The Civic Centre and the City of Cardiff


Cathays 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 view.

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 Museum.

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 lost.

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, Swansea and 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.


In 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 Centre.

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  of Cardiff. 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.