Butetown is more than meets the Eye

Exploring notions of (re)presentation, stories of resistance and spaces of belonging


  1. “Butetown has always been changing all my life.” (Keith Murrell,musician, community activist) 2014
  2. The multicultural community of Butetown or Tiger Bay in Cardiff, Wales, 1950. Original Publication : Picture Post - 5020 - Down The Bay -  pub. 22nd April 1950 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)
    The multicultural community of Butetown or Tiger Bay in Cardiff, Wales, 1950. Original Publication : Picture Post - 5020 - Down The Bay - pub. 22nd April 1950 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)
  3. Butetown is a place of constant change. For some, Butetown conjures images of ships in docks, sailors, pubs, and multiple races. Once upon a time, this was Butetown and that image went alongside another representation that was imposed on the place due to the reputation of docklands in general and also due to perceived ideas about her foreign inhabitants – that of crime, filth, promiscuity and so on.The official name Butetown was mainly used after council houses were built in the late 1960s early 1970s. Prior to that, some of the locals referred to Butetown as ‘Tiger Bay.’ In certain instances, ‘the Docks’ refers to the lower part of Butetown, south of an area called James Street, while ‘the Bay’ was from the area known as Loudoun Square (‘up the Bay’ and ‘down the docks’).
  4. Tiger Bay’s reputation has embedded repercussions today, despite the many changes that have taken place. The changes to the area have also contributed to perpetuating some of the representations of this place and her people. This essay looks at the representations of Butetown and the re-presentations of what life was like in Butetown in order to engage with some of the complexities of the ways in which a community finds a voice for self-definition, in the midst of change. Historically, Butetown has been represented as racialized and exotic, dangerous and ‘other.’ For some of her inhabitants it was important in scenarios outside of Butetown’s boarders to inhabit some of those stereotypes as a means of protection, defiantly in response to the blatant experiences of social, racial and cultural discrimination. Butetown’s residents have also perpetuated the idea of unity and social, racial, religious integration that was paramount in their everyday lives – respect for the ‘other’ rather than just tolerance. Immersed in a space that has been constantly re-constructed under words such as ‘sanitation,’ where the community remains powerless to the decisions, voiceless and invisible, the people begin to assert their identity and their presence through performances of resistance.
  5. Cardiff - "Boom Town" and the legend of Tiger Bay
  6. The History of Cardiff’s docklands and the vibrant community that emerged as a result of that history is well documented in books like Alan Llwyd’s Cymru Ddu/Black Wales: A History, which was also a successful television documentary. Peter Fryer’s seminal text Staying Power’: The History of Black People in Britain gives a detailed account of Britain’s history with a particular focus on the historical presence of black (African and Asian) people. Currently, from February 16th to May 24th 2015, there is an exhibition of the same name at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition, ‘Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s’ aims to highlight the work of Black Britons and their impact on society and culture.
  7. Exhibitions such as these emphasize to some degree, an attempt to correct the under-representation and misrepresentation of the contributions of the non-white British population. Glimpses of the history of Tiger Bay/Butetown are also visible in other documentaries and archive films that have sought to engage with this space on several levels. The variously documented history often tells of Wales contribution to the trans-Atlantic trade from the seventeenth century, providing ships full of iron (among other goods for trade produced in different parts of England, the most popular of which were textiles) to be traded in West Africa for Africans who were to be enslaved on plantations based in the ‘new world’ – colonised islands of the British empire. The ships would then bring sugar and other produce back to the UK, to sweeten the coffees and teas of the British population. During this time, industry peaked. In the 1800s, Wales had iron works based in places like Swansea, Port Talbot, Neath, Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil. Coal has however been an integral part of Wales’ history as most of the ironworks were within the coal field. The decline of iron industry came about because of other progressions in smelting that were more cost effective. By the mid-1800s, the coal merchants opened up coal mines.These mines were hazardous workplaces and had a workforce that included men, women and children and also pit ponies. Accidents were frequent and between 1850 and 1914, 3,000 minors died from work related accidents.

