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From a pre-historic settlement and hideout for Viking invaders, to home of the world's first railway service, Swansea has an absorbing history - the gold sand and rugged green hills have so many colourful tales to tell.

In Swansea's own lifestory, a history of ship building in the 14th Century turned to considerably more delicate porcelain manufacture and followed by exhaustive oyster harvesting; mineral exploitation and copper exporting came in the burgeoning 19th Century. At one time the most powerful seaport in the world, Swansea's historical heritage is as captivating as it is surprising and contrasting.

To some, Swansea has always borne the ambience of a self-confident and forward looking locality, however this mood conceals the hallmarks of a fascinating historical city which owes its evolution to a broad variety of influences and innovations which date back to medieval times.

High Street, Swansea, Wales ... circa.1900   

Mumbles Train - the world's first passenger carrying railway Click here for Dylan Thomas biography ..... Swansea Bay's Oyster Harvesting industry click here for Swansea's golden yesterdays gallery     

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  Constitution Hill Railway, Swansea  (1898)   .. at two years, one of the shortest serving rail ways in history! It was dismantled because it had failed to secure a Board of Trade Passenger Certificate. It worked on a similar principle to the San Francisco tram system. There was a genuine need for this service - Constitution Hill is one of the steepest residential streets in the U.K.!

Constitution Hill - Swansea, Wales



    Swansea map - Gower Peninsular, Wales     

Prehistoric remains scattered throughout  Gower and Lliw Valley bear testament to present day Swansea's early significance as a prehistoric settlement dating from 2000BC. Indeed some of the world's most important prehistoric human remains have been found on  Gower peninsular, which includes the mysterious "red lady" - a Neolithic-period skeleton discovered in Paviland Cave on the southern Gower coast. A Roman fort on River Loughor predated the widescale invasion of the Vikings to these parts, who built a wooden stronghold on the banks of the Tawe estuary.  Swansea's English name is derived from this era in its history, where it first appears as "Sweynesse" in a 12th century charter. This name is believed to have originated from Sweyne Forkbeard (Svend Tveskæg) - a 10th century Viking King who ruled Denmark from 986-1014AD. Swansea's Welsh name, "Abertawe" (pronounced 'Abba Toway') literally translates as, "at the mouth of the Tawe". This is a reference to river Tawe, which flows through the city from its source at Swansea Bay.

It was the French Normans who developed the sea-faring potential of Swansea's natural harbour, and were the first to establish a castle at the mouth of the river Tawe in 1106 and a watchtower at Oystermouth overlooking Swansea Bay from the west. Ship building was established as early as the 14th Century, town walls were built and the rights to hold market was first granted by royal charter from across the border.

The city's Welsh name, Abertawe (meaning "at the mouth of the Tawe"), is not recorded until the 13th century when Welsh King Llewellyn ap Gruffydd took Swansea castle in his campaign to force the last of the English invaders out of Wales. Oystermouth Castle was developed as a stronghold with strategic views of western Swansea Bay, however by 1405 both residences needed to be recaptured for the Welsh by folk hero Prince Owain Glyndwr - the last Welsh ruler of a true republic of Wales.

Swansea Castle, Wales ........ 1741          Swansea Castle today 

Swansea Castle, Wales overlooking the River Tawe (on its original course along present day Strand), artwork dated 1741. Right - Swansea Castle today

Manufacturing led to Swansea's flourishing population growth (a fifteen fold increase) and prodigious economic prosperity. Metal extraction, initiated in Roman times, gave rise in Tudor times to the first tinplating and copper industries. Production of iron, copper, tin and zinc engendered Swansea's status as a world class industrial powerhouse. Huge reserves of coal, a major component in the development of the industrial revolution, were also discovered and extracted at this time; it fed Swansea's metal smelting works and it supplied a huge export industry in its own right. Swansea's development as a port, now on a par with the world's most powerful, flourished as the trade to export copper and minerals grew significantly in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Swansea's huge fleet of ships travelled the Cape Horn and the "four corners of the earth", trading in its precious commodities of copper and other metallurgical products. The city had a worldwide reputation as "Copperopolis" or "Copper Kingdom". Swansea produced 60 per cent of the world's copper requirement, at a time when copper demand was equivalent to perhaps aluminium today. This prestige carried a heavy price:  sea faring during the time was very hazardous and some men never returned to Swansea Bay. Despite this, the Swansea "Horners" (an honorary title bestowed on the men who returned from Chile) were the most numerous Cape Horn survivors from a UK port. 

