12. Swansea's Layer Keeper

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The Layer Keeper

The mud deposit in the river had been known from earliest times as the ‘layer’. A common occurrence in many ports. A combination of fine mud, silt, and small pebbles, it was considered an asset if it was extensive throughout the commercial area, enabling ships to sit comfortably at low tide. On a seventeenth century ship every joint, peg, mortise, and dovetail creaked and groaned as the ship floated. Much more intense was the stress if the ship was beached. Strain of the sea soft timbers opened joints and caused timbers to warp and spring. Oakum would spring from the planks. The crew would need to continually plug crevices with fresh oakum, hot pine pitch and tar - a constant battle.

It was evident from the 1500s that careless dropping of ballast in the Town Reach was beginning to have a detrimental effect on the quality of the layer. Equally, the same material was contributing in no small way to the deposition at the mouth of the bay, increasing the height of the bar and reducing the depth of water available at high tide. Various ordinances were passed to enable the layer keeper to police the situation and discourage ships from discharging their ballast in inappropriate areas.

The first appointment of Layer Keepers was in 1583, in some years the harvest of fines from errant ships was quite extensive. Robert Porter of Watchet was fined 2s.6d. in 1624 for getting caught ‘heaving ballast into the river.’

Left: A fifteenth century merchantman. No change in hull shape but added sophistication in the rigging and the addition of a fore mast. She has also developed an extra deck.


The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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