I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to try this out, to marry up an old picture of Penwyllt brickworks to a present-day image. After calculating the angle and where the original photographer was likely to have stood, yesterday I took a few shots in various positions a couple of metres apart. I think I have the angle of view spot-on, but I know I should have been on a slightly higher vantage point as I’ve had to slightly distort the background to fit. It’s surprising how many physical landscape features match in each image despite them being taken about 100 years apart.
Kershaw & Pole Ltd opened a brickworks at the lonely Penwyllt site in 1865 and their main product was producing silica bricks for furnaces. At first limestone and the silica were quarried from the hill immediately behind the works but by 1885 limestone was being quarried on the hillside way above Penwyllt and sand was being quarried at Pwll Byfre a couple of miles away. To get the materials to the works from these remoter locations a very complicated zig-zag standard gauge railway was constructed up the hillside to the north of Penwylt station. To operate this line (which ran partly over the rails of the Neath & Brecon Railway) in 1885 the works purchased a new Hawthorn Leslie 0-4-0ST locomotive No 1992 named Emily.
By 1895 the works was known as Penwyllt Dinas Silica Brick Co Ltd and it is around this time that an incline railway of 2′ 3″ gauge was constructed to bring the raw materials down from the upper quarries. This narrow gauge railway used trucks and gripper cars built by Kerr, Stuart & Co. Ltd. of Stoke-on-Trent. The standard gauge zig-zag line probably fell out of use around this time as Emily had moved elsewhere by October 1902. Contemporary photographs and a description of the operation of this inclined railway exist in a June 1903 article published in The Colliery Guardian. In 1904 Kerr, Stuart supplied a new narrow gauge 0-4-2ST steam locomotive of their Tattoo class, No 859 Gwendolen, and this operated in the upper quarries bringing wagons to the cable-operated incline.
On 18th July 1928 a limited company was formed and the works changed name once again which would suggest the old photograph amalgamated with the new picture shown above was taken before this date. Now known as Penwyllt Silica Brick Co Ltd the works continued in production until 1939 when it was closed. By this time the works was a subsidiary of another company making silica bricks, Stephens Silica Brick Co of Kidwelly, and it was with much disappointment and consternation to the workers at Penwyllt that production of bricks continued at Kidwelly after 1939 using the name Penwyllt.
Although closed, the works remained basically intact until the early 1950s. Gwendolen slumbered peacefully in her shed on top of the mountain and a fledgling preservation group, the Talyllyn Railway, realised she would make a good source of spares for their own Tattoo class locomotive so plans were put into operation to rescue her from the lonely mountain-top location. Before this was able to happen however, and history is a title vague here, the locomotive somehow came to be wrecked after careering down the incline and she was unceremoniously scrapped on site by R S Hayes of Bridgend in May 1954.
The works was mostly dismantled in the 1950s but the site has remained undeveloped and many remains are still visible. Railway archaeology is much in evidence and looking at aerial views courtesy of Google Earth will highlight the main areas to search. The incline is there with many wooden sleepers still in place and the winding house and locomotive shed foundations can be found at the top of the incline. Down at the brickworks site the remains of the early kilns are clearly defined as are the earthworks of the railways along with a few building remnants.
This history has been deliberately kept as brief and simple as possible as there are many other factors influencing the location. There are also earlier tramways in the immediate vicinity including extant earth works for the Brecon Forest Tramroad built in the 1820s. The history of the growth and decline of Penwyllt village is also a story in itself, as is the station of Penwyllt, later known as Craig y Nos, famous for its association with the world renowned Dame Adelina Patti. There are also a lot of later quarry workings from the 1960s onwards around the vicinity of the railway station which should not be confused with any of the earlier workings associated with the brickworks.