Coal Mining Trail - (Birchgrove, Llansamlet)

This trail is written for local people, but it is hoped that it will prove to be of wider interest. It does not seek to say everything about coal mining in the area, but rather to provide an introduction which can serve as the basis for further investigation.

The distance to be covered is about 3½ miles and forms a circle, as you will see from the map below. You can start to follow it anywhere along its length, but Llansamlet Cross is a convenient point if you have arrived by bus from Morriston or Swansea. A shorter walk of 2½ miles can be made by going directly from site (9) to site (14). Stout shoes and waterproof clothing are recommended.

      Site List

From an early date until the beginning of the 20th century coal mining was important in the parish of Llansamlet. It was round the pits that the mining villages of Cwm, Bonymaen, Llansamlet and Birchgrove grew up, and it was to serve them that the canal, tramways and railways were built. Mining provided the impetus for industrial development which was to make the Lower Swansea Valley the metallurgical centre of the world in the 19th century.

Coal mining has now long ceased in the area, and most of the other industries have closed and their sites lie derelict. Since the war large housing estates have been established and these have tended to change the character and alter the appearance of the area and so mask its industrial heritage. Nevertheless, if one knows where to look, many traces of the old Llansamlet remain: this trail will lead round just some of them.

The present-day village grew up around Llansamlet Cross (1) only after about 1790, when what is now the A48 road between Neath and Morriston was constructed as a turnpike road with a new bridge across the River Tawe at Wychtree. It was a very straight road, as you can see by looking towards Morriston, and its builders must have had difficulties in crossing the low-lying marsh land. The Traveller’s Rest public house, together with the Smith’s Arms on the junction and the Star (now rebullt) were all constructed shortly after 1800 to provide refreshment for travellers. Houses and shops soon followed and this became the second village centre, replacing the original centre, as we shall see later.

From the Cross, turn down Midland Road by the flower shop, pass through the gateposts and cross the line of the former Midland Railway. To your left is the site of the Midland Railway Station (2). Like many villages throughout the country, Llansamlet had its own station and goods yard. This station was closed to passengers as early as 1875 when the line through Morriston was opened, but it remained in use as a goods depot until 1968. Llansamlet also had a station on the main Great Western line from London to Swansea. To reach this, you turn right at the end of Midland Road: the access stairs are still to be seen just this side of the railway bridge. Beware of vehicles as you walk under the bridge.

On the far side of the main line, the road just above you, Llwyncrwn Road, marks the route of Townsend’s wagonway (3). It was built in 1750 by Chauncey Townsend, an early coal proprietor. Horse-drawn wagons used to carry the coal down from his pits in this area to Upper Bank lead works and the wharves at Foxhole for loading onto ships. Later in the 18th century Smith’s Canal replaced it, but the waggonway can still be traced as a rough track for much of its length.

Continue along Bethel Road and you will come to Bethel Chapel (4), the first Welsh Congregationalist chapel in the district. The original building was erected at a cost of £352 and opened in 1818. The present chapel dates from 1880. Prior to its opening preaching took place in the nearby farmhouse of Tal-y-goppa Evan. The former infants’ school is now the Stadwen Youth Club.

Bethel Road and Stadwen Road form part of the old parish road (5) which was the only link between the Morriston area and Neath before the turnpike road (now the A48) was built. Its curves and bends reflect its age and give it charm and character. The attractive, well-kept, stone cottages along the right-hand side of the road are amongst some of the older houses in Llansamlet.

Continue along the road to where it crosses the South Wales Railway (6). Looking east along the cutting, you can see the work of the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel who built this line as part of the South Wales Railway (subsequently Great Western Railway). When it opened in 1850 it provide the first railway link between Swansea and London, and was subsequently extended to New Milford. In 1872 the line was converted from the broad gauge of 7 feet to its present standard 4 feet, 8½ inches. Very soon after the line was opened the
sides of this part of the cutting started to slip. To support them, Brunel built four stone arches over the line, the most westerly of which can just be seen in the distance. Spoil is piled on either side of them.

Just over the bridge on the main road is the areas know as Peniel Green (7). In the early 19th century it consisted solely of a farm and a few cottages about an open green.

