When London media giant Trinity Mirror closed its Cardiff printing operation in 2017, the event was largely ignored in the city. The state-of-the-art print works in Pacific Road, Splott, opened by Charles Windsor to fanfares of hubristic self-congratulation a mere 14 years earlier, was where the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and many weekly local papers were printed, and represented the continuation of a Cardiff newspaper industry born in 1822 with the publication of the Cardiff Weekly Reporter – a short-lived effort located in St John Street that was defunct by 1830. A more resilient press sector truly began in 1845 with the Cardiff & Merthyr Guardian – the renamed Glamorgan, Monmouth & Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian (founded 1832) relocated from Merthyr – at 13 Duke Street (demolished when the north side of Duke Street was completely removed in 1923 – street numbering was consequently reconfigured). From those modest beginnings Cardiff grew into a major centre of newspaper publishing, on a par with anywhere in the UK outside London, with its own vigorous, exuberant, Welsh-specific journalism culture. But in 2017 the printing of all Trinity Mirror’s Welsh titles was relocated to England (at Oxford, Watford and Birmingham) and Cardiff’s 195-year-old newspaper tradition was suddenly no more.
The reason this pretty momentous end of an era was barely noticed is simple: Cardiff’s newspapers had been dead for years. For the story of their decline see this blog from 2010 – suffice to say here that Trinity Mirror’s gutter-press ethos, glaring hostility to the very concept of Wales, ruthless cuts to staffing levels, merger of individual papers into the ghastly, advertisement-choked ‘Media Wales’/’WalesOnline’ template, abandonment of any semblance of serious reporting and journalism in favour of toe-curling civic boosterism, regurgitated PR drivel and cut’n’paste puff pieces, plus the sheer appalling standards of their lousy products, all combined with the impact of oceans of free news on the internet to mean that nobody gave a damn. The barrel-scraping nature of the Canary Wharf-based corporation was confirmed in 2018 when, untroubled by any inconvenient values and principles, Trinity Mirror added the extreme rightwing Daily Express and Sunday Express to its stable and rebranded itself as ‘Reach’. These then are the useless bastards who today have monopoly control of what passes for the newspaper industry in Wales. It’s enough to make you retch.
Going back to the mid-19th century, for a while Cardiff had newspapers galore until the remorseless logic of monopolistic capitalism reduced the competition to two big beasts at either end of St Mary Street. In addition to the conservative Cardiff & Merthyr Guardian there was The Silurian, a liberal weekly established in 1855 at 17 St Mary Street; the Cardiff Times, another weekly set up next door at 18 St Mary Street in 1857 by Scottish Liberal David Duncan (1811-1888); the monthly Cardiff Advertiser & Local Guide of 1859, published from offices in the brand-new Royal Arcade; the Cambria Daily Leader, Cardiff’s first daily, founded in 1863 and printed by steam-powered presses in a long-gone factory on John Street; the Star of Gwent, a Newport weekly which opened a branch office in David Duncan’s premises in 1863; and the weekly Cardiff Shipping Gazette, another Duncan enterprise, started in 1864.
The arrival of the Western Mail in 1869 cranked things up to another level entirely. Founded by the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900), quite specifically to counter Cardiff’s prevailing liberalism and promote the Tory cause, the daily paper had the not inconsiderable advantage of being bankrolled by the richest man in the world. With his colossal wealth he soon gave his baby a fabulous home, the Western Mail Building at 68 St Mary Street. It opened in 1871 at the southern end of the Street on ground that was once on the banks of the Taff and had only recently become occupied by workshops, having been rendered usable after the diversion of the river westward in 1850. The building was hard by the Custom House Bridge over the Glamorganshire Canal and more or less adjacent to the Great Western Railway station. Its very presence rapidly encouraged development in the vicinity, increasing land values in the process – always a priority for the Bute Estate – and soon it was at the heart of an eight-pronged junction that revolved around the statue of the 2nd Marquis (1793-1848), shifted here from the middle of High Street in 1879. It was a showpiece four-storey synthesis of modern Gothic and industrial utility designed by Scotsman Peter Whyte (1845-1915), an engineer for the Bute Docks, with a fancy facade disguising a huge L-shaped printworks to the rear that opened onto the purpose-built Great Western Lane and direct access to the station for efficient distribution. Unfortunately, there are no photographs of this building because it was mostly destroyed by fire in 1893 when photography was still in its infancy. However, a replacement was quickly erected by 1895 on the same site to exactly the same design and dimensions, with the addition of a flashy five-storey annex to the north named Western Mail Chambers.
