The Diversity at Tiger Bay

Few places in Britain show such cultural diversity as Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. The region is a veritable potpourri of colours, creeds and nationalities – and it has been so for many years now.

English: Immigrant Statues, Cardiff Bay A bron...
Immigrant Statues, Cardiff Bay A bronze of an immigrant couple symbolising the arrival of many to Tiger Bay seeking a better life in Britain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Welsh capital served as one of the great global coal producers. Naturally, this industrial boom was something of a beacon for immigrants, who found work aboard ships and on the docks.

Immigrants poured in from the Middle East, Africa, Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, and China. Norwegians, Italians and Irish soon joined the mix. They began to settle in around Cardiff Docks and Butetown in the early 1900s, bringing with them their own unique cultural heritages and traditions. By the 1950s, the mile long stretch of dockland commonly known as Tiger Bay (incorporating Butetown and Cardiff Docks) could boast some 57 nationalities and over 50 languages scattered throughout its 10,000 inhabitants.

Rather than the intense cultural clashes that we might expect, Tiger Bay became a truly amicable melting pot where cultures blended and even mixed with existing Welsh traditions. Racial intermarriage became quite common, particularly between male immigrants and Welsh women. There was an overall attitude of tolerance, harmony and respect between cultures as the immigrants settled in and made Wales their new home. Thus, Butetown essentially became one of the UK’s very first multicultural communities.

Unfortunately, despite the pervading harmony between races, Tiger Bay soon earned a reputation as a hotbed of immorality, rife with prostitution, gambling and violence. It was considered to be a very rough and dangerous area, and in many cases it was. Merchant ships arrived from all over the world loaded with rough and rowdy seamen who only stayed long enough to unload and reload their ships.

Catering to the demand, Tiger Bay essentially became the red light district of Cardiff, offering all the comforts that the sailors demanded. The rough sailors often caused trouble before moving on, leaving murders, thefts and lesser crimes unsolved. So prevalent was this reputation of vice and immorality that the name “Tiger Bay” began to be applied to any seaside dock or neighborhood with a similar notoriety for violence and crime.

The locals, however, do look on Tiger Bay as a friendlier place – a place closer to the harmonious community described earlier. Rita Delpeche, a 69-year-old local recalls that “There was so much love here in the old days. But outside Butetown all the women were portrayed as prostitutes and the men as pimps.”

Shirley Bassey
Shirley Bassey

Despite its rough reputation, Cardiff’s Tiger Bay remains as one of the most fascinating melting pots in UK history. The rich mix of culture brought about a powerful character in its community – and much of that can still be seen today.

Tiger Bay even produced a number of celebrities. Singer Shirley Bassey was born in Tiger Bay and went on to rank among the most famous female vocalists of 20th century Britain. The rugby world can also thank Tiger Bay, as it produced league stars like Frank Whitcombe, Billy Boston and Colin Dixon.

In 1999, much of the old derelict buildings in the area were bulldozed to make way for new living spaces. Yet, though the landscape has changed, the diversity of Tiger Bay remains. Today, more than 100 years later, Butetown can still claim the highest percentage of ethnic minorities in the Welsh capital. It has become something of a haven for refugees, attracting a large number of immigrants from war-torn countries like Somalia.

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