Llanelli and Pembrey were ports for hundreds of years, and many buildings and place names survive to this day as reminders of the area’s maritime heritage. The harbours also generated a large amount of paperwork, and from these records, it is possible to study many aspects of the history of shipping in the Burry Inlet. But with very few exceptions, there are hardly any records of what it was actually like to sail into the estuary and its ports in bygone days. Two little known ships’ journals, written over a century apart, help to fill the gaps. One is now kept at the National Archives of Scotland, the other at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Early Shipping in Llanelly. Sketch by John Wynne Hopkins

The Peggies of Campbeltown, Kintyre, came into the Burry Inlet to pick up a cargo of coal in July 1753. Her skipper, Duncan Hendry, found it ‘far from being a good harbour’, with a ‘monstrous tide’ and rapid currents. Like many since, he was caught out by just how far the tide ebbs in the inlet. Coming back at night from the Custom House in Llanelli, he found it impossible to get across the mudbanks to his ship, so he returned ashore, ‘for fear to be perished by the tide, which goes out here like the out breaking of a mill flow with spring tides’. The Peggies was loaded on the beach by a train of over 100 horses, which brought 58 tons of coal out to her in just four hours. But the ship was then detained in the inlet for almost a fortnight by contrary winds, finally sailing only on 11 August.

One hundred and thirty years later, Samuel William Pring was travelling as a passenger on an unnamed ship on a voyage from Studland in Devon to Pembrey, where she was to pick up a cargo of coal. As she approached Pembrey harbour on 23 May 1883, Pring noticed just how much shipping was in Carmarthen Bay. His ship was passed by three steamers in quick succession, and they were never out of sight of at least one other vessel. Then Pring saw ‘two tugs come alongside us to know if we want a tow, after having raced each other out of the harbour’. They chose the second one, ‘and then there was a row, the two captains abusing one another in Welsh’. From his ship’s moorings, Pring could ‘look right across Carmarthen Bay. On the east are Pembrey and Llanelly, in both of which are some very tall shafts belonging to copper and iron walks’. Pring went for several walks in Pembrey and Llanelli, during the course of which he listened to the inhabitants’ speech. What he then wrote down in his tiny pocket notebook might be one of the first written records of ‘Llanelli English’, if not the very first: ‘the Welsh say, no no, yes yes, no indeed, yes indeed, indeed no, yes mun, no mun, etc’. Pring’s ship sailed from Pembrey on 3 June, ending this briefest of insights into some almost forgotten aspects of Llanelli’s history.