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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Swansea, 1849-93

THE natural advantages of the Port of Swansea, from its position at the entrance of the Bristol Channel, with an excellent roadstead at the Mumbles, and in close contiguity to the great coal fields of South Wales, could not fail to recommend it as a port capable of very extensive development as soon as the exigencies of trade might demand it, and the Harbour Trustees in the year 1849, of whom Mr. Pascoe St. Leger Grenfell was chairman, realized the necessity for providing further and better accommodation for the steadily increasing trade of the Port, and applied to Mr. Abernethy, whom they had consulted two years before with respect to prospective improvements, to make a report and to prepare a design, and appointed him their Engineer-in-Chief for the contemplated works in May of that year. Being at the time resident in Aberdeen, the additional appointment at Swansea necessitated frequent long journeys by coach via Edinburgh, Newcastle, Birmingham, and Gloucester, a distance of over five hundred miles. Swansea at that date—1849 —contained but thirty thousand inhabitants, and the only harbour works in existence were a few quays built along the banks of the River Tawe, alongside of which vessels floated or lay dry, as the tide flowed or ebbed, but the bed of the river was very uneven, and vessels as they grounded were unable to be strained. Finding such to be the condition of the harbour in 1849, the Engineer recommended the Harbour Trustees to construct a floating basin in the bed of the River Tawe on a plan similar to that previously adopted at Bristol and “The Pent,” at Dover, a somewhat favourite scheme during the first half of the present century. A bend of the Tawe was cut off and converted into the North Dock, or Town Float, this being really a portion of the old river bed locked and floated, the fresh water from the interior being carried to the sea by a side cut. This North Dock, which the accompanying illustration shows to be situated on the left or western side of the River, and the furthest dock from the R'ver mouth, has an area of ten and a quarter acres, and a half-tide basin of two and a half acres. It was completed in 1852, and its beneficial effect, jointly with the extension of the railway to the docks in 1853 was manifested by the rise of the tonnage entering the port from

270.000 tons in 1851 to 332,000 tons in 1853. It was during the construction of the lock at the entrance of this North Dock that Mr. Abernethy first suggested to the Harbour Trustees the desirability of working the gates by hydraulic power instead of by the usual hand gear. Sir William Armstrong was applied to, and, as the result of an interview with the Trustees, designed the machinery. The increase of trade continued steady and rapid, and in 1858 amounted in round numbers to 500,000 tons. Of this, the increase in the foreign trade alone was from 60,000 tons to 262.000 tons.

The chief export trade from Swansea is, of course, coal, of which 267,430 tons were shipped in 1858, and an additional quantity coastways of 185.712 tons. There was also at that date a large export of patent fuel—a manufacture for many years peculiar to Swansea —to all quarters of the world, and a large importation of copper ore from Cornwall, South America, Cuba, and Australia, the copper smelting business carried on then representing nearly nine-tenths of the copper smelting business of the world.

Such a thriving trade as this promised speedily to outgrow the accommodation provided in 1852, and it became necessary to look for some means of extending the harbour. Before the formation of the River Float in 1852, a project had been started for building new docks on the west side of the river near its entrance, and nearly at right angles to the North Dock, and a Company was formed for that purpose. An Act also was obtained for its construction, and operations were commenced, but for some reason or other the Harbour Trustees did not associate themselves with the scheme, but preferred to persevere with the Floating Basin, which they finished with their own funds. If their refusal was grounded on a suspicion that the Company would not be able to perform their programme, they were justified by the event, for after a few years funds became scarce, the works languished, and at last after an expenditure of 100,000 came to a standstill. In this condition they remained for three years, until the Trustees came to terms with the insolvent Company, and took the unfinished works off their hands, again deputing Mr. Abernethy to act as their engineer, who placed Mr. William Neill there as Resident Engineer, the Contractor being Mr. William Tredwell.

In making this dock, one of the first operations was the formation of an embankment for the purpose of excluding the sea; timber groynes were constructed at intervals of 1500 feet to the full extent of the proposed embankment- The rough boulder gravel found immediately under the sand and the made ground was then tipped between the groynes at the seaward end, the lighter material being deposited within and towards the landward end. The action of the sea and the tide removed the lighter portion of the gravel, and carried it to the westward, leaving the heavier portion and the boulder stones to gradually form a beach and serve as a facework to the embankment, and this proved an effective barrier to the encroachment of the sea.

