South East Wales

Cardiff then and now: 60 years as capital city of Wales

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Media captionMaj C G Traherne, Lord-Lieutenant of Glamorgan, speaking at Cardiff City Hall in 1955.

Sixty years ago, crowds gathered to hear a statement being read at the entrance to City Hall in Cardiff.

Those present on 21 December 1955 were among the first to hear Cardiff had become the official capital city of Wales, a day after the decision had been announced in Parliament.

This "great honour", as described by Cardiff's Lord Mayor, ended a 30-year campaign for the title.

But the Cardiff of 1955 looked very different to today's capital city.

Image copyright Cardiff Council/Glamorgan Archives
Image caption St Mary Street in the 1960s

"I think it probably felt like a rather mundane, rather parochial, very provincial place," said Dr Huw Thomas, a reader in urban planning and development at Cardiff University.

"In 1955 there had been no major programme of re-building in the town for some time," he said.

Historian James Cowan said the city had "completely changed" since then.

"When it was named capital, Cardiff was in a state of industrial decline and was not going anywhere quickly. Becoming capital drew focus on the city, but it did not bring about any major transformation or change."

Image copyright Jonathan Billinger/Geograph
Image caption St Mary Street has since been pedestrianised

Mr Cowan said the decision to make Cardiff the capital was in some ways a reflection on its boom years in the early 20th Century, when civic buildings were built in Cathays Park including law courts, the City Hall and National Museum of Wales.

"Designers in the early 1900s were determined that Cardiff would be capital, they had the foresight."

These new buildings showcased the wealth brought in during Cardiff's years as a major international coal port, which peaked in 1913, when more than 10 million tonnes passed through.

Image copyright Crown copyright: RCAHMW
Image caption Cardiff Civic Centre - Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

Why was Cardiff chosen?

Cardiff was the largest city in Wales, with a population of 243,632.

The city had grown rapidly since becoming a key port for the exporting of iron in the early 1800s, then a coal port, handling the majority of coal mined in the south Wales valleys.

But there were fears that the city would not be able to accurately represent Welsh culture and Welsh life, in contrast to main contender Caernarfon.

The decision was made by an official ballot of Welsh local authority members, which Cardiff won with 136 votes, compared to Caernarfon's 11 and Aberystwyth's four.

Image copyright Cardiff Council/Glamorgan Archives
Image caption The city centre in the 1960s, looking south east from the City Hall clock tower

But by the time the title had been won in 1955, Cardiff's industrial boom had passed, with Bute West Dock closing in 1964, followed by East Dock in 1970 and East Moor Steelworks in 1978.

New shopping centres were built, many of the city's streets were made pedestrian and a corporation was established to redevelop the Cardiff Bay area.

"Now, it's a bright and breezy, confident capital city. But that's only happened in the last 20 years," Mr Cowan said.

Image copyright Cardiff Council/Glamorgan Archives
Image caption Westgate Street in the 1960s

He claimed the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay and devolution were the main things that kick-started Cardiff's transformation.

The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up in 1987 to redevelop the area that had once been Cardiff's docklands, using British government and European funding.

Following the clearance and rebuilding of houses and redevelopment of roads and wasteland in the area, Cardiff Bay is now a multi-use area with shops, restaurants, offices, accommodation and leisure facilities.

Image copyright Karen Blyth/Geograph
Image caption The Millennium Centre, Pierhead building and The Senedd in Cardiff Bay

'A meaningful capital'

In 1997, Wales voted in favour of devolved powers, allowing the country to self-govern on certain matters.

The following year, the National Assembly for Wales was formed, under the Government of Wales Act 1998, and opened officially in 2006 in the Senedd building.

Dr Martin Johnes, a reader of history and classics at Swansea University, said Cardiff became "a capital in a meaningful way, as the home of Welsh government, whereas before, its capital status was irrelevant, it was just symbolic".

But he said there was "a sense of cynicism about devolution, as people don't see how it relates to everyday life".

"The Millennium stadium, rugby, football, sport in general, is more tangible, it's more populist," he said.

Image copyright PA/Barry Batchelor
Image caption The Millennium Stadium in 1999

Tourism is now worth more than £1bn to Cardiff and generates 25% of all tourism revenue in Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Visitor numbers have increased from 9.24 million in 1998 to just under 20 million in 2013.

"Cardiff wasn't a major destination, but now it gets a lot more exposure," said Mr Cowan.

The increase in foreign students also helped to make it feel more "cosmopolitan", he added.

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