The Curve of Growth

While I was indisposed earlier this week, I had the chance to read some interesting books about local history. Among the quite surprising facts I turned up about the City of Cardiff was its spectacular population growth. The first official census was held in 1801 and it  showed Cardiff to have a population of 1,870 – much smaller than other Welsh towns like Merthyr Tydfil (7,700) and Swansea (6,000). Every ten years another census was carried out, with the figures for Cardiff growing as follows:

1801 – 1,870
1811 – 2,457
1821 – 3,251
1831 – 6,187
1841 – 10,079
1851 – 18,351
1861 – no data
1871 – 57,363
1881 – no data
1891 – 128,915
1901 – 164,333
1911 – 182,259
1921 – 222,827
1931 – 226,937
1941 – no data
1951 – 243,632
1961 – 283,998
1971 – 293,220
1981 – 286,740
1991 – 296,900
2001 – 305,353

The growth of the docks in Cardiff Bay, driven by the export of coal from the valleys, seems to have been the main factor in driving the population increase, and this accelerated markedly from the middle of the 19th century until the early 20th century.

Early on in the industrial revolution the South Wales valleys were primarily concerned with the production of iron. In February 1794, the 25-mile-long Glamorganshire Canal was opened between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil to bring iron products down to the coast and for nearly 50 years was unchallenged as the main transport link between the two towns.  It was later to become the primary route for carrying coal to the Bay.

In October 1839, the Bute West Dock covering 19 acres with 9,400 feet of quays was opened, and the construction of the Dock Feeder to regulate the water supply to the dock from the River Taff was completed.  Entirely paid for by the second Marquis of Bute, this new dock set in motion Cardiff’s amazing growth to become the world’s biggest coal exporting port. The Taff Vale Railway was opened in 1841 between Cardiff and Abercynon and soon overtook the Glamorganshire Canal in economic importance. Coal shipments from Cardiff exceeded one million tons for the first time in 1851. In December 1855, the first historical trainload of Rhondda steam coal arrived at Cardiff, where the Bute East Dock was opened. By 1883 the docks handled six million tons of coal and by 1913 this figure had grown to a staggering 107 million tons.

Much of the labour needed to handle this volume of coal came from immigrants, including very large numbers of Irish but also lots of other people from all around the world. By 1850 there were no less than 20 foreign consulates in Cardiff and the city quickly established the cosmopolitan reputation it has kept to this day.

After the end of the First World War the coal trade suffered because the market was flooded with cheap German coal used for war reparations. That, and the subsequent depression, led to a decline in Cardiff as a port, although it was very busy during the Second World War. About 75 per cent of the supplies for the American forces in Europe were shipped out through Cardiff docks following the D-Day landings in June 1944.  This was a short-lived renaissance; the last ever shipment of coal left Bute Dock in 1950.

Finally, another thing I hadn’t known. Cardiff was only officially recognized as the capital city of Wales in 1955. Prior to that Wales had no separate legal existence, was entirely governed by English Law and was run entirely from Westminster. The strong local rivalry between Cardiff and Swansea largely stems from this time, as Swansea – a much older city – was an unsuccessful contender for the title of capital.

For a whole load of other interesting facts and figures about Cardiff, see the Cardiff Timeline.

6 Responses to “The Curve of Growth”

  1. Dammit. I saw “curve of growth” and thought perhaps you’d moved to the dark side and had written an article about the Galaxy and chemical abundances or stuff like that.

    Then I see it’s about Cardiff. Oh well. Back to work. Impressive research though if you don’t mind me saying.


    PS. I always enjoyed my visits to Cardiff many years ago, but the beer was awful.

  2. telescoper Says:


    Yes, it’s a well known advertising trick called “bait-and-switch”…

    I agree that the local beer here (predominantly Brains) isn’t very impressive but there are plenty of places where you can get decent real ales.


  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    The historical demographics of urban centres in Wales are rather interesting as very few large towns developed before the middle of the 19th century. The population of Wales was distributed across the countryside and in a large number of small towns, each town serving its surrounding hinterland.

    As you pointed out, there were no significant administrative centres, apart from local centres, because administration was generally carried out from outside Wales.

    The only places called cities were those towns having cathedrals, essentially the pre-reformation seats of bishops taken over by the Church of England. They were essentially rather small towns with small cathedrals.

    This affected the character of Welsh society. There were not the large urban centres where a diverse range of specialist activities could be concentrated before the 19th century. Therefore learned societies such as the Cymmrodorion and Gwyneddigion were formed in London by expatriates. Neither was there a concentration where the economic case for higher education was strong enough for the formation of a university (although forming a university would have required a charter, and therefore the consent of the British government).

    We can see the result of this in the history of science. There were no significant scientific societies in Wales before the 19th century (apart from local philosophical and literary societies which sometimes extended a little into science). People who took an interest in science tended to be isolated and had contact with others only if they corresponded with Britain-wide organisations (such as the Royal Society), or made regular visits to academic centres in England (such as London, or possibly Oxford or Cambridge).

    It was only in the 19th century that the industrial revolution dramatically changed things. The largest towns, such as Swansea and Carmarthen, were joined by rapidly-growing centres like Merthyr, and later Cardiff. Cardiff had become the largest urban centre in Wales by the end of the nineteenth century, and was granted city status in 1905. This was the time when the city fathers created the very impressive set of public buildings in Cathays Park having a vision broader than that of just a city. It is even rumoured that the site opposite City Hall, where the Welsh Office was later built (now the offices of the Welsh Assembly Government) was intended to be the site of a Welsh parliament were the United Kingdom to accept a federal constitution in response to the campaign for Irish home rule. Cardiff already had the aspiration to be the capital of Wales by the beginning of the 20th century. It took the British government until 1955 to catch up, although there was competition from a few Welsh towns for the title at that time (though largely symbolic). Swansea was not even allowed city status until 1969.

    • telescoper Says:


      One thing I omitted from the post is that as well as large numbers moving into Cardiff, the definition of Cardiff’s boundary has also changed with time as the rapid house-building programmes of the Victorian era led to outlying areas becoming absorbed into the city.

      Cardiff itself became a City only in 1905, and its inception as the capital was pleasantly timed to be 50 years after that.


  4. Bryn Jones Says:


    Yes, and the dramatic growth of the city can be seen in old maps. (There is free access to old maps at , but the interface can be a little difficult, and the scanning quality is rather poor.)

    And for astronomical connections with the growth of Cardiff, the Second Marquis of Bute (who owned the coalfields north of Cardiff and who developed Cardiff as a port) was a Fellow of the R.A.S., though I don’t know of any astronomical work of his (his eyesight was poor and it is unlikely that he was an amateur observer). The Marquis of Bute employed Admiral William Henry Smyth to manage the building of the Cardiff docks. Smyth is better known for his astronomical work, in particular the “Bedford Catalogue” of double stars, star clusters and nebulae.


  5. […] Cathedral Road and slightly smaller ones on surrounding streets began around 1896, at a time when Cardiff’s population was expanding rapidly. Prior to that this area was mainly farmland, with a few cottages here and there. As the area […]

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