THE ROLE OF THE TRAMROAD IN EARLY LOCAL INDUSTRY
Anyone playing golf in Pembrey or taking a walk nearby cannot avoid seeing the embankment which drives through the Ashburnham golf course. However, not everyone knows that it is the remains of a tramroad built in around 1820 to take coal from a pit to the old Pembrey harbour. It crosses the former Kidwelly and Llanelly Canal over a single span stone bridge which is grade II listed by Cadw as a ‘rare surviving early 19th century tramroad bridge’. A close look at the walls of the bridge reveals the marks of tow ropes from the barges pulled along the canal. Later the canal was taken over by the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Railway. The embankment carried what was called the Stanley Tramroad but was actually built by industrialist Thomas Gaunt to transport coal from his Ivy Pit. Now a fascinating landmark and reminder of the collieries that used the harbour to export their coal, the tramroad was horse drawn and extended for about a mile.
Tramroads were nothing new but given new impetus by the industrial revolution in the transportation of coal and minerals from a mine or quarry to a port or to a canal. Although they were largely built to serve and act as an extension to canal systems they were in fact considerably easier and cheaper to build than a canal An early form of ‘railway’, they were at first horse-drawn waggon ways with the wooden rails guiding the wheels by grooves or with flanged wheels. However wear and tear along with rotting in a damp environment meant that such rails never lasted a long time. Later the rails were laid (according to the principles of civil engineer and canal and tramway pioneer Benjamin Outram with un-flanged wheels which ran on L-section tracks fixed to stone-block sleepers and called ‘plateways’. The ‘L’ shaped rails had an inner ledge or flange. After 1750 wooden wheels began to be replaced by cast iron wheels which allowed greater capacity in the waggon. Later in the century cast iron ‘edge rails’ were laid down raised above the ground and on stone sleepers in to allow a flanged cast-iron wheel to run on them. The space between the rails would have been cobbled or have a surface which was suitable for horses to be used on them.
Rails today. Whereas rails used to be made of wood, cast iron and then wrought iron, today they are made of high-quality hot rolled steel which can withstand high stresses. Early railways had a variety of gauges but 4ft 8½ins came to be adopted as standard in the north east of England and later nationally. Brunel adopted a gauge of 7ft 00in; subsequently an extra ¼in was added to provide greater clearance between wheel flanges and rails on curves. Local broad gauge lines were converted to standard gauge in 1872.
Coal mining and heavy industries needed efficient transport and the earliest railways around Llanelli combined with the canals to get coal to the sea in ‘carts’ which were about 4’ long and 2’ wide. The first official railway was the Carmarthenshire Tramroad which was horse-drawn. Next was the Llanelly Railway and Dock Co. (1835) which began as horse-drawn but later used steam engines. The former Carmarthenshire Tramroad route was reopened in 1883 by the Llanelly and Mynydd Mawr Railway serving mines in the Cross Hands area. In 1802 Alexander Raby built a horse-drawn tramway (known as the Carmarthenshire Railway) which connected his furnace with his forge at Sandy and his collieries. This led down to a shipping place at Seaside in the Llanelli Flats which was later known as the Carmarthenshire Dock. Here Raby imported iron ore and exported coal and iron products. Eventually the tramway climbed from sea-level to 150 metres high and ended near Cross Hands. He was able to find in the area limestone, iron ore and coal. A return journey along the 12 miles took two horses, pulling loaded waggons weighing three tons, a whole day.
You can walk along part of the route of Raby’s tramway. Go along Raby Street in Sandy, turn right into Parkview terrace alongside the pond and then bear left along the footpath.
You can also visit on special days the old Llanelli and Mynydd Mawr Railway at the site of the former Cynheidre Colliery. The railways was laid largely on Raby’s old Carmarthenshire Railway.
In Burry Port George Bowserhad carted coal from his collieries at Cwm Capel along a rutted tramway to a shipping point east of Burry Port called Barnaby Pill. From here it was taken by barge to the deep water at North Pool near the rocky outcrop of Carreg Edwig, where it would be transferred to larger ships. The exported coal was known in the trade as Barnaby Pill coal. He next laid a new tramway to the newly built harbour at Pembrey, but when he withdrew from the harbour project he ran a tramway to the new Burry Port harbour completing it a year before it opened. When the copperworks owners, Mason and Elkington, bought the tramway and the colliery, they converted it to a standard gauge railway to take steam trains.
On a pleasant uphill walk from the Heritage Trail panel situated on the ‘Old Tramway’ it is possible to follow a footpath from the town centre and trace the tramroad route up to the remains of Cwm Capel Colliery.
The area around Pembrey Harbour in the early part of the 19th century wasbusy with the transportation provided by canal and tramroad. The first canal in Wales was built in 1768 when Thomas Kymer opened his canal linking his mines at Pwll y Llygod and a purpose built quay to the west of Kidwelly. Canal boats could carry more coal to the waiting ships in one journey than dozens of carts could by road, but the tramroads were still needed as an important part of the networks. The best known tramroad links with the Pembrey Harbour, in addition to Stanley’s tramroad, were with the canal built by Thomas Gaunt’s Pembrey Iron and Coal Company, built in 1824 to transport coal by horse-drawn barges from his collieries in the Llandyry and Trimsaran district. It was a two mile canal which joined up with the Kidwelly and Llanelly canal and terminated at the group of cottages called Glo Caled, now on the Links in Pembrey. A tramroad ran from this to the harbour and also north carrying iron ore to Gaunt’s iron works at Furnace.
The new Burry Port Harbour, completed in 1836, needed the system of canals and tramroads and at an early date the tramroads from Cwm Capel and Pwll collieries were operational providing a line to the north of the harbour and down to the two jetties on the west pier.
You can walk around part of the route of the old tramway in Pwll at the back of Bethlehem Chapel off the main Pwll Road.
Tramroads, the forerunners of the railways as we know them, were an important element in the integrated systems of the early industrialists in this area.
GRAHAM DAVIES August 2022
1. Discovering Britain’s First Railways, Mark Jones, The History Press, 2012.
2. The Canals of the Welsh Valleys and Their Tramroads, D.D. and J.M. Gladwin, The Oakwood Press, 1991.
3. The Burry Port and Gwendreath Valley Railway and its Antecedent Canals, R. Miller, The Oakwood Press, 2009.