A tiny hamlet probably existed in Canton before the
arival of the Normans, though written evidence only emerges in the 12th
century, when the district became one of the manors owned by the Bishop of
Llandaff. Its territory stretched from Llandaff Fields to Leckwith Moors where,
until 50 years ago, Romany gypsies pitched their camp. The area was sparsely
populated but the Bishop owned a mill and a manor house which was sited west of
Canton Common, near the junction where Atlas Road and Leckwith Road now meet.
In the 16th century the Mathew family purchased the lease from the Bishop and
held the property until 1818. It was then sold to Sir Samuel Romilly who
disposed of it to William Sheward Cartwright in 1852. The parish was formally incorporated into the borough of Cardiff
in 1875. The manor house and Canton Square survived until the early 20th
century but, during the next 25 years, the landscape of Canton was largely
transformed into the suburb we know today.
The parish church of St John the Evangelist was designed
by John Prichard and J.P. Seddon, the architects responsible for the
restoration of Llandaff Cathedral. Completed in 1871, its glory lies in the
slender, elegant spire which makes it one of the most attractive churches in
Cardiff. One of its chapels is dedicated to St Canna. She was a sixth century
lady of royal blood who had a beautiful voice and wooed pagans into becoming
Christians by singing to them from a bridge at Pontcanna. Canton, or Treganna
as it is in Welsh, probably takes its name from her.
Other splendid churches and chapels in Canton represented
virtually every denomination of the Christian faith. St Mary’s Roman Catholic
Church in Kings Road is a large Gothic structure. Conway Road Methodist Church
and Capel Salem in Market Road, which the Calvinistic Methodists likened to “a
cathedral of their denomination”, are among the many fine Nonconformist
An indication of Canton’s growing commercial importance
came with the opening of the Canton Cattle Market and Slaughter House in 1859.
Fairs were held monthly and by the 1880s, stables, sheds, animal pens and a
meat market covered six acres along Market Road from Carmarthen Street to
Cowbridge Road. The Market Hotel also stood on the site until it was replaced
with the much more splendid Corporation Hotel in 1889. After Canton became a
suburb of Cardiff, the council took over the administration of the market.
There were some attractive walnut trees within its precincts and local people
tried to collect the nuts by throwing stones at the trees. Councillors decided
to stop this practice by ordering that the walnuts should be sold as soon as
they were ready for picking. Howard Spring recalled the fascination of the
slaughter house during his childhood. He was “drawn by the repulsion of its
dreadful sights and sounds and smells” and remembered a workman, “an apparition
from Hell”, who was generous enough to give the boys a pig’s bladder to play
The market has been gone for many years and so has the
Atlas Engineering Works in Atlas Terrace. Before World War One the works
constructed a range of products, varying from railway wagons to colliery plant
and screw propellors. Another major employer was William Vaughan, a local
councillor and preacher at Conway Road Methodist Church, who set up his laundry
and dry cleaning business in1860. For more than a century people from all parts
of Cardiff brought their laundry and their clothing to be cleaned and pressed
at the Llandaff Road premises.
Two of Cardiff’s most famous sons came from Canton.
Howard Spring was born at 32 Edward Street, later renamed Albert Street, in
1889. He left school at the age of 12 and completed his education by attending
night school. Howard began work as a delivery boy and then became a messenger
at the South Wales Echo before
setting out on his journalistic career. Later he found fame as a novelist. Some
of his books, such as Fame is the Spur,
based on the career of Ramsay MacDonald, and My Son, My Son, have
become classics which have been televised or made into films. One of Spring’s
works, Heaven lies about us, is a
nostalgic account of his early life and upbringing in Cardiff.
Sir William Goscombe John was another distinguished
Cardiffian who grew up in Canton. He was born at 3 Union Street, later known as
Gray Street, in 1860 and began his education at the National School in Leckwith
Road. Goscombe John was one of the greatest sculptors of his time. The statue
of St. David in the City Hall and the elegant, equestrian statue of Lord
Tredegar in the Gorsedd Gardens are superb examples of his work. Nor was his
craft restricted to Wales as he designed the splendid statue of Lord Salisbury
in Westminster Abbey and the regalia for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales
in 1911. That same year Goscombe John was deservedly knighted for his services
to Welsh culture and in 1936 he was given the freedom of Cardiff.
