Court Sart Branch Canal
Over the period around 1799-1810 a sequence of leases for a portion of Eaglesbush Estate eventually led to the establishment of the Eskyn Colliery from which a horse-drawn tramway led to a wharf on the River Neath at Briton Ferry. In 1829 permission was granted for an alternative route to the river using the Neath Canal by the construction of a branch canal at Pantyrheol. The Court Sart Branch Canal would run between the Neath Canal and the New Turnpike Road (the present ‘Main Road’) at which point it would meet a new tramway from the colliery. However, it would exist in operation only up to the introduction of the South Wales Railway circa 1850 which cut directly across its path. This article chronicles the relatively short life of the branch canal along with tramway(s) from the colliery and describes features that may still be seen today as evidence of their original course.
1.0 Evolution of Neath Canal
The construction of the Court Sart Branch Canal was at the culmination of a number of prior activities initially associated with the earlier approximately one and three eighth miles long ‘Penrhiwtyn Canal’. Operational by 1792, this canal had been financed by Lord Vernon and ran from Giant’s Grave Pill to the furnaces of the ‘Penrhiwtyn Ironworks’ near Melincrythan. While construction was underway, a meeting was held at the Ship & Castle in Neath (now the Castle Hotel) on 12th July 1790 where interested parties discussed a proposal to build a canal from Pontneddfechan to Neath Town (a survey was subsequently undertaken by Thomas Dadford junior). Also considered was the potential of an extension to Giant’s Grave which was deemed to be of future benefit though this would not be part of the first phase. The following year an Act of Parliament authorised the construction of a canal from (the slightly nearer) Glynneath to the Melincrythan Pill, a total distance of approximately ten and a half miles and was completed in 1795. At the end of 1797 powers were sought to extend the canal by two and a half miles to Giant’s Grave (see Figure 1), Dadford was once more the surveyor.
Figure 1. Plan for Neath Canal between Melincrythan Pill and Giant’s Grave, Dadford 1797
The associated authorising Act was given assent in May 1798. Penrhiwtyn Canal was purchased from Lord Vernon and absorbed into this extension which terminated at a basin on the Neath side of Giant’s Grave Pill; work was completed by 29th July 1799. Around 1815 Lord Vernon’s agent, Lewis Thomas authorised a 150 yard extension around the end of Giant’s Grave Pill to a new shipping area on the south side. At some point soon after it was further extended by about 50 yards by a new landowner, the Earl of Jersey and increased again by 1832 for another half-mile. A final extension was made prior to 1842 allowing coal supplies to the then planned ironworks.
[Although complaints regarding the quantity of mud and poor available depth of the Neath Canal were made in 1866, traffic continued but declined considerably over the following years due to preferred alternative options of transport e.g. train, the number of barge tolls being virtually nil in 1921. The last toll was taken in November 1934.]
2.0 Court Sart Branch Canal
As soon as the first two major sections of the Neath Canal had been completed opportunities were taken to realise the advantage of this new waterway eventually resulting in three branch canals along its length. The first near the head of the canal at Maesmarchog was constructed c.1800, a second circa 1817 at Cnel Bach near Aberclwyd, with the third being built c. 1829 at Court Sart, Briton Ferry. The background to this latter branch canal originated with a press announcement in August 1812 concerning the opening of the ‘Eskyn Colliery, Briton-Ferry’ (aka Esgyrn / Esgryn / Eskin / Yskin / Erskine). Coal would be transported from the colliery, located near the section of Pant Howell Ddu Road that overlooks the Court Sart area, to a wharf on the River Neath at Briton Ferry via a horse-drawn tramway, passing St. Mary’s church en-route (see later), before being transferred to seafaring vessels.
Note: Lord Vernon would not permit a tramroad to be built in front of his mansion located near the church and so a tunnel was built from Church Street to the wharf!
Following non-payment of significant rent arrears the lease for the colliery was surrendered in 1827. The subsequent lease of the Eskyn Colliery from 1829 was granted by the Earl of Jersey to ‘Messrs. Smith, Terrill and Nell’ and included was their intention of making an alternative route for transporting the coal to the River Neath whereby the road element would be reduced by making use of the Neath Canal. It was proposed to cut a branch canal at Court Sart to join the Neath Canal ‘The proposed Cuts to join the Neath Canal...’ which also incorporated the agreement to construct roads/railways as necessary from the colliery to meet this branch. However, the original tramway would remain and be used as required. At this time the extension of the Neath Canal to (virtually) the wharf at Briton Ferry had yet to be built and so the terminus would have been near Giant’s Grave Pill as aforementioned. The use of this new route implies that coal would be double-handled before making its way by sea i.e. transfer from tram to barge at the new branch canal and then from barge to sea-vessel at the wharf. This would incur additional handling charges compared with the original route but nonetheless must have been considered more cost effective.
The branch canal plan (see Figure 2) commencing just above the buildings annotated ‘Court Sart’ hence the name. The ‘Intended Canal’ (coloured pink) begins at the Neath Canal then immediately passes under a bridge before continuing in a straight line to terminate at the New Turnpike Road.