These were innovative times for Swansea - for example, Morriston man Edward Martin invented the process of manufacturing pig iron by smelting iron ore with anthracite coal. Welsh chemist John Dillwyn Llewelyn, a cousin of William Henry Fox Talbot, discovered the oxymel process of photographic development, which facilitated pictures to be created outside the laboratory. Another Swansea cousin of Fox Talbot, Rev. Calvert Richard Jones, became one of the world's first portrait, architectural and travel photographers as a result of his association with distant cousin Llewelyn.

Despite this activity, Swansea was also gaining a reputation as a high-class seaside resort. During the 18th and early 19th century Swansea developed a fledgling tourist industry, at the time a reserve of only the wealthiest citizens. Swansea's cultural and scenic attributes charmed the gentry and gained itself the name of "Bath by the sea". This title acknowledged the fashionable name of the former Roman city of Bath, a playground for British high society which had coincidentally gained its fashionable reputation from Swansea-born Richard "Beau" Nash, the city of Bath's "master of ceremonies" - perhaps the world's first "spin doctor"!?

Medieval Salubrious Passage survived wartime bombing and is unchanged to this day

Salubrious Passage, off Wind Street, Swansea

Swansea's respectable social calendar included regattas, cricket matches, assembly dances and partaking of the private bathing facilities which had been established along the sandy stretch of bayside promenade. It was at this time that  Swansea Bay was first compared with the Bay of Naples, and could be enjoyed with the convenience of the world's first passenger railroad which traced the Swansea Bay coastline from 1807. The railway survived in various forms until 1960. During the late Georgian age, the city also made a name for itself as a centre of fine porcelain production - Swansea Porcelain is still highly prized by collectors the world over - and oyster harvesting. In 1840, Swansea established Wales's first museum near the present day Maritime Quarter. The first daily newspaper in Wales, "The Cambrian", was launched from Swansea Wind Street in 1804 and Wales' first purpose built cinema, the Swansea Carlton, has recently been converted as a bookshop and art gallery by Waterstones. Swansea still retains a worldwide reputation as a centre of excellence for stained glass.

Copper Smelting in the Lower Swansea Valley

Swansea Porcelain circa 1820

     18th Century Copper Smelting in Lower Swansea Valley

Swansea Porcelain circa 1820   

Wealthy local industrialists established huge estates on the west side of Swansea. Today the legacy of these glorious bayside parklands are a reminder of the world once inhabited by the hugely powerful fathers of Swansea's modern development.

Changing fortunes in the traditional metallurgical industries saw decline soon after the First World War in Swansea. However, by the outbreak of the Second World War,
Swansea was a still a significant force. The city was the U.K.'s most westerly major port and neighbouring Neath was the sole supplier of oil to the British Royal Navy. Millions of tons of food products, raw materials and army supplies passed through the city which identified Swansea as a strategic target of the German Luftwaffe. The old town centre, with its blend of developments between the medieval and
the Edwardian eras, was devastated. Swansea sustained forty-four bomb attacks between 1940 and 1943, the most destructive being the "three night's blitz" of February 1941. Notable parts of the city centre nevertheless survived this devastation, these included:   Wind Street, which still retains its medieval flavour today, the Maritime Quarter - with a baroque architectural character - Alexander Road, which hosts the city library &
Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Walter Road, which leads to Dylan Thomas' "gerrivilla'd" Uplands district which escaped unscathed from enemy bombs and post-war development alike !

Although the early 1980's saw the closure of the last coal mine in Swansea County, at the same time a burgeoning commercial heart grew in the wake of the establishment of Swansea D.V.L.A. - the U.K. government's national vehicle registry.

The last three decades have seen an tumultuous metamorphosis in the city's commercial, social and architectural evolution. The Enterprise Park development with its forestry, lake and an open pleasant environment, leads down to the Tawe from the east of the city where the chimneys of the copper industries once stood. Eight thousand people now work in the retail and light manufacturing sectors within the Park. The creation of the Maritime Quarter between the city centre shopping facilities and the magnificent natural bay, presents a unique waterfront leisure and cultural park - yachting marinas vie for attention with fashionable restaurants and museums.

   Swansea, dated circa 1850

One of Swansea and the world's oldest photographs, created by Swansea photographic pioneer Rev. Richard Calvert Jones circa.1850. It featues a harbour scene captured at the peak of the Welsh city's prominance as a world-class industrial power

The end of the line for the World's first fare paying rail service - the last tram  of the "Mumbles Train" disappears into Rutland Street engine sheds, Swansea, on 5 January 1960.

The railway was at the time the oldest surviving line in the world. The passenger service timetable commenced on 25 March 1807 and was drawn by one horse.  (Picture copyright South Wales Evening Post).

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Mumbles Train - January 1960

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