Tiger Bay


As new docks were built, and the number of ships calling at Cardiff exceeded the wildest expectations, the vitality of Butetown attracted a mixture of races from every quarter of the globe. Thus was created a society unique in Britain at that time. A relatively small area accommodated a volatile population of seamen, dockers and labourers, as well as individuals of a more shady character. Sailors and settlers from near and far made Bute Street the most cosmopolitan highway in Britain. The Irish were among the earliest immigrants to arrive but they were soon joined by more distant newcomers. Greeks, Arabs and Africans, often in national dress, mingled with Italian ice cream men, Breton onion sellers or Chinese seamen. To the casual visitor, the sounds around him must have resembled the Tower of Babel.

It was in the 1860's that Butetown came to be known as "Tiger Bay'. The name is said to have been the inspiration of an anonymous singer who performed in a troupe headed by Harry Moreton. ""He had a song of a descriptive kind called "Tiger Bay' and nightly brought Butetown into it. Soon after this Butetown was called Tiger Bay''.

It was a name which became famous, often notorious, across the world. Howard Spring has given a graphic description of Tiger Bay in the early years of this century. "Chinks and Dagos, Lascars and Levantines, slippered about the faintly evil by-ways that ran off from Bute Street ... Children of the strangest colours, fruit of frightful misalliances, staggered half-naked about the streets; and the shop windows were decorated with names that were an epitome of all the clans and classes under the sun. The flags of all nations fluttered on the housefronts ... It was a dirty, smelly, rotten and romantic district, an offence and an inspiration, and I loved it'.

When Butetown became overcrowded, noisy and disreputable, the wealthier classes moved to more pleasant surroundings, leaving their fine houses in Loudoun Square and Mountstuart Square to be  adapted to a new purpose. Finding somewhere to live in Butetown had become a serious problem by 1880, and the once elegant mansions were either shared by three or four families, or were converted into seedy lodging houses.

 In 1894 there were 178 lodging houses in Butetown, four times as many as any other seaport. A quarter of them were kept by foreigners, some of them "crimps', who ensnared sailors into debt. Often a sailor's only means of escape was to jump ship and obtain an advance from the master of a fresh vessel, thus enabling him to pay his dues to the crimp. As early as the 1850's, American shipmasters were employing a rough character, by the name of Charles Gannett, to find them replacements for their deserters. Using methods reminiscent of the press gang, Gannett brought them fresh recruits, "meek as lambs, though some of them had marks showing they had been forcibly restrained from leaving his custody'.

Lurid tales were told of the seamy side of life in Tiger Bay. An elderly lady, visiting Cardiff on a paddle steamer, was told, "This is Tiger Bay where all the murders take place', whereupon she decided it was safer to stay aboard, until she reached the respectable haven of Penarth. Stories were told of young girls from the valleys, enticed into the white slave trade and never seen again. Brothels there were aplenty, one policeman claiming to have raided more than eighty of them in a single year. The "ladies of the night' were ever ready to relieve unsuspecting sailors of their worldly wealth, and many of them woke up next morning to find themselves "shanghaied' on a vessel bound for a distant shore.

Dens of vice and iniquity were an inevitable fact of life in a seaport as busy as Cardiff. Chinese laundries served as a front for gambling and the smoking of opium. Pubs and drinking clubs were innumerable and some of them still exist. The Packet in Bute Street is now a respectable tavern, but at the beginning of this century it was "a sort of headquarters for all the ladies of the road ... a dark and gloomy cavern.' Within this colourful seething cauldron, race relationships among the residents were normally harmonious. It was, as a native of Tiger Bay remembered, the one place where "a coloured man could call himself a Welshman and get away with it'.

Yet at times, there were bound to be tensions among so many differing nationalities.  W.J. Trounce recalled a fight between Greek and American seamen in 1856, when both sides resorted to knives and revolvers, but "these encounters were of such frequent occurrence that very little notice was taken of them'. National feelings again ran high at the time of the Crimean War, when Turkish and Russian sailors nearly came to blows. The Turks sharpened their swords "on a grindstone on deck, to the consternation of crowds of spectators'. The vessels were berthed on opposite sides of the dock and, when the Russian ship departed, the Turkish brig was detained for three days to give the enemy a fair start.

Racial conflict was liable to occur when blacklegging presented a threat to local jobs. The seamen's strike of 1911, fought on the issues of low wages and union recognition, was particularly vicious. The strikers were led by Captain Tupper, described by F.E. Smith as "the most dangerous man in Europe'. The employment of Chinese seamen was bitterly resented and, in attacking the offices of a tug owner who was using Chinese labour, the crowd not only began a fire but cut the hoses of the fire brigade trying to extinguish it. Chinese laundries and lodging houses in Butetown and other suburbs of Cardiff became a target for violence, and order was only upheld with the assistance of police reinforcements and a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers.


Butetown has changed considerably in the last forty years, though its distinctive character remains. A slum clearance programme of the 1960's and 1970's removed the dingy squalor of the nineteenth century but sadly, in the process, the splendid Victorian houses of

Loudoun Square
, which could so easily have been refurbished, were also demolished. The grandeur of those early Victorian dwellings, though they now serve other purposes, can still be appreciated in
Bute Crescent
. Another attractive row of houses can be seen overlooking the sea at Windsor Esplanade, where a dockmaster, a tugboat owner and several pilots lived in the 1890's.

When a humble sandboat sailed forth from the West Dock in January 1964, its useful life came to an unceremonious conclusion. Soon afterwards it was filled in, and since that time the industrial activity of the East Dock and the RoathBasinhas also come to an end. Yet it was the port and the demand for Welsh coal which transformed Cardiffand provided the springboard for its amazing growth in the nineteenth century.