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Driving an Iron Road Through the Hills

By G. F. GABB, M.A.

By 1858, the Llanelly Railway and Dock Company, with its lease of the Vale of Towy line, had penetrated inland as far as Llandovery, and over the next ten years it opened branches to Carmarthen and Swansea. Meanwhile, by faltering steps, a sequence of small companies, latterly under the aegis of the London and North Western Railway, pushed a snake-like track south-westwards, from Craven Arms in Shrophshire towards the railhead at Llandovery. By June, 1867, the gap had been reduced to the twelve miles between Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, but this last section presented severe engineering difficulties.

The Cambrian newspaper for 6th March, 1868, outlined the first problem. North of the station it referred to as "Cynhoryd" (Cynghordy) was "a valley so deep that it would not be practicable to fill it up level. Over this a magnificent viaduct is being built, the total length of which is nearly 700 feet, and its height to the top of the metals 109 feet. . . ." Cynghordy Viaduct cannot be appreciated from the train, but, viewed from near the chapel and cottages which nestle below it, its splendour is quite apparent. Sandstone for the pillars came from a quarry at Dunvant on the L.R.D.C.'s Swansea Extension. Construction began on March 22nd, 1867, and, by 12th May, 1868, a train of eight trucks, loaded with stone to build a turntable at Llandovery, passed safely over it. The other main obstacle lay three miles further north, on the Carmarthenshire-Brecknock border. This was the Sugar Loaf. The L.N.W.R. authorities favoured a gradual ascent but Robertson, the engineer of the Central Wales Extension Railway, persisted with a thousand yard tunnel, despite its mounting expense. (Perhaps, in retrospect, an open cutting would have been easier to maintain and modify). By March, waggons could pass through the tunnel and, in May, the stone laden train emerged safely into the Vale of Llandovery. Its arrival at Llandovery Station was "greeted by a display of flags" and application was made immediately to the Board of Trade for inspection. Once Colonel Rich had pronounced himself satisfied, the opening of the line was celebrated with a sumptuous luncheon at Llandovery, on Whit Monday, 8th June, 1868.

The Cambrian sent a reporter to the festivities, and the isues of 26th June and 3rd July, contained a detailed account of those present, their meal and their oratory. Among the hundred were Campbell Davys of Noyadd, Chairman for the day, Gwyn Vaughan of Cynhordy (sic), Sir Charles Boughton, Sir John Mansell, Green Price, M.P., and the engineers, Messrs. Robertson and Mackintosh all representing the three small companies which had actually built the railway. The L.N.W.R. had financed much of the later construction, and their big guns arrived in force: apart from Richard Moon, the Chairman and three other directors, all the chief officials of the company were present, including William Cawkwell, the general manager, and also Joseph Bishop, the first district manager of the new line. The Great Western and the Llanelly Company sent representatives, and there were four important visitors from Swansea Starling Benson, Chairman of the Harbour Trust, J. W. James, the harbour manager, George Burden Strick of the Brynamman Works, and J. E. Morris, Secretary of the Swansea Vale Railway. The gentry and the railway magnates made sure they dined well on these occasions, the Raven Hotel Company of (significantly) Shrewsbury being responsible for the catering. They consumed: "Mayonnaise of Salmon, Roast Fowls, Galantine of Fowls, Tongues, Turkey-a-la-Royal, Fore Quarters of lamb, Veal aspic, Hare pies, Pigeon Pies, Lobster Aspic, Lobster salads, Charlotte-a-la-Russe, Savoy Cakes, Jellies, Blancmanges, Pastry (and) Ices . . .", all washed down with fine wines. Then the waiters cleared the tables, and glasses were recharged for the usual toasts, and the exchange of congratulations all round on the completion of the line.

