Its history as a former Norwegian Seamen's Mission Church
in Wales/UK, and now an Arts Centre. 

 Harbour Drive, Cardiff Bay, CF10 4PA 

Edited by Herbert E. Roese.
contact: heroese0@yahoo.co.uk

When in 1849/50 the British Government of the day passed the Navigation Act, Norway's trading history was significantly affected. It meant that better and faster sailing ships were required and that classification and insurance became the key to trading. Then, in October 1853 the Crimean War between Russia and Turkey broke out which was to last until February 1856. Britain and France joined on the Turkish side and needed extra shipping space for the transportation of war materials. The Norwegian merchant fleet, which had been brought up to the latest standards due to the Navigation Act, was ready to pick up the extra trade. Out of this event grew an ever more powerful merchant navy in Norway, which sailed to all corners of the globe. As a result, thousands of Norwegian sailors were absent from home for long periods of time and their families were worried about the lack of pastoral and social care. This resulted in religious missions being set up in numerous ports throughout Europe. Eventually, Norwegian Seamen's Missions sprung up in many far-flung places world wide. For example, 8 in Asia, 26 in the Americas, 5 in Africa, 47 in Europe. Of course, these numbers changed constantly depending on the economic development of ports which was subject to the vagaries of world trade.

The Port of Cardiff was one of the major coal exporting ports at the time, in fact the third largest in the world after London and Liverpool. By 1913, the year of the port's greatest success, 10.5 million tons of coal were exported, primarily in Norwegian vessels. Not surprisingly, therefore, Cardiff was also one of the first cities to have a Norwegian sailors' church. Under the auspices of Carl Herman Lund from Oslo the Church was built in 1868 between the East and West Docks, on land donated by the Marquis of Bute; 

above in 1872 - Cardiff's Norwegian Church - below in 1958
(1872 photo by courtesy of the BHAC Archive, 1958 photo by courtesy of Peter Persen.)

It was consecrated in December of that year. During the following years the church was extended several times. In 1883 and 1894 the reading room was enlarged and in 1885 a gallery and bell-tower were added. It was the third time that major changes altered the appearance of the building. In early Cardiff trade directories the church was described as 'The Norwegian Iron Church' because it was clad in corrugated iron sheets. This was a pre-requisite for building it, stipulated by the harbour authorities who wanted a building that could easily be taken down and moved if necessary. It became a very busy and world famous meeting place for Scandinavian sailors. A review from 1916 by Pastor Aarseth records that between 1867 and 1915 the number of visiting sailors to the church rose from 7,572 to 73,580 seamen per annum (see "Cardiff's Norwegian Heritage", The Welsh History Review, Vol.18, No.2, Dec.1996 - http://web.ontel.net.uk/~herbertroese/norway.htm). The "little white church", as it was known amongst sailors worldwide, was like a magnet to the Scandinavian ship crews when their vessels edged into the West Dock at the end of their long journeys. It meant so much to them that serving sailors would periodically re-paint it or while they were waiting to change ship. It was the oldest surviving church in Britain to be founded by the Norwegian Seamen's Mission and was the centre of Scandinavian religion, culture and tradition. The Church was first and foremost a seamen's mission, but it was also a home-from-home for sailors, where they could read newspapers and magazines from home, write letters to their loved-ones, relax and chat with their friends. A cup of coffee and a plate of typically Norwegian waffles was always theirs for the asking.

Paintings of Norwegian Ships of the period 

Three-mast barque 'Justø', built 1873 ...... Steamer 'Bravore', built 1916
The barque captained by Peder Bertin Persen…….. The steamer captained by Paul Birger Persen

(Courtesy of Peter Persen.)