Figure 2. Lease plan of 1829 detailing the ‘Intended Canal’ i.e. Court Sart Branch Canal
It appears that there was already a form of path/lane or field boundary between the New Turnpike Road to the Old Turnpike Road (the present ‘Old Road’) which was almost a straight continuation of the line of the branch. Slightly uproad from this point on the Old Turnpike Road a path or lane is seen heading towards Pant Howell Ddu Road which itself ran to the area of the Eskyn Colliery that was located just after the U-bend of the road. Hosgood’s slightly later plan of 1832 (see Figure 3) shows the branch canal after completion where it appears the bridge was not constructed.
Figure 3. Branch canal extending from the Neath Canal to the New Turnpike Road, Hosgood, 1832
The branch also crossed the somewhat triangular shape of the original course of the Crythan Brook (outlined brown in Figure 3) although by this time the brook no longer ran to the Court Sart Pill, being redirected to run to the River Neath at Melincrythan upon construction of the New Turnpike Road c.1818. By 1833 a proposed ‘new line’ of tramway/railway branching from the colliery ahead of the Old Turnpike Road was under consideration (see Figure 4). This was not completely new but more of an alternative initial portion of the tramway as it would thereafter cover the same path as the earlier pre-1827 route from the intersection with the New Turnpike Road, i.e. down to the wharf after passing St. Mary’s church. Also shown is the relatively smooth route that by then existed between the colliery and the branch canal obviating the original ‘dog-leg’ in Figure 2.
Figure 4. Proposed ‘New Line / ‘Rail Road’ branching from the branch canal line
However, the proposed route of the ‘new line’ in Figure 4 was not implemented. A more appropriate take-off nearer to the colliery than the original proposal was built at some point (see Figure 5), running parallel with Pant Howell Ddu/Ynysmaerdy Road until its junction with the New Turnpike Road, thereafter running to the wharf as previous. Also seen is a substantial quay/docking area at the junction with the New Turnpike Road.
Figure 5. Undated map, possibly 1849 showing tramways and dock area at the New Turnpike Road
The ‘old line of railroad’ and ‘present line of railroad’ are clearly outlined with yet another ‘proposed line of railroad’ albeit once more joining the very earliest route to the wharf, the new line running straight from the colliery area to join with the existing line. This new line does appear to have been built based on later maps (section 3.0) and was to be the last of the various routes transporting coal from the Eskyn Colliery to the River Neath at Briton Ferry.
So, from the early 1830s the Eskyn Colliery was able to transport its output to the River Neath either by tramway to the junction with the Court Sart Branch Canal and onto the Neath Canal to transfer to the River Neath at Giant’s Grave, or via the earlier tramway reaching a further point along the River Neath at Briton Ferry. It is considered that these routes were in operation up to the late 1840s i.e. up to the introduction of the South Wales Railway (SWR), no evidence being found to the contrary.
During 1847 the Earl of Jersey had already drawn up terms with George Penrose and James Evans for them to surrender their latest lease of 1843 in order to obtain the land at the branch canal and associated roads for building of the SWR;
Messrs. Penrose & Evans to surrender the old tramroad made by the late Robert Smith & Co. Leading to the Courtsart canal – likewise such Canal and the land cottage and smithy adjoining – to surrender also the present tramroad now in use and to restore it into pasture land.’ Also ‘The Earl to receive all compensation for such of the Courtsart Pill or Canal and the land so to be surrendered which shall be taken by the South Wales Railway Company for their Railway.
Surrender of the lease was executed on 31st December 1849 effectively halting the relatively short-lived operation of the Court Sart Branch Canal.
[A report by Glen A Taylor in 1937 stated that the Court Sart Branch Canal ran ‘...almost due east, crossing the road near Pantyrheol Church and on to the old road. The pathway between the old and present main roads at this point is on the site of the old Towing path.’ Unfortunately this incorrect statement has been taken as fact in later reports. Also, the branch length is described by Hadfield as between 440 - 550 yards long (0.25 - 0.31 miles). Approximate distance from the Neath Canal junction to the Main Road (New Turnpike Road) is actually 700 yards (0.4 miles).]
3.0 Demise of the Court Sart Branch Canal
Following closure of the branch to colliery traffic it was effectively rendered obsolete. Figure 6 presents a collage of the four Ordnance Survey maps of 1877 that cover the associated area.
Figure 6. OS map collage 1877 - remaining section of branch canal leading to the previously SWR but now Great Western Railway (GWR) and residual section up to the New Turnpike Road; subsequent path of the tramway to the Eskyn colliery indicated by field boundaries
The junction with the Neath Canal is clearly seen (top left) with the branch running diagonally downward unaffected until it reaches the GWR line, further curtailing its length. Proceeding in a straight line thereafter it is unsurprisingly more fragmented by that time up to the New Turnpike Road. The branch was by then probably filled-in between those points. The significantly narrower lines (of trees) reveal the original tramway route from the New to the Old Turnpike Road, probably having been returned to pasture as per the lease surrender agreement. The 1877 map at Figure 7 shows the area between the Old Turnpike Road (on left) and the Eskyn Colliery (on right) plus Pant Howell Ddu Road from the Eaglesbush Estate which runs down to meet the Old Turnpike Road presently leading onto Ynysmaerdy Road.
