RAILWAYS IN THE AMMAN VALLEY AND DISTRICT
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Railways were first developed to transport freight for the rapidly evolving industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, replacing the canals that had previously done that job in the eighteenth. But by the middle of the nineteenth century it was clear that a new cargo could be conveyed at a profit along the rapidly expanding rail network people. And though no-one knew it at the time, within 50 years a newer technology would first threaten and finally ring the death knell of most of our rail network as a means of mass transportation the internal combustion engine. But until that day arrived, the future for rail was assured.
In the flurry of railway building that occurred in west Wales in the mid-nineteenth century, Swansea remained an important objective. Yet once a railway line had connected Llanelli (then spelled Llanelly) with the Amman valley by 1842, it took an inordinate length of time for a line to be built connecting the Amman valley to Swansea directly. The first line to connect Ammanford (called Cross Inn before 1880) was not via the direct route over the Loughor estuary, for initially the journey had to be undertaken up the Amman Valley to Brynamman, where it was necessary to change trains to continue down the Tawe valley to Swansea.
To the north, a junction, called Dyffryn Lodge Station, was built at Tirydail in 1841 where the mineral line from Pantyffynnon initially ended. By 1855 a line for coal had been extended from Dyffryn Lodge to Blaeanu, Caerbryn, Penygroes and Cross Hands, and another spur continued to the limestone quarries at Pentregwenlais, near Llandybie In 1908 The local council unsuccessfully petitioned the Great Western Railway Company for a passenger service along this Cross Hands branch line and it remained a mineral line only until its eventual closure in 1962.
Llandeilo was reached in 1857 and Llandovery a year later. The next link from Llandovery however, took another ten years, partly due to the tunnel that had to be built under the Sugarloaf mountain, though non-geological problems also played a role in the delay (see below). This final link was completed in 1868, and with Swansea having finally been reached to the south in 1867, 1868 marks the year when the north-east of Wales could finally be reached by train from south-west Wales.
Swansea was a major centre of industry and a fast growing port, and the Shrewsbury and Crewe line was promoted in 1853 with a view to speeding traffic between Swansea in particular and the north of England. Its completion in 1858 re-focussed attention on alternative means of reaching Swansea. Shrewsbury held the key, but before tracing the birth of the Central Wales Line (CWL) , it will be logical to leap to the early developments at the western end, including the Amman valley.
Llanelly can lay claim to some of the oldest railways in the country. As long ago as 1799 a tramroad had been built from a dock in Llanelly to an ironworks, just over a mile away. In 1802 it was extended by an Act of Parliament authorising the Carmarthenshire Railway and Tramroad Company. In 1828 the Llanelly Railway & Dock Company (LRD) was authorised. In 1835 this company obtained approval to build a railway up the Loughor valley and over to Llandilo in the Tywi valley. The first six miles were opened to Pontardulais in 1839. Thus the LRD is one of the oldest railways in Wales, the oldest being the Bridgend Railway which was opened on the 22nd of October, 183O. The little company was extremely profitable yielding in 1839 a dividend of 12%. This was mainly due to the rich anthracite seams along its route and the ability to charge a high rate of 1 ½ pence per mile. Progress in extending the line was accordingly rapid though it stopped some six miles short of Llandilo, at Pantyffynnon. In 1842 a branch up the Amman valley from Pantyffynnon reached Brynamman. This was only for mineral traffic and so no passenger station was built at this time, but it laid the ground for the odd railway arrangement which developed at this small town in the hills. By 1860 Brynamman could be reached by two railway lines one from Llanelly via the Amman Valley which terminated at Brynamman and which was completed in 1842. Another railway line ran from St Thomas station, Swansea, along the Swansea valley and reached Brynamman in 1860 at a separate station. The tiny village of Brynamman thus had two railway stations across the road from each other. The road not surprisingly was named Station Road, though Stations Road would perhaps have been a more accurate name.
