The Glamorganshire Canal


Between 1750-1800, the metal industries to the north of Cardiff increased production as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum. The Melingriffiths Works at Whitchurch, with its two  mills, a forge and a brickyard, became a major manufacturer of tinplate. Bird's Directory for 1796 reveals that the Melingriffiths Works exported 13,000 boxes of tinplate to Bristol during that year, an amount which increased rapidly during the war with France.

Small-scale iron production began at Merthyr and Dowlais about 1760. Forty years later, its natural resources of iron ore, limestone and coal, together with the enterprise of the iron masters, had turned Merthyr into the "Iron Capital' of the world. It rapidly became the largest town in Wales with a population equal to that of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea combined. As late as 1871, the borough  was still the most heavily populated in Wales, its workforce dependent on the four great ironworks in the town.

The Dowlais Works, founded by John Guest, was employing 7,000 men in 1845. Twenty years earlier the Homfrays of Penydarren had produced the cable for Telford's suspension bridge across the Menai Strait. The Plymouth Works was owned by the Hill family, but the most famous of all the iron masters were the Crawshays of Cyfarthfa. The second William Crawshay, known to his contemporaries as the "Iron King', left a monument to his wealth in the mock castle he built for his home. Today Cyfarthfa Castle is an art gallery and museum, testifying to Merthyr's meteoric rise in the Industrial Revolution.

The Merthyr of that era left a deep impression on every visitor. George Borrow wrote of its "gloomy satanic character ... streams of molten metal ... all kinds of dreadful sounds'. This suggestion of Dante's Inferno is echoed by Thomas Carlyle in 1850, when he wrote: "It is like a vision of Hell and will never leave me ... these poor creatures toiling all in sweat and dust, amid these furnaces, pits and rolling mills'.

During the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, iron was transported by mule across the mountain ridges to the quay at Cardiff. By 1767 a road had been built along the valley from Merthyr and it became possible to convey the iron in wagons. Each wagon needed four horses to pull a load of two tons, and in addition a regular change of horses was required every few miles. Small quantities of iron could be moved in this cumbersome manner but, as the forges of Merhyr increased their output,this form of transport was extremely expensive and the iron masters searched for an alternative.


The construction of a canal from Merthyr to Cardiff was the obvious method of lowering costs and, under the leadership of Richard Crawshay, the interested parties obtained a private act of Parliament to build the Glamorganshire Canal. While Crawshay acquired the largest shareholding, all the iron masters, together with the Melingriffiths Company, invested substantially in the enterprise.

Thomas Dadford and Son, and Thomas Sheasby were given the contract to build the canal which proved to be a remarkable feat of engineering. The land fall of 568 feet from Merthyr to Cardiff required the construction of 51 locks and, at Quakers' Yard where the valley descended 200 feet in half a mile, it was necessary to build a triple staircase of locks. Engineers,  using the most primitive of surveying instruments, planned the route,  but it was the sturdy navigators, or "navvies', who performed the  Herculean task of carving out the waterway, aided only by their picks  and shovels.

Operations began in August 1790 and, less than four years  later on 10 February 1794, the first barge entered Cardiff, carrying a  cargo for the Melingriffiths Company.  Brightly decorated in bunting and  flags, it was cheered along its way by the excited townspeople. For a  while the barges and their horses, plodding along the towpath, provided  a novel attraction but they soon became a part of the daily scene in  Cardiff.

The Glamorganshire Canal flowed past the Melingriffiths Works  at Whitchurch, where an attractive half-mile stretch has been left in  its natural state as a conservation area. The canal then took an  easterly direction towards Llandaff North and Gabalfa,  before  proceeding through Mynachdy towards North Road and Cardiff. At  Blackweir, a lock-keeper's cottage survived until the Second World War  when it was destroyed in the Blitz.

The route of the canal through  central Cardiff is shown on the map. The tunnel at Kingsway, now serving  as an underpass, is one of the few tangible remains of the canal, and  the rubbing post for the rope, which once pulled the barges through the  tunnel, can still be seen.

