The Tennant Canal

History and technology flow together through the Tennant canal.

BP Llandarcy Pumping Station in 1950's
1950 – BP Oil refinery pumping station on the Tennant Canal at Cwrt y Bettws abstracting three-and-a-half million gallons of water a day.

South Wales Evening Post 1982

It may seem a little odd that an establishment as technologically up-to-date as an oil refinery should be receiving its water supplies from a canal built in the industrial hay-days of the 1920s. The fact is that the Llandarcy refinery was located and designed with an eye to receiving the bulk of its requirements from the Tennant canal — at one time up to five million gallons, and at the present time about three-and-a-half millions gallons, a day.

BP Oil (Llandarcy) Refinery LTD Tennant canal Pump House
BP Oil (Llandarcy) Refinery LTD Tennant canal Pump House

Many of the canals built in South Wales just before and just after the end of the 18th century have long since ceased to exist. Some survive under the watchful eye of preservation societies as tourist attractions. The Tennant while still fulfilling an important industrial function, has stretches of splendid serenity and great visual beauty over its eight-and-half-mile length between Aberdulais and Swansea.

It has quiet places where the gorgeously-coloured kingfisher reigns, where dippers dart about and the yellow wagtail is continually busy.

Beneath the water surface, there are Perch, Pike, Eels, Tench, and other coarse fish that members of the Llandarcy angling section try to catch. And although that kind of idyllic setting is not what George Tennant had in mind when he started his canal venture in 1817, it’s a much happier situation, with the passage of time, than it might have been.


After the old iron masters and coal owners had pioneered the earliest small canal operations, five great canal lines had opened in the Welsh valleys by the dawn of the 19th century, and the others soon followed.

The only one built privately was George Tennant’s from a junction with the Neath canal at Aberdulais, past Neath Abbey to Port Tennant, on the Tawy estuary. Opened in 1824, the waterway cost him £20,000 to build and was the second longest privately-built canal in Britain.

In common with all other Welsh canals during the bustle of industrial growth at that time, the Tennant canal company flourished. Barges hauled coal, timber, bark firebricks, sand, limestone, road stone, lime, and small coal at the rate of 90,000 tons a year in the 1830s.

Railway expansion from 1840 created serious competition and when the Bessemer steel-making process brought radical changes to the metal-lurgical industry of the area in the 1860s, the writing was on the wall. By 1900 all the canals were virtually unused.

The Tennant survived —- just —- until Llandarcy came into being in 1921, requiring a water supply.

Now, that’s all it does — supply the refinery and BP Chemicals at Baglan Bay and a few smaller commercial concerns along its route. An honourable occupation, you may think, for an old timer.

Weed cutter in operation on the Tennant canal in the 1940s
Weed cutter in operation on the Tennant canal in the 1930s

But for that to be done, the canal has to be dredged and its weeds have to be cut. Albert Bowen, Tennant canal company foreman for 34 years, supervises a team of four who operate a dredging barge he designed and the diesel-driven weed-cutting craft which are in action throughout the year.

Memory Lane/Neath and Port Talbot Courier by David Roberts. Amazon
South Wales Evening Post Archives. National Library of Wales
Save the Tennant Canal Facebook Group.

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