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Ship Portraits

Ship Portraits

In 1801 the population of Cardiff was only 1,870. By 1851 the population had increased almost 10-fold to 18,351 and by 1921 another 10-fold increase was seen to 182,259.

What happened?  Coal!

The coal of the South Wales valleys was in great demand – essentially what oil is today, the fuel that powered the world – and an infrastructure of railways, docks and ships was needed to supply that coal around the globe.

In 1839, the Marquess of Bute started the building of, what was to become, a whole network of docks to satisfy the ever increasing demand for coal and the increasingly larger ships that were needed to carry it. The last dock, Queen Alexandra Dock was opened in 1907 and by 1913 coal exports from Cardiff amounted to 10.7m tons. After that, oil came on the scene and the demand for coal reduced dramatically.

Incoming ships included seafarers from around the British Empire amongst the crew. If their voyage ended in Cardiff they were paid off until there was an outbound ship for them. So, in the area around the docks, there sprang up boarding houses where seafarers stayed and places like pubs to help them spend their pay. This area developed a notorious reputation – which was only partly justified – and became known as Tiger Bay.

Some of the overseas seamen decided to settle, marry and raise families. By the 1950’s it was said that there were  57 nationalities represented amongst the 5000 or so residents of Tiger Bay forming one of the largest ethnically mixed communities in the U.K. They worked on the ships; on the dock sides; in the industries that grew up in the docklands and in local shops and offices.

In 1987, Butetown History and Arts Centre started to document the contribution this ethnic mix brought to the area. Photos, oral histories and much more were collected until 2017, when insolvency meant closure. 

Fortunately, all is not lost as a new charity, The Heritage & Cultural Exchange was formed to take custody of much of the material. HCE  is currently undertaking a National Lottery Heritage Fund supported project – Tiger Bay, Preserving the Stories – to catalogue and make the material available once again.

As part of my involvement in that project I have been introduced to the work of the Cardiff Docks based photographers, Hansen.

The firm was established in 1891 by Lars Peter Hansen on his arrival from Denmark and continued by his son Leslie until the latter’s retirement in 1975. At that time, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales purchased the negative collection – many of which are glass plates - consisting of over 4,500 images of shipping taken at Cardiff Docks between 1920 and 1975.

The collection has been catalogued and more than 500 of the earlier photographs have been digitised and viewable on People’s Collection Wales website.

The material now in the possession of The Heritage & Cultural Exchange, included more than 100 prints of some of the later images and these are in the process of being digitised and will be available on an archive website in due course. Maybe when we get to sort the rest of the material there will be more.

I have headed this piece Ship Portraits as, like the examples shown here, all are amazingly well composed and shot bearing in mind that the photographs were of working ships taken in or near a working dock.

The collection provides a unique record of the activity in the port of Cardiff over a significant period of time and also reflect the changes in size, power source and design of cargo ships in operation throughout that time.