Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

Swansea Pilots

Sea pilots have assisted the Masters of vessels entering and leaving the harbour of Swansea since the development of maritime trade in the early sixteenth century, and initially the task of pilotage would have been undertaken by fishermen and other local seamen with an intimate knowledge of local tides, shipping hazards and weather conditions. Acts of pilotage within the Bristol Channel, including Swansea, were controlled by the Port of Bristol until the passing of the Swansea Harbour Act of 1791 which, amongst other things, introduced the compulsory licensing of pilots by the Swansea Harbour Trust.

In 1793 there were 11 licensed pilots recorded at Swansea, and by 1803 the number had increased to a fixed maximum of 24. The appointment and regulation of Swansea’s sea pilots remained with the Harbour Trust until the Swansea Pilotage Authority was established as a separate entity after the takeover of the port by the Great Western Railway in 1923. The Swansea Pilotage Authority was abolished, as were all other UK pilotage authorities, under the Pilotage Act of 1987, and in 1988 its duties and responsibilities were taken over by Associated British Ports.

Pilot Cutters

Swansea pilot cutters S4 'Faith' & S7 'Neptune' at low tide – photograph by Calvert Richard Jones c.1845 (National Maritime Museum)

Swansea pilot cutter S1 'Vivian' by H B Birchall (National Maritime Museum)

Swansea pilot cutter 'Tom Rosser' by H B Birchall (Swansea Museum Collection)

Swansea pilot cutter S7 'Neptune' shortening sail off Mumbles Head by Edward Duncan (1803-1882) Painting dated 1856 (private collection))

Swansea pilot cutter S12 heading out to sea by George Chambers Sr. (1803-1840) Painting dated 1836 (National Library of Wales)


A description and illustration of early 19th century pilot cutters is shown below:

By 1892 there were nine licensed pilot cutters at Swansea - the ‘Vivian’, the ‘Vigilant’, the ‘Rival’, the ‘Benson’, the ‘Glance’, the ‘Mary’, the ‘Grenfell’, the ‘Camelia’, and the ‘C. Bath’. The port yearbook for 1892 states that “Pilots are always to be obtained off the Mixon or within Mumbles Head, and no vessel must attempt to run for Swansea without one. They cruise in vessels of both schooner and cutter rig, with the letter S and a number on their sails.” A description of these cutters illustrated by a photograph of the ‘Vivian’, together with a photograph and model of the ‘Grenfell’, is shown below:


Below the Pilot cutter 'Grenfell', bearing the licence number S9 on the bow and the aft sail, being towed out of Swansea Harbour, c.1904


Below is a model of the pilot cutter 'Grenfell', together with a plaque stating that she was built at Swansea by Philip Bevan in 1865. The sail plan is given as 1880. (Thanks: Swansea Yacht & Sub Aqua Club)

Model of the Grenfell

1898 saw the commissioning of the ‘Beaufort’, described in its day as a “schooner-rigged steam pilot cutter”, and “the first steam-powered pilot cutter in the world.”

Commissioning of the Pilot Cutter Beaufort in 1898 (photo courtesy of Paul Smith)


Pilot cutter Beaufort in the old South Dock entrance lock. In the background is Pockett's ticket office, and behind that, the old pilot house on Pockett's Wharf


The pilot cutter ‘Roger Beck’ was commissioned 1924 to replace the aging ‘Beaufort’, and was named after the last person to hold the position of Chairman of the Swansea Harbour Trust before the takeoverof Swansea Docks by the Great Western Railway.

Roger Beck

In 1951 the ‘Woodbridge’ was acquired by the Swansea Pilotage Authority as an auxiliary cutter to the‘Roger Beck’. Formerly owned by Trinity House, the diesel-engined ‘Woodbridge’ had been built at the Aldous boatyard, Brightlingsea, Essex in 1924. She was 80’ in length with a 21’ beam and a 10’ draft, and had a service speed of nine knots.

Woodbridge along side a cargo ship in the River Tawe.

Seamark, commissioned in 1959

A Rare photo of three pilot boats together.- Seamark, Margam Abbey and Benson

Pilot launch Benson

Benson off the Mumbles lighthouse

The latest latest pilot launch is the Beaufort

Pilot Launch Beaufort

Beaufort at Port Talbot

Beaufort at Sea

The old Pilot House, South Dock

The two photos below, taken in the South Dock Swansea, are of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Cariad.