A Brief History of Swansea Docks
Swansea’s development as a major port began during the early part of the 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.
Increasing levels of trade throughout the eighteenth century demonstrated a pressing need for more permanent harbour facilities, and so in 1791 the Swansea Harbour Trust was established to undertake this responsibility. The duty of the Trust was to “repair, enlarge and preserve the Harbour of Swansea”, and its initial task was to widen and deepen the harbour entrance to accommodate the larger trading vessels of the day. In 1794 the Trust erected the familiar stone light-house still seen today on Mumbles Head, and in 1809 completed the building of two stone breakwaters to protect the entrance channel and form a small tidal harbour within the area known as Fabian’s Bay.
The continuing growth of traffic between the port and the collieries and metallurgical industries of the Swansea Valley highlighted the need for an improved system of transportation, leading to the completion of the Swansea Canal between Ystradgynlais and Swansea in 1798. This eighteen mile long waterway 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 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. Before too long the technical skill and knowledge developed within this industry was adapted to the processing of other non-ferrous metals such as lead, spelter, zinc, tin, nickel, silver, and even gold, resulting in Swansea becoming an acknowledged world leader in metallurgical processing and manufacture.
To accommodate such a rapidly escalating level of trade, the Swansea Harbour Trust found it necessary to provide larger, 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 the construction of a second enclosed dock – the South Dock – on the foreshore west of the River Tawe. Financial difficulties set in, however, and the Swansea Dock Company was eventually bought out 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 sea wall enclosing an additional area of water later to be named Queens Dock when it 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. To cater for the port's new oil tanker traffic, five large oil jetties, together with associated pipelines and storage tanks, were constructed within the Queens Dock. During the height of this 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 North Dock Basin remained open until 1969 – and the South Dock closed in 1971, only to be thoroughly revitalised in later years 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 passing through 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.
Below is a table showing the trade figures for Swansea Docks, between 1888 and 1985, showing the amount of cargo, in tons, imported and exported.
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.