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Company of Proprietors of the Monmouthshire Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Monmouthshire Canal Navigation: plan of the canal 1792, Monmouthshire Canal Extension Act 1797, letter concerning a byelaw 1829.



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Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

An Act was obtained in June 1792 for a canal to run from Newport to Pontnewynydd above Pontypool. It also authorised a branch from near Newport to Crumlin. Many of the subscribers were wealthy ironmasters, colliery owners and businessmen, so to prevent a monopoly a limit was placed on the number of shares each subscriber could hold. Thomas Dadford the younger was appointed engineer, to give three quarters of his time to the scheme. Tramroads were built concurrently with the canal to Blaenavon, Trosnant and several other places. Any ironwork, coalmine or quarry within 8 miles could have a tramroad branch constructed to link it to either the canal or one of its tramroad branches. The main line of the Monmouthshire Canal was open in 1796 and the branch three years later. The Pontnewynydd line had been more difficult and more expensive to cut than had been anticipated. Parts had been opened earlier when they were navigable but still needed some work, so it was not until April 1799 that the canal was declared completed. Both lines were 11 miles long, with 42 locks on the main line and 32 on the Crumlin branch. There were three very short tunnels: one at Mill Street and a 140-yard one at Barracks Hill, both in Newport, and an 87-yard one at Cwmbran. Vessels were eventually standardised at 64 feet 9 inches by 9 feet 2 inches, the company having initially ordered smaller craft. The basin at Newport by the River Usk was relocated in 1798, the canal being extended to take advantage of the available land for river wharves for sea-going vessels. Initially there was some hostility to the proposal among proprietors as they felt that one of them, Sir Charles Morgan, was manipulating the Bill for his and his family's benefit. The canal extension to Friars Field, wharves and tram roads were completed in October 1798. Congestion in the basin again prompted further extension works in 1808. Potter Street Lock was built in 1818. This was from the basin to a private cut leading to the River Usk and was the location from which the mileposts were measured. Requests to the Board of Customs to have Newport recognised as a head port, for customs purposes so that Irish and foreign trade was not obliged to go to Cardiff, were refused until 1822. As of May 1830, a byelaw stated that all boats had to leave Newport basin within 24 hours except on Sundays in an attempt to reduce delays. Benjamin Outram was regarded as the expert on tramroads and the company requested his advice on theirs. He recommended converting the edge-rails into plateways, partly because they were more durable. The company heeded his advice and over the years did convert most of their existing lines and built all new tram roads as plate-ways. An 1802 Act authorised the Sirhowy Tramroad, running 24 miles from Newport to Sirhowy Ironworks and parallel to the Crumlin branch at Risca. David Davis surveyed the route and the engineer was John Hodgkinson, who had previously worked with Benjamin Outram. Various branches from it were not constructed until the 1820s. Relations between the tramroad company and the canal company were always a little fraught and reached a head when the canal company threatened legal action after Sirhowy contravened the terms of the 1802 agreement. Tonnages, especially of coal, exported from Newport rose every year from 1797 to 1809. In part this was due to duty exemptions on some coal transports and a bounty paid to shippers and captains on coal exported by sea. Competitors were unimpressed and campaigned against the exemptions. By the time the duties were abolished in 1831 the coal trade at Newport had been firmly established for a long time. Generally, though, the company had a minor financial crisis between 1802 and 1806 and trade was poor in 1805-1806. Even in the worst year, 1806, the company still made a profit. From 1811 traffic and profit were good as the canal established itself. The impact of the newly-opened Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal began to make itself felt from 1819 particularly with regard to iron carried on the canal. The Monmouthshire Canal lowered tolls substantially, the first decrease of many on a variety of goods. That seemed to work as iron tonnages rose in the 1820s; however in 1821 the Monmouthshire Canal lost a lawsuit against ironmasters and was forced to refund them tolls they had been overcharged. Despite this competition and the fact that it was clearly an expensive way of transporting goods, the company continued to prosper. Toll reductions were unpopular with shareholders as it meant smaller dividends. Problems with adequate water plagued the Crumlin line and the topmost section of Pontnewynydd. The former was supplied by the Hafodyrnys pond; the latter by Afon Llwyd and Glyn ponds. The water shortage was the main incentive for building the extension to the Blaenavon tramroad to Pontypool, completed in 1829. The main line was well supplied by the River Usk, via the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal. Parliamentary notices were issued about a railway from Newport to Pontypool and Abergavenny in November 1836. In response William Cubitt was called in to examine the canal and tramroad between Pontymoile and Pontnewynydd. Following his report, water supplies were increased. Railways were not to be ignored, however, and in 1840 the shareholders were asked to consider converting the tramlines into railways. The first steam locomotive had been used in December 1829, on the Sirhowy branch. E S Barber, who later spent eighteen months as canal engineer, was commissioned to make a report, but the committee decided against making the improvements. Two years later the company sent representatives to investigate tramroads elsewhere and they favoured replacing the old tramplates. In the same year Newport Dock was opened and a railway was proposed from there to Nant-y-Glo. In mid-1843 the committee recommended to the shareholders that the tramroads be converted to railways, that they become a carrying company and that they construct a new railway from Newport to Pontnewynydd (later changed to Pontypool), enormously underestimating the costs of these works. The company hesitated another year but eventually got their Act passed in May 1845 that authorised the abandonment of the upper canal as well as authorising the railway. Monmouthshire Railway Company were supposed to buy the canal company after the Act passed but they had not done so by the end of 1846 when the agreement expired. By that date the tramlines' conversion to wrought iron plates was well under way, much to the relief of all concerned, as the number of accidents involving locomotives on unconverted sections was worryingly high. Attention was turned to the new railway in January 1847 but enthusiasm for railways had slackened and it took two attempts before enough people had subscribed to enable work to begin. It was soon apparent that it was not going to be finished in the three years' allotted timeframe. Another Act was sought in 1849 to allow the company to raise more money and to be allowed more time. It was also specified that the company's name be changed to the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company. For further information on the Monmouthshire Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of South Wales and the Border'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.

Associated material

[See also: BW116 and BW157 for records of the Monmouthshire Canal during other periods of ownership]