The First Bute Dock


While conducting his survey of the Bute Estate, David Stewart drew his employer's attention to his extensive mineral wealth in South Wales. "The time must come when either the present Marquess or one of his successors will reap the benefit of the present investigation and when the enormous wealth which now lies useless will be put into full activity'. Bute took note of this prophecy, and not only secured his existing rights in the Welsh coalfield but added to them at every opportunity.

Usually Buteleased his mineral rights to other interested parties and profited from the royalties as the coal was mined. When  he invested his own capital in a pit, such as Rhigos near Hirwaun, his intention was to bring employment to the community rather than personal profit to himself. By the 1840's, the Marquess had leased most of his coalfields in the Cynon and Aberdare valleys, where Welsh coal was first produced on a major scale, and the potential profits from this increased mineral production influenced Bute's decision to build a dock at Cardiff.

Again it was Stewart who pointed out that the Marquess owned most of the land surrounding the Taff Estuary, in addition to his holdings in the coalfield. In observing that neither the port nor the coalfield could realise their potential without an initiative from the Marquess, Stewart wrote, "If the port of Cardiff is not made the best port in the Bristol Channel, it must be because Lord Bute does not choose to exercise his power'.

Initially, the Marquess showed little enthusiasm for such a major enterprise. His first wife, Lady North, had borne him no children and died in 1841 after years of ill health. Nor did he enjoy a close relationship with his brother and heir, Lord James, following their disagreement during the election of 1832. Buteaccepted the argument, however, that a dock at Cardiff offered new opportunities to increase his wealth from the coalfields. He was also persuaded that he would not only recoup his capital expenditure, but in time the dock would show a profit as it became an outlet for coal exporters.

Docks were normally funded through a harbour trust or a public company, but at Cardiff they were provided by a single family, at their own expense and on their own land. At one stage, the Marquess contemplated involving other  partners in the enterprise, but he was rarely on friendly terms with the canal company or the iron masters who were the obvious participants. Unfortunately, by rejecting any form of partnership, the Marquess sowed the seed of discord between the owner of the dock and its users, a mistrust which continued throughout the nineteenth century.

An act of Parliament in 1830 granted Lord Bute the right to construct a ship canal, but within four years the legislation was amended to provide for an entrance channel and a dock. Either Cogan Pill, where the estuaries of the Taff and the Ely meet, or East Moors were the possible sites for the dock. David Stewart had become aware of the potential value of East Moors some years earlier, when he initiated the drainage of the area and the construction of a bank to hold back the sea. Captain W.H. Smythe, who became Bute's first dock master, conducted a survey in 1833 which also confirmed East Moors as a more suitable location.

The Marquess continued to have doubts about the project as advisers, among them his brother, warned of "the magnitude of the undertaking for the capital of one individual'. The traders and industrialists, on the other hand, urged Bute either to modernise the port of Cardiff or give others the chance to do so.

Before the end of 1834 work began on the dock feeder. Drawing its water from the Taff, the feeder is still visible in the castle grounds and near the New Theatre. It once flowed along Pembroke Terrace, but after the Second World War a culvert was constructed to carry it under

Churchill Way
. The feeder was an expensive proposition but essential as a means of flushing the dock, thus removing the deposits of mud brought in by the tide.

The excavation of the dock commenced in June 1835, and work continued for the next four years at a cost of £350,000, far more than the original estimate of £76,000. The Marquess was appalled at this huge expenditure which dented even his great wealth. To raise the funds for the completion of the undertaking, he was obliged to seek temporary loans and mortgage his estates in Glamorgan.

On 8 October 1839, the first vessel, the Manulusfrom Quebec, entered the new West Dock with a cargo of timber. The event is recalled by "Our Correspondent' of the Merthyr Guardian. At , Cardiff's red-letter day began when a procession marched to the dock from the castle. All the workers who had contributed to this ambitious venture were represented. Masons, mud labourers and tradesmen were followed by a band playing patriotic airs. The Mayor, the Marquess and his brother acknowledged the cheers of a crowd estimated at 20,000. The Marquess showed "his accustomed benevolence of disposition' when his carriage struck a spectator's arm, the only incident to mar the day. That evening, at a splendid dinner in the Cardiff Arms Hotel, the American Consul prophesied that the dock would enhance the prosperity of Cardiff, "as long as grass grew and water ran'.


