Particularly in the Summer months (but at other times too) Bute Street is trod by tourists from all over the world, making their way from the city centre to the Bay. Many people may simply pass through, their eyes set on the sea and perhaps seeking out a resturant at the well established Mermaid Quay at Cardiff Bay. But this area of Cardiff, known as The Docks, Butetown and Tiger Bay has secrets if only you seek them out! So, here's a small tour of the area to help you on your way!
Looking down Bute Street from the square you will see the Salvation Army Hostel, Ty Gobaith, (translated ‘Hope House’) to the right. The present building replaces an older, former hostel that stood near this spot - the YMCA hostel for homeless men, with the former St Mary’s Church school nestled beside it on the corner of Bute Street and North Church Street.
The red bricked building which was once the PDSA surgery stands here just behind Ty Gobaith, and it is here that the twin towers of St Mary’s Church will greet you. (Incidentally, the Salvation Army’s first mission in Wales opened in Canton in 1874).
The history of St Mary’s Church begins elsewhere, in another part of the parish, with another building. The original St Mary’s stood at a turning of the Taff River and was built as a Priory Church by Robert Fitzhamon (the first Norman Lord of Cardiff) just before 1100.
Beside the small row of shops on Wood Street near Central Station, in what was essentially a lane until the summer of 2016 when the shops and car park were demolished to make room for the BBC Wales building, you would have found a blue plaque on the wall that marked the site of the original St Mary’s Church. However, there does remain another visible vestige of its past presence. On the side of the The Prince of Wales (now a Wetherspoon’s pub but at one time a theatre of the same name and then a cinema) you will see the outline of where the priory church once stood. And, of course, just around the corner from here you will wander easily into St Mary Street.
The site is rather an unimpressive one but it begins a new chapter for Christianity in this place. It also indicates an important event in the history of Cardiff: the flood of 1607. There is no river there now, of course. It was diverted in the industrial expansion of the nineteenth century by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The original church was built as a cruciform building with a central tower and would have been divided into two parts: the nave being used by parishioners, the chancel reserved for the monks. In 1180, it was given to the pastoral care of the Benedictine Abbey of Tewksbury. St Mary’s was ranked as a priory church and its parish priest was the prior. It ceased, however, to be a priory church in 1254, when the Benedictines appointed a Vicar who was not a monk. The church was badly damaged by the flood of 1607 and it stood for some years desolate and sad until it was eventually pulled down, waiting to re-emerge (in name only) in years to come with the church on Bute Street.
For years it stood, roofless and derelict, and by 1620 St John's church was used for St Mary's services. In 1680 the tower collapsed. The last service was held in 1701 in a roofless ruin. And so the original St Mary's Church was abandoned. No trace remains today. All that is left to remind us is the imprint on the side of a pub - even the blue plaque which once marked the spot has been pulled down along with the buildin upon which it hung, to make room for the new BBC Wales headquarters. And, of course, the name of the street that runs through the city centre.
The screen that you see at the back of the church, giving a birdcage feel, does not really belong here. It was brought from old St Dyfrig’s Church, which stood on Wood Street near the Bus Station. It is an oft-repeated practice when closing a church – to scatter its furnishings in another church. In recent decades the church has been reordered again, with a new nave altar, creating a sense of space and light, but beyond that there remains the original choir stalls and high altar, surrounded by the statues of the twelve apostles and its frescoes. It’s worth a closer look.
Turn left as you enter the Church and on the West Wall are three plaques. The central plaque is a memorial tablet to Griffith Arthur Jones. Further along is a side altar (that once belonged to St Stephen’s Church, but more of that later) and above it is a memorial to Fr Kenneth Gillingham, a former Vicar here and a significant catholic priest of the Diocese of Llandaff and the first director of Cardiff Samaritans. He began the first pilgrimages from South Wales to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham since its restoration at the beginning of the last century. The stained glass window on the wall is, as you will see, of St Stephen and is another remnant from the former sister Bay Church.
St Mary’s, as we said, gave a welcome to the many immigrants and visitors, including of course many sailors and if you continue down the side aisle you will eventually find a memorial window and plaque to those who lost their lives in the Russian Convoys. The cross hanging high above the nave altar, shaped as an anchor, also gives a clue to the past of this church.
Incidentally, the final station of the resurrection (on the other side of the church) was only added in 2007, and was painted by local renowned artist Tony Goble, shortly before his death. His work may be found in a number of Cardiff churches, including the reredos at St Saviour’s Church, Splott). Cross between the choir stalls and the nave altar where you will arrive at the Lady Chapel on your left. As you face the Lady Chapel Altar, look over the door to the right of you and you will see a rather insignificant looking stone jutting out. It is the only remaining stone from the original building of St Mary’s: a silent, subtle memory of yesterday and a tender link to the past, and nine hundred years of history.
