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Company of Proprietors of the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal Navigation: note regarding a meeting about the proposed canal c1793, plans of the canal late 18th-early 19th century.


1793-early 19th century

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Administrative /​ Biographical history

Proposed at the same time as the Monmouthshire Canal, the authorisation of that navigation changed the route originally planned for the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal. Instead of joining with the River Usk, the Monmouthshire Canal suggested in October 1792, the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal should link with it instead. A cash incentive of several thousand pounds was offered by the former, who also commissioned Thomas Dadford junior to make a survey to examine the best location for the junction. He favoured joining the two at Pontymoile, below Pontypool. Dadford's plans and estimates were accepted by the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal and formed the basis of their appeal to Parliament. It was March 1793 and canal mania was at its height, so the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal authorisation Act passed with relative ease. Under it, the proprietors were authorised to build tramroads up to eight miles from the water. Many of the shareholders were locals, and the considerations of local ironmasters and colliery owners probably influenced the canal company's decision to begin work on the tramroads first. The first was completed in August 1794. A tramroad bridge over the River Usk had cost £900 but was destroyed by floods barely a year after its construction and was not replaced. This setback aside, several engineers were engaged to build the tramroads and the work progressed steadily. Having paid their money and waited patiently for a year and a half, the Monmouthshire Canal began to put pressure on the company to start constructing the canal from March 1794. In a futile attempt to push things forward, they even had their engineer, Thomas Dadford, stake out the line. The Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal repeatedly dismissed enquiries and refused to commit themselves to a date to begin work on the canal. Dadford was employed as full-time engineer on the Monmouthshire Canal, but for three years beginning late 1795, he also worked part-time for the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal, before then being appointed its full-time engineer. Construction began in 1797, from Gilwern to Brecon. Brecon itself was reached in December 1800, by which time 12 miles of canal had already been open for over a year. The completed length to Brecon included 6 locks and a junction stop-lock at Pontymoile for boat of 64 feet 9 inches x 9 feet 2 inches, the same size craft used on the Monmouthshire; the 375-yard Ashford Tunnel; and 4-arched masonry aqueduct at Brynich over the River Usk. Work was temporarily halted for two years. The existing length of canal was successful enough for a dividend of over £1 per share to be paid in 1802. With Thomas Cartwright as engineer, between 1802 and 1805 construction continued until the canal was near Llanfoist. Barely were the tramways finished before most of them were replaced with plateways on the recommendation of Benjamin Outram. That work had begun in 1799 and had placed a strain on the company's finances. Once again, work on the canal paused whilst the company took stock of the situation. Traffic on the completed sections was mostly undertaken by the Brecon Boat Company. The Brecon Boat Company owned or leased many of the mines and quarries whose lime and coal it carried. Its owners included many of the canal's shareholders, although the two companies were separate and independent. At its peak, Brecon Boating Company had sixteen boats regularly working on the canal. The only people not content with this modestly successful canal were the committeemen of the Monmouthshire Canal, still waiting for the promised junction a decade on. After communications with the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal failed to resolve the problem, the Monmouthshire sought legal advice. Fearing having to pay a hefty sum of compensation, the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal acted immediately. An Act of 1804 had allowed the company to raise money, but it was not enough. Various individuals who loaned the company the money made up the shortfall. William Crosley was appointed engineer in 1809. He re-surveyed the line and substituted a cutting at Pontymoile for a tunnel. The wharves at Brecon and Gilwern were extended. The Pontymoile Aqueduct was demolished and rebuilt, but otherwise the work progressed quickly and without problem. Under William Crosley, the 33 ¼-mile-long canal was finally finished, in February 1812. Profits rose by fifty per cent in the years immediately after the canal's extension, which also encouraged further tramroads to be built. Tramroads continued to be proposed, built or extended, either by the canal company or the various works nearby, right up into the mid-1820s. Dividends between 1806 and 1811 were between £1 and £3 per share. For several years after that no dividends were paid, and instead the money was used to repay loans, to fund the tramroad construction and to improve the existing wharves. By this time, the Napoleonic wars were almost over. In peace the demand for munitions and iron fell, bringing a corresponding drop in the company's revenue. It became apparent that earlier predictions of the canal's profits had been overly optimistic. In 1814 the shareholders approached the committee, asking what they intended to do about the situation. Several agreements were made, including concessions to encourage long hauls, toll reductions if a company used the canal as its sole means of transporting goods, and allowing iron to be carried free providing the finished products were carried on the canal. For a time, these methods proved successful. When payment of dividends was resumed, they rose steadily and peaked at £9 in the late 1820s, reflecting an increase in the canal's revenue. Shortly after, tonnages fell as the competition from the Monmouthshire Canal increased. Tolls on iron were halved, but so were the dividends, and in April 1833 the shareholders pressed for an arrangement to be made with the Monmouthshire Canal. Although neither the proposed amalgamation nor price-fixing plans came to anything, relations between the two companies improved, and with it Brecknock and Abergavenny's profits stabilised, although the company's hey-day was definitely over. In 1845, the Monmouthshire Canal successfully sought to build a Newport to Pontypool Railway, despite Brecknock and Abergavenny's opposition. As a result, the latter was put up for sale. Welsh Midland Railway's bid was accepted, but that company was dissolved before the purchase was completed. Two companies expressed an interest in the 1850s, but they too came to nothing. By this stage, the Brecknock and Abergavenny company were seriously considering a railway route along their canal. Trade on the canal was minimal, with nearly all of it having moved to the Monmouthshire railways. An Act in 1859 authorising the Merthyr, Tredegar and Abergavenny Railway caused further problems for the canal company, who saw their traffic decline further once the railway was completed in 1862. Again, tolls were cut and the company toyed with the idea of building a railway. Their efforts were partly hampered by the lack of interest from the shareholders as their dividends continued to fall. There were rarely enough shareholders present at meetings to elect a committee or to vote on decisions. The Brecon Boat Company ceased trading in 1865. In September of that year the Monmouthshire Canal amalgamated with the Brecknock and Abergavenny, a purchase condition being that no part of the canal or its tram network could be closed without Parliamentary approval. The Monmouthshire recognised that the canal could become an important water supply for its works and Newport Docks, having closed its reservoirs in the Glyn Valley to make way for a railway. The Brecknock and Abergavenny was its sole source of water supply for the lower Monmouthshire Canal. This arrangement lasted fifteen years, before both canals were taken over by Great Western Railway. Water-borne traffic continued to fall, and the Great Western Railway had little inclination to attempt to bolster it. The market boat service from Newport ceased just before World War I, by which time traffic was very limited and confined the upper navigation. Already at this point some of the tramroads had been unused for years. From 1933, no tolls were taken on the canal, but the canal remained open because of its importance in supplying water. Two decades later, the increasing popularity of pleasure boating and the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal's attractive setting meant that traffic began to increase. From 1968, a joint effort between the British Waterways Board and Monmouthshire and Brecon County councils was made to restore the canal. Now linked to the remaining open section of the Monmouthshire Canal, the canal is generally known by the name the Great Western Railway gave it, the Monmouthshire and Brecon. For further information on the Brecknock and Abergavenny 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: BW157 for records of the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal during other periods of ownership]