Cardiff's historic Coal Exchange at risk

Friday 31 August 2012, 12:40

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The news that the company which owns Cardiff's famous Coal Exchange has recently gone into liquidation has cast grave doubts about the future of the building. 'Market forces' and the rising cost of maintenance have caused GYG Exchange to make their decision. Whatever the cause, it means that one of the capital city's most iconic buildings is under threat.

The Coal Exchange was closed for refurbishment in 2007 and despite plans announced five years later for a £20 million upgrade, little has been done. The future of the building has to be in serious jeopardy.

The building was where the leading businessmen of the south Wales area - ship owners, shipping agents, mine owners - met to fix deals, to buy and sell coal and, of course, to make themselves fortunes.

The Coal Exchange was also the place where, in 1901, the first ever £1 million deal was struck. In the closing years of the 19th century it was where every businessman with pretensions of grandeur and success needed to be seen.

Coal Exchange Cardiff

Cardiff Coal Exchange

The story of Cardiff's development from small fishing village to the largest and busiest coal exporting dock in the country is well known. Such developments reached their heights in the closing decades of the 19th century when the 'black gold' of the Rhondda became one of the most prized and valuable commodities in the world.

Train loads of coal poured in a never-ceasing stream, down the valleys into Cardiff. And that was where most of the deals were carried out, a shipment bought here, tons of coal ordered there. Fortunes were made and lost every single day.

Unfortunately, in the early years of the town's prosperity there was no central point where all of the various negotiations could take place. Merchants simply chalked up the price they were offering or willing to pay on boards outside their offices and businessmen met in the quiet corners of public houses and taverns to fix prices and buy and sell the coal that was rapidly making Cardiff the greatest trading port ever seen. It was a situation that could not last.

In an attempt to provide a formal centre for the coal trade, Cardiff Coal Exchange was designed and built between 1883 and 1886. It was situated in Mount Stuart Square, within walking distance of Bute Docks, in what had previously been a quiet residential square, complete with a central garden. The design was by the architects James, Seward and Thomas and the building was formally opened on 1 February 1886.

Now, at last, Cardiff businessmen had a place to go each day. It was estimated that as many as eight or nine thousand people passed through the Coal Exchange each day with the hour between noon and 1pm being the busiest trading period.

Coal Exchange building in Cardiff

The building was formally opened on 1 February 1886

With over 20,000 square feet available for use, this was a palatial and magnificent building. Pride of the place went to the wide oak balcony that stood like a sentinel above the main trading floor while rich wood panelling and twin Corinthian columns gave the whole building an imposing sense of grandeur.

Cardiff Coal Exchange quickly became the economic capital of Cardiff and, with the price of the world's coal being decided within its looming portals, it could truly be said that this was as important an economic centre as the Stock Exchange or the Bank of England.

The tragedy of any port or town depending on just one commodity for its wealth, however, was cruelly displayed in the years after World War One when the price of coal plummeted. In the 1920s and 1930s Cardiff Docks went into terminal decline and although there moments when it seemed as if the port had been granted a reprieve, it was not to be.

The Coal Exchange finally closed in 1958 and coal exports from Cardiff ended just six years later, in 1964. For a while the building lay unused. There was talk of using the place as a base for the Welsh Assembly but when devolution plans were defeated in the referendum of 1979 the matter was dropped. When devolution did eventually become a reality a new Senedd building was already being planned and created.

The Coal Exchange is an elegant and distinctive building. It is part of the history of Cardiff - more than that, it is part of the history of Wales. It could have and should have a role in the future, as well.

The recent announcement about the demise of the Coal Exchange's owners is not good news for a building that has always been at the heart of the community. It would be criminal to allow it to fall into ruin but, at the moment, its future remains decidedly uncertain.

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    Comment number 1.

    Although it was long after the Coal Exchange closed Phil, when I joined the mining industry it was still a major employer and produced millions of tons of energy for the nation. Alas, that has all but disappeared in Wales, with just a few privately owned pits remaining. The ‘dash for gas’ hastened the end of coal mining, and as someone said to me in Cardiff University when the ‘dash for gas’ began – “what are we doing burning our precious gas reserves to make electricity?” Well, we have now burned much of our own natural gas and are having to import it. As for coal, having abandoned our own collieries, we now import something like 25 million tons a year. The men who walked the halls of the Coal Exchange must be turning in their graves.

 
 

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