The Cardiff Society of Sailmakers

The Cardiff Society of Sailmakers was founded in 1855.  It survived the shipping industry’s transition from sail to steam, and was finally disbanded in 1938.  Records of the Society, covering the period 1893 to its close, are held at Glamorgan Archives (ref.: CL/MS 4.1166).

In the period documented the Society met monthly at the Bute Street Coffee Tavern and, from 1904, at the Adelphi Hotel, also in Bute Street.  The collection includes minute books, financial records, contribution books and pre-First World War rule books which list the officers’ duties and salaries, working practices to protect members’ employment, fines for rule breaking and the method of appeal against such fines.  Hours of work, meal breaks and rates of pay for day work and overtime are detailed.  Members refusing to work on wet sails were to be supported and a separate rule governed conduct at Society meetings, at which members were to stand when addressing the President, and refrain from interrupting speakers.  Swearing and insulting language carried the penalty of a sixpenny fine or expulsion from the meeting if the offender persisted.

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Bundles of correspondence have also survived relating to negotiations with employers, membership applications and the Federation of Sailmakers of Great Britain and Ireland.  The Federation was formed in October 1889, combining existing sailmakers’ friendly societies in various ports.  Monthly reports from the Federation’s head office at Hull are included in the Cardiff Society’s archive.  These give the state of trade at various British ports with annotations and remarks by the General Secretary on matters of particular significance.  The Cardiff Sailmakers broke away from the Federation in 1903, and did not rejoin until 1914.  Records of the national Federation from 1889, held at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick Library, reflect the concerns of a declining trade, in particular, the introduction of machinery and the employment of untrained workers, including women.

The Cardiff Sailmakers had to deal with the same problems.  The first resolution recorded in the minute book on 9 July 1901 is ‘that we finish no work that is commenced by machein while their is men out of work’.  In January 1914, before rejoining the Federation, the Society’s negotiators accepted the employers’ terms for wages and hours, on condition that no machines were introduced in any sail loft for one year.  The Society’s first act on rejoining the Federation was to forward a resolution to the annual conference opposing the manufacture of canvas articles aboard steamers by officers and seamen, whose legitimate duties were ‘more than sufficient, without undertaking duties pertaining to a separate trade’.  It may be significant, in light of its years outside the Federation, that when the Cardiff Society’s rules were revised in 1914 for its readmission, the clause stating that any member working on machine-sewn sail ‘shall be expelled from all benefits of this Society’ was dropped.

The First World War accelerated the pace of change.  Untrained labour was introduced in many trades to replace men needed for the armed forces.  In sail lofts machines became more widely used and were often operated by women.  The minutes of the 1920s record complaints against employers for not keeping to agreements about female labour, and an undated letter to J. S. Frazer of Frazer & Co., with whom the Society was normally on cordial terms, sets out the sailmakers’ opposition to the ‘unnecessary number of young girls and women’ employed in Cardiff and Newport lofts.

Athough the great days of the Sailmakers Society were over before the surviving records begin, up to the 1920s the minutes and accounts record lively debates and social events, an annual dinner, a smoking concert, and, in July 1904, a picnic.  Agreements with employers were negotiated, conferences attended and contributions made to the strike funds of other branches, the Life Boat Donation Fund and the Labour Party Committee; J. R. MacDonald was sent 2s. 6d. in 1904, although the minutes note that the proposed 5s. contribution in 1908 was not sent.  No explanation is given.  When the Society joined the Federation in 1914 its membership stood at 19 (the Grimsby branch had 30 members at that date).  During the period documented the highest membership was 27 in 1921 and 1922.  Thereafter the records show a steady decline.  The minutes of the meetings became briefer until they record merely that the meeting opened at 7pm and closed at 9pm.  The Society survived the Federation which disbanded in about 1927, but by the 1930s the membership was hardly sufficient to provide the necessary officers, and in November 1938 the Cardiff Sailmakers Club was closed ‘owing to lack of members’.  Its remaining funds of £2 1s. 1d. were divided between the five final members.

