‘JP II converts more than JPR’: Pope John Paul II’s Visit to Cardiff in June 1982

It is 35 years since Pope John Paul II visited Cardiff. The visit, on 2 June 1982, brought the crowds out in force, both on the streets of the city and at the open air events held at Pontcanna Fields and Ninian Park. It was a very Welsh welcome with a choir singing ‘We’ll keep a welcome’ as the Pope’s plane touched down at Rhoose Airport, and banners at Pontcanna proclaiming  ‘JP II converts more than JPR’.

Pope at Rhoose 1


The story of the Pope’s visit is told through the records of the South Wales Police held at Glamorgan Archives. The previous year there had been an attempt on the Pope’s life in St Peter’s Square in Rome and tension in the months prior to the visit had been heightened by the Falklands War and the Pope’s call for a ceasefire. The Police, therefore, had the task of protecting the Pope and managing the crowds of up to 500,000 that were expected to flood into Cardiff on 2 June 1982.

As might be imagined, a visit of this scale required detailed and meticulous planning conducted in partnership with neighbouring police forces and a range of specialist support teams, including the Pope’s personal security team, the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. The arrangements were many months in the making and were eventually summarised in seven detailed operational orders now held at Glamorgan Archives.

Operational Order

The Orders cover just about every aspect of the Pope’s visit, from his arrival at Rhoose airport at 9.05 on 2 June to his departure, again from Rhoose, 9 hours later at 18.15. It was a complex exercise that covered not just security throughout the day but also traffic management, with the city centre effectively sealed off for the day, agreement and siting of press and television coverage and liaison with thousands of volunteer stewards recruited for the events planned for Pontcanna and Ninian Park. As the police operational orders prepared for the day noted:

The security arrangements have had to be tailored to the possibility, however remote, of someone wishing to attack the Pontiff. There may also be attempts to disrupt the visit by demonstrations, hoax bomb calls etc.

The eyes of the world through national and international television will be upon us and we must endeavour to excel ourselves in out turnout, dress and deportment on the day.

In all, it was estimated that almost 2,500 police officers would be required to police the day, with the South Wales Police reinforced with 600 officers drawn from the Dyfed Powys and the Gwent forces and additional help from the Somerset and Avon Constabulary.

Control Room 1

Control Room 2


On 2 June, from just after midnight, the police closed the centre of the city to traffic. Working with local authority staff a ring of five car parks was opened on the outskirts of the Cardiff, with signage from the major roads. A shuttle bus system was then used to move visitors in and out of the city centre. In addition, plans were in place with the British Transport Police to manage the flow of people streaming into Cardiff by train. Again this was a considerable task. While the main stations at Queen Street and Cardiff Central regularly catered for approximately 14,000 arriving in Cardiff each day, is was anticipated that the Pope’s visit might see this number increase to as much as 120,000 people using the train system on 2 June. Slightly more tongue in cheek, it had been suggested that those travelling from Bristol use the service provided to Penarth by the paddle steamer, Waverly, to beat the traffic. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that faced with the prospect of gridlock on the roads and overcrowding on the trains, many businesses in Cardiff and surrounding areas opted to close for the day.

Although Rhoose Airport remained open throughout the day for planned flights, South Wales Police effectively sealed off the perimeter from 4am onwards with checks throughout the day on every person entering or arriving. The operational orders for the police at the airport noted:

Your responsibility is to ensure the safe arrival and departure from Cardiff Wales Airport of His Holiness Pope John Paul II. In addition, you have an obligation to the air flight passengers to ensure that the hindrance to them is of the minimum to ensure the safety of His Holiness.

At 4.00am on Wednesday 2nd June 1982 officers of the E Division CID will commence a search and seal operation. They will be assisted by Bomb Disposal officers and police dogs and handlers….The operation must be completed by 6.00am when the full security operation will come into force.

It was anticipated that, on arrival, the Pope would be at the airport for as little as 15 minutes before flying by helicopter to Blackweir accompanied by the Chief Constable. Nevertheless, tight and extensive security had to be maintained throughout the day, with back up arrangements in place to cater for all eventualities. For example, 12 police motorcyclists were positioned at the airport in case the weather was too poor for the helicopter to take off and a motor cavalcade had to be put in place instead.

Pope at Rhoose 2

Pope at Rhoose 3

From Blackweir the Pope travelled by one of the two ‘Pope Mobiles’ used on the day across a bailey bridge to the open air mass at Pontcanna. Managing this event with an anticipated crowd of up to 350,000 was a major challenge. As the records show, the police had briefed and worked in partnership with the 5,000 volunteer stewards recruited for the day. Again the South Wales Constabulary had sealed off the site from midnight onwards and no stone was left unturned, with police patrolling Pontcanna from the early morning onwards. In addition, underwater teams were used to check under the Bailey bridge and the drawbridges across the castle moat. Sniffer dogs swept the site for explosives with support, if needed, from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

Pontcanna Mass

Arrangements for the marshalling of the crowds at the Mass were in place, but evidently there were still concerns at the management of such a large number of people in a confined area bordered on one side by the river. It was planned, initially, that attendance would be by ticket only but this stipulation was later relaxed. Those attending were required to be in place by 8.30 with each person allocated to a ‘corral’ from where they could see the Pontiff as he was driven around the site. On arriving at the central raised dais, carpeted in the Papal colours, the Pope addressed the crowd and gave communion to 30 children and 70 other selected persons. At the same time 800 clergy provided communion to those in crowd. The plans noted:

… it is necessary to be particularly vigilant to stop persons transferring from one corral to another.

