Vanished Cardiff

Tapping into the past of a city intensifies the present and signals the future, cities being places of living history, archives of all who have been there before and templates for all who are yet to come. Cardiff, only a city due to the geological concurrence of coal and sea and the anthropological aberration of the profit motive, has been particularly unsentimental about its past, sweeping away whole neighbourhoods, familiar spaces and well-worn routes over and over again in what, with hindsight, begins to look like a 200-year state of delirium, a neurotic flight from the inconvenient facts of Cardiff’s saga of violent appropriation.

So, right across the city, just beneath today’s surfaces, are the lost and forgotten places of Cardiff, their ghostly footprints still resonating through time and space:

•CROCKHERBTOWN  “What are the five towns of Cardiff?”, my grandfather used to ask me back in the 1960s in one of his teasing parlour games. The answer was Butetown, Grangetown, Newtown, Temperance Town and, the one I always struggled to remember, Crockherbtown. Butetown and Grangetown endure, Newtown and Temperance Town are no more (see below), while Crockherbtown was far beyond living memory even for my grandfather’s generation.

The area originated in the 17th century when Cardiff made its first tentative moves beyond the medieval town walls with linear development along the highway that ran past the Castle gates. This was the ancient main route across the southern Wales coastal plain, and would remain so until the M4 north of Cardiff was completed in 1980. Outside the East Gate, cottages for smallholders, apothecaries and market gardeners gradually sprung up towards Roath and this stretch of road was named Crockherbtown (usually abbreviated to Crockerton) after its herb gardens. The first Cardiff map, published in 1610, shows Crockherbtown built up on both sides of the road as far as the ‘Spital’. Originally this was a 14th century leper colony run by the nuns of St Mary Magdalene. It was closed in the Reformation and taken over by the Herberts, a foul clan of English power-brokers who held the Lordship of Cardiff from Wales’ annexation in 1536 right through to 1733, to become a farm for the Castle. The fine house, chapel and hay barn were only demolished as late as 1835 – today the Capitol shopping mall occupies the site.

Crockherbtown became a refuge from the muddy, violent and shabby town for Aldermen and wealthier merchants and by the 18th century elegant Georgian town-houses were appearing among the thatched cottages. All had long front gardens, and it is thanks to this that today’s Queen Street has the generous breadth it does. The East Gate and West Gate were pulled down in 1781 as the moribund Corporation, under pressure from the growing new class of industrialists and traders, attempted to reduce chronic congestion along the single-track highway, and then the opening of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1794 fired the starting  pistol for the Industrial Revolution to commence in Cardiff. The Canal used the ditch of the Town Wall to take it round the town, and this entailed a 105m (345ft) tunnel under Crockherbtown, the only place on the Canal’s entire 25 mile route where buildings blocked the way. At the northern entrance to the tunnel was Crockherbtown Lock, lock 50 of the Canal’s 52 locks, where the barges were marshalled before entering the amazingly atmospheric, pitch-black passage, known universally as ‘The Ole’ (it ran between today’s Friary and Queen’s Arcade). The Canal would be a Cardiff emblem until the late 1940s when the Council filled it in with the characteristic stupidity that has been an abiding feature of Cardiff’s rulers.

South entrance of the tunnel just before demolition

South entrance of the tunnel just before demolition

The opening of the first Bute Dock in 1839 saw another waterway pass under Crockherbtown: the Dock Feeder from Blackweir in a shorter tunnel further east (this has survived, albeit as an undercover drain between Park Lane and the bottom of Churchill Way). Then the opening of the Taff Vale Railway from Merthyr to Cardiff in 1841 gave the town a new eastern perimeter to reach for, as well as its first public railway station, called Crockherbtown (renamed Queen Street in 1887). With boomtown Cardiff’s population now going off the graph, the entire area south of Crockherbtown rapidly filled with terraced streets by 1860 and it became a priority to clear away the pre-industrial town. In 1863 the blockages at the western end were removed and by the time Crockherbtown was widened and renamed Queen Street in 1886, High Victorian bombast had superseded country town understatement from one end to the other, virtually all private residences had gone (although the last domestic dwelling in the Street hung on until 1925 – what is now Sainsbury’s stands on the site), and Cardiff’s premier shopping thoroughfare was in place. The name is now only applied to a service lane at the rear of Queen Street and, in its Crockerton form, to a dreadful Wetherspoon’s drinking factory on Greyfriars Road. That said, the ½ mile length of Queen Street that buried Crockherbtown is, for all it’s prominent faults, one of the great walks of Wales, a truly public realm with a Big City sense of enclosure and that gentle curve of the old country highway still pulling you onwards. A Welshman or Welshwoman standing on the same spot in Queen Street for 10 minutes is guaranteed to see someone they know from the chain of links that is Wales. Try it.

