The Changing Face of Cardiff
earliest census, taken in 1801, recorded that only 1870 people lived in Cardiff. A century later,
while the population of Britain had increased only five times, the number of
people dwelling in the town had multiplied nearly a hundredfold to 165,000.
Inevitably such rapid growth created a mixed society, but criticisms that Cardiff was a
"mongrel and non-Welsh' community were unjustified. In the 1881 census,
60% of its citizens were born in Wales, though in many cases their parents were
immigrants; 30% in England; and 5% in Ireland.
The Golden Daily Mail of 31 December 1900 drew
attention to the town's phenomenal development. It went on to forecast, that if
the trend of the nineteenth century continued until the year 2000, Cardiff would be larger
than Londonwith 20 million inhabitants. In fact, the population explosion was over but the
town was firmly established as the largest borough in Wales.
As more and more people came to live
in Cardiff, the
landscape altered out of all recognition, and the boundaries of the borough
outstripped its mediaeval walls which had virtually disappeared by 1900. During
this period of transition, ancient buildings vanished though, according to
Rammell's Public Health Report of 1850, few of them were worth preserving apart
from St. John's Church and the Town Hall.
After 1840 the railways weaved a
criss-cross pattern over the open countryside around Cardiff. Trains from the Taff Vale and
Rhymney railways rattled through the tranquil villages of Cathays, Roath,
Llanishen and Whitchurch, eventually arriving in Cardiff at the junction of Newport Road
and Queen Street. For more than half a
century, each of the companies had its own station but, following the
amalgamation of the railways in South Wales,
the Rhymney Station at the rear of Dumfries
Place was closed in 1926. The original Taff Vale
Station was a simple wooden structure in Station Terrace but in 1887 it was
replaced by an impressive Victorian Gothic building. The company's offices,
located on the site formerly used as the regional headquarters of the
Automobile Association, were even more ornate.
Unfortunately, both of these notable landmarks were to disappear when
Queen Street Station was modernised in the 1970's.
The South Wales Railway, a
subsidiary of the Great Western, was built between 1846 and 1853 under the
direction of the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When the section from Swansea to Chepstow was
completed in 1850, the rail journey to London could be made via Gloucester.
In 1863 a ferry from Portskewett to New Passage provided an easier link with Bristol, but a fast,
regular service from Cardiff to London was
only feasible after the construction of the Severn Tunnel in 1886.
To the south and east of the
ancient borough, railways were now skirting its rapidly disappearing walls and,
while the Taff Vale Railway was more important commercially, it was the South
Wales Railway which dramatically changed the topography of central Cardiff. In an attempt to
avoid the disastrous flooding which had bedevilled the town for centuries, the
Corporation and Lord Bute persuaded Brunel to divert the Taff into a new cut
from Cardiff Bridge. As a result of this decision,
the bend in the river was straightened to take the course it now follows and,
while floods have occurred in the centre of Cardiff since 1850, they have never been on
the scale experienced in earlier centuries. The Central or General Station was
built on land reclaimed from the river and a rail bridge was constructed across
The diversion of the river brought
the quay to the end of its long life as Cardiff's
principal artery to the sea, and for some years the stagnant water from the old
bed of the Taff remained a health hazard. The railway company and the
Corporation disputed the question of responsibility for its removal, but in
1865 the Corporation was forced to take action and the task of filling in the
bed began. On the reclaimed land a more spacious Cardiff Arms Park was created
and along the former course of the river arose Park Road, later renamed
1878 the Cardiff Racquets and Fives Club was one of the earliest buildings to
be opened along the new road. When the club was vacated in 1924, the premises
were named after John Jackson, the Director of Education, and were used as a
youth employment office. This attractive building has now been converted into
Yates’ Wine Lodge.
As late as 1850 a staff of 16,
operating from two cramped rooms near Dalton
Court in St.
