Better Education for the People of Cardiff


Commissioners, appointed in 1846 to inquire into the state of education in Wales, denounced not only the standards of its schools, but also the habits of the Welsh people. Their scathing remarks, published in the notorious Blue Books, aroused great resentment. The commissioner, who investigated the schools of Cardiff, contemptuously dismissed the town as "a dissipated place' with "much drunkenness and prostitution in it'. He was a little kinder to the schools which were "not ill-equipped with the means of education'.

The St. John's schools for boys and girls in Crockherbtown were well organised, and the new Wesleyan schools in Working Street were praised as "exceedingly good and efficient'. The British school in Millicent Street was commended for its accommodation and equipment, but the parents were castigated for their failure to send their children to school regularly. Some parents claimed that they could not afford the fee of 3d a week for each child, which led the commissioner to comment sourly, "Such however are chiefly those who waste their money in drunkenness - a sin stated to be awfully prevalent in Cardiff'.

Before 1870 education was largely dependent on the resources provided by the churches and in Cardiff they valiantly attempted to meet the needs of a growing population. In 1848 a new Anglican church school was opened near St. Mary's Church in Bute Street, and by 1875 national schools had opened their doors in the parishes of Canton, Cathays, Roath and Grangetown. The Catholics too had built their own schools at St. Peter's in Roath, St. Paul's in Tyndall Street, and St. Patrick's in Grangetown.

There were private schools in Cardiff but their fees were beyond the reach of poorer families. The Inspector's Report of 1846 spoke highly of Mr. Evans's Academy in North Street and, when he retired in 1855, he was honoured by pupils and parents alike. Wakeford's Directory for 1863 lists several private schools, especially in Charles Street and Windsor Place, while certain academies, such as the Cardiff College School in Dumfries Place, offered a more advanced education. In 1875 it was advertising a curriculum "to prepare boys for the universities and the naval, military and civil services, as well as for scientific and commercial pursuits'.

As a result of the combined efforts of both voluntary and private schools, about a third of Cardiff's children were receiving at least a primary education by 1870. This was scarcely satisfactory, however, for a borough requiring a literate workforce to meet its rapidly growing economic needs.

Following the Education Act of 1870, school boards were permitted to build schools if the voluntary system was unable to meet the requirements of the community. Cardiff was a borough obviously in need of a school board, but it was not set up until 1875 and then only after some pressure had been applied by the Department of Education. The first purpose-built board school was opened in 1878 at Eleanor Street in Butetown, and 18 more had been added by 1902. Some of these schools, among them Eleanor Street, have disappeared, but others such as Radnor, Stacey, Albany and Severn Road, have recently celebrated their centenaries. By the early twentieth century, the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches had created a further 19 new schools, and the task of providing a primary education for all children in Cardiff was at last completed.

 School logbooks give an interesting insight into Victorian school life. Since teachers' pay depended on the regular attendance of their pupils, any absences were a matter of real concern. Inevitably, epidemics of measles or diphtheria created havoc in school attendance, but truancy was also a problem. "Between thirty and forty boys seem to be confirmed truants', wrote the headmaster of Albany Road Boys' School, two weeks after its opening in 1887. Hardly surprising is the absence of 200 boys, when "Buffalo Bill and His Wild West Show' came to town in September 1891, but in that same year attendance showed a marked improvement when weekly school fees were abolished.

The most basic equipment was often in short supply. An inpector, visiting Albany Road School in 1889, found the children kneeling on the floor because there were insufficient desks for them. Eight years later, the school was so overcrowded that desks were packed together to fill the gangways. As every classroom was heated with a coal fire, the danger of a catastrophe must have been enormous.

The Albany logbook shows the impact of industrial strife upon children. In 1898, when the miners' strike was creating unemployment in Cardiff, dinner tickets were being issued to the children in greater numbers, and poverty was showing itself even among the "better class working man'. During the miners' strike of 1912, the Council decided that children in need should receive breakfast as well as dinner in school.

Apart from its few private academies, Cardiff lacked an establishment capable of offering more advanced courses of study. There were two excellent establishments at Llandaff, but the Cathedral School, founded in 1880 for "sons of gentlemen', only granted choral scholarships to boys chosen for the cathedral choir. Howell's School for Girls was built in 1859 after Parliament decided that a redundant sixteenth century charity, founded by Thomas Howell, a merchant of the Drapers' Company of London, should be redeployed to provide schools for girls at Denbigh and Llandaff. The school at Llandaff offered 30 places to "orphan inmates' and 30 places to "pay boarders', though there were an additional 75 day pupils at the turn of the century.

