Finding Faith in Cardiff
These days, many people simply pass along Bute Street, their eyes set on the sea as they seek out the leisure and pleasure of Cardiff Bay.
Butetown has experienced many changes since it pre-industrial moorland days on the edge of a growing town. It witnessed the explosion in industry which created a vibrant multicultural community.
Since then, faith and religion has played an important part in the growth of Cardiff. This walk, whether made physically or from the comfort of your home, invites you to discover the significant religious past and present of Tiger Bay!
Although Cardiff is growing rapidly, both upwards and outwards, it’s still a small, friendly city and it’s easy to get around on foot or by public transport.
Faithful Butetown takes us from Callaghan Square along Bute Street to Mount Stuart Square, very near to Mermaid Quay.
Butetown is a residential estate with social housing, local shops, a surgery and community hub, a community centre, two mosques, several churches, and lots of history! It was one of the first multicultural and multi-religious areas in the UK and still retains something of this heritage today.
Distance: 1.3 miles / 25 minutes (excluding stops)
Parking: There is ample parking in the city centre, and on-street parking (with pay and display) at the top of Bute Street outside St Mary’s Church
Public Transport: the walk begins a few minutes way from Cardiff Central Station and the main bus routes.
Terrain: Pavements, flat, no hills.
Religions discovered: Christianity (including Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, French Huguenot, Methodism, Salvation Army, True Jesus Church, NT Church of God), Islam, and Judaism
If you’d like to have the Google map at hand, highlighting some of the places we’ll see along the way, then you can access it here
We begin at Callaghan Square (formerly Bute Square but renamed after the Cardiff MP and Prime Minister). It is now an open area frequented by skateboarders, office workers eating lunch during the summer months, or a few residents of the Salvation Army Hostel.
Apart from that, it isn’t a particularly well-used space. It is surrounded by an increasing development of office blocks that stretches down Penarth Road to your right and Tyndall Street to your left. This is where the old docks once began, canals winding their way, right and left, and a pub on every corner.
Welcoming you to Butetown is the statue of the Second Marquess of Bute who cut through the moorlands to sink the docks and the road we know as Bute Street.
In 1839, he opened West Bute Dock which rose up from the sea and kissed the lip of Tyndall Street to your left, shipping out coal to the world, and bringing the world to Cardiff.
Talking of Tyndall Street…
As you face south, the sea is ahead of you, and it’s this route that we’ll be taking, but if you glance left to Herbert Street which leads under the railway line to Tyndall Street you will be staring into what was once known as Newtown, a former Irish Community, long gone.
The only traces of it are a few street names which linger (like Ellen Street, the birth place of the famous boxer, Peerless Jim Driscoll, a statue of whom stands outside the Radisson hotel just behind you) and a stone memorial garden next to the Ibis hotel.
There were once two churches of significance in Newtown, St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, and All Saints or, more appropriately, Eglwys yr Holl Sant as it was an Anglican church with a Welsh speaking community.
By 1870, as industry grew and the surrounding landscape became transformed by railway lines, goods yards, the docks, and a predominantly Irish population, the church had become All Saints’ Church with English services only.
The Welsh services dispersed across various parts of the town, along with the Welsh speakers but by the late 1880s the impetus to re-establish a Welsh-speaking church was revived, and a new church hall, Capel Dewi Sant, was opened in Howard Gardens in 1889.
Incidentally, in 1891, 15% of Butetown’s population could speak Welsh, significantly higher than the Cardiff average at the time.
Today, there is an Anglican Welsh speaking church at Dewi Sant in St Andrew’s Crescent, at the other side of the city centre. Maybe we’ll take you there on another walk!
The Salvation Army
Looking down Bute Street you’ll see the Salvation Army’s, Ty Gobaith (Hope House), a Social Services Centre providing a number of services for the homeless in the city. It is one of three homeless hostels in the area.
The story of the Salvation Army in Wales actually began in Butetown.
