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...
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. wordpress.com
The Norwegian Church in the snow in 1947 and, below, today