Cross the main road and walk down Gwernllwynchwith Road opposite. It was originally built as the drive to the house occupied by the local squires and was only later extended through to Heol Las. On your left from the railway bridge you can see the red-brick buildings and chimney of the former Samlet Colliery (8), now used by a haulage firm. This pit was 100 yards deep and was sunk in the late 18th century as Gwern Pit. It was finally closed in 1930. Beyond the colliery you can also see the line of Smith’s Canal running towards Llansamlet Church, the chimney and engine-house of Scott’s Pit and the remains, straight ahead, of Gwernllwynchwith House.

Walk down towards the house, and over and gate on your right is an area worked for coal in the early 18th century by the Morgan family who encouraged the development of their estate in this way. In the field on the other side of the gate it was recorded in 1808 that there was a water-wheel for pumping a pit dry. The trees nearby hide a track which was once the course of Gwernllwynchwith Road.

The remains of Gwernllwynchwith House (9) and its outbuildings are at the bend of the road, surrounded by a high well. The original house was probably built in the 16th or 17th century and was occupied by the local squires. In the first part of the 18th century the house belonged to the Morgan family, but in 1750 Chauncey Townsend came on the scene and he and his descendants occupied it for the next hundred years or more. Among the pits belonging to the family were Church Pit, Round Pit and Gwern Pit. In 1826 Charles Henry Smith, the great-grandson of Townsend, acquired control. He sank Charles Pit and Emily Pit and became one of the largest proprietors in this area. He was a leading figure in Swansea and was a member of many local bodies, including Saint Samlet’s Church Vestry and School Board.

Walk past the house and under the motorway. To shorten the walk by one mile continue directly from here to Scott’s Pit and take the trail up again at site 14. Otherwise turn immediately right and walk through a gate and up a footpath. This runs on the course of an old siding off the Midland Railway which served Emily Pit (10). The site can be seen in the field to the right of the housing estate, about 200 yards up the path where it emerges from the trees. It was sunk in 1839 by C.H. Smith and named after his wife. The remains of the spoil heap is alongside the path, and a blocked drift mine can be seen at the top of the hill near the house.

Turn left along the footpath by the houses, go through the car park and then turn right along the road, Heol Dulais. Follow it up the hill to the new primary school. Here, turn left to see Birchgrove House (11). In the trees are the remaining parts of this house which was the home of the Morgans after they had moved from Gwernllwynchwith. When the estate was sold in 1913, the house was described in the agent’s brochure as “charmingly placed on a picturesque and wooded hillock, commanding a glorious view of the Tawe Valley and surrounded with nice grounds with a very productive walled garden at the rear”. How things have changed! The Birchgrove Estate comprised roughly the present village.

Turn right at the end of the school playing field, down what was formerly the drive giving access to Birchgrove House. The small house at the end of the drive on the right was designed as a gate house. Turn left and walk down the main road as far as the junction with Heol Las. Turn left here and about half way down the hill look back towards the village to the site of Birchgrove Pit (12). This pit was sunk by Edward Martin of Morriston in 1845 to a depth of 32 yards and was sufficiently prosperous for the owners, the Birchgrove Colliery Co., to sink both the Brothers and the Sisters Pit nearer Glais. On the right-hand side of the road is a deep, tree-lined ditch which was, in fact, the incline for an old tramway linking this pit with Brothers Pit and the Swansea Vale Railway.

Continue down the hill, and just after the road narrows you will see three lock-up garages on the right which now occupy the site of Heol Las Woollen Mill (13). It was powered by water from the Bran Brook nearby and was built by William Evans of Carmarthen in the early 19th century. Local wool from sheep on the Drummau Mountain was used. Early religious dissenters of the Congregationalist persuasion are said to have held meetings at the mill, their previous place of worship having been in Chapel Field on Drummau Mountain. It was also used as a school by the Congregationalists before 1862 when the new school was built which formed the lower part of the former infant’s school on Heol Dulais.

Follow the road through the village and turn left by the chapel back onto Gwernllwynchwith Road. Ahead you will see Scott’s Pit (14), named after John Scott who was responsible for sinking it, but later sold out to C.H.Smith without having achieved the success for which he had hoped. It
probably worked from 1819 until about 1840. The impressive stone building is a Cornish beam engine-house, used to pump water from the workings 160 yards below in the Church or Four-Foot seam. The engine-house was one of the first of its type in South Wales. In addition, a stone lined shaft, auxiliary buildings and a tramroad were constructed to exploit what was a proven seam. Extensive investigation of the site by the South West Wales Industrial Archaeology Society has revealed a boiler house, furnace house, winding engine base and pit, and an unusually designed tramplate.

