The Safety of the Public


The mediaeval practice of employing watchmen to protect the well-being of its citizens had proved adequate while the population of Cardiff remained small. By 1836 the population of 6,000 was rising rapidly and in January of that year the newly-elected Council appointed a Watch Committee. One of its earliest decisions was to engage the services of "a London policeman', a reference to the Metropolitan Police Force formed a few years previously by Sir Robert Peel.

The task of establishing a police force in Cardiff was offered to Jeremiah Box Stockdale. He was an extrovert character who had served as a mercenary soldier in Spain before becoming a policeman. At the time of his appointment as Cardiff's first police superintendent, he was 24 years old. Contemporaries describe him as an impressive figure, over six feet tall, immaculate in his dark blue uniform trimmed with red cord, his peaked cap, and sword belt. A strict disciplinarian, he was "as straight as a lamp post and as stiff as an iron bar'.

Stockdale's earliest recruits, however, were not calculated to inspire public confidence in the police. Three of his enlisted men were an old shoemaker by the name of "Tom Pen y Bont', another elderly man named Howells, and a knife grinder known as Jeremiah Jones. Stockdale's fourth pillar of support was Sergeant Aubrey, who had the dubious distinction of never arresting anyone, preferring to dispense his own justice at the scene of the crime. The indifferent quality of these early constables is hardly surprising, for they were so poorly paid that an irate councillor described them as a "ragged regiment', compared with other police forces. Stockdale himself is said to have kept the Cardiff Boat, a public house in Womanby Street, as a sideline to supplement his salary.

A heavy responsibility rested on the shoulders of the Superintendent, whose first great test came in the Chartist Rising of 1839. When Lord Bute received reports of unrest, he immediately ordered the mobilisation of the militia. The Mayor of Cardiff was authorised to call up special constables and army pensioners to deal with any outbreaks of violence. The bridges at Rumney and Roath were guarded, but there was no clash in Cardiff to compare with the carnage at the Westgate Hotel in Newport, where a single volley of shots killed twenty victims.

 After this incident the Chartist leaders fled and one of them, Zephaniah Williams, took refuge in the Sea Lock Hotel alongside the Glamorganshire Canal. He boarded the Vintage, a ship which would have taken him to France, but Jeremiah Stockdale, accompanied by a constable, rowed out to the vessel and arrested Williams, though not without a struggle. In common with John Frost and the other Chartist leaders, Williams was sentenced to death but the penalty was later commuted to transportation for life.

Other stories bear testimony to Stockdale's courage. In 1840 sea captains were being assaulted and robbed at night near the West Dock. Jeremiah, dressed as a sailor complete with sou'wester, set himself up as bait. Aware that he was being stalked by three men, he pursued them and caught one of the miscreants. Charges of robbery were proved and the wrongdoer was transported for 7 years.

Cardiff's first race riot occurred in 1848 when a Welshman, Thomas Lewis, was stabbed to death in Stanley Street by an Irishman, John Conners. Welsh mobs rampaged through "Little Ireland', looking for the culprit. Eventually he was arrested at Pontypridd and transported for life after the charge was reduced to manslaughter. At Lewis's funeral, Irish navvies were armed with pick axes to protect their kinsmen from any Welsh reprisals.

Statistics for 1857 confirm that Cardiff was becoming a more violent place. In that year, there were 3 murders, 3 cases of attempted murder, 2 shooting offences and 611 assaults, including an average of 3 attacks on every policeman. The last public execution in Cardiff was also carried out in 1857 before a crowd of 12,000, when John Lewis of Merthyr was hanged for killing his wife.

 The police themselves did not always set a good example to the public. In 1850 every meeting of the Watch Committee had to deal with an average of three complaints involving the police. The most common of these offences were drunkenness on duty, assault, the frequenting of brothels, and incivility. Given this background, Stockdale's task was monumental. Initially, he acted as superintendent, constable and detective. Yet, when he died in office in 1870, he had increased his force to 60 men, some of them in the police band which entertained the public in Sophia Gardens.

His last year in office was clouded with controversy when the Watch Committee demanded his resignation, following a burglary in Church Street at the premises of one of its members. Stockdale appealed and the decision was rescinded, though only by one vote. Other citizens in Cardiff showed their respect and gratitude for the Superintendent's sterling work, by dedicating the tablet to his memory in St. John's Church. A water fountain in Adamsdown Square was also erected in his honour, but it fell apart some years ago when an attempt was made to move it elsewhere.

Complaints of police brutality were a familiar theme in the nineteenth century. During the 1886 "Home Rule' election, Charles Stuart Parnell and Joseph Chamberlain visited Cardiff. Chamberlain was given a police escort from the Angel Hotel to the Drill Hall where he was due to speak, but stones were flung at his carriage and he was lucky to escape injury. On the election night itself, a crowd of about 10,000 gathered in St. Mary Street and attacked the Western Mail offices. The police charged with batons, inflicting several injuries. Afterwards they were accused of using unnecessary force but a Home Office enquiry absolved them from any blame.

The foundations laid by Jeremiah Stockdale were successfully built upon by his successors. The police force grew in proportion to the population and in 1911 it numbered 291, including a mounted contingent. They were all needed as Cardiff continued to be a lively and sometimes tempestuous town with its share of bogus drinking clubs, gambling dens and brothels.


