From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

At the beginning of the 19th century the population of Cardiff was less than 2,000, but the lush green valleys to the north were about to change – and so was this small town at the mouth of the River Severn.

The reason for this dramatic change was all down to the increase in demand for coal which was needed to power the Industrial Revolution – and which the valleys of South Wales had plenty of.

The Glamorgan Canal, and then the Taff Valley Railway, enabled the Black Diamonds to be transported down the valleys to the coast where places like Newport, Barry, Penarth and Cardiff all vied for the lucrative export trade.

While everyone else was working down the coal mines, there was one man that was sitting on a gold mine, – namely the 2nd Marquis of Bute. He realised early on that there was going to be money made in the iron and coal industries of South Wales, and in 1839 he built the first of Cardiff’s docks at West Bute to handle the trade.

As the docks expanded, so did the appeal to come and work here: Butetown, as the area became known, attracted immigrant workers and seafarers from all corners of the globe, and it wasn’t long before the area became known for all the wrong reasons. Although several theories have been bandied about, it’s not really known for sure why the docks and Butetown became known as Tiger Bay – but the name stuck, and just like its feline counterpart, began to earn itself a fearsome reputation. If you wanted somewhere to go and get drunk, have a fight, or meet a prostitute – or all three – Tiger Bay was the place to come.

From Pit to Port Sculpture
From Pit to Port Sculpture

Coal exports reached their peak in 1913 when almost 11 million tons were exported out of Cardiff Docks, but as the demand for fossil fuels declined after the end of WWII, so did the fortunes of Tiger Bay.

By the 1960s coal was no longer king, and the once thriving community descended into an area of desolation. Ships stopped coming, and without ships there was no need for people, and without people there was no need for houses: Streets were demolished, the canal and railway sidings abandoned and the docks left empty. The Bute Dock Basin (which was the entrance to the West Bute Dock), was filled in during the 1970s and the end of the 1984/85 miner’s strike saw the last underground pit in South Wales close. Tiger Bay had taken its last breath.

Every cloud has a silver lining as they say, and for Cardiff Docks it came in the form of a massive redevelopment plan that went by the rather uninspiring name of Cardiff Bay. Perhaps the powers that be wanted it to sound sterile in comparison.

The community that once thrived here was gone, but so was the sooty air that turned everything black. By the time it was replaced by the planners’ new vision for the 21st century there wasn’t a speck of coal dust to be seen anywhere.

One of the first things to change was the bay itself. To make it more visually attractive a barrage was built across the mouth of the bay between the docks and Penarth, which keeps the water inside the barrage at a constant level. It may look better, but it doesn’t appear to have done much for the local wading birds that use the tidal mudflats for their food – or should I say, used to.

As for the docks, a couple still function on a small scale, but the old West Bute Dock (which could handle up to 300 ships at a time) has been covered over, and the former Dock Basin is now the Roald Dahl Plass, a public open space with illuminated pillars and a 21m high metallic water fountain.

Roald Dahl Plass

The Plass is dominated by the Millennium Centre, a modern cultural landmark, with a theatre hosting a diverse collection of performing arts from opera, comedy, ballet, musicals and contemporary dance. Although I haven’t been in to see a performance, it’s still worth talking about the building itself.

Jonathan Adams, a local man from Caerleon, was the architect, using a combination of Welsh slate, glass, wood and metal.

The copper oxide steel cladding on the front of the building is inscribed with two lines of verse from the poet, Gwyneth Lewis. Welsh industrial history was her inspiration for the words in Welsh, but she points out that the English words – “These stones horizons sing” are not a literal translation. Welsh is one of those languages where there’s not always a corresponding English equivalent meaning, so I sort of understand where she’s coming from.

The Millennium Centre
The Millennium Centre
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In 1997 Wales voted in favour of devolution from the British parliament, and although not the same as independence, it did at least allow legislation to be passed without the need to consult Westminster.

