Railways at Gwauncaegurwen
There are these two articles below;
- Railways at Gwaun-cae-gurwen
- The 1838 Gwaun-cae-Gurwen railway : an abandoned feeder to the Swansea canal
This article is by C L Mowat, it appeared in the Railway Magazine dated December 1957.
Of course, the date is critical to what is described.
Contributed by David Smith (April 2004)
A new colliery is now being sunk by the National Coal Board at Abernant, some ten miles north of Swansea. It is expected to become productive in 1960, and the anthracite obtained from it may infuse new life into the railways of this district, whose chequered history includes an abortive scheme for a direct route to the port of Swansea.
The anthracite coalfield in the Amman Valley was first connected with the railway system when the Llanelly Railway opened its line from Pontardulais to Cwmamman (now Garnant) on April 10, 1840. This was extended 1 mile 75 ch. to Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen (or G.C.G., as it is usually called) on May 6, 1841 ; in June, 1842, Garnant became a junction when the line was opened from there to Brynamman. The Llanelly Railway was taken over by the Great Western Railway on January 1, 1873. In 1864, Brynamman was reached by the Swansea Vale Railway, which was absorbed by the Midland Railway in 1874.
The Llanelly Railway's Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen branch followed the River Garnant up a narrow valley, and finally climbed an incline, six chains long, on a gradient of 1 in 4.9, to reach that village. Two collieries were served on the way, one by an incline ascending the south side of the valley.
In its Act of 1904 (mainly concerned with the authorisation of the Swansea District Lines from Court Sart and Skewen to Morlais Junction), the Great Western received powers to build a new single-track Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen branch, which was opened on November 4, 1907. This starts just east of Raven Crossing, at the east end of the branch platform at Garnant, and rises at a gradient of 1 in 40 throughout its length of 1 mile 22 ch. The new line begins on the north side of the old branch, but crosses over it after about half a mile and climbs in cutting along the south-west side of the valley, which it finally crosses on a brick viaduct of five arches, 66 yd. long, with a maximum height of 30 ft. Immediately beyond this, it joins the course of the old line, just west of the level crossing at Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen.
On the opening of the new line, 59 ch. of the old, at the eastern end and including the incline, were closed. The remainder continued under the name of the Cawdor branch to serve the two collieries. The sidings at the foot of the incline were removed in 1933, and the rails were lifted from the rest of the branch 17 years later, in 1950.
At Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen there is a signal-box controlling the level crossing and the entrance to a group of sidings. From there lines continue to the east and south to serve three collieries, and make connection with a colliery line which joins the former Midland branch just west of Cwmllynfell Station, at a signalbox which is also called Gwaun-CaeGurwen.
On January 1, 1908, the G.W.R, inaugurated a passenger service from Garnant to Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen by a steam railcar. Halts were opened at Gors-y-Garnant, Red Lion Crossing, and the terminus ; the latter was just west of the level crossing. Eight trips a day were worked at first, and the service continued with little change throughout its history. It was discontinued in June, 1926. At present there are six workings of mineral trains daily over the branch, several them through to Pantyffynnon. The branch is worked by electric train staff and speed over it is restricted to 10 m.p.h.
In 1911 the Great Western sought powers to construct a railway, about ten miles long, from Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen southwards to Felin Fran on the Swansea District line, then under construction (it was opened in two stages, on February 18, 1912, and July 14, 1913). Its object as stated in the parliamentary hearings was to shorten the route from Brynamman to Swansea and to develop the anthracite coalfield between Brynamman and Cwmgorse and between Pontardawe and Clydach. The estimated cost was £310,000. The main line was to begin with triangular junctions at Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen ; in addition, an eastern curve was to be constructed near Garnant from the Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen branch to the Brynamman line.
From Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen the line ran on easy gradients to the head of the valley of the Upper Clydach River, and from there descended at 1 in 50 to Rhyd-y-fro. Here a branch, 2 miles 31 ch. long, was to run in a north-easterly direction, up the valley of the Egel at gradients of 1 in 47 and 1 in 41 to a terminus near Blaen-egel-fawr. The main line continued southwards, crossing the Upper Clydach three times within the first mile from Rhyd-y-fro. The third crossing was by a viaduct 100 yd. long and 110 ft. high. This and the second bridge would, however, have been eliminated by a diversion carrying the line on the western side of the valley in cutting, under powers sought in 1912.
Beyond the viaduct, the line entered a tunnel 103 yd. long, and then curved sharply south-west, above All Saints Church, Pontardawe, and descended at 1 in 90 along the side of the ridge above Pontardawe and the Swansea Valley. At the bottom of this descent the town of Clydach was crossed on embankment, followed by bridges over the Swansea Canal, the Midland Railway and the River Tawe, the latter one of seven spans. Another mile over level country brought the line to triangular junctions at Felin Fran, where it ended. A branch from Clydach, north-westwards to join a colliery tramway, was also proposed, but was defeated, partly because it would pass very close to the parish church. A similar line was authorised in the Great Western Act of 1912, which also provided for a branch 5 7/8 miles long from Clydach to Mynydd Bettws Common.
In the parliamentary hearings, counsel for the Great Western referred to an earlier scheme for the same route - that of the Neath, Pontardawe & Brynamman Railway. A company of this name obtained an Act of Parliament in 1895 to build a line 12 miles long from junctions with the South Wales main line and the Vale of Neath line of the Great Western at Neath to junctions with the Midland and the Great Western lines at Brynamman. Fairly steep gradients would have been needed to carry the line over the country between Neath and Pontardawe (where two curves to the Midland Railway were to be constructed). At Pontardawe the line was to cross the Swansea Valley on a viaduct 500 yd. long and 90 ft. high ; this was to be followed by a tunnel of 500 yd. and a viaduct 170 yd. long and 89 ft. high over the Upper Clydach. There was to be a branch from Rhyd-y-fro to Blaen-egel,Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen.
Powers under the Act lapsed, but were revived, in spite of the Great Western's opposition, in 1903, when additional connections with the Rhondda & Swansea Bay Railway at Neath were authorised. A branch from near Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen to join the G.W.R. at Garnant (parallel with the route of the Great Western's branch of 1904) also was proposed. In 1907 the company obtained an extension of time, having gained promise of a subscription of capital from the Barry Railway. The company powers lapsed in 1912.
The Great Western obtained powers for its line from Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen to Felin Fran in its Act of August 18, 1911, but only succeeded in carrying out part of the scheme because of the interruption of the first world war. The northern section of the main line, from Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen to Duke Colliery, 2 miles 36 ch. was opened to goods traffic on August 3, 1923. The east curve at Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, 28 ch. long, was built but not brought into use. This must have been a most expensive white elephant, for it includes a brick viaduct of four arches adjacent to the viaduct on the branch.
The southern part of the projected line was opened from Felin Fran East Signalbox to Mond's Nickel Works,Clydach, on December 11, 1922, and extended on August 3, 1923, to Trebanos (for Daren Colliery), about a mile south of the proposed tunnel above Pontardawe.
The track formation was constructed for another mile or more northward, including the heading of the tunnel in rock. Neither the west curve at Felin Fran, the east curve at Garnant, nor the branches were built, and a passenger service over the line was never instituted. A Railway Clearing House map of 1926 shows projected stations at Clydach, Pontardawe and Rhyd-y-fro. At present one freight working from Felin Fran to Trebanos is scheduled on five days a week, with additional trips to Felin Fran Colliery and Mond's Works. The line is worked by one engine in steam, with wooden train staff.
The northern part of the line has today a derelict air about it. Though constructed for double track, it is only single. It begins at a ground frame on the Gwaun-cae-Gurwen branch, curves south in cutting before joining the course of the east curve to that village, and then passes through the first of two ghost stations, which were never opened to traffic. This was designed to serve Gwaun Cae-Gurwen though badly placed for the village. It has two long platforms edged with masonry, and neat brick buildings on each; those on the south bound platform are used as a private house.
