The Victorians and Edwardians at Leisure


At the turn of the twentieth century, the people of Cardiff enjoyed a wide selection of amusements and recreation. The theatre and music hall provided an agreeable evening's entertainment at modest prices. Cheap public transport and the introduction of bank holidays made it possible for most families to spend a day at the seaside, or even take a boat trip to Weston. For many workers, as government legislation resulted in a shortening of the working week, Saturday afternoon had become a time for leisure and sport.

The Theatre Royal in Crockherbtown was the first theatre in Cardiff for which there are recorded historical details, though earlier places of entertainment may have existed in Quay Street and Trinity Street. The Corporation subscribed towards the building of the Theatre Royal which opened its doors in 1827, but most of the funds were forthcoming from a "company of gentlemen who did not care much about its being a paying concern - or if they did they were disappointed'. John Bird described the theatre in 1829 as "a handsome new building ... but the pit, being very much below the level of the road, is constantly flooded in wet seasons; and the property is, in consequence, almost useless'. Matters improved when the dock feeder was constructed, as it passed underneath the theatre and drained the stalls. Every subscriber was given a silver ticket, entitling him to free admission for each performance. Normally entertainment was provided by "stock companies', staging a different play each night and, despite its tatty scenery, which was usually cleaned in the Taff, the theatre attracted some of the best talent of the day. W.S. MacReady, the famous Shakespearian actor, played Othello in 1828 and the Christmas pantomime soon  became a regular annual event.

In the mid-Victorian Age, when the population of Cardiff had greatly increased, there was a wider choice of public meeting places for cultural and theatrical occasions. Concerts, flower shows, banquets and balls were held at the Drill Hall, and in 1868 the hall was the venue for a special celebration to mark the coming of age of the young Marquess of Bute. Concert performances were also given at the Victoria Concert Rooms in St. Mary Street, the Stuart Hall in The Hayes, and the New Town Hall. The most prestigious events took place at the Town Hall and in May 1856 Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale', sang before a gathering where the cheapest seat had cost 10/6d.

When the Theatre Royal was destroyed in 1877, a playhouse bearing the same name was opened soon afterwards in St. Mary Street. The New Theatre Royal prospered under the ownership of Edward Fletcher and the building was extended in 1900 to accommodate an audience of 2,000. During this century, however, the theatre has suffered persistent financial crises, the first of them occurring in 1914 when it was forced to close for the next six years.

The Grand Theatre in Westgate street specialised in such melodramas as "Lost by Drink', and its audiences, drawn from the rowdy alleys of the district, had no hesitation in greeting a poor performance with a barrage of rotten fruit. The theatre, which sometimes offered all-in wrestling among its attractions, was renamed the Hippodrome Palace in 1905. The façade of the old Hippodrome is still intact, and the premises are now used as Phillips' Auction Rooms.

The music hall enjoyed its heyday between 1890 and 1914. The Empire, purchased by Oswald Stoll of Moss Empires in 1889, was the most popular variety house in Cardiff. The original Empire was destroyed in a blaze of 1899 but, when Stoll re-opened the theatre a year later, he promised the people of Cardiff the "best music hall entertainment outside London'. He kept his word and audiences, sometimes exceeding 2,000, met in surroundings "unsurpassed for comfort and convenience'. The carpeted foyers, plants in pots, and luxurious bars provided a background for the twice-nightly show. The stage was the largest of any music hall in the provinces and on it performed the greatest stars of the day, among them Marie Lloyd, Houdini, Harry Lauder, Vesta Tilley and George Formby Snr.

The Philharmonic, a name which is still displayed in St. Mary Street, was another Stoll theatre. In 1898 it was described as "sumptuously seated and ornate in decoration'. This high standard was not maintained and decline had set in even before the Great War. Afterwards the theatre became the Pavilion Cinema and today it is the premises of the Gala Bingo and Social Club.

The finest of Cardiff's concert halls in the later Victorian period was the magnificent Park Hall. The theatre could seat 2,500 people and the organ alone cost £3,000. The opening performance on 28 April 1885 was a rendering of Handel's Messiah by the Cardiff Choral Society. The Park Hall was a popular venue for visiting speakers, and in 1900 the Cardiff Naturalists' Society invited Winston Churchill to relate his recent adventures in South Africa. The Christmas attraction of 1908, "Ralph Pringle's North American Animated Picture Company', pointed the path to the future. In 1916 the Park Hall was converted to a cinema, a function it fulfilled until its final performance in 1971.

Before 1914 there were already several cinemas in Cardiff. In Queen Street alone, the customer could seek his entertainment at the Picture Playhouse, the Imperial Picture Palace, and the Olympia. At the Picture Palace, which later became the Odeon, the Edwardian picture-goer could enjoy afternoon tea and watch silent films, heightened with dramatic effects from the Imperial Orchestra, at a price ranging from 3dto 1/-.

