Population: 14,650


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.


Further Reading:

Chappell E.L. Cardiff’s Civic Centre (Priory Press 1946)

Lee B. Cathays, Maindy, Gabalfa and Mynachdy (Chalford Publishing Company 1998)