The gauntlet had been thrown down, and David Duncan grasped it with relish. Within a year, in 1872, he started his own daily, called the South Wales News, while continuing to produce the weekly Cardiff Times and swallowing up smaller operations like The Silurian and the Cambria Daily Leader in the process. In no time the South Wales News had the largest circulation of any daily in Wales, and Duncan next took steps to modernise and enlarge the business by leaving the cramped premises on the east side of St Mary Street and moving in 1874 to new facilities on the west side: a no-nonsense factory unit at 75/76 St Mary Street, provocatively just to the north of the Western Mail Building (the vacated premises at 17/18 St Mary Street were engulfed by the James Howell department store in the 1890s). This was just a temporary solution: in 1875 Duncan moved his operation a few hundred yards northwards to a new purpose-built office and printworks on the corner of Golate at 102 St Mary Street that stretched down to Westgate Street to the rear and was big enough to house and produce all the Duncan titles (the Cardiff Rates Department offices and the Philharmonic restaurant eventually replaced the printworks at 75/76 St Mary Street). From this stern and imposing new HQ with its Flemish-style pediments (architect unknown) David Duncan strengthened his business, going toe-to-toe in fierce competition with the Western Mail operation at the bottom of the Street – sold by the Bute Estate in 1879 to its editor, bombastic Yorkshire Tory Henry Lascelles Carr (1841-1902). Before he died Duncan launched a new evening paper in 1884, the South Wales Echo, and Carr retaliated with the Evening Express in 1891. Into the 20th century the two foes had both consolidated into three-pronged products: the Western Mail, the Weekly Mail and the Evening Express at the bottom of the Street; the South Wales Daily News, the Cardiff Times and the South Wales Echo at the top. This period of multi-faceted, diverse, home-grown and home-made Cardiff journalism was ended in 1928 when expansionist London corporation Allied Newspapers took over both, closed down all papers except the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo, eradicated hundreds of skilled jobs, sold off the Western Mail Building (which was demolished and replaced by a hulking, lacklustre block in the 1930s, now Walkabout), turned the Echo into a Tory paper and moved everything into the Duncan & Sons Building.
Post WW2 the two papers thrived, expanding into a former bank building to the south and boasting circulations that topped 100,000 each. St Mary Street was Wales’ mini version of London’s Fleet Street; steeped in an aura of ink, paper and hot metal, humming presses shaking the building to its foundations, typewriters rattling and clacking, a collegiate chaos of hubbub and noise, of reporters rushing around, of compositors bantering, of deadlines and scoops, of opinion and debate, of comradeship and solidarity. From 1943 in the hands of the Tory Kemsley brothers, originally from Merthyr, the papers were still recognisably Welsh, albeit stodgily conservative. Then the takeover by Canadian corporation Thomson Newspapers in 1959 – part of a swoop that snapped up no less than 15 UK titles – marked the final severance of any Welsh connection.
In 1960 the operation was relocated to Thomson House, a shiny new structure in nearby Havelock Street by English architecture firm Ellis Clarke & Gallannaugh. Featuring a large abstract mosaic by Welsh impressionist painter Ray Howard-Jones (1903-1996), the three-storey building was a quintessential slab of optimistic post-War modernism squatting on ground where once stood the damp-riddled, back-to-back Victorian terraces of Temperance Town. Cardiff’s professional cheerleaders were excited: the 20th century had arrived! The abandoned building in St Mary Street was allowed to rot for a while before the demolition crews moved in to wipe out David Duncan’s life’s work. It was replaced in 1966 by Golate House, a hideous cliff of pebble-dashed concrete panels forever in search of tenants.
