Population: 10,780


The history of Caerau and Ely, both of which became a part of Cardiff in 1922, is closely interwoven. The modern electoral division shows Caerau lying south of Cowbridge Road West so that places associated with Ely’s history, such as the racecourse and Ely Homes, actually lay in Caerau.

The remains of an Iron Age hill fort overlooks the modern housing estate. The site originally covered 12 acres and even today, though much reduced in size, the earhworks remain a formidable testament to the ingenuity of the Silurian warriors who built it. Ditches and ramparts of earth and stone were constructed like the contours of a relief map. Every point of access was heavily fortified with the entrances turned inwards to give a defensive corridor. At the summit, a wooden pallisade provided cover for defenders to pepper their foe with a bombardment of stones. For hundreds of years, this stronghold allowed the Silures to control the Taff-Ely Estuary and 1,000 years later the Normans recognised its importance, when they built a castle inside the fort.

            In 1894 a Roman villa was discovered on Ely Racecourse and excavations were carried out by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1922. The results showed a colonnade in front of the house, several outbuildings and a bath suite to the west. Materials for the limestone walls and red pennant roof tiles were obtained from local quarries. To ease the discomfort of a cold British winter, coal was used to heat the baths and central heating system. As the land was unsuitable for agriculture, the villa was used to manufacture iron. Coal and iron ore were obtained locally for the smelting process and there is evidence that manganese, imported from Spain, was used to improve the quality of the metal.

Apart from constructing a castle within the Iron Age fort, the Normans also built a stone church. St Mary’s is first mentioned in 1291 as part of the deanery of Newport. Built in a Gothic style with a saddle back roof, the church suffered from vandalism as early as the Reformation, when statues, murals and the Rood Loft were destroyed. A major restoration was carried out in the 1880s at a cost of £760 but its lonely position has always made the church a target for vandals. By 1957 services had ceased and the building was in a sorry, dilapidated state. A concerted effort was made by local volunteers from all church denominations to restore St Mary’s but their work has proved to be in vain. Since the 1970s the church has been a derelict ruin.

            Originally attached to the lordship of Llandaff, the manor of Caerau passed through various owners after the Reformation, including the Earl of Pembroke and the Mathew family. In 1861 its population was 131, most of whom were labourers, though the census also reveals that a shepherd, a dressmaker and a woodcutter lived there.

            Sir Edward Hill, former MP for Bristol South and managing director of Hill’s Dry Dock in Cardiff, built Caerau House in 1903. This fine building, which unfortunately no longer exists, was set in spacious grounds south of Caerau Wood and St. Mary’s Church. Its 255 acres included a farm used mainly for breeding horses. Roses and spring bulbs were planted in a wide passage through the woods, “to complete a fairyland of sheer beauty”.

            When Caerau House ceased to be a private residence, it served as living quarters for some of the staff working at the isolation hospital nearby. I n 1947 the hospital was adapted to accommodate geriatric patients and later became a hostel. Both Caerau House and the hospital no longer exist and the site is now being developed by the Treharne Housing Estate, where Barratt’s are building 40 private houses.

By 1864 racing at Ely was a regular event and the races that year were acclaimed as “the most brilliant and successful ever held”. Meetings at the racecourse brought a carnival atmosphere, as the horses were led from Ely Station to the stables at the rear of Mill Road. Jockeys, trainers, over dressed bookmakers and spectators mingled with jugglers, minstrels and other entertainers, while the police kept a watchful eye for pickpockets. In 1895 the first Welsh Grand National was held and crowds of 40,000 were not uncommon for such an event. Unfortunately, the racecourse never recovered from a fire in 1937 which destroyed the grandstand. The council decided not to renew its lease and in April 1939 the last race to be held there was won by Grasshopper, ridden by Keith Piggott, father of the famous Lester Piggott.

            The Ely Industrial School was built in 1862 as part of the Cardiff Poor Law Union. Ely Lodge, as it was known, provided education and training for 320 orphan or destitute children who were taught simple trades or prepared for a life in service. In 1908 children needing care were taken out of the workhouse atmosphere and placed in cottage homes around the city. Ely Lodge then became a hospital and in 1948 was given the responsibility of treating patients with psychiatric problems. In 1967 there was a scandal, when the Howe Report severely criticised the conditions and care for patients. The report led to more resources becoming available but, as the number of patients declined, the hospital closed in 1999.

            Among the industries of Caerau were two brickworks giving employment to hundreds of people. Their raw material was the red marl clay from nearby pits. The West End works, not far from St Mary’s Church, closed soon after World War Two but the Highland Park factory nearby was still manufacturing more than 300,000 bricks a week shortly before its closure in 1970.

The opening of a servicing depot by the Western Welsh Omnibus Company along Cowbridge Road in 1931 was welcomed at a time of high unemployment. A huge workshop, 300 yards long and 120 yards wide, had space for coachbuilders, fitters, stores, a paint shop and machine shops. It was a major blow when the company moved to Chepstow in 1981 and a supermarket now occupies the site.

In 1939 the Air Ministry purchased 31 acres of land in Caerau Lane to service 24 barrage balloons for the defence of Cardiff. They were sent to various parts of the city to be deployed as a deterrent against low flying aircraft. It was not unknown for these monsters to run amok and on one occasion a balloon fell to earth in flames, when it was struck by lightning over Cardiff castle. Ely Racecourse became a site not only for balloons but also for anti-aircraft guns and a rocket battery.

            Not until 1939 were plans put forward to build a major housing estate in Caerau, though patches of development were appearing around Cowbridge Road and Caerau Square. When the war ended, prefabricated houses were erected as an emergency measure to combat the postwar housing shortage and, within a few years, work began on a large housing estate which eventually reached almost to St Mary’s Church. Homes and schools sprang up where horses’ hooves had once thundered on the old racecourse, though enough of it was preserved to become Trelai Park, the largest complex of playing fields in Cardiff.




Further Reading:


Billingham N. & Jones S.K. Ely, Caerau and Michaelston-super-Ely (Chalford Publishing Comlany1996)