Aberdare Canal

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This photograph shows all that remains of the The Aberdare Canal and wharf in Cwmbach in 2002.

Three generations of our ancestors earned a living working on canals. Noah Fletcher (1874-1917) was a lock keeper and canal foreman on the Aberdare Canal. The locks were about a mile down the canal from where this photo is taken. His father, Daniel Fletcher and his grandfather, Phillip Fletcher, worked as boatmen on the Glamorganshire Canal and they lived in Cardiff. Each barge could carry up to 25 tons and they transported iron and coal in their barges from Merthyr and Aberdare to Cardiff. The company records of August and September 1830 show the payment that Phillip Fletcher had when he transported coal from Merthyr to Cardiff and from Gewllyrian (in the parish of LLantrisant) to Cardiff on four consecutive Saturdays. For these two trips on each Saturday he was paid £11  3s and 6d.

In 1806 there were three iron works near Aberdare, the Hirwaun, Aberdare Iron Co. and the Abernant Iron Co. and they were in full production.  Most of their iron was sent by tramroad to the Neath Canal (see photograph). NeathCanalCopy01 (2) This was an expensive way of transporting their iron. The tramroad was costly to repair and the canal freight charges were high. The Aberdare Canal Co. saw that by building a canal from Cwmbach to join the Glamorganshire Canal at Abercynon they could draw the trade from the ironworks to their canal.  It opened in May 1812 and ran from Cwmbach to Abercynon, a distance of 6.75 miles with two ordinary locks and one stop-lock (at the junction). It cost £26,000 to build it. As a branch of the Glamorganshire Canal it formed a crucial link between the port of Cardiff and the heart of the Cynon Valley. It had taken its owners (the Aberdare Canal Company) some 20 years from obtaining their act of parliament in 1793 to actually begin to build the canal but once they started, it took less than 2 years to complete. At Abercynon it joined the Glamorganshire Canal which had opened in 1794. This canal started in Merthyr Tydfil and finished at a sea lock in Cardiff. It would have taken a boat 3 to 4 hours to make the journey from Canal Head to the junction with the Glamorganshire Canal at Abercynon. A round trip from Aberdare to Cardiff and back could theoretically be done in 30 hours, but as many of the boatmen would have stayed overnight at Nantgarw, two round trips a week was the norm.

At first the trade from the ironworks to the Aberdare Canal was good but this was not a great success.  Unfortunately soon after the canal opened two of the three ironworks went bankrupt and soon after so did the third. By 1814 there was no canal traffic and the canal became disused and neglected.  However the ironworks owners consolidated their businesses and additional financial support was used to improve the canal. Consequently by 1820 the canal returned to being used to transport iron to Cardiff.

In 1837 Thomas Wayne joined his family business and they sunk the first coal mine in Cwmbach known as the Cwmbach Pit. A short tramroad took the coal from the colliery to waiting barges on the wharf at the canal head. The Aberdare Canal stimulated the expansion of the iron industry of the region and promoted the development of coal mining in the valley. Between 1837 and 1853 sixteen coal pits were sunk in the Cynon Valley. Many collieries were built very close to the canal and rail lines linked colliery and canal to make transporting coal to Cardiff more efficient. By 1845 the tonnage of coal carried on the canal overtook the tonnage carried of iron and it was doing so well that there wasn’t enough water to supply the locks for the amount of traffic trying to use it. By the 1850s coal exports from the valley reached 1 million tons and by the 1860s 2 million tons. Sufficed to say the 1850s and 1860s were the most prosperous years for the shareholders. The wages earned by coal miners were far greater than those working in agricultural areas of Wales. The demands from mining families with a good regular weekly wage, prompted an expansion in better goods and services in the valley.  The canal provided the iron masters and coal mine owners with new export markets for their goods in Cardiff, the UK and around the world.

canalheadhouse (2)To the left of the canal head in the photograph above stands this building, Canal Head House. This was built, at a cost of £150, as the local administrative office of the Aberdare Canal Company and provided accommodation for the company clerk and his family. The canal head had four wharves which were rented to local iron and coal mine owners for two guineas (£2.10) a week. The company clerk collected rents and tariffs from canal users. In 1812 the tariff was 2.5d per ton-mile (1.05p per 1.63 tonne-km) and was cheaper than the Neath canal tariff at 4d per ton-mile (1.68p per tonne-km).

Even when railways came into the valley in 1847 the canal continued to do fairly well. The huge expansion of coal mining  in the valley mines meant that the canal company was able to keep a profitable share of coal exports on its canal whilst the iron traffic dwindled. Further railway lines were laid into the valley in 1864 when the Great Western Railway Valley Extension created direct competition. The GWR line ran close to and parallel with the Aberdare Canal and siphoned off trade from, in particular, Middle Duffryn, Deep Duffryn and Navigation collieries. However the competition from the railways to transport coal and iron  from the Cynon Valley to Cardiff and Swansea faster proved a challenge too great for the canal company. The company owners were in desperate trouble when, in 1875, the canal’s oldest customer, the Aberdare Iron Company went bankrupt and closed. The canal’s golden era was coming to an end. During the final years of C19th the canal became a victim of its own success. Along its route, forty years of intensive mining beside and beneath the canal produced subsidence. Canal repair and maintenance costs soared, earnings from coal and iron tolls declined as more and more companies deserted the canal for the greater speed and lower handling costs of the railway. In 1884 an attempt was made by the new owner of the Glamorganshire Canal and Aberdare Canal, the Marquis of Bute, to improve the waterway. About £25,000 was spent on new warehouses and boats and the sea lock in Cardiff was deepened at a cost of £72 and 16s. For a few more years the revived canal was busy and seemed prosperous. The prosperity was an illusion. The improvements had little effect, subsidence worsened and maintenance costs increased. The painful and protracted decline continued until, in 1900 when commercial activity had ceased, the canal was forced to close on the grounds of safety.

In 1923 the Aberdare & Mountain Ash Council bought the whole canal and used it to widen the adjacent roads. These are the B4275 between Aberdare and Mountain Ash and the A4059 between Mountain Ash and Abercynon.

Click here to learn more about the history of Cwmbach.

The Aberdare Canal

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