The Town Dock, which opened in 1842 and continued in use until it was filled in 1930, was the first floating dock facility in Newport. The construction of the dock played an important part in the town’s growth in the mid Nineteenth Century. A rapid expansion of trade caused by the development of the canal system in South East Wales had led to the need to improve the port’s berthing facilities. Particularly for large American export vessels which risked damage when beached at the wharves for unloading. If the town was to continue to prosper and compete with the growing port of Cardiff a dock needed to be constructed.
At a public meeting held at the King’s Head Inn in March 1835 the plans of the floating dock were agreed. A committee, made up of some of the leading gentlemen of Newport, was appointed to examine the provisions of the Bill that was to be put before Parliament.
The Town Dock, a sketch by J F Mullock, circa 1842
The Newport Dock Act was given Royal Assent in July 1835 allowing the Newport Dock Company to begin construction work. The estimated cost of the dock was to be £35,000 which was raised by selling 350 shares of £100. The first sod was cut by John Owen, Mayor of Newport, on 1st December 1835 to the sound of the bells of St Woolos, the firing of guns and the celebrations of the Navvies, who had been supplied with several barrels of Castle Brewery beer for the occasion.
However, the construction of the dock did not run smoothly. A number of contractors had to be used at various stages and as early as 1836 there were labour disputes. Consequently, even by the end of 1837 little work had been completed. In 1838 another £15,000 needed to be raised but progress continued to be slow. More funds needed to be raised in October 1840 and by then the estimated cost of the project had risen to £120,000. Work was halted in December 1840 following the failure of another contractor and was to halt again in 1841. After more funds were raised work resumed for a fifth time in April, but by then the total estimate had grown to £131,000. Financial problems and industrial unrest continued to plague the construction to the very end. In September 1842 a further £10,000 had to be borrowed and workers walked out to demand higher wages, an event which led to a body of well armed police being sent to quell the disturbance.
The official opening of the Dock on 10th October 1842 was marked by a programme of festivities that attracted tens of thousands of visitors to the town. In the morning a mile long procession proceeded along High Street through Commercial Street and Commercial Road towards the Dock. The procession contained elements of the major clubs and societies of Newport in this period such as the Freemasons, the Oddfellows, The Hibernian Society and the Teetotallers. Near the head of the procession the Mayor and Aldermen travelled in open carriages whilst at the rear marched a large number of the inhabitants of the town, amongst whom many of the gentlemen wore white rosettes.
Map of the Town Dock and Surrounding area, circa 1905
At 10-o-clock the lock gates were opened, as the Monmouthshire Merlin reported, to the sound of “the shouts and cheers of the spectators, the thunder of cannons, firing of musketry and pealing of bells.” The first vessel to enter the dock was the Henry.
Following the official opening the programme of events continued throughout the day. Highlights included a dinner for 300 gentlemen of the area at the National School, boat races on the dock reservoir and a firework display at Rodney Wharf. In the evening a ball was held for the gentry at the King’s Head Hotel. The Clubs and Societies also held their own balls and dinners at Inns throughout Newport, a Tradesman’s Ball at the Steam Packet Inn was reported to have “kept up with much spirit until morning”.
The Monmouthshire Merlin newspaper does not report on how the town’s population felt the next day.
However, shortly after its opening it was apparent the existing dock was not sufficient to deal with the increasing trade. In July 1854 a second act was passed giving the Newport Dock Company permission to extend the dock to the North. Work commenced in June 1856 and was completed in less than two years. The official opening on 2nd March 1858 was declared a public holiday and was greeted with similar celebrations to when the dock was opened in 1842.
Timber Ship and Warehouse at the Town Dock, circa 1905
The dock expansion was not initially the success that the Newport Dock company hoped for and the company faced severe criticism, especially after they increased their charges. It was now obvious that the Town Dock alone was no longer sufficient to meet the volume of trade passing through Newport. In 1865 an act was passed to allow the construction of a second dock and in 1868 work began on the Alexandra Dock, which opened in 1875.
Unsurprisingly, the opening of the rival dock had a detrimental effect on the trade of the Town Dock, although it was the accident involving the Constancia and the Primus which ultimately led to the demise of the Newport Dock Company.
Unloading timber for pit props at the Town Dock, circa 1905
On 10th January 1882 the two vessels attempted to pass through the lock at the same time but the Primus became stuck on the sill of the outer gates and the ships collided. The Monmouthshire Merlin describes how the situation became critical as the tide began to recede because “the bottom of the lock being concave in form, as the water ebbed the steamers heeled over one on the other, the Primus carrying away her masts, breaking in two amidships and, of course, subsiding to the bottom, whither she was followed by her companion in misfortune.” The lock was completely blocked and the vessels already in the dock trapped for nearly two weeks. The accident incurred substantial expense for the Newport Dock Company and further eroded customer confidence in the company.
A year later the Newport Dock Company was sold to the Alexandra Dock Company for £150,000. From this moment the Town Dock was used for dealing with the smaller vessels whilst larger cargoes were concentrated at the Alexandra Dock. By 1900 the Town Dock was used primarily for the general import trade, particularly in timber. However, its relatively small size and position further up the river estuary than the Alexandra Dock made the Town Dock particularly vulnerable. Unable to survive the downturn in trade in the 1920’s the Town Dock was finally closed in October 1930.
These web pages were written using material held in the Local Studies Collection at Newport Central Library, including:
- The Monmouthshire Merlin
- The South Wales Argus
Leonard, T. Newport Town Dock 1835 - 1842. (qM160 627.3 LEO)
Spanswick, B J. A Study of the Origins and Early Development of Newport Docks. (qM160 627.3 SPA)
Alexandra (Newport and South Wales) Docks & Railway Company. (M160 627.3 ALE)
Smith, T. G. A Customs History of the Port of Newport in Gwent Local History No. 46 (Spring 1979) (M000 900 GWE)
If you wish to learn more about the history of Town Dock, or any other aspect of Newport’s history, visit the Central Reference Library where staff will be happy to assist you.
They can also be contacted by telephone on 01633 656656 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org