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Cardiff Bay, docks and Tiger Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
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Cardiff Bay / Tiger Bay
A brief background to the story of Cardiff's docks
(Words/photos: Mike Slocombe, Sept 2006)

Spurred on by the Industrial Revolution of the 1790s, the rapid growth of the mining industry in the valleys of South Wales was a key factor in the development of Cardiff Docks.

The building of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1794 saw vast amounts of iron and coal being transported down from the valleys, with the slower barge traffic eventually being replaced by the locomotive-hauled goods trains of the Taff Vale Railway in 1840.

Cardiff Docks, Cardiff, south Wales
Aerial view showing the extent of Cardiff Docks in 1948.

The growing traffic led to the 200ft wide Bute West Dock being opened by the 2nd Marquess of Bute in 1839, followed by the Bute East Dock (46 acres) in 1855, Roath Basin (1000ft x 550ft covering 13 acres) in 1874, Roath Dock (33 acres) in 1887 and the Queen Alexandra Dock (52 acres) in 1907.

By this time, Butetown and the surrounding dockland area had grown into a cosmopolitan, multicultural community known as 'Tiger Bay' with over 45 different nationalities settling in the locality.


Cardiff Bay, docks and Tiger Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
View of Cardiff Docks [1987]

Quickly developing a fearsome reputation for its hard-drinking rough house boozers, Tiger Bay is said to have been named after the fast swirling waters in the Bristol Channel which reminded sailors of 'raging tigers'.

Such was Cardiff's explosive growth that by 1880 it had been transformed from a small town into one of the world's greatest ports, with Barry and Cardiff docks handling more coal than any other port in the world. At the turn of the century, Cardiff's docks were handling more traffic than New York!

Cardiff Docks, Cardiff, south Wales
Cardiff Docks view, 1986

Cardiff Docks, Cardiff, south Wales
Looking across the mudflats, 1986

World's first £1,000,000 cheque

Coal exports reached their zenith in 1913, with over 10,700,000 tonnes leaving Cardiff Docks, while in the nearby Coal Exchange building the world's first £1 million pound deal was signed.

After the First World War, a boom in Cardiff shipping saw 122 shipping companies in existence by 1920 although the growing importance of oil and cheap German coal saw demand crash.

As the depression hit hard in the early 30s, coal exports fell to below 5 million tonnes with many locally owned ships laid-up.

Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
Cardiff Docks sunset [1993]


Post war decline and renaissance

After the Second World War demand for coal slumped further with international markets lost to home-grown steel industries, while the move to containerisation reduced exports further.

Coal exports finally ceased in 1964, with the closure of the East Moors Steelworks in 1978 all but finishing off the once-thriving port.

Cardiff Bay, docks and Tiger Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
Modern view of Cardiff Bay, showing the redbrick Pierhead building, flanked by the Millennium Centre and Welsh Assembly building

After decades of dereliction, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was created in 1987 to stimulate redevelopment in the area.

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, docks and Tiger Bay, , Cardiff, south Wales
The docks were once so busy, railway-style signals were needed to control the flow of shipping

The Development Corporation was tasked with attracting private capital by spending public money to improve the area, setting the building of the Cardiff Barrage as a priority.

In the face of opposition by environmentalists and wildlife organisations, a permanent fresh-water lake was created on the old mud flats.


Pleasure boat sets off from Mermaid Quay, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
Pleasure boat sets off from Mermaid Quay.

Cardiff Bay Barrage

Spanning the the entire mouth of the bay and encompassing the mouths of the Rivers Taff and the Ely, the Cardiff Bay Barrage forms an attractive 500-acre lake providing moorings for 200 yachts.

Facing the bay is the thriving Mermaid Quay offering shops, restaurants and bars, as well as the landmark Millennium Centre, Welsh Assembly building and Pierhead buildings.

Of the dock's once-proud maritime heritage, just two docks, the Roath and the Queen Alexandra, are still in use, served by the two remaining two shipping companies.

Cardiff Bay, docks and Tiger Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
The striking Pierhead building, Aug 2005.

Cardiff Bay, docks and Tiger Bay, Cardiff, south Wales
A view across the bay, Feb 2004.

Archive video:
8mm cine shots taken in 1938 at Cardiff docks showing a tool machine workshop, cranes loading coal on to ships and a steam train on a turntable.

1926 short film:


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