The Civic Centre and the City of Cardiff
Park was a large, desirable open space where important occasions, such as the
Bath and West show in 1858, were sometimes staged with the Marquess's
permission. The most spectacular event ever to be held in the park was the Cardiff Fine Arts, Industrial and Maritime
Exhibition, which opened on 2 May 1896. During the next six months it was
visited by a million people, among them the Prince of Wales. Financially the
event was not a success but it did advertise Cardiff to the world. Apart from
the demonstrations of electricity and machines, the exhibition seems to have
preceded the idea of theme parks. The Siege and Battle of Santiago were
dramatically presented, as the adversaries fought the conflict out on an
artificial lake and canal. Among the other themes were a working coal mine and
a gold mine; a panorama of the Battle of Waterloo; and, most astonishing of
all, an African jungle with lions, monkeys, crocodiles, even Zulus. The South
Wales Daily News hailed the exhibition as, "the greatest undertaking
of the kind ever attempted in the Principality or the West of England'.
The exhibition was the last major
event to be held in Cathays Park before the Council began to seek a suitable
site for its new Civic Centre. The Town Hall in St. Mary Street, built less than
fifty years earlier, was no longer adequate for the extra responsibilities
imposed on local government. The judges were equally critical of the crowded
conditions at the Law Courts, while both the Museum and the University required
more spacious premises.
In 1892 the Council explored the
possibility of purchasing Cathays Park for public development. Bute's agent,
W.T. Lewis, indicated that the Marquess was favourably disposed to the idea,
but within the Corporation the anti-Bute faction expressed strong reservations.
They argued that the site was too large and the cost too great, while the
ratepayers of St. Mary Street were reluctant to see the Town Hall removed from
its traditional locality.
In the "Battle of the Sites'
which now followed, other proposals were put forward. Temperance Town was
advocated by those favouring the clearance of this ugly eyesore. Lascelles Carr
urged that the Civic Centre should be built near the river and suggested the
Arms Park as a suitable site. The Marquess, however, had no doubts that Cathays
Park was the ideal setting for a civic centre and many councillors shared this
The Corporation acquired 59 acres
in Cathays Park at a cost of £161,000. Bute, who acted from the best of motives
throughout the negotiations, stipulated that the avenue of trees was to be
preserved and only public buildings were to be erected in the park. The Council
had paid a fair price in giving Cardiff its opportunity to build a civic centre
that would be the envy of every city and town in Britain. There were sour
grapes from Lascelles Carr, who maintained that the Council was being held to
ransom since Bute had blocked every alternative to Cathays Park. His comments
were unfair, as the Corporation had the power to purchase any site it wished through
a compulsory purchase order.
In December 1898 the park was
opened to the public and soon the plots were marked out for the Town hall, the
Law Courts and a Technical College. The positioning of roads and buildings was
largely decided by the conditions Bute had imposed. A four-line avenue of elm
trees, since regrettably the victims of Dutch Elm Disease, determined the
course of King Edward VII Avenue
and, to achieve a balance, another road was charted between the Town Hall and
The most unsatisfactory feature of
the Civic Centre lay in its approach from the town. The buildings were not
easily visible from the main road through Cardiff and the ideal solution would
have been an open space north of Queen Street. The chance to build a broad highway
from Queen street to the Civic Centre presented itself in 1899, when the Empire
was burnt down and Stoll was prepared to sell the site for £20,000. The
Ratepayers' Association opposed the offer and a marvellous opportunity was
The Third Marquess did not live to
lay the foundation stone of the Town Hall in 1901. This task was performed by
his son and, when he returned for the formal opening in 1906, the building was
not to be a Town Hall. Petitions in 1897 and 1902, requesting city status for
Cardiff, had been rejected, but in 1905 this recognition was conferred by the
King as an acknowledgement of Cardiff's eminent position in Wales.
The architects, who designed the
City Hall, were the London firm of Lancaster, Stewart and Rickards. The
construction of most of the early buildings in Cathays Park was entrusted to
Ephraim Turner and Sons. The company was responsible for many fine buildings in
Cardiff, among them the Exchange, the Central Library and the Post Office in
Westgate Street. But the Civic Centre was to be its supreme achievement. The
people of Cardiff became accustomed to the sight of noble shire horses,
clumping through the streets from the docks, dragging blocks of Portland stone
weighing from 12 to 15 tons. At the site, the huge blocks were carved into
smaller units with a diamond stone saw, and gradually the 500 craftsmen and
labourers erected the stately, handsome structure.
Designed on classical lines, the
Dome of the City Hall, surmounted with the Dragon of Wales, was in perfect
harmony with the Clock Tower which became a landmark for miles around. The
interior was equally impressive. Lunch at the official opening was held in the
Assembly Hall where, in years to come, distinguished visitors from many
countries would be welcomed to Cardiff. Beneath the Dome was the circular
Council Chamber, which proudly displayed the city's new coat-of-arms above the
seat of the Lord Mayor. The dignified Marble Hall appeared somewhat stark for a
time, until Lord Rhondda donated £15,000 to pay for the erection of several
fine statues, dedicated to the greatest men in Welsh history. The Western
Mail organised a competition to choose the subjects and, when Lloyd George
unveiled the statues in 1916, the selection of personalities varied from Dewi
Sant to General Picton.