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Casablanca Club / Bethel Chapel, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff

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The origins of Bethel date back to 1840 when members of Bethany English Baptist Church, St Mary Street, established a Sunday School in West Bute Street.  A chapel was subsequently erected in James Street and, in 1855 a separate church was formed when fourteen members transferred from Bethany.

Larger premises were soon needed.  The James Street premises were sold and the Marquess of Bute granted a 99 year lease of land at the south west corner of Mount Stuart Square where a new chapel and schoolroom were built.  When the lease expired in 1955, Bethel moved to a former Welsh Congregational Church in nearby Pomeroy Street, eventually closing in 2000 because of falling numbers of mostly elderly members.

Following the church’s re-location, the building in Mount Stuart Square was initially used as a Bingo Hall, before the Casablanca night club was established in the late 1960s.  The club appears to have still been active in 1988, but had closed by 1991.  Following demolition, the site is currently used as a private car park.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/48]
  • Bethel Baptist Church, Butetown, Cardiff Records, minutes, 1855-65 [D472/1/1]
  • Bethel Baptist Church, Butetown, Cardiff Records, a history of the church by Viv Purchase, Secretary, 2000 [D472/11]
  • Bethany English Baptist Church, Cardiff Records, report on Bethel chapel made to Bethany Baptist church, 1854 [DBAP/15/10/2]
  • Debenham Tewson Solicitors, Cardiff, Bute Estate Collection, lease of land and premises at Mountstuart Square, 1965 [DBDT/73/16]
  • Debenham Tewson Solicitors, Cardiff, Bute Estate Collection, lease of land and premises known as the Casablanca Club, Mount Stuart Square, 1971 [DBDT/73/19]
  • Jenkins, J Austin and James, R Edward, The History of Nonconformity in Cardiff
  • http://www.coflein.gov.uk
  • https://www.facebook.com/rockcardiff/photos

Demolishing Merton House, Cardiff

For more than two decades, the spiritual needs of seamen visiting Cardiff were met by a former warship, Thisbe, which was moored in the Bute East Dock during the 1860s, and converted by the Bristol Channel Mission.  As the port grew in importance, the need was recognized for larger and more permanent premises and the Marquess of Bute offered a site in Bute Crescent, alongside the West Dock Basin (now Roald Dahl Plass) for erecting a seamen’s church and institute.

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Funded mainly by subscriptions from businesses linked to the Docks (most notably, the Marquess himself), and designed by E. W. M. Corbett, plans for the church and institute were approved on 28 August 1890.  Viewed from outside, the building looked very much like any other Victorian church.  Inside, though, the ground floor served a primarily secular role, as the institute and reading room while upstairs was the church, with seating for 454 people.

The seamen’s institute was formally opened on Thursday 19 November 1891 by Lady Lewis, wife of Sir William Thomas Lewis (later Lord Merthyr).  On the following Wednesday, the Bishop of Llandaff dedicated the church to All Souls.

The institute and church continued to serve Cardiff’s seafaring community for well over half a century.  In the 1950s, though, the building was renamed Merton House, and occupied by Treharne & Davies Ltd (now Minton, Treharne & Davies Ltd), analytical chemists who then worked closely with the coal and shipping industries based in Cardiff Docks.  Now operating internationally, Minton’s have retained a link with the former seamen’s institute by transferring the name Merton House to their new head office in Pontprennau.

Mary Traynor’s drawing depicts the building’s demolition in 1990.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/42]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plan for Church and Seaman’s Institute, Bute Crescent, 1890 [BC/S/1/7802]
  • Carradice, Phil, Thisbe – the Welsh Gospel Ship (online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/entries/7338f21d-b47e-3197-9b1c-89ea87a4e4b8)
  • Western Mail, 20 Aug 1890; 26 Nov 1891
  • Evening Express, 25 Jun
  • Cardiff Times, 21 Nov 1891
  • South Wales Daily News, 14 Sep 1893
  • minton.co.uk
  • companycheck.co.uk
  • Various Cardiff directories, 1893-1967

Islamic Centre, Maria Street, Cardiff

Butetown has one of the longest established Muslim communities in the UK, established primarily by Somali and Yemeni seafarers arriving in Cardiff Docks in the mid-1800s.

