No. 59 - p32-36

APRIL 1975


    In 1883 one John Howells of St Athan published an account of a journey he had made as a boy on the Penydarren Tramroad. His article is headed, with manifest inaccuracy, "A Day with the first Locomotive". Much of it is taken up with rather verbose philosophising on, to us, irrelevant matters; but some of his thoughts are germane even today, and his descriptions deserve quoting at length, since they give us a rare insight into the operating of an early industrial tramroad and a delightful portrait of a most characterful locomotive. The date of Howells' journey is not clear. His reference to the cholera epidemic ought to fix it, but does not. Merthyr suffered three outbreaks, in late 1832, in 1849 and in 1854. The 1832 one seems too early, since PERSEVERANCE was then brand new and Howells describes her as elderly; but by 1854 Dowlais was no longer using the tramroad, and even by 1849 PERSEVERANCE was no more. Perhaps Howells talks of the cholera in error. He says his ride took place "less than fifty years" before 1883, which can hardly imply a date after 1843. moreover, the Taff Vale Railway, for a very long time impinging closely on the Penydarren, would surely have been mentioned as a contrast to the tramroad if it had been there; and would not the passengers who suffered in the trams have deserted them after 1841 for the relative comfort and speed of Taff Vale coaches? I suggest the true date is in the mid or late 1830s; not that it matters very much.

    "Of all my early experiences of a dominating character", he says, "none has so completely warped my mind and my judgment through life as that of the first locomotive engine I was familiarly acquainted with ... My reason tells me that I have seen hundreds of locomotives since then, each of which was immeasurably superior ine as I am writing about would be a laughing-stock in the mechanical world nay, would not be allowed to cumber the ground unless in a museum, but would be incontinently set aside and hidden out of sight. But my reply is, reason has nothing to do with a matter of this sort, which i the property of the sentimental side of one's nature." It is like the man who marries his first love: he remains convinced that she is the best and most beautiful wife, however inelegant and homely she may seem to an unbiased observer. So it is with him. Let those splendid Great Western and Great Northern express locos go their own way; "I retain my affection for their less accomplished, home-bred, and elderly sister, the fancy of my youth, the old "Perseverance".

    "I regret I cannot give the original history of the "Perseverance". I know nothing as to where or when she was built. I think she must have been quite a middle-aged or even elderly engine, and had been persevering for many years before I made her acquaintance. She was the property of the Dowlais Iron Company, whose records might, perhaps, yield some trace about her, which would be worth the trouble of seeking. She was not beautiful to the view by any means, and did not pretend to be. She was covered over with a sort of black and brown corrosive eruption, as though she were internally not in a healthy state, but decidedly feverish, arising, no doubt, from the indigestible nature of her meals of coals and dirty water, and the high temperature which her vitals had to attain before she could be aroused into vigorous existence. She was not pampered, and coddled, and cleaned, and scoured, and kept free from incrustation and dirt, like the present green and gold specimens of her family; but, notwithstanding, she did her duty well at the time I enjoyed the privilege of admiring and wondering in her presence; that duty being the dragging of a long train of trams heavily laden with iron bars, every weekday morning, from the Dowlais Works to the Glamorganshire Basin, where the bars were stowed away in barges for transmission to Cardiff by the canal, and to return in the course of the day in the van of a similar train of empty waggons. She performed this duty with sufficient punctuality, and as much alacrity as was expected or demanded of her, it being a period when no one wanted to go to London and back in one day from Merthyr, or even to Cardiff and back. That she took several hours to perform this operation is no proof of a want of appreciation of the value of time on her part, as time was then estimated. She was in advance rather than behind the age. The tramway she travelled over was in its construction by no means conducive to speed, bearing as it did no kind of comparison with the smooth railway that the pampered locomotives of this age skim over. Its construction having been made with but slight attention to gradients or curves, there were intervals of steep ascents and descents such as would shock the engineers of this day. The old tramway over which the "Perseverance" travelled had, in addition to the outer lines of iron plates, an inner or central line of deep iron "cogs" (an invention of Trevithick's) [this is untrue], into which fitted a cogged wheel, which worked under the body of the engine. This arrangement was intended to increase the bite of the wheels on to the metals in ascending, while it offered resistance in descending. The heavily laden trams had no brakes to them, and the engine had no power to check their speed beyond her own weight. To obviate this deficiency, a number of short stout stumps of wood were carried on the iron bars, and inserted by the attendants in going down hill into circular holes in the wheels, which caused them to drag along instead of rolling, which stumps were removed before reaching level ground. To pilot the train to its destination was, therefore, a work requiring much care and judgment.

