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The Carmarthenshire Antiquary

This article has been extracted by Gareth Hicks (July 2004) with the permission of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society from original material provided by Deric John.



Thomas Kymer's Canal

THE FIRST CANAL 1  in the Gwendraeth valley was built by Thomas Kymer of Pembrokeshire 2 between 1766 and 1768 to carry his coal from pits and levels at Pwll y Llygod and Great Forest (near Carway) to a shipping place on the lesser Gwendraeth river, below Kidwelly. His mining venture in this area started in June 1760  3 with the opening of a trial level at Pwll y Llygod and within a couple of years he was sending his anthracite and culm down the greater Gwendraeth river for shipment chiefly to West of England ports, and to Ireland. Much of the success of the enterprise was due to his foresight in providing an adequate number of barges and loading places to expedite the carriage of the coal down the river 4 but, as more pits tapped the rich seams of anthracite, it became apparent that the successful expansion of his trade demanded a swifter and surer means of transport than the river could offer. In parts it was narrow and tortuous and the barges were manoeuvred down it with difficulty. It was navigable only at high tides and its channel into the estuary subject to shifts of direction. The delivery of coal was uncertain and ships were kept waiting sometimes as long as two months.

To overcome these drawbacks, Kymer petitioned Parliament in January 1766   5  for power to construct, at his own expense,    " a navigable cut or canal ", the scheme being outlined to the committee by his surveyor Richard Evans. It was to run from a place called Ythyn Frenig on the south bank of the lesser Gwendraeth, below Kidwelly, and to terminate at Pwll y Llygod on the greater Gwendraeth. The Act (6 Geo. III c. 55) was obtained on February 19th and contained the liberty of diverting the course of the greater Gwendraeth between Spudders Bridge and Pwll y Llygod. Local gentry and landowners were appointed as Commissioners to ensure the execution of the powers of the Act. Their first meeting was held on March 12th at the Pelican Inn in Kidwelly, proprietor Abraham Hughes. 6

During the next few months leases were obtained from the owners of land through which the canal was to run. 7  A lease on September 12th 1766 by Richard Vaughan of Golden Grove, lord of the manor of Kidwelly, reveals that work on diverting the course of the greater Gwendraeth was already well advanced. The lands he granted were a piece of marsh above Spudders Bridge " wherein a channel for Great Gwendraeth has lately been dug and the course of the said river turned therein ": a part of the marsh adjoining Morfa Bach " wherein the said Great Gwendraeth used to run and now set out for part of the said canal ": a small piece of marsh on Morfa Bach beginning " at the part of the said canal and extending over the marsh to a place where the canal is set out to enter ". The remaining stretch extended from the field of Park Llong to Muddlescombe where a stream called Cwm Hed marked the boundary between Vaughan's land, as part of the manor, and a small area of common land owned by the Corporation of Kidwelly.

Progress on the canal itself is revealed in letters written in 1768   8 to Kymer by Richard Evans his surveyor and manager of the whole enterprise. On February 9th he announced that the towing path was ready for gravelling. By May the canal was in full operation. On the 26th he wrote : " We get down now about 10 Hundred the Day. Tis a very dry time and the Canal is sunk very low so that the Barges cant above three parts load ". In the same letter he reported progress on the canal quay on the south bank of the lesser Gwendraeth : " Masons are now raising the Parapet of the Main Wall of the Quay the West Side, the sluice Wall the East and West sides are finished to their Height and have got the Timber the West side down and the Wall rose about two feet. I have taken down the Crane at Holloway Quay and shall fix it on the Canal Quay till the other crane can be got ready as the loaders now can't keep the Boats at work ". On June 6th: " Went down to the Quay the Masons raising the Parapet Wall the East side and raising a scaffold got the Timber in all round the posts with Ring Bolts to moor the Vessells. Bloomer and 20 men clearing the East Dock down to its depth ". On the 16th of June he wrote, enthusiastically : " The Canal is quite a Bumper the Barges now come down full load so we can carry 10 or 11 Hundred every trip ".

There were two passing places for the barges, one below Muddlescombe, the other at Morfa ; 9 there was also a large turning bay near the wharf at the Pwll y Llygod end. The erection of bridges followed quickly ; below Kidwelly to allow access to the estuary for cocklers and fishermen (Pont y Cocks) and at Morris Cross (near Tycoch) for the Kidwelly-Penbre road. For the convenience of farmers there was one below Muddlescombe and another at Parc y Llong, both wooden. In 1770 work was completed on a stone bridge near Morfa farm, which carried the Kidwelly-Llanelli turnpike road. At Pwll y Llygod   10  a single span, across the river, conveyed a tramroad from the wharf to the pits in the vicinity of the farm.

The width of the canal, excluding the towing path and bulwarks, was 26 feet and its total length 3 miles, with no locks. The size of the barges cannot be determined but that their use was not confined to the canal is evident from Evans's letters where he refers to some of them being loaded with timber at St. Clears.  11 Most of them were given names with local associations: Muddlescombe, Robeston (after Kymer's residence in Pembrokeshire), Golden Grove, Kidwelly, Great Forest, Bedford (after a ship's carpenter and boat builder in Carmarthen).

