Port Talbot Docks and Tidal Harbour
Aberafan – originally a small natural harbour at the mouth of the River Afan – had been a coal port since the seventeenth century and, from around 1750, with the development of tramline connections to coal mines within the coastal area, the level of trade rapidly increased. The establishment of copper and iron industries towards the end of the eighteenth century further augmented trade through the harbour.
In 1834 parliamentary powers were obtained to improve the facilities of the port, and the ‘Aberavon Harbour Company’ was set up to undertake this work. A further Act of 1836 – in which the company was renamed the ‘Port Talbot Dock Company’, authorised the diversion of the River Afan into a new channel or ‘cut’, and the construction of a new dock on the original course of the river bed. This work was completed in 1837, and is considered to have been the first major dock ever to be constructed on the South Wales seaboard.
In 1874 the lock entrance to the new dock was enlarged, and in 1894 the ‘Port Talbot Railway & Dock Company’ was formed to further expand the capacity of the port. A large extension to the existing dock together with a new lock entrance was completed in 1898, and a railway system was built to connect the port with coalfields in the neighbouring Llynfi and Garw valleys.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the iron & steel producers of the Welsh valleys were becoming increasingly dependent on imported foreign ores and, as a result, were relocating their industries nearer to the coast. The founding of the Port Talbot Steelworks in 1902 and the Margam Steelworks in 1916, for example, resulted in a significant increase in iron ore imports through Port Talbot Docks – imports that were to reach 300,000 tons per annum by 1930 and 3,000,000 tons per annum by 1960.
However, the dimensions of the entrance lock at Port Talbot meant that no ship carrying more than 10,000 tons of iron ore could enter the docks, and this restriction naturally precluded the use of the new large bulk carrying vessels that were able to transport iron ore at a much lower unit cost. Therefore, in 1966, work commenced on the construction of Port Talbot Tidal Harbour - an entirely new facility situated to the south-west of the existing docks system. Completed in 1970, this was the first dry-bulk cargo terminal in the UK capable of accepting ships in excess of 100,000 deadweight tonnes.
Further dredging in 1996 deepened the harbour by 2.6 metres, thereby increasing the maximum size of vessel that can be accommodated today to 180,000 deadweight tonnes.
In 1998, after being closed to shipping for more than a quarter of a century, the old docks at Port Talbot were re-opened to handle coastwise cargoes of ground and granulated blast-furnace slag for Civil & Marine’s new cement works at Rio Tinto Wharf. Other cargoes handled in the docks have included timber, sand, stone, and heavy lifts.