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The Swansea Canal was a canal constructed by the Swansea Canal Navigation Company between 1794 and 1798, running for some 16.5 miles (26.6 km) from Swansea to Hen Neuadd, Abercraf in South Wales.
It was steeply graded, and 36 locks were needed to enable it to rise 375 feet (114 m) over its length.
The main cargos were coal, iron and steel, and the enterprise was profitable.
Sold to the Great Western Railway in 1873, it continued to make a profit until 1895. A period of decline followed, with the last commercial traffic using the waterway in 1931. Subsequently, parts of it were closed and filled in under a succession of owners, but around 5 miles (8.0 km) remain in water. The Swansea Canal Society, formed in 1981, are actively involved in plans for its restoration.
The canal was constructed to transport coal from the upper Swansea Valley to Swansea docks for export, or for use in the early metallurgical industries in the Lower Swansea Valley. The period 1830-1840 saw the development of towns around the canal: Abercraf, Clydach, Penwyllt, Pontardawe, Ynysmeudwy, Ystalyfera and Ystradgynlais came into being as early industries developed at those locations.
In 1817, Fforest Fawr (English - Great Forest of Brecon was enclosed or divided up into fields, and large parts of it became the property of John Christie, a London businessman. Christie had already developed a limestone quarry at Penwyllt, and decided to develop lime kilns there as well. In 1820 he moved to Brecon, and developed the Brecon Forest Tramroad. This network consisted eventually of over 100 miles (160 km) of tracks connecting the farms of Sennybridge and the Fforest Fawr (where Christie wanted to improve the land through application of lime), with the charcoal burning centres and coal extraction below Fforest Fawr, with the lime kilns at Penwyllt and ironworks at Ystradgynlais, and the Swansea Canal dock for other industries down stream. Before he could complete the system, he went bankrupt
With the development of Swansea harbour from the 1760s, consideration was given as to how the rich mineral resources of the Tawe valley could be moved to the coast. In 1790, William Padley surveyed the valley for a possible canal route, and in 1791, the passing of an Act of Parliament to authorise the nearby Neath & Tennant Canal resulted in calls for a public meeting. A meeting held on 5 April 1793 appointed the canal engineer Thomas Sheasby to conduct a survey. The plans were opposed by the Duke of Beaufort and other traders, who wanted the canal to terminate further up the river near Landore and Morriston, where they already had wharfs. Swansea Corporation favoured the route into Swansea, and offered to contribute towards its cost, whereupon the Duke, the Marquess of Worcester and the Duke's agent withdrew their subscriptions. This action stirred others to subscribe, and £52,000 was raised almost immediately.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached, with the canal terminating in Swansea, but the Duke constructing 1.4 miles (2.3 km) of canal from Nant Rhydyfiliast to Nant Felin, on which he was allowed to charge tolls, which could not exceed the tolls changed by the canal company for use of the rest of the canal. The Duke's section was called the Trewyddfa Canal, but was part of the main line.
An Act of Parliament authorising the construction was passed on 23 May 1794, and the Swansea Canal Company were empowered to raise £60,000 by issuing shares, and a further £30,000 if required. They were also authorised to build tramways to any places within 8 miles (13 km) of the canal, and canal branches to places within 4 miles (6.4 km). The new company took the unusual step of appointing all shareholders who held five or more shares to a steering committee, rather than electing a management committee, and of building the canal using direct labour, rather than appointing contractors. Charles Roberts was the engineer in charge of the project, and was assisted by Thomas Sheasby.
The first section of the canal from Swansea to Godre'r-Graig was opened in 1796, and the whole length of 16.5 miles (26.6 km) was completed by October 1798. Civil engineering works included 36 locks and five aqueducts. The locks on the main section were 69 by 7.5 feet (21 by 2.3 m), but those on the Duke's section were only 65 feet (20 m) long, and this restricted the maximum length of boats. At Swansea, wharfs were built alongside the river, where cargo could be transhipped into coasters. Unusually for such projects, the final cost was well within budget, with the project costing £51,602 up to mid-1798. The steering committee approach obviously worked well, as it was retained until the Company was wound up.< There were originally 36 locks on the canal to raise it from sea level at Swansea to 375 feet (114 m) at Abercraf, and aqueducts at Clydach, Pontardawe, Ynysmeudwy, Ystalyfera, and Cwmgiedd to carry the canal across major rivers.
