Merthyr Tydfil Tramroads and their Locomotives

by Gordon Rattenbury and M.J.T.Lewis

Railway & Canal Historical Society, UK, 2004 ISBN 0901461520 Soft cover, 88 pages, 46 photos, drawings, maps, notes and references, index.

Many, many years ago my father gave me a copy of Bertram Baxter's Stone Blocks and Iron Hails (David & Charles, 1966) for my birthday. It opened up a hitherto unknown world, a place where there were primitive railways (many years before the Stockton & Darlington Railway); a place where, often, the flanges weren't on the wheels but on the rails - the world of plateways and tramroads.

I read and re-read that book, sometimes even whilst the LRRSA Council was meeting in the next room, at a time my father was on the committee. It soon became apparent that one of the densest networks of plateways was in southern Wales and the Taff Valley. But one was hampered by lack of good maps in both Baxter's book and various subsequent publications. Certainly, some books have maps but all to often they were composite maps - all railways from "1790 to 1970" sort of thing, generation after generation of railways layered upon each other until it looked like the cat's ball of wool on a bad day. For one not conversant with the Welsh valleys it was very hard to fathom. Enter 2004 and the bi-centenary of the world's first railway locomotive and the Railway & Canal Historical Society have published this fine book that commemorates not only that event but also the Society's 50th year. Merthyr Tydfil Tramroads and their Locomotives consists of two parts -the first by the late Gordon Rattenbury, containing his interesting researches into the history of the Merthyr Tydfil tramroad (called by some, incorrectly, the Penydarren tramroad). Famous names here - Dowlais, Cyfarthfa, Plymouth and Penydarren - the four iron companies, hamstrung by inadequate transport, decided upon a canal. Opened in 1794, the Glamorganshire Canal proved to be fine for Richard Crawshay of Cyfarthfa ironworks as it was on his side of the steep Taff valley. The others were left somewhat in the cold and jointly decided upon a tramroad - the Merthyr Tramroad (a plateway of 4ft 4ins gauge) which duly opened in 1802, from near the Penydarren ironworks to a canal basin at Abercynon, a distance of 9-1/2 miles.

Forever made famous by Trevithick's 1804 locomotive (which wasn't the abject failure it is often made out to be), the Merthyr Tramroad and the ironworks' limestone quarry tramroads are mapped in this book such that they make sense. Gone are the subsequent mainline railways and their intricate layouts - here we get just the basic skeleton with each line labelled as to which company it belonged. The second part of the book is a reprint of Dr Michael Lewis's paper originally titled Steam on the Penydarren that first appeared in the Industrial Railway Record in 1975. Carefully revised and expanded where necessary to include new material, all of the wondrous steam locomotive machines from the dawn of railways in the Taff Valley are covered, with delightful scale drawings, to be studied and absorbed. Here we have the double-funnelled Perseverance, the unpronounceable (unless you're Welsh) Yn Barod Etto, and Mountaineer. Some of them had an early rack mechanism for surmounting the grades between Penydarren and Dowlais and were the products of the Neath Abbey Ironworks. Gracing the cover of this book is a most evocative painting of the previously mentioned Perseverance, climbing Morlais Hill on a return journey to Dowlais Ironworks in about 1832. Highly recommended. Limited supplies, do not delay - see members' Sales List.

Phil Rickard

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