The Great Depression


Though peace  had been restored, the business community of Cardiff waited in vain for  a return to pre-war "normality'. The economic situation following the  Armistice was distorted by shipping losses arising from the conflict,  and shipowners were able to enjoy a short-lived boom. Optimistic  investors speculated in new vessels, often purchased at inflated prices,  and Cardiff soon boasted 122 shipping companies, more than any other  port in the world. The speculators overlooked the speed at which the  world's shipyards could replace wartime losses and, even more  disastrously, they failed to foresee the collapse of world trade after  the ending of hostilities. It was not long before the bubble burst and  in 1921 the Cardiff fleet was worth only 20% of its value a year  earlier. By 1932, of the vessels registered at Cardiff, 60% were laid up.

Sven Hansen was one of the postwar optimists. Knighted for his services in the war, he lived in considerable style at Marine Parade in Penarth and was regarded as a leading celebrity in Cardiff's social circle. After the war he speculated heavily in new ships, shipbuilding and repair yards. When the crash came, he was driven into bankruptcy and his world fell apart.

 Hansen was not the only docksman in Cardiff to misjudge the impact of the Great Depression, but others were either luckier, wiser or perhaps more far-sighted. Among these was W.J. Tatem, now raised to the peerage as Lord Glanely for his contribution to the war effort. He took advantage of the short-lived upsurge in trade and sold  his 8 remaining vessels. Later, at a reasonable cost, he rebuilt his fleet in a manner which was more adaptable to the difficult trading circumstances of the 1920's. Glanely's firm was one of the few companies capable of paying a reasonable dividend to shareholders during the Depression, and he also invested wisely in land and property at Newmarket. A famous name in the racing world, Glanely led the list of winning owners in 1919, and during the next few years his horses won all five classic races. His life came to a tragic end in 1942 when he was killed in an air raid on Weston.

While the rich and famous experienced mixed fortunes during the Depression, the majority of families in South Wales, whose standard of living depended on the narrow economic base of coal and steel, suffered grievously. The great days of the Welsh coal industry were over as oil provided an alternative form of fuel, and in any case the best seams in the South Wales coalfield were exhausted by 1920. The coal industry suffered a further blow during the war, when the needs of the nation reduced exports to a trickle and many pre-war customers turned to other sources of supply.

In Merthyr, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, unemployment rose to 62% in 1932, and the coal mining valleys fared only slightly better. Inevitably, the prosperity of Cardiff was seriously affected by the decline of the mining industry. Unemployment in the city rose to 25% in 1930 and, until the Second World War, the figure rarely fell below 20%. The dockworkers experienced the greatest hardship and by 1935 nearly half the registered dockers were unemployed. The weakness of Cardiff as a port relying on the export of coal was now revealed. For several years, many ships had adopted the habit of unloading their imports at Bristol, before sailing on to Cardiff to collect a cargo of coal. This imbalance between imports and exports was of little consequence before 1914 but, during the Depression, the reliance on coal dramatically changed the fortunes of the port for the worse. In the 1930's, the export of coal from Cardiff amounted to barely five million tons, about half of the shipments made in 1914. Indeed, the total volume of trade at the docks in 1935 was only 45% of its pre-war turnover.

If the Great Western Railway had not taken control of all the South Wales ports and railways in 1922, the consequences for the workforce might have been even more disastrous. Despite adverse trading conditions, the new owners modernised the docks and invested in new equipment. As a result, the port of Cardiff was able to play a vital role in the Second World War.

As the Depression tightened its savage grip, over 90,000 people from Glamorgan migrated to the more prosperous regions of the Midlands and the South-east, where new industries were taking root. Cardiff, which had seen such rapid growth before 1914, increased its population by only 8,000 between 1921 and 1938, even though its physical boundaries were greatly enlarged in this period.