Although the Act of Parliament stated that the LRD was to be used for the carriage of coal and minerals, passengers were allowed by 1841 (if not earlier) and an open passenger carriage was attached to each train. In the beginning the passengers were carried at their own risk as there was an absence of stations and a regular timetable. The LRD was at that time intended primarily for workmen and their families. One of the first records we have of a passenger journey along the Pantyffynnon to Brynamman line was written as a diary entry by a sixteen-year old Eton schoolboy, Melville Lawford, when he visited the Amman Valley in 1843. The danger and dirt of the conditions passsengers had to endure are well described:
Tom, Baring and I went to Cwm Ammon [Cwmamman; ie, the Amman Valley] to see a coal mine. We went part of the way by train & sat in a rough carriage without buffers next to the engin, before it, so that we were continually covered with steam & went bump, bump every minute against the engin. Soon after we were in, the engin broke down, so we got out & walked on. When we had walked about a mile, we saw a coal train coming down the railway by itself, full swing, gaining speed every minute as the line is an inclined plain all the way. When the engineer saw it, he reversed the engin, which was just mended, & an active workman took hold of the coal waggon, swung to the top, & put on the brake, so no mischief was done. (An Eton Schoolboy Visits the Amman Valley: Diary of a Public Schooloy (1843), Carmarthenshire Antiquary, Volume XL, 2004, pages 104 - 117.)
But it could be even worse than this, as this author describes:
In his book John Innes mentions journeys by steam engine from Llanelli to Pontarddulais. Evidently the train would be stopped for a lost hat, or if the guard felt the need to rob an orchard. Signals would be adjusted if they were found set against the engine, and if the last down train was late the driver would omit to stop at one or two stations. Once the mail had been safely delivered, the train would then return from Llanelli to see if any passengers were stranded. (Llanelli Lives, Howard M. Jones, Gwasg y Draenog (Hedgehog Press), Pontardulais, 2001, page 42.)
The Horses Return
Then the management appear to have run out of breath. In 1846 the first four steam engines were in such bad condition that the railway had to revert to the use of horses. In 1853 a combined horse-drawn bus and train service was inaugurated between Swansea and Llandilo which lasted for two years. In the same year a branch was laid into the main station at Llanelly on the broad gauge South Wales Railway. Eventually, after very slow progress, the railway reached Llandilo in 1857, 22 years after the enabling Act. It is possible that the mainly rural activity in the area did not offer the inducements or rewards of the locations already reached, but the protracted arrival was cause for a major celebration. John Biddulph, chairman of the Llanelly Railway, was hailed at the 'dejeuner' [celebration dinner] held in Llandilo Town Hall as the hero of the day and in his speech referred to the impact the railway was likely to make on Llandilo. He foresaw excursionists visiting the area and filling the houses and hotels, merchants would come seeking health and fresh air, and the prices of commodities would be reduced. One J Palmer Budd was also present and rose to make some pious remarks about the contribution railways made to 'extending liberty of thought and intellect', He even linked this thought with his own involvement with the Welsh Midland scheme, whose failure he blamed on 'the war of the gauges'. The news reporter of 'The Cambrian' looked forward to Llandilo eventually being connected with ports in the north of England. This was an allusion to the forthcoming opening of the line onward to Llandovery, for in 1854 there had been an important development. In that year the Vale of Towy Railway was incorporated to build a 12 mile line from Llandilo to Llandovery. After failing two inspections it was opened in 1858 and leased to the Llanelly for ten years. This gave the Llanelly Railway a continuous line from Llanelly to Llandovery. By 1858 there were 40 collieries, 30 tin-plate works, and many brickworks and limeworks, all served by the Llanelly Railway.
John Biddulph Jnr. (1806-1881) who was the chairman of the Llanelly Railway & Dock Company was a Swansea banker, and this was probably just as well, since, for the next ten years, finance was to become something of a nightmare for the company. On 31 January 1860, Henry Robertson attended a board meeting held, as was frequently the case, at the London Coffee House on Ludgate Hill. He was the engineer-in-chief of the Knighton and Central Wales (CWR) Railways; the former was under construction and the latter was the subject of a Parliamentary Bill that year. He expressed interest in the idea of uniting the Llanelly and the CWR. (At the same board meeting an interesting little side-light on Victorian business practices occurred when the board agreed to pay an entrepreneur called George Webb £50 if, within three months, he could get the French government to abolish the import duty on anthracite for agricultural purposes.) Robertson attended again on 24 July 1860; the Llanelly board decided that through traffic arrangements with the CWR would be of interest but any talk of amalgamation would have to await the completion of the CWR. Meanwhile 'unity of action' with the CWR was desirable, especially with regard to approaches to Parliament, for example in connection with possible extensions to Carmarthen from Llandilo and to Swansea from Pontardulais.
John Biddulph Snr. (1768-1845) kept a sparodic diary which is most compete for the years 1828-1841, the period when all this hectic rail-building activity by the LRD was going on. He makes mention of a visit to Ammanford in 1837, then called Cross Inn. He is not impressed by either the townspeople or the Welsh in general:
15th May, 1837...
