Cardiff’s lost buildings 7

Bute West Dock
The idea of constructing a dock at Cardiff established itself in the materialistic mind of the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848) during the 1820s when his advisers persuaded him that, considering his vast land holdings in the Glamorgan coalfield and his ownership of the Taff estuary and most of the Severn foreshore, this was a sure-fire way to maximise financial returns. Dock charges, urban rents in Cardiff and, most of all, incalculable mineral royalties could be garnered if he had his very own outlet to the sea. Having spent years thwarting and blocking the improvement of the 1794 Glamorganshire Canal because he didn’t own it, the Marquis proceeded with the scheme as soon as the demand for high-quality Welsh steam coal started to go through the roof. He commissioned notable civil engineer and canal specialist James Green (1781-1849) to draw up a detailed plan, hired engineering colossus Thomas Telford (1757-1834) to tweak it and then another engineering genius William Cubbitt (1785-1861) to completely revise the scheme before he was satisfied. He obtained initial parliamentary approval in 1830, allowing work to begin on what was originally called the Bute Ship Canal, and then got further approval in 1834 for the amended plans (which involved an entrance channel, called the ‘mud cut’, that would be kept clear of sediment through a regular high-pressure scouring by water from a reservoir).

First, the old sea-bank was raised and fortified and the marshy sea-moors drained by a network of ditches. That monumental task, carried out by gangs of Cardiff labourers with picks and shovels, took four years alone. Attention turned to the Dock in 1834. To supply it with water, a feeder was constructed by throwing a new weir across the Taff two miles upriver at Blackweir (replacing a 14th century weir built to supply water to the Castle moat). The old water channel was then upgraded and extended around the eastern flank of the town to enter the Dock at its northern end. It took five more years to complete the Dock itself, involving hosts of excavators, quarrymen, stonemasons and surveyors, while digging out the mud cut often required round-the-clock working depending on tides and weather. Designed by Telford-trained Scotsman George Turnbull (1809-1889), it was a wonder of the age and a structure of great beauty, a 1200m (4000ft) long and 60m (200ft) wide finger of water with massive sandstone flanks and granite copings culminating in an elliptical basin and a pair of immense iron entrance gates giving access to the dredged channel and the Severn estuary.

The Bute Dock officially opened in October 1839 when the Bristol paddle-steamer Lady Charlotte towed the local schooner Celerity and its party of VIPs and big-wigs on board through the Dock gates and the Oval Basin and into the spectacular sculpted waterscape. The project had cost the Marquis £220,000 (£18 million today) out of his own pocket – a mere drop in the ocean to a man whose total assets at the time were worth £2.4 trillion at today’s values, and chicken feed when measured against the mind-boggling wealth ultimately generated by the Dock and the four additional Bute Docks that would follow in its wake.

There were teething troubles and technical issues in the first few years but by 1843 the undertaking was deemed to be completely satisfactory and Cardiff’s meteoric ascent to becoming the world’s greatest coal-port by the end of the century could really begin to take off. This diagram illustrates the solitary Dock’s position in 1848:

This first Bute Dock was followed by a sequence of bigger and bigger docks as Cardiff’s coal export trade went off the graph: the East Dock (1859), the Roath Basin (1875), the Roath Dock (1887) and finally the Queen Alexandra Dock (1907).

West Dock, left, and East Dock, right, 1923

And yet, 125 years later in 1964, the West Dock was closed down as the last cargo of coal left Cardiff, and by 1970 the fantastic civil engineering achievement was filled in and had gone. The pointless destruction was a good example of the wasteful profligacy, short-termism, baked-in unsustainability and hubristic over-reaching that have coagulated into defining Cardiff characteristics. In a city of neurotic neophilia anything not spanking new is condemned as out-of-date and torn down to be replaced by another fly-by-night fad destined for the same fate even faster as the life-spans of buildings get ever shorter. To Cardiff Council, this is known as an ‘economy’. In that context, I suppose we must be grateful that the West Dock lasted as long as it did, and perhaps we can be hopeful that the structures that replaced it – Lloyd George Avenue, the road to and from nowhere, and sticky, smelly Roald Dahl Plass (don’t mention the antisemitism and the misogyny!) – will also be eradicated before too long. In any event, the sea-level rises caused by man-made climate change will soon do that job whether Russell Goodway likes it or not.

