THIS sketch is in the Torfaen Museum collection and depicts two horse-drawn barges at Pontymoile in the early nineteenth century. The bargemen (wearing very large hats as protection from the weather) are in the process of uncoupling the horses from the barges.

250 years ago, before the canal system, the only way to transport goods was by boat via navigable rivers, along the coast or by road using pack animals and wagons. Wagons travelling long distances by road required up to 16 animals to pull a heavy load (of around four tonnes).

By the early eighteenth century there was an urgent and growing need for a new transport system to move bulk raw materials and manufactured goods more quickly, cheaply and reliably.

In 1792, work began on the Monmouthshire Canal from Newport to Crumlin. A later branch was added to Pontypool and on to Pontnewynydd (opened 1806). In 1812, the Monmouthshire Canal was joined by the new Brecon & Abergavenny Canal at Pontymoile Junction.

Canals needed to be as level as possible but sometimes obstacles could not be avoided; bridges had to be built over roadways, tunnels through hills, aqueducts over rivers and gorges and locks were needed to traverse gradients.

The Monmouthshire Canal involved a combined rise of over 793 feet and to overcome this, the canal had 74 locks, two tunnels and three aqueducts constructed. Building these was a massive undertaking - as it was all dug by hand.

Men were brought in from all over Wales to build the canal and they were known as navigators (or ‘navvies’ for short). Some of the most skilled of the ‘navvies’ could shift 20 tonnes of earth in a working day.

For much of the time food, drink and rudimentary accommodation had to be provided by the canal company – as often the men worked many miles from the nearest town.

To help pay for the upkeep of the canal, tolls were charged along the route following the weighing of the cargo. Junction Cottage at Pontymoile Junction basin was one such tollhouse that is still standing today.

By the late 1830s, after over 20 years of very heavy use, the Monmouthshire-Brecon canals were becoming very congested and the traffic was approaching capacity.

Local industrialists saw the railway as the solution to this problem and in 1848 formed the Monmouthshire Railway Company.

In 1852, a single line railway joined Newport to Pontypool at Crane Street station and two years later the extended line to Blaenavon via Pontnewynydd was opened.

On the canals, traffic was fading away and the toll yield was not covering the cost of maintenance.

In 1865, the Monmouthshire Railway Company bought out the canal company and was in turn purchased by Great Western Railway in 1875. By this time the use of canals as the main cargo and goods carrier was all but over.

Nostalgia is provided by Torfaen Museum.

The museum has published a new, illustrated book The Story of Torfaen from which this article and picture are taken. The book has been published to fundraise for our valley's museum, which preserves and displays our borough's history.

The book can be ordered by email or phone message from the museum (price £10) at or 01495 752036.