Cardiff Series: The history of Cardiff Bay and what it means to me

The history of Cardiff Bay has played a significant part in Cardiff’s development, not only during the Industrial Revolution but over the last 20 years too. The history of Tiger Bay, as Cardiff’s docks were originally known, has given me one of my favourite facts to quote; “The first million pound deal in the world was done in the Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay in 1904.”

The Bay

Cardiff Bay during the Industrial Revolution

Cardiff came alive in the late 18th Century when the second Marquess of Bute built up the Cardiff dock area and railway lines from the South Wales Valley’s, to export coal to the rest of the world. The town grew rapidly from the 1830’s, at a rate of 80% per decade. The area was originally called Tiger Bay, but is now known as Cardiff Bay, which has funky bars, shopping, boat trips and visitor attractions.

A major part in Cardiff’s development was exporting coal from the South Wales Valley’s to the rest of the world. The coal mining industry helped Cardiff become the capital city of Wales and the Third Marquess of Bute, who owned the docks, become the richest man in the world, at the time.

As the Cardiff docks exports grew, so did its population; dockworkers and sailors from across the world settled in neighbourhoods close to the docks, known as Tiger Bay and communities from up to 50 different nationalities, including Norwegian, Somali, Yemeni, Spanish, Italian, Caribbean and Irish helped create the unique multicultural character of the area – which still exists today.

By the 1880’s, Cardiff had transformed from one of the smallest towns in Wales to the largest, and its port was handling more coal than any other port in the world. On the eve of the First World War in 1913, coal exports reached their peak at over 13 million tonnes.

Old Cardiff Bay
Courtesy of Wales Online

The notorious Cardiff Bay

Home to a vibrant mix of multi-racial communities, it also had a compelling character of its own. It had a notorious reputation for its red-light district, illegal gambling dens, rowdy pubs and opium bars. Tiger Bay’s seedy and criminal side tended to be along Bute Street. It did mean that all of the residents would be stigmatised, and even though there were social problems in other areas of Cardiff, the docks unjustly carried the worst reputation.

Not much has changed in modern times, there are still those old enough who remember the area as being somewhere you should avoid, and away from the main hustle and bustle, ladies of the night can still be flagged down late at night.

The Cardiff Race Riots

It shook Cardiff to its core and made headlines across the country, but you won’t find any statue or plaque in the Welsh capital that recognises the shocking events of June 1919. That summer, four days of rioting brought murder and mayhem to the streets of the city. They were sparked by racial tensions when servicemen, who had returned from the war, found themselves competing for jobs with a local workforce of mostly black and Asian men, who were also desperate to make ends meet.

On 11th June 1919, those tensions boiled over. A confrontation between a group of black men and a white crowd triggered mass rioting in the docklands. At first, the violence centred on the multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Tiger Bay, but it quickly spilled over to other parts of Cardiff.

Cardiff Race Riots
Courtesy of The Glamorgan Archives

The redevelopment of Cardiff Bay

After the Second World War, most of the industry closed down and became derelict. By the early 1980’s Cardiff Bay had become a neglected wasteland of derelict docks and mudflats. Its population suffered from social exclusion and had above average levels of unemployment. In 1999 new life was injected into the area by the building of the Cardiff Bay Barrage, one of the most controversial building projects of the day but also one of the most successful.

Despite opposition by environmentalists and wildlife organisations, the mudflats at the mouths of the River Taff and River Ely were inundated, with loss of habitat for wading birds. The Barrage has however created several new habitats for freshwater species with the transformed freshwater lake. Several boat tours now operate from Mermaid Quay, which allows you to gain an understanding of the history and fauna of this exciting and upcoming area.

The Bay at Sunset

The modern, cosmopolitan, Cardiff Bay

Today you can find a great mix of attractions, entertainment and events, coupled with vibrant bars and shops that create a truly unique atmosphere worthy of any capital city. Many visitors come to the Bay just to stroll along the water’s edge and soak up the atmosphere, but if you’re looking for places to visit there’s plenty of choices. From small attractions in historic locations to huge engineering and architectural feats, the Bay has a wide range of free and paid attractions to keep you entertained throughout the year, not to mention the numerous cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels.

Visitor attractions in Cardiff Bay

Cardiff Bay is home to many attractions such as Techniquest Science Discovery Centre ideal for all the family, Craft in the Bay, The Welsh Assembly at the Pierhead, Butetown History and Arts Centre, the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and the Wales Millennium Centre, a stunning international arts centre. The Red Dragon Centre provides further options for family entertainment including a cinema, bowling and arcades.

My history with Cardiff Bay

I somehow keep getting drawn back to The Bay. Could it be because of my ancestors? My 3rd great grandfather, on my father’s side, was a Swedish sailor and moved to Cardiff with his young, large family, having moved his way along the ports after arriving in Bristol. The next generations also worked here as general labourers and dock workers.

I have had my fair share of jobs here too. I worked in a food bar call Turquoise (now Starbucks) before I started my career in radio. When temping after a redundancy, I worked on Mount Stuart Square, now a row of listed buildings, and opposite the beautiful St Stephen’s Church. As well as Marketing positions at the Foster Care Co-operative and now Future Inn Cardiff.

The Wharf

Of course, there was The Wharf too, my second home. Working behind the bar here still brings back a lot of fun memories. I loved working on the function bar, doing hundreds of weddings, birthday parties, charitable fundraisers, and so much more.

I’m sure my history with The Bay is not over yet…

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