The Victorian and Edwardian Churches


When Queen Victoria's reign began in 1837, Cardiff possessed only a few Anglican and Nonconformist churches but the flood of settlers in the nineteenth century guaranteed an increase in their number. Roman Catholics also built new churches, mainly for the immigrants from Ireland, while the places of worship in Butetown reflect the kaleidoscope of nationalities who came to live in that district of Cardiff.

In this upsurge of new development, the ancient churches were not forgotten. At last, Llandaff Cathedral was rescued from its long years of neglect. Bruce Knight, the first dean to be appointed since Norman times, began the task of repairing the fabric, but only the Lady Chapel was restored before his death in 1843. The work continued under his successor, Dean Conybeare, who employed John Prichard to supervise the rehabilitation of the cathedral. Prichard was the diocesan architect and the son of a vicar of Llandaff. He began by demolishing Wood's extraordinary Italian temple, and reconstructed the Presbytery and Nave in a sympathetic style which retained most of their mediaeval characteristics. In 1861 most of the Cathedral was open for divine service and only the West Front awaited renewal. Prichard completed this work in the next six years, replacing the fallen South-west Tower with a graceful tower and spire which, though they aroused some controversy at the time, enhanced the dignified appearance of the cathedral. Another interesting new feature was the row of sovereigns' heads along the south wall. Prichard's partner, J.P. Seddon, used his influence to commission some fine works of art by the Pre-Raphaelite School, the most splendid of which is "The Seed of David' by Rossetti. With the installation of an organ for the first time since 1691, the scene was set for the great thanksgiving service on 13 July 1869.

Prichard was responsible for the building or restoration of several other churches in Victorian Cardiff. At St. John's Church, £12,000 was raised by public subscription to pay for a comprehensive reconstruction programme which was completed by 1889. Once again Prichard linked innovation to the most pleasing aspects of the past. The magnificent perpendicular tower was unaltered but, with the addition of a spacious vestry and two new aisles, the church could now seat 1,500 people. Attractive stained glass windows and a resplendent stone reredos, sculptured by Goscombe John, amplified the beauty of the church.

Two of Prichard's new churches can be found in Canton and Roath. The church of St. John the Evangelist was built in stages between 1854 and 1902, a period which saw the population of Canton rise to more than 10,000. At Roath the little whitewashed mediaeval church, dedicated to St. Margaret, was replaced in 1873 with a much larger building. Its most attractive attributes are to be found in its interior, and particularly impressive is the mortuary chapel built by Lord Bute as a mausoleum for his family in 1883.

The nineteenth century saw the rejuvenation of St. Mary's Church, though not on its original site. The Second Marquess provided a plot of land in Bute Road and lent his support to the building fund. A great bazaar was held at the castle, and four famous poets were each asked to compose a poem in aid of the fund. Among them was a contribution from William Wordsworth:


 "When Severn's sweeping flow had overthrown

  St. Mary's Church, the Preacher then would cry,

  Thus Christian people, God his might hath shown,

  That ye to Him your love may testify;

  Haste, and rebuild the Pile'.


The most striking characteristics of the church are its tall twin towers, capped with pyramid-shaped roofs. One small stone corbel from the ruined building in St. Mary Street was placed in the churchyard as a memorial. When the new church was opened on 16 December 1843, the Marquess led the procession from the Town Hall, while the bells of St. John's pealed forth all day and the ships in the harbour hoisted their colours.


In 1830, when there were only a few dozen Roman Catholics in Cardiff, a visiting priest from Merthyr met their spiritual needs. Thirty years later, there were 10,000 Roman Catholics in Cardiff, as Irish families arrived in great numbers to work on the construction of the docks and railways. Most of them lived in Newtown and until 1842 they met at a house in Bute Street. Every Sunday the window frame was removed from the room on the ground floor, so that hundreds of people outside could participate in the service.

The first Roman Catholic church in Cardiff, dedicated to St. David, was opened in Bute Terrace. In 1887 the building was converted to a parish hall when the new St. David's Church was consecrated in Charles Street. Designed by the famous Pugin Company in a Gothic style, the Third Marquess contributed substantially towards its construction. In 1916, St. David's became the Metropolitan Church of Wales and the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Wales. Its fabric was severely damaged during the Blitz of 1941 but the cathedral was fully restored after the war.

As early as 1861, Catholics in Roath were attending Mass at St. Peter's-in-the-Fields, a name testifying that the church preceded the urban suburb which surrounded it 40 years later. Before 1890 the Catholic churches of St. Patrick's in Grangetown, St. Paul's in Tyndall Street, and St. Mary's in Wyndham Crescent were all established. In 1907 St. Mary's was rebuilt on a grander scale in Kings Road.

