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Neath Canal
Glynneath to Briton Ferry, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, UK
Neath Canal
associated engineer
Thomas Dadford jnr
Thomas Sheasby jnr
date  1791 - 1795, 1798 - 1799
era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  SS762981
ICE reference number  HEW 570
photo  © Hywel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The Neath Canal in south Wales starts at Glynneath and runs south westerly through Neath to Briton Ferry on the coast. It flows through 19 locks, following a winding route that crosses the River Neath on the Ynysbwllog Aqueduct at Clyne. Constructed for the transportation of coal and iron ore, it was the second major canal in south Wales (after the Glamorganshire Canal). It has been partially restored.
In the 1700s, the River Neath was navigable on spring tides from its estuary up to Aberdulais. By the mid 18th century, a 549m long channel with locks ó the Neath Navigable Cut ó had been constructed parallel with the river at Aberdulais. This was one of the earliest canal navigations in Wales, and it served Dulais Forge and the tin plate works at Ynysygerwyn.
In early 1790, George Venables-Vernon (1735-1813, second Lord Vernon) built a 2.2km canal from Giantís Grave, near Briton Ferry, northwards to Penrhiwtyn and the furnaces there. On 12th July the same year, a meeting between Lord Vernon and Neath citizens concluded that a canal from Pontneddfechan to Neath would benefit both people and trade.
In September 1790, the Company of Proprietors of the Neath Canal Navigation held their first meeting and the canalís alignment was approved. It had been surveyed by the canal engineering dynasty of Thomas Dadford junior (1760-1801), his father Thomas Dadford senior (1730-1809) and his brother John Dadford (1769-1809).
Thomas Dadford junior, the project's general surveyor and engineer, submitted an estimate for the work variously reported as £15,716 or £25,716. His original design had a canal with 22 locks on the west side of the river from Glynneath (then called Abernant) to Clyne and a river navigation onwards to Neath. However, Lewis Thomas, Lord Vernon's agent, suggested replacing the river navigation with a canal on the east side of the river. This idea was adopted but it meant a masonry aqueduct with six arches was required to cross the river (Ynysbwllog Aqueduct).
On 6th June 1791, the Neath Canal Navigation Act received royal assent. It conferred powers on the Neath Canal Navigation Company to raise £25,000 capital, in shares of £100 each, with an additional £10,000 to be raised from among company members or by assignment of the rates if the initial sum was insufficient. It also stated that shareholders would receive £5 or 5% per year return until work was completed.
On 18th August, the company instructed Dadford junior to "make out the middle line of the canal". Construction began at once, working northwards from Neath. The canal was to be 9.1m wide and 1.2m deep, with 19 locks, each 18.3m by 2.7m, for vessels of up to 2.5 tonnes.
By mid 1792, the canal was 10.6km long and had reached Ynysbwllog. At this point, Dadford junior resigned from the project to take charge of building the Monmouthshire Canal (1792-9). On 5th July, Thomas Sheasby senior (c.1740-99), joint contractor on the Glamorganshire Canal (constructed 1790-4) with the Dadfords, was appointed as both engineer and contractor to the Neath Canal. His contract stipulated that the canal must be completed by 1st November 1793 at a cost of £14,886.
Sheasby failed to complete the canal, however. In 1794, he and Dadford senior were arrested over irregularities on the Glamorganshire Canal project. He was held in Fleet Prison in London, and never returned to Neath.
The canal was completed in 1795 using direct labour, though lock improvements continued for some time after its opening. The canal then measured 19km and ran from Glynneath to Melyncryddan, Neath.
On 26th May 1798, a second Act of Parliament granted the company powers to extend the canal southwards, from Melyncryddan to Giantís Grave, to take advantage of better facilities for sea-going vessels. The new 2.3km stretch opened on 29th July 1799.
Three short, privately built branches were added to the finished canal ó a branch (constructed 1800) from the north end towards Maesmarchog connected with a tramroad to the collieries; a branch (constructed 1817) east from Aberclwyd, 4km from the north end, served Cnel Bach Lime Kiln; and a 503m long branch from Cwrt Sart, less than 1km from Briton Ferry, connected with a tramroad to Eskyn collieries.
In 1817, Lewis Thomas extended the Neath Canal by 137m south at Giant's Grave, where new docks were being built. Further small extensions were carried out in later years. By 1832, George Child Villiers (1773-1859, fifth Earl of Jersey) had added some 850m to its length, bringing it to Wern Tin Plate Works, to join with his own non-statutory Jersey Canal. In 1843, Neath Canal reached its terminal at Briton Ferry, giving it a total length of 22.3km.
By 1845, the original Neath Canal shares of £100 were worth £340. The canal was well used up until the Vale of Neath Railway opened in 1851. As much as 203,000 tonnes of coal was transported annually along it for export at Briton Ferry.
However, the railway dented the canal's trade, and by 1866 the channel was silting up. Another factor in its decline was the Tennant Canal (built 1821-4), which starts from a junction with the Neath Canal at Aberdulais and flows 12.9km south west to Port Tennant, east of Swansea.
Traffic dwindled further in the 1880s, as barges transferred from the Neath to the Tennant Canal at Aberdulais, to export goods from Swansea. During 1882-6, dividends were not paid to Neath Canal shareholders and, by 1893, its canal trade had stagnated. In 1907, only 5,080 tons of coal were carried, augmented by small shipments of silica from Abernant to Neath and gunpowder from Pontneddfechan to Red Jacket, near Briton Ferry.
By 1921, trade had come to an end. In 1934, navigation ceased and the Neath Canal closed. Ironically, at about the same time, its rival the Tennant Canal also stopped carrying commercial traffic. In 1974, the Neath & Tennant Canals Preservation Society was formed to restore the two canals to navigational use.
In 1980, a flood swept away part of Ynysbwllog Aqueduct (SN803011, completed 1792). Two of the six arches were almost demolished and had to be removed. The canal was carried in pipes across the gap.
In 1990, the preservation society and Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council restored 6km of canal north of Resolven, funded by the Welsh Office and the Prince of Wales Trust. Restoration continued between 1999 and 2005. Several schemes totalling almost £5m were paid for by grants from the Welsh Office RECHAR programme, Welsh European Funding Office, Welsh Development Agency, BP Chemicals and the council, among others.
Between Tonna and Briton Ferry, the canal and towpaths have been upgraded for leisure use. The towpaths are now part of the National Cycle Route. At Ynysarwed, a new prototype chemical treatment plant and a landscaped wetland prevent pollution entering the canal from mine adits. Between Abergarwed and Tonna Lock, polluted sections of the canal have been restored by draining the channel and removing about 65,000 tonnes of contaminated silt. Damaged canal walls, sluices and bridges have been rebuilt along the restored stretches.
In 2007-8, Ynysbwllog Aqueduct was rebuilt and the pipework section replaced with a single-span steel structure 52m long. Three locks at Clyne were also refurbished (pictured). The total cost was £1.6m, funded by the Welsh European Funding Office and the council.
Plans were in progress in 2014 to restore to navigability the section between Abergarwed and Resolven that had been long ago filled in.
Contractor (Neath Navigable Cut, 1791): Edward Elton
Contractor (1791-2): Jonathan Gee
Contractor (1792-4): Thomas Sheasby senior
Contractor (1794-7): direct labour
Contractor (1798-9): Edward Price
Contractor (2003-5): direct labour
Research: ECPK
"Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain" by Joseph Priestley, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, London, 1831
reference sources   BDCE1

Neath Canal