Coal: Pit to Port, Port to the World

The major role played by the miners in creating the prosperity of Cardiff and South Wales is well established, but little is known about the important contribution made by the various trades and professions that operated at the Docks, distributing the coal throughout the world.

Businesses and professions, centred at the Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square, formed the nerve centre of the dockland. Each weekday at 11 am, a splendidly attired Commissionaire stood on the steps outside the building to ring a bell that announced the commencement of business. Colliery Owners, Ship Owners, CoaI Exporters, Ship Brokers, lnsurers and other Members congregated to conduct negotiations in the various activities in which they were engaged, including the buying and selling of thousands of tons of coal destined for export. All of these specialists were integral to directing the success of the Coal Trade.

The docks artisans included those involved in the docking and berthing of ships and the movement of rail freight. This included train drivers and shunters, who ensured the correct cargoes were delivered to the right berths at the right time. Especially important in Cardiff docks were the men who operated the coal hoists that discharged the coal from railway trucks directly into the ships' holds where coal trimmers, unsung heroes, working in claustrophobic conditions, stabilised the coal cargoes, making vessels safe to sail.

During the 1900s, the boundaries of the dockland area extended to include Clarence Road Bridge, Stuart Street, the lower half of Bute Street and West Bute Street. Within this area, offices were occupied by a multiplicity of allied trades. Ship-owners, Colliery Owners, Coal Factors, Consuls, Shipbrokers/Agents, Solicitors, Tug Owners, Marine Engineers, Banks, Insurance Brokers, Average Adjusters, Channel Pilots (The Pilotage Authority), H M Customs and Excise and Analytical Chemists were all represented. Ships' Chandlers, Butchers, General Stores, Chemists, Nautical Suppliers, Seamen's outfitters and others plied their trades, all being concentrated in this zone of frenetic activity. The dry docks also played their part. Doctors and dentists could also be called upon when required and the Royal Hamadryad Hospital, a beached ex-Royal Navy frigate (HMS Hamadryad) served to provide hospitalisation for sick and especially for infectious seamen. Maintaining order amongst this clamour and the surrounding terraced housing of the vital but infamous Tiger Bay were the police forces, both docks and civic.

In 1912, a protracted National Docks and Transport strike paralysed the movement of coal through Cardiff Docks and many of its businesses that earned their livelihoods from the trade faced financial ruin.Nevertheless, the docks recovered, achieving their maximum annual output in 1913 when more than ten milllion tons of coal were exported. Thereafter, there was a slow decline in output, initially because of competition from the docks of Barry, Penarth and others in South Wales and partly because of the increasing availability of crude oil. The decline continued through two world wars until the coal trade from Cardiff ceased in 1964.

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Coal trucks in Cardiff sidings

East and West Bute Docks, Cardiff

Coal Hoist

Coal ships waiting in Cardiff docks