Although the church has been reordered there are still significant features that can be recognised by some visitors who are fans of the 1959 Hayley Mills’ movie, Tiger Bay. The church was used as one of the locations for the film and is where the character played by the young Mills was a member of the choir. The scenery in the film gives a good snapshot of how the church once looked.
As you leave St Mary’s Church, you will see the playing fields and gardens of St Mary’s Church in Wales Primary School that now stand on the site of the old West Church Street. The playing fields themselves were once home to streets of terraced housing. Much has changed.
As you leave the car park, opposite you will see St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in 1904, another indication of the multi cultural, multi religious past of this area of Cardiff. If you’re visiting Cardiff during the time of the Orthodox Easter it’s a great time to stand and join the crowds of Greek worshippers gathering outside for the Easter Vigil, candles aloft, greeting the Risen Lord, and at the end of the celebrations trailing their lights back home. The church is built in classic Byzantine style and its copper covered dome and plastered walls are covered with frescoes and icons.
Retrace your steps to Bute Street and turn right. As you walk down Bute Street you will find several aluminium posts that mark the sites of significant buildings now long pulled down: the Caribbean Social Club, the Somali Boarding House, Scandinavian Boarding House, Muslim Seamen’s House, Chinese Laundry House of Wah Lee all hint at the colourful and metropolitan past that is now just a memory, and which has given way to more recent ‘developments’ (although many people would argue with the choice of that word).
There are several features of faith along Bute Street, although you will have to leave the main road and venture into the Estate to find them. Many of those features have been rebuilt or destroyed altogether leaving little or no trace, apart from what can be found in old photographs and memories. The Estate today is, primarily, a Muslim area, and is not generally on the tourist route, being as it is a residential area of post war housing. Cardiff, however, holds a significant place in the history of Islam in the UK. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, trade between Britain and Asia increased, and many sailors from ports in Somalia and the Yemen made frequent and regular visits to Cardiff, and many settled. Cardiff was the site of the first Mosque in the UK, erected in Peel Street, here in Butetown. It was a temporary measure converted from three houses. It was bombed during the war and a new mosque was planned and built in 1947 but this was demolished in 1988 in order to build a new mosque on the site. Today, Butetown is home to two mosques. Multiculturalism is not new to Cardiff – perhaps in the present climate, we would do well to look back and learn a lesson or two.
Maria Street is the first main road on your right as you walk down Bute Street and away from St Mary’s. This site is the second oldest Muslim place of worship in the city, and is open for daily prayer. The original mosque on this site (then Peel Street) was established by Somali seafarers who settled in Cardiff in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and was situated close to the old Huguenot church. The present building dates from the 1980s.
The Hugeonot Church in Butetown was established in the eighteenth century by Cardiff’s protestant Huguenot exiles from France. It was rebuilt in the 1960s by their successors and then, owing to their decline in numbers, the trustees gave the building to the members of a house church community of West Indian immigrants that had been established in Cardiff in the late 1950s. This was the New Testament Church of God, an English speaking Afro-Caribbean church denomination with congregations across the US, the Caribbean, parts of Africa and the UK.
As you continue your walk down Bute Street, you will pass Loudoun Square. Once designed as a square of grand houses overlooking a fenced, tree lined park it now has a rather different facade, with two large tower blocks dominating the skyline. However, after several million pounds of investment, Loudoun Square has had a revamp and re-emerged as a row of new shops, along with a health centre and community hub. The row of shops provides a regular gathering place for many local residents.
Just after you pass the shops on your right you will see St Paul’s Methodist Church on the left hand side of the street, now a more modern construction than its initial namesake: orange brick and pebble dash welcome you instead of the grander looking stone building that once stood here. The first church was built in 1856, the present building in 1966.
You will probably begin your walk at Callaghan Square (formerly called Bute Square but renamed after the Cardiff MP and Prime Minister). The square is now an open area often frequented by skateboarders, people from the nearby office blocks eating lunch during the summer, or by a few residents of the Salvation Army Hostel. Apart from that it isn’t a particularly well-used space. It was designed to link the City Centre to the Bay and is surrounded by an ever-increasing development of office blocks that stretches further down Penarth Road to your right. Dumballs Road, the road to the right which runs parallel to Bute Street, has already begun development, and demotiion and building are common sights and sounds.
As you walk further down Bute Street towards the Bay, you will pass Alice Street, the home of the South Wales Islamic Centre, built in the 1970s in the classic Arabic style, a single space domed Mosque, with a minaret abutting the left hand side.