The impossibility of finding work led to turmoil at times. In 1919 race riots broke out in Tiger Bay when local people were accused of taking the jobs of demobilised soldiers. Boarding houses and restaurants were attacked. Three persons were killed and scores injured in shooting incidents and razor fights. In an atmosphere of seething passion, James Wilson, the new Chief Constable of Cardiff, took strong action and succeeded in restoring peace to Butetown.

The General Strike of May 1926 is usually remembered for its lack of violence but an under-current of tension was never far away. The Western Mail and South Wales Echo continued to publish throughout the strike and they reported a rush of volunteers to enrol as special constables, messengers and transport workers. The strikers contemptuously dubbed them "the plus-fours brigade', but the assortment of solicitors, students and bank clerks maintained the essential services. The most angry demonstrations were directed at the tram service, when the Corporation threatened strikers with dismissal and replacement from the ranks of the unemployed. Assaults on tram drivers were met with baton charges from the police, and a 49-year old mother was sentenced to a month's hard labour for throwing a brick through the window of a tramcar. During the strike Cardiff assumed a martial appearance as warships arrived at the docks, and tents at Maindy Barracks provided extra accommodation for the troops patrolling the streets in armoured cars.

The Depression might have affected Cardiff much more severely but for the relative prosperity of the East Moors Works. As the costs of producing steel at Merthyr increased, so the firm of Guest, Keen and Baldwin, which now virtually monopolised the industry, decided to concentrate production in South Wales at Cardiff and Port Talbot. Nearly £3 million were invested in the East Moors Works in 1935, resulting in a large integrated plant, capable of manufacturing half a million tons of steel a year. Consequently, the steel industry at East Moors  was preserved for another forty years and, since iron ore comprised a third of all imports into Cardiff, the docks too benefited from this investment.


The development of the Civic Centre continued after the war. Work on the National Museum resumed in 1920 and in April 1927 King George V officially opened the building, fifteen years after he had laid its foundation stone. Completely in harmony with the City Hall and the Law Courts, it was another splendid building which has always striven to uphold its aim: "To teach the world about Wales and the Welsh people about their fatherland'.

The Temple of Peace and Health, which was opened in 1938, lacks the ornate sculpture of the earlier buildings in Cathays Park, but still succeeds in conveying an air of serenity. Inside the Temple itself, marble has been used extensively to create a beautiful effect. Lord Davies of Llandinam, who was very interested in the work of the League of Nations, donated £58,000 towards the construction costs of the building. The Temple of peace and Health, which contained the offices of the Welsh Council of the League of Nations, continues to be a forum to discuss international questions of peace and health.

The offices of the Welsh Board of Health were also completed in 1938. It was a structure of four storeys, higher than the surrounding buildings in Cathays Park, but nonetheless blending with them into the landscape. When Cardiff became the capital of Wales, the premises were used as the headquarters of the Welsh Office and a huge extension has since been added to make the building the largest in the Civic Centre.

Lloyd George had promised "homes fit for heroes' in his election address of 1918 and all post-war governments adopted a policy of slum clearance and better housing. The land for new housing schemes was acquired through the Cardiff Extension Act of 1922, when Ely, Fairwater and Llanishen, together with parts of Whitchurch and Llanedeyrn, were brought inside the city boundaries. In the same year, the two cities of Llandaff and Cardiff were at last amalgamated. Yet another of Cardiff's outlying villages was absorbed in 1938, when Rumney was incorporated into the city limits.

In new suburbs, such as Cyncoed, Rumney, Llanishen and the Heath, private houses could be purchased on mortgage for a deposit as low as £25. The average price of houses varied from about £375 in the Heath to £1,000 in Cyncoed. For families unable to afford these prices, the Corporation built council houses at Mynachdy, Tremorfa, and at their most ambitious and extensive municipal housing development in Ely.