The canal soon justified its creation. The quick, reliable delivery it now offered attracted new orders from Ireland, from North Wales, from the western, southern and eastern counties of England, and occasionally from the Continent. 12  Evans found himself very busy. On April 1st 1770,  13  he wrote: "We dispatch 'em as fast as they come in Last Week we loaded near Sixty Hundred and this week could Load 12 or 14 Hundred every Day ". Not a little of this success seems to have been due to his own energy and efficiency. In the same letter he wrote : " If  quick Dispatch and good usage will give encouragement to Vessels to come here they shall not want for that ".

Trade was busiest in Spring and Summer. At times as many as 25 ships crowded the river between the stemming post at the Bertwn and the  canal quay. waiting their turn to load. Winter brought a sharp decline in activity and there were times when Evans wrote despondently of an empty river and a deserted quay, of easterly winds holding stubbornly for days and keeping the coal ships waiting at Tenby. In one such slack period,  mindful of the return of trade in the Spring, he took the opportunity of emptying the canal and clearing its bed of stones and debris. 14

Kymer died in 1784 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church of St Mary, Kidwelly. 15 The enterprise was carried on by his four sisters 16   but towards the close of the century there was a falling off in activity owing to the silting of the river and the loss of its channel into the Towy and Carmarthen Bay. In the early years of the following century, however, it was to become part of a more complex and ambitious scheme of canal building in the Gwendraeth valley.

The Earl o f Ashburnham's Canal

The Ashburnhams were modest Sussex gentry in the middle of the 17th century ; within less than a hundred years they were the possessors of an earldom and extensive estates in Wales, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Lancashire and elsewhere. Their success was due largely to profitable marriage ventures but they were also shrewd business men and keen developers of the resources of their estates. The properties in Breconshire and south-east Carmarthenshire were acquired through the marriage in 1677 of John, created first Lord of Ashburnham in 1689, 17 to Bridget only daughter and heiress of Walter Vaughan of Porthamel House, near Talgarth, a descendant of the Golden Grove family. 18 On the Penbre estate of the Vaughans Lord Ashburnham enthusiastically ordered trial workings to discover coal. 19  These were successful and levels and pits were opened in Coed y Marchog and Coed Rhial on the western slope of Penbre mountain. The coal was carried by pack horse to the estuary of the Gwendraeth and to the Burry inlet and shipped mainly to west of England counties, and to Ireland . 20 The management of the colliery was controlled by the family through agents who lived at Court House, Penbre.

It was John (1724-1812) the second earl who, impressed by the success of Kymer's venture, put forward a scheme for the building of a canal from the foot of Penbre mountain to the Gwendraeth estuary. This was balked by his colliers, who were apt at times to be recalcitrant. Their opposition to the scheme was based, as the earl observed in a letter to his agent in 1770, 21 largely on self interest ; a canal would deprive them of the use of their horses employed in carrying away the coal.

It was not until the last decade of the century that he succeeded in carrying out his scheme. The first stretch, starting below Coed farm and close to the Llandyry-Pinged road, was probably begun in 1796. The Colliery Account book records for that year a payment to Griffith Jenkins and Co., for canal cutting, the purchase of barges, the construction of a railed way to the canal, and the making of a towing path. 22  By 1799 it had been extended across the Kidwelly-Penbre road, near Saltrock farm, and had reached, and cut through, a bulwark on the confines of the marsh. In the summer of 1801 Thomas Christopher and partners were cutting it through the marsh and by the end of the year it had terminated at Pill Towyn a creek running in from the south bank of the Gwendraeth Fawr. On a short fork at the head of the creek two shipping places were built, one of them called Pill Ddu. 23

Its total length was about two miles, with no locks. Several accomodation bridges had to be built, one of them conveying a track way between Penybedd and Tygwyn. In 1805 a short branch was constructed towards Ffrwd when new levels were opened in Coed Rhial. 24  Shipments continued to be made up to 1818 and also maintenance and repair work.  25   A dry dock was added in 1817 and the entrance to Pill Ddu  deepened the previous year. On January 10th 1818, however, John Hay, who had for several years been closely associated with the working of the colliery and the operating of the canal, wrote to the earl warning him that the colliery was almost exhausted, " as well in regard to its material as the Coal ". 26 Shortly after this the canal seems to have gone out of use.


( Kymer's Canal)

1. Charles Hadfield, The Canals of South Wales and the Border, 1960, page 16, considers it, along with a short stretch from Llwynhendy to Dafen, to be the first authentic canal in South Wales.

2. He was born on July 17th 1722, the only son of Thomas and Mary Kymer of Haverfordwest. Admitted  to Lincoln's Inn on July 27th 1739, and inherited Robeston Hall in Pembrokeshire from an uncle, Hugh Fowler. Became a burgess of Kidwelly in 1759 and Recorder on October 23rd 1780 ; also Recorder of Carmarthen.