Whether you walk up or down Bute Street, you will soon be accompanied by a single carriage train which ambles between the Bay and Queen Street Station, along the raised track which separates Butetown from the new development of Atlantic Wharf over the line, beyond the site of the old West Bute Dock. The Cardiff Bay Railway Station building is now a sad and crumbling mess despite being a Grade II listed building and was built for the historic Taff Vale Railway in 1843. It was from very near this site that the very first train in South Wales ran in October 1840, when the Railway opened the line to Abercynon. The station was central to the coal export trade. In 1920, Bute Docks, the Taff Vale Railway and the the Cardiff Railways were sold to the Great Western Railway and, for a time, was the busiest and perhaps most important rail system in the world.
If you continue walking down Bute Street, you will finally arrive at Mermaid Quay, but if you take a slight diversion, and avert your thirst or hunger, you can take the road which forks right, dowwn West Bute Street, which will bring you to the area known as Mount Stuart Square, and the building whose claim to fame amongst many is the venue of the signing of the first 1 million pound cheque. However, before you get there, on the corner on your right, stands the old St Stephen's Church. The original Church of St Stephen was built in 1900 in Mount Stuart Square in the Docks area. It was built to replace a temporary iron frame church as a chapel of St Mary’s. In 1912, the church became a parish in its own right but it was deconsecrated and sold eighty years later in 1992. The former St Stephen’s Church became a music venue called The Point, but this too was closed in 2009.
The old Peel Street Mosque, built 1947
Churches, mosques... it is natural, then, that the other great, Abrahamic faith had a welcome place in Butetown. The first synagogue in Cardiff was built in East Terrace in 1858, close to the Glamorganishire Canal, although before that time, the Jewish community had been renting rooms in Trinity Street in the city centre, close to St John's Church and near Cardiff Market.
A few years earlier, In 1841, the Marquis of Bute had given land at Highfield for the Jewish Cemetery – but, since Bute Street was the focus for several Jewish businesses engaged in occupations such as shop keeping and pawn broking, it became a natural place for the first synagogue to emerge. As the population rose steadily the synagogue was redeveloped and reopened in 1888. The following year Cardiff’s New Synagogue was formed at Edwards Place. Known as ‘Furriners Shul’ it seems that this was the focus for the more recent, poorer immigrants, in contrast to the ‘Englishe Shul’ in East Terrace. The synagogue in East Terrace closed in 1897
However, there was still a need for a larger premises and the Marquess of Bute gave a site in Cathedral Road, opened in 1897 following a closure service held in East Terrace. Cathedral Road closed in 1989.
Over a hundred years later the name of St Mary’s Church re-emerged. In 1843, the Third Marquis of Bute provided a site and funds for a new St Mary’s Church to be built. Extra money was raised, including funds gifted by William Wordsworth (‘Let the new Church be worthy of its aim/That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice’). Its setting was very different from the former building. Nestled within the expanding docklands area, surrounded by terraced housing, shops, schools, pubs and clubs it became a welcoming haven for the many immigrants, visitors and seafarers who wound their way into Cardiff through the Docks.
The surrounding area is now very different from what emerged in the hundred years since the initial construction of the new St Mary’s, leaving the church, perhaps, looking somewhat lost or maybe as a surprise to those who walk this route. The streets of terraced houses, clubs and pubs have all been destroyed , indeed the whole of Butetown was bulldozed in the 1960s. The area down to the Bay is coloured now with small orange bricked flats and houses and a tower block or two, trailed on the other side of the road by a high stone wall which seems to holds the railway line in its place, and beyond that, the more recent, more upmarket housing developments of Lloyd George Avenue, a contrast to the collection of buildings of Butetown. Butetown today is home, mostly, to a strong Muslim community, many of them of Somali or Yemen origin, and served by two mosques. We will come to them soon.
St Mary’s Church (a Grade II Listed building) stands now within the Anglo-catholic tradition but the interior has been reordered since its original construction of central pulpit, galleries and rows of pews. In 1872, the Reverend Griffith Arthur Jones became the vicar, inheriting a church that was strongly Protestant. His changes met with some opposition but his faith and endurance ensured that St Mary’s Church became rich in catholic faith and spirituality to this day, and his ministry earns him a place as a hero of the Anglo-catholic revival.
The war memorial crucifix facing onto Bute Street was erected in 1920 in memory of those members of the parish who fell in the First World War. It is a significant feature at the top of Bute Street and in recent years has been beautifully renovated. The twin towers of St Mary’s do not provide the entrance to the church. To find that you will have to walk down North Church Street and into the car park on your left to enter the church through its West Doors. If you are able to gain access to the inside of the church, there are several significant features to look out for.