Ultimately he was correct, but in the short term the anxieties of the Marquess were far from over. A contemporary observer commented, "the dock did not take to any great extent when first opened', and in the first three months the volume of trade amounted to a miserly 8,000 tons. A further setback was caused by faulty workmanship which closed the dock until the spring of 1840, and three years were to pass before the dock was operating satisfactorily.

 boycott the West Dock and  exploited the GlamorganshireCanalto its limit. However, their gesture was doomed to failure since Bute had ample means of coercion at his disposal.The facilities along the canal were incapable of handling large quantities of coal and, before the opening of the dock, vessels were often loaded in the estuary direct from a staging platform. Efforts to improve the canal were thwarted, as Bute denied the company further access to his land. Such was the exasperation of the iron masters, that Crawshay protested in 1847, "you cannot succeed in obtaining the whole trade of the port of Cardiff by force'.

If necessary, Butecould bring other pressures to bear on clients reluctant to use his dock. He owned vast tracts of land, teeming with minerals and awaiting development. An industrialist, seeking a lease to these riches, had no desire to give offence by refusing to use the Bute Dock. Moreover, the charges at the dock were reasonable, and it was cheaper to ship a cargo in a large vessel than in the smaller craft using the canal.

The construction of the Taff Vale Railway, providing rapid communications from the coalfield to the port, was a further step in Cardiff's progress to commercial prosperity. The first section of the railway, from Abercynon to Cardiff, was opened on 9 October 1840. Shareholders celebrated the occasion with a ride in a special train, followed by dinner at the Cardiff Arms Hotel. The line was completed to Merthyr the following April, and it was not long before the original single track was doubled, then quadrupled.

In the early days, passengers travelled in primitive conditions, particularly the unfortunate second and third class customers who were herded into open carriages. Since the Taff Vale was the only railway where passenger traffic gave way to goods, travellers invariably had to brush soot and coal dust from their clothes on reaching their destination.

Bute was not interested in railway investment which would have been a further addition to his crippling expenditure on the dock. At the same time, he was determined that the railway should make full use of his facilities. He worked and schemed to attract coal shipments, not merely from his own estate, but from others as well. He foiled a Taff Vale proposal to build a dock at the mouth of the River Ely, making an agreement in its place which leased the east side of his dock to the railway company, on condition that it used no other outlet to the sea. The pact lasted until 1865 when the Penarth Dock opened, and the House of Lords held that the contract no longer applied.

The Bute West Dock, 19(1/2) acres in size, gave Cardiff a head start on the other ports of South Wales, just as the Welsh coalfield was about to reveal its treasures to the world. When the first Newportdock opened in 1842, it covered only 4(1/2) acres, while at Swansea the North Dock was not built until 1850. After its sluggish start, the Bute Dock was handling 27,000 tons of cargo by 1849 and it was already finding difficulty in meeting the demand for shipping space.

The Marquess gained little personal satisfaction from this success story. He was forever scrutinising every detail of business relating to his investment, or fretting about its cost, and it may have been this stress which hastened his death in March 1848. Butewas attending a dinner at CardiffCastle, when he retired to his dressing room feeling unwell. There, at the age of 54, he died from a heart attack. He left a widow, Sophia, who had become his second wife only four years earlier. In her care he also left his son, just a few months old, the heir he had never expected nor dared to hope for during those years when he was laying the foundations of Cardiff's prosperity.

The funeral provided a massive demonstration of the esteem and the importance in which the Second Marquess was held in Cardiff. The procession of leading citizens, charitable organisations, tradesmen and the band of the Glamorgan Militia, was a mile and a half long. Solemnly, the assembled mourners proceeded from the castle along

St. Mary Street
, down the recently constructed
Bute Road
, towards the dock which the Marquess had built. The coffin was taken across the channel to Bristol, and then by rail to its final resting place at Kirtling in Cambridgeshire.

A statue, showing the Marquess in Roman attire, was later unveiled in front of the OldTown Hall. Known as "The Monument', the statue has been moved a few times and now stands in

Bute Square
. T.E. Clarke may have been over-deferential when he wrote at the time, "Weep, sons of Cambria, weep at the loss of such a benefactor'. But it is true to say that Butelaunched Cardiffon its way to becoming the greatest coal port in the world and the largest town in Wales. Of his many titles, one feels that he would have been particularly proud of the distinction he earned for himself as "the father of modern Cardiff'.