Another consideration is the possibility of hysteria being engendered and/or a sudden surge by a section of the crowd. Stewards have been asked to look for early signs and to promote a calm situation. Police officers also have their responsibility.

The anticipated influx of a tremendous number of people prior and during the visit may provide a lucrative market for pickpockets and the opportunist criminal.

In an attempt to cover all eventualities, the Police worked alongside nearly 800 medical staff and first aiders on the site and a team of lifeguards patrolled the river bank.

The South Wales Constabulary also had responsibility for determining the numbers and siting of press and television coverage. The Pontcanna mass was covered by HTV with the BBC following the road cavalcades from fixed camera positions at locations such as the Central Hotel, Ninian Park Primary School and the Sloper Road bus depot. Over 800 media staff attended the open air Mass and the lunch held in the Castle, at which the Pope was presented with the Freedom of the City. In addition to agreeing camera positions, the police facilitated what now seem to be very elaborate arrangements to transport film from Cardiff Castle to the newspapers.

…film taken during and after the ceremony can be quickly taken to motor cycle dispatch riders positioned outside the castle grounds. These films will then be taken to Thomson House (Western Mail and Echo) for developing, printing and wiring locally, nationally and internationally. It is proposed that …runners be positioned below the bay windows so that films which will be in pre-addressed envelopes can be dropped out to them for immediate despatch.

Pope at Cardiff Castle

The Pope left the Castle, by road, to attend a rally for 35,000 young people, organised by the Catholic Youth movement, held at Cardiff City’s ground at Ninian Park. At the Stadium the pope addressed the crowd from a raised dais constructed in front of the main stand before driving around the ground in the Pope Mobile.

Ninian Park


The final leg of the visit was a further motor cavalcade from the stadium to Rhoose Airport. The motor cavalcades, travelling at 10 mph through crowed streets, were perhaps the most challenging element of the operation. For both journeys the Pope used the second of the two ‘Pope Mobiles’ which was an open converted Land Rover.

Pope Mobile 2

The Papal entourage will leave the Castle by the main entrance into Castle Street. The Pontiff will travel in vehicle (RR1). As well as the escort vehicles in the procession a motorcycle escort of twelve outriders will be provided. The procession will travel at a speed of 10mph (distance approximately two and quarter miles). Uniformed personnel lining the route will ensure that the cavalcade is unobstructed. It is anticipated that many people will line the route and that many thousands will converge from the Pontcanna Mass area. Arrangements will be made to barrier certain sections of the route for crowd control purposes.

Over 600 officers lined the route from the Castle through the City centre to the Stadium and later from Ninian Park back to Rhoose. Operational orders stipulated that:

Helmets, best uniform and gannex coats (if necessary) are to be worn. If the weather is suitable, the Chief Constable may authorise short sleeve order which will apply to all officers. Officers should be prepared for this contingency.

Meals will not be provided. Sufficient packed food should be carried to provide at least a 12 hour tour of duty.

Police officers involved in these duties will face the crowds and maintain constant observation to ensure the safety of the Pontiff. Police duty will take precedence over the saluting or standing to attention.

Uniformed officers were supported by teams of plain clothes CID officers:

Detectives will position themselves at the rear of the crowd and endeavour to identify any security risk. They will also direct their observations to premises on the opposite side of the road, overlooking the route. Any suspicious activities are to be communicated to Base Control.

However, this operation was just the tip of is iceberg. In advance of the visit officers had checked every property on the route to establish whether it had recently changed hands or whether any rooms or buildings with vantage points had been recently rented. In addition, on the morning of the visit the bridges at Penarth Road and Ely Bridge on Cowbridge Road had also been checked for explosives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, less is said in the operational records about the less visible security arrangements used for the motor cavalcades on the day. Throughout the day the South Wales Police worked alongside and with the Pope’s personal body guards and the Metropolitan Police Close Protection Unit. In addition, the Constabulary had armed men at key points including Rhoose and Pontcanna.  The instructions to those stationed at Rhoose underlined that the officers were to maintain a low profile:

The nominated officers will take up their designated positions at 6.00am and will work a two hours on and two hours off shift. They will be in possession of their rifles and binoculars. They will draw from the store flat caps (traffic style) and will wear police issue uniform. Under no circumstances will they expose their weapons to the public or media unless there is a need for their use. They will give to the public and the media the appearance of observers. Their principal task is to locate and prevent intrusion, by unauthorised persons, onto the Airport.

The last item in the operational orders was a plan for a camera team to be positioned on the runway at Rhoose to film the Pope’s plane as it left the tarmac at 18.15.

As the newspapers record, the Pope arrived in Cardiff on 2 June to glorious sunshine and a rapturous welcome. The numbers attending were less than anticipated and the events were interrupted by a short thunderstorm around midday. Nevertheless, the day was judged to be a great success. Over 100,000 attended the Pontcanna open air Mass and the Pope was greeted by 35,000 young people at Ninian Park. Throughout the visit the streets were thronged with people keen to see the Pope as he drove through the City and eventually as he left for the airport.

Pope Mobile

In all, it was estimated that the police operation cost approximately £600k. There were some in the local press, in the weeks that followed, that questioned the scale of the police operation given the numbers attending the event. It is likely, however, that the Constabulary’s view was summed up in quote carried in the South Wales Echo the following day, 3 June 1982:

A South Wales police spokesman said the operation went very smoothly and he gave a pat on the back to the huge crowds for good behaviour.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer