The Norwegian Church, Cardiff. Courtesy of Cardiff Local Studies Library.
The Norwegian Church, Cardiff. Courtesy of Cardiff Local Studies Library.

Since the end of the Second World War, the people of Norway have made an annual gift of Christmas trees to London and other maritime port towns across the United Kingdom in honour of the close ties of friendship that exists between the two countries. The gift of a tree to Cardiff is particularly poignant because, in 1905, Norway gained its independence from Sweden and Cardiff was granted city status – the first (and really only) modern city in Wales. Along with Hull and Liverpool, Cardiff has always had a Scandinavian minority in its population, with most involved directly or indirectly in maritime trade. Two facets of this heritage are now especially visible: the Norwegian Church, a beautiful, brilliantly white wooden building that since 1992 has stood overlooking the Cardiff quayside, having been removed from its original position at Bute West Dock in 1987, and the novelist Roald Dahl. (2016 marked the centenary of his birth, we remember.)

It was, appropriately enough, timber that provided for the original connection. The dramatic growth of the Welsh coal industry needed an equally dramatic growth in the provision of timber – this was met by Scandinavian and Canadian timber production, the former largely carried by Norwegian vessels to the South Wales ports. Huge great timber pools were established at Cardiff and Barry – Cardiff had three by the end of the nineteenth century – to store and process this particular cargo. With the corresponding rise in the number of vessels and seamen passing through the ports, facilities began to be developed to cater for their needs. Lutheran church services for Scandinavian worshippers were first held in 1866 in the St Mary’s schoolroom at Mount Stuart Square and supervised by the Rev. H. Lunde, one of the first seamen’s chaplains from Norway funded by the Seamen’s Mission Society (founded in Bergen in 1864). A church building followed three years later and was opened on 16 December 1869. Built of iron at a cost of £400 and with space for around 150-200 worshippers, it was a small church by Cardiff standards but made the most of the money raised amongst Cardiff’s Scandinavian community and from Norway. It also had a small reading room.

The original church building formed part of the network established by the Seamen’s Mission Society in Leith (Edinburgh), North Shields, London, Antwerp. The leading light of the Seamen’s Mission Society, Rev. Johan Cordt Harmens Storjohann (1832-1914) even attended the opening ceremony, along with representatives from Hull, Leith, and North Shields, and was himself the society’s first pastor in London. One newspaper described the church as possessing a ‘graceful and solemn character’:

The exterior of the church, with the small bell-turret, its porch, its Gothic windows, its neat enclosure is most pleasing.

Cardiff’s Norwegian Church, c.1872.

Different from the present church building, but not so very different. The present appearance was fixed in 1894 when the enlarged reading room was built and the entire structure clad in wood. Here it is, to the left, in visual form.

The initial success of the Norwegian church prompted other minorities in the port to open churches of their own – Cardiff’s first Greek Orthodox church opened in December 1873, for instance, with services held in Patrick Street in Butetown. A lineage that would culminate in the 1940s with the city’s first mosque and Islamic centre. By the 1880s, demand was such that the Norwegian church had to expand considerably with a much larger library and reading room added to the fabric of the building. The bell tower was added in 1885. It was a symbol both of the trade links between Scandinavia and Cardiff and a cultural centre for the Scandinavian community in the city – a window into the Nordic world. In 1903, for instance, the then pastor and his wife gave lantern lectures about the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ at the Cory Hall. The church community was also important in the introduction of Norwegian music, notably the work of Edvard Grieg, to the city, particularly at bazaars and concerts (more on that below).

Part of the reason for the church’s expansion into cultural activity was because it catered not only for seamen, its founding purpose, but also for the normally-resident business community in Cardiff. Open Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, or Swedish, newspapers from the period leading up to the First World War and Cardiff appears frequently, both in advertising and in articles. The city was home to a number of firms: these included C. F. Hansen & Co, shipbrokers and coal exporters, Tellfsen & Co, who import pit props to Wales and sold Welsh coal to Scandinavia, the ship charterers and copper traders, Smith, Petersen and Coldevin, and, of course, Aadnesen and Dahl, the ship-broking firm to which Roald Dahl’s father Harald (as co-owner) belonged. For these men, their families, and those they employed, the sjømannskirken i Cardiff was an essential part of the community and a strong connection to home. It should be of little surprise, therefore, and in the absence of direct involvement in municipal politics in Cardiff itself, that the community’s political interests as well as its cultural life were expressed through its religious institutions. Indeed, the church was a particular focal point for the Norwegian minority in Cardiff during the independence process in 1905. A resolution passed by the pastor and the congregation congratulated the Norwegian prime minister, Christian Michelsen, for his handling of Norway’s independence from Sweden that year.

What really went on in the church? The life of the mission church is not easily discernible from the Cardiff press, which reported on its activities with relative infrequency, at least aside from regular notices of who was to deliver the Sunday sermons. Instead, it is necessary to turn to sources from Norway and the other Nordic countries. This yields quite a rich archive of evidence, which sheds light on the sermons delivered at the church, the nature of the church community, its more secular fundraising activities, and its place within the network of Scandinavian seamen’s missions around the world. The Welsh press, for instance, reveals that the Norwegian Church in Cardiff held regular fetes to raise money to support its activities – with a particularly large bazaar held in November 1889. The reports are generally relatively slight and reveal only basic aspects of what went on. A Norwegian publication called I De Fremmede Havene (or In Foreign Ports), a kind of almanac for the mission churches, provides much richer detail, as might be expected. The bazaars were a snapshot of Scandinavian life for the Cardiff public, the one in 1889 just mentioned featured Scandinavian produce and contemporary music by the Norwegian master Edvard Grieg (not then a regular part of the city’s soundscape).

Cardiff was not alone in having a Norwegian church, there were missions at Barry, Newport and Swansea, and these sources also give us an insight into those institutions and a sense of what they looked like. Much like the present-day church building in Cardiff, these were spare and unassuming wooden structures painted in white that would have been equally at home in Bergen or Stavanger. Here isn’t the place to go into too much detail about these other mission churches – that I can come back to another time – except to say that they provide some indication of the relationship between Scandinavia and the other Welsh ports along the Bristol Channel. The connections between Sweden and Swansea, as Chris Evans has shown in his work on the copper trade, were particularly strong.

During the First World War, a conflict in which Norway and Sweden were neutral, the Norwegian Church was nevertheless active in the humanitarian effort, raising money for the Red Cross. But it was during the Second World War that the church gained a more active role. In April 1940, the Nazis invaded Norway forcing the royal family and the legitimate government into exile – they came to Britain, which became the staging post for the Free Norwegian forces, notably the Royal Norwegian Navy and the merchant marine. Drawing on the existing network of missions and churches, several cities around the United Kingdom became centres of support and operations. One of these was Cardiff. Little more than a year after the flight of the Norwegian government, a royal decree issued on 2 May 1941 paved the way for the establishment of Norwegian clubs around Britain. That at Cardiff opened shortly afterwards and housed a canteen and billiards room. It was the first substantial advance in the cultural provision for Norwegians in Cardiff since the expansion of the church in 1894.

Towards the end of the war, on 12 August 1944, the British Council House was opened by Sir Malcolm Robertson, Conservative MP for Mitcham and Chairman of the British Council (and, by the by, the baking company Spillers) at 52-53 St Mary’s Street. From these offices, the British Council operated its own library, provided English lessons to overseas residents and personnel, put on concerts and lectures, and was the base of operations for the British Council in South Wales. The House was also designed to provide dedicated facilities to several of the allied forces, notably the Belgians, Poles, French, and Norwegians. The Norwegian clubroom was itself opened on 12 August 1944 by the Norwegian Education Minister, Nils Hjelmtveit. Decorated with photographs of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark, which had been provided by the British Council, and with a large central mural painted by the noted South Walian artist, Ceri Richards, the clubroom was a focal point for the city’s Norwegian population and visiting mercantile and naval forces.

And so it was to mark this relationship that the Norwegians gifted a Christmas tree to the city in the aftermath of the war. And it was the tree that really became the symbol of Norway’s “special relationship” with Cardiff, for the Norwegian church entered a long period of decline. The church closed in 1959 and mission society’s financial support for a local pastor ceased a few years later. Decay and neglect set in, not just for the mothballed church, but the docks that surrounded it. Eventually, in 1987, the church was dismantled with a view to restoration and long-term preservation. As I said at the beginning of this post, the newly restored church reopened in its present location in 1992. There is, however, a fascinating survivor from this period of decline, namely a recording undertaken from the Norwegian Church by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) in October 1952. (Listen here.) Most readers of this post probably won’t be able to understand what’s being said, but this is nevertheless a remarkable piece of history.

There is, by way of concluding today’s post, rather a lot more that can be said of the religion and culture of minorities in sailortowns like Cardiff. Hull and Liverpool offer their own remarkable histories in this respect. But they know that. And we know that too. In Wales we’re often a little bit coy about our rich history of immigration, of the vitality of our cultural and linguistic minorities that do not fit into the binary construction of Welshness (English-speaking on the one hand, Welsh-speaking on the other), and our sense of the past is all the poorer for it. It is time to look again at the diversity of what came before to find our way back onto the road that is better travelled. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll trust this gentleman, whose thoughts I leave you with.

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