Its hero was John Allen (b1843) whose life in London after his mother’s death was described as “dissolute and ungodly”. In 1868, he heard a Christian Missionary preaching on the East India Road in East London, and was converted.
He arrived in Cardiff at the age of 31 years. The Gospel Hall at 280 Bute Street was provided by John Cory (1828 – 1910), philanthropist, coal owner and ship owner. His family name lives on in a building at the bottom of Bute Street, on the corner once known as Penniless Row, where men once queued for work.
Within a few weeks of the Hall’s opening on November 11, 1874, 60 people were converted and, by early 1875, it was regularly full. It wasn’t long before Allen needed to find a larger place and so the Stuart Hall, a 1200 seat theatre (situated where St Davids2 shopping centre stands) was gifted by the Corys. Allen died a few years later, and the building demolished in 1965.
We’re moving on quickly, just the other side of Ty Gobaith, where the Church of St Mary the Virgin awaits.
St Mary the Virgin
The original St Mary’s stood at the turning of the River Taff. It was built as a Priory Church around 1100 but it was damaged in the flood of 1607 which swept through the South West England and South Wales, and further damaged in the Civil War later that century.
Its site is marked by an outline on the side of The Prince of Wales Pub just off St Mary Street. The river was later diverted in the 19th century by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
By 1620, the congregation was worshipping at St John’s Church. In 1680 the tower collapsed, and the last service was held in 1701 in a roofless ruin. No trace remains today although, inside the present St Mary’s, you’ll find a weathered stone corbel head rescued from the remains.
The present St Mary’s was built in 1843 a few years after West Bute Dock was opened just across the railway line. The Second Marquess of Bute provided the land and £1000. Extra funds were raised including the sale of a poem by William Wordsworth. In 1872, Fr Griffith Arthur Jones was appointed as Vicar, and he transformed the parish in the catholic tradition. The entrance way is the other side of the building, on North Church Street. St Mary’s featured in the 1959 movie Tiger Bay starring Hayley Mills.
At the main entranceway of the Church, in the car park, you’ll find the home of Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group who, amongst many other things, “campaign on women’s asylum issues” and “empower and support women seeking sanctuary in Wales to voice their needs.”
St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Opposite St Mary’s and nestled in Greek Church Street, you’ll 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 Orthodox Easter it’s a great time to stand and join the crowds of Greek worshippers clutching candles for the Easter Vigil.
The church is built in classic Byzantine style and its copper covered dome and plastered walls are covered with frescoes and icons.
Next to the church is the Greek Cypriot Centre and Greek Language School.
In 2021, the parish priest of St Nicholas, Fr Iakovos, was ordained as Bishop of Claudiopolis, and remains living in our community.
St Mary’s School
Between the the two churches of St Mary’s and St Nicholas is St Mary’s (Church in Wales) Primary School).
Within a Christian nurturing environment, there is a large number of Muslim pupils (over 80%) as well as a much smaller number of Christians and Hindus, and fourteen first languages are spoken here!
The school maintains a unique ministry in supporting children and families in their respective faiths, and building strong friendships in the midst of great diversity.
There are four Primary Schools in Butetown, including St Cuthbert’s Roman Catholic Church School on the other side of the railway line and across Lloyd George Avenue, the road which runs parallel to Bute Street.
The Church of St Cuthbert stood at the south of Butetown (close to Mermaid Quay) but was demolished in 2021 to make way for social housing. For a time it was home to the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church of St Theodore of Tarsus (Both buildings/sites don’t feature on this particular walk, though – maybe another time!)
Retrace your steps to Bute Street and turn right. Along the street are several posts which recall buildings now long gone.
The Caribbean Social Club, the Scandinavian and Somali Boarding Houses, Muslim Seamen’s House, Chinese Laundry House of Wah Lee—all hint at a multicultural past!
There is also art beneath your feet, embedded in some of the paving slabs, with memories of people and places, and a few studded slabs indicating dominoes, a game still enthusiastically (and competitively) played today by the large Afro-Caribbean community which lives here.
