Tag Archives: cardiff docklands

Cardiff in the Eighties – by Nick Sarebi

I recently spent a few hours lost in the internet when I came across Nick Sarebi’s wonderful photographs of Cardiff in the 1980s. I messaged Nick who kindly agreed to let us publish them, and even did a mini interview with me, which I present, here, for you. Do enjoy this wonderful dip into the archives, back into Cardiff in the late 1980s and very early 1990s. Over to Nick …

Nick: I originally came from London. I lived in between Grangetown 1988 – 95, although I was still working in London for much of that time. I always thought Cardiff was a lovely city.

I was doing a City and Guilds photography project at the time. I loved the sense of history that the Docks had, and obviously it was just on the cusp of change. I wish I took more photos back then, but it was before digital.

I lived in Pentrebane Street in Grangetown. I remember my neighbour saying that she knew Shirley Bassey and went on a works outing with her, where she sang, but then again everyone claimed to know her at that time! I think there were still close-knit families in Grangetown then, which was changing at that time. The neighbours were all very friendly. The house was covered inside with Artex when I bought it. It took ages to scrape off, I must have been mad!

The Docks

Cardiff docks, taken around 1990
Imperial House, which disappeared sometime in the 1990s
The dry dock, photographed in the 1980s. The dry dock is still there, but the shed has long since been demolished.
Cardiff Docks, taken in 1990

 

Nick: I loved wandering round the Docks at that time, before it was all developed. It was pretty much deserted at the time. I also remember visiting the Sea Lock and some other Docks pubs. I wanted to go into the clubs down there but was a bit wary as an outsider. The Sea Lock was definitely stepping into the past. The main bar was closed and they only had a tiny bar left open. They frowned on women going in there alone! It was demolished soon after, I think. The publicans were really friendly. I recommend Trezza Azzarardi’s The Hiding Place – it’s a brilliant take on Tiger Bay. It conjures up Tiger Bay so well for me I had to go back and take another look. It was criminal how the knocked the place down. It can still be seen in the classic film Tiger Bay, which you should watch if you haven’t seen already.

There’s a nice interview with Neil Sinclair here, talking about the story of the place that inspired the Tiger Bay musical that was out year  …

I remember meeting Neil Sinclair, who is at the start of Tiger Bay talking with Hayley Mills. We met at a nice pub which was on the Bay front and was very isolated, out on the way to Penarth. This was before they built that flyover. I forget its name, I think it must have gone now.

Butetown, Cardiff 1991. This building is now home to Octavo’s bookshop and cafe
The Dockland Mini-Market – which can still be seen on James Street today
This building was preserved in the Docks redevelopment – you can now see it as the entrance to the Waterguard pub
The famous clock from the famous Coal Exchange – which, after years in disrepair, is now the Exchange Hotel
The infamous Casablanca Club, long since demolished
Cardiff docks … taken in 1991
The Norwegian Church, 1990
Windsor Esplanade, early 1990s
Cardiff Bay redevelopment, early 1990s

Cardiff – the city

Nick: Why did I move to Cardiff in the first place? That’s a good question. I wanted to move out of London, as it was expensive to buy a house there (even then!) and it was so big. Of course, no one could imagine that house prices would rise to the crazy levels they are now…

I couldn’t decide on Bristol or Cardiff. My girlfriend at the time lived in Bristol, but we split up just before I moved, so I chose Cardiff. In retrospect, what was mad was not looking for work in Cardiff. So I just travelled thousands of miles up and down the M4!

Eventually after Cardiff I moved to Bristol and I worked there for a couple of years, but was offered a part-time job in London, which went from two to four days, so I started commuting again, from 1997 right through to 2013.

I now look back and wonder why I did that! I spent seven years in Cardiff, but somehow it doesn’t feel that long – it flew by. I arrived in Cardiff only a few months after Lynette White was murdered. Someone wrote a book on it called Bloody Valentine, but it had to be pulped for libel reasons.

Tremorfa, around 1991
Seriously – whatever happened to Mr Sandwich?

Nick: It was a bit ridiculous travelling backwards and forwards to London for all those years I lived in Cardiff. Cardiff was all changing at that time. I studied at the Arts Centre – I can’t remember what it was called now.

I have visited Cardiff a few times since I lived there, walking all round the barrage with my son, and have been to watch my team, Fulham, play Cardiff. It always brings back memories. I’m glad I lived there when I did, and saw the bay before it became “the Bay”.

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Thank you so much Nick! He has a couple of really great albums of 1980s photography. We particularly love these albums:

Miners strike 1984 (photographs of mining families on holiday in London during the strike)

St Pancras Station 1980-1 (some great portraits of rail workers as well as general shots from around the station)

London Docks (images from the 1980s to now)

And of course, his Cardiff in the Eighties album in full.

To see more of his photography, visit Nick’s Flickr page.

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Caught By The River – This is Rat Island

So, you guys. I’ve recently started a column for the wonderful Caught by the River website, based on my wanderings (and wonderings) around and about the lovely River Taff.

Read my first instalment here: Wandering the Taff: This is Rat Island

I know, can’t I write about anything other than Cardiff, amirite? Anyway, two weird things happened after the piece was published. Firstly, after living on the edge of south Cardiff on “Rat Island” for nearly seven years and having NEVER seen a rat down here, I saw TWO within the space of two days – one running across the car park in Morrisons and one scurrying around in the bushes on Dumballs Road.

Wait … there’s more … secondly, what I thought was just a little bit of basic desk research into what is essentially a fluff piece about the place I live got way more complex. It turned out to be the question that kept questioning, itself, other people, and me.

In the piece I wrote for Caught by the River, my conclusion was that no one really knows where Rat Island was exactly, but that we have a rough idea (based on all my research): it was the land that lay between the River Taff and the Glamorganshire Canal, to the south of where Clarence Road Bridge is now.

This is the conclusion I had come to from all the many things I’d read, personal accounts, articles on the BBC, Wales Online, modern history books, etc. Fine.

You can’t actually see Clarence Road Bridge in the map below – it hadn’t been built at this point (1879). But roughly halfway down the picture, you can see James Street on the right hand side – imagine that carrying on to the left (westwards) and going straight over the water into Grangetown. That’s the horizontal line we’re talking about, just above where it reads ‘Dumballs Marsh’.

rat-island-location

(Map: Glamorgan XLVII (includes: Cardiff; Penarth; St Andrews Major – surveyed: 1878 to 1879, published: 1885)

But no, not fine. Writer, poet, historian, all-round good guy Peter Finch has done all of the due diligence with respect to Cardiff history when researching for his Real Cardiff books (recommended reading, students), and he responded to an email I’d sent him asking if he knew where the spot was with this: the general area was right – it was between the Taff and the canal, but rather than being south of where Clarence Road would eventually be built, it was actually north (up towards where the centre of town is): in between that bridge and the timber ponds, on an actual island created by the Taff, oxbowing its way down to the Severn and the sea beyond.

Peter, wonderfully poetic even when answering inane questions from Cardiff bloggers, wrote me this:

The Taff has always moved about. Thrashed about perhaps, as it traverses its delta. Rat Island, as I understood it, was a section of Taff’s bank made an island by the river ox bowing itself. This was  upstream of Clarence Road Bridge near The Dumballs. It was formed, according to Mary Gillham, following one of the periodic floods that plagues the Taff. Gulls and other birds nested there. Rats invaded along a revealed at low tide causeway in order to steal their eggs. The land became rat infested. The name followed.

That was Peter’s first email. Isn’t he a gem? Being in a mad rush, as I always am, I misread the ‘upstream’ part and thought he meant downstream …

But there’s a reason for that. All of the folks I asked – people who used to live here, and had the story handed down from parents or grandparents – had heard the area was called Rat Island because of the rats that were disturbed either when the HMS Hamadryad first to the area (in 1866), or when she was finally dragged away to be destroyed in 1905.

Even once the initial piece was published, I had some tweets also corroborating this theory:

It makes sense, but the area being referred to is south of the Clarence Road Bridge: quite a lot further south … and adding to the confusion, I had read somewhere else the area was already called Rat Island, long before the ship came to Cardiff in 1866.

So how does it all fit together?

The discrepancy between the locations – north of the Clarence Road Bridge, versus south?

I raised the possibility of the name referring to an area north of the bridge with the Cardiff Docks Remembered Facebook (where people share memories of the area and discuss such matters) and it was pretty much universally poo-pooed. No way, said people who had grown up around here. Their truth was in the tales from their parents and grandparents, and they had been definitively told. Rat Island was south, the area next to the Sea Lock, that would eventually turn into Hamadryad Park.

We aren’t debating the European Convention of Human Rights or anything here guys. I am well aware this is a long gone name for an area that bears no resemblance to the marshy hinterland that inspired it – but that doesn’t stop me wanting to know WHY, does it??

There is, I think, anyway, a solution to this, that includes all of these seemingly conflicting perspectives and accounts: an ultimate answer that I – Helia Phoenix, non-historian, non-expert, super-nosey local person – will put forward as the only conclusion to this burning issue … this imperative question … that literally no-one – apart from me – is asking …

Where was Rat Island?

Here’s my theory. The entire area that fringes the main urbanised docklands – from the Bute Ironworks all the way to the south and east, where you can see the HMS Hamadryad hospital ship – would have been a muddy, marshy wasteland at that time – its only purpose really to keep people with infectious diseases away from the overcrowded docks and Tiger Bay. There was very little of interest on any of that land – either north of the future Clarence Road Bridge, or south of it.

So … it’s possible that the one spot was originally named ‘Rat Island’ – the small island next to the Ironworks, as pointed to by Peter Finch – but the name spread down (or was re-used) in the south, once the HMS Hamadryad showed up (or was hauled away), spreading its ratty citizens across the undergrowth that is now Hamadryad Park.

hamadryad_hospital_ship
HMS Hamadryad Hospital Ship on “Rat Island”, Cardiff. Photo from People’s Collection Wales

I won’t hold out for my Nobel Prize. But I did feel like I might have actually sort of solved something that’s been bugging me for ages.

I emailed Peter asking if he thought this might be possible. He agreed – that there were two things that were getting confused here …

Rat Island, the geographic island, i.e. a piece of land with water on all sides is the place you’ve spotted on your map. This is the one Mary Gillham suggests had birds nesting on it whose eggs were stolen by rats. Then there’s the local name for the whole district. Bill Barrett who died in 2013 and who was writing his piece on Rat Island for the Cardiff Book #3 (Stewart Williams Publishers)  in 1977 suggests that all the land between the canal and the Taff was known as Rat Island. He suggests that this went as far north as the Timber Ponds. These were where the Iron Works are shown on your map … it does seem to be probable that the whole slab of land took on the name of the island. 

So, Bill Barrett (RIP) might have got there before me. I wasn’t able to find a copy of his book anywhere (I’m on the lookout – please tell me if anyone finds one), but I’m happy enough with the result.

I did a lot of research for the initial piece (though it might remain inconclusive…), so if you’re interested in further reading:

Canal Park and Sea Lock Pond (Stuart Herbert)

The Hamadryad Hospital Ship (BBC Wales History Blogs / Phil Carradice)

#towerlives: Rise of towers and fall of Tiger Bay (BBC)

The Cardiff Coal Boom: The Chronicle Radio show (featuring Ian Hill from Save the Coal Exchange, author / historian Neil Sinclair, Juliet Lewis – Senior Lecturer at the Welsh School of Architecture), broadcast February 2017

Not really relevant for this piece, but lovely to follow if you’re on Twitter: @OldCardiffPics

Big thanks also to Peter Finch for indulging me. His latest book, The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back, is available from Seren now, priced £9.99. View Peter Finch’s archive.

Images in this piece: both taken on the section of the Taff that runs through the now disappeared Rat Island: Instagram malayabbasi and heatherpatterson.

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