In December 2023, Izabella, our Heritage Trainee for Wales visited the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay to learn about the organisation, their building and their heritage projects.
The Norwegian Church Cardiff Bay is a charitable incorporated organisation set up in 2021 to preserve and maintain the Norwegian Church building, as well as operating the church as a heritage and arts centre. It seeks to advance the education of the public on the history and heritage of the building, as well as educating the public on links between Wales and Norway, and celebrating the social, historic, cultural and economic links between the two countries. The church congregation was set up by the Norwegian Seaman’s Mission in 1866, with the building being the fourth Norwegian Seaman’s church built in the world at the time it was erected in 1868. The church building has since been taken down, moved and rebuilt, with the Norwegian Church charity recently completing a project looking into the history and heritage of the building and the Norwegian Seaman’s Mission presence in South Wales.
The Norwegian Church Cardiff Bay charity took over care and governance of the building from Cardiff City Council in 2022 after raising funds from the local community during lockdown and getting a grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund to conduct a feasibility study, which proved to the council that they would be able to sustainably run the building as a heritage and arts centre. Currently, the income covers running costs, but extra funding is required for projects.
The original Norwegian Church building was erected in 1868 in Cardiff Docks, near where the Millennium Centre currently stands. It was set up by the Norwegian Seaman’s Mission to serve the large population of Norwegian sailors in Cardiff Bay, who brought over Norwegian timber. This timber was used for pit props in the coal mining industry; the sailors also transported coal from Wales to the Baltic.
The church was originally made from corrugated iron so that it would be easy to move if needed. In the coming years the church was expanded and added to due to the increasing population of Norwegian sailors in Cardiff. The reading room was enlarged in 1883 and 1894, and a gallery was added in 1885.
During World War II, the church’s exterior was painted dark green instead of its current white, so that it would not stand out to bombers flying overhead. Following the war the use of Cardiff Docks declined and the Norwegian Seaman’s Mission left the church in 1959, though it remained in use by the local Norwegian community and the World Lutheran Federation. In 1974 the church closed, and by 1976 there were discussions about the future of the church, with talks of moving it to Oslo or putting it in the National Museum of Wales. By 1986 the church had fallen into some decay and the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust was established with Roald Dahl as its honorary president, as he was baptised in the church in 1916. The Preservation Trust dismantled the church and put it into storage in 1987.
In 1992, with funds raised in Wales by the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust and in Norway, the church was resurrected a few hundred meters from where it originally stood, and was opened by Princess Martha Louise of Norway. Some of the original beams from the church can still be seen today, though the exterior is made from wood cladding rather than corrugated iron, with much of the timber used for the new iteration of the church provided for free by firms in Norway.
In 2005 Cardiff Council became the sole trustee of the building, which underwent extensive refurbishment in 2010-2011. However, the council later could not afford the upkeep costs of running and maintaining the church and so the Norwegian Church Cardiff Bay charity was set up. In 2021 they were given a grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund to conduct a feasibility study regarding the running of the church, and with strong support from the local community they fundraised a matching sum to cover the rest of the feasibility study costs. With the results from the study the charity was able to prove to Cardiff City Council that they would be able to run the heritage and arts centre from the church, and the charity became the custodians of the building.
In February 2023 the Norwegian Church was added to Cadw’s register of listed buildings as a grade II listed building, which further confirms its status as an historically significant building in Wales.
In 2022 the Norwegian Church Cardiff Bay charity were awarded National Lottery Heritage Funding for a year-long project looking into the history and heritage of the church, covering the community and the building. The project, called the ‘Norwegian Church Collation of Heritage’ looked at finding information on the history of the Norwegian Church in Cardiff as well as the other Norwegian churches established in South Wales. During this project, the history of the building, the Norwegian community in Wales, and the other Norwegian churches in Wales was gathered through archival research, anecdotal evidence from people connected to the church, and physical artifacts and objects both from the church and loaned or donated for the project.
The main output of this project was an exhibition in the Norwegian Church building in Cardiff Bay, which ran from May to June 2023. The exhibition consisted of artifacts from the church’s own collection as well as those loaned or donated which provide a rich context for the church, it’s congregation, and the community connections between Wales and Norway. The exhibition has also been digitised so that it has a lasting legacy for those who wish to learn more about the history of the building and the Norwegian Seaman’s Mission in Wales.
Key to the success of Norwegian Church Cardiff Bay and Collation of Heritage project has been working in partnership with other organisations to support their aims and activities. They have had support from the Glamorgan Archive and the Welsh Norwegian Society. Both The Waterfront Museum in Swansea, part of the Amgueddfa Cymru group of museums, and Tiger Bay Cultural and Heritage Exchange have given them access to archival materials to better understand the history of the Norwegian Church. Tiger Bay Cultural and Heritage Exchange collaborated with the Norwegian Church to install an interactive interpretation terminal in the church’s Norsk Café, with Tiger Bay providing a history of the Bay area more generally, and the research from the Norwegian Church’s heritage project providing more specialised information about the history of the church and the Norwegian community links to the area, including oral histories, family stories, and images from the past. The church has also had support from Swansea University’s Centre for Heritage Research and Training (CHART) with heritage student work placements to help on the project.
The date of the visit to the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay coincided with the beginning of a new National Lottery Heritage Funded project that the Church is undertaking, which will focus on the history of the church and engagement with the wider community. The project will run until 2026 and has four main strands of work which it will focus on.
Carrying on from the previous project, this new project will be looking at the history and heritage of the Norwegian Church in Cardiff, with more academic and archival research, including a new collaboration with Cardiff University and working with the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales, who are looking at conducting a laser scan of the building which will be digitised.
The project will also broaden to include arts as a form of community engagement, with the church working alongside Theatr na nÓg to develop a bilingual play along the topic of the Norwegian community in Wales or of the Norwegian Church itself, which will initially be performed in the church hall for local school children. The church also has links with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, with the Bute Woodwind Quintet having performed at a number of their events and potentially producing more music for them in the future.
Another strand of this new project will be working with the community, this includes the play that they are commissioning, but also working more alongside Tiger Bay Cultural and Heritage Exchange, with local schools and educational organisations, Hijinx Theatre, and more.
The final strand of the project is to highlight and strengthen the connections between Wales and Norway. The Church is supported by Vestland County in Norway, who are twinned with Cardiff Council and are partners on the project. It hosts monthly meetings of the Welsh Norwegian Society and holds celebration events for the Norwegian Constitution Day on the 17th May and the Norwegian Festival of Light and Friendship which mirrors the festivals of light which happen throughout Norway during the winter months and pre-Christmas traditions from Norway. The new project hopes to build on these events and promote further connections between Wales and Norway.
Thanks to Martin Price and Thomas Husøy-Ciaccia.
For more information go to the Norwegian Church Cardiff Bay website: www.norwegianchurchcardiff.com
Izabella’s case studies about members in Wales will be translated once they are all complete, keep an eye out for the Welsh versions in the near future.