Historically part of Glamorgan, Port Talbot grew out of the original small port and market town of Aberavon, which belonged to the medieval Lords of Afan.
Aberavon was first established by Caradoc ap Iestyn (son of Iestyn ap Gwrgant), on the instructions of Robert Fitzhamon, after the Norman's conquest of south Wales by the end of the eleventh century. The town grew up with and around the castle which Fitzhamon ordered to be built (where Castle, Norman and Bailey streets are situated near to Saint Mary's Church in modern-day Port Talbot). The first recorded name of Aberavon was the French Norman 'Avene' which is likely to be an interpretation of the Welsh 'a-bhan' meaning 'from the heights' meaning the hills of the Afan Valley, from whence flowed the River Afan. 'Afan' is always pronounced 'Avan'. Margam Abbey was founded in 1147 as a daughter house of Clairvaux, a Cistercian foundation, by Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester. Local landowner John Talbot, fought at the Battle of Crécy, and bred the Talbot dog, a breed of small white dog, an ancestor of the modern Beagle.
The area of the parish of Margam lying on the west bank of the lower Afan became industrialised following the establishment of a copperworks in 1770. The Afan was diverted and a dock was opened in 1839 named for the Talbot family, local landowners who were related to the pioneer photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot. The Talbots were patrons of Margam Abbey, and also built Margam Castle. Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803–1890) (Liberal Member of Parliament for Glamorgan from 1830 until his death) saw the potential of his property as a site for an extensive ironworks, which opened in early 1831.
CRM Talbot's daughter Emily Charlotte Talbot (1840–1918) inherited her father's fortune and became just as notable in the development of ports and railways. With assistance from engineers Charles Meik and Patrick Meik, she set about creating a port and railway system to attract business away from Cardiff and Swansea. The Port Talbot Railway and Docks Company opened a dock at Port Talbot and the Llyfni Railway in 1897, followed by the Ogmore Valley Extension and the South Wales Mineral Junction Railway (almost all these lines were closed as part of the Beeching Axe cuts in the mid 1960s, but some bridges and viaducts remain and many of these railway routes have re-emerged as recreational cycle tracks). By 1900, the dock was exporting over 500,000 tons of coal; it reached a peak of over three million tons in 1923.
In 1952 the completion of the Abbey Works made Port Talbot the home of one of Europe's largest integrated steelworks and (with 18,000 employees) the largest employer in Wales. This was followed by the establishment of a chemical plant at Baglan Bay by BP in the 1960s. In 1970 a new deep-water harbour was opened by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. The new harbour was capable of discharging iron ore vessels of 100,000 deadweight, a tenfold improvement on the old dock. By the early 21st century, due to further modification and dredging, the harbour is capable of harbouring vessels of over 170,000 deadweight.
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