The Tawe River and Swansea Harbour
The River Tawe has carried Swansea through the ages, being integral to the city's past stature as Viking settlement, Norman township, industrial centre and presently as a premier tourist attraction. The name 'Tawe' most probably originates from a group of Celtic river names such as Thames, Tame and Tamar, meaning 'to flow'. Tawe is also included in the Welsh name for Swansea - 'Abertawe,' which translates as "at the mouth of the Tawe".
From the 10th Century onwards, the site at the river's mouth - present day Swansea - attracted both Scandinavian raiders and merchants. Realising the potential of the locale as a natural harbour, they made their home here as an ideal intermediary base for further trading over in Ireland. The title these Scandinavian immigrants named their base here derived from two Old Norse elements, 'Sveinn', a proper name, and '-ey,' an inlet or island. It has been suggested that the name 'Sveinn' could possibly derive from Swein Forkbeard, the King of Denmark (986-1014 AD). Also, up to the end of the 18th Century, the River Tawe did indeed divide to form an island at it's mouth, referred to as Iselond in 1432 and "The Island" in 1641.
The region attracted the attention of the Normans during the conquest of South Wales early in the 12th century. The Norman Castle was built close to the Tawe's bank, using the river as it's eastern defense, with a tidal creek known as 'The Pill' (which today lies beneath Quay Parade) surrounding the southern aspect. Beyond The Pill lay the open grass-covered sand hills known as 'The Burrows'. The only building in this area was the inn which served the vital ferry at the Tawe's lowest crossing point. The inn, known in later years as 'The Beaufort Arms' survived until 1947, when it was demolished to make room for a sand depot.
Ferry across the Tawe
The ferry was the only means of crossing the river near the town until 1850 and gives its name to 'Ferryside', situated near the modern day Sainsbury's supermarket. The ferry saw more than its fair share of incidents during its day. The ferrymen would often take aboard more passengers than it was safe and the boats were often in a state of ill-repair, so that the accident waiting to happen finally came to pass on Saturday 9th February 1839. On this night six men were drowned as the ferry boat capsized in the often tricky 'freshes' - where the freshwater of the river meets the flowing tide of the sea.
From the 14th century onwards the town was influenced by the mining of coal from the rich coal seams of the Lower Swansea Valley. Swansea coal was relatively cheap to produce because it was easy to extract from the seams near the surface and the mines were also situated very close to the navigable Tawe - allowing easy export of the product. But it was not until 1684 when a method of smelting metal using coal was discovered, that Swansea's industrial fortune flourished. The South Wales coalfield was the nearest coal mine to the large natural copper deposits over in Cornwall and as the smelting process took some 4 to 5 tons of coal to smelt 1 ton of non-ferrous ore, the economical decision was made to transport the ore to the coal rather than visa versa. Thus Swansea's history of being the copper smelting centre of the Industrial Revolution was born. The first copper works in the Tawe Valley was Dr. Lane's Llangyfelach works - built in 1717. By 1860, a further 12 copper smelters were located on both sides of the river.
It was soon obvious that strict rules and regulations would be needed to ensure that the harbour would continue to expand with its increased industrial burden. The main problem was that, due to silt and irresponsible traders who tended to discharge their ballast into the river mouth as they entered the harbour, the river depth was not sufficient to accommodate the increasingly large barges laden down with heavy copper ore. It reached a point where the harbour could only be entered during high spring tides, which became extremely time consuming and inefficient.
Swansea Harbour Act
Eventually after much local political wrangling an application to Parliament was successful and resulted in the Swansea Harbour Act of 1791 which appointed trustees responsible for the repair, enlargement and maintenance of the harbour. Following talks with a leading marine surveyor, Captain Joseph Huddart, in 1794, the Trust sanctioned work on clearing silt and sand from the river mouth. Piers were then constructed to prevent further silting - first on the western bank in 1795 and the second on the eastern bank in 1809. Due to the tidal nature of the river, large ships would be stranded upon the soft mud at low tide, leaving their valuable cargoes vulnerable to theft. Much needed plans were implemented to create a so called 'floating dock', by cutting a new channel and adding lock gates to both ends of a stretch of river. The diverted river flowed along the New Cut, leaving the old channel to form the North Dock.
As Swansea trade increased the construction of the South Dock was started in 1852, to the west of the river mouth and completed in 1859. Later, to the east of the river, the Prince of Wales Dock was opened by the Prince of Wales in October 1881, only to be extended in 1898. Following on, the King's Dock was opened in 1909 and Queen Mary, wife of George V, opened Queen's Dock in 1920.
However, the outbreak of war in August 1914 marked the beginning of a period of decline in Swansea port's fortunes and steadily the high demand for the docks were made redundant. Swansea was about to enter it's next phase of reinvention - from industrial hub to tourist haven.
The River Tawe of Today
The derelict North Dock was finally filled in during the late 1980's and turned into a retail park. Known today as Parc Tawe, the area, which was once the old route of the River Tawe, accommodates a Sainsbury's supermarket, cinema, bowling alley and other retail superstores. The South Dock was also in the process of being refilled when, during the mid 70's the plans were reversed. Some of the infill was removed and the site was developed into the architecturally celebrated Maritime Quarter - a thriving yacht marina which was completed by 1989.
The river has seen an intense history of pollution which has been hard to reverse. The river banks had for many years been lined with the derelict reminders of Swansea's industrial past until Swansea Council made land reclamation a priority in the event of the Aberfan disaster, where more than 100 children were killed when their school became engulfed in the collapse of an old coal tip. Reclamation began in 1967 and had been mostly completed by 1983.
More recent environmental concerns were raised with the development of the multi-million pound Tawe Barrage. The barrage was constructed to allow a mid-tidal depth within the river at all times, for yachts and other pleasure craft. With it's completion in 1992 it became the first tidal barrage across a river in the UK. However within two years the National Rivers Authority had found serious problems with river de-oxygenation and ability of migratory fish, such as Salmon, to find gaps in the fish pass. Improvements were needed and successful modifications to the barrage fish pass were completed in the year 2000.
Today's riverside visitor, however, may marvel at the strange evenly spaced pools of bubbles which emanate along the centre of the Tawe. The problem of de-oxygenated river water, highlighted by the National Rivers Authority, was caused by the fact that the barrier was letting seawater over the top of the barrage at high tides but was not being allowed back out when the tide dropped. The salt water, being heavier than fresh water, would rest on the river bed, which in turn, was depriving freshwater fish and fauna of oxygen.
So a system was developed to pump columns of bubbles up from the river bed to mix the salt and fresh water together, simulating the natural ebb and flow process. Now the river is meeting the standards demanded by the Environment Agency.