Swansea Family History
Swansea Family History 


Swansea Docks

Do you have any ancestors who worked at the Swansea docks? Were they coal backers (a person who unloaded coal from a ship, and carried it on their back to wharf or wagon), dockers (a person employed to load or unload a ship), gravers (a person who cleaned ship bottoms by burning or tarring) or lumpers (a person who discharged cargo of timber)?

In this month’s article I am going to write about the history of the Swansea Docks, the collective name of several docks. Also, what information is available regarding the personnel who worked on the docks? Did you know that two of the docks are named after the same person, at different periods of their life?

Today, the docks under the ownership of the Associated British Ports, are a shadow of what they were in their heyday. One of the few ships, still docking here sails under the Norwegian flag of the Wilson Line. It unloads fertilizer, and comes from Germany – they are still trying their luck!  During the mid-19th century Swansea was exporting 60% of the world’s copper from the River Tawe Copper Industries, making Swansea known as Copperopolis.

During the 1760s, Swansea Harbour was being developed. Consideration at the time was given to how the coal and material resources from the Tawe Valley could be moved to the coast, for export. The construction for a canal had had a shaky start when the plans were opposed by the 6th Duke of Beaufort. Interestingly enough the present Duke, the 11th, was criticised in 2009, when he charged Swansea City Council £280,000 for permission to build a 70ft long bridge over his section of the River Tawe next to the Liberty Stadium. He is following his predecessor in his actions. The first section of the canal opened in 1796, being completed in 1798.

Construction costs were kept to a budget of £51,600, unlike today. The course of the canal is 16.5 miles incorporating 36 locks and 5 aqueducts, rising 373 feet.

The canal started at Abercaf, Breconshire and ran to Swansea Docks. The development of the canal led to the establishment of towns and villages, including Pontardawe and Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley.

The decline of the canal was during the 1860s, when the steel industry replaced the ironworks. The Great Western Railway used the canal, in moving materials for the creation of the railways. The last commercial cargo was in 1931. Soon after, the canal was filled in – although there are 5 miles still in use under the care of the Swansea Canal Society. The National Archives, Kew, has records of the Swansea Canal Navigation Company dating from 1790 -1918. There are miscellaneous records, although there seems to be no record of actual employees.

With trade booming and a rapid expansion of the industries along the Tawe, there was a need to provide more permanent harbour facilities. The Swansea Harbour Trust took over the responsibility in 1791. By 1852, the Town Float, later known as the North Dock had been completed; the dock was to provide more efficient port facilities. During the same year another private company, Swansea Dock Company, started to construct the South Dock – on the west bank and foreshore of the River Tawe, eventually Swansea Harbour Trust bought them out and the Dockswere completed in 1859.

Swansea Harbour Trust completed in 1881 a third dock, Prince of Wales Dock, named after Edward, Prince of Wales that is situated on the east side of the Tawe. The dock was extended in 1898.

The port of Swansea continued to prosper during the nineteenth century, with the volume of industry and materials being exported worldwide increasing. Work started in 1904, when King Edward VII dug the first sod of earth in the creation of the Kings Dock – a larger dock on the seaward side of the Prince of Wales Dock, which was completed in 1909 and officially opened by King Edward VII, the second dock named after him. Finally, a long breakwater which encloses the large water, was to be named as the Queens Dock, officially open-ed in 1920, by Queen Mary, alongside her husband King George V.

At first, St Thomas was a small community with houses close to the docks – now demolished. With the expansion of the docks more houses were being built to accommodate the dockers and their families.

The houses were Victorian terraced-housing. The streets were named to commemorate battles from the Crimean War.

Mobs of men worked on a casual labour system, where, following the sound of a bell, which denoted the arrival of a ship, they had to present themselves each day at the dock gates. The Charge Hand would pick the men required for the day’s work; those who were picked were family, friends or even his favourites among the crowd. Neither the Swansea Canal Navigation Company, nor the West Glamorgan Archives Service hold records regarding employees.

The docks also provided a harbour for arrivals and departures. One of the notorious routes was around the Cape Horn, South Africa. The sailors were to be known as the Swansea Cape Horner’s. Journeys would last over a year stopping off at Santiago de Cuba, South America. It was a regular port to load copper ore. It was also a very unhealthy place. Sailors who lost their lives from the effects of yellow fever were either buried at sea, or in Santiago. It took months or even years for a relative to hear of a death at sea. The majority of these sailors came from Mumbles. One of the infamous sailors was David ‘Potato’ Jones, who earned his nickname whilst running guns during the Spanish Civil War under the guise of trading in potatoes. There is a memorial, erected in 2011 at the civic centre to the eleven men from Swansea, who served during this conflict. For those of you who are interested in the accounts of the ships, West Glamorgan Archive Service has Official Log Books and Account of Voyages and Crews of ships that were registered at Swansea. The information includes the name of the ship, official number, port of registry, tonnage; unfortunately they don’t have a list of crews.

PHOTOS Clockwise from top left: It was a tight squeeze as the Liverpool registered tug, Crosby, eased the MV World Reliance into the Kings Dock lock, 1971. /  Trawlers at Swansea fish market, Prince of Wales Dock. Tied up in the foreground is the restored steam tug, Thomas, 1979. Both pics reproduced with kind permission from David Roberts, Bryngold Books/  Map of Swansea Docks, 1969, showing South Dock, Prince of Wales Dock, King Dock & Queen Dock. / Colour engraving of Swansea Docks from Illustrated London News, dated 22nd October 1881.

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© Charles Wilson-Watkins