Mary Street, was sufficient to handle the postal
service. By contrast, over 200 employees were required to maintain a flow of
1(1/2) million letters a week in 1908. The ever-increasing pressures of
commercial growth had created an urgent need for modern postal facilities and
in 1896 a new post office was built in Westgate Street. The premises were the
focus of Cardiff's
postal services for the next ninety years, but in 1986 the post office moved
its headquarters to Penarth Road and now the building awaits a new function. Undoubtedly, its beautiful Gothic
design, with a skyline of gables and steeply pitched roofs, makes it the most
splendid building in Westgate
In 1875 the Cardiff Improvement Act gave the
Corporation powers to demolish the ancient thoroughfares of Angel Street, Smith Street and Broad Street. In the process Castle Street was
widened and the passage of traffic through the town became a little easier,
though Duke Street continued to be a narrow, tortuous means of progress for another fifty years.
Gradually all the principal streets
of Victorian Cardiff changed their character. In 1855 a visitor entering Cardiff from the east
passed under the railway bridge into Crockherbtown. On the left lay the pretty Ash Cottage and the
Spital Cottages in a rural setting, but soon Crockherbtown widened into a fine
broad street of attractive houses, interspersed with a handful of small shops,
a few schools and the Theatre Royal. Queen Street was only a narrow lane
between St. John's Square and the canal.
Before 1900 the scene had altered
considerably. The Park Hotel now stood on the site of the Theatre Royal and the
majority of private dwellings had given way to shops and offices. The quaint
little cottages had been replaced by the Spital Buildings, though on the
opposite side of the road between Windsor
Place and Dumfries Place, substantial residences
were to survive until the 1920's. The popular EmpireMusic Halland an increase in the number of public houses are further indications of the
changing character of Queen Street.
The name of "Crockherbtown' was relinquished in 1887, when the entire road
from Dumfries Place to Duke Street was renamed "Queen Street'
in honour of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
The decision caused considerable controversy at the time, but Crockherbtown Lane is now the last token of remembrance to this ancient district of Cardiff.
The construction of the Glamorganshire Canal destroyed the traditional rural
aspect of The Hayes and, within 50 years of its arrival, some of the most
notorious courts and alleys in the town sprang up in this district. The
proximity of the canal proved to be an attraction to small businesses and
workshops, such as The Hayes Foundry, and many years were to pass before this
eastern side of the street lost its dowdy appearance. It was a different story
on the west side of the road. By 1900 radical changes had taken place as slum
properties were demolished to pave the way for new arcades and the fine store
built by David Morgan.
The building of the Central Library
had done much to enhance the northern end of The Hayes while the street market
selling fruit and vegetables, provided a colourful scene until after the Second
World War. Near the canal the last surviving stretch of the town wall was
pulled down in 1901 to make way for a wholesale fish market. In the basement
was a sub-station for the municipal electricity authority and, when the fish
market closed in 1937, the entire premises were acquired by the electricity
company to become, in due course, the South Wales Electricity Showrooms.
Commercial activity continued to be
centred around High Street and St.
Mary Street, but the Georgian Town Hall was no longer capable of meeting the ever-growing responsibilities of local
government. It was also a serious obstacle to traffic and, following futile
attempts to sell it, there were few regrets when the old Town Hall was
demolished in 1861.
Cardiff's VictorianTown Hallwas built on a site between St.
and Westgate Street. Guildhall Place, which
was constructed some sixty years later, takes its name from the premises that
became the headquarters of several important services. The police, the fire
service, the law courts, the post office and the Board of Health all required
accommodation at the new Town Hall. The two-storey Palladian structure, one of Cardiff's most impressive
buildings at the time, was opened in 1853 and it was confidently expected to
serve the community well into the twentieth century.
In 1853, St. Mary Street was a mixture of
residential property and modest shops, where a variety of trades and
professions were to be found, including a coachmaker, a saddler and a
pawnbroker. The National Provincial Bank occupied an attractive Georgian
building which still stands at 4
High Street, while David Jotham, a firm which is
still prospering in Cardiff,
owned a draper's shop at 24 St.
Mary Street. The Silurian, one of the
earliest newspapers in Cardiff,
was printed next door to the modern Sandringham Hotel. There were a number of
private dwellings along the road and David Lewis, Mayor of Cardiff in 1855,
lived in one of these houses at 32
St. Mary Street.
