John Hutchins, Clydach

John Hutchins passed away on Sunday 17th February 2019. He was the last of the old type of Swansea Canal foremen based on the Swansea Canal and who headed a small team of canal workers solely employed to maintain the Swansea Canal.

John began working on the Swansea Canal as an ordinary labourer on 8th April 1957. His wages then were £4-17-6d per week. At that time the Swansea Canal was intact from the Hafod to Abercraf with a small team of men to maintain the fifteen miles of canal. Jack Phillips was the foreman from about 1925 with a number of lengthsmen to assist him on the daily canal maintenance.

Jim Snowdon worked the Landore section of canal, Brian McCurry the Clydach section, Stan Harris Trebanos section, George Holloway Pontardawe section, Wallace Evans Ystalyfera, Will Jones Ystradgynlais and Dick Burke Abercraf. Will Penhale was the canal blacksmith and also the stoker of the Clydach pump house. John related to me some of the tales passed down to him by those old time canal workers, such as the tall brass funnel on the steam tug having to be lowered so that the tug could pass below the canal bridges, and the rather bizarre tale of King Edward V11 coming to Clydach on a visit to Adelina Patti.

A part of John’s routine work was to cycle the canal towpath once a week to collect access tolls from those householders who had a gate onto the canal towpath which enabled them to walk the towpath to town. The charge was half a crown a year for gate tolls. They were dispensed with in the mid 1960s because the cost of administering the gate tolls exceeded the income raised.

When John began working on the Swansea Canal in 1957 it was owned and managed by the British Transport Commission. No traders used the canal at that time, but John and his associates used Swansea Canal barges on daily maintenance work, using them in off-bank tree cutting, hedge trimming and fencing, transporting cement and clay for towpath bank repairs, and on transporting building materials to locations difficult to access by lorry or van. The workmen, not horses, pulled the barges along the canal. John told me that this was the custom at Ystalyfera, Godre’r Graig, Trebanos and Clydach. Two of the barges John used were the Dorian and number 56, both of which ended their days at Clydach.

The canal had to be scoured of silt, mud and other debris on an annual basis to maintain water flows to canal-side industries that required water, and John explained to me how that was performed. In the 1950-60 period several hundred unemployed Swansea dockers were employed on that work. The sluice valves that were located at intervals along the canal towpath were opened and as the water ran out of the canal into the river the men waded into the canal and walked up and down the canal with large rakes or shovels that they used to stir up the mud or break up the banks of weeds, all of which ran out of the canal into the rivers. Several hundred tons of canal debris was removed by that process on a frequent basis. Environmental considerations were not considered in those times.

John became the canal foreman in 1963 on the retirement of Jack Phillips, a position he held until his own retirement in May 1994. John lived at Canal Cottage on Hebron Road, Clydach, originally built for the use of a senior canal lock keeper in 1794/95. John eventually purchased the cottage from the canal owners. When the Swansea Canal was completed in 1798, senior lock keepers (responsible for four miles of canal locks) were provided with a cottage, whereas ordinary or intermediate lock keepers had to rent somewhere conveniently close to the canal locks. At a later date c1830 new lock keepers residences were provided for them such as that at Ynysmeudwy locks.

I met John on numerous occasions in the 1980s and 90s to discuss Swansea Canal histories, structures, barges, people, and he said to me that the saddest part of his canal work was in destroying canal structures, especially after the decision was taken to dispose of the canal north of Ystalyfera and south of Clydach. One of the historic buildings John and the other Swansea Canal workmen demolished was the Clydach pump house that had been built in the 1880s. The pump and steam engine were smashed and sold as scrap metal. John told me that as they were knocking down the walls of the structure, a void space was found built into a wall. It contained hundreds of historic documents appertaining to the building of the Swansea Canal. John was told to burn them all. At that time, c1960, there was no museum or archive service in the region to which they could be donated. John said he read many of the documents before burning them. He remembered one particular document that listed the price of beer paid to navvies constructing the canal at Clydach. It amused him because the beer cost only sixpence for a barrel of beer containing fifty-six gallons.

If large-section timber needed cutting up for lock repairs then John and one of his associates carried out that task at the Godre’r Graig canal sawmill. John said that he walked on the large diameter water wheel, just like a mouse, to turn it and that operated the saw inside the mill. One of his sad memories was in demolishing the sawmill equipment for scrap metal.

When the Swansea Canal Society was founded in 1980, after Stephen Hughes gave a presentation in 1979 to the recently created Swansea Valley History Society about the precarious situation the Swansea Canal was in, John Hutchins became a prime source for the Society on canal histories, barges, lock construction, bridges, canal land ownership and boundaries, but also advice on practical restoration. John made numerous comments to me about seeing the Swansea Canal being restored instead of being destroyed. He loaned the society tools and equipment to enable us to clear the lock chambers and aqueducts of trees and other vegetation, after ensuring we knew how to use them of course. John’s advice was invaluable during the restoration of the five miles of canal towpath between Clydach and Godre’r Graig in the 1980s, especially on how the timber baulks were laid and fitted together.

He salvaged numerous Swansea Canal plans and documents that were being disposed of at canal offices within the newly formed British Waterways. He generously loaned those to the Swansea Canal Society.

Steve Edwards and I spent many hours in John’s company talking canals and more canals. We recorded John at one such session at his home in Clydach. John Hutchins was a good friend to me, to the Canal Society, and all his untold memories and knowledge will now sadly pass unrecorded.

John in 1986 supervised the disposal of silt from the canal at Ynysmeudwy onto the adjacent farm fields. These were being used for the dumping of colliery spoil from the Tareni Colliery waste tips at Godre’r Graig during the creation of the Glanrhyd Industrial Park. The silt helped to prevent the coal dust blowing away and encapsulated the colliery spoil with rich humus that would eventually allow the spoil to grow grasses and shrubs.

Clive Reed

February 2019.