During the late 1930s, nos. 17, 18 and 19 Peel Street were adapted for use as an Islamic cultural and worship centre and, on 11 November 1938, building approval was granted to erect the first purpose-built mosque in Wales – designed by Cardiff architect, Osborne V. Webb – behind the three houses.  Some sources imply that Webb’s mosque was not actually built.  That might be so, but a contemporary newspaper report of the Cardiff Blitz clearly refers to ‘the mosque at the rear of the Islamic headquarters’.

The night of 2 January 1941 saw Cardiff’s worst aerial bombardment of the Second World War; 165 people were killed, 427 injured, and more than 300 homes were destroyed.  This was a raid which saw the devastation not only of Llandaff Cathedral but also of the Peel Street Mosque.  The South Wales Echo reported that some thirty people were praying in the mosque when it was hit.  Fortunately, they seem to have escaped serious injury.

On 18 March 1943, building approval was given for a temporary replacement structure on the same site.  The mosque itself was a wooden Tarran hut, while the adjacent cultural centre was housed in a prefabricated Maycrete hut.  Building was funded by donations from the Muslim community together with aid from the Colonial Office and British Council.  The new centre, now known as the Noor El Islam Mosque, was opened on 16 July 1943.

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Building consent for the temporary structure was initially granted only for one year, though that was later extended.  However, on 20 November 1946, plans were approved for a permanent new Mosque – again designed by Osborne V. Webb.  This traditional building, with dome and minarets, forms the main part of Mary Traynor’s drawing and replaced the Tarran hut.  The Maycrete hut appears to have remained and a small part of its roof can also be seen in the picture.

One of the founders of the Noor Ul Islam Mosque was Sheikh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, leader of the Yemeni communities in Britain during the late 1930s and 1940s and, subsequently, a prime mover in the Free Yemeni Movement.

With the re-development of Butetown, Peel Street was swept away in the 1960s.  Only the Mosque and Islamic Centre remained, with access via a short spur of Maria Street.  It was finally demolished in 1997 and replaced by a two-storey brick building, which continues to serve the local Muslim community.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

Clarence Road Bridge, Cardiff

When Cardiff was one of the busiest ports in Britain, Clarence Bridge created a new link between Grangetown and the Docks.  It was opened on 17 September 1890 by His Royal Highness The Duke of Clarence and Avondale.  As the eldest son of the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), the Duke would eventually have become King.  However, he died during an influenza pandemic in 1892 and was replaced in the line of succession by his younger brother – who ascended the throne as King George V.

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Designed by Borough Engineer William Harpur, the bridge had an unusual design.  The height of the River Taff (which was tidal at this point) precluded placing girders underneath the deck so they were placed above, but enclosed only the carriageway.  Pedestrian footways ran outside the girders on either side.  With a total length of 460 feet, the bridge had three spans; and to allow river traffic to pass, the central span could be rotated through ninety degrees.

Unable to cope with the demands of modern traffic, the bridge was replaced in the 1970s.  While traffic started flowing over the new bridge in November 1975, it was formally opened on 9 April 1976 by Cardiff South MP James Callaghan – just four days after his appointment as Prime Minister.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

Victoria Buildings, Bute Street, Cardiff

At the 1861 census, Peter Steffano, a 51 year old ship chandler was living with his family at 56, 57 and 58 Bute Street, Cardiff.  The household also included Austrian-born Joseph Brailli, aged 23, a clerk in the chandlery who was married to Steffano’s daughter, Sophia.  By 1871, the business, now operating as Stefano and Brailli, was at 63 Bute Street; the Brailli family lived at no. 65 and the Steffanos at 66.

Peter Steffano died in 1874 and, by 1881, the Brailli family had moved their home to Crockherbtown (now Queen Street).  They appear, though, to have retained the business premises since, in April 1887, Joseph received local authority approval to rebuild 64-67 Bute Street.

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The new building was designed by E M Bruce Vaughan and given the name Victoria Buildings.  It included ground floor shop premises with warehouse space in the basement and at the rear of the first floor.  The remainder of the first floor, and all of the second, provided office space.  There was no longer any residential accommodation.

