The Final Phase of Docks Development


The greatest of the mining speculators in the Rhonddawas David Davies, a farmer's son from Llandinam. In his time he had worked as a farmer, a sawyer, a roadmaker and a rail contractor, always  relying on the same principles of hard work, enterprise and a shrewd business sense. His greatest achievement came in 1866, when he risked his entire fortune in a bid to sink two coal shafts in the Upper Rhondda. After fifteen months, there was no sign of any coal and Davies had no choice but to tell his workforce that his money was spent. His employees took his last half-crown, but their respect for Davies must have been immense since they agreed to work one more week for nothing. The following Friday, 9 March 1866, Davies and his workers struck one of the richest coal seams in the world. His fortune was made, as he founded the Ocean Coal Company and was known ever afterwards as "Davies the Ocean'.

For twenty years he exported his coal from Cardiff, becoming more and more convinced that the coal proprietors should build their own dock. In 1881 Barry was a pretty village with a population of about a hundred. It now became the location where Davies and the other colliery owners decided to build a dock which would challenge the Butemonopoly at Cardiff. They were supported by the local landowners, Lord Romilly and Lord Windsor but, before a spadeful of soil could be lifted, the sponsors had to meet costs of £160,000 to push their bill through Parliament in the teeth of Bute opposition.

For more than two years, debates in the Commons and the Lords occupied 89 days of Parliamentary discussion. Finally, a favourable verdict was given and the first Barry Dock opened in July 1889. It enjoyed similar advantages to the Penarth Dock: a site near deep water, and the Barry Railway to connect the port with the Rhonddacollieries. When the dock secured a large slice of the South Wales coal exports, now moving towards their peak, the effect on Barry was dramatic. Two years after the opening of a second dock in 1898, the population of the town rose to 30,000. David Davies died shortly after the first dock came into service but a statue, showing him in his working clothes, stands proudly outside the Barry Docks offices. It bears testimony that he was as much the creator of Barry, as the Butes were of Cardiff.

Enemies of the Bute family gloated at this challenge to its supremacy, and the Liberal Cardiff Times smugly commented, "Thus the high-handed policy of the Bute trustees would be avenged'. David Davies prophesied that when the Barry Dock became fully operational, "grass will grow in the streets of Cardiff'. None of these dire predictions came to pass. Initially, the competition was most severely felt at Penarth, where trading fell by three-quarters the year after Barry Dock opened.

At Cardiff the amount of freight was reduced in the short term but, since the Welsh coal industry continued to expand until the First World War, there was sufficient business for all of the South Wales  ports. In 1886 the Marquess incorporated the Bute Docks into a limited company. Thus, he not only relieved himself of a number of irksome responsibilities, but also rebuffed the criticism that the docks were his private concern, yielding a vast personal profit.


The newly-formed company was soon compelled to face the choice of building yet another dock, or of allowing much of its business to pass to Barry. The existing facilities offered sufficient shipping space but once again the problem was that of bigger ships needing a more spacious dock. Bute was not anxious to embark on a new enterprise, especially as his advisers admitted it was a defensive move to protect current trade and not a measure to expand it. Attempts to raise the capital from other sources failed, and the Bute Company had to find the necessary £2(1/4) million to build the dock from its own finances.

Work commenced in 1897 to produce the largest masonry dock in the world at that time, capable of loading the biggest vessels afloat. The selected site of 320 acres was on the foreshore, and a vast area of land was reclaimed from the sea before the construction of the dock could begin. Enclosed by an embankment over a mile and a half long, the basin itself occupied 52 acres and was three times as immense as the first Bute Dock. The most modern equipment was installed and spacious wharfs and warehouses were erected with facilities to handle both imports and exports.

More than ten years were to pass before the Queen Alexandra Dock was completely operational. By that time, pessimism about the future of the docks was growing and, following the death of the Third Marquess in 1900, the Bute family were beginning to loosen their ties with Cardiff. None of this gloom was apparent, however, when the Fourth Marquess and a festive Cardiff greeted Edward VIIand Queen Alexandra on 13 July 1907. As the royal yacht Victoria and Albertsailed into the new dock, the band played Rule Britannia and, after an official opening ceremony, the King and Queen progressed in an open carriage to the centre of Cardiff, where other duties awaited them on this auspicious day. The weather was fine, the crowds were in a jubilant mood, and even the trams were decorated for the occasion.

The King's comment, "In the shipping trade of my kingdom Cardiff holds an important place', was an under-statement since few ports in the world were busier than Cardiff in 1907. Though coal exports were now rising more slowly, the trade reached its zenith in 1913, when 10(1/2) million tons were exported from Cardiff, and ships departing from Barry carried a still greater cargo of 11(1/2) million tons. Times were never to be so good again.