A Town is Reborn
Mr. Rees of Tonn, Mayor of Llandovery, made a long speech which naturally outlined the advantages the town would enjoy as a railway centre. He traced Llandovery's history, attributing its continuing prosperity to its situation "at the confluence of four river valleys". However, when the long distance coach routes declined, and the early railways were not attracted to the town, commerce dwindled, and "grass grew upon some of the streets". In 1858, the Vale of Towy line arrived from the south, and the mayor claimed that he himself had first suggested the route for its northward extension, "through the supposed impassable range of Kerry Hills and Radnor Forest". In concluding that he hoped the L.N.W.R. would make Llandovery its headquarters for Southern Wales, Mr. Rees was only reflecting his civic office, but a Cambrian advertisement on 10th July, seemed to suggest that Llandovery was the hub of the whole Central Wales route. It offered for sale farmland in the parishes of Llandingat and Llanfairarybryn "some portion . . . within two, the remainder within three miles of the market town of Llandovery, where there is a first class station on the Central Wales Extension and Vale of Towy Railways. By the former . . . easy access is afforded from Llandovery and its neighbourhood to Liverpool and Manchester, and the Northern and Midland Counties of England, while the latter forms a direct communication with the Port of Swansea, and the mineral districts of Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire, hence coal and lime are easily available . . ." Such were the magnificent facilities available to farmers in this corner of Dyfed.

In his speech, Richard Moon said that, "As directors of the railway, they liked to look at tall chimneys, and large factories . . . dirty hands and large numbers of mechanics and artizans. . .", but such scenes did not exist between Craven Arms and Llandovery. The London and North Western had hesitated long before committing itself in Central Wales; Moon's tone was cautious, and he warned that this "was certainly not the end of their labours. . . . Whether the London and North Western Company could make a living out of the country . . . depended on a number of circumstances." To the south, on the L.R.D.C., were rich coalfields. Central Wales could attract sportsmen and tourists, while the spas of Llandrindod and Llanwrtyd were developing apace. Every item of local produce could be transported to market. "But all these things wanted to be developed they must not leave the line alone by itself". Only the greatest exertions of Mr. Bishop and the local inhabitants would produce a dividend. The Cambrian of May 29th, 1868, summed it up brutally: "The country which it (the C.W.R.)traverses is not thickly populated, nor is its produce of much consequence. There is no considerable town on the route, and the junction of other lines is of very little moment. Indeed, the local traffic for a long period, could hardly pay the cost of working".

For the L.N.W.R., the value of Central Wales lay in its potential as a through route. By July, 1868, the narrow gauge Pembroke and Tenby Railway had linked those two places to Whitland on the G.W.R., and had also forced that company to convert the up line between Whitland and Carmarthen from broad to narrow gauge. By means of running powers over the Llanelly Railway and its branches, the L.N.W.R. could run trains through to Carmarthen and on to West Wales. Tenby was a growing holiday resort, while the deep water port of Milford Haven was considered capable of limitless development, once the Great Western's broad gauge monopoly there was ended.

In the event, the G.W.R. was able to largely checkmate these schemes, but the notion of the Central Wales as a trunk route between Swansea and Llanelly on the one hand, and the whole of Midland and Northern England on the other, was to be proved most practical. It was this possibility which led the Cambrian to declare: "Whit Monday, 1868, will stand noted for years in the history of the narrow Gauge system of Railways in South Wales". The L.R.D.C. immediately re-timed its whole passenger service, and invested 1,380 in three new locomotives to cope with the through traffic. From the opening day, there were through coaches from Swansea, Llanelly and Carmarthen to the North of England, the distance between Carmarthen and Manchester being 55 miles shorter than over the Great Western system. Passengers fares were considered very reasonable, and the G.W.R. was forced to make immediate reductions. The L.N.W.R., and after grouping in 1922, the L.M.S., even ran through coaches from South Wales to Euston, a much longer, but more scenic route to London than by the South Wales main line, and at the same fare. In 1868, a substantial potential trade already existed between the metal refineries and collieries of Swansea and Llanelly, and the factories of the Midlands and the North. Through goods traffic probably reached its height in the twenties and thirties, if one excludes the two wars.

In the 1860s, the local communities in Central Wales wanted a railway, but could not raise the capital to pay for it. The L.N.W.R, correctly discerned that through traffic would make the line viable, and supplied the cash. Nowadays, through traffic has declined immensely on the Central Wales. Capital has not been made available, over the years, to keep the line up to scratch; for example, in substantially rennovating Cynghordy Viaduct and the Sugar Loaf Tunnel; furthermore, Central Wales has been omitted from the Inter-City Network. So the line ekes out a precarious existence based on the local and tourist traffic (which was considered of dubious value in 1868) and a large government subsidy.