Butetown looks very different now from what it did a hundred years ago. Houses, shops and pubs were pulled down in the 1960s to make way for the housing which stands today but it still remains a unique community with rich diversity and friendships across the faiths.
Noor ul Islam Mosque
There are several features of faith along Bute Street, although you’ll have to venture into the Estate to find them. Many of these features have been rebuilt or destroyed altogether leaving little or no trace, apart from old photographs and memories.
Today, Butetown is home to many Muslims. Cardiff—and Butetown in particular—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 Somali and Yemenese sailors arrived here, and many stayed.
Maria Street is the first main road on your right as you walk down Bute Street from St Mary’s. This site is the second oldest Muslim place of worship in the city.
The first Mosque in Peel Street, was established by Somali sailors, converted from three houses, but bombed during the war. The new Noor ul Islam Mosque was built in 1947 (below) but this was replaced in 1988 with the mosque of today.
Butetown is home to two mosques, and we’ll discover the other further on our walk.
(photograph copyright Keith Kimber)
A French Past
The church building next to the mosque reveals both a French past and a Caribbean present!
A Hugeonot Church in Butetown was established in the 18th century by Protestant Huguenot exiles from France. It was rebuilt in the 1960s by their successors which the building we see today.
After a decline in numbers, the building was given to a house church community of West Indian immigrants established in the late 1950s: the New Testament Church of God, an English speaking Afro-Caribbean church with congregations across the US, Caribbean, Africa and the UK.
In the summer months, the church often takes to the outdoors, and you may hear their band singing and playing in the streets!
The Jewish Faith
Another Abrahamic faith also had a welcome place in Butetown. The first Jewish Synagogue was built in East Terrace in 1858 close to the Glamorganshire Canal (behind the present day Motorpoint Arena). Before this, the Jewish community rented rooms in Trinity Street near Cardiff Market.
In 1841, the Marquess of Bute had given land at Highfield for a Jewish Cemetery but since Bute Street had several Jewish businesses it was a natural place for the first synagogue to emerge, which was redeveloped in 1888.
The following year, Cardiff’s New Synagogue opened at Edwards Place (at the foot of what is now Churchill Way). Known as ‘Furriners Shul’ it was the focus for more recent, poorer immigrants, in contrast to the ‘Englishe Shul’ in East Terrace, which closed in 1897—a larger premises was needed!
The Marquess of Bute gave a site in Cathedral Road, which opened in 1897 (closed in 1989), shortly followed by Clare Road synagogue (1900) and Windsor Place synagogue (1918). More jewels of Judaism await discovery on another walk!
(Map: The Jews of South Wales, Ursula R.Q. Henriques, University of Wales Press, 2013)
Meanwhile, back on Bute Street, you’ll arrive at Loudoun Square. Once a grand square of houses overlooking a tree lined park, it now has a very different facade with two large Sixties’ tower blocks dominating the skyline, houses demolished and replaced.
Frequented by locals, it is particularly vibrant on the evenings of Ramadan when the fast is over and, of course, during Eid.
By the 1950s, there were over 50 languages spoken in this area of Cardiff, including Welsh which, in 1891, 15% of the population spoke, particularly here and at James Street further south, served by three Welsh chapels and the Anglican Church we discovered earlier on Tyndall St.
On the far side of Loudoun Square is Butetown Community Centre, which is home to various groups and activities (including the Dominoes Club) with a kitchen that serves delicious Caribbean food!
You’ll also find there the Memorial board of Merchant Seafarers who died during the Second World War, which includes many Somali sailors, many of whom were employed as Firemen working in appalling conditions below deck. Incidentally, there is also a Memorial Window in St Mary’s Church dedicated to members of the Russian Convoys who died during the war, and a Merchant Seafarers Memorial in Cardiff Bay outside the Senedd building – that’s for another walk, though!
