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Building The Llanelly Railway

By G. F. GABB, M.A.

The Llanelly Railway and Dock Company, which originated as early as 1828, was initially concerned with transporting the mineral produce of Llanelly's hinterland to the docks. It first laid claim to a wider role when powers were obtained, in 1835, to build a line through Pontardulais to Llandilo. In 1841, the track reached Tirydail, but, thereafter, progress was fitful in the extreme. Lacking the energy and foresight of a Brunel, the proprietors continued to think primarily in local terms; the working of the line was entrusted to contractors, insufficient capital was invested in locomotives and the permanent way, and even horse traction was revived in 1841. Even so, in 1861, the company gained approval for branches from Pontardulais to Swansea, and from Llandilo to Carmarthen. But the chance of establishing a prosperous, medium-sized, independent railway had probably already disappeared, for by this time the giant Great Western and London and North Western Companies had come upon the scene, which in time they would monopolise.

Nevertheless, the Swansea Extension, also known as the Dunvant Valley Railway, was completed in January, 1866. As early as 10th November, 1865, the Swansea newspaper, The Cambrian, was able to report: "Yesterday (Thursday 9th) the Dunvant Valley Railway Company commenced shipping coal at the Swansea South Dock their new hydraulic shipping-stages having for the first time been brought into operation." (A barque called Morning Glory took a cargo of coal from Padley's Dunvant Colliery). Unfortunately for the Company, the firm building the passenger terminus, Messrs. Watkins and Jenkins, proved most inefficient, and passenger services to Swansea Victoria did not begin until December 14th, 1867.

The branch from Llandilo Bridge to Abergwili Junction, and thence via mixed gauge track laid along the Carmarthen and Cardigan (broad gauge) Railway into Carmarthen itself, opened more promptly. Goods were first carried on 14th November 1864, and passenger services began on 1st June 1865. The time-scale suggests that the basic preparation of the route and laying of the track, on both these branches, proceeded fairly efficiently. However, soon after work was completed, in May 1866, the contractors, the Contract Corporation Ltd., were in financial difficulties, due to the 'reprobate .... conduct of the directors." (This failure contributed to the dramatic collapse of the major discount house of Overend and Gumey on May 11th). The Company was placed in the hands of an official liquidator, and its assets were sold off to satisfy creditors.

The Cambrian of May 4th, 1866, carried an advertisement for two sales of "Railway Contractors' Plant and Materials", much of it still "lying at Llandilo". The sales were to take place on 7th and 8th May at Llandilo, and on 9th and 10th at Swansea. Detailed catalogues were obtainable from the Company's Cannon Street offices and from the auctioneer, J. M. Leeder of Caer Street, Swansea. If one of these survives, it would make interesting reading, but even the mass of equipment listed in the advertisement provides a vivid picture of railway construction methods.

At Llandilo lay 250 narrow gauge earth wagons, 80 tons of temporary rails (35-42lb per yard), "points of crossings", ballast wagons, 30 dobbin (horse-drawn) carts, 30 double and single-shafted hand carts, a timber carriage, 3 two-horse carts, a Whitechapel dog-cart, 200 barrows, 300 wheeling planks, mortar and pug mills, brick-maker's tables and moulds, "crabs", sheave blocks (a sheave is the grooved wheel in a pulley over which the rope runs), chains, ropes, "a travelling crane to lift 8 tons", a Samson crane with crabs, a "large traveller by Wordsell", a 36 ft. pile engine with crabs, chain and monkey, 2 large derricks, 2 wrought iron girders, double action iron pumps with piping complete, creosoted and other sleepers, 100 balks of timber, a large quantity of larch trees, bar iron and steel earth picks, beaters, bars, screw bolts of various sizes, platelayers', carpenters', joiners', fitters', and smiths' tools, bellows, anvils, grindstones, two pooley's, 20 cwt weighing machines, temporary buildings, firewood, etc. At Swansea lay a lesser conglomeration, including rail lorries, a portable steam engine and saw-table complete, creosoting apparatus, wrought iron standards for wire fencing, "a lot of train wheels", "two horses" and a large quantity of cart and trace harnesses.

On the 18th May The Cambrian carried notice of a further auction of seven wooden huts, stores, stables and their contents, "now situated at the side of the Swansea Extension Railway, near the Gower Road [Gowerton] Station on that line .... a few minutes walk from the Station of the same name on the Great Western Railway".

The scene conjured up is one of intense activity. Earth, for cuttings and embankments, was loosened by men with picks and taken along "wheeling planks" in harrows to carts and horse-drawn wagons on temporary track. Excavation, on lines where there were admittedly no major engineering tasks, remained a job for men aided by horses. (Presumably the rest of the horses had already been sold off to save on fodder.) Machinery, of a sort, was used for more specialised jobs: "monkeys" were pile drivers and "crabs" were nothing more than windlasses. Such apparatus was constructed out of wood and ropes primarily, and its use would present a decidedly Heath Robinson spectacle to the modern eye.

Until the railway network was complete, the centralised production of building materials was rendered impossible by transport difficulties, and the railway contractor was therefore obliged to find his materials on the spot, as far as he could. Trees which had to be felled were probably sawn up and creosoted, and used for sleepers and temporary buildings. Clay may well have been discovered on site; it was certainly pugged, moulded and fired there to produce the necessary bricks, and mortar was also made as needed. Generally speaking, the craftsmen on the spot solved problems as they arose, one exception being the wire fencing and metal posts, which were perhaps bought in bulk from a supplier in the Midlands or the North.

The Llanelly Company was not injured by the bankruptcy of the contractors, but it was left little time to profit from its new extensions. In the early 'seventies its system was ruthlessly dissected, the L.N.W.R. taking those sections it desired and the G.W.R. absorbing the rest. The Company was formally dissolved in 1889.

Shrewshary to Swansea, the story of the Railway through Central Wales by D. J. Smith. (Town and Country Press 1971).
The Central Wales, published by the Swansea Railway Circle, 1964.
The Cambrian, 1865 and 1866.
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