Battle of the Gauges
To return to the luncheon at Llandovery. Speaker after speaker praised the liberality of the London and North Western Company, and expressed gratitude to the directors for saving the Central Wales scheme, almost as if that action were a piece of disinterested idealism. Elsewhere, they acknowledged that the company would doubtless make substantial profits on long distance traffic, and this muddled thinking did owe something to the great relief that the struggle to finish the Iine was over, so feelingly expressed by Boughton. At the same time, this partiallity for the L.N.W.R. had other roots. Since 1850, the Great Western Railway had enjoyed a near monopoly in South Wales. The local ruling classes were shocked by the insensitivity of the company with its large interests in the Midlands and the West Country to their wishes in local matters. First and foremost, only the G.W.R. used the broad (7 foot) gauge, which remained in South Wales until 1872, despite its manifest inconveniences. The answer to the tyranny of the G.W.R. was conceived to be competition from a major company using the narrow gauge, and when Campbell Davys mentioned the L.N.W.R. in this light at Llandovery, he was answered by cheers. The fact that the London and North Western was also very widely spread geographically, and was naturally, first and foremost concerned with profits and dividends was ignored in the identification of a saviour.

The small Central Wales Companies were quite content to be bought out by L.N.W.R. in June, 1868. In South Wales itself, the smaller railway companies had an ambiguous attitude to their giant competitors. On one hand, the density of industry and the prosperous example of the Taff Vale line led them to hope to remain independent; but, in bad years, the shareholders yearned to he bought out, perhaps at a profit. In February, 1868, the Swansea Vale Railway had struck a lean patch, declaring a half-yearly dividend of only one per cent. The Cambrian speculated in April that the L.N.W.R. and the Midland Railway might join in leasing the S.V.R. to give them access to the port of Swansea. (L.N.W.R. trains would presumably have proceeded from Central Wales via the projected link from Llangamarch to Defynnog on the Neath and Brecon which was never built, and then by the Swansea Vale and Neath and Brecon Junction line, completed in 1873, into the Swansea Valley, or via the junction of the Llanelly Railway and the Swansea Vale at Brynamman). It may have been significant that of the four Swansea men at Llandovery in 1868, three were intimately connected with the S.V.R. Strick, a director, Benson, chairman, and Morris, secretary. In the event, the Midland alone absorbed the S.V.R. in 1877.

By then the London and North Western had secured a more direct route to Swansea. At the Swansea Vale general meeting of 28th February, casting around for examples of small companies which "would never pay", J. Glasbrook commented: "The Llanelly Company struggled for about twenty years before they were taken in hand by another company. . ." The L.R.D.C. did not consider itself "taken in hand". When in August, the Cambrian reported an excursion from Carmarthen, Llandilo and Llanelly to Swansea "over the recently opened L.N.W.R.", the newspaper was rebuked by a Llanelly railway official, who stated that while his company was "working in amity with the London and North Western Company [they] yet hold their integrity entirely independent of the aforesaid Company".

Yet, by the end of 1868, the L.R.D.C.'s independence was gravely compromised. At the general meeting of 13th February, it was reported that "they had entered into arrangements with the L.N.W.R. to bring their traffic over their lines, which could not fail to increase the receipts, especially as it would involve only a trifling outlay for increased station accommodation. . . ." This was a fatal step. It was predicted that the completion of the Central Wales system would give the L.R.D.C., with its newly finished branch lines, its first taste of real prosperity. At the August general meeting, it was stated that since 1st April, 1868, (perhaps a significant date) the L.R.D.C. had conceded half its lease of the Vale of Towy line to the L.N.W.R., but there was still no sense of foreboding. These two innocent concessions were the bases of the London and North Western's legal victory over the Llanelly Company in 1871, by which the latter's prized extensions to Swansea and Carmarthen were filched.

The guests who departed from Llandovery rather precipitately to catch their special train had seen more than the completion of an important line; they had witnessed the advent of a second major power in the railway world of South-west Wales.

Shrewsbury 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. History of the Great Western Railway, Volume II, by E. T. Macdermot and C. R. Clinker. (Ian Allan, 1964).
The Cambrian, 1868.
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