You’ll also find a plaque on the outside of the building celebrating the famous Butetown Carnival which, in its day, rivalled that of Notting Hill!
St Paul’s Methodist Church
Just after the shops, on your right in South Loudon Place is St Paul’s Methodist Church built in 1966, a more modern construction than the one it replaced.
Orange brick and pebble dash welcome you instead of the grander looking stone building that once stood here from 1856.
Each year, the congregations of St Paul’s and St Mary’s gather for the Palm Sunday procession from here to St Mary’s for Mass
South Wales Islamic Centre
Walk further down Bute Street towards the Bay, and you’ll discover Alice Street on the right, and 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, serving mostly but not exclusively the Yemeni Community.
Mount Stuart Square
If you were to continue along Bute Street, you’ll come to Ty Krishna, the new home of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. As well as their ATMA restaurant in the city centre they operate their Food for Life project delivering free plant-based food to those who are vulnerable.
Beyond this and before the commercial Mermaid Quay, you’ll see the Corys’ Building on the left. (You may remember that we ‘met’ one of the Corys at the beginning of our journey when we discovered the Salvation Army hostel)
We’re taking a slight diversion, though, along the road which forks right, West Bute Street, and which leads to Mount Stuart Square and the Coal Exchange (now a hotel) where the first million pound cheque was signed.
Here, in the area of Mount Stuart Square, were two chapels for Welsh speakers: Siloam Baptist (1860—1902) and Bethel Baptist where Ivor Novello, the Welsh composer and actor was allegedly baptized. (You’ll find a statue of him outside the Wales Millennium Centre).
The church became another landmark between 1965 and 1985 as the Casablanca Club, and is now the site of new ’boutique’ apartments currently being built.
St Stephen’s Church
Even before you get to the Exchange, as you walk along West Bute Street, on your right stands the old St Stephen’s Church. It was built in 1900 to replace a temporary iron frame church as a chapel of St Mary’s, designed for those who opposed the reformation of Fr Jones!
In 1912, the church became a parish in its own right but it was deconsecrated and sold eighty years later. The building became a music venue but this too was closed in 2009. More recently, it has been home to the Imam Ali Centre.
In 1896, the Vicar of St Stephen’s got into a spat with the Church Times newspaper who criticized him for attending the opening of the new Jewish Synagogue in Cathedral Road. The newspaper asked what on earth conscientious Jews must have thought of the principles of these Christians in being there.
This was immediately answered by the President of the Synagogue Sites Committee in a strong letter to the Western Mail. He saw nothing incongruous with Christians assisting at the foundation of a synagogue, in which their Master had been wont to worship and preach.
He said that he himself had lent a hand for Christian denominational purposes without being the less staunch to his own race and faith. He welcomed the Christian guests, praising Christianity for spreading the knowledge of religion and morality, and so performing the Jew’s mission for them. Interfaith friendships are nothing new, and neither are those who are cynical about them!
Further along West Bute Street, in a shop unit, neighbouring a pizza outlet and chicken shops is True Jesus Church, an independent Church community which grew from China during the Pentecostal movement.
Butetown, Tiger Bay, the Docks, Cardiff Bay—whatever, you call this area and community—has changed much over the years, but it still retains pride in its multi-cultural and multi-religious past and present!
If you’re feeling in need of some sustenance, there are coffee shops and restaurants nearby, and more secrets to discover at Mermaid Quay, but that’s for another Faithful Butetown walk!
This walk was first published online on 22 April 2021, and based on a leaflet previously produced. We’ll update it according to use and feedback (as well as corrections!) and we hope, soon, to extend this resource with other walks through other parts of Butetown and Cardiff Bay.
We hope it has given you some insight into the past and present of Faithful Butetown!
(Many of these photographs are our own and we have tried to attribute copyright to all other photographs where possible. If any particular photograph does not fully attribute copyright or the copyright belongs to you, and you wish the photograph to be removed, then please get in touch)