The Changing Face of Cardiff


The 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 cut.

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 Westgate Street.


In 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 Street.

 In 1875 the Cardiff Improvement Act gave the Corporation powers to demolish the ancient thoroughfares of Angel StreetSmith 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 on  HayesIsland, 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. Mary Street

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. Andrews Crescent.

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.


In 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.