There is a similar station at Cwmgorse, though the platforms are mere ramparts of turf ; here also the main building has become a private house. A siding serves a small factory immediately to the south. The line continues along a shallow valley over bare, somewhat boggy ground. At about 1 1/4 miles from Cwmgorse it crosses a side-road, from Nant-y-gaseg to Pwllau Watkin, on the level ; gates are provided. It terminates about a quarter of a mile beyond this ; there is a run-round loop, and sidings to the new Abernant Colliery which lies close by near the site of Duke Colliery. At present no service is scheduled over the line, but it has recently been relaid and may expect a busy traffic when Abernant Colliery is opened in 1960.
But will the missing link to Pontardawe and Trebanos ever be built ?
The 1838 Gwaun-cae-Gurwen railway : an abandoned feeder to the Swansea canal
By Paul R Reynolds
This article was originally published in the journal of The Railway & Canal Historical Society in March 1998. (ISSN 00338834)
It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher and author who retain copyright - it must not be downloaded and re-published in any format without their express permission.
The village of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen lies at the head of the Amman valley in the extreme northwestern corner of the county of West Glamorgan. It is 14 miles from Swansea and 19 miles from Llanelli, and on the northern crop of the coalfield which at this point is anthracite in quality. It was the existence of coal which led to the development of the village in the first place in an area of rather inhospitable moorland and hill pasture, and it is coal which still provides most of the employment in this area. There is a large opencast site on the northern side of the village, while to the south is the modern deep-level colliery of Abernant. A single-track branch off the Central Wales line connects these two traffic sources with the rest of the British Rail network.
There are spasmodic references to coal-working at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but it never developed to any great extent because of the isolated nature of the area and the distance to the nearest port. As was invariably the case with inland parts of the coalfield, such as this, in the period before the construction of canals or railways, the costs of transport were so great that it was impossible to sell the output at a price which would repay an entrepreneur for his investment. Even after the opening of the Swansea Canal in 1798 had caused a major expansion of mining activity at the head of the Swansea valley and in its tributary, the Twrch valley, Gwaun-cae-Gurwen still lay too far from the canal to be able to take advantage of the new opportunities it afforded. It was only the extension of the Llanelly Railway, authorised in 1835, that opened up this remote area and made the exploitation of its mineral resources an attractive proposition.
The first industrialist to realise the potential of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen now that its isolation was about to be ended was Roger Hopkins. Hopkins was a local man, born in Glamorgan ( Camb. 2.5.1840), and by the time he turned his attention to Gwaun-cae-Gurwen in 1837 an experienced and successful engineer. His earliest recorded appointment was as engineer to the Monmouth Railway in 1810 1. The following year he was seconded by them to the Severn & Wye Railway 2, and subsequently he established himself in the west of England. There he designed and constructed the Teignmouth bridge which, when it was opened in 1827, was claimed to be the longest in Britain 1. In 1831 he surveyed the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway which was built under his direction in 1832-34. The rails for this line came from Ebbw Vale, which is a pointer to the next stage in Hopkins' career, as manager of the Victoria Iron & Coal Company which Hopkins established in 1836 and which was based at Bath.
Shortly after he set up the Monmouthshire Company, Hopkins also created the Swansea & Gwaun-cae-Gurwen Anthracite Company to lease and work the coal at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen. Like the iron company, it was based at Bath and the same man, J.J. Skinner, was secretary to both companies. The first half-yearly meeting was held at Bath on 24 April 1838 ( Camb. 5.5.1838) which puts its formation in 1837. It was in 1837 that the company obtained a mineral lease at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen. Altogether 717 acres of coal and iron ore were leased from Capel Hanbury Leigh (1776-1853) of Pontypool. He had acquired the property through his marriage in 1797 to Molly Mackworth, the widow of the last survivor of this family of landowners and industrialists of Neath.