3. Dynevor Muniments (Kymer documents) 1/1: Carmarthen Record Office: Information from a letter (12th Nov. 1761) to Kymer from David Jones (Pistyll Gwyn) his agent at Kidwelly.Letters from Jones indicate that Kymer, before his venture into mining, was engaged in the timber trade. He dismissed Jones for incompetence and fraud.

4. Ibid:  In the course of a letter (Feb. 1764) setting out charges against David Jones, he attributed the closing down of several collieries in Pembrokeshire to the failure to provide adequate facilities for the transport of coal from the pits. There were quays  or loading places at the following: Pwll y Llygod, Glasbury, Penybank, Frankland and  Holloway.

5. Journal of the  House of Commons, xxx, page 465, 20 January 1766.

6.  Dynevor Muniments (Kymer documents) 14/1: Order Book of Commissioners 1766-1782, Carmarthen Record Office.

7.   Ibid: 19/12: 19/13: 19/14: 19/17: From the Corporation of Kidwelly (4th Oct 1764?) to Frances Williams of Chester, widow of Kyffin Williams, (10th Apr. 1766): Rev Jeremy Pemberton of Trumpington, Cambridge, (10th Apr. 1766): Richard Vaughan of Golden Grove (12th Sept. 1766).

8. Ibid: 3/5: also 7/1 (1770): 9/1 (1771): 10/1 (1772). They are addressed to Kymer at Robeston Hall (Pembs.), London (St. James's Coffee House), and Newton. When in Kidwelly, Kymer lived in a rented house at Pinged Hill (cf. the present Kymers Villa) and occasionally at Glyn Abbey in the neighbourhood.
The Kymer documents in the Dynevor collection in Carmarthen Record Office give no details of the work of cutting the canal nor any indication of its total cost.

9.  At the now derelict Morfa Halt on the former Burry Port and Gwendraeth Railway

10.  Evans reports the construction of a flood gate at Pwll y Llygod : " Done the Flood gate at Pwll y Llygod better than we first expected (as we got hot Aberthaw lime) ": Dynevor Muniments (Kymer documents) 9/1. (13th Feb. 1771).

11. Ibid. 10/1. (1772).

12. Ibid. 7/1. (Dec. 11th 1770). Evans refers to the freighting of two Danish ships to load culm for Portugal.

13. Ibid. 7/ 1.

14. Ibid. 7/1. (Nov. 8th and 10th 1770).

15.  His Will was dated Aug. 14th 1782 and proved (P.C.C.) on April 16th 1785. He enjoined that he should be buried ten feet deep in the chancel and commemorated with an inscription on a square of Welsh marble, giving the year of his birth and death. He bequeathed to George Talbot Rice son of his " dear and esteemed friend the late Right Honorable George Rice " an oil painting of himself in Chinese dress painted about 1754 by Hamilton of St. James Street, London " at that time esteemed a very strong resemblance of me ". This is now in the possession of the present Lord Dynevor. He was unmarried. The Parish registers of St. Mary record the baptism in June 1758 of "Hugh reputed son of Mr. Kymer ".

16.  Martha, Mary, Hester and Dorothy. They were all unmarried. Mary, the last survivor, died at Kidwelly in 1823, aged 90, and the estate thereupon passed by the terms of the will to George Talbot Rice (3rd. Baron Dynevor).

(The Earl of Ashburnham's canal)

17. The Baronetcy was created on March 20th 1689 for services to William of Orange. John died in 1710. The second lord was William who was succeeded by his brother John. He was created first earl of Ashburnham in 1730. The title became extinct in 1924.

18. Walter was the son of Frederick Vaughan and grandson of Sir Walter Vaughan (c. 1580-1636) brother of the first earl of Carbery. Sir Walter founded the Llanelli branch of the family through his marriage to Ann daughter of Thomas Lewis of Llanelli. He played an important part in the local government of south-east Carmarthenshire and was High Sheriff of the county in 1626.

19. See G. E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 65 and 66.

20. National Library of Wales. Ashburnham MSS. 5.

21. Ibid., 2024.

22 Ibid., 10.

23. Shown on John Wedge's survey of Kidwelly Bar and Harbour, October 1814.

24. Nat. Lib. Wales. Ashburnham MSS., 10.

25. Ibid., 764, 697 (Accounts of Pembrey Colliery).

26. Ibid., 1527.
The Account Book (MSS. 10) records many payments to Hay and Co. for the construction of horse tramways underground, the laying of oak rails, the sinking of a new pit, and for the general supervision of the making of the canal.
According to G. E. Mingay, op. cit., p.66, the colliery had produced over the years a net income of between a hundred and two hundred pounds a year.
Nat. Lib. Wales. Ashburnham MSS. 10 (Pembrey Colliery Account Book, commencing 29 Sept. 1795) shows that the earl held a fourth share in the colliery, Anthony Tatlow of Penshurst also one fourth, and Henry Child of Llanelli two fourths.