    Welsh coal, used to power the Royal Navy, was transported 25miles from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff along the Glamorganshire Canal. Coal was transported and shipped from the Cardiff docks which was built by 2nd Marquis of Bute and after his death, completed by his son, the 3rd Marquis of Bute. The dock allowed large ships to dock in the bay with controlled waterlevels and lock gates. Welsh coal was considered superior because of its slow burning time and as a result, Cardiff was the main supplier worldwide. This worldwide reputation meant that ships came from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas and as coal went onto the ships, people alighted. The demand for coal rose as a rail network was built, powered again by steam from coal. As opportunities for work increased, unique communities were being formed in the Welsh Rhondda Valleys and along Wales’ coast line docks. Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and England and migration from rural Wales impacted on life in the Welsh valleys while in Cardiff, immigration from those lands already mentioned and from further afield, impacted on the unique society that was Butetown.
  8. Butetown was the UK’s first multi-ethnic, interracial city and this process of ‘mixing’, was evident from as early as 1850. During World War 1 (1914-1918), Britain called on men and women from her different colonies to help fight by her side. After the war, these foreign British citizens from different geographical areas came to look for work opportunities. It is often referenced that people from all the four corners of the world eventually settled in Butetown. As the ‘respectable’ wealthy folks moved out, the seafarers moved in resulting in the area drastically plummeting down the social scale. The influx of (mostly male) immigrants often of darker skin tones, affected the populous outside of the area in dramatic ways. While it can be acknowledged that the UK has had a long history of exposure to people of different ethnicities, particularly through her participation in the trans-Atlantic trade and the fashionable accessory of having a little black servant boy or girl, the quantity of people that came, of their own free will, aroused defensive claims to land/space, jobs and mates. In essence, the image of Butetown, to those outside her borders, was one that threatened life as it was known, up to that point. It is marginally helpful to read this inevitable ‘invasion’ alongside the historical white Welsh oppression by the invading English, which resulted in the Welsh being denied the use of their language, religion and culture and being treated as an inferior people, in that the Welsh become possessive/protective over what they saw as ‘theirs.’ However, experiences of the new immigrants in Cardiff’s docklands and the generally negative responses from the rest of Cardiff was not dissimilar from the experiences of other foreign immigrants in the UK at that time and even to those experiences after World War 2. The timing of this new influx of people that came from lands that belonged to the empire was poignant. These new immigrants came with an agenda that was concerned with earning a living, in a country that they thought they belonged to, a country they defended during the war. The post First World War Welsh population was ripe for the experiences that followed – as British women in particular began defining for themselves the ways in which they wanted to live their lives. That is, according to George Alagiah in the BBC's three-part documentary ‘Mixed Britannia' having to work during the war in roles that would have been considered to be exclusively male, afforded the British woman a new sense of independence and liberation.
  9. It is not surprising that some chose to date and start families with the foreign men on their doorsteps. These men too participated in a type of liberation as they wooed Welsh, Irish and European women. As in many communities, the women were charged with the responsibility of holding the family together. In light of a community where the fathers were often called away to work at sea for months at a time, the women, wives and mothers, carried the brunt of community building. In this space the exotic was beginning to become prosaic as families were being formed, as religious and cultural customs were being shared and as household doors were opened to the invitation of conversation. Crucially as captured in photographs by Picture Post photographer Bert Hardy, the streets became congregation spaces for meeting and sharing. This interracial interaction was just the way it was. However, after the war, as jobs became scarce and war heroes came home, the interracial interaction would be a major target for violence.
  10. Butetown like many other places, had its vice and its beauty. In the summer of 1919 race riots erupted in different parts of the UK. These violent race riots can be seen as a combination of racism and economic dislocation.The riots resulted in some immigrants being repatriated back to the lands of origin.
  11. In Cardiff, many remained, continued to raise their families and created a new generation of black and mixed-race Welsh people. This new generation, as is often the case, had an affinity to the different lands of both parents and an appreciation for different cultures in general. Immersed within Butetown’s rich cultural boarders this new generation also had a burgeoning sense of identity that was forged within that space. That is, as with notions of ‘creolisation’ as a creative process, implying not just the mixture of two or more cultures but 1) the mixture of people to create a new, often specific identity that is rooted in the dynamics of the space and 2) the creation of a unique space, forged again (as with the people) by mixing – socialising, living alongside and sharing. Here then both the ideas of interracial and multi-racial persist and the ‘mixing’ was not necessarily a loss of original cultural identity, but rather, as in the case of the Arab immigrants at the time, an opening up of ones culture to others.

  12. In 1930, coal exports declined and in 1964 after World War 2 (1939-1945) coal stopped being exported. World War 2 saw another change to Butetown as GIs based in Cardiff, formed relationships that would lead to GI brides and sometimes GI babies. Although some women migrated to the States with their new American husbands, others were not allowed. Positioning this within the context of the segregation laws in the United States at the time is helpful particularly as many of the relationships formed in Butetown may have been mixed. Post-war Britain saw more immigrants (many ex-servicemen), making their homes in this space. After the devastation of the war, Britain invited her colonial subjects to help re-build their motherland. In Cardiff, brave men from Butetown had died in the war effort at sea. The stories of migration at this time are well known – that those British subjects felt as British as any British person, but that they were not well received by the general population and on many occasions had to live in conditions much worse than conditions back home. Arriving first to London, some made the journey to Cardiff as Tiger Bay’s multicultural reputation preceded her.
  13. With the decline of coal exports, unemployment was high. Cardiff had, prior to the war and as part of the Cardiff Corporation Act 1934, uprooted and rehoused an entire community in order to make room for public facilities to accompany the newly built Great Western Railway. The community was called Temperance Town. In similar fashion Butetown had by the 1960s become ripe for a redevelopment scheme. In Butetown, homes were knocked down and with the promise of indoor toilets, the people were re-housed in high-rise flats. Others still were posted outside the area, where they eventually settled. This break in community for many of the residents, was a rupture to the heart of Tiger Bay. It is often to the period prior to 1960s that people fondly reminisce, when referring to what Butetown was like. This changing face of Butetown and the displacement of community continued to have a severely negative impact on community feelings of belonging to the rest of Cardiff.
  14. In the 1980s, the government wanted to capitalise on the prime site of the dockland area to put Cardiff back on the map with other European competitors. The Cardiff Bay Corporation 1987 built around the surrounding area enclosing the Buteown community. They cleared the land to put in infrastructure and invited private businesses to relocate there, creating 6,000 new homes and 30,000 jobs that had nothing to do with the Butetown community. Butetown, re-named Cardiff Bay, became a site for leisure and tourism. The Butetown people however, have not been voiceless and invisible over the years.
  15. Cardiff Bay Redevelopment
  16. The most tangible community output of any community can be seen in their public performances – sport, music, art, voice and movement. The 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation lists Butetown as deprived in areas such as health, community safety and physical environment. This space of ‘depravation’ continues to produce talented rugby players, boxers, musicians, artists and singers from the likes of Shirley Bassey to the bourgeoning Aleighcia Scott.