There were two parcels of land, Gwaun-cae-Gurwen itself (680 acres) and the adjacent but much smaller Tyr Nant Hyr (37 acres). The lease was for 99 years from 25 May 1837 at a rent of 7d per ton, subject to a minimum of £583 6s 8d per annum. This was the equivalent of an annual output of 20,000 tons, a fairly modest amount 3.
In 1838 work started on the construction of a railway from the colliery down to the Swansea Canal. It was constructed under the powers conveyed by the 8-mile clause in that company's Act of Parliament. An advertisement seeking tenders for the first -and as it was to turn out, only - section of the line appeared in The Cambrian (17.3.1838):-
At first it might appear rather strange that Hopkins should have chosen to construct a railway feeder to the Swansea Canal when steps were already being taken to carry out the powers of the 1835 Llanelly Railway Act. This Act had authorised the extension into the heart of the coalfield of what had previously been a purely local system serving Llanelli docks. Tenders were invited in August 1837 for the extension of the railway to within a mere two miles of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen at Garnant ( Camb. 26.8.1837). Since Hopkins did not put his Swansea Canal link out to tender until the following March he cannot have been acting in ignorance of the plans of the Llanelly Railway. He must have known what its implications for his business were likely to be, yet even so, he still set to work on the line down to the canal. What were the reasons that led him to embark on what, with a locomotive railway in the building from a good modern dock or to a mile or two from his colliery, was an anachronistic and troublesome mode of transport?
There were two inherent flaws in this system, both of which would have been absent had Hopkins decided to trade exclusively on the Llanelly Railway. In the first place a railway to the Swansea Canal would involve trans-shipment of the coal between the two modes at Pontardawe which would add to the cost of transport and cause damage to the coal and so reduce its value. Secondly a major drawback of the Swansea Canal - or any other canal - was its tendency to freeze over in a hard winter, thus bringing traffic to a standstill. This was a complaint made about the Swansea Canal so long as it remained the main form of transport in the valley. In addition, there was the further drawback in the canal link project in that connecting the new colliery to the Llanelly Railway involved less than two miles of new track whereas the line to the canal would be six miles long and so cost about three times as much.
The plans of the Llanelly Railway were public knowledge, and the flaws in the railway/canal proposal so obvious that an experienced engineer like Hopkins must have known exactly what he was doing in even considering a railway feeding traffic onto the canal. The one great advantage of this idea was that it gave him access to Swansea rather than to the much smaller port of Llanelli. At this time Swansea was still just about the largest coal-shipping port in south Wales (but with Newport on the point of overtaking it). In 1837 a total of 526,961 tons of coal, culm, etc., had passed through the port, about twice as much as through Llanelli and this must have led to a more buoyant market and better prices at Swansea. On the other hand the shipping facilities at Llanelli were better than Swansea. At Swansea coal was still shipped from wharves and staithes along the river whereas at Llanelli there was a public floating dock, the first in Wales, opened in 1834. Against this, however, the approaches to Llanelli were difficult, since the Burry Estuary was subject to shifting sand banks. A further point in favour of Swansea was the distance from Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, about five miles less than the distance from Llanelli to Gwaun-cae-Gurwen.
Swansea was probably just too important in the coal trade for Hopkins to be able to ignore it, despite the less than ideal means he would have to resort to to get his coal there. He did not want to be bound to the smaller port of Llanelli but wanted the freedom to send his coal out through either Llanelli or Swansea. This flexibility would enable him to switch his traffic from one port to the other so as to obtain the best price on offer and avoid any delays that might occur if he were dependent on a single port. Both ports had factors in their favour, and this was brought out by the catalogue of the colliery when it was offered for sale in 1845: the existing Llanelly Railway and the canal feeder, when completed, would between them "connect the colliery with the best shipping ports in Glamorganshire and Camarthenshire" 3. Since Hopkins was not having to pay for the construction of the Llanelly Railway he may have felt better able to spend money on the line to Swansea which he hoped would improve his marketing capacity.
