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