I had to go to IKEA the other day. I quite like IKEA products. In fact, an unhealthy chunk of my household furniture is from IKEA. My liking of IKEA products however, is directly proportional to my dislike of wandering around an IKEA store.
That said, there is one aspect of going to Cardiff IKEA that I don’t mind – and it’s an old wall. The IKEA store in Cardiff has a large car park extending out from under the store, an which is bordered on two sides by a very old, crumbling red brick wall.
I’ve often wondered exactly what those walls used to be a part of, and the first (and frankly, unmissable) clue, is the bloody great old gasholder situated next to the superstore. There’s a hint in there somewhere.
Let’s rewind a little.
The Cardiff Gas Light and Coke Company was formed in 1837, long before a certain Swedish furniture manufacturer arrived on the scene. Chaired by former (and future) Cardiff mayor Charles Crofts Williams, the initial gas works were opened on Whitmore Lane (now Bute Terrace), in the city centre. The modern day site comprises of a series of hotels and the Porter’s bar. The gas works thrived, and as the Cardiff suburbs expanded throughout the 1800’s, so too did the need for gas. More land was acquired in the Grangetown suburb at some point in 1859, and four years later the Grangetown arm of the gas works was opened, connected to it’s sister site via an 18 inch main. Within seven years, the newer suburbs of Cardiff (Cogan, Whitchurch, Radyr and St. Fagans) all used the gas supplied by the works, and the need arose for it to expand further. Adjacent land on Grange Farm was purchased, and duly used to expand the works.
The history section of www.grangetown.co.uk says of the works “It was not universally popular. There was some opposition to the price of gas, while others locally in 1869 complained to Parliament at the time of the Cardiff Gas Bill about the smell. Mr Salt, a local builder, said lots of tenants had given notice – some leaving without paying rent. A local vicar and schoolmaster also objected. Even the company’s own history in the 1930’s admitted workers in the early days toiled “in dusty, dirty and confined conditions,” as they handled coal and ashes by hand. Later the works would become more automated. The works had five gas holders, the largest with a 1.5 million cubic ft capacity.”
The gasworks was not without it’s dramatic incidents. The adjacent rope yard at Cardiff Rope Works was set alight by embers from a passing train in the early hours of 18th July 1886. The fire caused a large amount of damage to the Rope Works, but the gasworks was unscathed, fortunately.
The works survived the first World War with little incident, but a memorial plaque was commissioned to commemorate the lives of the gas workers who were lost in the war, and it remained on site until the 1990’s.
The works itself had a close brush with fate during World War II. At 6:37pm, on 2nd January 1941, German bombers began a 10 hour raid on Cardiff, involving about a hundred aircraft. Grangetown was amongst the earliest and worst hit areas.
From Grangetown’s online history (http://188.8.131.52/~daftscou/steve/Grange13.htm): “The death toll across the city that night saw an estimated 165 dead, 427 hurt and nearly 350 homes destroyed or had to be demolished. Seven were killed at the corner of Ferry Road and Holmesdale Street, including brothers Ivor and William Dix – both married men, one 29 and the other 34. James Griffiths, a special sergeant, who lived in Cambridge Street had gone into one of the homes demolished by a bomb and brought out the body of a dead boy and an injured girl, crying for her mother. The girl died within hours and it was months before the body of her mother was found deep in the rubble. Sgt Griffiths, who also spent three days helping to dig at the wreckage of the Hollyman’s shelter, was called to deal with many incendiary bombs in the Grangetown and Docks areas. He was awarded a BEM by King George later that year. His widow Elizabeth recalled 40 years later that the experience of civilian casualties for this Great War veteran took its toll and he died in 1952. “All he did was wander around in a daze,” she recalled of the aftermath.”
Although the gasworks had suffered some damage during the war years, repairs took place and production continued apace. In 1948, during the aftermath of World War II, the company was nationalised, and become the Wales Gas Board.
The gas works continued it’s operation, and demand for gas was such that in 1963, a century after it first opened, the Grangetown gasworks expanded once more.
The early 1970’s saw a further restructuring of the UK’s gas industries, and the twelve different gas boards (of which the Wales Gas Board was a member) were consolidated under the British Gas Corporation. Unfortunately, as with a lot of the nationalised UK industries, the privatisations of the mid 1980’s led the works into a gradual decline, and the operation was finally wound up by Wales and West Utilities in the mid 1990’s. All told, the gas works had supplied Cardiff and it’s surrounding suburbs for 130 years. The memorial plaque was removed by a worker during the shutdown, and kept safe in a residential property for several years before being unearthed, and re-displayed in a local pub.
With the shutdown and demolition of much of the site, it remained derelict until falling under the vast regeneration schemes put in place to revitalise the Cardiff dockland areas in the early 2000’s. Wales & West Utilities later commissioned environmental improvement and other restoration works including the infilling of former gas holders at Grangetown in Cardiff. The final surviving gasholder was listed as a Grade II structure by Cadw in 1992 and described as an “architectural masterpiece”. It had first been built by a West Midlands firm (J and W Horton’s) in 1881, and was based on a classical Italianate design. As the last standing gasholder of it’s type in Wales, QuadConsult Limited was commissioned to undertake a detailed structural and condition report of the structure, which would be later deposited in the National Library in Aberystwyth as a formal historical archive. The report noted that the gasholder had suffered some bomb damage during World War II, but had been repaired.
While the historical significance of the gasholder was being set down, an assortment of new residential flats sprung up in the area, along with retail parks. A local rubbish tip just down the road from the site had also been backfilled and repurposed as recreational land. Improved transport links into the Bay area also brought more people into the area, and it was into this environment that IKEA decided to open it’s first store in Wales. Proposed in March of 2001, the store finally opened in early November of 2003 (amid concerns it’s popularity would cause traffic gridlock into the area).
Little remains of the original gasworks today, save the imposing latticework skeleton of the gasholder, and a few crumbling boundary walls. But everytime I wander around the modern store, I always look forward to seeing them.
Coflein Mapping images via: http://map.coflein.gov.uk/index.php?action=do_details&numlink=418886
Grangetown Local History Society: http://184.108.40.206/~daftscou/steve/grangehistory1.htm
Word War II story: http://220.127.116.11/~daftscou/steve/Grange13.htm
‘ö-Dzin Tridral: https://about.me/tridral