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HEATH

 

Population: 11,610

 

Until the 18th century the Heath was a large area of common land to the north of Cardiff. The Little Heath covered much of Cathays and Roath while Mynydd Bychan,  the Great Heath, extended as far as Llanishen and Rhiwbina. Successive charters gave the burgesses of Cardiff the right to graze their animals or cut turf for fuel in this open countryside.

            By the 17th century, as fewer people were exercising this privilege, undrained hollows became swamps, the number of trees proliferated and the Heath assumed a wild, desolate appearance. Despite efforts by the Cardiff Corporation to guard its traditional rights, smallholders, squatters and landowners began to fence off parcels of land for their own use. The extent of such intrusions is revealed by the complaint against Thomas Lewis of Llanishen in 1666, following his enclosure of 60 acres of land.

In the 1760s, part of the Great Heath became a racecourse with its starting point in the vicinity of 45-51 Heath Park Avenue. The circuit was two miles in length and the earliest races were usually individual contests. On 2 September 1765 Captain Mathew from Llandaff won £40 when his horse outpaced that of Lewis Morgan from Whitchurch. Within a few years the corporation and the Marquis of Bute were contributing prize money for the Cardiff Races. When the Great Heath was enclosed in the early 19th century, the council retained the racecourse as a part of its allocation, even though racing at the Heath was beginning to lose its appeal. A newspaper report of 1825 comments: “It is strange that in Glamorgan this noble sport should of late years have fallen off in the manner that it has done”. Formal meetings ended in 1849, when the course was sold to Wyndham Lewis for £3,100.

The Heath Enclosure Act of 1802 followed a request from the Cardiff Corporation to sell some of its common land to raise revenue. Half was awarded to the council while a sizeable amount went to freeholders who had a claim to rights of pasture. Most of them were rich, powerful families such as the Butes and the Lewis’s. The rest of the Great Heath was sold by auction and, in return for cancelling a number of fairly small debts, the corporation transferred a proportion of their land to the Marquis of Bute at a bargain price. The Marquis was aided by John Wood, the Town Clerk, who also acquired a substantial estate for himself on the Little Heath. Some of these transactions seem to have been of a dubious nature and it was never clarified how the corporation disposed of the money it received.

            Squatters, who had fenced off small plots of the Heath for themselves, faced eviction and did not always leave quietly. John Bird, secretary to the Marquis, met resistance when he and the Deputy Sheriff tried to expel squatters in June 1799. He refers to fierce opposition from “Amazonian women”, armed with pitchforks and similar implements. Wisely Bird rode back to Town to fetch the cavalry and after a fierce battle the squatters had to accept defeat, though for a long time afterwards Bird was taunted about his skirmish with the “Amazonian women”.

             The landscape of the Heath was transformed following the Enclosure Act, as Heath Farm, Allensbank Farm and Ton-yr-Ywen Farm were created from the former rough pasture land. Much of the woodland was preserved and certain rights of way were upheld, among them the future Heathwood Road and Allensbank Road.

For more than a century, the district retained its rural aspect. The only buildings were a few cottages and Heathfield House, later known as “Heath House”. This property was built by the Rev. W. Price Lewis about 1840 and the Lewis family built up a considerable estate on the Heath through additional purchases. It was on their land that urbanisation began in the 1890s, mainly around Allensbank Road and Whitchurch Road. Other beneficiaries from enclosure, especially the Bute Estate, also leased their land for development and by the 1960s most of the Heath was an urban suburb.

Fortunately, in 1938 one area was preserved for recreational purposes when the Cardiff City Council purchased Heath House and its attractive parkland from Wyndham Clark, a descendant of the Lewis family. In 1949 the house became the headquarters of the Heath Citizens’ Association and survived until 1965, when it was destroyed by fire. Overlooked by the splendid King George V Drive, Heath Park remains one of Cardiff’s finest recreational facilities but it has served other purposes as well.

In World War Two, the War Office commandeered the park for military training and, later in the war, American forces were based there as part of the final preparations for D-Day. Before they were shipped to the docks, large numbers of vehicles were hidden under the trees from prying eyes.

Heath did not come through the war unscathed. On 18 May 1943, during the last air raid on Cardiff, a stick of bombs fell in Allensbank Road, severely damaging the Heath Hotel and a row of houses. An even worse incident occurred in St Agnes Road, when four dwelling houses were struck by a landmine. An eye witness remembered, “the huge column of black smoke rising like a leaping volcano with debris being hurled in all directions”. Seven people were killed outright by this bomb and two more died from their wounds.

After the war, some of the camp buildings on Heath Park provided accommodation for homeless families but in 1946 the site was designated as an emergency training college for teachers. Later, the Cardiff Training College offered two year courses in PE as well as Arts and Crafts. The campus continued to serve a purpose, even after the Cardiff College of Education opened in Cyncoed, and it was not closed until 1974. Sixty years on, the wartime buildings are still used, two of them by the Heath Citizen’s Association and the others by the city’s leisure and sports department. The original parade ground serves as a car park.

Another part of Heath Park was swallowed up by the University of Wales Hospital. This teaching hospital and medical school was intended to benefit South Wales generally and one reason for choosing the Heath as its site was its proximity to Eastern Avenue and Northern Avenue, both under construction at that time. The Queen officially opened the hospital in December 1971 on the same day that traffic first began using Eastern Avenue.

Bordered by Eastern Avenue, Manor Way and the railway line from Cathays Cemetery to Caerphilly Road, the modern Heath has shrunk considerably from the great expanse of its mediaeval heritage. However, Heath Park provides a breath of fresh air which makes this suburb a very pleasant place in which to live.

 

Further Reading:

 

Williams G. Life on the Heath, the Making of a Cardiff Suburb (Merton Priory Press 2001)