Perhaps deliberately, the Law
Courts has a graver, sterner appearance than the City Hall. The two pavilions
at the end of each building were intended to enhance their unison, and
collectively their sculpture reflects four themes: science and education;
commerce and industry; poetry and music; Welsh unity and patriotism. It is a
nostalgic thought that the Turner company was able to construct both these
magnificent buildings at a total cost of £226,000.
While they enjoyed considerable
autonomy, the colleges of Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor were all affiliated
to the University of Wales. The University needed an administrative centre and
in 1901 its registry was the first building to open in Cathays Park. With an
eye to the future, the Corporation offered the University a free site and
£6,000 towards its building costs. The Registry is an attractive two-storey
structure, its most important room being the fireproof basement where all
University records are kept.
When they visited Cardiff in 1907,
the King and Queen inspected the new buildings and His Majesty officially
opened King Edward VII Avenue.
Unfortunately, the gold scissors handed to the King would not cut the tape and
an embarrassing moment was only averted when Lord Bute produced his pocket knife.
The public was able to share a moment of pleasure with its Lord Mayor, William
Smith Crossman, who was knighted in front of the City Hall during the ceremony.
University College had outgrown its
premises in Newport Road and the government granted £20,000 towards a new site
on condition its offer was matched locally. In fact, over £50,000 was raised in
Cardiff. The Corporation, apart from a contribution of £5,000, donated a plot
in Cathays Park, together with a further 5 acres of land for future expansion.
The College moved to its new location in 1909, retaining the former premises in
Newport Road, first as a School of Medicine, and later as the Engineering
Department of the University.
An act of 1889 allowed the
Corporation to levy a 1d rate towards technical instruction. The demand
for such training grew so rapidly that the premises at the Central Library soon
became inadequate and, since the University organised several courses of this
type, the Technical Education Committee sought its assistance. In 1894 the
Technical School was situated in Dumfries Place, but 9 other centres were
required for its 2,700 students by 1907. The construction of the Technical
College in Cathays Park began in 1914 and it was the only building in the Civic
Centre to be completed during the war. Twenty years later the college was
offering commercial, scientific and technical courses to more than 800
full-time and 8,500 part-time students.
The Glamorgan County Council,
formed after the County Councils Act of 1888, was another body functioning with
difficulty in scattered, crowded offices. In looking for a suitable centre of
administration, the Council considered a site in Bridgend, but sensibly chose
to build in Cathays Park. The result was another dignified building which was
occupied in 1912. Its fine Corinthian columns and impressive statuary reflect
the themes of mining and the sea, the sources of wealth for Glamorgan and
Cardiff. Later the County Hall became the headquarters of the Mid-Glamorgan
Council but it has recently been purchased by the University of Wales Cardiff.
At the Central Library, many excellent works of art,
geology, and natural history were
accumulated in forming the basis of the CardiffMuseum.
In 1900 the collection of specimens and
pictures was re-named "The Welsh
Museum of Natural History, Art and Antiquities'. Four years later,
a delegation canvassed state aid for a
National Library and a National Museum
of Wales. The Library was established at Aberystwyth, but Cardiff,
Caernarfon all presented a claim to be the home of the museum. Once more the deciding factor was
almost certainly the Corporation's offer
of a free site in CathaysPark. The foundation
stone was laid in 1912 but, as building
work was suspended in the Great War, another
fifteen years elapsed before George V returned to open the museum.
1863 Duncan and Ward's Directory for Cardiff observed, "It is perhaps too much to expect that
great architectural beauty will be
realised in the town, for the simple reason that public spirit and enterprise are not adequate to the
realisation of so desirable an object'.
Fifty years later such a criticism would have been unjustified, and in the decades to come more buildings of
aesthetic beauty were added to the Civic
Cathays Park soon became a favourite
place on Sunday afternoon, either to
take a stroll or listen to the band. Statues
and monuments completed an environment which was gracious and elegant. Before 1914 a memorial to the dead of the
Boer War was erected between the City
Hall and the Law Courts, a prophecy of the greater conflict to come. The most imposing of the Edwardian
statues is that of Viscount Tredegar and
his horse, Sir Briggs, who carried him unscathed through the Charge of the Light Brigade. Lord
Tredegar, one of Tennyson's gallant
"Six Hundred', was the guest of honour when the statue was unveiled in 1907.
In the FriaryGardens, the statue of
the Third Marquess is a fitting memorial
to the role he played in the development
He died in 1900 at the age of 53 and his heart was buried in the Holy Landas he had wished. After his death the family links with the city were never to be so strong again.
The Butes may have aroused antagonism in
many quarters, and it is true that they prospered from their industrial empire in Wales. Yet both
the Second and the Third Marquess had
been true "City Fathers' who had seen Cardiff leap from a small Victorian town to a great city.