it was resolved to place advertisements in the Gloucester and Hereford Journal and the London Journal regarding the setting up, of a company to build the canal.
The first meeting of The Company of Proprietors of the Neath Canal Navigation was held on the 22 September 1790 and the application of a Canal Act was sought.
Thomas Dadford Junior was appointed as Engineer and requested to carry out a survey. Thomas Dadford’s original survey was for a canal, with 22 locks, from Abernant (Glynneath) to near Ynysbwllog and then to utilise the River Neath to the town of Neath, at an estimated cost of £25,716, this was accepted by the new Canal Company.
Lewis Thomas, Lord Vernon’s agent who already had some experience of canal building on the Glan-yr-wern canal, proposed the use of the river navigation from Ynysbwllog be replaced by a canal on the eastern side of the river to the town of Neath.
Neath Canal Act passed. At a meeting on 18 August 1791, Thomas Dadford was instructed by the Neath Canal Navigation Company to “make out the middle line of the canal“. Construction started northward from Neath Immediately.
Penrhiwtyn Iron Works built by Alexander Raby. Lord Vernon (Lewis Thomas) built a canal from the works at Cwrt Sart Pill on the River Neath at a cost of £600.
Thomas Dadford’s construction of the Neath Canal, using contractors, starting from the town of Neath, reached the River Neath at Ynysbwllog. In 1792 Thomas Dadford terminated his employment with the Neath Canal to take on the building of the Monmouthshire Canal. On 05 July 1792, Thomas Sheasby was contracted to complete the building of the Neath Canal by 01 November 1793 at a cost of £14,886. Construction was slow and unfinished when in 1794 Thomas Sheasby was arrested at the insistence of the Glamorganshire Canal Company over the accounts of the Glamorganshire Canal, on which he had been a contractor, and was imprisoned in Fleet Prison. He was unable to complete the canal and the canal company using direct labour, were obliged to carry on, but work continued on improvements and rebuilding locks for sometime afterwards. Thomas Sheasby never returned as the Neath Canal engineer.
Construction of the main line of the Neath Canal completed apart from carrying out improvements on some of the upper locks.
The second Neath Canal Act passed on 26 May 1798 to extend the Neath Canal from Melyncryddan to Giants Grave where better shipping facilities for sea going vessels existed.
Construction of the extension to the Neath Canal completed and canal opened fully from Abernant to Giants Grave. The earlier Penrhwtyn Canal was absorbed into the Neath Canal extension.
Goods and merchandise could now be carried from the canal head at Glynneath to the sea.
1800 – 1803
Thomas Cartwright surveyed a tramroad from the canal head to the limestone quarries at Penyderyn and the iron works at Hirwaun and neighbourhood, a distance of some eight miles. The route was engineered by Evan Hopkins and was completed in two years.
George Tennant built the Redding (Rhyddings) Canal, which ran from his colliery near the Dyffryn Arms at Bryncoch along a contour line to the head of an incline plane down to the River Neath near the town bridge.
George Tennant started work on an extension to the Glan-yr-wern Canal to link the River Neath and the River Tawe and work was completed by 1818. He hoped to promote his port facilities at Swansea (Port Tennant) through the transfer of barges from the Neath Canal to his canal via the River Neath at Red Jacket Pill. The link between the Neath Canal and the River Neath, authorised under the 1798 Neath Canal Act, was never built and trade was slow. George Tennant saw the advantage of extending his canal further up the Neath Valley and making a connection with the Neath Canal at Aberdulais to more conveniently tap into the traffic of the Neath Canal.
Work started on the extension of the canal between the Neath and Tawe rivers and became known as the Neath and Swansea Junction Canal (later to be called the Tennant Canal) from Red Jacket toward Aberdulais.
George Tennant made the junction between his canal and the Neath Canal at Aberdulais and traffic from the Neath to the Tenant Canal began to flow immediately, as far better shipping facilities existed at Swansea.
1815 – 42
Extensions to the Neath Canal from Giants Grave finally reached the eventual terminal basin at Briton Ferry. A number of initial extensions to the canal were the result of building additional wharf facilities at Giants Grave, but the major extension to Briton Ferry was the building of the Jersey Canal. This last extension was privately built and not built under a canal Act and therefore has no statutory right of navigation.
Opening of the Vale of Neath Railway.
1856 – 1860
For the first 60 years of its existence the Vale of Neath Canal grew in prosperity, till the shares were at a high premium: in 1845 a Neath Canal £100 share was marketable at £340. Circa 1856-60, as much as 200,000 tons of coal were brought down annually for shipment at Giant’s Grave, into vessels of 80-200 tons. But after the opening of the Vale of Neath Railway the trade began to dwindle and by 1893 has ceased altogether.
Traffic at the river wharves of the Neath Canal at Briton Ferry had virtually ceased, all barges from the Neath Canal now transferred to the Tennant Canal at Aberdulais and export shipments now made from Swansea.
The coal carriage of the canal now amounted to no more than 5,000 tons. Some 6,000 tons of silica were brought from Abernant to the Neath Brickworks. Covered barges conveyed gunpowder from Messers Curtiss’s & Harvey’s works at Pontneddfechan to their shipping place near the Red Jacket, where up to the beginning of the Great War, among the few things that remained unchanged.
A Bill presented to Parliament to further the powers of the Neath Canal Navigation to alter the constitution of the Company and the discontinuance of a portion of the canal as a navigation. The Bill was withdrawn following a petition by the then Neath Rural District Council.
The Neath Canal was finally closed, as there had been very little traffic on it for many years.
Neath & Tennant Canals Preservation Society formed with the aim of restoring the Neath and Tennant Canals to navigation for use by all.