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The History of Swansea

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The city of Swansea is situated on the southern side of the Gower Peninsula in Wales and has a very long and varied history. There have been a great many important prehistoric finds on the Gower Peninsula , all evidence that the area was an important settlement as far back as 2000 BC. Swansea is situated at the estuary of the River Tawe and Swansea Bay has long made an inviting landing spot for invaders. There was a Roman fort built at nearby at River Loughor and this was followed by many Viking strongholds in the centuries that followed.

The English name for the city is derived from the days of the Nordic invaders. It is a corruption of ‘Swein’s Ey’, or Swein’s Island. It is unfortunately not known who Swein was, but generally believed that he was a Norseman who set up a fortress on what was then an island in the mouth of the River Tawe. Some believe Swein was actually Sweyne Forkbeard (Svend Tveskǽg), who was the Viking King of Denmark between 986 and 1014AD.

Shortly after this time, following the Norman Invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror , the French Normans became the first to develop the bay as a port, exploiting its natural properties as a harbour. They established a castle at the mouth of the Tawe in the early 12th century, followed by a watchtower at Oystermouth, overlooking the West of Swansea Bay.

During the next few centuries, town walls were built and the town was given its first and second Royal Charters from the English rulers of the time; allowing Swansea rights such as the right to hold a town fair annually. In those days a town or village fair was basically a huge market held for a few days. The Swansea town fair attracted people from all over the area each year. There was also a smaller, weekly market held in Swansea during medieval times.

This stronghold was developed further and changed hands between the English and Welsh rulers on a couple of occasions. The city’s Welsh name ‘Abertawe’ (which means literally ‘at the mouth of the Tawe’) is first recorded in the 13th century, following the capture of the castle by the Welsh ruler, King Llewellyn ap Gruffydd. By the early 15th century, in 1405, it had to be retaken from the English by the last ruler of an independent Wales, Owain Glyndwr (anglicised as ‘Owen Glendower’). The origins of shipbuilding in Swansea began as early as the 14th century. In Medieval times, however, it was leather and wool which were the mainstays of the Swansea economy. The wool was woven and processed in Swansea using a cleansing and thickening process that involved it being pounded by mill-driven wooden hammers in a mixture of water and clay. Following this process, the wool would be ready for dyeing; prior to exportation to England.

At the end of the 14th century Swansea was hit, just like most towns, by the Black Death. This struck Swansea between 1348 and 1349, with some estimates suggesting that it wiped out half of the population of the town. Despite the ravages of the plague and squabbles between the Welsh and the English, which caused the burning of the town on several occasions, Swansea continued to grow steadily from the Middle Ages onward. The coal mining industry began to prosper in the area and coal was being exported from the port by about 1550. Swansea lies on the coastal edge of the South Wales Coalfield, which provided coal for centuries to come and helped form the backbone of the growth of Swansea in the ensuing period. Another very significant export at the time was limestone, quarried locally in the Mumbles area and other parts of the Gower Peninsula. The limestone was in very high demand for use as fertiliser.

Attempts were made by the town council at around the time of the Industrial Revolution to exploit the area’s coastal charm and sell it as a tourist resort; seaside visits were just beginning to become fashionable amongst the well-to-do at the time. In the end, however, it was the Industrial Revolution itself that really led to the growth of Swansea into the modern city we know today.

One of the industries to thrive at this time was the smelting industry. Copper ore was brought into the port and taken to the smelting works. The resultant copper was then exported. The process used large amounts of the local coal, helping the mining industry to thrive. Coal continued to be exported in increasing amounts and iron also began to be exported in the 17th century.

During the mid 17th century, Swansea Castle , which had been damaged by Owen Glendower’s attacks, was finally demolished by supporters of Cromwell. In 1655 Cromwell described Swansea as ‘an ancient port town and populous, situated on the coast towards France, convenient for shipping and resisting foreign invasions'. By the end of the 17th century Swansea had its own Grammar School. During the 18th century the growth continued, booming particularly towards the end of the century with the expansion of the metalworking industries into zinc and tin; all helping the port to thrive further. The port was also helped by the Swansea Canal, as the canal system was a major part of the transport network of Britain at this time.

Towards the end of the century Swansea opened its first bank and its first theatre. The population of Swansea rose dramatically during the following hundred years, from under 7000 to over 100 000 by the turn of the century. In the early 1800s Swansea and Mumbles became the site of the first passenger railway service in the world. It started as a horse drawn tram service, primarily for freight purposes, running on tram plates. It did not regularly carry passengers until the mid 19th century, when the tram plates had been replaced by rails.

In the 20th century, Swansea continued to grow in population. The first council houses were built in Swansea in 1906, replacing slums that the council demolished. During the Second World War Swansea was heavily damaged by bombing raids, with large parts of the city centre being finally rebuilt in the 1960s. In 1969 Swansea was upgraded from town to city status.

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