THE MERTHYR TRAMROAD
Gross, J., Merthyr Historian, Vol. 1, Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society, 1976
Tramroads are an important form of communications in the development of the iron and coal industry. They were usually built to bring the goods to a canal for further shipment, but were also used for the transport of raw materials to the iron works. According to Bertram Baxter (Stone Blocks and Iron Rails) there were 350 route miles at one time in South Wales alone.
The Merthyr iron works originally had to use the mountain road via Gelligaer and Caerphilly to Cardiff using pack animals. In 1767 a road was constructed on the initiative of Anthony Bacon of the Cyfarthfa Iron Works, which followed the valley of the Taff. The iron was brought down by wagons drawn by four horses, attended by a man and a boy. They carried two tons of iron goods. Even Mr. Bacon's cannon for the American War were so transported to the Cannon Wharf in Cardiff. The road was improved after 1779, when a Turn Pike Trust was formed. A public coach service was established from Merthyr to Cardiff, with a change of horses at the Duke of Bridgwater's Arms at Glyn Taf. The same public house was used to hold meetings of the Glamorganshire Canal Company, after the canal was built.
The Glamorganshire canal was an important further stage in the development of communications between Merthyr and Cardiff. It was again fostered by the proprietors of the Cyfarthfa Iron Works, now owned by Crawshay and Company. The Canal Act was passed in 1790 and the canal opened in 1794. By that time a tram road had been built to connect the Dowlais furnaces with the new canal at Jackson's Bridge in Merthyr. The canal could carry barges of 20-25 tons capacity all the way to Cardiff. The canal was a great financial success. There were however difficulties. The journey was slow due to numerous locks. In the Abercynon section for instance there is a drop of 200 ft. The locks there are still impressive. Another difficulty was lack of water in the summer months. This was made worse by the fact that other adjoining works had the right to take water from the river, such as the feeder to the Plymouth Iron Works. This started at a weir near the old iron bridge in Merthyr. Many law suits were fought between the Canal Company and various works along the canal. A third difficulty was the alleged preference given on the canal to goods of the Cyfarthfa works, belonging to the Crawshays who also had a controlling interest in the canal company.
For these reasons the proprietors of the other iron works in Merthyr, the Dowlais Iron Works, the Penydarren Iron Works and the Plymouth Iron Works, sought to promote an Act of Parliament enabling them to build a tramroad to Cardiff. In 1799, a bill was brought in by these ironmasters to make and maintain a Dram Road from or near a place called Carno Mill in the Parish of Bedwellty in the County of Monmouth to the town of Cardiff, with a branch to the Limestone-rocks in the Parish of Merthyr Tydfil. (This is shown on a map which can be seen in the County Archives in Cardiff.) The bill was opposed and not proceeded with.
The Cyfarthfa Works from the Cyfarthfa Bridge after re-opening, taken about 1890. The Pandy and Castle Mills on the left became the Bessemer Department and the Numbers One and Two Steel Mills. The three Cowper stoves behind the blast engine-house had a diameter three feet larger and were twenty feet higher than the other twelve. (See Clive Thomas, Section 4)
View of the Cyfarthfa Works from above the Swansea Road in the early 1920's. To the right of the derelict furnaces can be seen the ranges of 180 Coppee coke ovens which were capable of making 2,000 tons of coke weekly. (See Clive Thomas, Sect. 4)
The Cyfarthfa Works site, 1970. On the left can be seen the corner of the retaining wall behind which are the remains of the seven original Cyfarthfa blast furnaces. (See Clive Thomas, Section 4)
Instead, a trarnroad was eventually built under clause 57 of the Glamorganshire Canal Act. This allows proprietors of any works lying at a distance of four miles from some part of the canal to make a railroad to the canal for the purpose of carrying coal, iron, limestone and other minerals. The tramway promoters contended that they could choose any spot along the canal where they wanted to join it, and they chose Navigation, 8-1/2 miles from Merthyr. There does not seem to have been any opposition to this.
The Merthyr Tramroad Company was formed as a partnership. Shares were held as follows: -
The Dowlais Company held 5 shares.
The Plymouth Company held 4 shares.
