Porthcawl Harbour - making the start to south Wales 19c maritime supremacy
Visitors gazing at the recently-restored harbour at Porthcawl perhaps have little idea of the crucial part Porthcawl played in the extraordinary story of the growth in maritime trade in South Wales, ultimately making South Wales and the Bristol Channel, the busiest in the world by the close of the 19th century. But Porthcawl is where it all began way back in the early 1800s.
Driven by the rapidly expanding trade in coal, limestone and iron in the Llynfi Valley, local businessmen meeting in the Globe Inn at Porthcawl in 1818 resolved to sort out a better way of moving these bulk loads to the nearby coast and onwards by sea to distant ports. It was to be another 10 years before a horse-drawn tramway was opened serving the length of the Llynfi Valley. It proved to be a huge success but it solved only part of the problem leaving the siting of a harbour still unresolved. Initially the Ogmore rivermouth was given serious consideration and then abandoned only to be resurrected in 1883 with an Act of Parliament. The ultimate aim was to find an economic way of quickly moving the coal, limestone iron bulk cargo on and off ships independent of the state of the tide, knowing that the Heritage Coast had one of the greatest tidal changes (30 feet plus) in the world. Up until this time, it was not unusual for cargo ships to be beached, their cargo loaded/unloaded at low tide and then refloated at high tide. Until a small harbour at Aberthaw was commenced in 1813, that was how the limestone pebbles essential for the many coastal construction sites, was shipped. The damage caused to the ships hulls and other difficulties were obvious and prompted urgent consideration being given to the creation of more suitable facilities.
So, this was still the challenge that faced the Llynfi Valley businessmen in 1825 over the shipping of bulk goods as well as the need to eventually upgrade the Llynfi Valley horse-drawn rail route with the new steam railway being successfully pioneered in much of South Wales by the young engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But it was to be another 30 years before the Llynfi Valley Railway which had evolved from the original tramroad, became part of Brunels fast expanding Broad Gauge railway network. But I am in danger of getting ahead of myself!
Present day customers of the Wyndham Arms in Bridgend (a Weatherspoons Inn) would perhaps be surprised to know that nearly 200 years ago in 1825 and in the floor above their heads, a second group of local investors led by none other than that famous politician Benjamin D'Israeli were planning a revolutionary way of loading and unloading cargo. This group included other heavy hitters like John Guest and Richard Crawshay and so it's perhaps little wonder that that same year, Royal approval was given to an Act of Parliament authorising £40 000 expenditure to upgrade the tramroad and for it to be terminated at a jetty or harbour at Porthcawl which was at that time a small collection of dwellings (see photograph). Construction work commenced with a small tidal basin and continued with a string of upgrades and improvements over the next few decades. Nevertheless, by as early as 1833 more than 400 ships had used the newly-built harbour.
It was the continuing expansion of coal mining especially in the Ogmore Valley and the construction of a second railway line terminating in Porthcawl Harbour that heralded further expansion work of the harbour and a major extension of the breakwater completed in 1867. Some idea of the rate of expansion can be appreciated with tonnage growing by 1000% over the 10 years to 1871. But this peak in trade was not destined to last into the 80s. Nevertheless there was a resurgence of trade to hit a new peak in 1892. But this too was short lived and by the turn of the century, trade had disappeared eventually leading to the closure of the dock in 1906. Nearly 40 years passed before the dock was finally filled in to leave just the outer basin which is still enjoyed today and with the newly completed restoration - many, many more years of leisure is to be had.
The name Porthcawl has been said by some historians to derive from Pwll Cawl - a reference in Welsh to the rough seas churned up by inbound storms. Tuskar Rock (named by the Vikings) is the twice daily familiar sight (exposed at low tide) of the submerged rocks extending many miles upstream from Porthcawl and the reason for these dangerous waters. Visitors to the Nash Point Lighthouse (constructed in 1832) often ask why there are two lighthouses close to each other. This is so that seamen departing or arriving at Porthcawl harbour would know from the alignment of the two lighthouses, whether they were safely to the south of the dangerous rocks - or not!
The harbour at Porthcawl was acknowledged as a major success triggering a string of competing dock projects at Port Talbot (1837), Cardiff (1839), Newport( 1842), Swansea( 1844), Penarth( 1865), Neath and ultimately Barry (1884) later followed. The generation of capital to fund these massive projects and the political process involving Acts of Parliament were given top priority. As well as the ever-speedier construction methods, these docks increased their capacity at a phenomenal rate with perhaps the design of Barry Docks being well ahead of its time in terms of logistics and materials handling methods.
Lots more information along with historic records and pictures (see illustration) can be seen at the Porthcawl Museum in John Street and next time you pass the RNLI Lifeboat Station, look for the short section of rail track preserved on the jetty to gain an idea of the methods of railtrack construction used at that time.
Images: Kind permission from Porthcawl Museum