Industrial history - Chepstow

Chepstow’s 1st World War shipyard

Right at the south-eastern end of the Wales Coast Path, on the banks of the River Wye at Chepstow, once stood Wales’s biggest – and possibly shortest-lived – shipyard.

Like many coastal locations around Wales, Chepstow had seen the construction of many wooden sailing ships over the ages, especially from the eighteenth century onwards. However, the advent of shipbuilding in iron and later in steel from the mid-nineteenth century onwards saw shipbuilding in the UK becoming concentrated in the north-east of England and on the Clyde, with just a few industrialised shipyards located elsewhere.

One of these was Finch’s yard established by Edward Finch at Chepstow in the late 1870s; he was not just a shipbuilder but a noted bridge-builder as well. His yard turned out a modest number of small cargo ships, tugs, dredgers and paddle steamers in the ensuing years, but the serious loss of merchant shipping falling prey to German U-boats during the 1st World War meant that all this would change suddenly.

Chepstow present dayIn 1916 the yard was taken over by the government, additional adjacent land was acquired and the cattle market moved to a new location to enable the laying-out of no fewer than seven slipways on the banks of the Wye.

The original plans even envisaged further yards at nearby Beachley and Portbury with a total of thirty-four further slipways (!), but these were only partly completed.

Protracted delays in the layout of the yard and the construction of new workers’ homes in the area meant that it was September 1918 before the first ship was launched, though the building of ships continued until 1921. A successor company, the Monmouth Shipbuilding Co Ltd. was also short-lived and the site is currently being covered in housing.

What is truly significant about the yard, however, is that the ships it built were partly-prefabricated. This was a new technique at the time, though it is now the standard method of construction used in modern shipyards. And it happened in Chepstow first!

This section of the Coast Path is not only steeped in history – Chepstow is one of the oldest towns in Wales and boasts the oldest stone castle in the UK – but it also offers more up-to-date landmarks.

At Blackrock you can enjoy panoramic views of both Severn Bridge crossings and the estuary itself.

In contrast, heading west you will reach the Newport Wetlands National Nature Reserve (NNR) with more than 1,000 unspoilt acres providing a haven for birdlife and a host of walks and activities for all ages.

To plan a trip and enjoy a walk on the Wales Coast Path in this area visit our South Wales Coast and Severn Estuary page.