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