The Perydarren Company held 5 shares.
The agreement was made on 18th January 1799.
The line of the track can be seen in the attached plan, which states that it shows the tramroad circa 1804. The trarnroad consists of three principal sections, namely:
1. Merthyr to the basin in Abercynon (Navigation),
2. Dowlais to Merthyr to the Dowlais Company's quay near Jackson's Bridge.
3. Penydarren to Morlais Quarries.
Map courtesy of Alan George’s Old Merthyr Tydfil
Construction of the Tramroad
It is said that the Chief Engineers of the tram road were Richard Hill and William Taitt. (Bevan, Glamorgan Historian Ill.) George Overton was the engineer, Curl laid the plates (Trevithick and the Merthyr Tramroad by Stanley Mercer.). The tramroad was completed in 1803. The track is 9-1/2 miles long, falls steadily 341 ft. to the canal basin in Abercynon. The ruling gradient is 1 in 50, the average gradient 1 in 145.
1 have found no reference to cost but costs of similar trarnroads have been given: The Aberdare Canal Company built a tramroad at ₤1,500 per mile, the Hay-Brecon Railway cost ₤2,700 a mile. If we assume ₤2,000 per mile then the 10 miles Merthyr to Abercynon must have cost some ₤20,000.
The construction of the tramroad consists of stone sleepers and cast iron rails. Originally rails were made of wood, later protected by sheets of iron. The iron rails at first were edge rails used for flanged wheels. The oldest iron rails were probably made in Coalbrookdale in 1767. The vehicles were wagons drawn by horses.
A famous engineer of tramroads, Benjamin Outram, preferred L-shaped rails and smooth tram wheels. These L-shaped rails are called plates. Outram was instrumental in changing several railways to plates, e.g. the tramroads owned by the Brecknock-Abergavenny Canal Company. We have detailed instructions how plates should be laid, and these seem to have been followed by the engineers of the Merthyr Tramroad.
The way in which the plates are fastened to the sleepers is interesting and will be described below. In all cases stone sleepers were used. These are of blue pennant sandstone, except for the Penydarren Morlais Quarries section, which are mainly of limestone. They are of irregular shape, up to 2-1/2 ft. diameter, with the upper and lower surface parallel, six or more inches thick. The distance of sleepers along the track is such that they can take the 3 ft. plates. This length is standard throughout. The distance across the track (the gauge) varies. The sleepers of the two tracks are not necessarily exactly opposite each other. The plates as mentioned are 3 ft. long. They have a notch at each end. Two adjoining plates fit round an iron spike or nail, 4-1/2 inches long. They are driven into oak plugs which in turn are sunk into holes in the sleeper. The plates are slightly higher at the middle than at the ends, to add strength. Each plate has a foot at each end, projecting downwards. These feet are half-elliptical protrusions, resting on the stone sleepers. As two plates rest end to end on each sleeper, straddling the common nail, they cause the characteristic indentations caused by long wear. The type of direct fastening of plate to sleeper thus shows sleepers with one hole only.
Two other types of fastening of plates to sleepers were used. They can be seen at the Merthyr Museum. They use iron chairs similar to modern railway fastenings. These chairs were fastened with two nails to the sleepers, and the sleepers thus show two holes each.
Whilst the sleepers are still in situ on several stretches of the track, very few iron plates, chairs or nails remain, as these were collected by scrap dealers in the first world war.
The gauge on the Merthyr-Abercynon section is 4' 8-1/2", the present railway gauge. A narrower gauge of 33" was also used. The trams had flat wheels. The flanges of the two opposing rails were on the inside of the wheels.
The tramroads were of great economic value to the iron works. They were expensive and thus carefully surveyed and constructed. It has already been mentioned how uniform the gradient is over the considerable difference in height above sea level between Merthyr and Abercynon (341 ft.). Some structural features may be of interest. Two stone bridges over the Taff near Quakers Yard are still standing. Another near Fiddler's Elbow is now destroyed. There are two tunnels, one near the old Plymouth iron works (behind the present Baker's Garage), another behind the old Drill Hall in Merthyr. Retaining walls were built both on upper slopes, to hold back falling stones and rock, and at lower slopes to prevent the track from sliding down the slope. Several sections can be seen between Mount Pleasant and Quakers Yard. There were frequent passing places, where trains of trams moving in opposite directions could pass each other. A footpath usually runs along the track, for the hauliers to walk on. Drainage too can still be seen in many places.
