History of Swansea

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Swansea > History

Swansea's name first appears as 'Sweynesse' in a 12th century charter. It may derive from a 10th century Viking king called Sweyne. Though there are prehistoric remains on the Gower and in the Lliw Valley and a Roman fort on the Loughor river, the Vikings were the first to settle on the banks of the Tawe estuary.

It was the Normans who created Swansea as a fortified settlement. Recognising the advantages of its natural harbour, they built a castle by the mouth of the Tawe and later, a watchtower at Oystermouth. The harbour was developed, town walls were built and the rights to markets and fairs granted by royal charter.

The city's Welsh name, Abertawe, is not recorded until the 13th century when Llewellyn ap Gruffydd took Swansea castle in his campaign to become the sole and legitimate Prince of Wales. Oystermouth Castle was strengthened but half a century later, between 1400 and 1410, the town fell to Owain Glyndwr, the "Last Prince of Wales", whose battle was for Welsh independence.

But it was manufacturing rather than any strategic importance in affairs of state that lead to Swansea's prominence and prosperity. Metal extraction, begun in Roman times, gave rise in Tudor times to the first tinplating and copper industries.

In the 18th century the huge reserves of coal in the Swansea area, much of it in shallow seams, began to be exploited. The black gold powered smelting works of iron, copper, tin and zinc. By the 19th century Swansea was Britain's prime centre for copper and tinplate. Its port was as busy as Liverpool or Glasgow, neighbouring villages like Pontardulais and Gorseinon expanded into towns and the Lower Swansea Valley became one continuous build-up of smoke-belching, clattering, filthy furnaces and factories.

Yet, extraordinarily, Swansea was at the same time a fashionable summer and winter resort. From the 1800s through to the mid-19th century genteel folk promenaded, watched regattas and cricket matches, went to the theatre and made sure they were seen at every important event in the social calendar. A sea front walkway and respectable bathing facilities were erected and the world's first passenger train opened between Swansea and Mumbles in 1807.

Rich local industrialists built themselves grand houses to the west of the city. They patronised the arts and in return were commemorated by civic statues, like John Henry Vivian whose family bequeathed the initial collection of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and whose statue was the first to be erected at public expense in 1857.

In the early 18th century, the writer Walter Savage Landor wrote from Italy: "The Gulf of Salerno is much finer than Naples, but give me Swansea for scenery and climate... I would pass the remainder of my days between that place and the Mumbles".

After the construction of the South Dock in the 1850's, however, Swansea's two separate worlds could no longer co-exist. A writer in 1859 commented, "Swansea was once rather a fashionable watering place, but its glory has long since disappeared". Industry and its maritime arm triumphed, going from strength to strength until it reached its peak in the early years of the 20th century.

The metal industry collapsed soon after the First World War bringing with it a demise in port activity. But at the outbreak of the Second World War, Swansea was a still a major industrial town. The fact that millions of tons of foodstuffs, raw materials, goods, weapons and troops passed through the city did not skip the attention of the German High Command and the Luftwaffe. The old town centre with its mix of buildings from medieval to Victorian times was devastated. Swansea suffered forty-four attacks between 1940 and 1943, the most notorious being the "three night's blitz" from 19th to 21st February 1941. The industries, the main reason for the attack, escaped unscathed.

As with so many bomb damaged British cities, the rebuilding in the 50s and 60s left a lot to be desired. But Swansea also had to contend with the slow but inevitable decline of its heavy industries. The 1980s saw the closure of the last coal mine and the last tinplate works in Swansea County. The Lower Swansea Valley was by then a gigantic wasteland, scarred and contaminated.

Over the last two decades an enormous amount has been achieved. In the Enterprise Park today, with its trees, artificial lake and green spaces leading down to the Tawe, it is impossible to imagine the former desolate landscape of waste tips and abandoned works. Eight thousand people now work in clean industries within the Park. The creation of the marina on the old South Dock has been another triumph, reorienting the city back to seaside leisure and enjoyment.

Swansea still has some very deprived estates and attendant social problems. Unemployment is higher than the Welsh average. But new businesses continue to move in, tourism plays an important part in the town's economy and there's a strong sense that this is a city on the upturn.