Memories of the Glamorgan Canal

April 1, 2011 9 Comments »
Memories of the Glamorgan Canal

glamorgan canal

In June 1790 an Act of Parliament was passed, allowing the construction of the Glamorgan Canal “from a place called Merthyr Tydvil …… to and through a place called the Bank, near the town of Cardiff”.

It had taken a long time to get this Act through – for years the ironmasters of Merthyr had found great problems in getting their iron down to the sea, and had been trying to find a better way.

View photos of the Glamorgan Canal

The iron had originally been carried on the backs of mules and horses over the mountains from Merthyr to Cardiff.  Each animal could only carry about a hundredweight, and a woman or boy walked a string of three or four over the trackways for 25 miles.

In 1767, funds were raised for the construction of a road between Merthyr and Cardiff, and for the next 25 years the iron was carried in wagons drawn by horses, which had to be changed at intervals along the road. The wagons had to pay tolls which varied according to the size of the wagon and the type of load carried.

The route of the canal was a very difficult journey. Merthyr is very much higher than Cardiff, and there are several very steep bits along the way. So that meant that there would have to be a number of locks to lower the level of the water where necessary.

In the one mile between Quakers Yard and Abercynon there were 16 locks, 11 of them in only a quarter of a mile.  By the time a boat reached Tongwynlais, it had passed through 41 locks.  But with all this to build, the canal was completed in 3 ½  years.  It was 25 miles long, had 50 locks and an aqueduct, and was later extended from the town wall in Cardiff down to the shore.

Many businesses grew up alongside the canal, including the famous Nantgarw Pottery, and very many of the people in the villages along the way were employed either on the canal or because of it.

There were a set of locks at Abercynon which opened directly into one another and were known as staircase locks.  In very steep spots this was the only way to manage the canal, and there was another staircase later at Taffs Well.

Soon after, the canal went through another lock, this time at Forest Farm, near Whitchurch, and then it was only a short distance to the famous Melingriffith works at Whitchurch, which were connected closely with the Cyfarthfa iron works.    The proprietor of Melingriffith was the treasurer of the canal company and iron from Cyfarthfa and from Pentyrch iron works was carried down the canal to be made into tinplate.

In 1800 the MG tinplate works were reputed to be the largest tinplate works in the world!  The canal was important to them for bringing iron down from Merthyr to be processed, and for shipping their goods down to Cardiff for export.

The lock cottage at Melingriffith lock is still there, but the road now runs where the canal was, and continues on to Hailey park.

Fire was one of the hazards for boats on the canal as boats travelling up from Cardiff to the north often carried cargoes of wooden pit props for the collieries. The Fire boat was commissioned in November 1912 and berthed in the Sea Lock, and was operated by the Fire Brigade.

At the end of the park the canal reached the old Cow and Snuffers which it is said Disraeli once visited.  The Llandaff lock was close by, and very near is the roundabout and main road that runs through the Gabalfa Estate, which once was the College lock and the canal.

The next lock was the Mynachdy lock, and the Excelsior Wire Rope works were built near it. The Cambrian Patent Fuel works were built near here, to take advantage of the quick route to the docks, and John James, a boat builder, made three dry docks on the bank near this lock for his building and repairs, which continued to be used until 1927.

Also in this area was the weighbridge.  It was originally set up at Tongwynlais and later moved to North Road.  It has now been re-erected at the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne.

After Blackweir the canal passed the walls of Cardiff Castle and then went under the road in the subway under Kingsway.  It went on into Queen Street, coming out into Hill’s Terrace, and then into Mill Lane and on to St Mary’s Street.  This was the original terminus of the canal, but it soon became clear that it needed to reach to the docks, mainly because boats could not come high enough to unload.  So it was agreed with Lord Bute that it should be extended, and people living south of the castle were allowed to use the towpath without having to pay – this was one of Lord Bute’s stipulations when he gave the land for the extension.

The canal finally ended in the Sea Lock which ensured that the canal’s water was not lost into the sea.