Tramroad Tunnel at Plymouth (Courtesy Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust)
Maintenance was no easy matter. Plates worked loose, often broke. The nails were liable to come out and got lost. The plates worked loose, became too narrow or too wide. The embankments settled, the soil became wet and loose. Plates tended to become clogged with earth and gravel. Small stones and leaves had to be swept clean.
The three sections of the tramroad: -
1. Section from Dowlais works to Jackson's Bridge
This is the oldest part of the tramroad system and must have been started soon after the passing of the Canal Act as the Letters of the Dowlais Iron Company in the Glamorgan Archives show. (March 1791 and February 1792.) Another relevant document is an indenture of 29th September 1793 for land in the vicinity of the present General Hospital. It gives an indication of the purpose of the tramroad, which was to be made to convey manufactured iron for shipment into boats at Pont Storehouse for conveyance by canal to Cardiff and possibly bring back material to Dowlais. The then partners in the Dowlais Iron Company were William Lewis with shares in the partnership of 6/16, William Taitt 4/16, T'homas Guest 2/16, Joseph Cowles 2/16, John Guest 1/16, Robert Thompson 1/16.
The tramroad started at the ironworks in Dowlais, crossed what is now the New Road, followed the right hand side of the Morlais Brook, passed the Penydarren Iron Works where the Morlais Bus Depot now is, proceeded behind the Theatre Royal to Pontmorlais. It then passed in front of the old Drill Hall, where it entered a tunnel under the road leading to the British Tip (New Foundland) and came out in a cutting which ended near Bethesda Chapel. It followed Bethesda Street and so over Jackson's Bridge to the canal.
Mr. John A. Owen kindly gave me copies of two reports made for the Dowlais Works. One, of 1900, deals with the legal position of rights in the tramroad at that time. The other, of 1902 describes the state of the tramroad at that time. Some valuable information can also be gleaned from a map of 1852 in the Merthyr Town Hall*. It shows clearly all the tramroads in the Merthyr area at that time. Two gauges can be seen, a wider, probably the 4' 8-1/2" and a narrower one, possibly 33". The line from Dowlais to Jackson's Bridge is clearly shown. There is also a tramroad on the road to the British Tip, past New Foundland Houses, over the tram road in the tunnel.
*Now in the Mid Glamorgan County Record Office in Cardiff.
2. Section from Merthyr to Abercynon
It started at the Perydarren Iron Works, near the place where Trevithick's monument now stands. There it formed a junction with both the Dowlais works to Jackson's Bridge section and the line to the Morlais Quarries. The here described section crossed Morlais Brook on a bridge and proceeded along Tramroadside North and South towards the Plymouth Ironworks, behind Baker's Garage. There is still a tunnel there, through which the tramroad passed, Mercer mentions that he saw some old rails in the tunnel. The tramroad then proceeded towards the present sliproad. A tract of land was dug up there about two years ago and several sleepers with chairs exposed. The tramroad proceeded to Wernlas House, where a sleeper can be seen in the stile over the fence. The tramroad then passed Winches Row behind Pentrebach, along the now dis-used Wernlas Pit, Craig Pit, Taibach Pit, through the Dyffryn Iron Works and passed Quarries Row, a row of now derelict cottages. It then led to Troedyrhiw. A long iron rail could be seen at the spot where it left the village some years ago. It has since been removed. The track of the tramroad can still be seen on the other side of the present Cardiff road, where a number of caravans are parked. The tramroad crossed the Merthyr-Cardiff Road at several places before entering Merthyr Vale. From there the track led to Mount Pleasant, to the Black Lion level crossing, where a new signal box has recently been built.