As the export of coal from Cardiff docks declined Norwegian ships had to turn elsewhere for trade. Consequently, in 1959 the mission's work was discontinued, the last seamen's priest being Per Konrad Hansen and in the 1960s, the Norwegian Seamen's Mission decided to withdraw its patronage from the church altogether. The local congregation and other Lutheran organisations funded its continued use by the resident expatriate community. It remained under local control until financial constraints caused total closure and de-consecration in 1974. Without maintenance, the building fell into disrepair and was vandalised, particularly the stained-glass windows. To avoid the total destruction of the church, i.e. to make way for the planned road to Atlantic Wharf, the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust was established to save the building and integrate it into the redeveloping docks. The Trust, in partnership with a Norwegian Support Committee based in Bergen, raised £250,000 in Wales and Norway and in 1987 the old church was dismantled and stored for reassembly. Some of the Church's original furniture and one stained-glass window could also be rescued and kept in a safe place. The pulpit, one side-window, the chandelier and the model-ship were eventually recovered and returned to the church.

The building itself was re-erected on its present site, overlooking the bay, which was provided by Grosvenor Waterside of Associated British Ports (ABP). In April 1992, Cardiff's Norwegian Church was re-opened by Princess Martha Louise of Norway, and in 2006 the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust was transferred to Cardiff County Council, under the management of the Cardiff Harbour Authority. Today, the building is used as an art centre and coffee shop under its new name: The Norwegian Church Arts Centre.

Nowadays the Norwegian Seamen's Mission has become a worldwide organisation, serving the religious needs of Norwegian sailors and Norwegian emigrants living abroad under its new name: The Norwegian Church Abroad. It still has its main office in Bergen, Norway and is a charitable organisation supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway and the Norwegian Government. Sjømannsmisjonen is also a member of ICMA and the Council of Nordic Seamen's Missions. Looking back, it is rather interesting to note that the Norwegian Seamen's Mission work in Wales began in 1866, when a Pastor Lars Oftedal came to Cardiff. His first service took place on board the "Korsfareren" of Grimstad. He held services in Swansea, Barry, Cardiff as the central location, Newport, Bristol and even Gloucester collectively known to the Seamen's Mission as 'the Bristol Channel Stations'. Oftedal's term of office ended in April 1868.

The Roald Dahl Connection: 

Roald Dahl, the internationally famous author, was born on the 13th September 1916 of Norwegian parents in Villa Marie (now 32 Fairwater Road), Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales. His junior school days were spent in Cardiff and afterwards he attended a private school in Derbyshire. At the age of 13 he went to a public school. Instead of entering university when he turned 18, Dahl joined an expedition to Newfoundland. On his return he took a job with Shell, working in London (1933-37) and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1937-39). During World War II he served in the Royal Air Forces in Libya, Greece, and Syria. He was shot down in Libya, wounded in Syria, and then posted to Washington as an assistant air attaché to British Security (1942-43). By now he was a wing commander and worked until 1945 for British Security Co-ordination in North America. His experiences during these years were to serve him well for his following career as a writer. 

He was best known for his children's books (e.g. "James & the Giant Peach" in 1961, "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory" in 1964, "Witches" in 1973, and "Matilda" in 1988) and adult horror stories (some very controversial) but he also tried his hand at film script writing. His stories became particularly popular when adapted for television.


Dahl spent his early childhood and schooldays in Cardiff, where his family worshipped at the Norwegian Seamen's Church in Cardiff Docks; both he and his sisters were christened at the Church. Much of his childhood is told in his autobiographical novel "Boy". 

His father Harald, from Oslo in Norway, co-founded the successful partnership of the ship-broking company of Aadnessen & Dahl in Cardiff where he had settled in the 1880s. The company kept offices in the ports of Newport, Swansea and Port Talbot. Both Harald and his wife were buried in the Old Church at Rhadyr Cheyne, as well as Roald's younger sister who died tragically at a very early age.

In the mid 1980's when the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust was set up to rescue the then derelict church, Roald Dahl became it's first president. Sadly, he died on 23rd November 1990, before the reconstruction was completed. The Norwegian Church Preservation Trust was established in 1987 to rescue the "Little White Church" and to raise funds to dismantle and re-erect this waterfront landmark at the heart of Cardiff's historical docklands.

As an accompanying subject - here is the history of Cardiff's 19th century Port Facilities