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 ELY

 

Population: 16,370

 

There may have been a tiny settlement at Ely when the Romans built a road along the ancient trackway from Llandaff. After crossing the River Ely by a ford, the route continued along what is now Cowbridge Road West. In 1545 John Leland observed that the river was spanned by a stone bridge with two arches. Nearby was a small chapel, where travellers could pray and leave an offering for the maintenance of the bridge and the chapel.

After the Norman Conquest, the hamlet of Ely was granted to the manor of Llandaff, together with a fishery, a mill and later a tithe barn. The tithe barn was still in use in the 18th century, when Mill Road, little more than an alley at that time, led to the Bishop’s corn mill alongside the river at Cartwright Lane. The tiny population lived in cottages clustered around Ely Bridge and Mill Road. The highlight of their year was the annual fair on St Magdalen’s Day, 22 July, which tended to be a rowdy affair, as copious draughts of ale were drunk while watching such pastimes as bull baiting and cock fighting.

Though in a dilapidated state, Ely Bridge assumed an importance before the Battle of St Fagans in May 1648 when Colonel Horton sent a detachment to defend it, thus preventing the Royalists from advancing on Cardiff. Roads generally were in a deplorable state at that time and the Portway, as Cowbridge Road was known until the 19th century, was no exception. A complaint of 1697 records that the road at Ely was “filled with water and was a danger to the King’s subjects”. The Turnpike Trust set up in 1766 led to improvements and soon mail coaches were rattling through Ely on their way to Milford Haven. Ely Bridge was widened and strengthened in 1792 and remained in use until 1911, when the present bridge was constructed.          Ely provided Cardiff with its first supply of pure water following the cholera outbreak of 1849. The Cardiff Water Company bought the rights to the corn mill and built a pumping station to draw water from the river. It was carried by pipes to a reservoir at Penhill and from there it was distributed to the centre of Cardiff.

The opening of Ely Station in 1850 was described in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian as, “not only a focal dispatch point for livestock but also a passenger station of no mean importance used by the inhabitants of Llandaff, Whitchurch, Fairwater, Radyr, Ely and all those villages and country houses bordering on the turnpike road for six miles westwards”. Though Ely was still regarded as “a small village in the parish of Llandaff”, the railway helped to bring new industries to the area, most of which congregated around the bridge.

Among these industries were two breweries. The Ely Brewery, established in 1855 to the north-east of the bridge, used water from its artesian well, thus prompting the slogan, “Ely ales, the best in Wales”. Within 40 years, Crosswell’s Brewery, which later became the Rhymney Brewery, was established on a site opposite its rival on the other side of the railway line. In 1959 the two companies merged and the older brewery was demolished. With an outlet of 750 pubs, the future appeared bright but in 1966 the new Ely Brewery fell prey to a takeover bid from Whitbread’s. More than a century of manufacturing beer in Ely finally came to an end in April 1982 and, where two breweries once existed side by side, an industrial estate and houses now occupy the sites. Not far from the breweries, Samuel Chivers set up his factory in 1890. Famous for its vinegar, pickles and jam, Chivers’ once employed 100 people but in 1977 the firm was sold to Fieldsman Preserves and closed a few years later.

The Ely Paper Works, which opened in 1865, was sited south- east of the bridge. Its most prosperous years began after Thomas Owen bought the works in 1877 and within 20 years it was the largest producer of newsprint in Britain. As late as 1990, when Arjo Wiggins Appleton became the owners, the future appeared bright as the company switched to the manufacturing of carbonless paper. Unfortunately, demand for this product fell in the age of the computer and 460 jobs were lost when the company ceased trading in 1999. Some of those made redundant were the fourth generation to work at the mill.

Until the end of World War One, these businesses made little difference to the growth of Ely, the population of which in 1920 still numbered less than 1,000. However, in his election address of 1918, Lloyd George promised “homes fit for heroes” and all postwar governments promoted a policy of slum clearance and better housing. In 1922 Ely became a suburb of Cardiff and, following the compulsory purchase of Red House Farm and Green Farm, nearly 3,500 council houses were built within two years. The entire estate north of Cowbridge Road was virtually completed before World War Two and won approval as an example of a garden suburb with, “its gabled cottages, low housing densities and the baroque patterns of the road layouts”. The houses were built to a high standard and electric lighting was installed in every property at a time when most homes were lit by gas. Many of these dwellings were built by the firm of Bright and Addicott who began a small scale business in Ely with a capital of £400. The quality of their work was so impressive that they were soon rewarded with major contracts. Houses at Ely were in great demand and first priority was given to families living in overcrowded conditions.

When the Western Cemetery was opened at Culverhouse Cross in 1936, a corner of it was made available to the Imperial War Graves Commission. Simple, white headstones serve as a reminder of servicemen who died in two world wars. At that time, despite the intensity of the building programme in Ely, the countryside was not far away. Caerau was still undeveloped south of Cowbridge Road and St Fagans with its rural serenity lay to the north.

However, since 1945 Ely has extended its urban growth, particularly in the vicinity of Culverhouse Cross and Drope Road, where a major private housing estate has been built. The Copthorne Hotel, HTV Studios and a busy retail park have made further inroads to the green belt and have added to the traffic congestion at this western edge of Cardiff. The roundabout at Culverhouse Cross with its links to the M4, the Southern Bypass, Cowbridge and Barry, has become one of the busiest in Cardiff.

 

Further Reading:

 

Billingham N. and Jones S.K. Ely, Caerau and Michaelston-super-Ely (Chalford Publishing Company1996)

Denning R. “Long Lost Elysian Fields” in The Cardiff Book III, p.84-9 (Stewart Williams 1977)