How a Welsh pub was rebuilt brick by brick and taken back to 1915

vulcan pub
The 107-year-old Vulcan Hotel pub, which originally stood in Cardiff's city centre (left), has been rebuilt at the St Fagans National Museum of History (right) - Wales News Service

If buildings could talk, The Vulcan in Cardiff would certainly have some stories. The old city-centre drinking hole has been a favourite of Hollywood actors, musicians, students, miners and mill workers. But that it’s standing at all is something of a minor miracle.

Despite a years-long campaign to save it, led by local residents and former drinkers including Rhys Ifans and members of the Manic Street Preachers, last orders were called on May 2, 2012. New owners planned to turn the site into a car park, and it was dismantled. Last weekend, however, almost 12 years to the day, it reopened – in an entirely new location.

“We had to dash down there in 2012 – we were really concerned about trophy hunters – so we boarded it up and four weeks later we were dismantling it brick by brick,” explains Janet Wilding, head of the historic buildings unit at St Fagans National Museum of History on the outskirts of Cardiff.

Though the campaign failed to save The Vulcan in its original home, it convinced the buildings’ owners to offer to donate it to St Fagans. Wilding’s team, which specialises in translocating historic buildings from across Wales, had been on the lookout for a pub to add to its collection, which already featured shops, a farmstead, a post office and a church, among others.

Vulcan pub
The pub closed in 2012 despite a celebrity-backed plan to save it - Dimitris Legakis/Athena Picture Agency Ltd

“When we rebuild a building, one of the first questions is the interpretation date of when we want to put it back to,” explains Wilding, as she shows me around the reopened pub, now nestled in a corner of the St Fagans site. “We knew from the off we wanted to take The Vulcan back to 1915 when it first became a pub and had just completed a major renovation.”

The Vulcan was originally built in 1853 as a pair of terraced houses. From the outside, you can still see its two front doors. In its original form, it would have been home to as many as 25 people; New Town, where it once stood, was developed to house Irish workers hired by the Marquess of Bute to build his new East Bute dock. It was decried as a slum and there was considerable anti-Irish sentiment from the locals.

The notorious institution in its original setting, where it attracted an eclectic mix of drinkers
The notorious institution in its original setting, where it attracted an eclectic mix of drinkers - Dimitris Legakis/Athena Picture Agency Ltd

In 1915, it reopened as a pub: the Vulcan Hotel (though there’s no evidence it hosted guests) – named after the Roman god of smithing due to its proximity to a local metalworks. Run by the McCarthy family, it soon became an institution.

“The rest of the area around the Vulcan was demolished in 1966 and the pub became one of the last surviving buildings of that community,” explains Dafydd Wiliam, St Fagans’ principal curator of historic buildings.

While Wilding and her team worked on moving the foundations, it was down to Wiliam to resurrect The Vulcan’s soul.

“We were able to interview Ellen McCarthy, the daughter of the landlord from 1915, who provided invaluable insight,” Wiliam explains. “She was born here, so she could tell us what it looked like when she was growing up, and about life in New Town.”

A small wooden partition forms a cubby with about enough room for two or three drinkers to stand to the right of the bar. It was uncovered by Wilding’s team during dismantling, having been covered by plywood, but it tallied with something McCarthy had mentioned to Wiliam.

“In her childhood, women weren’t allowed to drink with the men so they were sequestered behind this partition – it’s totally original,” Wiliam enthuses. Now, of course, it’s just for show – women and men are welcome to drink together.

vulcan pub wales
The reinvigorated Vulcan is restored to its former 1915 glory, the year it first became a pub - Wales news service

Dismantling and rebuilding the pub was a logistical challenge for Wilding. Each pane of glass was removed in order, walls were taken apart brick by brick, and a huge Victorian ceramic urinal had to be carefully extracted.

Not everything could be saved. The tiles on the pub’s exterior couldn’t be moved. “We had tile conservators do an assessment and they quoted us more than everything else, and they couldn’t guarantee any tiles – set in cement – would survive,” says Wilding.

