Population: 6,120


Butetown was a desolate moor until the 19th century, when the Second Marquis of Bute decided to build the first dock in South Wales. At its opening in 1839, the American Consul prophesied that it would bring prosperity to Cardiff “as long as grass grew and water ran”. Events proved him right, though even the Marquis could not have foreseen the insatiable worldwide demand for Welsh coal in the years to come. He died in 1848 but, during the lifetime of his son, four more docks were built to handle this trade in addition to others at Penarth and Barry.

The Marquis intended Butetown to be a respectable, middle class suburb, reflecting favourably on him. Fine houses, occupied by sea captains, merchants, stockbrokers and professional people, were built in Mountstuart Square and Loudoun Square. However, as Butetown became overcrowded, noisy and disreputable, wealthier people moved to the leafy suburbs and in their place arose a multi-ethnic community drawn from every corner of the globe. A volatile population of sailors, dockers, labourers, as well as an assortment of shady characters, made Bute Street the most cosmopolitan highway in Britain. Greeks, Arabs and Africans, many of them in national dress, mingled with Italian icecream sellers, Chinese seamen and the “Johnny Onions” from Brittany. The once splendid mansions of Loudoun Square lost their earlier elegance, as they were turned into seedy lodging houses or converted into overcrowded tenements for three or four families.

The district below the bridge at Bute Road became known as “Tiger Bay”, possibly from a music hall song of the 1860s. Howard Spring graphically described the Tiger Bay of the early 20th century in Heaven Lies About Us: “Children of the strangest colours, fruits of frightful misalliances, staggered half-naked about the streets … the flags of all nations flutered on the housefronts … It was a dirty, smelly, rotten and romantic district, an offence and an inspiration, and I loved it”.

From its earliest days, lurid tales were told about Tiger Bay. In 1856 American and Greek seamen clashed and resorted to the use of knives and revolvers but as an observer noted, “those encounters were of such frequent occurrence that very little notice was taken of them”. In a seaport as busy as Cardiff, violent incidents and dens of vice were inevitable. One policeman claimed to have raided 80 brothels in a year and no doubt “ladies of the night” often relieved drunken sailors of their worldly wealth. Some of them might even have woken up next day to find themselves “shanghaied” on a ship bound for the other side of the world.

Race relations were normally harmonious in Butetown. As one resident recalled, it was the one place where “a coloured man could call himself a Welshman and get away with it”. A great local character was Tommy Letton who sold fresh fish from his barrow in the district. In a TV programme he said: “Everyone knew one another and trusted one another. Doors were never locked and racial discrimination was unheard of”. His readiness to help other people made him a local celebrity and Letton Way is named after this friendly, hardworking man.

However, racial conflict erupted if white people felt their living was under threat from blackleg labour. The seamen’s strike of 1911 was particularly vicious, as Chinese laundries and lodging houses were set ablaze and a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was needed to restore order. It was a similar story in 1919, when riots broke out in Tiger Bay and local people were accused of taking jobs from demobilised soldiers.

This unique community has produced its fair share of personalities. The most famous is Shirley Bassey who was born at Adeline Street in 1937. The youngest of seven children, she began work in a sausage factory but, at the age of 16, she was appearing in working men’s clubs. By the time she was 20, Shirley was starring in shows at London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Las Vegas. She went on to sing three title songs for the “Bond” films, the most famous of which was Goldfinger. She was made a Dame Commander in the Millennium New Year’s Honours List and later that year topped the bill at the Royal Variety Command Performance. This entertainer, who has enthralled millions around the world, once said she prefered dancing as a youngster and would never have taken up singing had it not been for her mother’s persistence.

The falling demand for Welsh coal in the interwar years led to the decline of the docks. In World War Two there was a temporary reprieve, as the ports of South Wales handled 75% of American supplies during the build-up to the D-Day landings. A monument in Cardiff Bay to the Welsh merchant seamen, who died in the Battle of the Atlantic, also serves as a reminder of the sacrifice made by many people in this district during that conflict.