Just as Queen Street was radically changing
before the end of the century, so also was St. Mary Street. Fine commercial
premises, among them James Howell's store, Lloyd's Bank and the Royal Hotel had
made their appearance. In 1891 the first covered market was replaced by the
Central Market on the same site. The new building was a tribute to Victorian
industrial architecture, especially the glass and iron work of its roof. The Western
Mail praised it as "a perfect model ... one of the best in the
country'. All the Cardiffnewspapers had their offices in St.
Mary Street. The Western Mail premises were
at the southern end, rather drab in appearance compared with such architectural
gems as the Great Western Hotel and the ImperialBuildings.
Barry's Hotel, which occupied a part of the Imperial Buildings, was renowned as
an "exceedingly handsome restaurant', where wealthy docksmen congregated
to discuss business and celebrate when a successful deal had been completed.
Some of the finest examples of Cardiff's Victorian heritage are to be found at
this southern end of St. Mary Street, especially when the buildings are studied
above their ground floor level.
People continued to live near their
places of work for most of the Victorian period and many handsome streets were
built in central Cardiff, sometimes uncomfortably close to vile slums. Charles
Street, named after Charles Vachell who owned the land, was developed during
the 1840'S and 1850's. It was described by Hugh Bird, in his directory for
1858, as "one of the most fashionable streets in the town ... a place of
abode of several of the more influential burgesses and merchants'. Among the
residents of Charles Street were: John and Richard Cory; George Fisher, the
Superintendent of the Taff Vale Railway; and Charles Vachell, physician. Dan
Regan, the hero of Jack Jones's novel River out of Eden, was said to
have "a fine house in Charles Street' in 1848. These fashionable houses
are now the premises of small businesses but gradually they are being restored
to their Victorian grandeur.
Windsor Place is another attractive
mid-Victorian street, emerging as a
fairly narrow road from Queen Street, before broadening into a pleasant avenue
lined with trees which have now reached maturity. The red brick houses with
their wrought iron balconies present a pleasing aspect, and offer a contrast
with the three-storeyed Gothic villas which surround the Church of Dewi Sant in
St. Andrews Crescent. Unfortunately, the effect has been spoilt by the
construction of the four-lane highway which now bisects Windsor Place and St.
The later nineteenth century houses
of Dumfries Place were also a casualty of road widening, and the best
representation of Victorian Gothic architecture in the city centre is to be
found in Park Place. Most of the premises in Park Place are now offices, but a
hundred years ago they were the homes of prosperous middle class families.These
elegant houses, sometimes rising to a height of five or six storeys, were
provided with large reception rooms, ample accommodation for servants, and easy
access to the town. Grandest of all the buildings along this road is Park
House, built in 1874 for John McConnochie, Mayor of Cardiff and chief engineer
at the Bute Docks. Designed by William Burges, its triple arches, tall chimneys
and jutting gables are a superb example of his genius.
due course, the owners and tenants of these graceful homes preferred to leave
the bustle of the town for the more peaceful suburbs. As improvements in public
transport allowed people to live further from their places of work, poorer
families also began to move into better housing away from the town. In 1860 the districts surrounding Cardiff continued to
present the familiar rural scene of previous centuries, but by 1900 they had
all ceased to be distinctive villages and had become urban suburbs with
virtually all traces of the countryside extinguished.
One of the earliest of Cardiff's
suburbs emerged to the south-west of Westgate Street, on land reclaimed from
the river after the course of the Taff had been altered. The landowner refused
to allow the building of public houses on his property, hence the district
became known as Temperance Town. In 1858 Jacob Matthews leased the land from
Colonel Wood, after whom the road linking Temperance Town with St. Mary Street
was named. Six years later, Matthewson had completed a building programme which
offered welcome accommodation to hundreds of over-crowded families. But, within
a short time, Temperance Town was regarded as a tawdry development which gave a
poor impression of Cardiff to visitors arriving at the General Station.
