In the shadow of the towering Tŷ Pont Haearn student residences and the glass monolith Atrium building lies a tiny, ramshackle pub. Once, nine working class taverns were dotted around this area. Now, only the Vulcan remains.
Almost comical in stature and appearance, the Vulcan sits forlorn on Adam Street, just a short walk from the massively redeveloped centre of Cardiff. Around it, the city continues to build upwards and outwards – just 100 yards down the road a large construction project for more student flats is beginning to take shape.
The Vulcan has stood firm in the same place for 159 years now, making it Cardiff’s oldest remaining pub. But despite its popularity with everyone from students to local celebrities, the Vulcan is once again facing closure. Brewers Brains, who saved the pub when they were granted a three-year lease in 2009, have announced they will not renew the deal meaning the pub is likely to close on May 31.
The Vulcan seemed certain to close at the end of the last decade as it struggled to hold its own against the backdrop of the city centre’s redevelopment. The potential closure drew a huge response. Everyone from local historians to the Campaign for Real Ale joined a drive to save the pub. In 2008, the remaining family members of Dennis MacCarthy, landlord of the pub for nearly four decades in the early twentieth century, came from all over the world for a final drink.
The Vulcan was saved, at least until this year. A campaign has long been underway to grant the building listed status, but as yet it is still to meet the Welsh Government’s criteria.
The pub has certainly been of interest to history buffs, particularly as it is one of the last remnants of the former working-class Newtown area of Cardiff.
Local historian John Sennett, who is an expert on the Adamsdown area in which the Vulcan now stands, explained: “We now know the Vulcan as a pub standing on Adam Street but in the Victorian era it was part of Whitmore Lane in Newtown.
“It was a bit of a spit and sawdust type of place. It doesn’t seem like it now but there were a lot of houses around there and a lot of workers from the docks used to use it.
“It was all houses along Adam Street then and the locals used to have nine pubs around them. They’ve all been shut down over the years, mostly due to compulsory purchase orders.”
Built in 1853, the pub gained popularity among steel and dockworkers from working class communities, as well as workers from the nearby abattoir where Anderson Fields now stands. Newtown had become something of a makeshift community, built to house the influx of Irish immigrants bought in to build Bute Docks in the 1840s.
The pub has retained those working class roots, with much of the outside structure bearing original features from the Vulcan’s early days. The interior was refurbished in the 1950s, but very little has changed since.
For men, a trip to the toilet means a trip outside to use one of a row of terracotta urinals, original features from 1914. The side of pub is adorned with a very old-fashioned “Guinness is good for you” advert, dating from the 1950s. Out front, the distinctive glazed green tiles have been greeting punters since 1901.
Ellie Byrne researched the Vulcan as part of the Adamsdown Pub Project for the Cardiff Story Museum in the Hayes. For her, the pub’s staying power is its most fascinating trait.
She said: “The most interesting thing to us is how it has changed over time. It was the one place that would stay the same and keep the same clientele.
“In the past, the clientele were very much industry workers who were working in the old abattoir or doing engineering works at the site where the Atrium building now stands.
Now they still have around 30 regulars. In the evenings, it is mostly students but there is still a core of regulars. You very much get the impression it was mostly routed in industry work and it still has that working class feel.”
How to preserve the pub’s Victorian feel if it cannot regain listed status remains a key question. St Fagans National History Museum expressed an interest in relocating the building to the open-air museum for preservation in 2008. It is unclear whether this proposal will be revived should the Vulcan close.
For now, the Vulcan’s trading time will only extend for another two months. After 159 years, the pub which has remained the same while Cardiff changed around it could well call last orders for the final time.