The National School was the sole provider of
education to the children of
Canton until 1882 . Apart from Goscombe John, Sir Charles
Melhuish, who became Lord Mayor of Cardiff, and Sir John Ballinger, who helped
to make the Cardiff Library one of the finest in Wales, can be numbered among
its pupils. Severn Road was the first board school to be opened in the district
and Howard Spring gives an entertaining account of his schooldays there.
Another of Severn’s famous pupils was Ernie Curtis who played for the Cardiff
City cup winning team of 1927. Radnor Road School can also boast an eminent
Welsh footballer, as this was where John Toshack first began to play the game
competitively. He won virtually every honour in the game with Liverpool before
going into management. Real Madrid, the greatest football club in the world,
were among those who employed him in this role.
John also attended Canton High
School in Market Road. Originally opened in 1907, the school offered splendid
opportunities to youngsters fortunate enough to qualify for a grammar school
education. Much of the building was destroyed by enemy action on 2 January 1941
and, though it was repaired after the war, the school moved to new premises at
Fairwater in 1963. The Market Road site is now the Chapter Arts Centre.
In 1885 the Cartwright family sold Ely Common and
Canton Common to the council for recreational purposes and Canton Common was to
provide a home for the Cardiff City Football Club. It was in 1899 at 1
Coldstream Terrace, the home of Bartley Wilson, that the Riverside Football
Club was formed. As the team progressed, it changed its name to Cardiff City in
1908. Two years later the club entered the ranks of the professionals and moved
to their new stadium at Ninian Park in Sloper Road. At that time the team was a
modest Southern League side but after World War One Cardiff City won promotion
to the First Division. In 1927 the club enjoyed its greatest moment when it
became the first and so far the only team to take the FA Cup out of England.
Victoria Park, on the former Ely
Common, was opened at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It
was beautifully landscaped with flower beds, a bandstand, a lake and the first
public bowling green in Cardiff. Above all, the park is remembered as the home
of Billy the seal. He was brought to Cardiff in 1912 on a fishing trawler and
the lake at Victoria Park became his home. The public, especially children,
loved him and, when food was scarce in World War One, the council decided that,
rather than have him destroyed, he should be put on half rations. Frank
Hennessy has immortalised Billy in a song which tells of his escapades in the
flood of 1927 when, according to Frank, he boarded a tram along Cowbridge Road
and called in a pub for “a half of dark”. When Billy died in 1939, it turned
out that the much loved seal was in fact a female.
Another attractive open space in Canton is
Thompson’s Park. Alongside his home at Penhill, Charles Thompson constructed
the grounds at his own expense in 1891 and gave the park to the council 20
years later. Thompson’s Park is really constructed at two levels. The upper
level is a large playing field, leading down through a woodland dell into a
park of lovely flower gardens and a pretty pool adorned with what many people
believe is Goscombe John’s finest creation. The statue he designed for the pool
was described by Howard Spring as a “gracious little boy, sleek and shining as
a seal in the water”.
Cowbridge Road has been the main
shopping centre of Canton for over a century. One shop, known throughout
Cardiff, was Franklyn’s Bakery at the corner of Gray Street. Invariably the
shop was closed by three in the afternoon as its bread and cakes for the day
were all sold. Sadly, Franklyn’s has gone but one family business which still
survives can be found near the corner of Albert Street, where Charles Pope
opened a photographic and fancy goods shop in 1925. At one time he also ran a
lending library from the shop and his son, Dennis, still carries on a
personalised photographic service for his customers.
Two popular cinemas in Canton before their closure in the
early 1960s were the Coliseum and the Canton. They changed their programmes
twice a week and their prices were cheaper than in the city centre. The
Coliseum was particularly attractive to children as the projector often broke
down and they were allowed to come back the next night to see the rest of the
In 1945 the proposal that
George Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy, should become a Labour Party candidate for
the constituency was made in Canton at a café near Ninian Park. The great
Speaker of the House of Commons retained his seat until his retirement in 1983.
He always regarded the Canton Ward as the centre of his constituency and often
spoke of his affection for its people. Like everywhere else, Canton has changed
since World War Two but the suburb is still recognisable as that created in the
Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Jones B. Canton
(Chalfont Publishing Company 1995)