Every branch of Nonconformity was represented in nineteenth century Cardiff. By 1914 there were approximately sixty Nonconformist churches with their missions and gospel halls. Baptist, Congregational, Methodist and Wesleyan all had their own chapels, providing services in Welsh and English throughout the city.

Most of Cardiff's earliest Nonconformist churches have disappeared. The Presbyterian meeting place provided by John Archer in Womanby Street was destroyed by fire in 1847. It was rebuilt and used as the English Congregational Church until the late nineteenth century, when the New Trinity Church in Canton took its place. A plaque at the centre of the St. David's Arcades marks the site of Ebeneser, the Welsh Congregational Church which was demolished to make way for the shopping development in 1978. Wood Street Temperance Hall was erected in 1864 to extol the virtues of temperance. Within a year it had become a circus and music hall, capable of seating 3,000 people. Blondin, the legendary tight-rope walker, was among the artistes to perform there. In 1869 the hall began its hundred year history as Wood Street Congregational Church. It was the venue for one of the early evangelist movements, the Big Tent Mission, which pitched its camp at the rear of the church in 1923. Southgate House was built on the site in 1973, when Wood Street Hall was demolished during the redevelopment of Temperance Town.

Other Victorian chapels in the centre of Cardiff have been adapted to a different role in the twentieth century. Before 1800 the Wesleyans were meeting at a chapel in Church street. It was rebuilt in 1829 and this date can be seen on the shop now occupying the premises. The earliest Baptists came from Herefordshire and worshipped at The Armoury in St. Mary Street. Bethany Church was built on the site in 1821 and it was refurbished forty years later. The annual Whitsun Treat in Cardiff originated at Bethany in 1842 as an alternative attraction to Llandaff Fair, which had become notorious for its rowdy behaviour. Bethany Chapel is now in Rhiwbina and the old church has been attractively incorporated into Howell's Store. The Welsh Baptists have met at Tabernacl in The Hayes since 1821, though the existing chapel was not built until 1865.

In 1841 the Second Marquess granted the Jews of Cardiff their own burial ground at Highfield. The tiny community worshipped in a rented room at the rear of the Market in Trinity Street but in 1858, as their numbers increased, they opened their first synagogue in East Street, near Charles Street. By 1890, the Jewish population in Cardiff had risen to more than 1,000, many of them fleeing from persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. A second synagogue was opened in Edwardes Place but obviously a much larger building was required. A site was obtained at a nominal rent from Lord Bute and in 1897 a spacious, elegant new synagogue was opened in Cathedral Road, a district where many of the Jews in Cardiff were now living.

The Church played an active pastoral role in Tiger Bay. In 1860 an old vessel, H.M.S. Thisbe, was moored in the East Dock and its quarter deck was converted into a church. Thisbebecame the Gospel Ship and Mission to Seamen with a full time chaplain, a library, newspapers, and facilities to write home. Sunday services and illustrated Bible talks in the week attracted an average congregation of 600. The Nonconformists were also active in their missionary zeal. Bethany Baptists first provided a room for worship in West Bute Street and later opened a small chapel in James Street. The Methodist Mission in Loudoun Square was open to people of every race and became known as the "Coloured Mission'.

Churches were established in Butetown to meet the needs of foreign seamen and immigrants. The Norwegian Church, built in 1868 near the West Dock, became a colony of Scandinavian culture in South Wales. Its corrugated iron exterior was unpretentious, but inside was the "cosiest and most beautifully kept Seamen's mission in all Britain'. It was adorned with portraits of the royal families of Scandinavia, views of the Norwegian fiords, ships' models, maps, and flags of the Baltic States. The church became derelict as the Docks area declined, but it has now been tastefully rebuilt near the Visitors’ Centre in Cardiff Bay.

The Greek Orthodox Church, near St. Mary's, was built in 1906 by the Greek communities of Cardiff, Newport and Barry. Constructed in the style of a basilica, the first impressions of red brick give no clue to the rich interior, with its delightfully decorated dome, its ikons, and the blue and white colours of Greece prominent everywhere. The priest's house adjoins the church and once a tiny school existed here to serve the Greeks who had settled in Cardiff.

The Noor el Islam Mosque in Peel Street was a later addition to the landscape of Butetown. When it was built in 1947 its central dome and minarets brought a touch of Arabia to the district, but it aroused controversy among Moslems, as some of them complained that it was not properly orientated towards Mecca. It was replaced in the 1980's with the present mosque in Alice Street.

Thus Cardiff acquired a rich variety of ecclesiastical buildings, many of which survive to leave an impressive architectural heritage. The churches are also a further reflection of the multiplicity of races, cultures, and religions which transformed Cardiff in the Victorian and Edwardian period.