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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Newport (Mon.), 1856-85

UNTIL the year 1834 the splendid river Usk, upon the banks of which Newport is situated, alone supplied the necessary conveniences for the commerce of the pert, but by that date the trade with foreign ports carried on 'n vessels of large tonnage, had increased to such an extent, that it was deemed advisable to provide floating dock accommodation. A company accordingly, was formed for that purpose, and an Act obtained in 1835 to construct a ba^in and lock communicating with the river, which was duly finished and opened for traffic in 1842, at an expenditure of 195,000. This floating basin covered an area of four acres, and the lock through which it was entered, 220 feet by 61 feet, was considered one of the finest in the kingdom.

In 1854 the company obtained a further Act, empowering them to convert the feeder pond into a floating dock, and so add another seven-and-a-half acres to the existing floating area, thereby making a total of eleven-and-a-half acres. For the execution of this work they engaged the professional services of Mr. Abernethy, and the work was completed and opened in March, 1858. The coal trade carried on at these docks, (where coal hoists were worked by hydraulic machinery furnished by Sir W. G. Armstrong and Co.) soon became so extensive, and continued to increase so rapidly, that much overcrowding and consequent delay n loading was experienced—the returns for the year 1864 showing a shipment of 322,646 tons of coal, or 28,913 tons to each acre of dock area.

The effect of the large shipment of steam coal, moreover, was to reduce the number of sailing vessels and attract a larger proportion of steamers for the export trade, by which change, increased despatch and regularity of journey were secured. In addition to this, many of the steamers frequenting the port exceeded 300 feet in length, so that more accommodation, as well as the best modem appliances for loading and despatching them in the shortest possible time, became imperative for the welfare of Newport, as a competing port in the Bristol Channel. To secure the last object large additions^ space for sidings and storage was requisite, so that the coal might be standing in readiness to be shipped as soon as the steamers arrived, and these facilities were not obtainable in the vicinity of the existing docks. The inadequate accommodation to meet the demands of trade had in fact not only become realized, but actual falling off in traffic had set in, and was threatening to still further increase for the coal and iron merchants In the district gladly encouraged every attempt that was made to obtain direct railway communication between their various works and the Port of Cardiff, where, including Penarth and the area inside the old Canal Gates to the Great Western Railway Bridge, there was still-water accommodation of 94 acres.

Such is an epitome of affairs at Newport, when a new company, of which the late Lord Tredegar was chairman, was formed in 1864, and application made to Parliament for powers to make the Alexandra Docks ; Mr. Abernethy, who had acted for the old company in 1856-8, being again entrusted with the engineering, and deputed to prepare the Parliamentary plans and sections, and subsequently all the detailed drawings.

The project met with the unanimous support of all the railway companies in the district, but a moiety of the directors in the old company, apprehensive of an injury to the trade in their dock, opposed it, and tendered evidence before Parliament to the effect that the then existing dock was amply sufficient for the trade, that no further space would be required for years to come, and that they could, ii necessary, ship double the quantity of coal at present sent down for exportation.

With this evidence to contend against, the promoters of the Alexandra Dock experienced a severe struggle before the Committees of both Houses of Parliament, but they succeeded in obtaining their Act, to which the royal assent was given on July 6th, 1865.

When the work was authorized and about to be commenced trade was flourishing, and with a certain stability which induced a firm hope that it would continue. The “ black diamonds,” the produce of the district, were sought for and supplied with a will. But while the company were indulging in sanguine expectations of the speedy commencement of the great undertaking fraught with such prospective advantages, the sudden collapse of the great house of Overend, Gurney & Co., followed by an almost unparalleled panic, and a subsequent period of distrust and stagnation in the monetary and commercial world, necessitated the suspension of operations. Strikes between employer and employee, too, tended to drive trade from the district in common with others, while the crisis in the east paralysed speculators, and trade reached a low ebb indeed.

As soon, however, as there was a partial revival of confidence, the promoters again pushed forward their scheme with energy, and their efforts received invaluable aid from the secretary, the late Mr. J. S. Adam. By mutual agreement some changes were effected in the directorate, a few gentlemen retiring to allow of the admission of some enterprising capitalists, notably the late Mr. J. R. McLean and Sir George Elliot, in their stead, but continuing to support and further the undertaking. After careful deliberation it was decided to proceed with a portion of the original scheme, and to do this on such a plan, that at any time the entire work could be completed without inconvenience and within the original estimated cost.