•CYNTWELL  In 1093 coastal Morgannwg was captured by murderous Norman freebooters and over the next century organised as a feudal economy. In the lower Ely valley those who weren’t slaughtered or didn’t escape to the hill country became slaves, servicing the extravagant lifestyles of the self-appointed bishops of Llandaf who had crushed the Celtic church and into whose manor the area had been incorporated. Throughout the entire medieval period the Ely valley remained undeveloped, populated by a few hundred Welsh speakers who lived off the land and paid tithes to fill the bishops’ larders. The only opportunities for advancement lay along the ancient highway across the coastal plain, the prehistoric trail and Roman Road which now assumed extra importance as the pilgrimage route between the two revered cathedrals of Llandaf and, 120 miles west, St David’s. Along this muddy, rutted, narrow track scattered resting places for weary, hungry and thirsty pilgrims began to appear. Half way between the ford over the river Ely and the long slog westwards up Tumbledown, Saint’s Well developed in an early example of exploitative niche marketing. By the time Catholic hegemony was overthrown in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, the enterprise was long forgotten but the name endured as a hamlet of tumbledown cottages along Cowbridge Road West deep into the 19th century. A peculiar, partial-Cymrufication to Cyntwell took place over time, probably due to misunderstanding by Victorian map-makers sent from London. Cyntwell had long disappeared due to road-widening when the Caerau housing estate was built in the 1950s and a few streetnames at this spot revived the name. It not only makes no sense in Welsh, English or Wenglish, but also sounds obscene to English-attuned ears if the Welsh ‘y’ is pronounced correctly. There never was a saint and there never was a well – so let’s go with this silly bastardisation.

GWAUN TREODA  Let’s travel back in time 3000 years to an aboriginal burial ground of the Silures, a Celtic tribe of tenacious longevity whose descendants still constitute the majority in today’s south-east Wales. On a tongue of sandstone above the flood plain and watered by a tributary stream flowing down from the Wenallt to the Taff at Llandaf, these common lands became the hub of the rich proto-Welsh culture in the lower Taff valley. After the 300-year Roman occupation the name Gwaun Treoda  (Meadow at Oda’s home – Oda’s identity has never been established) began to be applied to what had become an important gathering ground for the people of Cibwr in the cantref of Senghenydd, the administrative divisions in this part of the well-organised kingdom of Morgannwg. Anglo-Saxon attacks were fended off with the aid of Castell Cibwr, raised on the old burial ground, while Christianity established itself with an outlying chapel of Llandaf’s early church next to the castle. For a millennium Gwaun Treoda was integral to Welsh life until the long struggle against the Anglo-Normans between the 11th and 15th centuries eventually destroyed its significance (along with its church, castle and social sphere). The Normans replaced the Welsh structures with the controlling, oppressive, manorial and shire systems and the Latin church, and here Whitchurch developed. Gwaun Treoda was progressively nibbled away, the new turnpike road to Merthyr sliced through the shrinking area in 1767 and the name fell into disuse as Glamorgan anglicised in the 19th century. All that’s left today is the desultory, worn-out Whitchurch Common, barely 10% of Gwaun Treoda’s original area and lacking both communal pride and individual identification. But the name has clung on (in mutated form) in nearby Wauntreoda Road and Plas Treoda, and bilingual signing plus general re-Cymrufication give hope that perhaps the venerable story of Gwaun Treoda is not yet over.