The fire service evolved from the police force. Prior to Stockdale's appointment, the manual fire engine was kept in the porch of St. John's Church, and in the event of an emergency the bell was rung to summon assistance. In addition to his other duties, Stockdale was given the responsibility for fire-fighting, and by 1840 two fire engines were kept in readiness under the old Town Hall. If a fire broke out, these engines were dragged to the scene of the blaze and it was fought with water drawn from the wells.

In the 1850's, a fire engine house was constructed at the rear of the new Town Hall with access from Guildhall Place. Fire hydrants were installed as mains water became available for the first time, but it was only in 1866, when the population of Cardiff exceeded 40,000, that the Corporation took steps to purchase a horse-drawn steam fire engine and a fire escape. At this time the fire service employed 2 regular firemen from the police force and 12 civilian volunteers who responded to an emergency either from their homes or from their places of work.

When Canton and Roath were incorporated into Cardiff, this haphazard arrangement gave way to the formation of the Cardiff Police Fire Brigade in 1878. The engineer and his deputy remained the only full-time firemen, but the 12 civilians were replaced with 12 police volunteers who could be swiftly summoned by ringing the fire bell at the police station. The constables were paid 2/- a week for these extra duties and, as an additional measure, a fee of 2/6d was paid to any person raising a genuine fire alarm. Possibly, the police firemen were over zealous in their training and were certainly not always appreciated by the public. In March 1880 the Rev. G.A. Jones of Wood Street Chapel accused the fire brigade of soaking the interior of his church and of breaking its windows while they were practising, a charge denied by the Chief Constable.

Perhaps they were testing the new fire engine, purchased in 1880 and christened the Fire Queen. The limitations of the horse-drawn fire engine are borne out by the request of the Bishop of Llandaff to carry out a fire drill at the cathedral. The steam engine required 29 minutes to make the journey and the firemen had to help the horses push it up Penhill. It was then a further 20 minutes before the jets could be brought into play. Fortunately, the cathedral had no need to call on the fire brigade until the Second World War, but in 1914 the Bishop's Palace was destroyed before a motorised engine could reach the scene.

The fire brigade was always trying to improve its service and in 1885 telephone communications were established between police and fire stations. Seven years later, telephones were installed throughout the town, enabling the public to make an emergency call in the event of fire.

There were several serious fires in 1885. The worst conflagration was on 26 June when the Market Buildings, only recently built, were destroyed. The heat was so intense that windows cracked and paint peeled off the doors of the Town Hall opposite. Only the strenuous efforts of the firemen prevented the blaze spreading into the Market and Howell's Store. Later that year, a fire began at Howell's premises in Trinity Street and burning embers threatened buildings as far away as Westgate Street.

Theatres presented a particular fire risk, though from 1862 the Council was able to enforce safety precautions in public places. After the Theatre Royal was reduced to ashes in 1877, while the brigade was attending another fire in Cowbridge Road, safety checks were made in all theatres. In 1890 stringent safety measures were introduced when  every theatre was linked directly by telephone to the main fire station, and a fireproof safety curtain was required to separate the stage from the auditorium. Fire extinguishers and hoses became obligatory; the presence of a fireman at every performance was considered essential; and licenses were withheld from some theatres until they complied with these regulations.

In 1891 the fire brigade averted a tragedy at the Drill Hall, where Lord Bute was attending a banquet to celebrate the opening of the East Moors Works and his inauguration as Mayor of Cardiff. The evening almost ended in disaster when the decorations caught fire, but fortunately the fire brigade was present as a guard of honour. It was the ideal opportunity for the men to display their efficiency, and they successfully evacuated the guests and brought the flames under control.

In 1913 the strength of the police fire brigade had risen to 22 full-time firemen and 16 auxiliaries. They were now using motorised steam engines and were looking for a more suitable fire station. CathaysPark was suggested as a suitable location, but eventually the new premises were built on the site of the old quay in

Westgate Street
. A fine building, six storeys high and aesthetically pleasing, was completed by E. Turner and Sons in 1917. Its frontage, facing
Westgate Street
, was 140 feet long, and the exits for the brigade's 8 vehicles gave them a flying start in an emergency. At that time,
Westgate Street
had the advantage of being some distance away from congested thoroughfares, but the situation had changed by 1974, when
Westgate Street
was abandoned in favour of a new fire brigade headquarters in
Adam Street


When congratulating Queen Victoriaat the time of her Diamond Jubilee, the message from the Corporation proclaimed that, "Cardiffproudly terms itself a Victorian town'. From being a dirty, unhealthy and disease-ridden place in 1850, the borough had achieved a record in public health which compared favourably with any other town of its size in Britain. There were many attractive streets in the town and by the early twentieth century the worst of the slums had been cleared. The new suburbs were providing homes of a decent quality, most of them set in a pleasant environment.

In the provision of hospitals, schools and libraries, great strides had been made, and few pundits would have forecast in 1850 that Cardiff would possess a flourishing university before the end of the century. Largely as a result of the valiant efforts of Jeremiah Stockdale, the police were respected and capable of handling the problems of a turbulent, cosmopolitan society. Cardiff had faced the challenge of its extraordinary growth and had successfully solved many of the problems created by it.