At the end of the 19th Century, a group of mine owners and businessmen, led by David Davies of Llandidnam, met to discuss the possibility of building docks in Barry to export coal that was coming from their mines in the Rhondda Valleys. John Cory was the financial backer.
Despite previous failed attempts to gain approval to build a dock at Barry, the Barry Dock scheme was eventually passed. There was simply too much coal for Cardiff Docks to manage. The Bill was passed in parliament in 1884 which:
- Authorised the construction of a dock
- Enabled rail connections to the Great Western and Taff Vale systems
- Allowed for the making of roads, including a public road – Island Road, to lead alongside the dock to the Island.
The chief engineer of the Barry Docks project was John Wolfe Barry. He had previously been involved in the construction of the Tower Bridge in London. One of the other engineers was Henry Marc Brunel, the son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel who designed the SS Great Britain among other projects.
On November 14th 1884, Lord Windsor cut the first sod, followed by David Davies. The docks opened fully in 1889. They were incredibly busy and had a great reputation for the quick turnaround of ships. Coal exports rose to a world record of eleven million in 1913.
Construction began on Dock No.1 in 1884, and the tradesmen and their families that flocked to Barry to help build it, needed housing and basic amenities. This took the form of temporary accommodation, which needed to be near the dock areas. The temporary accommodation took the form of wooden huts, which were built on Dock Road. This was renamed Broad Street at a later date.
Tunnels were built under the railway lines on Island Road, Dock View Road and Weston Hill.
Building the Docks
With this amount of coal being exported, Barry developed rapidly. The noise of the coal falling into the holds of the ships was heard day and night, and there were clouds of coal dust falling over the town continuously.
The docks did not only export coal; Iron, wood, silver, sand and more were exported from here. J.C Meggitt opened a timber business in Barry, and J. Arthur Rank opened a mill that made flour in 1906.
Through the early 1900’s, there were approximately ten thousand men employed at the docks. The little town had a population of thirty three thousand, consisting mainly of the men who worked on the docks, their families, shopkeepers and tradesmen.
The docks had forty one tips of differing types and this included forty seven mooring buoys. There were tug boats, a dredger, launches, divers and police.
When World War I began, the railways and docks were taken over by the government. The docks continued to export coal, but now also loaded naval vessels with equipment, ammunition and supplies. By 1920, the Barry Railway Company had three thousand, one hundred and sixty nine workers. These workers operated the steam trains, carriages and vans, wagons and trucks.
In 1926, mineworkers went on strike. G.W.R. continued to run trains despite the strike, which led to resentment from the mineworkers. Throughout the winter of 1926 the mines remained closed, and this caused a severe loss to G.W.R. which by now was facing competition from road vehicles.
1939 was the start of World War II, and the docks were used to import items that were needed by the Armed Forces. To protect the docks, a ring of barrage balloons was erected. One was placed on the Mole and the other next to Barry Island Train Station. In 1942, the U.S. Army built a large camp to house their troops that were working on the docks. This was 517 Port Battalion made up of four companies with around a thousand men. The camp moved to Hayes Lane Camp in September 1943. Three of the companies worked on the docks and discharged all the cargo. The fourth company was moved to Cardiff.
In 1944, there was a lot of activity around Barry as the troops prepared for the Normandy landings. The docks in Barry were used as an embarkation point for troops. Porthkerry Park was used for vehicles and storage. One thousand, two hundred and sixty nine vehicles and four thousand troops were taken from the docks to Normandy.
Geest was importing West Indian bananas through the docks from 1959 up until the 1980s. When this business ended, the port continued to decline. The British Transport Docks Board (B.T.D.B.) was created under the Transport Act 1962, and this took control of all the ports including Barry. The passenger railway service from Barry to Pontypridd was cancelled in 1962, and shipments of coal stopped at the docks in 1976. In November 1981, the very last coal tip was removed. In 1981 the A.B.P. – Associated British Ports took over from B.T.D.B. and assumed control of Barry.