South Wales, with its abundant supply of raw materials, became a major industrial region in the 19th century. This is largely due to the introduction and growth of the Glamorganshire Canal. Iron has been produced in South Wales since Roman times but a ban on the use of oak to make charcoal and fuel furnaces under King Henry VIII meant that the Welsh hills proved an excellent location for the production of iron. The hills of South Wales have a rich supply of iron ore, wood, coal and limestone. Charcoal was used in furnaces until 1709 when Abraham Darby introduced the technique of using coal (as coke) instead of charcoal. The of coal deposits in South Wales lead to the region taking on significance in industry.
A Barge on the Glamorganshire Canal
In the 18th century Merthyr Tydfil had foundries producing iron, which was transported for distribution via an old track. Even after improvements made by Anthony Bacon (a Merthyr ironmaster) in 1767 the route was still inadequate for the volume of traffic necessary for the transportation of iron. Horses and manpower were also very expensive and time-consuming with only two tons of iron leaving in each cart. The iron was transported in ships up the River Taff in Cardiff, which was then only a small town. The River Taff ran on its original course, with the commercial activity taking place in the district around Womanby St, Golate and Quay St until I.K. Brunel diverted it to its present position in 1845. This was still inadequate for the efficient transportation of iron, with the river wharves only taking small vessels on shallow waters, dependent on the tides.
The ironmasters of Merthyr were already using a number of canals such as the Trent, Mersey and Birmingham. However, they needed a practical, efficient way to send the iron to the foundries in Cardiff. In 1790 the Glamorganshire Canal Company was formed. Richard Crawshay was the leader of the ironmasters who made up the majority of the shareholders of the company. Another shareholder was Lord Mountstuart, Baron Cardiff, who would later hold several aristocratic titles. Thomas Dadford senior, Thomas Dadford junior and Thomas Sheasby were the builders who began work on the canal in 1790. The initial contracted figure of £48, 288 did not include the purchase of the land. In two years the part of the canal between Merthyr and Pontypridd was built, by 1794 the whole canal stretching to Cardiff was completed. The canal terminated near to Southgate where the iron would be moved across to the wharves for shipping. The Glamorganshire Canal officially opened on the 10th February 1794 with a small fleet of boats, specially decorated and loaded with iron, making their way to Cardiff.
To increase the practicality of the canal and take away the problem of ships using the wharves on the Taff, plans were made to connect it directly with the Bristol Channel by extension. £20, 000 was needed to complete the extension, so one of its shareholders stepped forward. Baron Cardiff was now 1st Marquess of Bute and was looking to build upon part of Bute Estates. He agreed to raise the money under condition that the Bute family could use the canal and tow-path free of charge from Southgate to the coast. Larger than the rest of the canal at over one mile long, 100ft wide and 13ft deep, the extension was completed in June 1798. It gave access to vessels up to 200 tons through a larger and stronger form of Sea-lock. At the opening ceremony by the “Cardiff Castle” an 80-ton sloop passed in a parade of ships that had sailed from Bristol. The canal in its entirety was 25 and a half miles long with 52 locks, and climbed 568ft up to Merthyr Tydfil. The total cost of the canal’s completion was £103, 600. It had been an excellent investment for the ironmasters of Merthyr and boosted the growth of the huge Docks complex there. Likewise Cardiff went from a small town to a major centre for trade and industry, leading to its establishment as the Capital City of Wales.
The Glamorganshire Canal
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