Work on the railway must have started fairly soon after the contract was let, although the identity of the successful contractor is not known. The line started at Hopkins' shaft at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen (later known as the Old Pit) and followed a generally SSW direction towards Pontardawe. The earthworks of the first 1.25 mile contract were finished but no further tenders were sought for the remainder of the line, nor is there any reason to suppose that permanent way was laid on the first stretch. Altogether about £4000 were spent on the works that were completed 3. Part of what was achieved in 1838/40 still survives, including an impressive embankment and cuttings. The northernmost part of the works, however, has been removed by land reclamation and at the southern end it is no longer possible to trace the line, since the works involved in its construction were much less spectacular and have merged back into their surroundings.
By 1840 Hopkins must have realised that his interests would be better served by a short line linking his colliery to the Llanelly Railway rather than by continuing with the Swansea Canal link. The canal line was not positively abandoned but it was deferred in favour of the shorter and cheaper Llanelly Railway connection. Even as late as 1844 in the sale catalogue of that year its completion was still envisaged: "... a Branch Railway has been commenced from the Colliery at a cost of £4000, which, from various facilities, may be completed at a moderate outlay; and a junction made with the Swansea Canal, at the distance of 6 miles only " 3. However, on 10 March 1840 the Llanelly Railway's Garnant branch had opened, terminating less than two miles from Hopkins' colliery. Llanelli might be second best to Swansea as a shipping port but the arrival of a railway straight from the dockside to a point so close to the colliery was a powerful argument. In June 1840 Hopkins was awarded the contract for the short two-mile extension from Garnant for £4400 4 and by October he was obviously well at work, for in that month the Coal Company offered ten draft horses for sale, since "a railway now building makes them unnecessary" ( Camb. 3.10.1840). The line was formally opened on 6 May 1841. The only feature of any significance, in terms of engineering, was an incline up from the valley floor at Garnant.
Meanwhile, as the reference to draft horses shows, work had been going ahead on sinking and by now the colliery was producing. Coal was obviously being taken out by horse and cart to the railhead at Garnant. Sinking is said to have started in 1837 5 and in January 1840 the Great Vein, 5 ft 3 ins thick, was reached at 87 fathoms ( Camb. 25.1.1840), which made it the deepest pit in the anthracite belt. The shaft was oval in section, 16 ft by 8 ft, and bratticed to divide it into upcast and downcast. There were two engines and ventilation was by a surface furnace 3,5. In addition to the shaft at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, a second shaft was started a quarter of a mile to the east on Tyr Nant Hir. By 1844 it had been sunk to 30 yards 3 and the Llanelly Railway branch was extended to it, but it never seems to have developed further.
Proving the Great Vein improved the prospects of the business and in March 1840 reserved shares were being offered at a £5 premium ( Camb. 7.3.1840) - perhaps as a management puff! There was also talk of Hopkins starting an ironworks: his retirement as manager of the Victoria works at Ebbw Vale was announced in May 1840. He was said to be returning to Glamorganshire, "the place of his nativity", there to erect an extensive ironworks ( Camb. 2.5.1840). Although Gwaun-cae-Gurwen is not named, it must almost certainly be what was intended. Veins of iron ore were included in the lease and the 1844 sale prospectus emphasises the suitability of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen as the site for an ironworks. It must be remembered that a few years previously, in 1837, a method of using anthracite for iron-smelting had been perfected at the nearby Yniscedwyn ironworks in the Swansea valley, and this led to a proliferation of speculative ironworks on the anthracite coalfield.
By 1842 coal production was up to about 30-40 tons a days but this rate fell short of the 20,000 tons p.a. needed to work out the dead rent. Perhaps it was this disappointing return that led Hopkins to sell out a couple of years later. The colliery was offered for sale by private treaty in 1844 ( Camb. 25.5.1844, etc.) but cannot have found a buyer, for on 8 January 1845 it was sold by auction at Swansea ( 3; Camb. 4.1.1845). The new owners, the Blaencaegurwen Colliery Company, undertook a number of improvements, including the sinking of a second shaft to the north of Hopkins' pit and the re-ordering of the ventilation systems, but they did no further work on the 1838 railway. With the Llanelly Railway running from the pithead to the dockside the day had passed when there was any need to construct a horse-worked railway feeding into the Swansea Canal.
