Neath Canal History

The tidal River Neath is known to have been navigable to 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.

Earlier Canals

The Neath Canal was predated by a number of short canals connecting industrial sites with the river, of which the following are notable.

Mackworth’s Canal

Between 1695 and 1699, Sir Humphrey Mackworth canalised the Melyncryddan Pill for a distance of some 300 yards to allow sea going ships of up to 30 tons to serve the Melyn lead and copperworks. Shortly afterwards a pair of lock gates were erected at the entrance allowing the cut could take craft of up to 100 tons. It is likely that it ceased to exist as a canal by 1720.

Penrhiwtyn Canal

Built in the early 1790’s by Lord Vernon, the canal was over a mile and a quarter long and connected the furnaces of the Raby Company at Penrhiwtyn to the river at Giant’s Grave.

It became part of the Neath Canal (ref. below)

Aberdulais Cut

By 1700 an artificial cut had been created through the Dulais Forge at Aberdulais, running parallel to the river and connecting with it at its southern end by a lock which allowed sizeable craft to enter the works. Some 50 years later, an upper lock was erected to serve the newly opened (1751) Ynysgerwen tinplate works.

It ceased to be used for navigation once the Neath Canal was built but remained in water and was crossed by the Tennant Canal (ref. Tennant Canal History). It is considered to be one of the earliest canals in Wales.

Neath Canal

The Neath Canal was conceived at a meeting on the 12th July 1790 at the Ship and Castle (now the Castle Hotel) at Neath. Aware of the creation of canals nationally and particularly the passing of the Act for the Glamorganshire Canal some 4 weeks earlier, the meeting resolved that a canal from Pontneddfechan to the town of Neath would be of great public benefit.

Following a further meeting on the 13th September it was resolved to create a company to build the canal and the first meeting of The Company of Proprietors of the Neath Canal Navigation (‘NCN’) was held on the 22nd of September when an application for a Canal Act was sought.

Thomas Dadford Junior was appointed as Engineer and requested to carry out a survey. His proposal for a canal, with 22 locks, from Abernant (Glynneath) to Ynysbwllog and to then to utilise the River Neath to the town of Neath at an estimated cost of approx £25,700 was initially accepted by the new Canal Company.

The proposal was subsequently modified to avoid using the river and to construct the canal on its west side as far as Ynysbwllog and by way of an aqueduct to cross over to the east of the river for the remainder of the route.

The Neath Canal Act received royal ascent on the 6th June 1791 – less than 12 months after the inaugural meeting –“ for the making and maintaining a Canal or Navigable Communication ….from or near a certain place called Abernant in the County of Glamorgan to and through a certain place called the Brickfield, near Melincryddan Pill …”.

Some 2 months later, Thomas Dadford was instructed by NCN to “make out the middle line of the canal” and construction began immediately northward from Melincryddan.

By 1792 Thomas Dadford’s construction of the Neath Canal, using contractors reached the River Neath at Ynysbwllog. At this point he terminated his employment with NCN to take on the building of the Monmouthshire Canal. Thomas Sheasby was contracted to complete the building of the canal by 1st November 1793 at a cost of £14,886.

Construction, was slow and unfinished when in 1794 Sheasby was arrested and imprisoned at the insistence of the Glamorganshire Canal Company over financial irregularities. The remainder of the canal was completed by NCN in 1795 using direct labour.

On 26 May 1798 a second Neath Canal Act was passed to extend the Neath Canal from Melyncryddan to Giant’s Grave where better shipping facilities for sea going vessels existed. Construction of the extension was completed and the canal opened fully from Abernant to Giant’s Grave the following year. Provision was made in the Act for a river lock but it was not constructed. The earlier Penrhiwtyn Canal was purchased from Lord Vernon and formed part of the Neath Canal extension.

The canal was further extended privately at various times from about 1815 for short distances south of Giant’s Grave – including the 0.6 mile (1km) Jersey Canal- reaching its final southern terminus at Briton Ferry by 1842.

In addition to the main line, the canal had three short privately built branches of about 1/4 mile long. The Maesmarchog branch (1800) in Glynneath, the Cwrt Sart branch (1812) south of Neath and the Cnel Bach branch (1817) from Aberclwyd eastwards to the River Neath connected with tramways from local collieries.

Other tramways connected directly with the canal, the longest of which was ‘Tappenden’s Tramroad’ being 8 miles long from Glynneath to the ironworks at Abernant and Llwydcoed in the Cynnon Valley – the western section to Hirwaun (the Cefn Rhigos Tramway) involving a difference in elevation of over 400ft (120m) and operated in part by a Trevithick high pressure steam engine and an 800m incline plane. Fully completed by 1805, the tramway effectively became redundant when the Aberdare canal was opened (1812).

Another tramway of about 11/2 miles ( 2.5km) from the northern terminus in Glynneath – Dr Bevan’s Tramroad (1807 – served the Dinas Limestone quarry, Silica mines and Gun-powder works situated on the tributaries of the River Neath.

For the first 60 years of its existence the Neath Canal grew in prosperity such that in 1845 a Neath Canal £100 share was valued at £340. Circa 1856-60, as much as 200,000 tons of coal was carried annually. Other goods included iron, ironstone, iron ore, fire-clay/bricks, silica, lime, gunpowder and building stone. Of interest is the reference in 1812 to two barges carrying fifteen 18-pounder canons produced at the Abernant / Llwyncoed foundries and destined for the Napoleonic War.

The opening of the Neath and Swansea Junction Canal (Tennant Canal) in 1824, however, resulted in much of the traffic using that canal in preference to the Neath south of the junction at Aberdulais, as far better shipping facilities existed at Swansea. (ref: Tennant Canal History)

Following the opening of the Vale of Neath Railway in 1851, with running rights over the South Wales Railway from c.1861 into Swansea, the canal trade began to dwindle. By about 1880 traffic at the river wharves of the canal at Briton Ferry had virtually ceased, all barges from the Neath Canal now being diverted to the Tennant Canal at Aberdulais for export shipments to be made from Swansea Docks.

By the turn of the century coal traffic amounted to no more than 5,000 tons annually. Some 6,000 tons of Silica were being carried to the Neath Brickworks and covered barges conveyed gunpowder from Messers Curtiss & Harvey’s Works at Pontneddfechan to their shipping place near Red Jacket Pill.

The slow demise of the canal was such that in 1931 a Bill was presented to Parliament to alter the constitution of the Neath Canal Company to allow 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 in 1934 as there had been very little traffic on it for many years. It has continued to be maintained as a watercourse to provide fresh water to industries in Baglan but structures required for navigation such as the locks were abandoned and became derelict.

The northern terminus together with locks 18 and 19 in Glynneath effectively disappeared under an embankment for a road improvement scheme – although the statutory right of navigation remains! It was extinguished by Statute in 1974, however, in relation to locks 15, 16 and 17 – again as a consequence a road improvement scheme – but the water course and derelict lock chambers remain.

The Canal has remained in the ownership of the Neath Canal Navigation Company since its inception.

FurtherReading:

  • The Canals of South Wales and The Border, Charles Hadfield, University of Wales Press
  • Canals of the Welsh Valleys and their Tramroads, DD & JM Gladwin, The Oakwood Press