In 1918 Ely was still a tiny village but, between the wars, homes for thousands of families were built in the area. Activities commenced at Red House Farm in 1923 and by 1939 almost the whole of the Ely housing estate, north of Cowbridge Road, was completed. Many of the dwellings were constructed by the firm of Bright and Addicott who began a small scale business in the district with a capital of just £400. The quality of their work led to major contracts until eventually they employed more than a hundred permanent staff. Even in the Depression men of enterprise could prosper. The houses at Ely were built to a high standard and the whole estate was attractively planned. Electric lighting was installed in every property at a time when most homes were lit by gas. Naturally, these council houses were in great demand and were allocated on a points system, according to the size of the family and its circumstances. Priority was given to people living with their parents or in overcrowded conditions.

Road improvement schemes, apart from easing the plight of the unemployed, were  essential to cope with an ever increasing flow of traffic. The construction of the northern orbital road, later named "Western Avenue', began in 1930. Among the ancient landmarks to disappear was Llandaff Mill and the uninterrupted green sward from the castle to the cathedral was no more. The cost of construction from Ely Bridge to Gabalfa was £150,000, but in 1933 the Ministry of Transport rejected further plans to continue the route eastwards. It was to be another forty years before the Eastern Avenue completed Cardiff's inner bypass.

 Congestion in the city centre was reaching nightmare proportions, as motorised traffic jostled among horse-drawn vehicles and trams. Plans to widen Duke Street had been proposed in 1912 but action was delayed until after the war. In 1923 the buildings on the north side of the street were demolished and gradually the impressive modern view of the castle began to emerge. The Fourth Marquess of Bute took advantage of the alterations to rebuild the ancient Roman walls and to move the Animal Wall to its present position.

The Corporation operated motor buses from 1920 and gradually they replaced the more inflexible tram. No further tramways were constructed after 1929, though the service did not come to a nostalgic conclusion until February 1950. In 1942 trolley-buses added to the traffic chaos in the streets of Cardiff until they too were discarded in 1970. Traffic problems in Cardiff were heightened because its public transport system had no recognised terminus in the city centre. Permission to build a bus station in Wood Street was obtained in 1934, but progress in clearing the site was slow before the Second World War and not until 1954 was the Central Bus Station finally opened.

Changing modes of travel were clearly signposted in May 1930, when the Prince of Wales arrived at Cardiff by air for the opening of the Chemistry and Physics Laboratory at University College. Wearing a flying helmet and goggles, the Prince landed at the new municipal airport on Pengam Moors. Flying displays soon became very popular at the airport, and by 1933 the G.W.R. were offering domestic flights to Torquay and Plymouth at a single fare of £3 and £3.10/-. By 1938 a regular service flew to Weston every hour, the ten minute journey costing 9/6d for a return ticket. After serving as an R.A.F. maintenance unit in the Second World War, the airport closed in 1954, but many of its former hangars are still in use as workshops and factories in Seawall Road.

 Willows High School, built on the old airfield, reminds us of Cardiff's most famous airman. E.T. Willows was the first man to fly the Bristol Channel but it was airships that really fascinated him. In 1905, when he was just nineteen, he designed and built his first airship at East Moors. Before the Great War, Willows employed 150 staff but in the 1920's his business became another victim of the Depression. Recognised as "Britain's foremost airship pioneer', Willows died tragically in a balloon accident at the age of 40 in 1926.

Even in the depressed areas the interwar years were never a period of unrelieved gloom. For a moderate admission charge, an escape from everyday worries could always be found at one of Cardiff's picture palaces. In the city centre there were 9 cinemas, with 12 more in the suburbs changing their programmes twice a week.

The most luxurious film theatres were to be found in Queen Street. The Empire was converted to a cinema in 1933 and retained the opulence of its music hall days, including a resident organist to entertain the audience between films. When the Capitol opened its doors in 1920, it was even more lavish with its cinema, concert hall, ballroom, and restaurant. The concerts were usually held on Sundays, as cinemas in Cardiff did not open on the Sabbath until 1952. The Queen's was a less pretentious picture house but it was always an innovator. In 1929 the management presented Al Jolson in The Singing Fool, the first talking picture to be shown in Cardiff. All these cinemas are now closed. John Menzies occupies the site of the Queen's, the C and A store stands where the Empire once attracted huge audiences, while the Capitol has been demolished to make way for the Capitol Exchange Shopping Centre. None of them could withstand the challenge of television in the 1960's, just as in their day, they had brought about the demise of the music hall.

