The Development of Newport Docks

 The Development of Newport Docks 

At the moment Newport Museum and Art Gallery has a photographic exhibition about the development of Newport Docks and it ends with photographs of the Newport Dock Disaster of 1909.

The Newport Ship

Newport's riverside wharves and jetties have existed at this major trading port since at least the fifteenth century, as evidenced by the discovery of The Newport Ship trading vessel dating from 1465-6. See David Jordan's painting below.

Approaching Newport” by David Jordan 

The Monmouthshire Canal
The town's industrial significance was established in 1799 with the opening of the Monmouthshire Canal (nprn 85125). Subsequent development made Newport docks the the outlet for all iron and coal production of the Monmouthshire Valleys of Rhymney, Ebbw, Sirhowy and Afon Llwyd. The Monmouthshire Canal Company with its canal and tramroads was responsible for the growth of Newport, which became the third largest coal port in Britain. In 1796 the company shipped 3,500 tons of coal from its wharves on the river Usk, by 1809 this had grown to 150,000 tons. Right you can see the Canal with the sea lock opening into the Town Dock.

The Town Dock, a sketch by J F Mullock, circa 1842
Newport Museum and Art Gallery

Oil painting by Joseph Walter (1783-1856), The Monmouthshire Canal at Newport, 

The Wharfs

In 1835 the banks of the Usk at Newport had wharfs where goods were offloaded and uploaded.   The tidal range at Newport in the city centre rises and falls more than any other river in any city centre anywhere in the world. But the muddy banks caused problems for loading and unloading ships.                

Newport on the Usk - Ernest Ravenscroft, 
Newport Museum and Art Gallery


Sailing ships, Russell's Wharf, River Usk, Newport
- Charles Morris Ayliffe, (B.W.S.)
Newport Museum and Art Gallery




Newport Castle and Bridge, Mrs G. Warrington
Newport Museum and Art Gallery

The Town Dock

The Town Dock (nprn 408352) was constructed in 1842, extended in 1858, and provided an outlet for products brought down the canal. To the west stands one of the original dockside buildings, the Baltic Warehouse (nprn 34293) and to the east of the entrance lock stands the late nineteenth century three-storey Maltings (nprn 31975).   

By 1830 Newport was Wales' biggest coal port and trade was becoming such a prominent feature that Parliament granted permission in 1835 to construct a dock to cope with the demand. The Town Dock was opened in 1842. It was extended to the north in 1858, allowing trade to increase.  The trade from the Town Dock was mainly in timber, with other shipments consisting of grain, hay and potatoes, which suited the smaller vessels that used the docks. Trade increased and on March 2, 1858, there was an extension, known as the inner basin.

The Alexandra/North Dock. 
Newport Harbour Commissioners; Plan of Alexandra Docks, April 1919

The Alexandra Docks was the brainchild of a group of influential businessmen who realised that the Old Town Docks were fast becoming congested with the increase in water and inland traffic. On the instigation of the First Lord Tredegar, a movement was started towards the building separate and larger docks. During the excavation of the north dock the remains of a Viking longship were discovered just 12ft beneath the surface. There were many problems with the digging out of the Alexandra Docks both with the north lock and also with the south dock excavations many years later. The Alexandra Docks, which opened in 1875 with the north dock and lock. 

 Alexandra Dock  later known as North Dock, was opened in 1875 as a coal exporting facility. On the eastern bank of the River Usk are the Union Dry Docks (nprn 403431), constructed in the late nineteenth century, whilst on the west bank the Tredegar Dry Dock (nprn 408353) was added in the early twentieth century. The coal trade was still expanding and in response the Alexandra South Dock was built, in three stages, eventually reaching its present extent by 1914. Newport was closed as a coal port in 1964.

The south dock was extended in 1903, but because of the tidal flow of the river work had to be done by day and night using artificial lighting.  Other difficulties which had to be overcome at the time included the "treacherous" soil known as 'bungham', which "needed only the briefest spell of rain to convert it into a liquid mud", making the construction of the dock a risky endeavor for those involved.

The Newport Transporter Bridge

The Newport Transporter Bridge is a transporter bridge that crosses the River Usk in Newport, South East Wales. The bridge is the lowest crossing on the River Usk. It is a Grade I listed structure. The transporter bridge is very rare, with only eight out of a total of 20 built, remaining in use worldwide. The bridge was designed by French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin. 

The Newport Transporter Bridge under construction, 7 June 1903

It was built in 1906 and opened by Godfrey Charles Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar on 12 September 1906. The design was chosen because the river banks are very low at the desired crossing point (a few miles south of the city centre) where an ordinary bridge would need a very long approach ramp to attain sufficient height to allow ships to pass under, and a ferry could not be used during low tide at the site. 
The Newport Transporter bridge opened in 1906 and has dominated the Newport skyline ever since. It was constructed to allow large ships to pass underneath it on their way to the docks. 

Here you can see the opening ceremony on 17th October 1911. 

Tragedy strikes when the New South Lock was being constructed

On July 2, 1909, at approximately 5.20pm, an accident took place during construction of the new south lock when supporting timbers in the west wall excavation trench fell being catapulted into the air before falling into the trench and onto the team of men 50ft below.

Railway engines all over the extension workings began sounding their whistles to raise the alarm but the efforts of up to 500 men, including valiant efforts by then-14-year-old local boy Thomas Lewis, to rescue some of the men were largely unsuccessful. Some 15 men were rescued alive but injured (though one later died from his injuries) but the combination of the fallen timber and the tide coming in resulted in the tragic deaths of 39 workmen.

A year later, in December 1910, a further 17 bodies were recovered leaving 16 still buried beneath the south dock in a tragedy which left a dark mark on the history of the docks.

Click here for Tom Toya Lewis the hero paper boy. 

Newport Docks
These 3 photographs show Newport Docks at different times. No. 1 shows the docks in the 1900s. No.2 was created by Aerofilms and taken in 1947. To find out more about the Aerofilms project click here. Aerofilms  'The collection was created by Aerofilms Ltd, a pioneering air survey company set up in 1919 by First World War veterans Francis Lewis Wills and Claude Grahame-White. In addition to Aerofilms’ own imagery, the firm expanded its holdings with the purchase of two smaller collections – AeroPictorial (1934-1960) and Airviews (1947-1991). This very large collection of historical air photographs was bought by Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), English Heritage (EH), and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) from Blom ASA in 2007.'
No. 3 is from Google Earth and it shows the entrance to Newport Docks via the sea lock. The lock is at the bottom of the picture where the River Ebbw flows into the River Usk, which in turn flows into the Severn. 

1. Port of Newport in the 1900s: 
Martin Ridley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

                                                            2. Aerial view of Newport Docks 
                                                     photographed 13 May 1947, looking south
                                            Uploaded to People's Collection Wales by RCAHMW

                                                                        3.   Google Earth 23/05/2021

As  a conclusion Walesonline provide some reasons for the decline of Newport docks.

'A number of elements contributed to the eventual decline of the docks. The impact of two world wars and the economic depressions that followed hit the docks hard both in terms of trade and employment numbers.

The nationalisation of the railways, including the line to the docks, in 1948 and its closure of various links, as well as the decline of the mineral industry in south Wales, further accelerated the fall in activity at the docks.

The decline has not been helped by the closure or trimming down of major companies providing a source of trade such as the steelworks in Llanwern.

Today the docks are now owned by Associated British Ports (ABP) and still export the likes of steel, timber, and minerals both locally and abroad – albeit not to the same scale as in the past.'


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