    "One quality or virtue the old "Perseverance" possessed in a supreme degree for it is difficult to believe that any member of her kindred, either before or after her days, could compete with her in this accomplishment. This was a capacity of making her approach known to the entire neighbourhood which she was about to invade. It was done not by loud whistling, as at present, but by a prodigious noise and clatter, which awakened every echo in the town of Merthyr and the surrounding hills. The liberal use she made of this virtue left no excuse open to anyone, or anything, for not getting out of her path in good time. Nor was the noise altogether superfluous, for the tramway was a favourite playground for hundreds of youngsters. At about the time Merthyr tradesmen would be at breakfast, a rumbling hollow sound might be expected to assail their ears, which gradually increased in volume as Penydarren was being passed, growing into its loudest as the "Perseverance" and her train swept round the corner by Morlais brook, from which point it rolled like a hurricane, loud enough to wake the dead in the cemetery above (had there been any dead then to wake). Soon after the sounds began to subside, and gradually ceased altogether as the train pulled up, as it always did, just above the Court-house at the bottom of Twynrodin, for a quarter of an hour or so, to take breath and rest. There was another object which concerned the attendants in stopping at this point, for though the "Perseverance" did not pretend to take passengers indeed, had no conveniences whatever for doing so yet numbers of persons did avail themselves of a lift on their way, which they were permitted to do for a few pence of beer money, if the accommodation of merely seating themselves on the iron bars was thought sufficient. Those travellers required no Bradshaw or local guide to direct them, the noisy notice given by the approach of the engine being sufficient for all purposes.

    "I had many times, boy-like, wistfully gazed after this "lengthened 'lurement long drawn out"; had envied its passengers and longed for a trip with the "Perseverance", and I had inwardly resolved that the first holiday I could procure should see me seated on the iron bars, determined to accompany my fascinating locomotive whithersoever she might choose to take me. And as "everything comes to him that waits", so did a day come, a glorious summer's day, when my secret longings were gratified, and a new chapter in my experience commenced. "Anticipation's restless mood" ran away with my sleep on the night preceding, and I rose betimes, more eager for my ride than for my breakfast. In due course the rumbling sounds reached my ears, and Twynrodin Station found me awaiting the "Perseverance", and her clattering load. I bargained with one of the guards to take me on the dual journey for the modest sum of ninepence, and felt as happy as though I was bound for the Garden of Hesperides.

    "There were a good many passengers spread over the length of the train, the nearest to me being a woman with a baby in her arms, and three other little ones whose anguish and cries on parting with their "daddy", who came to see them off, were almost heartrending. This poor woman and children were being sent to their old home near Llantrisant, to escape from the fear of the cholera then raging at Merthyr, the husband and father remaining behind to win bread for them. The scene was most demonstrative in its apparent misery, though it appeared to me at the time such is the selfishness of boyhood as an intrusion on my enjoyment. The children cried incessantly until the noise of the train drowned the sounds, when they left off, fairly beaten on their own strong ground ...

    "So unwilling am I to admit anything derogatory to the "Perseverance", that I regret being obliged to state that at times she was somewhat skittish and uncertain in her conduct. She would not always start readily when invited to, or stop when requested. She would sometimes, after starting, move along in a fitful irregular manner, causing a doubt in the mind whether the mood was sportive or mischievous. On this momentous occasion she started fairly, and even smoothly; but she reserved to herself the right to display her peculiarities and idiosyncrasies at any convenient opportunity during the journey. Excepting that the vast cloud of smoke and steam which she emitted was sometimes blown into the faces of her passengers by the light breeze that prevailed, causing an unpleasant sensation to eyes and throat, her progress was satisfactory enough until the Plymouth Iron Works were reached. At this point there was a long low tunnel to pass through, running apparently right underneath the blast furnaces, and here the first and only unpleasant experience of the trip was obtained. The "Perseverance" travelling very slowly, and ejecting a vast body of smoke, steam and sparks, the tunnel was completely filled, and the eyes, ears and lungs of the passengers were charged with the unpleasant mixture. The heat was intense, with a sensation of being half-roasted and parboiled at the same time. The little children were nearly asphyxiated, and had grown purple in the face, when the open air was reached once more. After this, for two or three miles things went smoothly enough. Clamorously were the Pentrebach forges, the Dyffryn furnaces, and the (then) small hamlet of Troedyrhiw passed. Shortly after a bend in the valley shut out Merthyr, with all its smoky and noisy surroundings, as completely as though it had been fifty miles away, and the clattering train seemed like an offensive invasion of the fresh pure loveliness of nature, which the Taff Valley at this point presents to the eye. Below, on the right of the steep, sloping bank, on the side of which the tramway travelled, flowed the Taff river, a shallow, dirty stream, but doing its best to induce the bright sun to cause a little shimmering on its surface. High up on the opposite bank was the canal, along which glided the slow barges, each drawn by a single horse, driven by a lad, happy as a sky-lark, carolling blithely a Welsh song ...