•LOWER SPLOTT  In 1891 Cardiff’s East Moors were obliterated by the vast, fire-breathing Dowlais Iron Works, relocated from the windswept mountains of Dowlais Top 30 miles north. Founded in 1759, Dowlais had became the world’s greatest ironworks under the management of  John Guest (1722- 1785) and subsequently his grandson Josiah Guest (1785-1852). The Works had already been instrumental in the establishment of Cardiff as a major port, the Merthyr ironmasters Crawshay, Homfray and Guest having funded the construction of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1794 to facilitate the movement of their iron to the coast. Now the Dowlais Works would establish Cardiff as an industrial centre. The Glamorgan ores had run out so ores were having to be imported to Cardiff, taken by rail to Merthyr and then the finished product (principally rails) had to do the journey in reverse. To compete with other iron and steel makers the Guests agreed a lease with the Bute estate who owned the land and built their huge, integrated, state-of-the-art plant, at the time the world’s largest, in the perfect position to export from the just-completed Roath Dock (the original Works at Dowlais would limp on until final closure in 1930).

In 1895 a rectangular grid of terraced streets to house the workers and their families was constructed all down the east flank  of the new steelworks, from Walker Road to the Severn foreshore. Known as the Dowlais Cottages, they were solidly built with stylish late-Victorian gothic touches, and rapidly filled with workers moving from the dying iron towns of north Glamorgan. The legendary warmth and solidarity of the Welsh valleys came south and from henceforth Splott became the part of Cardiff most fitting the Welsh proletarian archetype. The blast furnaces and chimneys would dominate the city’s skyline for the next 87 years, spewing out phenomenal levels of pollution. For generations, Cardiff air was thick with soot, ash, acrid vapour and chemical fumes. By day the city was often shrouded in darkness as smoke and steam blocked out the sun, while at night a spectacular pyrotechnic show of leaping flames and arcing sparks roared and crackled. Dowlais wives got used to checking which way the wind was blowing before putting out their washing, lest it be covered in a fine red dust. The ear-splitting metallic clashing and hissing of the works, the volcanic explosions of red-hot slag being dumped into the sea, the deafening blasts of the hooter signalling a change of shifts and the 24-hours-a-day thundering of the coal and iron wagons on the encircling railways synthesised into an industrial-age symphony. Lower Splott was a tough place to live alright, but Cardiff has had few communities of such collective heft, neighbourliness, friendship and sheer happiness. In this environment the most famous Cardiffian of all time learnt all she needed to know about money, men and life: Shirley Bassey grew up at 132 Portmanmoor Road under the Dowlais chimneys. In another example of the folly of Cardiff planners, virtually all of Lower Splott was demolished in the early 1970s and the people dispersed to far-flung new estates at Pentwyn and St Mellons. The pretext was concern for health; the true motive the usual one of wanting to maximise land values. And, in any case, the demolition was soon made pointless by the closure of the steelworks in 1978 – a devastating blow to Splott from which it has still not recovered.

Only Aberdovey Street and Aberystwyth Street were spared, leaving stranded link Swansea Street as a thoroughfare without a single postal address on it until a couple of infill flats recently went up. Looking at the rather desirable surviving homes today, exactly the sort of inner-city houses people want to live in, it is infuriating that a special corner of Cardiff is no longer with us. The Dowlais Cottages made way for Moorland Park – a paltry, vandalised, ring-fenced fly-tip – and serried ranks of sprawling, lifeless, garbage-strewn ‘business parks’ where most of the jerry-built sheds stand permanently empty. The only vestiges of Lower Splott left are suggestive scraps of sandstone rubble nobody bothered to clear along Tidal Sidings and, incongruously, Bridgend Street Football Club. Playing at Willows School, with their HQ at the New Fleurs, the only remaining original building on Portmanmoor Road, Bridgend Street have climbed the Welsh soccer pyramid all the way from local Sunday leagues up to level 4 (Welsh League Division 3) and now only have four Cardiff clubs (Cardiff Met, Caerau Ely, STM Sports and Ely Rangers) to overhaul to become the city’s top-ranking Welsh football club. That’s some achievement for a club from a place that doesn’t exist – except in Splotties’ hearts.