However, the tile specialists still helped. “From the ones we were able to remove, we found they each had the name of the company who made them – Craven Dunnill Jackfield – who were able to remake the tiles for us,” Wilding explains. “They’d kept the original moulds so we were able to commission new ones exactly the same as the old. It works well because in 1915, to when we reset the pub, the tiles would have also been brand new.”

welsh pub rebuild
The Vulcan being rebuilt brick by brick, 10 miles from its original site - Wales news service

The newly rebuilt Vulcan, Wilding estimates, is about 90 per cent original. A few bricks were lost in the move, the floorboards had to be replaced, and 1980s furniture was swapped with period-relevant alternatives from the museum’s stores.

What strikes me is the love and attention to detail. Those new floorboards were reclaimed from a whisky distillery to maintain the boozy theme. Flagstones in the kitchen at the back of the building are the same ones Ellen McCarthy played on. You’ll even find sawdust all over the floor – a traditional feature of Welsh pubs in industrial areas.

“A lot of the men were working around dust and soot, and they’d have a pint partly to clear their throats,” explains Wiliam. “There are a few spittoons around the place, they’d be spitting on the floor as well, hence the sawdust.” Maybe it’s a good job they replaced the floorboards…

Most importantly, the locals are impressed. “The attention to detail is something else,” enthuses Simon Martin, who’d visited The Vulcan before it closed and came to the reopened pub to review the beers, provided by Glamorgan Brewery which has created a Vulcan Ale.

One detail I love is the roundels on the windows. When I visited in 2012, they were decorated for Brain’s Brewery, but they’ve redone them to pay homage to WW Nell, the brewery which supplied beer in 1915.”

Vulcan pub
Writer Jack Rear sips a pint in the lovingly restored interior of the Vulcan - Jay Williams

“The rebuilding has taken a while, but you understand why,” adds Nick Jones, a volunteer at St Fagans who used to work opposite the Vulcan in the late 1980s and remembers going in after work every Friday. “We used to visit because the food was sensational; it was next to an abattoir so it was very fresh.”

Alas, for the time being, food is off the menu, but that hasn’t caused the pub to lose its lustre, thinks Jones. “I think the tiles on the outside of the building gave it a sense of grandeur which people still appreciate – look at everyone outside taking selfies. It’s wonderful, what they’ve done. It’s a different feeling, but it’s still a fantastic place.”

As I settle in for a delicious pint of Vulcan Ale, I lean back and soak in my surroundings. Pubs have changed since these doors first opened. The Vulcan went through the same transformations. Now it has returned to its roots.

Five more buildings remade brick by brick

St Fagans is a treasure trove of old buildings, remade. In its new home The Vulcan sits beside a row of shops and a working men’s club, both of which appeared in 2007 in an episode of Doctor Who set in the 1910s, thanks to their period accuracy. But you don’t have to go to Wales to find old buildings moved to a new location.

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Destroyed during the Allied firebombing of Dresden in the Second World War, this magnificent dome-roofed Lutheran church was rebuilt between 1994 and 2006 using the original materials which had been kept as a war memorial.

Clavell Tower, Dorset

This Venetian-style tower, built in 1830 by Reverend John Richards Clavell of Smedmore House as an observatory and folly on Hen Cliff, just east of Kimmeridge Bay, was threatened by coastal erosion. Before the cliffs beneath it could tumble into the sea, The Landmark Trust took it apart brick-by-brick and reassembled it further inland.

Old London Bridge, Arizona USA

Work to redesign the original London Bridge and widen its arches was completed in 1824. However, the new bridge only lasted a century before it was replaced by the current concrete and steel one. The old bridge was taken apart and purchased by Robert P McCulloch, a real estate developer, who moved the whole thing to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it survives to this day.

Abu Simbel, Aswan, Egypt

Two enormous temples in Egypt carved out of the rock in honour of Pharaoh Ramesses II stood immovable since the 13th century BC. However, by 1959 rising waters of Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan Dam, threatened to submerge it. A team of experts cut the monuments into 30-ton blocks and transported them to a new home, where they remain open to visitors.

The Carlton Tavern, London

Unlike The Vulcan, The Carlton Tavern managed to stay in its Maida Vale location, even after developers demolished half of the building in 2015. Following a campaign by local regulars, Westminster City Council ruled that proper planning permission hadn’t been obtained – so the whole thing was rebuilt. The pub reopened in 2021 and has been serving customers ever since.

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