In the same era, the most recently built and most splendid of the theatres in Cardiff was playing to full houses, unaware of the threat from the flickering screen. Robert Redford employed Runtz and Ford, "specialists in the planning of places of entertainment', to build the New Theatre at a cost of £25,000. For the opening performance on 10 December 1906, Redford persuaded H. Beerbohm Tree, the most celebrated actor of his day, to play "Malvolio' in Twelfth Night. The cheapest seats for that performance were a costly 5/- but prices soon fell to a more reasonable level and, in the years up to the First World War, the New Theatre offered opera, musical comedy and drama of a high standard. Among the most famous Edwardian players to grace the theatre were the "Divine' Sarah Bernhardt, and Pavlova, "the greatest dancer of the age'. A tradition was established at Christmas-time 1906, when Little Red Riding Hood became the first of many colourful pantomimes.

When the New Theatre opened, Ivor Novello was just 13 years old. Encouraged by his mother, Madam Clara Novello Davies, who had a musical reputation in her own right, Ivor had already won a musical scholarship to Magdalen College. He was writing musical comedies for the London Theatre before the Great War but, during that conflict, he wrote what was probably its most memorable song - Keep the Home Fires Burning. After the war his talent reached its full flowering and a "Novello musical' was invariably playing somewhere in the West End. He died in March 1951 and, on the memorial plaque at 95 Cowbridge Road where he was born, are the words:


  "This boy became a Ruritanian King

   Who gave his people dreams and songs to sing".


Cheap railway fares gave people travel opportunities unavailable to earlier generations. Excursions to Weymouth and Guernsey on the Great Western Railway were advertised in the South Wales Daily News of February 1891, and other trips were on offer to Usk steeplechases, the Bristol Pantomime, or even the skating rink at Olympia.

In 1844 the steam packet, Prince of Wales, ferried 250 passengers to the "quiet little village of Weston ... in genial though breezy' weather. The visit was a fairly sedate affair, as picnics and donkey rides seem to have been the only entertainment before the return voyage. The journey, however, was the portent of pleasure cruising in the Bristol Channel. In the 1880's Campbell's steamers first became a source of delight to holiday makers on both sides of the channel. On a fine summer's day, hundreds of trippers from Cardiff and the valleys flocked to the landing stage at the Pier Head, eagerly anticipating a bracing voyage to Weston, Ilfracombe, or Lundy Island. Though the firm of P. and A. Campbell ceased trading in the 1950's, each summer the Balmoral and the Waverleycontinue to revive memories of a nostalgic past.

Most families, however poor, could afford an occasional day trip to the seaside. Penarth, with its pebble beach and attractive cliffs, was a peaceful resort, suitable for the visitor seeking rest and quietude. A pleasant town of spacious streets, an esplanade, and a seawall was laid out by the Windsor Estate in the 1880's. A pier was added in 1894 and, when Windsor Gardens were landscaped as a public park, Penarth became "a successful competitor with other places of summer resort, and one that will doubtless be very largely patronised by seaside visitors and summer excursions'.

Barry Island appealed to the more boisterous pleasure seeker. Until 1884 it was closed to visitors but, during the construction of Barry Dock, the island became joined to the mainland by a causeway. A visitor to Whitmore Bay in 1891 commented, "Already the sands are studded with bathing machines and Barry bids fair to be a favourite seaside resort'. Though it possessed superb sands, Barry was never developed to the extent of Weston or Tenby. The docks were its raison d'etre, and Barry Island became no more than a day out for trippers, who were satisfied with the funfair and donkey rides on the beach.

The Cardiff Arms Park had ceased to be a public recreation ground by 1875, but the Cardiff Cricket Club played there in the summer and Lord Bute insisted the Arms Park should be reserved for organised sporting occasions. Spectator sport was beginning to attract large crowds and in 1876 the Cardiff Football Club was formed. No admission charge was made for a few years but in the 1880's the Cardiff Club, later assisted by the Welsh Rugby Union, began transforming the Arms Park into a stadium. From its earliest days the Cardiff club established a position as one of the most famous rugby teams in the world. The first international match was played on the Arms Park against Ireland in 1884. Twenty years later, it was capable of holding 40,000 spectators, and in 1905 every space was needed when Wales met and defeated the New Zealand All Blacks.

Association football was gaining a popular hold in South Wales by the early twentieth century and until 1910 international soccer matches were played at the Arms park. The local team, Riverside Football Club, was formed in 1899, fulfilling its fixtures either at Sophia Gardens or at the Harlequins Ground in Newport Road. In 1908 the club changed its name to Cardiff City and soon afterwards began to sign professional players. In answer to their plea for a suitable ground, the Corporation leased a former rubbish tip on Canton Common. A guarantor was required for the rent of £90, and Lord Ninian Stuart, son of the Third Marquess and prospective MP for Cardiff, pledged his support. In his honour the ground became Ninian Park and he kicked off in the inaugural match against Aston Villa in September 1910. Until the First World War the team played in the Southern League, making steady but unspectacular progress.

Racing at the Heath came to an end in 1839 but in 1855 a new racecourse was opened at Ely. Within twenty years, Ely Racecourse was drawing crowds of up to 40,000 for prestigious meetings such as the Cardiff Open Hunters Steeplechase, a race which eventually became the Welsh Grand National. When fire destroyed the main grandstand in 1937, the days of racing at Ely were numbered and two years later the racecourse was closed.