Floating accomodation

[ Floating accomodation ] Bute Dock: Locks and Half-Tide Basin ]

The idea of keeping ships afloat all the time is the basic principle of a dock. Although this sounds very simple, it is very hard to put into practice. A lot of complex engineering is required for even the most simple of docks. The walls of a dock have to be built to a very high standard because they have to keep water in to a constant level and are continually submerged. This is why docks are so expensive, they require lots of high quality design and engineering work. High and dry. A ship on the sand at low tide.

The problem of shipping in South Wales had grown throughout the 1700s. Large numbers of small ships were being used in the Welsh coal and iron trade. At bust times of the year, ships were moving between the South Wales ports and France, at quieter times, many ships were laid up to sit out the winter or prolonged spells of bad weather. Up until the 1820s, most ships trading along the South Wales coast were happy to come into a port or harbour and sit on the sand or mud at low tide. The small ships that people used in this area were designed to be very strong so that they did not bend and strain too much on the sand. 

In busy harbours such as Cardiff or Swansea, ships would often lay several deep along the quays. The men on the ships on the outside of the quay would have to walk over the decks of the other ships to reach the quay. As the tide went out, the ships would fall together resulting in expensive damage to the hulls, broken masts and leaking timbers. 

Wooden ships are always rather flexible structures and any stretching or warping always leads to a certain amount of leaking of the hull. A constant and never-ending task in a wooden ship was ‘caulking’, the job of plugging the leaky joints and cracks with oakum, pitch and tar. In a small ship this job was just about manageable, but as ships got bigger, the job became too difficult. Thus, the big ships would only go to ports where they did not have to sit on the beach at low tide.

Below: This is a photograph of Welsh traders being unloaded by horse and cart. Local farmers would often act as local hauliers in the smaller ports. The vast majority of Welsh coal and iron was loaded and unloaded like this in the early 1800s.

Unloading coal on the beach with horse and cart.

By 1800, the big ports such as London, Bristol, and Liverpool had already built big docks so that ships would float all the time (hence the term ‘floating accommodation’). Any port that wanted to attract big ships (and make more money) would have to build floating accommodation. The Bute Dock was the first big dock to be built in South Wales to attract big coal traders. The constant water level on the dock meant that wharves, cranes and gangplanks could be used to maximum effect without having to worry about the tide.

Below: The spectacle of seeing ships of all shapes and sizes in a dock all floating together often became a tourist attraction. From a business point of view it became much easier to cater for loading and unloading vessels when their position alongside the wharf did not change with the tide.

A dock full of ships.


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