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Cardiff - Coal and Shipping Metropolis of the World

Second Marquess of Bute

Cardiff: the pre-industrial port. Two sloops lying in the River Taff, as portrayed by Paul Sandby in 1776.
Cardiff: the pre-industrial port. Two sloops lying in the River Taff, as portrayed by Paul Sandby in 1776.

In 1862, 2 million tonnes of coal were exported from Cardiff Docks; by 1913, this had risen to nearly 11 million. This was the heyday of the coal industry before the depression of the 1930s.

Cardiff was the boom town of late Victorian Britain. For a few years before the First World War, the tonnage of cargo handled at the port outstripped that of either London or Liverpool. Yet in the late 18th century, Cardiff's trade was all transported by two small sloops sailing to Bristol on alternative days. So what had led to this transformation?

It was the growth of the iron industry in the South Wales Valleys that caused Cardiff to develop a port. In 1794, the Glamorganshire Canal was completed, linking Cardiff with Merthyr, and in 1798 a basin was built, connecting this canal to the sea. Cardiff's foremost landowner, the 2nd Marquess of Bute, built West Bute Dock in 1839. Two years later, the Taff Vale Railway was opened.

Coal overtakes Iron

Cardiff: the industrial port. An aerial view showing the completed dock system about 1948.
Cardiff: the industrial port. An aerial view showing the completed dock system about 1948.

From the 1850s, coal began to replace iron as the industrial foundation of south Wales. South Wales steam coal was what oil is today, with yearly exports reaching 2 million tonnes as early as 1862. A further dock, the East Bute, was opened in 1859, but following the death of the 2nd Marquess in 1848, the Bute Estate trustees were over-cautious and reluctant to invest in new dock facilities.

Coal exports reach 9 million tonnes

Frustration at the lack of development at Cardiff led to rival docks being opened at Penarth in 1865 and Barry in 1889. These developments eventually spurred Cardiff into action, with the opening of the Roath Dock in 1887, and the Queen Alexandra Dock in 1907. By then, coal exports from Cardiff totalled nearly 9 million tonnes per annum, much of it exported by locally-owned tramp steamers.

Tramp steamers and steamships

A typical Cardiff tramp steamer - the SS Pontwen, built in 1914.
A typical Cardiff tramp steamer - the SS Pontwen, built in 1914.

Cardiff's first steamship was the little Llandaff of 1865, and she was the first of a fleet of steamships that grew rapidly in the late 19th century. By 1910, there were some 250 tramp steamers owned at Cardiff. Each day, the owners would meet to arrange cargoes of coal for their ships in the opulent Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square.

The coal export industry reached its peak in 1913, when 10.7 million tonnes of coal were exported from the port.

First World War

The age of depression. Laid-up ships in Cardiff docks about 1930.
The age of depression. Laid-up ships in Cardiff docks about 1930.

After the First World War, there was a significant increase in shipping in Cardiff, with 122 shipping companies in business in 1920. The boom proved short-lived, however; oil was growing in importance as a maritime fuel, and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles soon flooded Europe with cheap German coal. By 1932, in the depths of the depression, coal exports had fallen to below 5 million tonnes and dozens of locally owned ships were laid-up. It was an era of depression from which Cardiff never really recovered, and despite intense activity at the port during the Second World War, coal exports continued to decline, finally ceasing altogether in 1964.

Modern day Cardiff

Cardiff: the port transformed. Modern retail developments now stand where Cardiff once exported coal to the world.
Cardiff: the port transformed. Modern retail developments now stand where Cardiff once exported coal to the world.

Today, the port of Cardiff presents a very different picture from that existing a century ago. The waterfront has been totally transformed. Exclusive flats now stand where coal hoists once stood, and the rough and ready sailortown pubs have been replaced by sedate bistros. Only two docks, the Roath and the Queen Alexandra, remain in use, and just two shipping companies remain.

There is still some trade in timber, oil, and containers, but the days when the port was packed with tramp steamers, shrouded in coal dust as they loaded the 'black diamonds' of the valleys of south Wales, will never be seen again.

Background Reading

Cardiff and the Marquesses of Bute, by John Davies. Published by University of Wales Press (1981).

Cardiff Shipowners, by J. Geraint Jenkins and David Jenkins. Published by the National Museums & Galleries of Wales (1986).

Coal Metropolis: Cardiff, 1970-1914, by Martin Daunton. Published by Leicester University Press (1977).

Article Date: 18 April 2007

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Glossary

Sloop
A style of sailboat characterized by a single mast with one mainsail and one foresail.

Tramp steamer
A commercial steam boat for hire, with no regular schedule.

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