A Process of Gradual Change


Until the latter years of the eighteenth century, a mediaeval visitor would have been surprised how little Cardiffhad changed since the Middle Ages. Only as the century drew towards its close, were there signs that a new era was beginning to emerge, both in the town and in the surrounding countryside.

At the end of the sixteenth century, a number of improvements had been made to CardiffCastleby Henry Herbert, the Second Earl of Pembroke. The HerbertTower, approximately the same size as the BeauchampTower but more square, was erected at this time. In addition, a new wing was joined to the northern end of the domestic apartments which the Earl of Warwick had built 150 years earlier.

In view of the goodwill shown by Philip Herbert towards the Parliamentary cause, the castle was spared the ravages of deliberate slighting and destruction after the Civil War. When he died, barely a year after the Battle of St. Fagans, Herbert's son, also named Philip, displayed little interest in his Welsh inheritance. He took up residence at Wilton House and allowed CardiffCastleto fall into a decline which was not halted until the Butefamily inherited the estate in 1766.

The First Marquess intended to make the castle into a residence for his son who died at the age of 27 in 1794. After his sad bereavement, the Marquess saw little point in restoring the castle, and work virtually came to a halt. However, before reaching this conclusion, the beautiful trees and lawns of the Castle Green and Bute Park had been landscaped by the famous gardener and architect, "Capability' Brown. Unfortunately, in carrying out this landscaping, the Knights' Lodgings, the Shire Hall, and the mediaeval wall which linked the keep to the BlackTower, were all demolished. The task of making alterations to the residential accommodation was given to Brown's son-in-law, Henry Holland. He divided the mediaeval Great Hall into an entrance hall, a library and a dining room, while the bedrooms above it were all modernised. A more grandiose idea to convert the keep into a ballroom, complete with a copper roof, was never developed.


The gates and walls of Cardiffwere left undisturbed until 1781, when the East and West Gates were dismantled to ease traffic congestion. At the East Gate, the arches stood for some time afterwards and were known locally as "The Pillars', a name which lives on at a restaurant nearby. Within the next five years the North Gate and Blount's Gate were also demolished. The South Gate remained intact until 1802, when the parishioners of St. Mary's requested the construction of a new road across the moors to Penarth. So, in an interval of twenty years, all the ancient mediaeval gates vanished and no-one seems to have mourned their passing, or made any effort to preserve them. The destruction of the town walls continued throughout the nineteenth century and stones which had seen so much history were reduced to rubble.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the failure to remove sediment from the Taff was causing serious problems to shipping. At low tide the river channel was just a series of mud banks and access was denied to all vessels. Smaller craft were able to approach the quay at high tide, but larger ships were forced to berth on the mudflats in the harbour. Consequently, there was a substantial loss of revenue in customs and tolls which compelled the Corporation to appoint water-bailiffs in 1762. Their duties were to collect and levy charges for the repair and maintenance of the quay.

As a result of their endeavours, the quay remained in service until the nineteenth century. Two vessels of 60 tons, the Cardiff Castle and the Merthyr Trader, regularly sailed to the Welsh Back at Bristol. However, despite Cardiff's status as a head port, the registered tonnage of shipping in 1796 reveals that its volume of trade was lagging behind Swansea, Llanelli and the Pembrokeshire ports. The reason for increased maritime activity in West Wales arose from the metal and mining industries developing around Swansea.

Likewise, when the iron industry of Merthyr Tydfil began to gather momentum, Cardiff shared in its prosperity. During the wars of the American and French Revolutions, cannon were shipped from the Golate, as a plaque nearby reminds us. Alongside the wharf, the guns were bored and tested before loading. Another quay for iron goods was established outside the South Gate, and the route of the GlamorganshireCanal was directed to give easy access to all these busy wharves along the river bank.

One far-sighted visitor to South Wales at this time was the antiquarian, B.H. Malkin. He saw the potential of the future Port of Cardiffwhen he wrote in 1803, "it is difficult to ascribe a limit to the commercial capabilities of this place'. Malkin prophesied that there was sufficient space in the harbour for hundreds of ships, carrying exports to every part of the world.

