Canals & Railways

This area was covered in railway sidings and the Gwendraeth railway station was near the the Neptune Hotel.

THE CANALS

FROM THE SCHOOL RESOURCE
Canals

As the demand for natural resources grew during the industrial revolution, new and more efficient means of transport were required by industrialists to move their resources and goods around.

In the mid 18th century the road network across Wales, although extensive did not have the well kept surfaces we expect from public highways today. The easiest method of transporting goods around was by ship. A fuller discussion of the means of shipping can be found elsewhere on the website. The biggest problem for industry lay in how to get the goods to a ship in the first place.

Pembrey and Burry Port are on the coast and within the Carmarthenshire range of the South Wales Coalfield. Where coal measures are found near the coast they were usually exploited in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution and are where early industry thrived as was the case in the Pembrokeshire range of the coalfield. However that does not appear to be the case for Pembrey, Burry Port even though the coal measures were to be found near the surface and close to the sea. This was due in part to the difficulties with navigating the treacherous and shifting sands of the Burry estuary and also because the extensive dunes and marshes separated the mines from the sea.

Canal and tramroad systems were a very new innovation in 1768 when Thomas Kymer opened his that linked his mines at Pwll y Llygod and a purpose built quay to the west of Kidwelly. The benefits of this were immediately apparent to local landowners and entrepreneurs, as canal boats could carry more coal to the waiting ships in one journey than dozens of carts could by road.

The Ashburnham estate was already mining the coal measures on their land at Coed Rhial and Coed y Marchog on the western edge of Pembrey Mountain in the during the 1700’s. So from 1796 the estate planned and built a canal which struck out to the north west from these mines, across Pinged marshes to a loading stage at two adapted pills (a pill is a steep sided stream channel in a marsh) called Pill Towyn and Pill Du on the southern banks of the Gwendraeth Fawr.

The canal proved difficult and expensive to maintain as it was very low lying and was prone to flooding on the highest tides. By 1818 the canal fell out of use when the mines that it served were emptied.

Elsewhere, the Kidwelly and Llanelly Canal and Tramroad Company (KLLCT) was formed in 1812. Its aim was to build a network of canals and tramroads that would link the mines of the Gwendraeth valley with the two harbours in the company name. It was a popular venture with many mine owners and industrialists but large delays meant that by 1824 the network only extended from the Ashburnham canal to Pontyates. The delays had been caused by the attempts to deepen the river channel at Kidwelly proving too difficult and expensive to maintain. However developments at Pembrey provided food for thought for the engineers and backers at KLLCT.

In 1819 Pembrey harbour was opened. It had been built to directly serve the interests of local entrepreneurs and so was designed to deal with the coal traffic from a small number of mines and an iron forge. It had been created by diverting streams to erode and widen a channel at the mouth of the Derwydd stream, opposite a known mooring point in the estuary Carreg Edwig.

The new harbour may have seemed to provide the KLLCT with an asset to the network; even by the early 1820’s their engineers John Rennie and Edward Bankes, did not think it would be able to deal with the expected traffic on the main canal. So the idea to construct a larger harbour a short distance to the east was first mooted. This harbour would then be connected to Llanelli by tramroads and by canal to the Gwendraeth Valley mines. It took another decade before these plans were followed through.

The Pembrey Iron & Coal Company decided to build a canal link between Pembrey Harbour and the KLLCT canal to take advantage of access to the wider network and from 1823 Pembrey Canal was built. It terminated in the area of the links today and the basin was called Glo Caled, with a short tramroad to the harbour side.

While the KLLCT canal remained as it was for much of the 1820’s, plans to build Pembrey New Harbour were put in place from 1825 and it was finally opened in 1836. In 1832 KLLCT appointed a new engineer James Green who connected the existing canal (and majorly renovated it) with the new harbour site and by 1836 it too was open and carrying coal barges from the Gwendraeth valley.

The canal had branches leading to both the inner and outer harbours, almost surrounding it. The date of the canal system’s final opening is very late in comparison to that of other mineral canal networks and it also operated until the late 1860’s, much later than others. The reasons why canals and tramroads were favoured over railways for so long are many but primarily are due to the engineering restrictions of the available routes and the associated cost with their replacement.

The Railways

By the 1860’s the canal and tramroad system was unable to cope with the output from the collieries, and a sequence of Acts of Parliament brought about the formation of the Burry Port and Gwendreath Valley Railway Company (BPGVR) into existence in 1866. The name had been misspelled in the Act with the e and a accidentally transposed and it remained the company name for its whole existence.

The BPGVR set about filling in the canals, relaying the tramroads and building a railway to connect the collieries with the quay at Kidwelly and Burry Port Harbour. The new railway company was also a major stakeholder in the running of the harbour.

The engines the BPGVR used were quite varied but were significant in that they all had to meet specific criteria to work the line. As the railway followed the old canal and tramroad route, it inherited a number of bridges along its route that could not be easily altered, which essentially meant the engines could only be of a certain height, width and length to pass through.

The BPGVR was a mineral line from the outset, but it did run un-official passenger routes on occasion, carrying miners and their families to the seaside on day trips and holidays and from 1898 workers services were run for commuting colliers as well a weekly market trips. However mineral lines were not meant to carry passengers and so weren’t inspected for safety with that in mind. After a collision between a locomotive and a workers train in 1903, the company received a written warning and after an inspection, they were only allowed to operate the workers trains.

There was however a growing public demand for services along the line, and BPGVR appointed Colonel Holman Fred Stephens as a consultant in 1908 to advise on the requirements to get the line recognised as a light railway. The advice was taken and works conducted to improve the safety standards on the line, and from August 1909 they ran public services between Burry Port and Pontyberem, and eventually extended this to Cwm Mawr.

