History of Morgans

Located in the Heart of the City

It’s now better-known as a hotel, but did you know that Morgans Hotel used to be the heart of Swansea’s thriving harbour industry? Below in this extract from his book ‘Swansea: History You Can See’, Richard Porch tells its story…

Ninety-seven architects submitted designs from all over Britain with the sum of 100 guineas as the prize. The prize was not insignificant; £100 guineas at 1902 prices would be worth around £6000 now.

A Cardiff architect called Edwin Seward won through and Mayor Griffith Thomas, Chairman of the Harbour Trust, laid the foundation stone on February 18th 1902. He did so using an ornamental trowel with an ivory handle and a silver blade presented to him by Seward for that purpose, this can still be seen in the collections of Swansea Museum. Seward, who by this time was one of the most distinguished architects in the region, had trained in Yeovil and came to Cardiff as an assistant to G.E. Robinson.

By 1875 he was a member of the firm James, Seward and Thomas that went on to build some of Cardiff’s most notable public buildings in the late 19th century.

These included the Free Library in the Hayes (1880-82), the vast Coal and Shipping Exchange (1884-88) in Mount Stuart Square and a couple of the shopping arcades in the city centre. By 1902 however Swansea’s maritime-industrial heyday had slipped almost imperceptibly past its apogee, the copper industry was in decline with the remaining works refining copper rather than smelting it. Nevertheless the town’s’ population stood at a healthy 94,537 (it was 10,117 in 1802) and it shipped two million tons of coal a year.

The Mond Nickel Works was established at Clydach in 1902 and although by then outstripped by Cardiff and Newport in the coal exporting stakes, Swansea was still the key Welsh port for the export of anthracite, the tonnage of which could be measured in many thousands of tons. It is against this background that the Harbour Trust Offices were built; it was a time when the world came to Swansea. Amongst other things it came in the form of 1.996.567 tons of goods that entered Swansea Harbour from countries such as Mexico, Newfoundland, Norway and Spain.

No one could foresee that when Mr.Griffith Thomas officially opened Seward’s Harbour Trust building on October 12th, 1902, that within twenty years the country would be mired deep in economic recession. In 1902 however the Harbour Trust Offices were an expression of confidence in a town that traded with the world and was confident of its place in that world. It was conceived as a showpiece headquarters in Arts and Crafts Baroque with fashionable Art Nouveau details. Like many a headquarters building today it came complete with ‘corporate art’ in the form of stained glass panels to stair windows, the interior of the ribbed dome and a large mural painting covering the width of the boardroom. This is in addition to ornate art nouveau light fittings and railings around the building.

The first meeting in the headquarters took place in late 1903 around a vast (27ft by 16.5-ft) oval boardroom table made from teak that rested upon 27 six-inch moulded panelled legs. The Trustees sat upon 30 chairs made from solid oak and covered in crimson Moroccan leather that bore the Swansea Harbour crest in embossed gold on their back. The building’s exterior is an elegant essay in red Cattybrook brick with bands of Portland stone.

One thing about the building always made me curious was the entrance let into its right-hand corner. It always seemed very odd that people were brought into the building at an entrance angled this way. Looking at drawings in the archives of Associated British Ports reveals all; the entrance led to a bank inside the building.

This is an extract from Richard Porch’s book ‘Swansea: History You Can See’, published in 2005 by Tempus Publishing / City & County of Swansea.

A History in the Making

Swansea owes in great measure it’s 19th Century maritime industrial success in the field of copper smelting to two key factors. The first is water, and the second the technical limitations imposed on the contemporary modes of transporting copper ore. Swansea’s easy access to the sea, navigable river and willingness to lay on the necessary infrastructure (North Dock in 1852 and South Dock in 1859) ensured its pre-eminence in the field of ore transportation.

The bulk transportation of copper by steam powered vessels (which existed in abundance from the 1830’s onwards) was ruled out purely logistical grounds. Copper ore had to be collected primarily from distant ports on the West Coast of South America and the North Pacific Coast. Such were the distances involved, that steam powered vessels were limited by the necessity of having to make frequent stops (at bunkering points) to take on coal. As it was more economic to bring copper ore to coal than the reverse, Swansea’s position on the western edge of the South Wales coalfield added to its westerly coastal position, made it an ideal port at which to land such ore.

The organisation called Swansea Harbour Trust was established by an act of Parliament in 1791. the task of the trust was to ‘enlarge and preserve the harbour of the town of Swansea in the county of Glamorganshire. After a fitful start, in a burgeoning environment in which the industrialisation of South Wales proceeded at great pace, much was achieved by the body. By the end of the nineteenth century, the business of the trust had increased significantly. Indeed, such was the volume of business being transacted at that time that the trustees believed that they should erect a purpose-designed building which reflected the contribution of the trust to the economic well-being of the town of Swansea. The discussion upon which that decision was based proved to be the genesis for the construction of the handsome building which, today, is Morgans.

The next stage in the process involved the board of trustees developing, with professional advice, the design brief which reflected their operational and aesthetical requirements. It was that brief which was used as the basis for the design competition among potential architects and, from over one hundred entries, that submitted by Edwin Seward of Cardiff was selected and the process of construction begun. Seward was delighted to win the competition and to have the opportunity to work with a client organisation for whom only the best materials for the purpose were good enough. It followed that the material specifications both internal and external were of first quality, which allowed Seward and the building contractor, Lloyd Brothers of Swansea, to indulge themselves in their quest to build a magnificent facility for the Harbour Trust organisation. In addition, they were able to employ directly or through sub contracting, the very best craftsmen available.

When the building was opened on 12 October 1903, it was clear to all who attended the official ceremony, that the combination of effective design, superior quality materials and the work of the talented craftsmen, had produced a superb, handsome construction which was an asset, not only to the Harbour Trust but to Swansea itself. To put this into content, it is interesting to note the words of the Cambrian reporter who covered the opening ceremony. He wrote: The new building has practically remodelled the whole appearance of this part of Swansea. The long expanse of long brick, diversified by bands of Portland stone strike a bright and pleasant note amongst the surroundings which are distinctly dingy by comparison.

The Figures
on the Bell Tower

The figures on the bell tower, were made by Marco Fabbeni (right). He came from Lucchio, a small hilltop village near the Carrera marble quarries in Italy. Marco had a studio/workshop at 5 St Marys Street, Swansea.

The model for the figures was Frances Gray. A local lady who lived in Anchor Court. 

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