It then runs immediately below the main railway line all the way to Quakers Yard Station, for about two miles. Here the line of the track has hardly been disturbed, and sleepers can be seen in several places. This stretch is of great scenic beauty and well worth a visit. Several passing places are clearly visible, retaining walls and culverts still exist and one can obtain a glimpse of the engineering feat of surveying and leveling the track. One especially interesting feature is a road-bridge over the tramroad near Pontygwaith. Here a newer section of the track passes under the bridge, whereas the older section passes a few yards further west over the road, forming an awkward bend. Evidently the track had been realigned and the bridge built to eliminate this bend.
In this section appear all the three types of sleepers described earlier, namely sleepers with one hole or with two holes, some of which at right angles to the track, others diagonally. Beyond Quakers Yard Station the track is visible, but there are no more sleepers in situ. They were removed when a water main was laid down. The tramroad now crosses the Taff on two stone bridges. The first is below Edwardsville, the second beyond Woodland School called Victoria Bridge. A few sleepers can be seen on the next stretch, which ends in a foot bridge over the Cwm Mafon. The original tram road bridge has collapsed. The section from here to Abercynon runs along a feeder which brings water from the Taff to the old basin in Abercynon. The tramroad ends at this basin, which is now filled in. A cast iron pillar still remained until 1974, which was probably used to unload the iron from the trams into barges. The old Navigation House was situated here, where the manager of the Canal Company had his offices. A Public House called Navigation still stands. Here Trevithick and his party celebrated the successful first journey by steam engine along the tramroad.
3. Section from Penydarren Works to Morlais Quarries
This started at the Penydarren works, passed north of the County Grammar School in the street called Tramroad, then in front of Gwaunfarren Nursing Home and Baths towards the Goitre Pond, now filled in. At this spot sleepers of mixed gauge and a passing place could be observed, before the new housing estate and school obliterated all traces. The larger gauge was 4' 8-1/2", the narrow one 33". The track then proceeds under the new Head of the Valleys Road and passes the Pontsarn -Pant Road opposite a disused quarry. Some years ago I recorded five sets of sleepers at this juncture. They form one track of wider gauge 4' 8-1/2" and two tracks of 33". The narrow gauge on the right leads towards the quarry opposite the junction. Several sleepers can be seen in this quarry, some without holes. The mixed track leads towards the left, through a turnstile. It then proceeds along the former sanatorium wall. Along this stretch it again separates, the narrow gauge leading to a second quarry on the right. The broader gauge continues towards the main quarry at the far end. A passing place can be seen here. The whole system of tracks can be also seen on a plan of 24" to the mile in the Mid Glamorgan County Record Office in Cardiff. Beyond the gate across the path, near the entrance to the quarry, the sleepers disappear. However it is possible to see a series of parallel indentations in the ground as made by wooden railway sleepers. I have no evidence or information whether steam engines passed on this spot. An iron chair was found near here. The attached map of 1804 shows Penydarren quarries and Dowlais quarries near Morlais Castle and Mr. A. J. Owen informs me, that the above tramroad was used by the Dowlais works as well as Penydarren works. There is also a hint in Mercer that Hill of Plymouth works also obtained lime stone from these quarries.
Originally the tram roads were built for horse drawn traffic. It is said that on the Merthyr Tramroad, one horse could pull 10 tons downhill and bring the empty train back, covering the distance of 19 miles in a day. Often teams of 4-5 horses pulled a number of trams. On the Monmouthshire tramroad six horses pulled six trams and had a crew of four men. A good painting of a team of horses drawing trams is shown in the Cardiff Museum.
There was a rule of the road. On passing places, hauliers had to wait, pass either on the left or right, or the loaded trams had the right of way whilst the empty ones had to wait on the siding.
There were tolls on a ton per mile basis. Unauthorized persons on foot or on horseback often used the tramroad, as it became necessary to include in the Merthyr Trust Renewal Act of 1812 a clause (XXXIV): "The payments of tolls by the previous acts have been evaded by persons traveling along the Tram-road leading from Merthyr Tydfil to the Glamorganshire Canal near Navigation House running parallel with the said road. A fine of ₤2 will be imposed on persons who shall ride, go, pass or travel with a horse, mare gel4ing or other beast along the said tramroad except for the purposes of drawing a tram and wagons".
