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Swansea Port Health Authority

Port Sanitary Authorities were first established under the Public Health Act of 1872, and gained further statutory powers under subsequent Acts of Parliament such as the Infectious Disease (Notification) Act 1889 the Public Health Act 1896. The principal role of a Port Sanitary Authority was to prevent diseases such as cholera, plague or yellow fever being spread to the local populace through contact with crew members from foreign-going ships by way of inspection and, if necessary, enforced quarantine or hospitalisation

Renamed ‘Port Health Authorities’ under the Public Health Act 1936, they remain responsible for a number of different functions designed to protect environmental, public, and animal health in the UK by preventing the spread of infectious diseases, enforcing controls on imported foodstuffs, and ensuring compliance with European Union rules and international trading standards. The offices of the Swansea Port Health Authority were located at No. 10 Somerset Place until the early 1970’s, when demolition of the area for redevelopment necessitated a move to the present office building alongside the Kings Dock Lock. Now known as the Swansea Bay Port Health Authority, it is currently responsible for the entire maritime area between Mumbles Head and Porthcawl, including the ports of Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot.

The Hecla

Interestingly, our friend and contributor Ron Tovey – who is researching mid-nineteenth century Swansea for a forthcoming book – tells us that the only outbreak of yellow fever to occur in the UK was, in fact, at Swansea in 1865. The disease was borne aboard the ‘Hecla’ which was carrying copper ore from Santiago de Cuba to Swansea, and is reported to have infected 22 people – 15 of whom died. Two of the deaths occurred in Llanelli as a result of a sloop being tied up alongside the ‘Hecla’ before sailing to Penclawdd. The official dates of the epidemic were from 15th September to 13th October 1865.

Septembers Unwelcome Guest
By Tom Ridd


THE PILOT WH0 CAME Aboard the Hecla, a sailing-ship bound from Cuba to Swansea with a cargo of copper ore, in the sultry, stifling, near tropical heat of the morning of the 9 September,1865, little realised that his charge that morning was about to be the central figure in a drama unparalleled in English sanitary history.

Outwardly, it must be admitted, there was nothing aboard to suggest that anything was seriously amiss and thus arouse his suspicions. Unsuspecting, therefore, he accepted, as a matter of mere routine, the Master's report that a member of the Helca's crew was suffering from dropsy and that three other members of the ships crew had died during the homeward voyage. This; as the pilot well knew, was not an unusual occurrence aboard ships engaged on the copper ore run to and from the tropics; and though the last Cuban ship to dock at Swansea had not had a clean bill of health the pilot remained completely unsuspicious and did not enquire searchingly into the nature of the three deaths that had occurred aboard the Helca. No mention was made of yellow fever nor was the slightest hint given that the sickness at present aboard the Helca might be of an infectious nature. Consequently, the Helca, showing no quarantine flag, was moored alongside the Cobra Wharf in the North Dock, and while gangs of dockers began to discharge her cargo, the crew went off to enjoy the doubtful pleasures afforded by the innumerable dingy public houses which abounded along Swansea`s infamous Strand in the nineteenth century.

Emboldened by the inebriating effects of their beer some of the seamen began to talk indiscreetly and hint darkly that their colleagues who had died during the homeward voyage had been the victims of yellow fever. When these frightening revelations were subsequently confirmed by the Helca's captain the populace soon became thoroughly alarmed. The Mayor, J. C. Richardson, even visited the sick seaman only to find his worst fears confirmed. The man was in a state of near exhaustion and his skin distinctly yellow in colour. He died shortly afterwards. The body was immediately buried and the locality where he had lived disinfected.

The authorities in Swansea had good cause to be alarmed. They were not unfamiliar with the ravages of epidemic disease and knew what fertile breeding grounds for disease still existed in their midst due to the lamentable inadequacy of their sanitary administration in the borough. Epidemic yellow fever, however, was something thing which they had never experienced. Nor had any local authority, for that matter, in the whole of the British Isles.


We thank The Gower Society and Tom Ridd  for allowing us to put this article on our site.
Also thanks to Ron Tovey for arranging it.

Article from Gower Volume 12 page 42 1959



Staff of the Swansea Port Health Authority at the rear of the Somerset Place office c.1959. Left to right:-
 Cliff Owen, Arthur Davies, Dan Jenkins, Tom Richards, John Prosser, Yvonne David and Peter Jones

Swansea Port Health Authority staff in the Somerset Place office in the mid 1960's.
 left to right, front row:- Dan Jenkins, Yvonne David and Tom Richards, and
back row:- Peter Jones, John Prosser, Cliff Owen and Arthur Davies


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