In retrospect, the Thomson regime didn’t do such a bad job compared to what was to come, even expanding their Welsh titles in 1989 with the launch of Wales on Sunday. But eventually they sold up what was then a fairly profitable business to Trinity Mirror in 1995 and this led inexorably to the demise of Thomson House. The trashy tabloid offering, lack of decent writers and absence of actual journalism caused the papers’ circulation figures to go into freefall. Thomson House was stripped of its printing press in 2003 when it was moved to Splott and in 2007 ‘Media Wales’, as Trinity Mirror now called its Welsh sub-branch, was downsized to a much smaller new office in adjacent Park Street, allowing Trinity Mirror to sell off the lucrative Havelock Street land. Thomson House bit the dust in 2008 and in its place rose an aggressive and oppressive UK government pile. With typical box-ticking tokenism, creepy condescension and brazen insincerity it was christened Tŷ William Morgan after the 16th century translator of the bible into Welsh. The 12-storey, 40 metre (130 ft) insult in glass and concrete by US architecture firm Gensler, was ostensibly built to house HM Revenue & Customs relocated from Llanisien but, more to the point, the clear subtext was to make the loud statement in the heart of the capital of Wales: hey Taffy, never forget you’re still our colonial possession. The fact that the demolition of perfectly fine buildings and the erection of completely unnecessary new buildings in their place is the most carbon intensive activity of all – more than extracting fossil fuels, more than driving cars, more than air travel, more than burning down forests, more than eating meat, etc – did not, unsurprisingly, enter the calculations of any of those involved (in order of culpability: UK government, Cardiff Council, developers Rightacres, owners Legal & General).
Now the Splott printworks are being demolished to clear the way for another godforsaken ‘business park’ that ignores the desperate need to re-green and restore Cardiff’s East Moors, that will be redundant before it’s built and that will be under water before the end of the century anyway. So to recap: the first Western Mail printworks lasted 57 years, the second 85 years, the third 43 years and the fourth and last a mere 14 years. This, indeed, is a city with unsustainability, short-termism, profligacy and ignorance built into its bone-marrow.
As for the three newspapers, all are clearly on their last legs as printed hard copy so long as vast media conglomerate Reach are in control. With circulations down to around a pitiful 7,000 each, they are sustained by a skeleton staff of underpaid media studies graduates who could be fitted into a broom cupboard, can barely string together a legible or readable sentence and continually display a shocking lack of knowledge about Cardiff and Wales. Editorial standards could not be lower, with unchecked inaccuracies and plain untruths everywhere, and the wafer-thin package has to be padded out with Press Association feeds and generic pap issued from London that can be found in all Reach’s UK papers. What resources there are go into WalesOnline, one of the world’s worst websites, rendered more or less unusable thanks to the blizzard of pop-up ads that hack every article to pieces and appear wherever a cursor hovers – not to mention the anonymous far-right trolls who dominate below-the-line comments with demented crypto-fascist attacks on the very idea that Cymru exists.
There is a glimmer of hope in the signs of a revival in trade union activism as 12 years of Tory austerity, criminality, negligence and cruelty cause mass suffering, the collapse of public services and societal breakdown across the UK. Last month, for instance, Reach NUJ members went on strike over pay across the UK and there was a good response and strong picket line at Park Street, led by the redoubtable Martin Shipton. He and Will Hayward are the last representatives of proper journalism and talented writing remaining at Media Wales. The people of Wales should be organising and agitating to remove what remains of the Cardiff press from the clutches of Reach and create the strong, indigenous media Wales so grievously lacks.
Pictures: Cardiff Central Library/People’s Collection Wales; HTFP; RIBApix; Novaloca