The canals of old Cardiff

I came across this old map of Cardiff the other day and thought I’d post it to make up for the fact that I’ve not posted much about the local history of this fascinating city over the years.


I can’t find a date for the map, but I guess it is from the early 20th Century.

The most interesting thing about the map is the pretty extensive network of canals. The Dock Feeder Canal still runs down from the top of the map then turns East and past the North side of the Castle, and then South again towards Cardiff Bay. Some of its route is now underground, including the section that used to be Edward Terrace and Pembroke Terrace, which now form the two sides of Churchill Way  under which the canal still flows.

It’s worth mentioning in passing that most of the present Cardiff Castle is basically a late 19th Century folly, but it is the site of much older buildings, including a Norman Keep and a Roman fort. When the Romans occupied the location, the area from the Castle down to the sea was basically a swamp, flanked by the flood plain of the Taff to the West, with the salt marshes of Cardiff Bay to the South. Almost all of present-day Cardiff is reclaimed land.

The Dock Feeder Canal was constructed around 1840 in order to supply water to the Docks in Cardiff Bay so that they could be operated even when the tide was out. This gave  Cardiff one of the world’s first 24-hour docks and led to a rapid expansion of commerce and population in the city during the mid-19th Century.

Among the quite surprising facts about the City of Cardiff is 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 expansion 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. The Glamorganshire Canal can be seen on the map too, but has now virtually vanished, the route it used to follow now just being marked by new roads; for example, the route it used to take to the East of Bute Park is now covered by North Road.

Here is an old photograph of Mill Lane, now the site of a number of not-very-salubrious eating and drinking establishments. I suspect not many Cardiff residents know that less than half a century ago, these were canalside properties..


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 10.7 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.

Other random but possibly interesting points about the map are:

  • The site of the modern Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy is near the top right of the map, marked “Univers. Coll.”
  • Taff Vale Railway Station is now named Queen Street Station, and Great Western Station is now Cardiff Central.
  • Note that Cardiff Arms Park was actually surrounded by parkland when this map was drawn, but now the area around is built up (and of course the Millennium Stadium is now there too).
  • Much of central Cardiff has been replaced by modern malls and the like, but the Central Market is still there.

27 Responses to “The canals of old Cardiff”

  1. You might enjoy reading this:

    This shows the excellent canals of Cardiff. The rest of the conversation is also fascinating:

    I think that Cardiff’s problem was starting this whole ‘re-development’ stuff too early. Much earlier than say places like Manchester and Birmingham before ‘canals’ were appreciated a civic asset.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, they got rid of the trams too – and apparently quite a few people want to see them come back, like they have in Nottingham.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    To help in dating the map, the City Hall was opened in 1906 and Cardiff was officially recognised as a city in 1905. The City Hall is labelled “Town Hall” on the map.

    There is no sign of the National Museum of Wales on the map in the space immediately to the east of the City Hall. I believe construction of the building began in 1912.

    Incidentally, the 2nd Marquis of Bute was a Fellow of Royal Astronomical Society.

    • telescoper Says:

      I also think the thin blue lines represent the tram routes, which were only operated as a single system when the Cardiff Borough Council took them over in 1898, so I think the error-bar on 1900 is fairly narrow…

    • telescoper Says:

      Less constrainingly, note the Cardiff Central Market is there on the map; that wasn’t built until 1891…

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I think the mapping dates from c.1905-c.1910, with the labelling of the new City Hall as “Town Hall” being an oddity. The new City Hall in Cathays Park replaced the old town hall on St. Mary Street, if I remember correctly.

      The University of Wales Registry is labelled as “New Univers. Coll.”, which seems an error to me. I don’t know when the building was constructed.

      The “Univers. Coll.” on Newport Road would be the old Cardiff Infirmary building where the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire was located. The main college building in Cathays Park was built later. Many years later the old hospital building was demolished (a pity in my view).

      • telescoper Says:

        So the current Trevithick (South) building is on the site of the Old Infirmary? I’m confused. The Royal Infirmary, originally called the Glamorgan and Monmouthshire Infirmary, was built in 1884, but is on the other side of Newport Road (on Glossop Terrace) and is still there…although much decayed.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, the Glossop Road Cardiff Royal Infirmary building was a replacement for the old infirmary on the southern part of the Trevithick site of Cardiff University. The hospital moved out of the old site in the early 1880s, which allowed the new University College of South Wales to move in when it was formed in 1882. The building faced on to Newport Road, but was set back from it a little distance. I presume it would have been behind that 1960s glass-fronted engineering building on Newport Road. I’m not sure precisely how that mock-gothic entrance fitted in to the building.

        The Glossop Road building was a major hospital through the 1990s.

      • telescoper Says:

        In fact the Royal Infirmary is undergoing a bit of a revamp:

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        It’s good that the Royal Infirmary building is still being used with plans to continue providing health care. I had been concerned about its future.

    • telescoper Says:

      Something obvious that I missed – the New Theatre is shown on the map, and that wasn’t built until 1906. The map must therefore be later than that.

      • Brian Trott Says:

        True, but surely the Dock Feeder runs to the north of the present New Theatre?

      • See my subsequent post, the new theatre dates [in some form] to circa 1830, the first theatre but it burnt down, likely the theatre ruins would still be shown on maps until the rebuild!

  3. The old part of brick and stone of South Building was the original physiological institute of the university. I believe the original plan was never completed due to WWI and diverted funds. Artists impression and copies of the original plans are on a corridor wall in the engineering workshop of South Building.

    My great uncle who was a medical doctor worked there, and my dad recalls seeing and hearing dogs used for testing kept on the roof. (He went on to work for the group who later ‘discovered’ insulin)

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      For those people with access to a copy, there is a map of the Newport Road site in Trow and Brown’s A Short History of the College of 1933: the 50th anniversary history of the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire. The Physiology Department is shown in the map with the old Infirmary building along to the west, as a separate building not attached to the new Physiology Department. There are a few photographs of university college buildings in the book, including the Physiology Department.

      Incidentally, the School of Physics and Astronomy of Cardiff University today is in the building that was built for the Welsh National School of Medicine.

  4. By eye that population growth looks a prefect example of a logistic! That’s pretty cool to see.

  5. Wagner & Debes published a series of maps which included most of the major cities of Great Britain in 1906. This would fit with the previous date estimates. It was common to include a deliberate “error” when printing maps to enable the publisher to identify copies purporting to be the result of new original surveys.

  6. yes the map is circa 1910

  7. Pat Shepherd Says:

    This has helped me with ancestry work.

  8. alan jones Says:

    i believe the map is 1910??

  9. What a great map. Thank you for posting.

  10. Huw Jones Says:

    Cardiff did not export 107 million tons in 1913 – it was 10.7 million tons. Still staggering, but rather less so. It was only exceeded by Barry Docks in that year, which achieved it’s highest ever export tonnage of 11 million tons.

  11. rich fowler Says:

    is the canal still there under the roads? i just worked around the old customs house and i noticed the canal running to the west

  12. First, the area south of the castle wasn’t swamp, the area south of St Mary St/Wood St junction ran down to the sea and was mainly boggy moor running on to mud flats. Second, the New Theatre was [is] the oldest theatre in Cardiff, the original theatre burnt down, hence the ”New” Theatre,

    None of the old canal exists, although the feeder is still intact, the nearest stretches of canal are at Forest Farm, about half a mile or so, Nantgarw pottery although prefabricated blocks shore up the A470, some in the canal but it is still visible. The best is at Pontypridd where the original double lock is being restored and there is a stretch running from the locks, it is to the rear of the bunch of grapes pub [B and Q], Mike

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