Terra Cotta in St Peter’s Schoolroom
by SCS Heritage Consultant, Clive Reed
Swansea Canal Cargo
Most of the Swansea Canal Society members have some knowledge of the cargoes carried on the canal in the twentieth century. They would have been coal, iron-ore, limestone, pig iron, and some of the less common cargoes such as bricks, clay, tinplate, and stone. One of the more unusual cargoes carried in the 1850’s was a special form of building material known as terra cotta. This literally means burnt earth. It was a type of clay that was mined at Cilybebill from Mynydd Marchywel, the mountain to the east of the canal opposite Ynysmeudwy village, and turned into the building material at Ynysmeudwy Brickworks and Pottery, situated alongside the Swansea Canal at Ynysmeudwy Uchaf Bridge. At that time the communities of Pontardawe and Ynysmeudwy were in their infancy and still undergoing expansion. Houses, churches, chapels, schools and roads were being constructed. One of the buildings under construction was the Anglican School at Pontardawe, built between 1856 and 1857. It later became known as Saint Peters Schoolroom (Two Centuries of Pontardawe). This forms the basis of this article. The schoolroom is opposite the Ivy Bush Hotel on High Street in Pontardawe.
The clay from Mynydd Marchywel was shaped into various designs and then fired in the kilns at the pottery. Once fired in the kilns at a temperature of about one thousand degrees, the clay became very hard and the fired material was then known as terra cotta. The Anglican Schoolroom at Pontardawe has over six hundred items of terra cotta built into its fabric. All of these would have been carried on the Swansea Canal from the pottery at Ynysmeudwy down to a compound alongside the canal near Ynysgylennen Bridge for storage. The distance the items were carried on the canal was only about one and three quarter miles but canal charges were levied at a minimum of five miles, making the hire of a barge for that distance the sum of twenty pence sterling – about £4.00 at current prices. Numerous churches and chapels had the tolls rescinded and, quite probably, the Anglican School had all the terra cotta items transported along the canal toll free. Canal carriage was a much better mode of transport than horse and cart along the dirt track roadway up the Swansea Valley. One of the bargees working for the Ynysmeudwy Pottery Company at that time was Mr Edward Henley who delivered goods from the pottery to customers along the Swansea Canal route.
Those items carried along the canal were about 130 ridge crests for the roof, 190 large quoin blocks for the corners of the building, approximately 70 yards of drainpipe, four or six toilet pans for the children’s use, and two more for the school master and his staff. The fifteen windows for the schoolroom and the master’s house (Oak Cottage) are very ornate and are constructed of numerous items of terra cotta which add up to about 280 separate items comprising lintels, uprights, cills, mullions, and connecting blocks. One of the windows contains 28 individual items of terra cotta wares. Four of the smaller windows each contain 18 shaped parts of terra cotta wares, and the smaller windows have 15 parts each. Built into the fabric of the walls of the schoolroom are seven decorative terra cotta roundels. On the roof originally were several large decorative chimney tops for the coal fires inside the building but they have all been removed.
There were six terra cotta crosses on the roofs: one on top of each of the schoolrooms (one for boys and one for girls), two on the girls’ entrance porch (seen in the photograph), one on the boy’s entrance and one on top of the schoolmaster’s house. They are all about two feet high and only five now remain in situ. Add to the above-mentioned terra cotta items the 16 buttress caps and over 50 coping blocks, then one can see why this building is listed by Cadw. The schoolroom is one of the most important buildings in Pontardawe for its architectural qualities and this article shows the nature of those diverse cargoes carried on the canal in the past.
The photo shows the porch and part of the girls’ room of the Anglican Schoolrooms. On the roof are three crosses, seven ridge crests, twenty-four coping slabs and three coping blocks. All these were items of terra-cotta canal cargo manufactured at Ynysmeudwy Pottery 1856 and used in the porch’s construction.
The Swansea Canal was important in the past for the growing communities in the Swansea Valley. It can be important once again for assisting in the promotion of heritage of the locality because of the historic nature of the waterway and its associated structures. The canal can assist with leisure activities such as boating, cycling, walking along the towpath, photography opportunities and also environmental issues such as in the control of water off the adjacent mountainsides during periods of prolonged rainfall. The remaining sections of the Swansea Canal between Ystalyfera and Clydach give community activities for those wishing to assist with the restoration of the canal.
Clive Reed 8-Dec-14