The Gunpowder Works

The head of the Vale of Neath was once home to an industry which supplied explosives for use in the coalfields of South Wales and for the slate industry in North Wales. Its story is a little known but fascinating one.

A Brief History

In the middle of the 19th century (1857) the Vale of Neath Powder Company established their gunpowder works at Pontneddfechan.  The site is strung out along two miles of the deep wooded valley of the Afon Mellte upstream of the village.

This site was chosen for the ready availability of water power, for its thickly wooded nature and indeed for its remoteness, in view of the hazardous nature of the activity. The woodlands were a source of charcoal – a key ingredient in the manufacturing process.  The other two ingredients, saltpetre and sulphur were brought to the site via a tramway incline from a siding on the Vale of Neath Railway just west of Pen-cae-drain.

The lower end of the works occupied a site earlier occupied by the Dinas Bridge Fire Brick Works operated by Messrs Fredericks and Jenner.

A horse-drawn tramway ran the length of the site to allow wagons to be hauled between process buildings.  A special feature of this operation was the fitting to the horses of copper shoes to reduce the likelihood of sparks.

The works were taken over in 1862 by Messrs. Curtis & Harvey and were later merged into Nobel’s Explosives Company before becoming a part of ICI in 1926.

In 1931, after the Home Office took black powder off the ‘permitted list of explosives’, the works closed down.  They were deliberately set fire to and many of the buildings demolished for safety reasons in the following year.

Visiting the Gunpowder Works

Much of the site was bought by the National Park Authority some years ago and what remains of the former works can now be seen from a network of footpaths which run through it.

A major Heritage Lottery funded project is currently running to survey, conserve and eventually promote the works. Meanwhile public access is partly restricted.

Car parking is available at Dinas Rock and toilets and refreshments are sometimes available at the Community Hall at the start of the Gunpowder Works Trail by the turning circle at the eastern end of the village.

  • ‘Powder Trail’ – listen to a series of downloadable tales of life at the former works.

Further reading

‘The Old Gunpowder Factory at Glyn-neath’ by Merthyr & District Naturalists’ Trust (the ‘green book’) available for £2.00 from information centres.