The Cardiff Improvement Act of 1875
incorporated Canton, Roath and Cathays into the borough and, during the next
twenty-five years, new homes sprang up in these suburbs at an astonishing pace.
Between 1881 and 1902, over 20,000 houses were built in Cardiff. Their size,
style and quality varied considerably, but even among the less pretentious
byways of Canton, Roath, Grangetown and Cathays, building standards were
superior to the courts and alleys which scarred the centre of the borough.
In 1859 the hamlet of Canton
consisted of a few streets, such as Severn Road, and a handful of scattered
houses along Cowbridge Road. Forty years later, from Cardiff Bridge to the
newly-opened Victoria Park, Canton was an urban community. Only on Leckwith
Moors, where the gypsies occasionally camped, did a rural atmosphere survive
for another fifty years. Cathedral Road was built at this time and its
proximity to Sophia Gardens made it a very popular district. The road remains
one of the finest Victorian highways in Britain, despite some ugly modern
development near its junction with Cowbridge Road.
Cathedral Road led to the village
of Llandaff, not yet a part of Cardiff, but a most desirable residential area
for its wealthier citizens. David Morgan, the store owner, had a lovely home in
Cardiff Road and many of the docksmen chose Llandaff as a delightful place in
which to live. Walter Coffin, MP for Cardiff in 1852, purchased Llandaff Court,
while James Insole used some of his wealth from mining to build Insole Court in
1873. Rookwood House was another splendid mansion, built in 1866 by Colonel Sir
Edward Hill-Snook whose father had founded one
of the earliest dry docks in Cardiff. Sir Edward's home, now a hospital,
was renowned for its magnificent gardens, stocked with all kinds of beautiful
trees and plants.
In Grangetown, which also became a
suburb of Cardiff in 1875, it was not long before the ancient Margam Grange was
absorbed into an urban environment. Grangetown's principal thoroughfare was
Penarth Road which was linked to St. Mary Street by a wooden bridge across the
Taff. Near the sea lock, the Clarence Road Bridge was built in 1890 to improve
communications between the west of Cardiff and the docks. This meccano-like
structure, opened by the Duke of Clarence in September 1890, was to serve the
area until it was replaced with a more modern structure in 1976.
A similar invasion of the
countryside occurred to the east and north of Cardiff. Adam Street and Newtown
were the earliest areas to become fully populated, but gradually building
operations extended into Splott. By 1855 houses were being erected on the
meadows of Upper Splott Farm, where Planet Street, Constellation Street and
Eclipse Street were completed by 1861. The development of Lower Splott
progressed more slowly at first but, after the opening of the East Moors Works,
the rate of house building accelerated
to meet the needs of steel workers and their families.
Roath Mill was not pulled down
until 1897 and the village kept its rural setting until the closing years of
the century. Similarly, farms in Penylan and bordering Roath Park remained
undisturbed until the early twentieth century but, nearer the town, Roath
presented a very different picture. Between 1880 and 1890, the area around City
Road and Richmond Road was developed, and Albany Road extended as far as its
newly erected board school.
Most of this land was the property
of Arabella Richards of Plasnewydd. She married the Mackintosh of Mackintosh,
wealthy leader of the Scottish clan, which explains the street names of the
district: Mackintosh; Arabella; and their children; Donald, Diana, Angus and
Alfred. The association with Scotland is commemorated by Strathnairn Street,
Keppoch Street and Inverness Place. Arabella was the posthumous daughter of
Edward Richards who was tragically killed in 1858 after his horse collided with
a cartload of manure. In 1890, ten years after her marriage, she bade farewell
to the family home at Roath Castle and gave it to her tenants. The house became
the Mackintosh Institute and is now used as a community centre. It possesses a
beautiful bowling green, on which the famous W.G. Grace once played.
In 1879, apart from Woodville Road and Cathays Terrace, only a few
scattered streets were under construction in Cathays. Crwys Farm and Grange
Farm were still intact, though a notable landmark was added in 1871 when Maindy
Barracks replaced the quarters at Longcross. Building work progressed rapidly
in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and before 1900 Cathays was
just one more housing suburb of Cardiff.