Welsh Coal and the Demand for New Docks


The Bute estate in Glamorgan was left in trust for the infant heir. The trustees received little guidance relating to their duties because so many decisions had stemmed from the personal authority of the Second Marquess. Until the Third Marquess came of age in 1868, the trustees faithfully tried to interpret his father's wishes, but understandably they tended to be conservative in decisions involving great expenditure.

Industrial progress was so rapid, however, that the extension of Cardiff's Docks could not be delayed until the young Marquess reached manhood. Soon after 1850, ships were being diverted to other ports as an alternative to waiting a week or more for a berth in the West Dock. The Second Marquess had made plans to build another dock and had furnished the trustees with the necessary powers to implement his decision. They were reluctant to release the capital for such a major project and, it was only when the customers of the port threatened to take their business elsewhere, that the trustees agreed to build a new dock.

The first section of the East Dock was opened in July 1855 when, to the strains of Hearts of Oak, the Sunderland barque, William James, was towed into the dock by a tug "amid deafening cheering and guns firing'. More significantly the American clipper, Charlotte a Stanley, slipped into the dock a few hours later, after awaiting entry for 24 days. In the last twenty years, ships had increased greatly in size and the West Dock was unable to accommodate such a large vessel. Its presence was a sign of how quickly a dock could become obsolete, and in the 1860's the upper reaches of the West Dock had become a harbour for pleasure craft and the occasional boat race.

When the trustees built a tidal harbour for smaller vessels before the end of 1859, the Bute Docks were dealing with two million tons of cargo a year in their 67 acres of enclosed water. Now that steam ships were replacing sail and coaling stations were a necessity along the shipping routes of the world, coal exports accounted for 80% of this trade. Almost every country developed an insatiable appetite for Welsh steam coal and Cardiffbecame its principal port of transit. In establishing its own pilotage board in 1861, Cardiffterminated its subordination to Bristoland asserted its claim to be the premier port of the channel. By 1883 there were 110 pilots operating from the office in

Stuart Street

To meet the demands of shipping companies and coal owners, the trustees were prepared to build three new docks at Cardiff, one of them solely for imports, but Parliament refused its consent while the Marquess remained a minor. Instead, the Taff Vale Railway was given permission to construct a dock at Penarth. Land was purchased from Windsor Clive at a well chosen site near deep water, which at high tide was virtually a tidal harbour, allowing easy access for rapid loading. When Penarth Dock opened in 1865, the Bute interest feared a loss of business, especially as its rival held the advantage of a rail link to its port. Fears of a serious setback proved to be groundless for, while some trade was lost to Penarth, new business was soon created from other sources.

 In the first place, the Bute trustees took a major interest in the construction and development of the Rhymney Railway.  The east side of the East Dock was leased to the company in 1863 and, while the Rhymney line was not a great success until a tunnel was driven through Caerphilly Mountain in 1871, thereafter it became very profitable. The Rhymney Railway carried most of Monmouthshire's coal production, not to Newport Docks as might be expected, but to Cardiff.  By 1880 these shipments were amounting to a million tons a year.

Even more spectacular was the flood of "black gold' which began to flow to Cardiff from the Rhondda. The first trainload of steam coal departed from the Rhondda in 1855, but ten years later the output of the area was still only a quarter of that from the Aberdare Valley. Then, as communications with the Upper Rhondda improved and mining technology advanced, its rich deep coal seams became accessible for exploitation. Soon the valley became the most prolific coal producing region of Britain. Like a magnet, coal attracted immigrants to the Rhondda, so that its population multiplied from 3,000 in 1861 to 113,000 in 1901. The growth of Cardiff, rapid though it had been since 1800, was now to accelerate at an unprecedented rate.


When the Third Marquess came of age in 1868, industrialised South Wales held little appeal to a man of his tastes and he was content to administer his estate along the lines of the last twenty years. From 1870 the control of the Bute industrial wealth increasingly became the province of W.T. Lewis. He was a self-made, hard-headed business man who had left school at the age of 12. Later to receive a peerage as Lord Merthyr, he now assumed a position as powerful as Edward Priest Richards had enjoyed earlier in the century.

The shipping companies were soon confronting Bute with the familiar cry that their trade was suffering because the Bute Docks could not cope with the volume of traffic using them. The problem was that all the docks, apart from the first, were built too late to satisfy the demands made on them. Both coal owners and shipping firms had justifiable cause for concern. The narrow valleys of South Wales provided no space for storage or for railway sidings. As a result, coal was loaded into trucks at the pithead for direct transportation to Cardiff. If there were delays at the docks, the wagons made fewer journeys and, as a shortage of wagons developed at the pithead, production came to a halt. Shipowners were also confronted with rising costs, when vessels were compelled to wait outside the dock until a berth became available. Often the East Dock was so congested, that in the 1870's it was possible to walk from one ship to the next, so closely were they jammed together.

Coal exports had doubled since 1859, and the opening of the RoathBasin in 1874 only led to a slight improvement at the over-crowded docks. When Parliamentary consent was given for the building of the Roath Dock, Buteannounced, to the consternation of all dock users, that he "did not see that it would be advantageous to me to begin at present the active construction of the proposed dock'. Bute could justify his point of view. David Stewart's belief, that the docks at Cardiff would raise revenue to develop the mineral wealth of the coalfield, was never realised. In fact the reverse was true, as the royalties from coal were largely swallowed up in the maintenance and provision of the docks.

There were several reasons why the anticipated profits never materialised. The cost of building the docks always exceeded the estimates, and some services ran at a loss because charges were fixed by Parliament. Most important of all, the size of vessels increased at such a rate that, thirty years after the East Dock opened, it could not be used by 500 of the largest ships entering Cardiff. So, as each new dock was designed, those built earlier became outdated and their revenue fell. It was a similar tale at Penarth Docks, when the Taff Vale chairman admitted in 1880, "the undertaking has always been a sort of incubus upon the company'. W.T. Lewis, aware of the needs of the coal industry, persuaded the Marquess to build the Roath Dock which was in service by August 1887. It was given the most modern facilities, including the Lewis Hunter cranes, each of which could lift a wagon, turn it over, and send twelve tons of coal into the hold without any breakage. This was particularly important in view of the brittle nature of Welsh steam coal.

Since the death of his father, the Marquess had spent more than £2 million on the docks at Cardiff. He was determined to improve their profitability, and gained the permission of Parliament to raise his charges by 1d a ton. Even with this increase, the Roath Dock only yielded a return of 3% per annum, scarcely enough to compensate for depreciation. Yet his action was to infuriate the shipping and coal proprietors, bringing to a head the long-standing acrimony between the Butes and the users of the port.