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  LLANISHEN

 

Population: 15,550

 

Llanishen is named after St Isan who founded a Christian community in the sixth century, where the Oval in Llandennis Road is now situated. According to tradition, he established a wattle and daub church at this site, where the spring and the burial mound used by the monks is still visible. In 1993 the Llanishen Historical Society planted a tree to mark the settlement.

                After the Norman Conquest, the Augustinian abbey of Keynsham was awarded land in Llanishen as part of its estates in and around Cardiff. Another beneficiary was Tewkesbury Abbey, the favourite ecclesiastical endowment of Robert Fitzhamon. He allowed the abbey to establish St Mary’s Church and Priory in Cardiff and the church in Llanishen was built as one of its outlying chapels. It served worshippers in the tiny hamlet but it was Tewkesbury Abbey that reaped most of the benefit from its tithes.

The Normans built the present St Isan’s Church which probably dates from the middle of the 12th century. It was described in 1860 as, “a neat little structure in the English style of architecture with a whitewashed interior and a fine pointed chancel arch”. In 1872 the capacity of the church was enlarged and most of its stained glass dates from this time.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, St Isan’s became the parish church of Llanishen. The monastic property was distributed among a number of the leading local gentry, including the Kemys family of Cefn Mably and Edward Lewis of the Van near Caerphilly. The original home of the Lewis’s was near the church at Llanishen House but in the 18th century they moved to New House, a splendid mansion on Thornhill which is now an hotel. The Lewis family were to exercise a benevolent influence on the village. Among their charitable works were the building and maintainance of the alms houses which for many years stood opposite the church.

The famous Cromwell family also has a local connection. Richard Williams, who was born in Llanishen, was the nephew of Thomas Cromwell. His influence as Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII enabled Richard to prosper. About 1536 Richard changed his name to Cromwell and soon afterwards he was appointed South Wales Commissioner for the Suppression of the Monasteries. He was knighted and granted church lands in Huntingdonshire which he exchanged for lands in Neath and other parts of Glamorgan. The legal documents refer to him as, “Richard Williams, alias Cromwell”. He became MP for Huntingdon and his grandson was Oliver Cromwell.

When the Rhymney Railway built its direct line to Cardiff in 1872 by tunnelling through Caerphilly Mountain, it passed through Llanishen and many of the navvies lived in huts along the line. The construction of this link was not without its tragedies, as several of the workers were killed and lie buried in Llanishen churchyard.

Many of the farms at that time bore names still familiar in the district, such as Fidlas, Ty-Glas, Llanishen Fach and Heol Hir. There were only a few roads leading to the village, where the most important buildings, apart from the church, were the Church Inn, the blacksmith’s forge and the little National school which had opened in 1867. This school was built on land donated by the Marquis of Bute and served the community for a hundred years. It has now been converted into the church hall.

At the rear of Fidlas Farm were Llanishen and Lisvane reservoirs. A severe drought in 1887 had reduced Cardiff’s water supply to only 14 days and the 60 acres of water at Llanishen was completed just in time to avoid a crisis Even though much larger reservoirs were later built in the Brecon Beacons, Llanishen and Lisvane remained an important source of water for many years. They also became popular, both for their pleasant environment and as a venue for water sports. When the American owners of the reservoir, Western Power Distribution, recently released plans to build luxury homes on the site, it was not surprising that local people should be horrified at proposals to change a site of considerable beauty.

The large, solidly built houses in Station Road began to appear in the 1880s. Just before World War One, Lt.-Colonel Frank Gaskell, whose father was chairman of Hancock’s Brewery, lived at Boscobel near the modern police station. He was an officer in the Boer War and then practised as a barrister till the outbreak of war in 1914. He served with the Welsh Regiment and, after being shot in the jaw, he was invalided home. He played a leading role in raising the 16th Cardiff City Battalion before returning to active service, only to break his leg in a riding accident. Once more this brave man returned to the conflict and on 16 May 1916 he was mortally wounded, when an enemy bullet struck his ammunition pouch. He was buried at Merville Cemetery and memorials, both at St Isan’s Church and St John’s in the centre of Cardiff, honour his courage.

T.H. Ensor, who also lived in Station Road, is remembered for a different reason. In a letter to the Western Mail, Ensor made many scurrilous remarks about John Batchelor, a former Mayor of Cardiff who died in 1883. Among his more charitable comments were: “Traitor to the Crown … sincerely mourned by unpaid creditors … a demagogue and a pauper”. Batchelor’s friends sued Ensor and the editor of the Western Mail for libel. The case became famous in legal history, as both were acquitted on the grounds that, “the dead have no rights and suffer no wrongs”. 

Bishop Hedley lived at the house now occupied by the Court School, where his private chapel can still be seen. An ardent believer in education, he did much to promote Catholic schools in Cardiff but is remembered primarily for his part in the opening of Catholic halls of residence at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

In 1910 Fidlas Road was narrower than it is today and its houses had large front gardens. These have since become much reduced as this busy road has been widened. Near the viaduct, the tiny Bridge Cottage is 300 years old and measures no more than 24 feet by 18, though it has a large garden hidden from the road. The friendly ghosts of a red-haired girl and a white horse supposedly haunt the building.

When Llanishen became a suburb of Cardiff in 1922, it was several years before it lost its village atmosphere. There had never been much industry in the district apart from the Llanishen Brick Works. In 1890 the factory was producing 100,000 bricks a week, in addition to terracotta goods which were said to be very artistic. By 1900 the works had disappeared to make way for the construction of Llandennis Road and the Oval.

The first major industrial site in Llanishen was built in 1939, when a site of 47 acres was chosen in Caerphilly Road as a Royal Ordnance factory. Manufacturing began a year later and, during the war, ROF Llanishen produced anti-aircraft guns, pontoon couplings and aircraft cannon. Priority was given to tank and anti-tank guns and in a single month in 1944, the works produced 1,784 tank guns, a record for any factory in the British Empire. The works suffered a tragic incident on 27 March 1943, when a shell from one of the anti-aircraft batteries exploded and killed nine people.

After World War Two, the factory turned to civilian activities for a time before resuming armaments production. It entered its most contentious period when it became the Atomic Weapons Establishment and attracted the attention of the CND movement. There was a scare in 1993 when someone hurled a suitcase, later detonated by a controlled explosion, at the security gates. The position of such a high risk plant in a suburban area contributed to its closure. The site has now been levelled and decontaminated in readiness for a new and more peaceful purpose.

In the last half century Llanishen has experienced radical change. Ty-Glas Road and Ty-Glas Avenue have become a dividing line between housing and commercial development. South of that line, apart from a small housing estate around Fishguard Road, the area has been used to build the Inland Revenue Offices, a number of superstores and the Ty-Glas Industrial Estate and Business Park. North of Ty-Glas Road, a massive building programme of private and council houses has been undertaken. This surge of modern housing began in the 1950s and, despite plans to use former industrial sites such as that of the Phoenix Brickworks, it has continued through the greenery of Thornhill almost to Caerphilly Mountain. As a result, open spaces in Llanishen, other than the reservoirs, are now at a premium.

 

Further Reading:

 

Horton G. Llanishen from Village to Suburb (Llanishen Local History Society 1999)