Creating a More Healthy Town


The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which terminated the old oligarchy of self-elected councillors, seemed to be a step towards making local government responsible to the people, especially in matters of public health. Henceforth councillors were to be elected every three years by ratepayers whose annual rent was over £10. The electorate, however, was still tiny and in 1841 only 240 citizens of Cardiff had voting rights in a population of 10,000. The wishes of Lord Bute continued to prevail in local affairs, until his decision to build the docks, rather ironically, led to a decline in the family's influence in the borough. As Cardiff grew from a small town to a large urban community, a single family could no longer control its destiny and, after the death of the Second Marquess in 1848, the Butes always faced political opposition in Cardiff.

This opposition first became obvious in the fight to implement the Public Health Act of 1848. The legislation was intended to improve sanitation and living conditions in the towns, but it only allowed, and did not compel, councils to take action on questions of health. Richard Lewis Reece, the Mayor of Cardiff, was able to persuade a sufficient number of ratepayers to petition for an enquiry into the state of public health in Cardiff. The opposition was led by Edward Priest Richards who argued that the cost of fulfilling the act would double the rates. In the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian he urged ratepayers to reject the petition for "that most dangerous and insidious of centralising schemes, the Public Health Act'. His advice was rejected, and in 1849 T.W. Rammell, the Board of Health inspector, visited Cardiff and in due course published his report.


During his investigation, a cholera epidemic was claiming 383 lives, "a fearful visitation for a population not exceeding 12,000'. The statistics for infant mortality were equally horrific as a quarter of the children born in Cardiff died before their first birthday. In the years between 1842 and 1848, the annual death toll in the town was at least 3% of its population.

The squalid state of all nineteenth century towns left much to be desired, but Cardiff's expansion in population presented exceptional problems. Penniless, hungry Irishmen first arrived in Cardiff to work on the West Dock. Following the Potato Famine of 1845, a "vast influx of destitute Irish from Cork and Waterford' were attracted to the area in the hope of finding employment. Out of desperation they were prepared to toil for lower wages and take the most menial jobs.

These immigrants were "brought over as ballast without any payment for their passage', a more simple cargo to load and transport than shingle or lime. They were landed along the coast before the ship reached port and found their own way into Cardiff, "bringing pestilence on their backs, famine in their stomachs'.Within a generation, the Irish were integrating into the community and earning its respect, but in those early days they were either resented or regarded with contempt. They usually settled in appalling conditions in Newtown, to the south of Bridge Street, a district which came to be known as "Little Ireland'. Their only alternative was to find shelter in the hideous courts between the river and the canal. High rents were charged for the meanest properties and no Dickensian slum was meaner than Stanley Street.

This foul alleyway has long vanished but in 1850 Stanley Street was a notorious byway lying between David Street and Mary Ann Street. Its back-to-back houses, with one room upstairs and one down, were frequently visited by the Superintendent of Police. He testified to Rammell that a lodging house kept by Michael Harrington contained no fewer than 54 people, crowded into 4 rooms. The largest of these measured 17 feet by 16 and each room was used for eating, sleeping and living. There were no beds and the children slept in old orange boxes. In this communal cesspit, the lodgers hoarded belongings which included rags, bones, salt fish and rotten potatoes. "The stench arising from this crowded house was hardly endurable'.

If anything, the courts of Cardiff were even worse. The police were frequently called to quell disturbances at Landore Court, better known as "Irish Row', which lay between St. Mary Street and the river. Landore Court was a narrow yard with buildings on three sides and a further row of houses down the middle. The distance between each row was about 12 feet and the only entry into the court was from a passage-way in St. Mary Street. In these squalid conditions lived 500 people in 27 houses, sharing 2 ashpits and 4 privies, all in a filthy state. Their nearest water supply was in St. Mary Street. In the centre of Cardiff there were nearly fifty of these courts blighting the landscape: poorly ventilated; enclosed; breeding grounds for typhus and cholera. The landlords, who built such accommodation, faced few planning restrictions and, dreadful as these slums were, they were eagerly sought by successive waves of immigrants seeking a new life in Cardiff. Thankfully, almost every trace of these courts has been removed but there are two interesting exceptions.

Crown Court in Duke Street is now an office complex overlooking an attractive patio which bears no resemblance to its nineteenth century appearance. But the 9 houses at Jones Court in Womanby Street, which Bute built for his dockworkers in 1830, retained their original façade until a few years ago, and provided a setting for the television production of Jack Jones's novel, Off to Philadelphia in the Morning. In 1982 the houses were converted into a rather luxurious office block which won an architectural award. It is fascinating to contemplate that the original homes were built for £100 each, while the redevelopment in 1985 cost £500,000.