The bridge over the Taff, shown on Speed's plan, had been damaged during the Civil War. It was rebuilt in 1671, but not apparently with great success and thirty years later the Corporation was petitioning Parliament for permission to construct a new bridge. Consent was withheld and somehow, with constant repairs and underpinning, the structure was able to survive for most of the eighteenth century.

Despite the erection of defensive walls to withstand the sea, the people of Cardiffwere still at the mercy of serious flooding, especially during the spring tides. On 2 April 1792, heavy rain and flood-water caused the first pier of the bridge to collapse on the Cantonside. The result was a grave disruption of traffic, including the diversion of the mail coach through Llandaff.

The justices at the Quarter Sessions sanctioned the building of a new bridge at a cost of £3000, less £300 for the materials of the old bridge. The work was completed in 1796 on the site of the present CardiffBridge, the approach through the West Gate being replaced by a route which crossed the yard of the Cardiff Arms Hotel. This bridge was severely damaged during a flood of 1827, but continued to be used until the existing CardiffBridgewas completed in 1859. Twice, in 1877 and 1931, it has been widened to cope with an increase in traffic, and so far it has stood the test of time.

 The mediaeval Town Hall had also fallen into a dilapidated condition and in 1741 the Corporation decided to demolish it. Surprisingly, in view of the traffic congestion in High Street, it was rebuilt on the same location and wealthy citizens were invited to contribute to the costs of rebuilding. The work was not completed until 1747 which suggests that donations were only made with some reluctance.

Unlike the first Town Hall, there are several prints of the Georgian building, one of which has been reproduced as a beautiful mural in the Golden Cross public house. It portrays a structure similar in design and purpose to the earlier Town Hall, with a flight of steps, flanked with attractive wrought iron railings, leading to the assembly room on the upper floor. The market and prison below were joined at the southern end by a shop and the Shoulder of Mutton Inn. In less than fifty years there were complaints that the building was both inconveniently placed and lapsing into decay, but not until 1853 was the Town Hall moved from its historic site in the middle of High Street.

The guilds succeeded in preserving their privileges for a surprisingly long period of time but a changing mood, opposing all restrictions on trade, was curtailing their influence by the early nineteenth century. When 100 persons were summoned in 1810 for ignoring the edict that only freemen of the borough could practise a trade, only 11 of them were fined. The ruinous condition of the Cordwainers' Hall in Shoemaker Street emphasised the decline of the guild. The hall was leased to John Wood in 1798 and, though the Cordwainers continued to meet for a few more years, he was able to purchase this valuable property  outright in 1806 for a mere £28.

As St. John's became Cardiff's principal church, its proper maintenance became a matter of pride to the townspeople. The council provided money, not only for repairs, but also for numerous other improvements, including a new organ, new bells and the refurbishment of the churchyard.

The Georgian era saw the advance of Nonconformity in Cardiff and John Bird refers to a Presbyterian meeting house in his directory for 1796. This chapel in Womanby Street was built in 1696 on land donated by a Cardiff alderman, John Archer. John Wesley first journeyed to Cardiff in 1740, and two years later the Society of Methodists was formed, bringing "a haven of peace and rest to the town'. John and his brother, Charles, became regular visitors to the town, preaching at different times from the steps of the castle keep, the Shire Hall and St. John's Church. John Wesley's final visit to the borough was made in August 1788, when he preached at the Town Hall "to the very greatest congregation'.

A mile away from Cardiff, the trials of Llandaff Cathedral continued. In 1696 the great bell toppled from its moorings, and seven years later a severe storm damaged the battlements of the Jasper Tower. Another violent storm led to a much worse disaster in 1723, when  the South-west Tower collapsed completely,  destroying 50 feet of the Nave in the process and exposing the cathedral to the elements.

The possibility of transferring the see to Cardiff was discussed, but in 1734 John Wood, the famous architect of Bath, was requested to restore the cathedral. The result, to say the least, was bizarre even after allowing for the inadequacy of available funds. Wood introduced a peculiar mixture of architectural styles,  designing a neo-classical Italian temple inside the ruins of the cathedral. Malkin summed up the effect in 1803, "as an outrageously incongruous appendage of modern finery. To whom they were indebted for the design I know not: whoever he was, he played on their unarchitectural incredulity, but altogether at the expense of his own reputation'. John Wood was able to redeem himself with his work at Bath, but the resurrection of Llandaff Cathedral was delayed for another hundred years.