The new National Assembly, or Senedd, needed somewhere to hold their parliament, and the site chosen was in Cardiff Bay next to the Millennium Centre.

The building was designed by the renowned architect, Sir Richard Rogers, who, during his career, has been responsible for some exciting buildings, but in my opinion, this definitely isn’t one of them. Externally, I find it completely underwhelming, and if it wasn’t for the undulating red cedar ceiling and funnel-shaped ‘Oriel’ to look at when you get inside, it would hardly be worth the effort to go through the security checks to get in.

When the Assembly met here for the first time in 2006, I wonder if they debated why it came in at six times over budget at a cost of £70m, and five years behind schedule.

The Senedd
The Senedd
The 'Oriel'
The 'Oriel'

In stark contrast is the adjacent Pierhead Building which was built for the Bute Dock Company in 1897. This Grade I listed terracotta red-brick building was constructed in an ornate Gothic style and has a clock tower which some people refer to as the Welsh ‘Big Ben’. This maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it was definitely built to look important whichever way you look at it.

The Pierhead Building
The Pierhead Building
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The building was re-opened in 2010 as a visitor and educational centre for the Welsh National Assembly, but as it’s freely accessible to anyone, it’s worth popping in to see what it’s like inside: There’s an interesting film that shows what life was like around here in days gone by, and on the upper floor is the Dock Manager’s office which overlooked the docks below.

One of the exhibits in his office is the binnacle from Captain Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’, which left this very port for the famously ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1910, and if you look closely you can see the Scott Antarctic Memorial down on the quayside.

Glazed Tiles inside the Pierhead Building
Glazed Tiles inside the Pierhead Building
View from the Dock Manager's Office
View from the Dock Manager's Office

Better still, it’s worth taking a walk along the quayside to the memorial because nearby is the Norwegian Church.

The church was originally built at West Bute Dock in 1868 as a Seaman’s Mission for the sailors who arrived here from Norway. They brought Scandinavian timber to South Wales for use as pit props, and returned back home with Welsh coal.

The church/mission provided a home from home for the Norwegian seafarers, and some 70,000 used it annually.

Among those who worshipped here were Harald and Sophie Dahl, the parents of the famous novelist, Roald. They had come over from Norway and settled in nearby Llandaff, where their son was born in 1916. Now you know why the former West Bute Dock Basin is called Roald Dahl Plass.

Scott's Antarctic Monument and the Norwegian Church
Scott's Antarctic Monument and the Norwegian Church
The Norwegian Church
The Norwegian Church

These are just a few of the things that are worth taking a look at in the new Cardiff Bay, and it’s very different to the old Tiger Bay. I’m sure there are people who would prefer the old days when it had a community spirit, but at least the air and the River Taff are much cleaner now, and the redevelopment has provided jobs once again.

On the other hand the pit villages of the Rhondda and other valleys have had little or no investment since the closure of the mines, and if anywhere deserves to have some of the money that has found its way into the Senedd, then surely these communities do – after all they were the ones who made it in the first place.

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22 thoughts on “From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

  1. toonsarah

    What an interesting mix of buildings and architectural styles! Thanks for a great introduction to a part of Cardiff I have never visited. I love the little Norwegian church! But it’s a shame the tidal flats were sacrificed

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Balancing the needs of mankind with nature is always a thorny problem, especially where the environment is concerned. The Severn Barrage project comes and goes as often as the tide.

      Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      I wasn’t aware of any changes at the Norwegian Church. Do you know exactly what those changes could be?

      I could imagine that a show at the Millennium Centre would would be worth going to, so it’s good to have it confirmed. Thanks for the info.

      Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    Another great post Malc and great pictures too – I agree with Alii, it does seem a bit unfair the the villages in the valleys have not seen the same investment.
    I dunno, it all seems a bit sterile to me – I suspect the old Tiger Bay had more life to it.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      It’s funny isn’t it how we look forward to a brighter future, and then we bang on about the good old days 🙂 Thanks for your smashing comments again Stuart

      Reply
  3. Alli Templeton

    Thanks for this really interesting insight into an area I know knew nothing about, Malc. I enjoyed reading all about Tiger’s dubious past and the area’s redevelopment into the impressive place it looks now. I didn’t know Roald Dhal was born down there – we have his home, his grave and his museum not far from us in Great Missenden, so he’s quite a prominent character round here. That Millenium centre is amazing, but I share your views on the Senned – it looks as though it hasn’t been finished. The underside of a mushroom oriel inside may redeem it in some ways, but on the whole it looks like a building site, and I agree it’s pretty underwhelming. Much more imposing is the Pierhead building – that’s got style and class. And the lack of investment in the colliery villages is, indeed, very ironic. Typical example of skewed governmental priorities. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks for taking some time out from your studies to take a look at Cardiff Alli. Cardiff also has a castle worth seeing if you haven’t already done so, and it’s not very far from Caerphilly where you were thinking of going the other week.
      I’ve still got everything crossed for Friday 🙂

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        Thanks Malc. I’ll need it. 🙂 I’m feeling really queasy at the thought of it. I’m suffering from study fatigue now, so in many ways I can’t wait to get it over with. It’s such a daft way to assess people’s abilities. 🙁

        I think I’ve seen a picture of Cardiff Castle – has it got a stone keep on a mound? I haven’t been there though. I can’t wait to get lost in castles for the summer. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          It does seem a stupid way to asses people I agree, but I wouldn’t concentrate too much if I were you. Leave some space in your head for logical thinking and you’ll sail through. Mind you I’m a good one to talk, Doctor Spock I’m not! 🙂

          Yes, Cardiff Castle has got a stone keep on top of a mound, and although it’s not a ruin like other atmospheric Welsh castles, it does have quite a bit of history attached to it

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            Looks life Cardiff castle should be one to visit. 🙂
            You should see my kitchen – it’s covered with Latin grammar! How they can expect us to revise the whole module – close reading of Latin texts by Augustan authors and Roman history too I don’t know. It can’t be done. You’re right, I’ll just have to do my best and hope for a reasonable result. Still, thanks for keeping everything crossed for me. Think of me at 10am on Friday – it’ll be the start of the torture. Then afterwards I can relax and de-paper my kitchen! 🙂

            Reply
            1. Malc Post author

              I can just picture it 🙂
              I’ll definitely be thinking of you on Friday morning. If you don’t mind me asking, where do you have to go and when will you know the outcome?.

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                Thanks Malc. 😊 I’ve got to go to the OU campus itself in Milton Keynes for the exam. Luckily it’s only 10 minute’s drive from Maddie’s school so I can go and get a cuppa in the cafe beforehand while I’m stewing over whether I’ll remember enough! 😊 I won’t know the outcome until later in July and I’ll be in Wales by then – hopefully in one of the castles! So after Friday I’ll have to forget it for a bit. Not that that’ll be a problem – certainly not after a few glasses of wine! 😊

                Reply
                1. Malc Post author

                  I’ve got the complete picture now. Thanks. I’ll be rooting for you on Friday. You know I have every confidence in you don’t you? With your knowledge, passion, and the way you write, how could you possibly fail? Whatever happens, I’ll be having a drink with you on Friday night, even though I’m a couple of hundred miles away. Good luck. 🙂

                  Reply
                  1. Alli Templeton

                    Oh thanks Malc, that’s very kind and I really do appreciate your support. I’ll be only too happy to clink glasses long-distance
                    with you on Friday night. Shame you’re not a bit nearer so we could do it for real. 😊 Thanks again. ☺

                    Reply
  4. barbarara49

    What great page on Cardiff and the Bay you have given to us!
    I first went to Cardiff in the 50’s as a student. and continued to live and work there – and in the Valleys – until I retired in1994.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks Barbara. For someone who knows the area as well as you do, I’m chuffed that you enjoyed it

      Reply

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