Figure 7. Map of the Eskyn Colliery area, 1877
Below this road the outline of the final (post-South Wales Railway) tramway from the colliery is clearly seen running towards Briton Ferry. The outline of the original tramway continuing up to Eskyn Colliery is also still just evident alongside Pant Howell Ddu Road. The tramway to Briton Ferry was bridged by both the SWR line and the later South Wales Mineral Railway (SWMR) line seen sweeping across Figure 7, although it had probably ceased operation by 1861. At this time the leaseholder, George Penrose, was declared bankrupt, the colliery already having been reported as ‘abandoned’ in 1859.
A further curtailment of the branch was imposed by the construction in 1876 of the GWR engine shed (see Figure 8). Note that the shed was not shown on OS maps of 1884 although these were supposedly updates of the 1877 version.
Figure 8. Proposed construction of GWR engine shed, 1876
The engine shed was built across a section of the branch canal, the only remaining portion of the latter existing thereafter reaching up to the shed from the Neath Canal junction. The isolated length of branch canal between the shed and railway would then no doubt be filled in. GWR made considerable efforts to avoid the remaining section the branch canal from impacting on their works by closing the Neath Canal junction with a new area of canal bank. Further minimising of water ingress was implemented with later constructions at the site between the rear of the shed and the Neath Canal (see Figure 9).
Figure 9. GWR engine shed area near Neath Canal junction
However, the branch canal was not totally filled in between the Neath Canal junction and shed, small sections remaining as shown.
A lane existed between the present Main Road and the railway line running alongside the original route of the branch canal, probably along the towpath. This was gradually becoming established with residential premises and by 1913 was named ‘Farm Road’ (see Figure 10).
Figure 10. Farm Road area, 1913
The direction of the colliery tramway can still be seen on this map running from the opposite side of the Main Road in line with Farm Road.
4.0 Current Views of Court Sart Branch Canal Area
Despite the changes mentioned even today there remains some landscape features related to the branch canal. Figure 11 shows a current view of the area, the red pointer (top left) positioned at the original junction with the Neath Canal.
Figure 11. Branch Canal area 2022, Neath Canal shown as bright green line (top left)
Figure 12 shows the junction of the branch with Neath Canal located just upstream of the railway bridge that crosses Neath Canal.
Figure 12. Location of Court Sart Branch Canal junction on Neath Canal
Although the GWR constructed a new section of banking on the Neath Canal, a remnant of the branch canal may be seen just the other side of this bank in the form of a depression/channel. Occasionally this area contains water depending on previous weather (see Figure 13).
Figure 13. Court Sart Branch Canal remnants located behind Neath Canal bank
This brief section is all that remains of the short lived Court Sart Branch Canal. Following the line of the branch canal from the Neath Canal junction (see Figure 11) the remaining portion of the branch canal is covered by foliage with the area previously occupied by the long gone GWR engine shed represented by the relatively flat grassy section. Unsurprisingly, there are no features remaining between this area and Farm Road. However, the continuing direction of the branch along the line of Farm Road is clearly shown reaching the Main Road. Thereafter, the line of the tramway can be seen running along the row of buildings between the Main Road and Old Road and then continues to run alongside the sports facilities until reaching Ynysmaerdy Road/Pant Howell Ddu Road i.e. the original Eaglesbush Estate road.
Therefore, along with remaining hard evidence of pools in the original branch canal near its junction with the Neath Canal there are additional clues to its existence. These include the direction taken by subsequent developments along the original course of both the canal as far as the Main Road and the tramway thereafter across the Old Road and onward as far as Ynysmaerdy Road/Pant Howell Ddu Road.
5.0 Summary & Conclusion
Few records exist to indicate the use and life of the Court Sart Branch Canal. It is likely to have been in commercial operation up to about 1850 prior to construction of the SWR railway which then almost certainly ended any further coal transport. Thereafter, all coal from the Eskyn Colliery would have once more been transported to the River Neath at Briton Ferry via the original tramway.
Despite the Court Sart Branch Canal being constructed over 200 years ago and relatively quickly becoming obsolete, evidence of its existence remains to this day. It is revealed not only in the small section remaining at the junction with the Neath Canal but also in the line of Farm Road with the direction taken by buildings on the opposite side of the Main Road heading towards the Old Road indicating the line of the canal tramway which originally ran towards the Eskyn Colliery.
The legacy of Court Sart Branch Canal has not been totally erased.
P Richards - Neath Antiquarian Society, 2022
Neath Antiquarian Society Archive
West Glamorgan Archive Services
The Canals of South Wales and the Border - Charles Hadfield (1960)
Photographs and other maps - Hywel Rogers, Gerald Williams, National Library of Scotland, Google Maps