Congregational Chapel
Hannah Street
The most elaborate and extraordinary Classical chapel ever built in Cardiff was opened in 1868 in the very heart of Tiger Bay when the area was still very much on the up and up. It was designed by English architect William Habershon (1818-1891) when in partnership with his pupil Alfred Pite (1832-1911) – one of Habershon’s many architectural partnerships – and was a spectacular confection of grandiose entrance stairs, four chunky Corinthian columns, Venetian balconies, a gloriously portentous overhanging pediment and miscellaneous flamboyant decorative adornments. This was a real work of art as good as any of the many Habershon buildings in Cardiff, such as the Mansion House, the Parc Hotel, chapels galore, all of Tredegarville and everything in Splott east of Tyndall Street (he was the Tredegar Estate’s in-house architect). In fact, I’m typing this sentence in a Habershon house – but, hey, we all make mistakes…

Hannah Street Congregational Chapel

The Chapel didn’t last long. Butetown never became the prosperous harbour town of merchants, mariners and respectable artisans that the Bute Estate had intended – mainly because the Estate’s out-of-touch grandees made a number of critical errors. Apart from the fact that the vision of a prim seaside community bore no relation to the reality of rough-and-ready dockers and merchant seamen pouring into the area, the Estate’s profiteering determination to recoup all the costs of housing and dock construction through increased land values backfired badly. A refusal to sell freeholds and only grant leases meant that rents were set much higher than the Cardiff average and this in turn meant that Butetown homes were simply unaffordable. No ordinary Cardiff family could afford the luxury of renting a Bute house, so taking in lodgers and subletting became the norm and overcrowded, unsanitary, slum conditions soon prevailed. As the middle-classes fled to Cardiff’s suburbs, Butetown’s brief period as a place for all incomes was over by the 1880s and it became the strictly working-class community of legend. Here, then, was the first large-scale manifestation of a Cardiff issue that remains unresolved to this day: the under-provision of working-class housing and the over-provision of middle-class housing – an abiding mismatch created simply by greed, there being more profit per square metre in upmarket developments. The Bute Estate wanted the cheap labour but not the cheap prices, in the same way that today’s Cardiff property developers plaster the city’s green belt with £300,000-£400,000 ‘executive’ housing for people who don’t need a home rather than build the inner-city social housing for those who do.

In such an environment, the Chapel was a fish out of water. There simply wasn’t the congregation anymore for genteel, starchy Congregationalism in Tiger Bay and, barely 50 years after opening, it was decommissioned and sold in 1917. Then, after standing empty for 15 years, a cack-handed attempt to convert it for residential use in 1932 further degraded the building. Meanwhile a humble replacement Chapel consisting of a small house and adjacent hall had been optimistically built in 1928 on the Hannah Street/Henry Street corner on the other side of the road. As Tiger Bay was demolished all around it in the 1950s and 1960s, Hannah Street Congregational Chapel stood forlorn, empty and crumbling until the demolition crews and wrecking balls finally wiped it out in 1980. The Council nodded through this shocking destruction of a listed building without a qualm – the possibility of restoration, rehabilitation and re-use never being contemplated. As for the new Chapel, having been damaged in an air-raid in 1943 it gradually slid into rack and ruin until closure in 2002. Another Nonconformist denomination. the United Reform Church, took it over in 2003 and patched it up enough to make a rudimentary ‘Mission Church’ – but it was thoroughly trashed by wanton vandalism in 2007, abandoned, sold off and summarily demolished. The ground stands empty to this day, while William Habershon’s magnificent creation opposite has been replaced by a hum-drum block of flats.