The New Theatre survived, not without difficulty, as a twice-nightly variety theatre, though its productions were far inferior to those of the pre-war years. The New Theatre Royal was damaged by fire during its closure between 1914 and 1920. When it was re-opened as The Playhouse, it too struggled to overcome competition from the cinema, and financial constraints led to a further closure for two years in 1924. The theatre enjoyed its greatest run of success after changing its name to the "Prince of Wales' in 1936. For the next twenty years, the most famous celebrities of the British Theatre played on its stage, among them Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, John Gielgud and Richard Burton. In the 1950's the curtain came down once more and the theatre was reduced to showing sex films. Today, while the façade of the building has been tastefully restored, its interior has been  transformed into a bar and dining rooms for J.D. Wetherspoon.

Sport provided a means of relaxation in a troubled world and the people of Cardiff had an abundant choice of spectator events. The Taff Swim, in which competitors swam from Cardiff Bridge to Clarence Bridge, was a popular annual occasion. The Taff Swim was transferred to Roath Park in 1931 when Cardiff Bridge was in the process of being widened, and thereafter it was a regular attraction until the pollution of the lake led to its cancellation in the 1960's.

 The 1920's was a golden era for Cardiff City Football Club. Admitted to the Football League in 1920, the team immediately won promotion to the First Division. For several years, spectators at Ninian Park were able to watch one of the finest sides in the country. In 1924 the club narrowly failed to win the First Division Championship, and the following year the players reached the Cup Final, losing 1-0 to Sheffield United. The crowning glory came in 1927, when Cardiff City defeated Arsenal 1-0 to win the F.A. Cup. Thousands of people packed Cathays Park that Saturday afternoon, waiting for the news to be relayed from Wembley. When the winning goal was scored, "there broke forth a mighty roar, ... rarely heard in the city before'. The following Monday the players were given a rapturous reception as they returned with the cup. Sadly, after this triumph, the club fell into decline and never again has it matched the achievements of those heady days.

Glamorgan County Cricket Club had played at the Arms Park since 1889 and, when the club was admitted to the County Championship in 1921, the team's opening match was played at the ground. A thrilling encounter had a fairy tale ending when Glamorgan defeated Sussex by 23 runs.

The Cardiff Rugby Club enjoyed only limited success in the 1920's, though large crowds attended the big occasions at the Arms Park. In the years immediately before the Second World War, the team once more upheld its famous tradition, when the side included such fine players as Cliff Jones, Les Spence and Wilfred Wooller, who scored the winning try for Wales against New Zealand in 1935.

In 1922 Bute decided to sell the Arms Park. The flats in Westgate Street were built on part of the land, but the Cardiff Athletic Club was able to buy the stadium at a reasonable price. The Welsh Rugby Union became a major shareholder in the Athletic Club and, to raise additional revenue, greyhound racing was held at the Arms Park from 1927. Despite some talk of a national stadium for Welsh rugby, international matches were shared with Swansea until 1954. The construction of a new double-decker stand increased the capacity of the ground to 52,000, but unfortunately the stand was destroyed by a German landmine in 1941.


Once more the clouds of war began to gather. Ironically, just as the First World War had contributed to the Great Depression, so rearmament in preparation for the Second World War brought it to an end. New munitions and armaments factories tended to be built in the depressed areas, where they were less vulnerable to bombardment from the air. In Cardiff, the steel industry worked at full capacity to produce the raw material for existing factories, such as Curran's, and for the new Royal Ordnance Factory at Llanishen. Cardiff began to resemble an arsenal as factories, in and around the city, produced cartridges, shells, parachutes, guns, and even equipment for naval photography. Curran's alone needed a workforce of 13,000 employees and, when the war began, unemployment fell so rapidly that by July 1944 only 0.2% of people in the city were without work.