Cardiff docks, boom before bust

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Many people look back at the years immediately following the First World War and believe that they were a period of total depression, a betrayal of the promise made to the soldiers and sailors of a better world for everyone.

In fact it wasn't quite like that. To begin with, as the men who had valiantly served their country through four years of carnage began to be de-mobbed and returned to their homes, there was a boom, a huge upsurge of prosperity and hope for the future. New jobs, new companies and new markets for trade and business - in 1919 it was all there for the taking.

Of course it didn't last. Nowhere is that sad fact better illustrated than in the history of Cardiff Docks and, in particular, in the shipping industry of a port that in 1914 was considered one of the most successful and thriving in the world.

Cardiff docks

From the beginning of 1919 to the late summer of 1920 there was a sudden boom in industrial output and productivity all across Britain. In Cardiff docks that surge or increase was particularly well marked. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to start a shipping company. By the middle of 1920 there were over 100 shipping companies operating out of Cardiff, somewhere in the region of one 10th of all the trading ships - tramp steamers as they were called - in Britain.

The reasons for this sudden spurt are many and varied. In the early part of the war shipping companies had made immense profits as vital cargoes were exported and imported through Cardiff docks. As the editor of the Weekly Despatch later wrote:

“poor men became merchant princes and it seemed that every ship that put in at the docks had a cargo of gold.”

In an effort to stop what was, many thought, war profiteering the government introduced an excess profit duty, a huge tax that reduced the profits of the shipping companies. When peace returned and this duty was cut by half in the first budget of 1919 it stimulated an immediate interest in shipping and the shipping industry in the minds of those who had money to invest.

The war had seen the sinking of many merchant ships, particularly in 1917 and 1918 as the German U-boat threat mounted in intensity. One Cardiff ship owning firm, Evan Thomas, Radcliffe and Co, lost 20 of their vessels, some smaller firms like Gibbs and Co, lost all of them. The government paid compensation for lost ships and, now that peace had returned, the shipping firms were keen to replace their sunken vessels.

Along with the ending of government control of British shipping and the wiping out of the German merchant marine - always a major competitor in the years before 1914 - the situation was ripe for development. In Cardiff investors and entrepreneurs seized their chance.

Sometimes as many as five new shipping companies were founded each week at Cardiff in 1919 and 1920. Cardiff was, and had always been, a coal exporting port and when the price of good Welsh coal increased dramatically - up to nearly one pound a ton in the summer of 1920 - it seemed as if the happy times would never end.

The warnings were there, however, if the new shipping companies had chosen to see them. There had been little investment at Cardiff during the war years and as early as mid-1919, thanks to the huge increase in the number of ships operating out of the port, there was a distinct shortage of berths. Sometimes ships waited weeks to tie up alongside and it was not unusual to see upwards of 100 tramp steamers anchored off Cardiff, waiting to enter the port.

When the crash came it came suddenly. From May 1920, the price of Welsh coal began to fall, slowly at first, then dramatically, quickly reducing to such a low rate that many companies found it impossible to continue trading. Yet ship building across Britain continued and soon it was clear that there were more ships available than cargoes.

As if that wasn't enough, the cost of running the tramp steamers increased dramatically in the immediate post war years. Wages, insurance rates, charges for bunkering, they all had their part to play - difficult to cope with when the market was buoyant, virtually impossible to sustain when the price of Cardiff's main commodity was dropping.

Much of the problem came from the fact that many traditional markets for Welsh anthracite had been lost in the war; the USA for example, was now dominating the previously lucrative South American market. With the Royal Navy increasingly looking to oil firing for its ships, there was simply not the demand for the Rhondda's ‘black gold’.

Coal from the Saar and Rhineland areas of Germany had, by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, been given to France and, to a lesser extent, Italy as part of the enormous reparations demanded of the defeated country. Nobody at Versailles even considered the effect this would have on the Welsh coal industry.

Consequently, the industry began a long, slow decline. It was a situation that was not helped by a series of strikes and industrial action in the Welsh coalfield. All of which had a knock-on effect for the docks and shipping industry at Cardiff. One by one the Cardiff shipping companies were forced to close or were liquidated - many of the casualties had been operating for only a few short months.

By 1931 the number of ship-owning companies in Cardiff had dropped to just 77. Ten years earlier that figure had been 150. By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939 the figure had dropped again, to 57. The 1950s and 60s saw a continued slump, some firms, like Tatems, managed to survive but they were few in number. And, of course, local businesses - ships chandlers, public houses, bakers and so on - suffered as part of the decline.

Cardiff docks these days are but a shadow of its former self. With the former docks area, Tiger Bay and the rest, reduced to recreational and shopping centres, it is hard not to ask what the ship owners and sailors from the past would have made of it all.

Nobody is denying the hardships of the sea faring life but it does seem as if a little of the glory of Cardiff and its famous docks has been lost.

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