Cathays Park is world famous as the site of Cardiff’s
splendid civic centre but the origin of the name is somewhat unclear. “Hays”
signifies hedges or woodland and one possibility is that the district was once
inhabited by wild cats. However, from the Welsh word “cad”, meaning a battle,
it is possible that an unknown conflict was fought in Cathays.
The northern limit of mediaeval
Cardiff was marked by the cross where Fairoak Road and Crwys Road now meet. At
that time Cathays Grange, probably granted by William Doggevel of Roath to
Margam Abbey, was the most important building in the area and until 1899 its
thatched, stone farmhouse and barn stood near Cathays Terrace.
In 1766 the first Marquis of
Bute inherited lands in Cathays through his marriage to Charlotte Windsor. He
later purchased other properties in the district including Cathays Park, the
cornerstone of his estate in Cardiff. Cathays House, which he built at a cost
of £40,000, was expensively landscaped, furnished and decorated. It was
demolished by the Second Marquis in 1815 who preferred to use the castle as his
Cardiff residence. He turned Cathays Park into an enclosed parkland.
Following a critical public
health report, the Cardiff Corporation established a new cemetery in Cathays.
It was opened in 1859 and extended in 1887. E.T. Willows, a pioneer in
aviation, and Jim Driscoll, the famous boxer whose funeral in 1925 attacted 100,000
mourners, are among those buried at Cathays. A poignant memorial was unveiled
in the cemetery on the 50th anniversary of VE Day as a tribute to those who
died in the Cardiff Blitz, many of them buried in a mass grave.
Apart from the cemetery, Cathays was almost entirely
rural when it became a suburb of Cardiff in 1875. To the south lay the Bute
Estate, while to the north were a number of scattered farms. There were just a
few streets leading off Woodville Road and Cathays Terrace but during the next
25 years the urbanisation of Cathays was virtually completed. Only Allensbank
and Wedal farms were still under cultivation and by 1914 they also became no
more than local placenames.
A crucial moment in the history of Cardiff
occurred in 1898, when the Third Marquis of Bute sold 59 acres of land in
Cathays Park to the council for the building of a new town hall. He imposed
strict conditions regarding the development of the site. The avenues of trees
were to be preserved, there were to be no commercial buildings and the area was
to be exclusively retained for civic, cultural and educational purposes. The
result of Bute's foresight was one of the finest civic centres in the world,
the envy of every other city in Britain.
Cardiff became a city in 1905, just
as the new council headquarters was being completed. The City Hall is an
architectural gem, erected at a cost of only £129,000, and over the years other
fine buildings were to make their bow. University College moved from Newport
Road to Cathays Park in 1909 and the expanding needs of the University have led
to further developments since that time. The attraction of this beautiful
setting led to the establishment of the National Museum of Wales to,
"teach the world about Wales and the Welsh people about their
fatherland". The Welsh National War Memorial was unveiled in 1928 and the
scene around this cenotaph is deeply moving when crowds gather on Remembrance
Sunday. The largest building in Cathays Park, though not the most elegant, is
the Welsh Office. When local councils were invited to choose a capital for
Wales in 1954, the choice was overwhelmingly in favour of Cardiff, almost
certainly because its civic centre reflected so many aspects of Welsh life.
As a devout Catholic, the Third Marquis contributed
generously towards the building of Nazareth House which was opened in 1875 to
provide acommodation for 65 orphan girls and 46 impoverished elderly people.
The home was a popular local charity and one of its most generous benefactors was
Jim Driscoll. In a memorable act of unselfishness, he rejected the chance to
fight for the Featherweight Championship of the World in New York because he
had promised to return home for a charity event at Nazareth House.
When Maindy Barracks was opened in 1871, few could have
foreseen the turbulent events of the 20th century in which the barracks would
take part. Troops of the Welsh Regiment marched out from Maindy to fight the
Boers in 1899 and in August 1914 the barracks was inundated with a flood of volunteers,
responding to Kitchener’s call to arms. Gladstone School was just one of
several emergency recruiting stations hastily opened to deal with the rush.
A hero of World War One was Sergeant-major Frank
Barter who lived at 60 Daniel Street. He won the Victoria Cross for his
“conspicuous bravery” at Festubert in 1915, when he attacked a German position
with eight volunteers, capturing 100 prisoners and 500 yards of enemy trenches.
He was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Cathays and later in the war was
awarded the Military Cross for further acts of courage.
In World War Two, American
GIs were transferred to Maindy Barracks, pursued by prostitutes from Liverpool
who comandeered an area near the former Maindy Pool. The footpath between
Gelligaer Street and New Zealand Road soon became known as the “BURMA Road” (Be
undressed and ready my angel). Local residents were appalled at scenes of
debauchery in ramshackle huts or open ground but protests to the Chief
Constable proved futile. The Americans were responsible for the discipline of
their troops and usually turned a blind eye to these escapades.
Maindy Pool was an old clay pit that had
gradually filled with water and it claimed several lives before a petition to
fill in the “bottomless pit” was heeded. It took eight years of tipping to
complete this process, during which one lorry sank and its driver was drowned.
Plans to develop the site were delayed by World War Two but in 1948 the
building of Maindy Stadium began. It was to stage events in baseball, athletics
and boxing but it is best remembered for its role as a cycle track in the
Empire Games of 1958. When the stadium was closed and replaced with a leisure
complex, part of the site rather ironically became a swimming pool.
Most of the housing in Cathays is indistinguishable
from similar suburbs in Cardiff but an exception is the elegant St Anne’s
Square at the northern end of Cathays Park. These splendid houses, set in
private grounds, are among the most desirable in Cardiff. Despite the rapid
urbanisation of Cathays, extensive parkland exists around the civic centre. The
Gorsedd Gardens, Queen Alexandra Gardens, Bute Park and Blackweir offer an
oasis from traffic in a busy city centre.
E.L. Cardiff’s Civic Centre (Priory
Lee B. Cathays,
Maindy, Gabalfa and Mynachdy (Chalford Publishing Company 1998)