Creating a More Healthy Town
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
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
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.
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
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