"Making sections . . . the Welsh folk are generally very dirty, they charge most extravagantly for what they do, are filthily dressed, lazy, and poor."
18th May 1837...
"Walked to Cross Inn [Ammanford] a filthy place filled with drunken men and women."
(Llanelli Lives, Howard M Jones, Gwasg y Draenog (Hedgehog Press), Pontardulais, 2001, page 56.)
It hardly needs saying that John Biddulph Snr. was an Englishman.
Then a new party came into the picture. Richard Kyrke Penson, who was an architect and director of the Kington & Eardisley came to a Llanelly board meeting at 9, Villiers Street on 9 October. He brought with him Thomas Savin and his partner Johns.
Savin was a draper turned Welsh railway promoter who had the charisma to give confidence where others quailed. They proposed that the Llanelly Railway promote a Swansea branch from Pontardulais, a Carmarthen branch from Llandilo, and another from Llandovery to Brecon, the whole to be financed by the partners, who would take a lease of the whole of the Llanelly for ten years at a fixed rate of 2½ % for the first five years and 4% for the following five, to be followed by full amalgamation. At the time the Llanelly was only earning 1%. Provided they could be satisfied as to the security of the partners, the directors of the Llanelly were in favour of the scheme.
The next day Robertson and the CWR party were at Villiers Street. They offered joint promotion of the Carmarthen and Swansea lines and running powers from Craven Arms on the Shrewsbury & Hereford Line. The Llanelly turned this down. In the light of subsequent events, this was a bad decision as it led the Llanelly into a position where the two dubious new undertakings threatened the integrity of its core activity. Belief in independence and the ability to build successful railways with promoters like Savin was strong and at that time the LNWR was seen more as a threat than a saviour. With the confidence of a promoter rather than the prudence of a banker, the Llanelly chose the more risky course, and accordingly, the Penson party were called in and told that the Llanelly would hold an Extraordinary General Meeting on their proposal on 31 October. Savin and Johns both attended the meeting which agreed the proposition. A Bill was to be prepared to seek powers to build the three lines and to prepare the lease. Conybeare was recruited as Savin's engineer.
Then, almost immediately, things began to go wrong. First, on 28 November, Johns withdrew altogether; then on 29 January 1861, Savin withdrew the Brecon to Llandovery line, for a year he said, allegedly due to the state of the money market. On 5 June, he withdrew from the lease. The Llanelly decided nevertheless that they would continue on their own. Savin still appeared able and willing to provide finance. Accordingly, on 10 June they replaced him as engineer with Conybeare of the B & M.
Then over the next four years the Llanelly besieged Parliament with a succession of Bills as opinion wavered and the management was led from one idea to another. Biddulph seems to have presided with good nature but a signal lack of decisive leadership. The project was hardly complex. The Carmarthen line was a straight-forward 14 miles down the broad valley of the Tywi; the Swansea line a mere 12 miles across the neck of the Gower peninsula and along the coast of Swansea Bay. But the Llanelly ran into one problem after another.
Finally, the Llandilo to Carmarthen line was opened in 1864 for goods, and in 1865 passenger traffic followed, although a diversion of the line had to be made so that it didn't go through the front lawn of the Bishop of St David's palace in Aberwili, near Carmarthen! Swansea, the most important destination, was finally reached in 1867 though, as we have seen above, it could also be reached from 1864 via the rather tortuous route up the Amman valley and then down the Swansea valley.
Photographs of local railway stations can be found in the 'Photographs' section of this web site.
The Origins of the LMS in South Wales, Gwyn Briwnant Jones and Dennis Dunstone, Chapter 5, Gwasg Gomer, 1999.
AMMANFORD: Origin of Street Names & Notable Historical Records, by W T H Locksmith. Published in 2000 by Carmarthenshire County Council.
Heart of Wales Line Travellers' Association' (HOWLTA) Today Ammanford is one of about 40 railway stations on the Heart of Wales line which runs directly from Swansea to Shrewsbury. The line has its own group of enthusiasts called the 'Heart of Wales Line Travellers' Association' (HOWLTA). Their web site can be found on http://www.heart-of-wales.co.uk/
Amman Valley Railway Society
There is a web site for the Amman Valley Railway Society, with more history and photographs, which can be found on: http://ammanvalleyrail.netfirms.com/
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010