The line was popular, particularly with the Gwendraeth valley mining workforce, as it allowed them to commute to and from work daily. This relationship continued after the 1922 merger into Great Western Railways (GWR), where the BPGVR, like the majority of small railways of the time was merged into one of the 4 regional railways. The line even survived GWR’s eventual merger into British Railways in 1948, although the passenger services ended in 1953 as passenger numbers were too low; as they were across the whole country in the post-war period. The workers were instead provided with bus services and the line returned to being a solely mineral line.

The line continued to be used in this way until 1996 when the final coal train departed Cwmmawr, although a small section of the line between Kidwelly and the Coed Bach Disposal Point was in use until 1998. After that the rails were lifted and the route has since become a cycle and footpath.

If you walk around the harbour and follow the canal/railway routes, you can still see lots of evidence related to them. When shifting sands allow, the remains of a number of canal-boats can be seen buried in front of the east-harbour arm. A watery ditch to the south of the west harbour shows where the canal used to be. If you walk the routes you can see the low bridges, some of which still bear rope marks from the canal barges and imagine the steam and then diesel engines working the line.

MORE ABOUT THE BURRY PORT AND GWENDRAETH VALLEY RAILWAY.

Early transport development of coal and other minerals in the district was by feeder tram-roads to canals all leading to coastal loading points such as at Kidwelly and, after 1819, Pembrey Harbour.

By the mid-1830s a canal linked Cwmmawr to the new dock in Burry Port, constructed first in 1832. The canal operated for some 30 years but became increasingly obsolescent given the development and expansion of the railway network.

The Burry Port and Gwendraeth Valley Railway (BP&GVR) as a mineral railway was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in July 1865 from the amalgamation of the Burry Port Harbour Co. and the Kidwelly and Burry Port Railway Co. (formerly the Kidwelly and Llanelly Canal and Tramway Co.). The railway was to be constructed largely and, in so far as circumstances permitted, on the route of the now obsolete canal.

Construction work commenced in September 1869 and the line to Pontyberem was open for traffic by July 1870. Over the next 20 years various extensions to the network were added: small branch lines to individual collieries, to Kidwelly in 1873, Cwmmawr in 1886 and Llanelli in 1891. Eventually there were connections to the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Burry Port, Llanelli and Kidwelly. The total length of the railway was some 21 miles.

Because it had been constructed on / over the original canal / towpath, the railway had unusual features and problems. The line was prone to flooding, had low bridges, some sharp curves and steep gradients especially in the upper reaches of the valley. It was also operated without signalling. As a consequence the safe and efficient movement of rolling stock was compromised. Early in the 1870’s two Fairlie patent double-bogie locomotives, suited to the nature of the line, (one named “Mountaineer”) provided the motive power.

At times throughout the late 19th.century both the BP&GVR and its customers faced a challenging economic climate. As the company was completely dependent on the fortunes of the various collieries serviced it was frequently unprofitable and was in receivership between 1881 and 1898. Throughout this period it was maintained and managed under the severe monetary constraints, imposed by Chancery officials, by John James Russell (1827 – 1898), formerly the long serving Company Secretary. The late 1890s saw a rapid improvement in the fortunes of the company; about 138,000 tons of coal were profitably transported over the line in the latter half of 1894.

Around the turn of the 20th century the increased production of anthracite / high quality coal in the valley, combined with better management building on the foresight of John James Russell, continued the transformation in the fortunes of the company. Subsequently, much of the pre-First World War improvement was due to the input of the Consultant Civil Engineer Colonel Holman Fred Stephens (1868 – 1931). From his offices in Kent he specialised in the planning, construction and management of a number of Light Railways throughout rural areas in both England and Wales as empowered in the Light Railways Act 1896. His involvement between 1908 and 1913, with the support of the Board of Directors, resulted in the railway being reconstructed / refurbished with heavier rails, “new” second-hand and modified equipment both locomotives and passenger coaches, signalling equipment, and the construction, on very simple lines, of stations and halts.

The company flourished with coal traffic from some 20 collieries increasing dramatically necessitating “round the clock” working. In 1911 some 550,409 tons of coal and other goods were transported; a doubling of the quantity transported in 1896. It was also profitable, dividends of 10% or more being paid to investors through to amalgamation with GWR in 1923. Eventually the BP&GVR had 15 locomotives and some 30 coaches, some of the latter had been used on the London Underground system.

For many years the company, in contravention of regulations, had on special occasions and at holiday times, carried passengers. In addition there were unofficial “workman’s services” for the local miners and a Thursday family-based “market train” to Llanelli. To overcome the Board of Trade regulations regarding passenger operations, no passenger fares were charged on either type of service. The miners had deductions from wages and families were charged per parcel brought back from market. These unofficial actions were tacitly condoned by the authorities and eventually recognised in the Light Railway Orders of 1909 and 1911. The first official passenger service ran on 2nd August 1909 and some 57,000 passengers were carried in the first six months of operation. In 1910 over 110,000 passengers, excluding colliers or other workmen, were carried.

Throughout the early 20th century the export of coal increasingly shifted via the GWR to the docks in Swansea. Burry Port declined as a port, though the exchange sidings at the port were frequently congested with both full and empty coal trucks awaiting movement.

GWR became part of British Rail in 1948 and both the passenger and freight services continued to be operated. A total of 71,397 passenger journeys were recorded for the year 1949 but all passenger services on the line ceased in 1953. After 1945 mineral extraction in the area declined steeply. The coal freight services operated by several specially height reduced Class 03 shunters, later replaced by Class 08 locos, continued though large sections of the network were closed progressively in the 1960’s as the various collieries ceased production. The final short section of the line at Kidwelly was closed in 1998. Subsequently several sections of the line have been turned into walking / cycling trails.

PAUL BARRETT August 2019

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