An 1884 directory still lists Joseph Brailli as a ship chandler at the Bute Street premises but, by 1891, the chandlery was run by Thomas Harper and Sons.  Also listed at Victoria Buildings in that year’s directory were Jacobs & Co, outfitters, Foster Hain & Co, ship brokers and James Evans & Co Limited, colliery proprietors.  The Thomas Harper company was still there in 1955, by which time the right hand shop unit housed the local branch of George Angus, manufacturers of industrial belting and a range of other products including oil seals.  The offices continued to be occupied by shipping companies, along with HM Immigration Service.  By 1972, the listed occupants were Reg Oldfield, photographer, Ken Jones, turf accountant, and J. F. Griffiths, builders’ merchant.  Signage in Mary Traynor’s drawing suggests that the latter two companies remained until the building’s demise.

The approximate site of Victoria Buildings now comprises the outdoor areas behind nos 5, 6, 7 & 8 Bute Crescent (Jolyon’s Hotel, Duchess of Delhi restaurant, and the Eli Jenkins public house).

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/32]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plans for rebuilding of 64-67 Bute Street, 1887 [BC/S/1/6250]
  • 1861-1891 censuses
  • Various Cardiff directories
  • England & Wales National Probate Calendar 1874
  • Williams, Stewart, The Cardiff Book, vol. 2 (p.185)
  • http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/George_Angus_and_Co

Merthyr House, James Street & Evelyn Street, Cardiff

Merthyr House was erected in 1918 on the corner of James Street and Evelyn Street, Cardiff.  The building ran back as far as Adelaide Place and presented Bath stone frontages to each of the three streets.  Designed by local architect Henry Budgen, it was built by the renowned Cardiff firm of E. Turner & Sons Ltd.  A Turner brochure referred to it as the ‘western end’ of the building, which suggests there might have been ambitions to extend it over the whole block with an additional facia to Adelaide Street, but this appears never to have come to fruition.  From the outset, Merthyr House was occupied as offices.  Its tenants included some of the most prominent South Wales coal and shipping companies.

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In the early hours of Sunday 17 March 1946, a fire broke out in the second floor offices of the Reardon-Smith shipping line.  The fire seems to have taken hold very quickly.  Firefighters rescued the caretaker and his family who were trapped on the top floor and there was no loss of life or appreciable damage to surrounding buildings.  A considerable part of the south side of the building was saved but the northern (James Street) end was destroyed.  In addition to losing their operating base, several companies lost records detailing their histories.

A few days after the incident, Sir James Wilson, Chief Constable of Cardiff, voiced criticism of the speed with which the National Fire Service had responded, and also the manner in which they fought the fire.  The Home Secretary appointed John Flowers KC to inquire into the issues Sir James had raised, and his report was published in July of the same year.  In the event, not only did Flowers find none of the complaints to have been justified, but he specifically commended the manner in which one fire officer had handled the rescue of the top floor occupants.

In 1950, approval was sought by the owners, J Cory & Sons Ltd, to renovate Merthyr House.  Their plans clearly show that the James Street end of the building had now been wholly removed; its site being used for car parking.  In fact, the northern section was never rebuilt, though a rather incongruous single-storey concrete entrance block was added, at some point, on that side of the building.

Merthyr House never regained its pre-fire status as one of Butetown’s principal office buildings.  In the early 1960s, it was occupied by a distributor of motor cars; later it housed the Works Department of the University of Wales Press.  And at some point, it was re-named Imperial House.  After several years of neglect, it was demolished and the site currently stands empty.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/31]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plan for renovations at Merthyr House, James Street, 1950 [BC/S/1/39995]
  • Flowers, John KC, Inquiry into the Fire at Merthyr House, James Street, Cardiff on the 17th March 1946 (Cmd. 6877)
  • Superb Buildings erected by E. Turner & Sons Ltd (1929)
  • Lee, Brian, Cardiff’s Vanished Docklands
  • Lee, Brian & Butetown History and Arts Centre, Butetown and Cardiff Docks (Images of Wales series)
  • Various Cardiff directories

South Wales Echo, 18 March 1946; 21 March 1946; 3 August 1946