If wagons derailed drivers had to get them back "on the rails" as quickly as possible. They had to carry a lever (called Jack) to heave it back on to the rails. "Dragging off " wagons off the rails was forbidden. Sometimes the haulier was not allowed to put the derailed wagon back on the rails loaded but had to unload it first. He was not allowed to leave the wagon unattended.
Accidents occurred. One is recorded in a letter by John Guest to William Taitt of 16th December 1815, describing the collapse of the bridge near Quakers Yard.
The Merthyr Tramroad became famous when Richard Trevithick used a high pressure steam engine on 21st February 1804 to pull a train of loaded trams and 70 men, all about 25 tons, from Penydarren to Abercynon. It is said that the enterprise was the result of a wager between Samuel Homfray, proprietor of the Penydarren works, backing Trevithick and Richard Crawshay, opposing it. The stakes were 10 guineas and held by Anthony Hill, proprietor of the Plymouth Works. It is said that after completion of the journey Anthony Hill refused to make the award because Trevithick had moved some sleepers in the tunnel near the Plymouth works to the middle to allow the funnel to pass. This was supposed to have changed the existing track, violating one of the conditions of the wager. However Trevithick did arrive at Navigation and he and his party went to Navigation House public house to celebrate. The return journey of the locomotive was not completed, because it is said the gradient was too steep. The ultimate fate of the engine was the subject of some controversy. Miss Margaret Taylor states that it was used in ironworks belonging to Henry Crawshay in the Forest of Dean until it was dismantled and the boiler plate sent to the Kensington Museum. Trevithick has been commemorated in Merthyr by the Trevithick memorial which is built with stone sleepers taken from the track near the Goitre Pond and incorporates tram-plates fastened also to stone sleepers. There is also a Trevithick street near the memorial.
It was not until some thirty years later that steam locomotives were again used on the tramroad. An article in the "Hereford Times" of 16th November 1833 describes the journey by a train drawn by the locomotive " Powerful " drawing a load of 126 tons of iron attached to it. (Mr. J. A. Owen states that the locomotive was the "Perseverance".) Another locomotive was the "Eclipse". Steam locomotives added to the problems of maintaining the track. In 1839 Anthony Hill wrote to Guest Lewis (letter in collection of Mid Glamorgan Archives) complaining about the breaking of cast iron tram-plates under the weight of locomotives. The track continued to be used even after the Taff Vale Railway had been opened. A section at least was converted to an ordinary railway called Mineral Railway in some maps. Marks of wooden sleepers could be seen near Baker's Garage some years back. Trains continued to take coal along the track in Tramroadside North to a coal yard near the Trevithick Memorial during the 1920's. Mercer mentioned that the last engine passed through Troadyrhiw 1880-1885.
Even after the Taff Vale Railway was built to Merthyr, it took several years before a direct link was made with the Dowlais Iron Works. The incline was completed in 1854. Even this was not entirely satisfactory and another line was built through Lancaiach and Rhymney. Once these were open the Dowlais works did not need the tramroad any longer and Lady Charlotte Guest sold her 5/9 of the shares to the Penydarren Ironworks (who now controlled 5/9), and the Plymouth Iron Works (who now held 4/9). The value of the tramroad was still considerable. In 1868 the heirs of Anthony Hill, Plymouth, sold their 4/9 shares to R. Fothergill and T. A. Hankey for ₤250,000, thus putting a value of ₤560,000 on the tramroad. These shares passed later to Powell Duffryn and now belong to the National Coal Board.
Today little remains of the once so important tramroad. The best preserved stretches, showing many stone sleepers still in situ, are near the wall of the one time Sanatorium in Pontsarn and the stretch between Mount Pleasant and Quakers Yard.
Stanley Mercer: Trevithick and the Merthyr Tramroad. Newcomen Society, 11.2.1948.
Bertram Baxter: Stone Blocks and Iron Rails. Dowlais Iron Co letters 1782-1860. Mid Glamorgan County Archives.
Map 25" to the mile 1852. Town Hall, Merthyr Tydfil. (Now in Mid Glamorgan Archives.)
D. E. Fraser: Road systems in Glamorgan up to 1844. Unpublished M.A. thesis.