In the countryside, north of Cardiff, the common land on which the townsfolk had traditionally grazed their animals was enclosed at an ever accelerating pace. The Enclosure Act of 1802 allocated land on the Little Heath and the Great Heath to the Corporation and anyone else who could establish a claim to rights on the common. The Little Heath covered most of Cathays and much of Roath to the north of Cathays Park, while the Great Heath extended towards Cefn Onn.

The number of people, who exercised their customary grazing rights, had decreased, but sometimes force was required to evict squatters. John Bird, when he was confronted by a crowd of angry women who "acted the part of Amazonians, having armed themselves with pitchforks etc.', needed the cavalry in 1799. The Enclosure Act favoured rich and powerful families such as the Butes whose interests Bird was representing on this occasion.

The Corporation emerges with little credit from its dealings in enclosed land, which was often sold to the Butes at bargain rates in repayment for relatively small debts. Some of the proceedings seem to have been of a dubious nature and it is far from clear how the Corporation disposed of the money it received. John Wood used his position as town clerk to  aid the  Bute interest and later, after resigning his office, he acquired a  substantial estate for himself on the Little Heath. Whether the Councillors were corrupt or merely inefficient will never be known, but the transactions underlined the need for municipal reform which duly took place in 1835.


There were numerous hazards to health in eighteenth century Cardiff. The fate of poor Christine Lewis, who was drowned in 1750 when she fell into a privy, only serves to emphasise the primitive sanitary arrangements of the town. Frequently there were complaints about the accumulation of dunghills and rubbish tips at the South Gate, the Tennis Courts and even near the Cross in St. Mary Street. A strip of land was provided outside the North Gate for the disposal of household waste and refuse but not everyone was prepared to use it. Stray animals, especially pigs, were a nuisance as their owners allowed them to scavenge among the rubbish and attempts to fine the culprits met with only limited success.

In an effort to improve sanitation and hygiene, a private Act of Parliament was passed in 1774, "for the paving, cleansing and lighting of the streets of Cardiff'. Special commissioners were given the responsibility for enforcing the act. The main roads were resurfaced and repaved so that Francis Grose, travelling through Cardiff in 1775, found, "a neat, pleasant town, just now paved according to the London fashion'.

 were lit. Oil lamps were used initially but the site of the gasworks, which introduced gas lighting to Cardiff in 1821, is remembered in a plaque at St. David's Hall. On 20 November 1828 the contractor was excused from his duty of lighting the streets, so that he could supply gas to Charles Green for a balloon flight from Cardiff. Sadly, while the balloon was later recovered in Somerset, Mr. Green lost his life over the Bristol Channel.

The Improvement Act specified that residents should play their part in cleansing the town. Projecting water-spouts and signs were to be removed, pavements were to be swept, and refuse was to be taken to the scavenger's cart when he sounded his bell. Action was to be taken against burgesses who deposited ashes and dunghills in the street, or allowed their pigs to wander. Unfortunately these sensible measures were not easily enforced, and repetitive exhortations to heed the regulations clearly indicate that people were failing to co-operate. Incidents of vandalism and hooliganism show a contempt for the law. Street lamps were often broken and, when 5 special constables were appointed in 1819 to uphold order, their hut was destroyed.

The town markets too had become a hazard to health. They were now so dispersed that the cattle market was in  Crockerton, the  pig market was near the Golate, while the corn and meat markets were at the Town Hall. The Shambles had become a disgrace as fragile temporary stalls frequently collapsed and the meat fell in the dirt. A covered purpose-built market was eventually erected in 1835 on gardens alongside the County Gaol. Access was provided from St. Mary Streetand through the Old Arcade in Church Street. The Town Hall continued to serve as a corn and grain market until its demolition in 1861.

Georgian Cardiff differed very little from other places of a comparable size in Wales. Its shops stocked a reasonable range of merchandise which was supplemented by regular visits from the "Scotchmen' or pedlars. In 1803 Malkin reflected that Cardiff was "a neat and agreeable place', but he added, "if the rest of Wales was similar to its towns, there would be very slight attraction to induce the visit of a stranger'.