The boats were 65 feet (20 m) long, 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 m) wide and carried 22 tons of cargo when fully laden. The last narrowboat built on this canal was 'Grace Darling' in 1918 at the Godre'r Graig boat yard.
The opening of the canal caused an increase in industrial activity along the valley, with a number of manufacturing companies setting up works by its banks. Four short branch canals were constructed, and a network of tramways gradually linked mines and quarries to the canal.
In 1804, 54,235 tons of coal and culm were carried, and profits were sufficient to enable a dividend of 3 per cent to be paid. Receipts and dividends rose steadily, reaching £10,522 and 14 per cent in 1840, while in 1860 they were £13,800 and 18 per cent.
There are few records of how much traffic was carried, but estimates based on the amount of coal and culm shipped from Swansea Docks suggest around 386,000 tons in 1839.
The opening of the Tennant Canal to Swansea Docks in 1824 resulted in the Swansea Canal's riverside wharfs being improved, and tolls were reduced to maintain trade levels. The harbour facilities at Swansea were upgraded in 1852, when the river Tawe was diverted into a new channel to the east, and the original channel, which included the trans-shipment wharfs, became a floating harbour. A lock was constructed to give the canal boats direct access to the half-tide basin above the North Dock, and a loop of the canal was constructed along the edge of the new harbour.
The first suggestions that a railway should be constructed along the Tawe Valley, which would be in direct competition to the canal, were made in 1830. More serious railway proposals were made in 1845, when the Canal Company agreed to lease the canal to the Welsh Midland Railway for £4,264 per year, but the scheme foundered. Another scheme to lease the canal to the Neath and Brecon Railway for £9,000 per year in 1864 also foundered.
The 1860s were a hard time for the canal, as the steel industry gradually replaced the iron industry, and ironworks contracted or closed.
In 1871, the Company appoached the Great Western Railway, and negotiated a price of £107,666 for the main Swansea Canal, and £40,000 for the Duke of Beaufort's Trewyddfa Canal. The sale took place on 31 January 1873. Rather than run it down, the Great Western Railway ran the canal well, and it remained profitable until 1895, when losses were first reported, though it recovered a little between 1898 and 1902.
The tonnage of coal carried on the canal was very high, with 385,000 tons transported down the canal to Swansea in 1888 alone.
The last commercial cargo carried on the Swansea Canal was in 1931, when coal was conveyed from Clydach to Swansea. Boats continued to operate on the canal after that date but only for maintenance work, with horse-drawn boats last recorded at Clydach in 1958.
The canal was gradually abandoned, under the terms of a series of Acts of Parliament, starting with the Great Western Railway Acts of 1928 and 1931.
The canal was nationalised in 1947 and became part of the British Transport Commission, whose Acts of 1949 and 1957 brought further closures.
The remainder was closed under the terms of the British Transport Commission Act of 1962, when control of the canal passed to British Waterways, who remain responsible for the maintenance of the waterway and its structures.
In-filling of much of the canal has taken place in the past 50 years, particularly the northern section to create a new road around Ystradgynlais. Just five miles (8 km) of the canal remains in water, from Clydach to Pontardawe where it is now a popular trail and is part of the route 43 of the National Cycle Network. The canal empties from an aqueduct into the Lower Clydach River at the point where it joins the River Tawe. A project is underway to dredge the canal and to remove the Japanese knotweed that grows extensively around the Swansea Valley. The canal is an important habitat for water birds who mainly feed on the eels that live there. Local youngsters from Clydach often set up fishing off the banks of the canal to catch the eels.
In 1981, the Swansea Canal Society was formed, and have been working towards restoration of the remaining sections of the canal. They have done much to improve the physical environment of the canal, and have proposed the development of a 35-mile (56 km) cruising route in conjunction with a restored Neath and Tennant Canal.
On 23 October 1998, after heavy rainfall, water levels in the canal rose, and at Pontardawe, spilled over the towpath and down an embankment. The flow caused the bank to fail, and the breach caused extensive flooding. Thirty houses, some industrial units and town centre shops were affected, with the water up to 4 feet (1.2 m) deep in places.