The industrial revolution brought major change to the village. With the rapid growth of the iron smelting industry close by in Blaenavon, Clydach, Blaina and Garnddyrys a canal became essential to allow the movement of heavy products like coal, pig iron and limestone.
The Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal was promoted by Acts of March 1793 and May 1804. The engineer was Mr. T. Dadford, Junior. Work started in 1797 with the construction of the aqueduct and embankment at Gilwern. By the end of that year it reached Llangynidr, and by 1800 the canal entered Brecon. The cost of the section from Gilwern to Brecon was £90,000. In June 1803 work started to extend the canal towards Abergavenny and it reached Govilon wharf in January 1805.
A link southwards from Govilon to Newport Docks needed the Monmouthshire Canal Acts of 1792, 1797 and 1862. Shortages of capital delayed its construction and so it was not until 1809 that construction commenced at the northerly extent of the Monmouthshire Canal at Pontymoile, near Pontypool. In February 1812, at total cost of £200,000 the section was opened. Finally cargo could travel from Brecon to the sea at Newport.
The two canals finally amalgamated in 1865 to become the Monmouthshire & Breconshire Canal. Despite being built on the hillside of the River Usk the canal has one of the longest lock-free stretches in the country - over 22 miles. Over its entire 35 miles it contains six locks, one tunnel, 5 lift bridges and an amazing aqueduct over the River Usk near Brecon.
The canal was planned jointly with connecting tramroads which brought bulk loads from the nearby iron works, quarries and mines to wharfs built on the canal. The tramroads were an early form of railway using horse-drawn wagons or 'trams' running on simple iron rails. These allowed horses to pull much heavier loads than on the rutted roads of the time.
Canals and tramroads were so important to each other that the first work carried out by the new Brecknock & Abergavenny Canal Company in 1794 was a tramroad. Crawshay Bailey's tramroad came down from Nantyglo, round the Gilwern Hill and into Govilon along what is now called School Lane. It crossed over the canal at the road bridge. It finished at a warehouse which is now a listed building and the British Waterways office and visitors centre at Govilon wharf. Some of the route is still visible; including the bridge over Cwm Shenkin brook and remnants of the track and sidings at Siop Newydd.
Llanfoist, just a short distance south east of Govilon, has a large warehouse alongside its wharf. The wharf was linked by a steep incline to the Hills tramroad which skirts around the Blorenge mountain to Pwlldu. Here, high above Govilon, the tramroad cuts through the mountain to the ironworks at Blaenavon. A later incline was constructed over the mountain (see railway section)
The upper section of the canal from Brecon to below Cwmbran was never much of a commercial success and commercial barge traffic finished in 1933. However, because it carried water from the River Usk at Brecon down to the large docks at Newport, the watercourse fortunately remained open.
The beauty of the surrounding area ensured it became popular with pleasure craft and restoration of the upper portion above Pontypool was carried out in the 1960's and 70's. It is now one of the most beautiful cruising waterways in Britain, completely isolated from the rest of the canal system. All of the canal can be cruised easily in a very relaxed week and it is rarely busy, even at the height of the season.
"Priestley's Navigable Rivers and Canals" by Joseph Priestley published in April 1831
Iron-stone, Iron-ore, Lead-ore, Coals, Culm, Coaks, Cinders and Charcoal 2d per Ton, per Mile. Lime, Lime-stone, Tiles, Slate, Bricks, Flag-stones, and other Stones, Clay, Sand, Hay, Straw, and Corn in the Straw, and all Material for the repairing of Roads, and all kinds of Manure 1d per Ton, per Mile. Cattle, Sheep, Swine and other Beasts 4d per Ton, per Mile. Iron and Lead 3d per Ton, per Mile. Timber, Goods, Wares and Merchandise 4d per Ton, per Mile.
Fractions to be taken as for a Quarter of a Ton, and as for Half a Mile.
Boats under Twenty Tons lading not to pass any Lock without leave, or without paying for that Tonnage