Not until 1885 was anything approaching a secondary school established in Cardiff. It was a higher grade school, built in Howard Gardens on land acquired from Lord Bute, though not until he had been threatened with a compulsory purchase order. The Higher Grade School quickly became popular with parents and, under its able headmaster, James Waugh, it assumed many grammar school customs, such as school caps, gowns for the teachers, and honours boards.

Two more secondary schools were built in Cardiff as a result of the Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889. The girls' school in The Parade was opened in 1893, followed five years later by the boys' school in Newport Road. Both these establishments were to win a great reputation as the Cardiff High Schools, but in their early days neither was able to attract pupils easily. Their fees, set at £7.10/- per annum, were considered expensive, especially as the girls' school did not have purpose-built premises until 1900, and the boys were accommodated in temporary wooden buildings until 1910. The Higher Grade School, on the other hand, was as well equipped as most grammar schools, and in 1901 it had twice as many pupils as the two intermediate schools together.

 The 1902 Education Act allowed for the abolition of school boards and the transfer of their functions to the Council. The school board in Cardiff was not abolished until September 1904, when the Council's newly-formed Education Committee assumed responsibility for all its secondary establishments. Two years later, after complicated negotiations with the Board of Education, the Higher Grade School became the Howard Gardens Municipal Secondary School. The term, "high school' was not applied until the 1930's. When Canton Municipal Secondary School was opened in 1907, Cardiff was able to provide secondary education for over 2,000 pupils, though the concept of fee-paying was to remain for several years to come.


The evolution of the University of Wales began with the founding of a college at Aberystwyth in 1872. The Aberdare Committee, in its report of 1881 on Intermediate and Higher Education in Wales, advocated the establishment of two more colleges. One was established at Bangor and, despite stiff competition from Swansea, the Privy Council decided in favour of siting the other college at Cardiff. The scales were tipped by the generous offers of support from the Corporation and the people of Cardiff. In addition to a grant of £10,000, the Corporation made the premises of the old Infirmary in Newport Road available to the College. The Marquess of Bute contributed a further £10,000, while another £12,000 was raised by public subscription.

The University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire was officially opened on 21 October 1883. The occasion was a public holiday, and despite torrential rain the people of Cardiff joined in the celebrations. In its first year the College provided courses in the arts and sciences for 109 men and 42 women.  Under the guidance of its principal, a brilliant young scientist named J. Viriamu Jones, the number of students and the courses on offer soon increased. In 1893 all the Welsh colleges became constituent members of the University of Wales which has awarded and regulated their degrees since that time.

When Cardiff's University College was still in its infancy, Aberdare Hall in Corbett Road was built as accommodation for female students. They slept in dormitories for their first year at college and shared rooms during the rest of their course. This attractive red brick building, named after Lord Aberdare, imposed a strict discipline before the Great War and it was strictly forbidden for men to enter the young ladies' rooms.

The introduction of free public libraries, giving working people the opportunity to increase their knowledge, is another example of Victorian self-help. Cardiff was the first council in Wales to take advantage of the Public Libraries Act in 1861. Initially, the free library relied on voluntary subscriptions but, within a year, the Council assumed responsibility for the service and levied a penny rate to pay for it. The library had various homes in The Hayes and St. Mary Street, until a site was found on land formerly occupied by the Zion Welsh Methodist Church in Trinity Street.

The Central Library was officially opened in 1882, when the Dean of Llandaff spoke of, "a great triumph of unselfishness over the lust for money'. An extension to the library was completed in 1896, an occasion graced by the presence of the Prince of Wales. The building, which cost £30,000, was beautifully ornate with stained glass windows, decorated tiles and arches, and a splendid spiral staircase. By 1891, the lending and reference libraries possessed 36,000 volumes, many of them rare works in the Welsh language. The Cardiff Museum and the Technical College were originally accommodated at the Central Library, which was held in great respect throughout Wales and served the people of Cardiff for more than a hundred years.

In 1908 there were 5 branch libraries in the suburbs of Cardiff. Two of them, at Canton and Cathays, were the outcome of a generous gift of £10,000 from the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. The library rate had been increased to 1(1/2)d to cover the cost of providing a school library service, a further indication of the Council's efforts to improve the quality of life for its citizens.