The lit­tle church stand­ing proud in the docks

Thomas Dea­con ex­am­ines the his­tory of Cardiff Bay’s Nor­we­gian Church – now an arts and cul­tural cen­tre – and its role in Wales’ in­dus­trial his­tory and two world wars...

South Wales Echo - - News -

CARDIFF has al­ways been a mul­ti­cul­tural city full of peo­ple from across the world.

Dur­ing the then town’s rapid growth in the 19th cen­tury as an in­dus­trial powerhouse, work­ers flocked to Cardiff to en­joy its boom in trade.

Af­ter ar­riv­ing, many de­cided to set­tle and never left. In 1911 the for­eign male pop­u­la­tion of Cardiff was sec­ond only to Lon­don.

Many vis­i­tors to the city were only here for a short while, mostly sailors on for­eign ships sta­tioned in the busy docks bring­ing and ex­port­ing goods from around the globe.

A large num­ber of the sailors were made up of Nor­we­gians, Swedes and Danes ar­riv­ing on ships far from their own coun­tries. And in 1866 Pas­tor Lars Oftedal of the Nor­we­gian Sea­men’s Mis­sion ad­dressed his con­gre­ga­tion made up of these men.

Af­ter ini­tially meet­ing on board ship and in a re­dun­dant chapel, the Sjö­mannskirken (Sea­man’s Church) was soon erected. Pre­fab­ri­cated in Nor­way and shipped to Cardiff, it was built in Nor­we­gian style, but made with cor­ru­gated iron sheets.

The Glam­or­gan Archives said the port au­thor­i­ties at the time in­sisted it should be eas­ily dis­man­tled and re­lo­cated if needed.

The church was con­se­crated on De­cem­ber 16, 1869, and de­scribed in Cardiff trade di­rec­to­ries at the time as: “The Nor­we­gian iron church, south­east cor­ner of West Bute Dock for Nor­we­gian, Swedish, Dan­ish and Fin­nish sailors and res­i­dents.”

Chair of Welsh Nor­we­gian So­ci­ety Tyra Oseng-Rees said: “It was a home away from home. It was where the sailors could read Nor­we­gian news­pa­pers and meet other Nor­we­gians and cel­e­brate Nor­way’s Con­sti­tu­tion Day.

“Nor­we­gians have gath­ered there for 150 years.”

Dur­ing the late 19th cen­tury, tens of thou­sands of Nor­we­gian sailors vis­ited Cardiff aboard merchant ships bring­ing strong, straight tim­ber from Scan­di­navia to be used as pit props in coal mines.

The emp­tied ships would then ex­port Welsh coal across the world.

The Nor­we­gian Sea­men’s Mis­sion’s 25th An­nual Re­port said the lo­ca­tion “...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.”

Along­side the lo­ca­tion, the lack of po­ten­tially other more en­tic­ing attractions on the dock­side was also seen as a pos­i­tive at the time.

The re­port added: “[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.

Other 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. In the same time pe­riod, the num­ber of ships from Scan­di­navia us­ing ports in South Wales in­creased from 227 in 1867 to 3,611 in 1915. The Glam­or­gan Archives added an­nual statis­tics for com­mu­ni­cants and vis­i­tors rose cor­re­spond­ingly from 7,572 in 1867 to 73,580 in 1915.

But as the glory days of in­dus­try across South Wales be­gan to fade dur­ing the eco­nomic and in­dus­trial problems of the 1920s and 1930s, so did the Nor­we­gian churches. By 1931 the mis­sion was re­duced to its churches in Cardiff and Swansea. De­spite the de­cline, dur­ing World War II the num­ber of Nor­we­gians liv­ing in Cardiff in­creased.

Dur­ing the war, in which Nor­way was oc­cu­pied by Nazi forces from 1940, many more Nor­we­gians also passed through the city as refugees and sea­men. The Iron Church, as it was known, and its staff worked with the lo­cal Nor­we­gian Sea­men’s Union and other or­gan­i­sa­tions to help its peo­ple dur­ing the war.

Al­though many fled to Cardiff away from their oc­cu­pied coun­try, they were still at risk in the city. Many Nor­we­gian Merchant Navy ships, which played a large role in the war ef­fort, were bombed.

Cardiff it­self was bombed heav­ily in the war and 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 the Scan­di­na­vian com­mu­ni­ties of Cardiff joined to cel­e­brate – but from that point ac­tiv­ity at the sea­men’s mis­sion de­clined.

Staff were re­duced and the Nor­we­gian com­mu­nity dis­persed as Cardiff was no longer a ma­jor port. The Iron Church closed in 1959 and the last ser­vice took place on May 17, Nor­way’s Con­sti­tu­tion Day. Af­ter that point the church re­mained stand­ing but be­came in­creas­ingly run-down for al­most 30 years.

But in the 1980s the then South Glam­or­gan County Coun­cil spon­sored the es­tab­lish­ment of the Nor­we­gian Church Preser­va­tion Trust to save the build­ing and in­cor­po­rate it into the newly re­de­vel­oped docks.

Llandaff-born au­thor Roald Dahl was the trust’s first pres­i­dent. Born to Nor­we­gian par­ents in Fair­wa­ter Road, his fa­ther Har­ald co-founded a ship­broking com­pany in around 1880. His fam­ily wor­shipped at the Nor­we­gian Church when it was in its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion in the Cardiff Docks and Dahl and his sib­lings were all bap­tised there.

When the church fell into dis­re­pair in the 1970s, Dahl was at the fore­front of a cam­paign to raise money to save it. Funds were raised in Cardiff and Nor­way to dis­man­tle and re­pair the church.

In 1987 the old church was dis­man­tled and stored, later re­lo­cated to its new site in 1992. Dahl didn’t live to see the pro­ject com­pleted, dy­ing in 1990. The church was of­fi­cially opened by Nor­we­gian princess Martha Louise on April 8, 1992, as a cul­tural cen­tre.

No longer con­se­crated as a church, the build­ing in­cludes a cafe and ex­hi­bi­tion gallery. The church was ren­o­vated again in 2011, re­open­ing on May 17.

■ Thanks to the Glam­or­gan Archives and ar­chiv­ist Su­san Edwards, who orig­i­nally com­piled the re­search on glamarchives.

The Nor­we­gian Church in the snow in 1947 and, be­low, to­day

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