Despite this healthy increase in trade, the Bute Company was unable to show a profit. The construction of the Cardiff Railway, which opened in 1910, not only failed to make the company more competitive but added to its debts. The line only ran as far as Treforest and, because the railway was dependent on the Taff Vale Company for its coal shipments, it soon became a white elephant. In two out of the last three years before the Great War, the Bute Docks Company was unable to pay a dividend and only the generosity of the Fourth Marquess saved it from bankruptcy.

It seems ironic that the docks never flourished as a commercial enterprise, as they were the springboard of Cardiff's dynamic growth in the nineteenth century. The Butes were unjustly accused of making exorbitant profits from their investment, but in truth they were providing an unprofitable public service for which they received little thanks.

Not surprisingly, they sought an alternative solution to relieve them of their burden. In 1890 the Third Marquess was sympathetic to the suggestion that a harbour trust should be formed under the control of the Cardiff Corporation. This proposal was foiled by councillors antagonistic to the Butes, and an attempt to merge with the Taff Vale railway was rejected by Parliament. Not until after the First World War was a satisfactory solution found which allowed the Butes to dispose of the docks.

D.A. Thomas, one of the most important colliery owners in South Wales, argued in 1906, that "the docks in the hands of a private individual have greatly retarded the progress of the port'. This contention that Cardiff might have developed even more rapidly, if the docks had not been the monopoly of  a single family, has been echoed by others. But, had it not been for the vision of the Second Marquess, the docks which were required for the export of Welsh coal might have gone to Newport or Barry. Instead, by supplying the capital for the West Dock, he ensured that Cardiff became and remained the focus of the Welsh coal industry, a fact which was not altered by the later developments at Penarth and Barry.


Until the 1850's, most vessels using the port of Cardiff were registered elsewhere. In fact, fewer shipowners were registered at Cardiff than at Cardigan and Aberystwyth. The age of steam was to transform this situation and from 1860-1920 steam ships from Cardiff, their holds filled with Welsh coal, "tramped' the trade routes of the world. Distinguished by their single funnel and capable of carrying any cargo, 367 of these sturdy tramp steamers were operating from Cardiff in 1910. Their owners, together with the colliery proprietors, entrepreneurs and speculators associated with the coal industry, were known as the "docksmen'. Many of them were millionaires and some, according to rumour, could scarcely write their names.

Becoming a shipowner presented no great difficulty and "If you owned a ship you couldn't help making money'. A single vessel could be purchased on mortgage and, once the speculator floated his company, he risked little of his own cash. He advertised his prospectus at the Cardiff Exchange or in the local press and, in view of the demand for Welsh coal, there would be no shortage of shareholders prepared to invest in a single ship venture. When trading conditions were favourable a good dividend was paid, but if the price of coal fell, the small investor might be ruined.

Unscrupulous speculators sometimes extracted concealed payments or management fees from their clients. Others issued a prospectus, collected their money, placed an order, and then absconded before the ship was delivered. The most heartless practice of all was to obtain inflated insurance cover and then encourage a maritime disaster, often accompanied by loss of life. Yet there was a positive side to this form of investment, as it allowed newcomers to enter the shipping industry, the majority of whom were honest men, rewarding their backers with excellent returns.

Some of these docksmen came from overseas, as the fame of Cardiff spread far and wide. Charles Stallybrass was born in Siberia and, among his other accomplishments, he translated the Bible into Mongolian. He came to Cardiff in 1857 and twenty years later he was the owner of 5 tramp steamers. Antonio Leonardo Trifone, Count de Lucovich, was an Adriatic nobleman who, to the disgust of his family, was attracted into the world of commerce. His ships were registered at Trieste but, until his death in 1913, the Count was head of a Cardiff coal exporting business trading with his native Adriatic.

The majority of the docksmen were native Britons, though few of the shipowners were Welsh. Two exceptions were Evan Thomas from Aberporth and Henry Radcliffe from Merthyr, who purchased their first steamer in 1881. By 1914 Evan Thomas, Radcliffe and Company was the largest shipping firm in Cardiff with 28 vessels. During the 1880's much of their capital was raised by the persuasive tongue of the Reverend J. Cynddylan Jones. This preacher from Cardiganshire urged congregations throughout Wales to invest in the company, receiving as his earthly reward 2% of the company's profits.

William Tatem, from Appledore in Devon, was the classic example of a self-made millionaire who took full advantage of the thriving coal industry before the First World War. After a short spell at sea, he worked as a shipping clerk until he could afford to purchase his first ship in 1897. During the next eight years, Tatem became the largest individual shipowner in Cardiff with 15 more vessels. He was sometimes accused, probably by jealous rivals, of being "ignorant, rough and uncouth' but he was one of the shrewdest of all the docksmen.

Tatem's first ship, Lady Lewis, was captained by William Reardon-Smith. He too originated from Appledore and went to sea at the age of twelve, working his way from cabin boy to master mariner. After he retired from the sea in 1900, he invested in a single ship, City of Cardiff. Like Tatem, he built up his fleet and by 1914 he was a wealthy man. He was a most generous person, and after the Great War he founded the Reardon-Smith Nautical College which prepared 30 boys each year for a sea-faring career. He also gave £100,000 to the National Museum, where the lecture theatre bears his name. Until heavy losses forced it to cease trading in 1985, the company kept its links with Cardiff. In the Marble Hall of Cardiff's City Hall, Tatem and Reardon-Smith are both commemorated as men who made their wealth from Cardiff and Welsh coal, but also returned some of that wealth to the community.

The Cory brothers, John and Richard, were born in Devon. Their father was attracted to Cardiff, but it was his sons who developed the family business in shipping and coal. Trading under the name of Cory brothers and Company, John and Richard showed a spirit of enterprise after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. They established 118 agencies and depots to supply coal on a worldwide basis, most of it coming from their own collieries in the Rhondda. In 1883 John Cory spent a part of his fortune on the building of Duffryn House near St. Nicholas, a splendid mansion with magnificent gardens, now used as a conference centre

Both of the brothers were generous philanthropists, but John Cory's statue in Cathays Park is a tribute to his humanity, as it was erected by popular acclaim in his own lifetime. Long  before his death in 1910, he was giving away nearly £50,000 every year to good causes, ranging from the Salvation Army to Soldiers' and Sailors' Rests in several towns. In Cardiff he built the Cory Hall in Station Terrace, a building extensively used for all kinds of public meetings, until it was demolished in 1987 to make way for the Capitol Exchange development.

No relation to the Cory brothers but bearing their surname, John Cory from Padstow owned a few small sailing vessels. In 1872 he transferred his business to Cardiff and created the firm of John Cory, Sons and Company. The business prospered, and when he died in 1891 he was the owner of 21 tramp steamers. The company, whose offices are in Mountstuart Square, still pursues its interests in shipping and travel services.


These were just a few of the docksmen, whose riches grew almost as rapidly as Cardiff itself, during those years when it seemed that the demand for Welsh coal would last for ever. Their day has long passed and some of the splendid buildings, symbolising the affluence of that era, are alas no more.The Imperial Buildings, once one of the architectural gems of Butetown, is now the Imperial Car Park. Similarly, the high curving gables of Powell-Duffryn House gave way to a new site, first for the Maritime Museum and later for the Mermadid Quay Shopping Centre. Despite years of slumbering decay, however, most of the rich architectural heritage of Butetown, when it was the coal metropolis of the world, is still intact.

The Pier Head Building, erected in 1896 as the offices of the Bute Docks Company, is a magnificent example of Victorian architecture. Its superb clock tower rises above an exuberant cluster of hexagonal chimneys, turrets and gargoyles. The architect was William Frame, a pupil and assistant of William Burges, so it is not surprising that the building resembles some of Burges' work at Cardiff Castle.

Until 1874, colliery and shipping proprietors gathered in the windswept streets around the Pier Head to transact their affairs. When the weather was inclement, they swathed themselves in oilskins and conducted business in the local taverns. Their first regular meeting place was at the Mercantile Club, a building which no longer exists but, as the maritime trade of Cardiff increased, a more permanent venue was needed to reflect its growing prestige.

The Coal and Shipping Exchange was established in Mountstuart Square. In the earlier nineteenth century, the bottle-shaped kilns of the Cardiff Glass Works had occupied this site. Later, the Second Marquess visualised Mountstuart Square as a district suitable for professional people and in the 1850's captains, merchants and stockbrokers occupied fine houses in this area. As commercial activity intensified, the residents moved away to more congenial surroundings, and before the end of the century the square had become the hub of the coal exporting trade.

The Exchange was built on the gardens in the centre of Mountstuart Square. Its design, a combination of Gothic and Classical styles, was planned by Edwin Seward, whose preliminary rough pen-and-ink sketch met with Bute's approval. In 1886 the cost of the Exchange was £40,000, but an extension was added in 1892 and Seward carried out a complete reconstruction of the Coal and Shipping Hall in 1912.

The docksmen assembled on the floor of the Exchange, resplendent in top hat, morning coat, spats and walking cane. Shippers and the colliery owners completed their bargains and, since wine merchants were admitted to the balconies, a successful deal could be celebrated with a bottle of champagne. This exciting atmosphere of the market place, where the docksmen made and sometimes lost a fortune, is now a memory, but at least the Exchange remains as a monument to those halcyon days before 1914.