Tolls were calculated and the cargoes were  weighed at the weighbridge in Crockerton, where Queens West is now  situated. The boat and its freight were lifted out of the water to be  weighed in a cradle. Tolls were fixed by statute at 2d per ton  per mile for heavy cargoes such as iron ore, sand or coal, and  5d per ton per mile for general merchandise. The weighbridge was  removed to North Road in 1894, a site it occupied for the next sixty  years, before it was given a new home at the Stoke Bruerne Waterways  Museum in Northamptonshire.

The canal was now following the route of  the earlier Town Moat. As the barges passed under Crockerton Street, winding gear pulled them through a tunnel more than a hundred yards long. Running parallel with the Hayes, the canal gradually turned into Mill Lane, reaching the terminus originally intended for it, near the river half a mile south of St. Mary Street.

Before the Glamorganshire Canal was completed, it was clear that it could not realise its full potential without direct access to the sea. Accordingly, a further act of Parliament sanctioned the construction of a basin leading from St. Mary Street to the foreshore. The basin was a mile long, 90-100 feet wide, and at its entrance a sea lock was capable of accepting ships of 200 tons. The East and West Canal wharves of the canal basin soon provided a scene of bustling activity, as the largest vessels ever seen in Cardiff were loaded with the aid of newly installed hoists and lifting tackle.

The total cost of the canal, including the sea basin, was £103,000. In June 1798 the first ship, appropriately named Cardiff Castle, sailed into the basin. The atmosphere was like a carnival, as "a naval procession took place... attended by firing of guns, and the ships in the harbour, belonging to a few nations at peace with England, entering the basin with their respective colours flying'.

While the iron masters were the major shareholders in the canal company, they were also business competitors. It was not long before the Crawshays were accused of unfair practice in their exploitation of the canal. The Melingriffiths Company complained that it was being deprived of its source of power because the Cyfarthfa Ironworks was taking an excessive amount of water from the Taff, in order to maintain the water level of the canal. Legal wrangling over a period of twenty-five years cost the Melingriffiths Works £20,000.

Crawshay's rivals in Merthyr resented the manner in which his company manipulated its usage of the canal at their expense. Angered by the persistent traffic delays between Merthyr and Abercynon, they decided to build a railway to Cardiff. After some wrangling, the iron masters reached a compromise, and a tramroad, nine miles long, was constructed from Merthyr to Abercynon where it joined the canal.

The trams were drawn by horses, but in 1804 a vision of the future appeared when the first ever steam railway journey was tested along the track. Samuel Homfray wagered £500 with Richard Crawshay that a steam locomotive could pull 10 tons of iron along the nine miles of tramway. Homfray won his bet as the engine, designed by the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick, accomplished its task in four hours. The age of the steam railway, however, was still some time away, as Trevithick's machine was unable to cope with the steep gradients on the return journey.

For more than forty years the canal was the principal highway from Merthyr to Cardiff. The barges carried up to 24 tons of cargo, a quantity which had previously required the services of 12 wagons, 12 men, 12 boys and 48 horses. New industries began to flourish the whole length of the canal. The Brown Lenox Chain Works was established at Pontypridd in 1818, and Nantgarw Pottery became famous for the manufacturing of porcelain. Passengers too used the canal and, in 1793, Judge Hardinge, accompanied by Samuel Homfray and a harpist to entertain them, hired a barge from Merthyr to Pontypridd, completing their journey to Cardiff on horseback.

Over 320,000 tons of freight was transported along the Glamorganshire Canal in 1838. The waterway was open 24 hours a day, including Sundays, but the  tremendous growth in trade placed a heavy burden on its facilities. The constant succession of locks was always a cause of delay, made more acute if there was frost in winter or drought in summer. The sea lock was extended in 1814, but a proposal to widen and deepen the canal in 1823 was thwarted by the Second Marquess of Bute who had other plans in mind. Since the canal crossed his land, any schemes to modernise it were pointless without his approval.

The construction of the Taff Railway and the building of the first Bute Dock eventually made the Glamorganshire Canal obsolete. Yet, in spite of its limitations, the canal continued to prosper for some years to come. It was not until about 1860 that competition from the new docks and railways began to bite and the volume of traffic on the canal began to decline. The costs of maintenance were also rising, especially when mining operations caused subsidence. For this reason the canal from Merthyr to Abercynon was of no further use by 1898 and, after 1915, following the closure of the canal north of Pontypridd, only the section between Pontypridd and Cardiff remained in service.