Pass under the motorway and cross the wooden stile in the fence on your right. In front of you an electric pylon can be seen beside the Swansea District Railway line. At the foot of it is an embankment carrying the raised line of Scott’s Tramroad (15), built in about 1816-1819 to run from pits in the Gwernllwynchwith area, especially Scott’s Pit down the eastern side of the valley to Foxhole. South of Llansamlet village the Swansea Vale Railway (opened 1852) adopted the line of the tramroad, but up here the two remained separate.

Walk along the foot of the embankment to where the Swansea District line (opened 1912) crosses the Swansea Vale (or Midland Railway) line. Examine the stone arch under the latter: some of the stones have holes in them which suggests that they originally served as sleeper blocks.

Pass under the Swansea District line, turn right, and follow the foot of the railway embankment as far as Scott’s Tramroad which can clearly be seen emerging from under the embankment. Follow it to the basin of Smith’s Canal. This way is wet underfoot in places, but not so wet as going in a direct line from the railway bridge to the basin.

You should still be able to make out the basin of Smith’s Canal (16). Lower down, near the green-fenced enclosure on the left, the canal is much better preserved and appears almost as it might have done in 1784 when John Smith built it to take coal from his Llansamlet collieries to Foxhole. The reeds and silt could easily be cleared and might form a future restoration project. It was probably abandoned as long ago as the 1850's when it was superseded by the Swansea Vale Railway.

Follow the right-hand side of the canal. To your left, on the side of the valley, was Round Pit (17). The only remains of this pit, which once contained an iron foundry and brickworks amongst its surface buildings, is the red brick constructions with a chimney dated 1875. Under Cwm Cottage nearby is an adit which runs underground up to the shops on Trallwn Road. This was used for drainage. Just opposite Round Pit you will notice an embankment going off on the right across the low-lying land. This is the remains of a siding which served the Felin Fran or Fold Pit near the railway bridge on Walters Road.

At the end of the tow-path you reach Church Road (18). This point, where the road crosses Smith’s Canal, was the centre of the village before the turnpike road was built in the late 18th century. Opposite the Plough and Harrow public house was the National Bible School, now the site of the white-rendered maisonettes, and next to it is Saint Samlet’s Church. On the left of the canal was the post office and a number of cottages. Behind the public house was Church Pit Colliery.

Saint Samlet’s Church (19) is the mother church of the Manor of Kilvey. Its position was selected for the rising ground above the marsh. The previous church on the site was probably built before 1729 and was described in 1878 as being a “small and dilapidated structure of no historic interest and unsightly”. Foundations for the new church were begun in 1876 on land given by the Earl of Jersey and the foundation stone was laid in 1878 by his wife, the Countess of Jersey. The Early English design was a product of the Briton Ferry architect, Mr. Clark, who used local labour to build the church. It cost £6,500 and because of a lack of money the tower was not added until 1915. Its capacity is 645. The Vicar, Dr. Walters, who was the main driving force to rebuild the church, wrote in 1876: “The chairman of our building committee (Bagot) has had his affairs in liquidation and one or two colliery owners who were active promoters have been involved in similar difficulties.” This explains why a reduced scheme for the church had to be adopted at first.

The Cambrian newspaper of 22nd July, 1878 records that the parish of Llansamlet was a poor parish containing a population between seven and eight thousand, most of whom were working men such as colliers, miners, tinplate workers, coppermen, etc.

Return to the canal bridge, but turn into the recreation ground to see the site of Church Pit (20) which is now occupied by the plant hire firm of Short Bros. In the 18th century the Church Pit was the most important in the area, particularly as it drained many of the others by means of its large fire engine, or steam pump. It was 80 feet deep. In 1824 new shafts were sunk and the working extended, and it was re-named Charles Pit after the proprietor, Charles Henry Smith. Coal was shipped out by packhorse and canal. In about 1870 a tinplate works was built on the site. It later became the Aber Tinplate Works which can be seen at the rear of the buildings.

Turn left and walk along what is the course of a siding which linked the works to the Midland line. It crossed Llansamlet Cross diagonally and so brings us back to our starting point.

The information above was originally produced by the South West Wales Industrial Archaeology Society for a leaflet in 1979. 

The Community Association wishes very much to thank  the "South West Wales Industrial Archaeology Society" for creating this information document.

 16 April 2012



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