Retired Section Swansea Docks


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A Brief History of Swansea Docks

Swansea’s development as a major port began during the early eighteenth century when a rapid expansion in local coal mining and iron production, together with the introduction of copper smelting and tinplate manufacture, resulted in the establishment of many new wharves along the banks of the River Tawe.

As trade increased throughout the eighteenth century it became necessary to provide more permanent harbour facilities and so, in 1791, the Swansea Harbour Trust was founded to undertake this responsibility. The role of the Trust was to “repair, enlarge and preserve the Harbour of Swansea”, and its first task was to widen and deepen the entrance channel to allow access to the larger trading vessels of the day. Then, in 1794, a stone light-house was erected on Mumbles Head to improve local navigation and, in 1809, work was completed on the building of two stone breakwaters which enclosed and protected the river entrance and formed a small tidal harbour within the area known as Fabian’s Bay.

The continuing growth of traffic between the port and the collieries and smelting industries of the Swansea Valley brought about the need for an improved system of transportation, and this led to the completion of the Swansea Canal between Ystradgynlais and Swansea in 1798. This eighteen mile long waterway connection contributed greatly to the development of Swansea’s maritime trade, as did the later construction of the Neath & Swansea Junction (Tennant) Canal which opened in 1824 to provide a link between the Neath Canal at Aberdulais Basin and ‘Port Tennant’ in Fabian’s Bay, Swansea.

By this time, the local copper industry – which had begun with the commissioning of the Landore Copperworks in 1717 – was flourishing due to the ready availability of the high-grade of anthracite coal that was essential to the copper-smelting process. During its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century, seventeen of the eighteen copperworks in Great Britain were located within the Swansea area. As time went on, the techniques that had been developed within this industry were adapted to other non-ferrous metals such as lead, zinc, tin, nickel, silver, and even gold, and Swansea was to become acknowledged as a world leader in the business of metallurgical processing and manufacture.

To accommodate such a rapidly escalating level of trade the Swansea Harbour Trust found it necessary to provide larger and more efficient port facilities, and so the Town Float – later to be known as the North Dock – was constructed by diverting the lower reach of the River Tawe into a new channel or ‘cut’, and forming an enclosed dock on the original course of the river bed. This work was completed in 1852 and, in that same year, a private concern known as the Swansea Dock Company began constructing a second enclosed dock – the South Dock – on the west bank and foreshore of the River Tawe. Financial complications set in, however, and the Swansea Dock Company was eventually bought up by the Swansea Harbour Trust, who completed the project in 1859.

By 1870 the port was handling over 1.5 million tons per annum, and in 1877 it was recorded that “there is no other harbour in the Kingdom where such an amount of work is done on a given space as at Swansea”. Such growth made imperative the need for further port facilities and so, in 1879, the Swansea Harbour Trust began the construction of a new enclosed dock on the east side of the River Tawe, taking in the whole area of Fabian’s Bay. Known as the Prince of Wales Dock, it was completed in 1881 and extended to its present size in 1898.

Despite a sharp decline in the local copper trade towards the end of the nineteenth century Swansea continued to prosper as a port, with coal exports alone running at over 2 million tonnes per annum. Tinplate exports had also increased – from just 6,000 tons in 1875 to more that 250,000 tons in 1895 – to become one of Swansea’s major traffics. Further port expansion was again required and, in 1905, work commenced on Kings Dock - a larger dock on the seaward side of the Prince of Wales Dock. This work was completed in 1909, together with the long breakwater which encloses the large area of water which was to become known as Queens Dock, which was officially opened in 1920.

With the Kings Dock in operation the exportation of coal, coke and patent fuel quickly grew, reaching a record level of 5.5 million tons in 1913. Tinplate exports reached their peak in 1924, when 621,000 tons were shipped through the port. However, the early twentieth century saw the beginning of a change in industrial energy resources from coal to oil, and the first oil refinery to be built in the UK - the Llandarcy Refinery – was completed in 1918. Facilities were developed within Queens Dock to cater for this new traffic and, during the height of the trade in the early 1950’s, oil imports and exports through the Port of Swansea totalled around 8 million tons per annum.

The development of the new docks system on the east side of the River Tawe, together with the progressive reduction of coal exports due to the increasing use of oil, resulted in the docks on the west side of the river becoming largely obsolete. The North Dock closed in 1930 – although the lower basin remained open until 1969 – and the South Dock closed in 1971, only to be thoroughly revitalised in later years later as Swansea’s prestigious Maritime Quarter. Today, of course, the Prince of Wales Dock is the centrepiece of the new SA1 redevelopment scheme, whilst the Queens Dock has been rendered virtually redundant by the closure of both the Llandarcy Oil Refinery and the BP Chemicals plant at Baglan Bay. Principally, therefore, it is the Kings Dock that continues to handle the remaining commercial traffic of the Port of Swansea.

Note:- Control of the port was retained by the Swansea Harbour Trust until 1923, when the ownership of Swansea and other South Wales ports was transferred to the Great Western Railway Company. Nationalisation under the Transport Act of 1947 brought Swansea Docks into public ownership under the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive of the British Transport Commission, and later, from 1963, under the British Transport Docks Board. The present administrative authority, Associated British Ports, succeeded the British Transport Docks Board in 1982 as part of the government’s drive for privatisation.

Over the years the management of the Ports changed and so did the badges and crests.
The following are just a sample of some of them.
We would welcome any badges or photos of them to add to the site

Swansea Harbour Trust formed in 1791. The date on the above badge commemorates the
cutting of the first sod in the building of the Kings Dock

Port Talbot  Docks was operated by the Port Talbot Railway & Docks Company

In 1923 the Great Western Railway Company acquired the Ports of Swansea and
Port Talbot together with the other South Wales Ports

.......This Great Western Railway advertisement for Swansea Docks is taken from the Official Souvenir Programme for the Nautical Fair and Exhibition held in aid of the Missions to Seamen in the Drill Hall, Swansea, between the 7th and 9th October 1937. Swansea's Docks Manager at that time, Mr. Herbert Morgan, served on the General Committee of the Swansea Seamen's Mission, as did the Docks Engineer, Mr. T R Dovell.

From 1947 the Docks was operated by the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive

In 1963 British Transport Docks Board was formed to run the nation's Ports

In 1982 Associated British Ports succeeded British Transport Docks Board

National Union of Railworkers
British Transport Docks Board
Docks Seal

Aerial view of Swansea Docks

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