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History of the Pierhead

The Pierhead helped Wales forge its identity ‘through water and fire’ in the late nineteenth century; today its aim is to inform, involve and inspire a new generation to forge a Wales for the future. Below you can read about the history of the Pierhead, find out about visiting the Pierhead, or visit the Pierhead website.

A journey through history

The Pierhead was originally built as offices for the Bute Docks Company which was later renamed the Cardiff Railway Company. It took nearly three years to construct and cost approximately £30,000. Its Gothic Revivalist style was popular at the time, earning many accolades.

It was designed by Welsh architect William Frame (1848-1906), who had previously worked with William Burges (1821-1881) on the refurbishment of Cardiff Castle and the reconstruction of Castell Coch. A somewhat temperamental character, Frame worked for the Bute estates in Cardiff and Scotland until his early death.

The story of the Pierhead

At the end of the 19th century, Etruria Marl clay was discovered in north east Wales in the town of Ruabon, near Wrexham. A popular building material during the 19th and 20th centuries, Ruabon terracotta was used to construct the iconic Pierhead building in Cardiff Docks or Tiger Bay, as it was often referred to.

Inside the Pierhead there are two forms of terracotta, the red brick and the glazed terracotta (“majolica”). The company that supplied the Pierhead’s terracotta was J C Edwards and Co of Acrefair, Ruabon – once described as one of the most successful producers of terracotta in the world. More than 2000 people in the Wrexham area were involved in the trade, and Ruabon was known as “Terracottapolis”.

By the time the Pierhead was completed in 1897, Cardiff Bay was dominated by tall-ships as Cardiff became the world’s largest port, and the hub of the lucrative international trade in steam coal. As they entered the port, sailors would have seen the Pierhead and its clocktower - the Welsh Big Ben, its mechanism almost identical to its larger cousin in London - and known they were almost home. For others, this would be their first glimpse of south Wales, a place many of them would come to call home. As a result, Cardiff became the first multicultural community in the UK.

The link between Cardiff Docks and the south Wales valleys is epitomised by Sir William Thomas Lewis (1837-1914), who became Lord Merthyr of Senghennydd in 1911. Sir William was the General Manager of the Docks and in charge of all the traffic in and out of the port, and the considerable expansions and improvements made to the docks at this time. Merthyr-born Lewis was a mining and civil engineer by training, and a mine-owner.

Lewis played a leading role in the management of labour relations in Cardiff docks. He had a reputation for hard-dealing. Following the miners’ lockout of 1898, he was described as ‘the most hated man in Wales’.

In 1922, the Great Western Railway (GWR) took over Cardiff Railway Company and the Pierhead became a key office in its operations in south Wales. The coal trade had been in decline since 1913; by the 1930s, GWR was the biggest single user of Welsh coal.

A National Assembly for Wales

On 18 September 1997, a referendum was held to determine whether or not there was majority support to establish an Assembly for Wales, which would assume some of the decision-making process from the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State for Wales. In July 1998, Royal Assent was given to the Government of Wales Act 1998, leading to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 increased the Assembly’s legislative powers, allowing it to make laws for Wales.

Pierhead clock

Pierhead - Frequently asked questions

What is the building?

The Pierhead helped Wales forge its identity through water and fire in the late nineteenth century; today its aim is to inform, involve and inspire a new generation to forge a Wales for the future.

It is an event and conference venue to complement the work of the Assembly. It is also a light touch exhibition to inform, involve and inspire visitors to the Pierhead.

What was the Pierhead originally used for?

The Pierhead was built as offices for the Bute Docks Company, renamed the Cardiff Railway Company in 1897. It took nearly three years to construct. Its gothic style was very typical and popular of the time.

When was it built?

1897

Who built it?

The Pierhead was designed by Welsh architect William Frame (1848-1906).

Frame had previously worked with William Burges (1821-1881) on the refurbishment of Cardiff Castle and the reconstruction of Castell Coch.

Who funded it and how much did it cost?

The Third Marquess of Bute (1847-1900) funded the build. He was one of the wealthiest men of his generation in Britain.A patron of arts, he is said to have sponsored more building projects than any other man of his time. The Pierhead was his project, along with Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch. It cost £30,000 to build.

What was each room used for originally?

Grand Entrance Hall

The Grand Entrance Hall was the first experience people had of the building, the grand gothic arch leading into the Main Hall would demonstrate the wealth and importance behind the building.

The Main Hall

This is the centrepiece of the building with its gothic style roof resembling one of a church. The large windows not only shone light into the hall but also gave views of the docks, and today, the Senedd. The hall was home to both accountants and engineers in the 1960s.

The Dockmaster’s Office

This was once home to the First Captain Rosser, who had a job similar to that of an air traffic controller. It was his job to look over the dozens ships that sailed in and out of the docks. It was an important job to secure the safe and easy passage of ships.

The Assistant Dockmaster’s Office

The room was originally used for the dock engineer who perhaps saw Captain Scott leave on his ill-fated journey on the Terra Nova. The room later became the Dockmaster’s Office.

The Chief Dockmaster’s Room

This room was considered to be the most important, as it had a landscape view of Cardiff Bay.

Can I book an event at Pierhead?

The first step to book an event is to ring the booking line on 0845 010 5500. For an event to take place, it need to be sponsored by an Assembly Member or the Presiding Officer.

Why wasn’t the debating chamber installed here instead of building the Senedd?

The Pierhead is too small to hold a debating chamber. As a Grade One listed building, it would not have been possible to undertake the necessary structural work.

When is the building open?

The building is open 10.30 - 16.30 Monday to Sunday. Outside of these hours, the building is sometimes used for private events.

Cardiff Port today

Today the Port of Cardiff, owned and operated by Associated British Ports, has a central role in the growing South Wales economy. In recent years, the emergence of new forms of trade along with further developments in existing key sectors have fuelled growth at the port that serves the capital city and the regional and national hinterland.

The vibrant port handles approximately three million tonnes of cargo each year and trades with other ports all over the world. The port has modern warehousing and cargo handling facilities for a number of key trades and also makes use of the infrastructure built over 100 years ago.

The modern port operates from the Roath and Queen Alexandra Docks, a short distance from the redeveloped former port areas at Cardiff Bay.

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