Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

The Swansea Canal

The Swansea Canal is recognised as having made an important contribution to the early development of the Port of Swansea. Built by the Swansea Canal Navigation Company and completed in 1798 at a cost of almost £60,000, the Swansea Canal linked the river wharves of Swansea Harbour with the coal mining and metal manufacturing industries of the Swansea Valley.

Terminating at Abercrave, the canal was over 16 miles long, and incorporated 36 locks which raised the level of the waterway by 373 feet. Aqueducts were built to carry the canal over rivers at Clydach, Pontardawe, Ynysmeudwy, Ystalyfera and Ystradgynlais.

By 1799, as much as 250 tons of coal per day were being transported down the canal, along with other cargoes of manufactured goods destined for export through the Port of Swansea. Meanwhile, cargoes of imported metal ores were carried up the Swansea Valley to the various metal manufacturing works which lay alongside the route of the canal. Other cargoes included limestone, pitprops, pottery, brick, stone and clay. The rapid growth in coal exports carried on the canal can be seen from the following figures:-

1804 – 54,235 tons 

1816 – 159,633 tons 

1825 – 208,433 tons 

1839 – 386,058 tons

Upon completion of the North Dock in 1852, a lock was built to provide a direct link between the Swansea Canal and the upper half-tide basin of the new dock. This replaced the former tidal lock between the canal and the River Tawe. In 1872 the Great Western Railway Company acquired the waterway, paying a sum of £107,666 to the Swansea Canal Navigation Company, plus a further £40,000 to the Duke of Beaufort for the Trewyddfa section of the canal near Morriston.

However, competition from the Swansea Vale Railway, and later from the GWR’s own line between Swansea and Morriston, eventually lead to a substantial reduction in canal-borne traffic, and the Swansea Canal showed its first working loss in 1895. Its final year of being marginally in profit was 1902, and in 1921 the total amount of cargo carried was just 10,600 tons. The lower section of the canal was closed and filled in shortly after the First World War, and traffic ceased completely when the last cargo of coal was carried from Hill’s Colliery, Clydach, in 1931.

(Article contributed by Ian Rogerson)

Map of the Canal where it entered the North Dock. (The breaks in the canal are where the stone bridges went over the canal).

Photo of the Swansea Canal Locks with the North Dock Basin in the background.

Map showing dry docks for the canal barges.

Click here for a photographic journey along the canal, starting from the docks and travelling up the Swansea Valley to Abercrave weir.

Here are some more recent photos of the canal route, taken in 2008.