Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

Tugs at the Port of Swansea

Prior to the introduction of steam tugs in the mid-nineteenth century, sailing ships entering the Port of Swansea remained totally dependent on the wind and the tide. The wind was unpredictable, however, and would often leave a vessel at the mercy of contrary tides and currents, so small ships approaching the harbour would unship long oars, or ‘sweeps’, to enable the crew to row the vessel to its berth, while larger ships would put crew members over the side in rowing boats to tow the vessel into port. Once a ship was close to land, a line could be taken ashore for men or horses to pull the vessel upstream, or to be put around a bollard so that the crew could warp the vessel up to its berth with the ship’s capstan.

Although there had been trials of steam-powered towing boats for use on inland waterways in the late 1700’s, one of the first successful examples of a purpose-built steam-driven tug suitable for tidal waters was probably the Thames paddle tug ‘Monarch’, built for John Rogers Watkins in 1833. Steam paddle tugs were certainly in use at Swansea by the 1840’s, and these were followed by the introduction of screw-driven tugboats in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The twentieth century saw the development of larger, more advanced steam tugs and eventually, in the early 1960’s at Swansea, modern diesel-powered tugs. The towage companies operating at Swansea during the twentieth century were the Britannia Steam Towing Company, the Alexandra Towing Company which was taken over by Howard Smith Towing in 1992, and, in the latter years, the West Coast Towing Company. These days, all towing activities at Swansea and Port Talbot are carried out by the international towage and salvage company Svitzer Wijsmuller A/S.

Notes on Towage – Swansea Docks

When the GWR took over Swansea Docks in 1923 it claimed priority over all in-dock towage within the port, allowing private tug companies to work only when the GWR tugs could not fulfil operational requirements.

Alexandra Towing first established its presence at Swansea in 1924 with the tug “Canada”, which was shortly followed by two more, the “Albert” and the “Herculaneum”. An office in Somerset Place was opened in 1925.

In 1933, ship owners won the right to make their own towage arrangements at the port and, as a consequence, the GWR suffered a serious reduction in the demand for its in-dock towage services.

The last remaining GWR tug at Swansea, the ‘Trusty’, was transferred to Barry in 1940, when it was agreed that the Alexandra Towing Company should be granted the right to carry out all towage on behalf of the GWR, subject to a commission of 7.5% of the towage fee. Shortly afterwards a similar arrangement was entered into with the Britannia Steam Towing Company, which had operated at Swansea since 1895.

The two companies entered into a joint service arrangement in 1962, after which the Britannia Steam Towing Company was taken over by the Alexandra Towing Company. Howard Smith Towage took over the Alexandra Towing Company in 1992.

Towing charges in 19121

Click here for a history of the Britannia Steam Towing Company and photos of their vessels

Click here for a list of Swansea's Steam Tugs (Paddle and Screw)

Ron Tovey has compiled an excellent file of Swansea's tugs in alphabetical order with photos. It is in pdf format and can be viewed by clicking the link below:

Swansea Tugs through the years

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