Problems began to arise as the canal got older.  Near Aberfan there was severe subsidence because of the mines, and the canal was closed from Merthyr to Abercynon in 1898, as a safeguard.  Later, in 1915 Cardiff Corporation bought the canal and declared it closed, but found they could not close the last mile above the sea lock while the sand traders used it.

But events overtook the law, because towards the end of the war one of the sand dredgers called Catherine Ethel crashed into the inner lock gates and the water in the last mile of the canal emptied into the sea. That was that – the gates were never repaired and the canal was abandoned.

What are your memories of the Glamorgan Canal? Let us know in the comments below and posts links to any photos you’ve got of the canal

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  1. Stuart Herbert April 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Great to see the Glamorganshire Canal getting a mention on here :)

    I'm a bit confused by some of the dates mentioned in the article; perhaps the author could help? The Glamorganshire Canal Act is reported elsewhere to have been passed in 1796. It is reported elsewhere that Cardiff Corporation didn't take ownership of the Canal until 1944, and it is reported elsewhere that it was the 5th December 1951 when the sand dredger collided with the sea lock gates.

    • Ed Walker April 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Stu. I will leave it to Christine to answer those questions!

  2. Chas Morris. April 5, 2011 at 11:33 am - Reply

    At the end of the second world war, a friend and I dicovered part of the Canal, under a bomed out building, between the castle and Queen St, we were wmazes to find two barges in there, all quite intact, we were only 6 or 7 years of age, it was reported in the South Wales Echo. Great to read this areticle.

  3. David Slade April 14, 2011 at 8:54 am - Reply

    Great effort is made to place the canal in today’s Cardiff with explanations of where the route was in relation to current landmarks.

    What would really bring this to life would be to overlay a route of the canal onto a map of modern cardiff.

  4. Lisa Robinson August 29, 2011 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    do you have any information on people swimming the canal. my gradfather swam it in the 1930's we think. we have been told he still holds the record, but i dont know where to start can u help in nay way.

    • alan September 2, 2011 at 4:32 pm - Reply

      yes my father in law swam in there well kingsway,ive done some intensive research these last two years spoke to some old ladies which was full of facts and interesting stories,spoke to one bloke he told me his eldest brother was killed he hit his head on the bottom at kingsawy, i have read this before,but i think they found his body 3 days later down the docks,he never mentioned that,also another drowning at blackweir and a ladys grandfather drowning near sunny banks cottages,the canal history is fancinating,theres a new society from pontypridd restoring some locks,its a terrible shame about the canal,thank god for rowsons and wrights books alan

  5. Ron Davies January 14, 2013 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    I'm currently researching my paternal family history.
    My father worked on the canal for a while in his youth, mainly with horses and was based with them at the tunnel which went under Queen street. He certainly swam in the canal as a boy, so he told me.
    My grandfather was a lock keeper at North Road. I had several relatives who lived alongside the canal at Blackweir.

    • alan March 28, 2013 at 1:01 am - Reply

      interesting stories ron,i dont know where we go from here,its seems we have lost our heritage,the canal was so important to cardiff and the valleys it seems to have been forgotten,over the next few months i will take some shots of the canal and make a web page,there are some excellent sites especially the china works in nantgarw as you go up to the house you cross a small bridge parts of the canal as still flowing its incredible no one metions this ,worth a look.

  6. Robin Moore March 2, 2013 at 8:24 am - Reply

    My 3rd great grandfather, Thomas George (1813-1856) was a Lock Keeper who lived initially on Hill's Terrace (which ran alongside the Glamorganshire Canal) and later at 13 Canal Street (near to Bridge Street). I have an old map of Cardiff which shows these streets quite clearly and when you think that Cardiff's population rose from about 1000 in 1801 to about 85,000 in 1881, this area and those who lived in it contributed enormously to the history of Cardiff and what it is today.

    Incidentally, a huge branch of my family tree was in Abersychan through which the canal passed and I often wonder whether this line of transport brought some of my ancestors down from the Valleys into Cardiff.

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