Cardiff’s multicultural population is by no means a recent phenomenon. The town’s rapid growth during the 19th century as a port serving Glamorgan’s industrial hinterland attracted workers from Britain and around the world. Many settled; in 1911 the foreign male population of Cardiff was second only to London in Britain. Many more were transient visitors, particularly the sailors on foreign-registered vessels calling at the docks. Among them were a substantial group of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, and it was to these men that Pastor Lars Oftedal of the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission addressed his ministry from 1866.
After initially meeting on board ship and in a redundant chapel, the Sjømannskirken was soon erected.
Prefabricated in Norway and shipped to Cardiff, it was in typical Norwegian style, although made of corrugated iron sheets. The port authorities had insisted that it should be easily dismantled and re-located if necessary. The church, which Cardiff trade directories describe as:
…the Norwegian iron Church, south-east corner of West Bute Dock for Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish sailors and residents…
was consecrated on 16 December 1869, and remained in its original position until its eventual removal in 1987.
The Norwegian Seamen’s Mission’s 25th Annual Report highly commended the location which:
…could not be improved upon, as it is situated between the two docks, at the point where they converge towards the inlets. The church is thus positioned in amongst the ships, so that it is at only a short walk’s distance from many of them, and easy to find for all those who would like to visit it.’
The absence of possibly more enticing attractions on the dockside was a major point in its favour, as the seamen …do not need to go into the town and expose themselves to its temptations, only for the sake of a visit to the reading room.
The church developed with the increase in Scandinavian, and particularly Norwegian, shipping in the Bristol Channel ports. Missions were established at Newport, Swansea and Barry Dock, served by Assistant Missionaries under the Pastor at Cardiff. By 1920 the Pastor lived in the Norwegian vicarage, ‘Prestegaarden’, at 181 Cathedral Road. The number of Scandinavian ships using the area’s ports rose from 227 in 1867 to 3,611 in 1915, and annual statistics for communicants and visitors rose correspondingly from 7,572 in 1867 to 73,580 in 1915. The industrial and economic problems of the 1920s and 1930s affected the Norwegian churches. By 1931 the Mission was reduced to its churches in Cardiff and Swansea only.
During the Second World War Cardiff’s resident Norwegian community increased and many more Norwegians passed through the port as seamen or refugees. The Iron Church and its staff worked with the local branch of the Norwegian Seamen’s Union and other organisations to provide for its people during these difficult years. The Norwegian merchant navy played a significant role in the Allied war effort, but many ships and many lives were lost. The bombing raids on Cardiff made even shore leave unsafe. A number of men were killed when the Scandinavian Seamen’s Home on Bute Road was hit and destroyed.
At the end of the war Cardiff’s Scandinavian communities joined together to celebrate the peace. From that time on, however, activity in the Seamen’s Mission declined, staff was reduced, and the Norwegian community itself dispersed as Cardiff ceased to be a major port. The Iron Church closed in 1959, the last service taking place on 17 May, Norway’s national festival, Grunnlovsdagen, Constitution Day.
The church remained standing, in an increasing state of dilapidation, for almost thirty years. In the 1980s South Glamorgan County Council sponsored the establishment of the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust to save the church and integrate it into the re-developed docks. Roald Dahl, the author, was the Trust’s first President, as a Cardiff-Norwegian himself. In 1987 the old church was dismantled and stored for re-assembly. However, the church which was eventually opened in a splendid new location overlooking Cardiff Bay in 1992 was almost entirely a new creation. As much of the original building as was useable was incorporated into the new church, but most of the materials were new, donated by companies in Norway and in Cardiff, or purchased with the donations raised by public subscription in the Bergen area. Many companies gave their services free to complete the church, which is now built of wood, except for the roof of sheet steel, especially produced by a local firm to fit the building.
The church was officially opened by Princess Märtha Louise on 8 April 1992 as a cultural centre. Although it is not consecrated as a church, art exhibitions and concerts are held in the building and a café serves food and drink.
Susan Edwards, Glamorgan Archivist
This article has drawn on an unpublished lecture by Professor John Greve and on ‘Med Norsk Siømannsmision I hundre år’ [100 years of the Norwegian Mission to Seamen], by Gunnar Christie Wasberg