New Industries and Commercial Enterprises


As innovations were introduced into the iron and steel industry, the Dowlais Company at Merthyr decided to build a more modern furnace on the foreshore at Cardiff. Quality iron ores near Merthyr were becoming exhausted and new techniques of production required rich foreign ores which were extremely expensive to import. The cost of conveying iron ore from Cardiff to Merthyr, and then returning with the finished product, added 4(1/2)% to the company's expenditure. In years to come, the plant established on the coast would replace the ailing parent company at Merthyr, though that was not the intention at the time it was built.

A modern open-hearth plant, which an American observer described as "the finest in the world', was designed for the new Dowlais Works at East Moors. The opening ceremony took place on 4 February 1891 when the first of three steam engines was fired by Lord Bute. Great furnaces and chimney stacks, casting a red glow across the docks at night, were to be a familiar part of the skyline for the next ninety years. The East Moors Works provided employment for thousands of people in Cardiff but there was an environmental price to pay, as the dwellings of Splott and Tremorfa became coated with a fine red dust from the furnace.

In 1900, over 800,000 tons of iron ore were imported into Cardiff, mainly from Spain, to provide the raw material for the steel works. Before the First World War, amalgamations with other steel makers had produced the industrial giant of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, possessing capital assets worth more than £3 million. The parent company at Merthyr was now dwarfed by its offspring.

The Third Marquess played a major role in attracting the Dowlais Works to East Moors, hoping it might help him to establish a shipbuilding industry at Cardiff. For some years sailing ships had been manufactured at John Batchelor's yard near the Golate. He moved to the West Dock in 1850 and launched a number of small vessels, including a clipper, The Taff which was capable of making the voyage to New York.

It was 1886 before the Bute Shipbuilding, Engineering and Dry Dock Company launched the first steam vessel to be constructed in South Wales. Only 8 sailing vessels and 2 small steamships were built between 1890 and 1914, indicating that shipbuilding was never really a success at Cardiff. The port was unable to compete with the traditional shipyards of Clydeside and the North-east, partly because the region lacked an established centre in marine engineering. More importantly, the buoyant demand for shipping repairs at Cardiff not only reduced the number of berths available for shipbuilding, but also led to high labour costs as skilled workers were at a premium.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Cardiff was one of the foremost ship repairing ports in the world, more than thirty firms being involved in the business. The most famous of these concerns was the Channel Dry Docks and Engineering Company, founded by John Cory and Henry Radcliffe. With a dry dock over 600 feet long and 60 feet wide, the firm could repair the largest vessels of the age. Powerful pumps could empty the dock within two hours of berthing if emergency repairs were necessary and, during the Great War, 9,000 ships were given a new lease of life at the Channel Dry Dock. The firm later traded as a component of the Bristol Channel Ship Repairers' Company.

As the number of vessels using the port proliferated, there were opportunities for every type of trader whose business was to supply and victual ships. Most of the premises in James Street, Stuart Street and West Bute Street had a connection with the sea. There were ship chandlers, bonded merchants and sailmakers, as well as suppliers of charts and nautical instruments. Every street near the docks had its shipping agents or ship brokers. For all of them the thriving port provided a livelihood.

While a shipload of coal was always available at Cardiff, it was sometimes difficult to find a cargo for the homeward voyage. In the last resort, the tramp steamers returned to Cardiff laden with stone as ballast. Often plant seeds accompanied the stone and once there were 48 species of Mediterranean flora in the vicinity of Cardiff Docks. The ballast yard became a source of building material to enrich Cardiff's architectural heritage, Ebeneser Church in Charles Street being a remarkable example of the unusual effect created by ballast stone. Its founders liked to believe that there was a stone from every country in the world and, while this is unlikely, there is considerable variety.

Obviously, a voyage yielded a far more handsome profit if the skipper, after delivering his consignment of coal, was able to collect a valuable cargo for his return journey. In the hope of diversifying trade and attracting a wider range of imports to Cardiff, the Bute trustees built the bonded warehouse at the head of the East Dock. As a result, imports multiplied four-fold in the 1870's and offset some of the effects of competition when the Barry Docks opened.

Spanish iron ore was the mainstay of Cardiff's import trade, but the quantity of timber shipped into the port was also considerable. Much of it was required for the mining industry and shipments of pitwood from Bordeaux, Spain and Portugal increased two hundred-fold between 1841 and 1901.  As the population of Cardiff grew at a quickening pace, timber was also needed in the building industry, and companies such as Robinson David and John Bland erected their sawmills near the docks.

The Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was followed by an acceleration in grain imports. The firm of Joel Spiller and Browne moved from Bridgwater to open a steam mill at the West Dock in 1854. This building was destroyed by fire in 1882, but the prospect of tramp steamers returning to Cardiff from the Ukraine or America, their holds filled with grain, persuaded Spillers to rebuild on a larger scale. In 1901 the firm's three mills were supplying flour to more than half a million people. The Spillers' warehouse, for so long a landmark at the docks, has recently been converted into flats as part of the re-development of Cardiff Bay, but Spillers Milling retains its association with Cardiff,  exporting home-produced grain from the Roath Dock to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

An attempt to develop a trade in live cattle was less successful. Frederick Ward was a supplier of meat to ships using the port and in 1891 he imported 1,600 head of cattle from Chicago. Cattle pens were installed by the Bute Company but the trade never flourished and, when the importing of frozen meat proved to be a more attractive proposition, the pens were replaced with refrigeration equipment.

Though the West Dock was only suitable for smaller vessels in the later nineteenth century, it still made a worthwhile  contribution to the local economy. The dock handled the fruit and vegetable trade and, earlier this century, women were paid a pittance to drag huge sacks from the holds of the Irish potato boats. Howard Spring, in Heaven Lies About Us, eloquently reflects on his memories of Custom House Street, the "Covent Garden' of Cardiff. "Dead though the city might be elsewhere, Custom House Street was wideawake, full of champing horses, and rattling harness, and shouting men; and the pavements exhaled into the still frosty air their unforgettable smell of trodden vegetable garbage'.

Joshua John Neale and his cycling friend, Henry West, used the West Dock as a base for their deep sea fishing fleet. The two men began their association as fish merchants in Custom House Street but in 1888 they decided it would be more profitable to supply the retail trade. Beginning with a single trawler, the firm of Neale and West had a fleet of 19 ships by 1906. As a sideline, Neale and West trained Japanese fishermen, which may explain why such strange names as Fuji and Kurokiwere given to their trawlers.

At a time when emigration was rising, it seemed reasonable to suppose that Cardiff might take a share in the transportation of passengers to North America. A precedent was set in 1854, when a group of Mormons made a very uncomfortable journey to the United States, perched on a consignment of rails. Following the construction of a low water pier and a floating pontoon in 1868, more ambitious plans were laid for a regular Transatlantic crossing.

In 1873 the South Wales Atlantic Steamship Company, sponsored by Lord Bute, was able to advertise a steerage passage to New York at a cost of only £6. The advertisement claimed that the company's ships, Glamorgan, Pembroke and Carmarthen were fitted with "the latest improvements for the comfort and convenience of passengers', including stewardesses to cater for their needs.

Despite Bute's efforts, the venture was never a success. With space available for 600 travellers, only 39 people booked for the maiden voyage of the Glamorgan and it was a novelty when any of the ships carried more passengers than crew. After a few years the company ceased trading and, while occasional journeys were made from Cardiff to America as late as the 1920's, passenger traffic was usually restricted to local ports.