The successful application of hydraulic machinery for working the lock of the North Dock and Newport Dock (page 166), where the gates were much heavier, induced the engineer to adopt a similar system for the entrance to this new dock, and Sir William Armstrong & Co. again supplied all the requisite machinery for opening and shutting the gates, bridges, and sluices, as well as for turning the capstans. Hydraulic coal hoists which had shortly before proved a great success at Newport were also supplied by the same firm of mechanical engineers and erected upon the quay.

The new dock taken in hand on the west side of the entrance of the river was called the South Dock, consisting of an outer basin of thirteen acres, with 4,800 feet of quay wall, and an inner basin of four acres with a quay wall of 1,600 feet, these two basins communicating with each other by means of a lock 300 feet by 60 feet.


The old high water mark ran through the centre of the dock and lock, so that one half of the area enclosed was reclaimed from the sea, and by this reclamation the once fashionable Swansea Sands disappeared, but Mr. Clark Russell has well expressed the view entertained by the inhabitants with regard to such a change when he wrote of Swansea in 1882:—“One must not think of the beautiful, but of the useful, with a capital U. Nobody talks of sea views or mountains here, but of how many ships were cleared last week, and what the export and import returns were and the like.”

After the completion of the South Dock, which was opened by Miss Talbot, daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of the County of Glamorgan, in 1858, at a cost of 169,073, the export and import trades continued to grow apace, and in 1872 the then Mayor, Mr. James Livingstone, advocated the construction of a third dock on the east side of the river Tawe. The Act for this large addition to the Port was obtained in 1874, and in March, 1880. Sir II. Vivian, afterwards Lord Swansea, laid the central stone of the lock amid demonstrations of great enthusiasm. The work involved the removal of 2,000,000 cubic yards of earth and the building of 80,000 cubic feet of masonry, at a cost of half a million sterling. The dock area is twenty-three acres, the depth on the outer sill of the lock being thirty-two feet at ordinary tides, and that over the inner sill twenty-seven feet, while the Tidal Basin by which it is approached has an area of four and a half acres.

It will be remembered that in the account of the life and work at Aberdeen at page 70, mention was made of Mr. Abernethy having been deputed to superintend the arrangements for the disembarkation of Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her first visit to Scotland in September, 1848, and it is a coincidence worthy of mention that on the occasion of the first visit of H.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales to South Wales thirty-three years afterwards to open the Prince of Wales’ Dock he was again appointed to receive and conduct the Royal Party to inspect the gates and masonry of the lock, prior to requesting the Prince to touch the lever which was to open the gates, and the Princess to sever the white boon by which act the suspended bottle of champagne fell and christened the dock, The Prince of Wales’ Dock. The Daily News of October 19th, 1881, gives His Royal Highness’s speech at the banquet, part of which runs thus:—“It has long been the wish of the Princess and myself to have some public occasion of visiting the Principality, from which we are proud to derive our title, and we are particularly glad that our first visit to South Wales should be connected with the opening of these docks at Swansea.”

In concluding his speech, His Royal Highness complimented Mr. Abernethy, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, upon the successful termination of his professional labours as the engineer.

The late Mr. T. A. Walker, who afterwards made the Severn Tunnel, acted as contractor and completed the work in the remarkably short space of two-and-a-half years.

The population of Swansea had increased in 1881 from 10,000 in 1852 to 100,000, and the town become the metallurgical centre of the world, the district abounding in large and busy works, at which some 20,000 hands were employed in the production in marketable form of iron, patent fuel, copper, tin plates, steel spelter, silver, lead, zinc, nickel, sulphate of ammonia, oxalic acid, cobalt, ultramarine, &c., and the gross income from imports had reached 67 per cent., and from exports 64 per cent.

In the year 1885 the tonnage in the Prince of Wales’ Dock amounted to 623,280 tons, and the revenue from it till June of that year 39,227, while the working expenses and maintenance amounted to but 37 per cent., while the gross income of the Harbour Trustees had risen from 5,000 in 1851 to 100,000 in 1886. It is a circumstance worth noticing that no grant of public money has ever been made in respect of improving the Port of Swansea. In addition to the construction of the Prince of Wales’ Dock, the West Pier was lengthened from 600 feet to 1,000 feet, an East Pier built, and the approach channel deepened to 28 feet at high water ordinary tides.

In 1893 he again prepared plans for a new dock at Swansea, completing thereby a professional association with the port of forty-six years duration.



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