Briton Ferry’s floating dock is a site of significant local historical importance – and now a group of enthusiasts have come together to fight for its preservation and redevelopment. Read on to find out about their work, and an exciting talk on Brunel’s history, taking place on February 23.
Briton Ferry Dock is one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s important achievements in South Wales: a floating dock whose buoyant lock gate was made of hollow iron instead of timber. Only part of the hydraulic lock gate remains intact, but its significance means it has been Grade II listed, along with the dock walls.
Despite the site’s enormous significance, barely anything has been done to preserve it. The fact that it’s listed is due to the efforts of veteran dock campaigner Hugh James, who is now chairman of the Briton Ferry Brunel Dock Group.
The group’s other members are Niamh MacMahon, a semi-retired teacher recently moved to the area, who is currently developing a close relationship with the local primary school and organising community engagement, and James and Peri Martin who became interested in preserving the dock after settling in Briton Ferry during the covid pandemic.
James is originally from the town but went on to spend 23 years living in Gibraltar with Peri. Their return to Briton Ferry during the pandemic was supposed to be temporary, but they enjoyed being there so much, they decided to make the move permanent.
Now, as members of the Briton Ferry Brunel Dock Group, they are working to get more of the dock listed and to kickstart a massive regeneration of the area with a marina, education centre, jobs and more.
Recalling how they first became interested in the project, James says: “During the pandemic, we were fortunate that we were able to get out and do a lot of walks. One of them was alongside the dock and it was incredible to see that nothing has been done to look after this potentially valuable asset to the community. Hugh James, who had managed to get aspects of it listed, invited us to join him in his efforts to protect and regenerate it.”
James and Peri became fascinated by the innovative engineering and historical significance of the site, whose features include the dock tower, which contained an accumulator supplied by Sir William Armstrong, which was part of the machinery needed to unload the coal wagons bringing the coal down from Glyncorrwg in the Afan valley via Brunel’s South Wales Mineral Line. The steepness of the incline at the Glyncorrwg end led Brunel to create another marvel: a funicular railway so that the weight of coal carts going down the hill propelled the empty carts up the hill.
“Brunel was one of the greatest, if not the greatest engineer, this country has produced,” says James. “He was extremely innovative, and he didn’t specialise in one area; he built tunnels, bridges and railway systems including the Great Western Railway, which is still operating today. In Bristol you can see Clifton Suspension Bridge and the SS Great Britain, which are both his work.”
The Briton Ferry Brunel Dock Group have now joined the National Brunel Network, which was created to increase knowledge sharing and expertise on the life and legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
“The National Brunel Network have been enormously supportive of the development of the site,” says James. “They see it as a great way to preserve heritage and to repurpose an asset which many communities would like to have, but don’t have. We have seen many of these former dockyards and Marina buildings repurposed successfully – in Cardiff, in Swansea, in Liverpool and in other places all over the country.”
The group’s vision for the site is driven by a desire to see it flourish again, just as it did in the past.
“Before the coal was mined locally, Briton Ferry was a fishing village,” says Peri. “People used to come here on holiday, because it’s in a little bay and it’s got a very temperate climate. It’s evident from paintings at the time that it was a very pretty spot because of the waters coming into the bay.
“Brunel was requested to oversee the design of the Dock by local entrepreneurs. Its primary purpose was to facilitate the export of coal mined in Glyncorrwg. Welsh coal was much in demand due to its high calorific value for both steam locomotives and steam-powered ships such as Brunel’s very own Great Eastern.”
The closing of industry heralded a downturn for the area. The Dock closed in 1959.
“It wasn’t just the closing of the mines, but other industry as well – including the Albion Steelworks, in 1978” says Peri. “Then some parts of Briton Ferry became some of the poorest and most deprived areas in the UK. The regeneration of the dock could not only transform it again, and also bring the town the economic revival it so badly needs.”
The group is now in discussion with potential partners, including the landowners, Neath Port Talbot Council, and CADW, about listing further elements of the dock and repurposing it as a leisure facility and education centre. There are tentative proposals to have steam enthusiasts locate an engine on a section of track in the Dock area, which is still linked with the main Swansea to Paddington line.
“The redevelopment of the dock would bring service jobs, and it could be a tourist site,” says James. “That’s a pretty big idea to get across to many people, but it can happen – it just needs the political will.”
For anyone interested in learning more about Brunel’s impact during the industrial revolution, the Briton Ferry Brunel Dock Group is hosting a talk by Tim Bryan, Director of the Brunel Institute at the SS Great Britain Trust in Bristol on February 23 at Briton Ferry Community Centre.
Tim will discuss how Brunel created a rail network covering much of the South and West of England, the Midlands and Wales – a network that included masterpieces like Paddington Station and the Royal Albert Bridge. He’ll also explain how Brunel left his mark on Briton Ferry by constructing the Floating Dock and funicular railway. Attendees will be able to buy copies of his book, Iron, Stone and Steam: Brunel’s Railway Empire.
To book tickets, follow this link.
The email address for contact by anyone interested in our Briton Ferry Brunel Dock Group project is:
Tickets can also be purchased at:
In Briton Ferry:
The Post Office
The Community Shop
Neath CVS, Alfred Street
Hybrid Cafe, Victoria Gardens
In Port Talbot:
The Library, Aberafan Centre