Cardiff’s ‘Sailortown’; Butetown or ‘Tiger Bay.’


Roald Dahl Plass and the Pierhead Building, 2016.

‘Sailortown’ is often described as a liminal space, the border between land and sea, work and home.  Writing in 1923, C. Fox Smith highlighted this with ‘Dockland, strictly speaking, is of no country—or rather it is of all countries.’[1] There are few places where one can see the rise and fall of this phenomenon so clearly as Cardiff’s docklands, officially known as Butetown, or more popularly as ‘Tiger Bay.’  In this small area of around one square mile, Stan Hugill reflected the ‘Sailortown’ culture of the community, noting the wide variety of nationalities to be found there, as well as the vast number of drinking establishments and other notorious dockland entertainment.[2]  Hugill even notes the lack of attention paid to the area by historians working on the port’s economic heyday.[3]

Tiger Bay can be said to encapsulate the fact of ‘Sailortown’ being ‘rooted in a particular time.’[4] Therefore, a study of the area can support the new approaches to ‘Sailortown’ research being presented by the Port Towns and Urban Cultures research group because urban-maritime cultures can be explored, alongside representations of this port town in contemporary and current media.[5]  My approach is to compare the actual numbers of overseas migrants to the area with the large number of negative press reports associated with Tiger Bay. This research will demonstrate how the social cohesion described in contemporary accounts by residents directly contradicts the picture painted by the media of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

The city of Cardiff as a whole grew from a modest population of 6,432 people in 1801 to 93,637 in 1881. By the turn of the twentieth century Cardiff recorded 172,629 inhabitants, and 209,804 in 1911.[6] This rapid population increase came about as the city prospered along with the coal mines in the nearby valleys.  During the Industrial Revolution, the city became a centre of export of coal to the world, earning it the nickname ‘Coal Metropolis’.[7] The expansion of the docks by the Marquis of Bute began in 1839 and carried on through the nineteenth century. Road, rail and canal links were introduced; enabling the port to become Britain’s largest coal exporter by the 1890s.[8] This development resulted in a world-renowned port, staffed by people from all over the world, many of whom chose to make Cardiff their permanent home. ‘Tiger Bay’ became Cardiff’s ‘Sailortown.’  Around 100 years of a boom economy; cut off after World War Two, which ended finally in 1964, with the demise of the coal export trade.[9]

Most of the research into the Tiger Bay community tends to focus on single cultural groups, generally from the 1940s to the present.  K. L. Little used the area for a sociological study in 1947, which formed the basis for his work Negroes in Britain.[10] More recently, Neil Sinclair has provided more information, largely based on the Black and Middle Eastern communities, which has produced some excellent insights as he was also born and raised in Tiger Bay.[11]  However, significant immigrant groups have also been somewhat overlooked, such as the sizable Norwegian community, as noted by H. E. Roese.[12]  Very little work has been done to study the earlier immigrants and/or economic migrants to the port.  Alongside spatial mapping, it is now possible to study the actual demographics of the area and to compare the public perception to the statistical information.  Ross Cameron has observed that ‘during the port’s economic heyday between 1870 and 1914, the volume of media coverage snowballed until Butetown’s multifaceted debauchery was an established fact in the popular imagination.’[13]  Working with the demographic information alongside published memoirs and interviews with those who remember Tiger Bay as a bustling ‘Sailortown’ will help to demonstrate the difference between this media coverage and the daily lives of the residents.

Panikos Panayi has commented that fear of new migrants may be ascribed to ‘short-term press-inspired negative views of newcomers, which has affected all immigrants in Britain over the last two centuries,’ regardless of origin.[14]  Looking at the contemporary media’s commentary about Tiger Bay, and indeed any areas with large immigrant populations, can feel at times like looking at modern media reports.  The headlines were scaremongering and derogatory; encouraging fear of the ‘Other’.  Take for example ‘Captain’ Edward Tupper’s 1911 assertion that the Chinese workers in Cardiff were the

‘flotsam and jetsam of the Bristol Channel.’[15]

What my work aims to do is separate the media perception from the actual concerns and experiences of those who lived in Tiger Bay at the turn of the nineteenth century.  Available commentaries tend to demonstrate a close-knit community, aware of its multicultural nature, but not at all troubled by it.  A typical working class ‘Sailortown’ with all the issues this may raise, but generally content.  A racially diverse ‘Sailortown’ geographically separate from the rest of Cardiff city, which fuelled the prosperity of the city region for a century.



[1] C. Fox Smith, Sailor Town Days (London:  Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1923), 5.

[2] Stan Hugill, Sailortown (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1967), 128-33.

[3] Hugill, Sailortown, 132.

[4] Graeme J. Milne, People, Place and Power on the Nineteeth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 1.

[5] Brad Beaven et al, “Introduction” in ed. Brad Beaven, Karl Bell and Robert James, Port Towns and Urban Cultures:  International Histories of the Waterfront, c. 1700-2000 (Basingstoke:  Palsgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.4.

[6] ‘Cardiff District: Population’, Vision of Britain, <>, last accessed 24 November 2016.

[7] M. J. Daunton, Coal Metropolis Cardiff 1870-1914 (Leicester:  Leicester UniversityPress, 1977), 229.

[8] Lee, B. and Butetown History and Arts Centre, Butetown and Cardiff Docks (Stroud: The History Press, 1999), 7.

[9] Dennis Morgan, The Illustrated History of Cardiff’s Suburbs (Derby: Breedon Books Publishing, 2003), p.21

[10] K. L. Little, Negroes in Britain: A Study of Racial Relations in English Society (London: Kegan Paul, 1948)

[11] Neil Sinclair, The Tiger Bay Story (Cardiff: Dragon and Tiger Enterprises, 2013, Kindle Edition)

[12] H. E. Roese, ‘Cardiff’s Norwegian Heritage: A Neglected Theme’, Welsh History Review, 8 (1996), p.255-271.

[13] Ross Cameron, ‘‘The most colourful extravaganza in the world’: Images of Tiger Bay, 1845–1970’, Patterns of Prejudice (1997), 62.

[14] Panikos Panayi, An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1900 (Harlow:  Pearson, 2010), 204-5.

[15]  David Jenkins, Shipowners of Cardiff  (University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1997), p.21

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