Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Neath and Tennant Canals is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Waterways World October 1992
The Neath and Tennant Canals
These two canals are usually linked together in the manner of the title although they were never merged or operated as one company However unlike most canals in South Wales they are inter-connected (at Aberdulais, just north of Neath). The Neath canal is almost 30 years older than the Tennant, being the second major canal undertaking in South Wales, the first being the Glamorganshire Canal which on 9 June 1790 was promoted by Act of Parliament.
On 12 July 1790 a meeting was held at the Ship & Castle at Neath, attended by Lord Vernon and local people, at which it was resolved that a canal from Pontneddfechan to Neath would be of great public benefit. Thomas Dadford junior, who was working with his father and Thomas Sheasby as contractor for the Glamorganshire Canal, was asked to do the survey. On 13 September 1790 a second meeting held to approve the line of the canal, surveyed by Thomas Dadford Junior, his father and brother John. At this stage the proposal was to make use of the river for part of the course, and included 22 locks. The completed canal had no river sections and only 19 locks. 1791 saw the Neath Canal promoted by Act of Parliament.
By Mid 1792 Thomas Dadford Junior found it necessary to leave his post of General Surveyor, due to his being given the contract to build the Monmouthshire Canal. By this time he had built the canal from Neath to the site of the proposed Ynysbwllog aqueduct. Thomas Sheasby replaced him, as General Surveyor.
Also in this year Thomas Dadford's brother John, surveyed a line to join
the Neath and Glamorganshire canals by canal and tramway, so starting the Aberdare Canal which was authorized by Act of Parliament in 1793. The connection of canals and tramways was a feature common to many South Wales canals.
The Neath Canal was completed in 1795, but in May 1798 an Act of Parliament passed to extend the canal by 2 1/2 miles to near Briton Ferry. On 29 July 1799 the canal, extended to the Giant's Grave was opened.
Only just over two miles of the Neath Canal are open at present from Resolven north to where the A465 cuts across the canal. At this point the canal is culverted, as it is in many places including the other end of the navigable stretch, just below Resolven Lock where it is crossed by the B4434. The seven locks and other canal works on this stretch are in immaculate condition having been restored over the last few years. Seats are provided by locks and at various other places and the whole navigable part of the canal is kept neat and trim.
Boating on the canal is confined to those who can trail their boats, or to the public boat trips that are available either on the "Thomas Dadford", owned by the Neath and Tennant Canal Preservation Society, or the "Erlys Neath", belonging to West Glamorganshire County Council. The latter takes advantage of the canals maximum dimensions, 60ft by 9ft, which is practically the standard for South Wales canals. No turning points were provided on the Neath Canal, instead boats were built with a bow at both ends and a moveable rudder and tiller.
The Vale of Neath, in which the canal is situated, is exceptionally beautiful, although the A465 does intrude from time to time. The vale was painted by the young J. M. W. Turner, who visited Wales in 1792 and again in 1798, although I don't know on which occasion he came to Neath. Nor was Turner the only artist to visit the area, Richard Wilson and string of lesser known professional painters came to see the Vale, the waterfalls (including Aberdulais Falls), the castles and the host of other picturesque sights offered by the area.
Below Resolven is a short length which has been recently cleared, as far as the derelict Farmer's Lock, and is crossed by a cast iron aqueduct carrying a stream which crosses over the canal and then flows down into the River Neath. After the lock the next half mile is over grown and the towpath is impassable. The towpath is walk able, and for the most part well maintained, from the Ynysbwllog Aqueduct to Aberdulais, about 4 miles.
Ynysbwllog Aqueduct proves something of a disappointment. The original five arched aqueduct has been replaced by three large rusty pipes which maintain the water supply to the rest of the canal. The canal's importance as a water supply route has ensured a flow of water down its whole length, but below Resolven most of the lock gates are missing and some of the lock chambers in a poor state.
At Aberdulais the Neath Canal forks left, while through the bridge on the right is Aberdulais Basin and the start of the Tennant Canal. The basin contains the remains of an old iron clad ice-breaker, the "Dorothy", which can be seen next to the aqueduct taking the canal out of the basin and across the River Neath. The Aberdulais Aqueduct is still impressive, 340 foot long with ten arches, it crosses the fast flowing river just below a weir. On the other side of the aqueduct is the only lock on the Tennant Canal, which still looks in working order, although the aqueduct is blocked at both ends.
George Tennant with William Kirkhouse as his engineer, had started the Red Jacket (Neath & Swansea Junction) Canal in 1817, it was finished in 1818 and linked an existing coal canal to the River Neath. It was clear that taking barges across the tidal river was not an ideal situation, also George Tennant had an idea to link the Neath and Tawe rivers, thus giving those in the Vale of Neath the chance to use the Port of Swansea.
In 1821 Tennant Canal building began without an Act of Parliament, an unusual and risky proceeding as no compulsory purchases of land could be made, this did cause some difficulties latter when work was delayed due to a reluctant landowner. The canal ran from Port Tennant harbour, at the mouth of the River Tawe, near Swansea, to Aberdulais Basin where in joins the Neath Canal immediately after crossing the River Neath, by means of the Aberdulais Aqueduct. In May 1823 the, aqueduct was started, and on 13 May 1824 the Tennant Canal opened.
Both canals enjoyed many years of prosperous trading, shares of the Neath Canal rising from their original £107 10s to £400. In 1846 the Vale of Neath Railway Act passed and in 1851 the line was opened. At first this did not have a great impact on the canal as the railway ran on the opposite side of the river, but in time it led to the reduction of tolls and by 1880 the Neath Canal Committee were looking for new traffic and ways to reduce costs, from 1882 to 1886 Neath Canal dividends were not paid.
Navigation ceased on the Neath Canal in 1934 and about the same time the Tennant canal stopped carrying commercial traffic. Both the canals owe their survival to their use as a water source for local industries. Their banks are intact and the channels are clear in many places. The main obstacles to reopening the Neath canal appear to be the culverts at Resolven, and to the North on the A465, the missing aqueduct at Ynysbwllog, also the need to rebuild many of the locks.
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