    "The "Perseverance" after having travelled satisfactorily, though slowly, for a mile or two below Troedyrhiw, began to give evidence of failing powers; and, either from fatigue, or too heavy a load, or from not being properly and sufficiently supplied in due proportions with the generators of her motive force, displayed a decided disposition to come to a standstill. There was much excitement amongst the attendants, much stirring of the fires, which produced additional smoke, followed by a few snorts and short spurts on the part of the engine, but spite of all, she came to a full stop. An unpleasant thought crossed my mind that it was possible I might be deprived of my ride and money, but I was quickly re-assured by an attendant that this conduct on the part of the "Perseverance" was not unusual, that, in fact, it had been anticipated and provided for beforehand. The fires were heaped up, a few buckets of water were obtained and poured in, and an iron chain or cable, some forty yards long, which had peacefully lain coiled upon one of the trams, the purpose of which I had been speculating about, was requisitioned and brought into use. The "Perseverance" was then detached from the train, the trams were forced back as closely to each other as possible, and the heavy passengers had to descend to lighten the load. One end of the chain was then made fast to the engine, and the other to the trams. With a cry of "Hold fast", the "Perseverance" was then started at full speed, dragging only the light weight of the chain, which, when it got to the end of its tether, by the impetus gave the trams such a violent tug that they one and all, by a succession of jerks and jolts, joined in a chase after the "Perseverance", and for a time it seemed as though the engine and train were actually racing each other, and that the engine was getting the best of it. This contrivance, as it well deserved, having turned out quite successful, the usual relations between engine and train were after a while resumed; the passengers remounted, and with abundant clatter the curve at Quaker's Yard was rounded, and the Glamorganshire Basin reached without any further incident. Here all the passengers departed, taking their separate ways".

    The rest of the article is devoted to Howells' explorations around the basin at Abercynon, and to his cadging of dinner from the canal foreman. "The return journey had in it nothing worth chronicling"; and so he ends.



For the tramroad:

George Overton, A Description of the Faults or Dykes of the Mineral Basin of South Wales (1825)

John Lloyd, The Early History of the Old South Wales Iron Works, 1760-1840 (1906)

Charles Hadfield, The Canals of South Wales and the Border (1960)

Stanley Mercer, "Trevithick and the Merthyr Tramroad" in Transactions of the Newcomen Society xxvi (1947-9) 89-103 (a very detailed description of the tramroad)

Dowlais Iron Company letters, some published by Madeleine Elsas, Iron in the Making (1960), some unpublished in Glamorgan Record Office (deposited by Guest Keen Iron & Steel Co Ltd and quoted by permission of the County Archivist)

For Trevithick's locomotive:

Francis Trevithick, Life of Richard Trevithick (1872)

H .W. Dickinson and A. Titley, Richard Trevithick, the Engineer and the Man (1934)

C.F. Dendy Marshall, A History of Railway Locomotives down to the end of the year 1831 (1953)

Arthur Raistrick, Dynasty of Ironfounders (1953)

W.W. Mason, "Trevithick's First Rail Locomotive" in Transactions of the Newcomen Society xii (1931-2) 85-103

E.A. Forward, "Links in the History of the Locomotive" in The Engineer, 22nd February 1952, 266-8

J.M. Eyles, "William Smith, Richard Trevithick and Samuel Homfray" in Transactions of the Newcomen Society xliii (1970-1) 137-61

Railway Magazine March 1937,223; March 1951,197; May 1951,350

For Stephenson locomotives:

Original Robert Stephenson drawings and books in the Science Museum, consulted and copied by courtesy of the Director

J.G.H. Warren, A Century of Locomotive Building by Robert Stephenson & Co., 1823-1923 (1923)

The Cambrian, 30th June 1832

W.K.V. Gale and T.M. Hoskison, A History of the Pensnett Railway (1969)

For Neath Abbey locomotives:

Dowlais Iron Company letters, deposited in the Glamorgan Record Office by Guest Keen Iron & Steel Co Ltd, and quoted by permission of the County Archivist

Neath Abbey Ironworks drawings, deposited in the Glamorgan Record Office by Messrs Taylor & Sons, Briton Ferry, and copied by permission of the County Archivist

Hereford Times, 4th August 1832

The Cambrian, 18th August 1832

C.F. Dendy Marshall, A History of Railway Locomotives down to the end of the year 1831 (1953)

Charles Wilkins, The South Wales Coal Trade (1888)

Charles Wilkins, The History of the Iron, Steel, Tinplate and other Trades of Wales (1903)

Engineering, 15th November 1867

On Adrian Stephens, see Transactions of the Newcomen Society xxvii (1949-51) 163-73

Howells' article:

Red Dragon, iii (1883) 226-35

Mr P.G. Rattenbury has prevented me from going far astray in the first section; Mr R.G. Keen has assisted me with illustrations; Mr L.G. Charlton has helped me greatly over early Stephenson locos; and Mr J.F. Parker has guided me on technical matters. I am most grateful to them all.

Part 2