Once more trade fell away after 1945 and coal exports ended in 1964, the year that the West Dock, which had been the foundation of Cardiff’s prosperity, was closed. Architectural gems were demolished as Butetown lapsed into decay. Families, who had lived in the area for years, have still not forgiven the planners for their lack of vision in the 1960s. Houses, such as those in Loudoun Square with their air of faded grandeur, became a part of history as they were bulldozed and replaced with a featureless modern estate. The film, Tiger Bay, starring John and Hayley Mills, was shot on location in 1959 and contains some of the final memories of that colourful district.

                The multi-ethnic nature of Butetown has led to a rich variety of religious buildings. St Mary’s Church in Bute Street was built on land provided by the Second Marquis and, when it was opened on 16 December 1843, he led a procession from the Town Hall as ships in the harbour raised their colours. The earliest Roman Catholic church in Cardiff, dedicated to St David, was opened in Bute Terrace and a Greek Orthodox Church was built near St Mary’s in 1906. The first mosque was built in Peel Street but aroused controversy among Moslems amid complaints that it was not properly orientated towards Mecca. In the 1980s it was replaced with the present building in Alice Street. The Norwegian Church was built for the Scandinavian community near the West Dock and has close associations with Roald Dahl and his family. Its flags of the Baltic states, views of the Norwegian fiords and portraits of the Scandinavian royal families led to it being described as the “cosiest and most beautifully kept seaman’s mission in all Britain”. By the 1970s it had been seriously vandalised and was demolished. Fortunately, its memories have been revived with the construction of a new Norwegian Church near the Cardiff Bay Visitors’ Centre.

At the end of the 20th century, the waterfront once again became Cardiff’s most dynamic region. Regeneration began in the 1980s, when the council headquarters was established at Atlantic Wharf overlooking the former East Dock. Ambitious plans were to follow, including the construction of the Cardiff Bay Barrage, a freshwater lake stretching from Queen Alexandra Dock to Penarth Head. It has been described as “a place in which people will want to live, work and play”, though critics maintain that it upsets the ecological balance of the bay, while a rise in the level of groundwater poses a threat to property.

New apartments, offices, hotels and restaurants in the bay are interspersed among canals, promenades and the former docks. Old warehouses have been renovated and some of the historic buildings, which managed to survive the architectural carnage of the 1960s, symbolise the great days before 1914 when “King Coal” dominated this part of the world.

The Pier Head Building has been designated as an information centre for the Welsh Assembly. This magnificent structure was built in 1896 as the offices of the Bute Docks Company. Constructed in red brick and terracotta, it was designed by William Frame, a pupil of William Burges, so it is not surprising that much of the building resembles Burges’s work at Cardiff Castle. Their love of Gothic architecture is shown in the magnificent skyline of pinnacled turrets, gargoyles and clustered hexagonal chimneys, all culminating in a splendid castellated clock tower.

The Coal and Shipping Exchange in Mountstuart Square, at present awaiting a new purpose, is another reminder of the docks in their heyday. The docksmen, as shipping and colliery owners were known, used to assemble on its floor before World War One, resplendent in top hat, morning coat, spats and walking cane. Fortunes were made and sometimes lost, as it seemed the demand for Welsh coal would last for ever.

Plans to build a new opera house in Cardiff Bay came to nought but the Millennium Theatre, due to open in 2004, will provide a home for the Welsh National Opera. Not far away at Mermaid Quay, the Roald Dahls Plass is already a popular venue for open air concerts and theatre. The future of a new building for the Welsh Assembly, which at present meets in Crickhowell House, is uncertain in view of the concern about its cost.

                There is no doubt that the development of Cardiff Bay has given a new lease of life to Butetown. The revitalised docklands have provided 16,000 new jobs but those who lived there long before this regeneration began, feel that not enough of these opportunities have come to them. There could be resentment towards the newcomers who have little in common with the cosmopolitan community that was once Tiger Bay.


Further Reading:


Evans C., Dodsworth S., & Barnett J. Below the Bridge (National Museum of Wales 1984)

Sinclair M.C.N. The Tiger Bay Story (Butetown History & Arts Project 1993)

Owen W.R. Tiger Bay in Glamorgan Historian Vol. VII 72-86 (Stewart Williams 1970)