Accordingly on May 28th, 1868, the work was commenced, the ceremony of turning the first sod being performed by Lady Tredegar, the engineer handing her a silver spade for the occasion and remarking, — “Your ladyship, I present to you this implement for the inauguration of a great work, which I have no doubt will prove a source of gratification to your noble husband and his family in future years, conducing, as it must, to the prosperity of the trade of Newport and neighbourhood.”

After seven years of unremitting patient work the Alexandra Dock was completed, and on April 17th, 1875, the mayor was in the fortunate position of being able to telegraph to H.R.H the Prince of Wales, at Sandringham, that “The Alexandra Dock, named after H.R.H. the Princess of Wales, has just been opened in the presence of 40,000 people of all classes, and the universal rejoicings of the inhabitants of Wales.”

The latter words might, if subjected to strict criticism, be regarded as a gentle hit at the exclusion of Monmouthshire from the Principality of Wales, for which the adjusters of the Oxford Circuit were responsible, as it was aforetime inalienably Welsh, but probably there was a sufficient proportion of Welshmen among those present, and certainly more than a sufficient number throughout Wales who were not present, but who shared in the rejoicings, to make the message correct. His Royal Highness, :n reply, took up the same strain, for he wired,—“I thank you much for your telegram, and I congratulate most heartily the inhabitants of Wales on the success of the undertaking.”

The Alexandra Dock is situated about one mile from the mouth of the Usk, a broad and deep river, having a width of 700 feet opposite to the entrance of the dock, and a depth of 37 feet, and without a single obstacle of any kind to its navigability either by day or night. The land upon which it was constructed was the property of Lord Tredegar, the chairman of the Alexandra Dock Company, and ample space was secured, capable of future extension, on which to make an elaborate labyrinth of sidings.

The entrance to the Alexandra Dock is admirably situated at a bend of the river Usk, and being in the design of a “trumpet mouth,” affords the greatest facilities for working vessels in and out. The curves being common to both directions, enable vessels to be passed in beyond the tideway of the river at once without the necessity of swinging them across the channel as had to be done in entering the old dock. This “trumpet mouth” entrance is 350 feet wide between the line of the river front and the outer gates, with a depth of 37 feet of water on average spring tides.

The principal works comprise an outer lock 350 feet by 65 feet, divided by a pair of intermediate gates, so that it may be used as two locks, or one large lock as required, and vessels drawing 23 feet of water can enter or leave within an average period of three hours on every tide throughout the year. The Alexandra Dock. which receives its water supply from the river Ebb by means of a conduit, has an area of 28! acres, and being in immediate connection with all the existing lines into Newport, secures the most complete through communication for import as well as for export traffic. The chief imports are Baltic and Norwegian timber, pit props, Spanish iron ore, and railway sleepers; and exports, in addition to coal, iron, machinery, sleepers, rails, and tin. The hydraulic coal hoists constructed by Messrs. Armstrong, Mitchell and Co., from designs supplied by Mr. Abernethy, are most efficient. These machines, which are of a high and low level are also ingenious in their method of work. The lift receives a truck full of coal from the low level metals, raises it to the shoot, tips its contents into the vessels hold, then lets the empty truck slip down the slightly inclined high level, along which it travels to join the empties.

After the opening of the Alexandra Docks many strides were made the commercial progress of the port. Step by step the directors added to the facilities already given for the trade, and on August 7th, 1878, a large graving dock, 500 feet in length and 56 feet in width at the bottom, and 74 feet in width at the coping, was completed. The bottom is inverted, and has a verse line of one foot six inches. This graving dock is supplied by water from the dock, which in its turn is supplied by the river Ebbw, thereby avoiding the use of tidal water, which generally leaves a deposit of mud. The water is ultimately discharged into the river through a three feet cast-iron pipe, which is taken down to low-water mark. This arrangement further did away with the necessity of pumping, which docks supplied from a river, usually require. The last mentioned work was completed in thirteen months, to the great credit of the contractor, the late Mr. John Griffiths.

A large timber pond which had been in course of construction, simultaneously with the graving dock, was the next work executed, and later a staging and jetty were added for the shipment of rails. The timber pond constructed is 300 feet long and 100 feet wide, and is connected with the dock by a canal some 800 feet in length, through which the timber on arrival is passed into the float. The Alexandra Dock has been lengthened since 1875, under the direction of the late Sir George Elliot, Bart., plans for which were prepared for him by Mr. Abernethy in 1885.



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