Cardigan had been a port since the Middle Ages. Having established a castle here, the Normans brought French and Spanish wine with other supplies to the garrison and settlers. At this time the only exports were wool and dried fish and the port of Cardigan was little more than a landing place. In a drive to increase trade and combat piracy, Queen Elizabeth I, in the late 16th century, ordered a survey of all Cardiganshire ports and landing places and at this time the only trade reported in Cardigan was fishing. The whole of the Cardiganshire coast was put under the authority of the port of Milford and Cardigan was made a deputy port with authority over the coast from Aberaeron to Fishguard. A customs house was built to ensure the collection of the Queen’s revenue and the Port Books for the period 1603-1714 show considerable growth in trade. Fish were landed here and exports included salted herrings, oak bark (for tanning leather) and Cilgerran slate. Imports included candles, sheepskin leather, salt and Irish linen for sailmaking. Later woollen cloth was sent to France for tapestry weaving.
By the mid 19th century local traders included anchor and chain manufacturers, coal and culm merchants, corn and flour merchants, lime burners, ropemakers, sailmakers, salt merchants, ship builders and over 60 taverns. There were limekilns, a brickworks, gasworks, foundries and smithies, tanners, tinsmiths, timber yard, sawmills and coalyard. The port’s busiest period was between 1750 and 1840. By 1816 323 ships were registered in Cardigan. In 1835 some 1500 men were engaged in port activities – the total population of Cardigan was just under 3000! At the height of its commercial activity the port was only surpassed by London, Liverpool and Bristol. Responding to modern technological developments the Cardigan Steam Navigation Co was formed in 1869 and all shares were quickly taken. Its first ship, the SS Tivyside, was built on the Clyde and traded between Cardigan and Bristol. The Commercial Steam Navigation Co began to operate the Sea Flower in 1876 but by this time the port was already in decline. Imports began to exceed exports and there was a growing need to accommodate larger ships but there were navigational problems in the shallow estuary to which Cardigan could not respond. The coming of the railway in 1886 eventually signed the death warrant for the port trade of Cardigan but in 1961 this service was itself discontinued as uneconomical.
References: Lewis, W J, ‘The Gateway to Wales, a History of Cardigan’, Dyfed County Council, 1990 Davies, Donald, ‘Those Were The Days’, The Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser, Vol 1 1991, Vol 2 1992 Jenkins, J Geraint, ‘Maritime Heritage, The Ships and Seamen of Southern Ceredigion’, Gomer Press, 1982 http://www.cambria.org.uk