The town's water supply came in for severe criticism in Rammell's Report. The sources of water were either the river, the canal, the dock feeder, or a few pumps which were fed from underground wells. The best quality water came from the Crockherbtown pump but invariably it ran dry by the evening. Other pumps were often infected through leakages from cesspits which were sometimes only a few feet away. The water supply for properties of a superior type in Nelson Terrace, near Charles Street, was polluted with small white worms.

The most recent building developments in Cardiff had taken place on low-lying ground, where pools of stagnant water were a persistent nuisance. The situation was exacerbated because of a failure in the system of drainage. Catch pits were designed to carry the surface water along a covered way into the sea but, unfortunately, though they were cleaned once a month, an odious stench was released from an accumulation of rubbish in the pits. This foul air had caused a number of deaths from cholera.

In North Street, there was a dunghill which washed into the yard of the Rose and Crown whenever it rained. Rammell also cites numerous examples where privies were either not covered or were in a poor state of repair. Hundreds of houses had no toilet facilities at all and night soil was either deposited on the old quay or thrown in the streets.

Every aspect of public health came under Rammell's scrutiny. He criticised the town's facilities for burying the dead. While the cemetery in Adamsdown, opened in 1848, was adequate for the moment, St. John's Churchyard, where cholera victims were buried in graves no more than two feet deep, was "crowded to an excessive degree'. He expressed disapproval of the slaughter house near Quay Street, where the smell was obnoxious to the homes in the vicinity. In recommending improvements in refuse collection, paving, and street lighting, Rammell observed that even Charles Street could be impassable in winter because it lacked a properly pitched and metalled carriageway.


The report was accepted by the Cardiff Corporation which constituted itself as the Local Board of Health, using offices alongside the new Town Hall. Dr. Henry James Paine, with funds forthcoming from an additional rate of a shilling in the pound, was appointed as Medical Officer of Health and proceeded to implement his new powers.

A pure water supply and proper drainage were the priorities of the Rammell Report, and in 1850 a private company was commissioned to provide Cardiff with its water. A pumping station at Ely drew water from the river and forced it into a reservoir at Penhill. The water was then distributed around the streets of the town by a system of gravitation. The Council charged an all-inclusive water rate, waiving the usual special charges for private baths and water closets. As a result, Cardiff soon possessed more private baths than any other similar town in Britain.

Public baths and wash-houses became available from 1873 at Guildford Crescent, and in 1896 the facilities were extended to include baths for men and women, as well as Turkish baths. The Guildford Crescent Baths were open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., and employers were urged to buy tickets at 1/- per dozen for distribution to their workmen. The baths were used by successive generations of Cardiffians until their closure in 1985.

In 1878 the Corporation bought the Water Company for £300,000 and constructed an additional reservoir at Llanishen. Later in the century, with far-sighted vision, the Council secured Parliamentary approval to tap the heavy rainfall of the Brecon Beacons. Three reservoirs were built in the Beacons between 1892 and 1909, sufficient to meet Cardiff's needs until the 1950's, when Llandegfedd Reservoir became a further source of supply.

Soon after the Rammell investigation, a system of deep drainage was installed, and bylaws were strengthened to prevent the tipping of rubbish into the river. The Bute trustees were ordered to cover drains, mend sewers and fence in the dock feeder. They were also ordered to terminate the practice of dumping dredgings from the dock alongside private dwellings. All new buildings required the approval of a surveyor, while a necessity for every house was an ashpit and a properly covered privy with doors.

Following the adverse comments on the burial grounds of Cardiff, the Council purchased land in Cathays for a new cemetery. First used in 1859, it was extended in 1887 and burials in the town centre virtually came to an end.

The provision of gas and electricity added to the quality of life before the end of the century. From its headquarters at Bute Terrace, the Cardiff Gas, Light and Coke Company provided gas for the people of Cardiff until it was nationalised in 1949. Electricity was at first supplied on a small scale by a private company, but in 1893 the Council provided this service. Its first generating station was established at Eldon Road, later renamed Ninian Park Road, and in 1902 the main power station at Roath was constructed in Newport Road. The current was generated at Roath and transmitted to consumers from the central sub-station under the Fish Market at The Hayes. Electricity was supplied by the Corporation until after the Second World War, when its responsibilities were taken over by the South Wales Electricity Board.

A trade directory for 1863 described the streets of Cardiff as generally well paved and lighted. They were regularly cleansed and swept, while all household refuse was efficiently removed. The much more stringent Public Health Act of 1875 gave local authorities even wider powers to make sanitary improvements and to control planning proposals.

The success of the assault on squalor in Cardiff is indicated by the death toll which fell by half during the fifty years after the Rammell Report. Infant mortality, so appalling in 1850, was in 1900 the fourth lowest in the nation for a town of its size. Dr. Paine deserves much of the credit for setting Cardiff on the path towards a healthier environment, despite the carping of the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, which accused him of "vaulting ambition' and "intolerable egotism'. In a town which faced greater problems than most in view of its extraordinary growth, the councillors who served Cardiff at this time also showed a real concern for the health of the people.