The foregoing differs in several respects from other accounts of Hopkins' venture at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen. A version that has found some circulation is that contained in J.H. Davies, History of Pontardawe and districts which was followed by J.D.H. Thomas in his unpublished MA thesis ' Social and economic developments in the upper Swansea valley' (MA, University of Wales, 1974). Davies gives no source for his version but it appears to derive, in part at least, from a brochure published by the then owners of the colliery in 1927, the Gwauncagurwen Colliery Co., to mark the completion of a new sinking, the Steer Pit. This brochure was probably also the source of three items in the Iron and Coal Trades Review (23.9, 21.10, 28.10.1927). These articles in turn cite no authority, but the assumption must be that they derive from documents then in the possession of the company.
The principal points on which I differ from Davies' account are these:-
1.The start of Hopkins' undertaking. According to Davies (o.c., p. 104), Hopkins' first attempt to win the coal at Gwaun-cae-Gurwen was made in 1832. He sank a pit and started work on his railway to the Swansea Canal, but had to abandon work when he struck water in quantities too great for the pumps to overcome. He then made a second, successful attempt in 1837, again involving the construction of a railway. I am dubious about the historicity of this 1832 venture, which appears to be simply a doublet of 1837. I have not come across any contemporary evidence for work by Hopkins in 1832, whereas, as I have shown above, there are firm dates for his lease in 1837 and for the start of construction work on the railway in 1838. Further, the ICTR articles cited above contain no references to any project in 1832. The supposed 1832 attempt can perhaps be put down to a misreading of his source material on the part of Davies or to confusion on his part between Hopkins' 1837 project and some other short-lived venture involving another entrepreneur in 1832.
2.The winning of the Great Vein. Davies (o.c., p. 44) states that this was in March 1839. This is almost certainly an error. The Cambrian (25.1.1840) has an unambiguous report that "the Great Waynecaegurwen Anthracite or Stone Coal was reached last week". Davies' terminology seems to indicate that his date derives from an advertisement in The Cambrian (7.3.1840) which refers to the "recent" winning of the Great Vein (i.e. in January). This he has mistakenly attributed to 1839, and at the same time he has failed to realise the full force of the word "recent".
3.The seams being worked. Davies (o.c., p. 44) states that sinking was to the "Big or Milford vein". In fact it seems fairly certain that Hopkins only reached the Big (or Great) vein and not the Milford vein which is a totally distinct seam about 30 or 40 fathoms below the Great Vein. This is born out by the paragraph from The Cambrian (25.1.1840) cited above and by information in the advertisement in which the colliery was offered for sale ( Camb. 25.4.1844, etc.). Davies' statement again seems to derive from the advertisement in The Cambrian (7.3.1840) which describes the company as having "just reached the Big or Milford Vein". This wording may have been chosen by the company because they were not quite sure then as to just which vein they had reached: in neighbouring collieries the Great Vein lay much nearer the surface (e.g. 36 yards at Hendreforgan), and they may have wondered whether, at 87 fathoms, they had missed the Great Vein altogether and struck the lower Milford vein.
- 1. H.W. Paar, The Great Western Railway in Dean (2nd ed. Newton Abbot: 1971).
- 2. H.W. Paar, The Severn & Wye Railway (2nd ed. Newton Abbot: 1972).
- 3. 'Particulars of the Gwaun cae Gurwen anthracite and iron mines and works ...'(Sale catalogue, 8 January 1845) (University College of Swansea Library SC /3).
- 4. L. Popplewell, A gazetteer of the railway contractors and engineers of Wales and the borders 1830-1914 (Bournemouth: 1984).
- 5. J.H. Davies, History of Pontardawe and district (Llandybie: 1967).
- 6. 'Report of the Committee appointed to revise the several rates for the purpose of making a general county rate for Glamorganshire' (1842) (Royal Institution of South Wales, Swansea, 37-307).