The Norwegian Church, Cardiff

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.

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Plan showing proposed alterations to the Norwegian Church, 1939

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.

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Plan showing the original location of the Norwegian Church

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

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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

Warehouses at former Bute West Dock Head (Edward England Wharf)

John Humphrey England, a Londoner, came to Cardiff around 1840 and set up in business.  When, in 1841, he married Ann Rees at St John’s Church, he described himself as a dealer in provisions.  At the 1851 census, he was a hay dealer.  By 1861, though, the census records him as a potato merchant, and it is that commodity with which the England family came to be most closely associated for more than a century afterwards.

John and Ann had a large family – at least 8 sons and 7 daughters – and several of the sons took up their father’s trade.  By the 1880s, Richard England (born 1851) and Edward England (born 1859) had separate potato importing businesses at the Head of Bute West Dock.  Following Richard’s death in 1907, and Edward’s in 1917, the businesses passed to their respective children.  Richard England Ltd appears to have ceased operating around 1960, while Edward England Ltd remained in family ownership until 2003, when the company was sold to Mason Potatoes Ltd.

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The warehouse on the left of this picture was designed for Richard England in 1884, by local architect, E M Bruce Vaughan.  Photographs taken in 1955 show this building still displaying the name ‘Richard England Ltd’ along its parapet.  Latterly, though, it appears to have housed Edward England Ltd.

Records are less helpful in identifying the building to the right, though it does pre-date Richard England’s warehouse.  It might have been a bonded store, which successive Cardiff directories list as standing at the West Dock Head.  From about 1929, the bonded warehouse formed part of the business of Frazer & Company, who also operated as ship store merchants in Bute Street.  Frazers remained in occupation until at least the 1970s.

All the buildings depicted here were converted into residential apartments around the turn of the millennium; the complex is now known as Edward England Wharf.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

 Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/28]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plan for a warehouse, West Dock, for Richard England, 1884 [BC/S/1/4609]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plan for (plan for additions to a warehouse, West Bute Dock, for Edward England, 1895 [BC/S/1/10775]
  • Debenham Tewson Solicitors, Cardiff, Bute Estate Collection, assignment of lease from Richard Travell England to Richard England Ltd, 9 Feb 1915 [DBDT/110/3]
  • South Wales Echo, 27 Aug 1887
  • Evening Express, 12 Oct 1907
  • 1851 and 1861 censuses
  • Registrar General’s indexes of Births and Deaths
  • Marriage register of St John’s Church, Cardiff
  • Various Cardiff directories
  • http://www.masonpotatoes.co.uk/history.html
  • https://www.companycheck.co.uk/
  • Williams, Stewart, Cardiff Yesterday, vol. 10, images 41-42