Swansea - a Brief History

A (very) brief history of our ugly, lovely town

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"An ugly, lovely town ... crawling, sprawling ... by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world" - Dylan Thomas

Swansea - your new home, whether for the next few years or longer, has a rich and fascinating history full of poetry, industry, tragedy, and much more. Yes, we have miles and miles of beautiful beaches and stunning shorelines, but the city is so much more than that!

Origins & Medieval Swansea

Swansea town can trace its history back to the Norman invasion of the 12th century. The first Norman lord of Gower, Henry de Beaumont built a wooden castle and shortly after this, a town began to grow around it. The castle was rebuilt in stone during the 13th century, and you can visit the ruins on Worcester Place, opposite the Castle Gardens fountain!

Pre-Industrial Swansea

The population suffered during the Black Death, but the town persevered and became a significant port town by the 1700s. Thanks to the boom of South Wales coal mining, Swansea's population had doubled by the mid-17th century with the availability of work exporting coal and iron.

Swansea also had a booming shipbuilding and wool-weaving industry, and in 1682 a grammar school was opened (now Bishop Gore School). Almost 100 years later in 1771, Swansea's first bank was built, followed by a theatre in 1785.


Given the nickname Copperopolis, from the early 1700s to the late 1800s Swansea was the world-leading copper smelting destination. In 1717 Swansea opened its first of many furnaces, and over the next century, this led to an impressive population increase of 500%. By the 1850s Swansea boasted over 600 furnaces, however towards the end of the century the trade began to decline until none of the smelters were in use. You can visit Hafod Copperworks and walk around the remains of the site.

Swansea Mumbles Railway

Did you know that the first passenger railway service was located in Swansea?

The Horsecar railway was built in 1804 with the intention of only transporting limestone from Mumbles into Swansea, but from 1807 it began accepting the world's first fare-paying passengers. Eventually, steam locomotion replaced horsepower, before being converted to electric-powered trams. The line was closed in 1960 in favour of buses, and at the time of its closure, it was claimed to have been the world's longest-serving railway.

WW2 and the Three Nights' Blitz

As you will probably expect, thanks to its industry and port, Swansea was targeted by the Germans and heavily bombed during the Second World War. The most devastating was what is known as the Three Nights' Blitz; over the course of 3 days from 19th - 21st February 1941, the Luftwaffe decimated the city centre (evidence of the damage can still be seen to this day), killed 230 residents and injured over 300. To find out more, click here.

Modern Swansea City

Despite the heavy bombing of WW2, Swansea continued to flourish and was granted city status in 1969. In its post-war era, Swansea saw some investment in the form of a leisure centre, shopping centre, and museums being built in the city centre. The city is constantly evolving (as all good cities do), and is currently undergoing a large-scale, 10-year redevelopment!

Want to learn more about this amazing city? Pop over to the Swansea Museum and National Waterfront Museum to find out more. Both are free entry and located centrally!

Swansea University Students' Union