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'It was a ghost town', American photographer documents the ruin and regeneration of the Welsh capital

Fisherman on East Dock Credit: John Briggs

During the Seventies, Cardiff was in a state of flux. Heavy industry, once the lifeblood of the city, was in terminal decline. Vast swathes of Cardiff’s historic docklands were being demolished. Whole neighbourhoods had vanished.

Scrapyard in East Dock, 1970s Credit: John Briggs

It was against this backdrop that John Briggs began exploring the South of the city. He’d moved to Wales from his native Minnesota to train as a teacher. But his real passion was photography. One afternoon in 1974 he took a stroll through Cardiff’s docklands and couldn’t believe what he saw.

John Briggs re-photographing Cardiff, 2018 Credit: ITV News

“I was photographing what was basically a ghost town,” he remembers. “I’d never really seen anything like it.

“Fortunately I was in the right place at the right time, historically speaking, for what had gone before and what was to come after.”

Norwegian Church, Bute West Dock Credit: John Briggs

What came after was, of course, the wholesale regeneration of the docklands. The industrial waterfront was reconstructed and rebranded as Cardiff Bay.

But 40 years ago those grand designs were still a long way off.

“I was just looking at empty streets and thinking, gosh, these streets used to be full of people. These houses were people’s homes.

“Although so much of it was derelict, and so much of it was abandoned, there were still plenty of traces of what had been here in terms of the shipping that still existed, and the shipping that had disappeared.”

Man walking in Dudley Place Credit: John Briggs

For three years, Briggs photographed the ruins and relics of Cardiff’s once flourishing docklands. He managed to capture on film the last vestiges of community life and the dying throes of the city’s steel and maritime industry. By the end of the decade, many of the buildings and places he had photographed were gone for good.

For the ITV Cymru Wales series Dock of the Bay, Briggs has returned to Cardiff to re-photograph the same 1970s locations using the same old camera. It’s a snapshot of how Cardiff has changed over 40 years.

Junction Dry-dock, 1970s Credit: John Briggs
Junction Dry-dock, 2018, now known as Roald Dahl Plâs Credit: John Briggs

This was the location of the Junction Dry-dock. It was an important centre for ship repair. And you couldn’t imagine a contrast any more severe than between what is here now and what stood here back in the 1970s.

– John Briggs, photographer
Hill's Dry-docks, 1970s Credit: John Briggs
Hill's Dry-docks, 2018 Credit: John Briggs

This is the site of what was once the Hill's Dry-docks. We’ve now got waterside development instead of the old dry dock buildings, which were the full length of a ship.

– John Briggs, photographer
Junction Canal, 1970s Credit: John Briggs
Junction Canal, 2018 Credit: John Briggs

Back in the 1970s the Junction Canal was so forlorn looking and just lined with all kinds of industrial bits and pieces. But what you’ve got here now is part of a Little Venice of Cardiff. The canal system has been newly developed and extended, part of the environment for the new apartment buildings.

– John Briggs, photographer
Spillers & Bakers building, 1970s Credit: John Briggs
Spillers & Bakers building, 2018 Credit: John Briggs

This is one of the very few Victorian buildings still left from the nineteenth century. The Spillers & Bakers building was a biscuit factory. It’s one of the few industrial and maritime buildings that’s been saved in docklands Cardiff.

– John Briggs, photographer
  • You can see more on this story in Dock of the Bay. Tonight at 7:30pm on ITV Cymru Wales. It will then be online at: itv.com/walesprogrammes

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