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WHITCHURCH AND TONGWYNLAIS

 

Population: 15,400

 

Little is known of the “White Church” that gives Whitchurch its name and the first official reference to the district occurs in an agreement between Bishop Urban and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, in 1126. The Earl granted land and tithes in Whitchurch to Llandaff Cathedral and a chapel was built where Old Church Road now stands. It remained a dependency of the cathedral until 1845, when Whitchurch became a parish in its own right.

After the Norman Conquest, the Welsh were forced to yield the lowlands of Glamorgan to the invaders but, for 150 years in the hills north of Cardiff, the lords of Senghenydd stubbornly fought to retain their lands, their customs and their Welsh laws. In 1266 Gilbert de Clare finally mounted a successful campaign which resulted in the downfall of Gruffydd ap Rhys, last Lord of Senghenydd.

The invaders had prevailed and the manor of Whitchurch, comprising northern Whitchurch, Rhiwbina, Llandaff North and Melingriffith, was now created. The headquarters of the manor were situated in Old Church Road and it was protected by a stone tower which proved to be incapable of withstanding a serious attack. It is uncertain when it was destroyed but it was no longer in use by the 16th century. A grassy mound originally marked its site but this was removed when flats were built in 1966.

When Llywelyn ap Gruffydd destroyed the half-built fortifications at Caerphilly Castle in 1270, Gilbert de Clare decided to build Castell Coch, the “Red Castle”, both to protect the river crossing at Tongwynlais and the approach to Cardiff. It served its purpose at the time but the castle was a ruin by the 16th century. Evidence of mining activities and damage by fire suggest that it was attacked at some stage, possibly by Owain Glyndwr.

            Following the Reformation, the lords of Cardiff, the first of whom was the Earl of Pembroke, inherited the manor of Whitchurch. While important local families, such as the Morgans of Tredegar, the Earls of Plymouth and the Lewis’s of The Van, possessed estates in Whitchurch at some time or other, no single landowner dominated the parish.

Until the mid 18th century, the population of the district was probably no more than 300 people, living in about 50 small farms and cottages. Tenants were free to graze their animals on Whitchurch Common and a fertile soil produced enough grain to justify the presence of the mills at Melingriffith, Little Mill and Tongwynlais. There were also several smithies, usually based at public houses such as the Plough, the Three Horseshoes and the Three Elms.

In 1749 the Melingriffith Mill became a source of power for the manufacturing of iron and tinplate. At the end of the 18th century, the Melingriffith Works was sending 13,000 boxes of tinplate to Bristol for distribution throughout the country. Soon afterwards the company benefited from the opening of the Glamorganshire Canal which flowed past the works and provided transport for its raw materials and finished products. The Melingriffith Tinplate Company continued to prosper under the direction of Richard Blakemore and his nephew, Thomas Booker. In 1870 the firm’s 12 mills were producing 100,000 boxes of tinplate and 10,000 tons of sheet iron a year.

Thereafter the works began to decline. Difficulties arose after the Franco-Prussian War when a slump in trade, a number of bad debts and the failure to modernise led to bankruptcy. Initially, Melingriffith was saved by leasing it to the Cardiff Iron and Tinplate Company. In 1888 the company was purchased by Richard Thomas and remained in production, apart from a period in World War Two, until 1957. 

Tongwynlais grew rapidly between 1840 and 1860 as workers at the Pentyrch and Melingriffith Works needed somewhere to live. It soon became as busy as Whitchurch and had its own weekly market. The village smithy was a place where people met for a gossip and, as the smith was also keeper of the pound for stray animals, the charges he collected were a lucrative source of income. The weighbridge near Tongwynlais Lock was always a busy place, where there were perhaps a dozen barges waiting at times. Serious congestion often led to loss of temper and sometimes fisticuffs. The annual Ton Fair in August was a popular occasion, when a funfair was set up amid stalls selling flannel and wool. The third day was always the Boatmen’s Fair, a special holiday for canal workers.

One notable resident at Tongwynlais was Wyndham Lewis who was MP for Cardiff until Lord Bute withdrew his patronage in 1826. Lewis then became MP for Maidstone and a colleague of Disraeli. He married Mary Ann Evans and probably built Greenmeadow Mansion on Pantgwynlais Farm. The house was demolished in 1938 but the name lives on in the beautiful Greenmeadow Wood.

The development of Melingriffith saw a steady rise in the population of Whitchurch, until by 1900 it was nearly 5,000. St Mary’s Church had been rebuilt in the 17th century but in 1885, to meet the needs of the growing community, a larger and grander Gothic building in Penlline Road became the parish church. The Nonconformists also built a rich variety of chapels and as early as 1859 there were eight churches in Whitchurch, only one of which conducted services entirely in English.

An educational report of 1847 revealed that only 8% of Whitchurch children attended school. There were a few private schools in the village but in 1854 a National school was built which was closely associated with the Melingriffith Works and the Booker family. Parents paid 2d a week for each child’s education but, as some Nonconformist parents did not approve of sending their children to a church school, its responsibilities were taken over by the school board in 1884. Until Whitchurch High School was opened in 1937, those children in Whitchurch who were fortunate enough to receive a secondary education, travelled to Penarth or Caerphilly.

            As lord of the manor in the 19th century, the Bute family assumed responsibility for most of Whitchurch Common. Gwaun Treoda, that part of the common east of Merthyr Road, was owned by Lord Tredegar and he donated it to the parish. In 1895 the parish council tried to persuade the Marquis to make a similar gesture. Negotiations were prolonged, partly because the Butes upheld the right of gypsies to camp on the common. Not until after World War Two was the matter finally resolved to the council’s satisfaction. During the war, an American hospital unit was based on the common and, to mark the warm welcome they were given by local people, they planted an avenue of trees. The plaque commemorating this gesture can still be seen.

Lord Bute was responsible for the restoration of Castell Coch which began in 1875. William Burges carried out a reconstruction that externally is almost a replica of the mediaeval castle. Inside the building, Burges allowed his imagination to run riot as he created a Victorian fantasy of symbolism and decoration. The Marquis attempted to grow grapes on the slopes below the castle but, while the first few crops were promising and 40 gallons of wine were bottled in 1877, a few bad summers led to the end of the experiment.

            When Whitchurch became part of the Cardiff Poor Law Union in 1834, it was a sign that ties with its neighbour were becoming closer. By the end of the 19th century, Whitchurch was receiving its water supply from the Cardiff reservoirs, gas from the Cardiff Gas Company and the district was also using the borough’s bus and fire services. The Cardiff Mental Hospital was opened in 1908 after the corporation purchased the Velindre Estate. Able to accommodate 750 patients, it was equipped with the most modern facilities to treat mental illness and soon gained a national reputation for its research into this branch of medicine. Whitchurch Hospital still cares for patients with psychiatric problems, while Velindre Hospital has become a centre for cancer research.

Parts of the parish were absorbed into Cardiff in 1898 and 1922 but it was not until 1967 that Whitchurch and Tongwynlais officially became a suburb of the city. Amid the urbanisation of the 20th century, there are still delightful walks in the area. The last remaining stretch of the Glamorganshire Canal winds its way through a nature reserve at Forest Farm Country Park. At Tongwynlais, the thickly wooded green belt surrounding Castell Coch is another area of outstanding beauty, reviving memories of those days when Welsh and Norman battled for supremacy in this part of Wales.

 

Further Reading:

 

Chappell E.L. Old Whitchurch (Merton Priory Press 1994)

Thomas H.M. Whitchurch, A Brief History (D. Brown & Sons)