Population: 13,170


Riverside has been a suburb of Cardiff since 1875 and lies west of the River Taff from Tudor Road in the south to Western Avenue in the north. Old prints show sightseers looking across the river from Riverside towards Cardiff but few people settled in the district until the mid-19th century. The tithe map of 1841 shows a few cottages near Plas Turton, an old farm house which was demolished in 1895 to make way for Plasturton Avenue. Until 1858 access to Riverside and Canton from Cardiff was made through a toll gate, erected at the junction of Cowbridge Road and the lane that later became Cathedral Road.

The first important public building in Riverside was the Union Workhouse in Cowbridge Road. Opened in 1836, it was a place where only the desperate sought refuge. To obtain parish relief, the whole family had to enter the workhouse. Men were sent to one ward, wives and children to another, and their meetings were restricted to 45 minutes a day. The regime was monotonous and hard. Men chopped wood, broke stones or carried coal, while the women worked in the laundry, helped to clean the building, or picked oakum. By 1900 the regime was less harsh. Many families were able to avoid the workhouse regime, as the authorities granted them a few shillings a week in outdoor relief, the forerunner of the retirement pension and unemployment benefit. Within the workhouse, trusted inmates were allowed out so long as they returned by 7 p.m., thereby avoiding the temptations of alcohol. In time the workhouse became a hospital, changing its name first to the City Lodge and then St. David’s Hospital. The site is now being re-developed to provide a smaller hospital and housing accommodation, though the façade of the old building remains.

Sophia Gardens, laid out on land provided by the Marchioness of Bute and named after her, was opened in 1857. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian described it as, “an ornamental walk and pleasure ground of exquisite taste in design which, for its extent and magnificence, will be unparalleled by anything of the sort in Wales”. The Marchioness only visited the park once but she did pay for a handsome fountain to be erected in the lake at the northern end of the park. The lake has gone and the character of Sophia Gardens has changed through the years. After World War Two, the Sophia Gardens Pavilion was erected and used for dances, public meetings and exhibitions. The boxing programme was also held in this former aeroplane hangar during the Empire Games of 1958. The pavilion came to a spectacular end when it collapsed under a heavy fall of snow in 1982. Much of Sophia Gardens today is occupied by Glamorgan Cricket Club and the Welsh Sports Centre. The cricket ground has splendid facilities and a number of one-day international matches have been played there in recent years.

By 1870 a cluster of houses had grown up around Mark Street, Green Street and Brook Street. Further west, working class accommodation had been built in the area around Wellington Street, where the Salvation Army later founded a citadel. These Christian souls never wearied of trying to convert the ungodly, even when they were pelted with rubbish in the poorer streets of Canton and Riverside. In the 1970s, the 19th century dwellings were replaced with modern housing and Wellington Street was widened

There is a contrasting mixture of Victorian and Edwardian dwellings in the suburb. By the end of the 20th century, many homes in the area around Ninian Park Road were showing signs of deterioration. A report of 1990 considered South Riverside to be “the worst place to live in Cardiff”, with 579 houses unfit to live in and over 1,000 in a serious state of disrepair. A 10 year plan costing £50 million was launched in 1993 in an attempt to remedy matters. Just south of Cowbridge Road, better quality homes were built in the vicinity of Neville Street, De Burgh Street, Clare Street and Despenser Street. All these roads took their names from the mediaeval lords of Glamorgan.

In 1898, aided by a gift of £5,000 from Charles and Herbert Thompson, the council purchased Llandaff fields from the ecclesiastical commissioners. Herbert Thompson requested, “that the fields will be kept as fields, and that no attempt will be made to turn them into a park. Lavish expenditure would probably do little or nothing to improve the natural beauty they at present possess”. As a result of such foresight and later gifts from the Bute family, Riverside has nearly two miles of open countryside, bordering the river from Sophia Gardens to Western Avenue.

This beautiful environment encouraged developers to build splendid houses in Cathedral Road and the surrounding district of Pontcanna. Most of these fine buildings are now used as consulting rooms or offices. They include the former Cardiff United Synagogue which was opened in 1897 to serve the Jewish community, many of whom lived at that time in this part of Cardiff.

Number 11 Cathedral Road is named “Novello House” after the famous actor, composer and West End producer, Ivor Novello. He was born in 1893 a short distance away in Cowbridge Road, where a plaque reads:

“This boy became a Ruritanian King

Who gave his people dreams and songs to sing”.

 Later the family moved to Cathedral Road and then to London. Soon after the outbreak of World War One, Ivor wrote one of the greatest songs from that conflict, “Keep the Home Fires Burning. From 1934 until his death in 1951, Ivor’s talent reached its full flowering with a “Novello Musical” invariably playing somewhere in the West End.

Flooding has been a problem for the people of Riverside whenever the Taff burst its banks. The council attempted to solve the problem in 1849, when the course of the river was altered, but serious floods continued to occur until the late 20th century. The last deluge ocurred in 1979, following which new measures were taken which have so far proved successful. However, some residents are apprehensive that the barrage at Cardiff Bay might cause future problems with a rise in the level of ground water.

            It was on 2 January 1941 that Riverside experienced the most traumatic night in its history. The air raid siren sounded at 6.40 p.m. and in the next few hours terror rained down on Cardiff, especially in Riverside. Landmines cut a swathe of devastation through Neville Street and the surrounding area. Blackstone Street was completely destroyed and seven people, who earlier that day had attended a funeral, were killed by a direct hit on the house where they were taking shelter. Riverside has changed little since the war but, when you walk around De Burgh Place or Neville Street, you can see postwar houses rebuilt in red brick, standing among the pennant sandstone homes of an earlier, more peaceful age.


Further Reading:

Jones B. Canton (Chalfont Press 1995)