Seamen’s Institute and All Souls Church
Bute Crescent
As the port of Cardiff expanded in the 19th century to become a quintessential port-of-call for the mariners of the world, it was increasingly necessary to provide social support and amenities for the huge, transient population of ocean-wandering merchant seamen passing through Tiger Bay. To this end the Christian (Anglican) welfare charity ‘The Missions to Seamen’ (today called ‘The Mission to Seafarers’), which had originated in Bristol, set up a Cardiff facility in 1863. HMS Thisbe, a redundant sailing ship, was borrowed from the Admiralty and berthed in the Bute West Dock. Built at Pembroke Dock in 1924, the wooden frigate immediately became a vital resource. Because Cardiff had no import trade to speak of, it was a one-way destination where men with no money were beached. Infamous as the ultimate ‘hard-up port’ and condemned as ‘the dumping ground of Europe’, Cardiff was full of penniless, homeless, hungry, friendless men far from home and looking for a ship – easy prey for the unscrupulous shipowners who signed them on at the minimum rates and the exploitative masters of the boarding houses who took their cut in a notorious Cardiff process known as ‘crimping’ (nowadays, their equivalents would be the no-contract employers and buy-to-let landlords so prevalent in contemporary Cardiff). Thisbe had a limited capacity of only 150 in its Institute, where seamen could pick up mail, use the library, have a meal and socialise, and 250 in its multi-denominational Church below decks. By 1890 it was evident that the vessel was completely inadequate, so it was replaced by a purpose-built Seamen’s Institute and Church which was formerly opened in 1891. Thisbe was taken out of service and sold for scrap.

HMS Thisbe

The new Mission was a proper building on dry land (only heartless despots like UK Home Secretary Cruella Braverman think depositing people on floating hulks is a permanent solution). Designed by Bute Estate architect Edwin Corbett (1849-1934) and built on land donated by the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900), it stood in splendid isolation in a prime position alongside the West Dock Basin. The striking, Gothic-revival monument was constructed of ballast stone brought to Cardiff on empty ships from around the world. It had brick embellishments and red-tiled roofs and its buttresses, gables, pinnacles, lancet windows and a towering belfry on the northern end of the roof made it look very much like a Church, but that was by no means its sole purpose. The ground floor Institute with its reading room, library, rest rooms, canteen and echoing hall was always busy, while the Church on the first floor was the very definition of ecumenical, accommodating 450 of all nationalities in pan-faith worship.

Seamen’s Institute adjacent to the Oval Basin and Locks
Interior of All Souls Church

The Mission was intrinsic to maritime Tiger Bay, one of the evocative sea-front landmarks that defined Cardiff. But the spectacular collapse of Cardiff’s coal-dependent economy from the 1920s onwards was so thorough that by 1950 the paltry import trade exceeded exports for the first time in the history of the docks and the dockland infrastructure, so painfully, expensively and carefully accrued, was being systematically asset stripped and falling into delapidation. Sailors had sailed away, never to return. The Mission closed in 1952 and was purchased by Treharne & Davies Ltd, a local coal-analysis firm that had evolved from providing medicine chests to sailors in the 1860s and was broadening into general analytical chemistry. The building was gutted to suit its new function and renamed Merton House, but the growing business moved out by the 1980s (following a number of takeovers and amalgamations over the years, the company still operates from Cardiff as the Minton, Treharne and Davies Group, with laboratories in Coryton and a head office in Pontprennau) and the entire building was demolished in 1987 leaving not a trace of its near-100 year presence as the dead docklands became a landscape of matchless dereliction while property developers, the sweet smell of cheap land in their nostrils, circled like vultures. Eventually the Seamen’s Institute was replaced by the vestigial void of Roald Dahl Plass and ‘The Flourish’, an open-air venue for a litany of who-needs-it municipal stunts like food festivals, fun fairs and concerts etc. No attempt whatsoever was made to preserve and find another use for the perfectly sound, important building. It could be said that it went from All Souls to Arseholes – but I wouldn’t dream of being so crude…

Diagram/Pictures: Dic Mortimer; pinterest; Cardiff Libraries; H Tempest Ltd/Amgueddfa Cymru; Penarth Dock Collection; Penarth Dock Collection