Lower Splott diagram

Lower Splott diagram

NEWTOWN  Of all the vanished places in this list, only Newtown gets to have a memorial. Designed by David Mackie and unveiled by Charlotte Church in 2005, it’s a low Celtic Knot thingummyjig in brick and stone with Welsh and Gaelic script, located next to a budget hotel in Tyndall Street (the brothel of choice for Magic Roundabout prostitutes). Why, of all Cardiff’s lost communities, has Newtown alone been picked out for special treatment? The answer is in the greater political leverage wielded by Cardiff’s Catholics compared to all other groups – and that includes the Welsh.

We hear much of the Irishness of Liverpool, New York, Boston, Sydney etc, but it is a little-known fact that Cardiff, pro-rata, received more Irish immigrants than anywhere else on Earth in the tragic Irish diaspora of the 19th century. When the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848), already the richest man in the world thanks to Welsh coal, decided in 1846 to ship over 10,000 starving Irish fleeing the Great Famine, as cheap, passive, indentured labour to build docks and railways, undercut Welsh wages and break strikes, Cardiff had a population of 15,000. Virtually overnight, 40% of the town was Irish. And, in a bitter irony, of all the ethnic groups to arrive in Cardiff it was these Celtic cousins who would prove most resistant to assimilation, and these fellow sufferers under the English yoke who delivered the knock-out blow to Welsh as the majority language of the town. They were not from the lettered, radical Irish culture of Joyce, Behan, Wilde and Beckett, nor were they from the Irish tradition of rebellion and republicanism; they were from the illiterate, inward-looking, booze-sodden, Pope-fearing strand of Irishness, a strand with zero empathy for the Welsh cause. This sudden influx of so many essentially medieval people into a modern town caused major ruptures and set Cardiff’s social and political development back decades. Nonconformist, Welsh-speaking, politically radical, trade unionised Cardiffians did not gel well with the lumpen proletariat Catholics who undercut wages and lacked the awareness to do anything other than quake before power. The conservatism, backwardness, subservience and pathetic gratitude of these skeletal paupers erased what little radicalism and independent spirit Cardiff had managed to accrue in the face of centuries of feudal repression and turned it into the most rightwing, philistine place in Wales – a position it would take generations to shake off and, in many ways, an underlying handicap running through the contemporary city’s affairs. The children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Cardiff Irish became many things – but few became Welsh. Even now there is more likelihood of a first generation Cardiff Englishman embracing Welshness than a sixth generation Cardiff Irishman. British? Yes please! Welsh? Never! The reason for this masochistic eagerness to grovel before the very state that killed, persecuted, impoverished and starved their ancestors is quite simple: the Holy Father says so. To the Vatican, Cardiff is an archdiocese in somewhere called Englandandwales, a place invented in the 12th century by Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) in order to eliminate the distinctive and independent Celtic Church and assert papal power throughout Europe. And, since Popes are infallible and hand-picked by God: end of debate.  Pope Francis, the current incumbent (the 266th), seems perfectly content with this 800 year-old position. So, to an unreconstructed and unlapsed Catholic, Wales does not, and must not, exist. The time is long overdue for Welsh Catholics to ditch this insulting relic of conquest and campaign for independent status.

The 2nd Marquis of Bute, contrary to the sycophantic nonsense peddled about him in Cardiff ever since his son founded the Western Mail in 1869, was nothing more than the epitome of the new breed of monopoly capitalist for whom no amount of wealth and power was ever enough. He didn’t give a damn about Cardiff; he just wanted the cheapest labour he could find. With coal-ships returning empty to his dock and passing the Irish coast anyway, the ravenous hordes made for handy ballast too. Chucked off the ships before they entered the inner harbour, they had to crawl into Cardiff across the claggy inter-tidal muds, arriving in such a state that for years they were cruelly known as ‘mudflappers’. To house them, the Bute estate threw up Newtown in 1850 on either side of the Great Western Railway (GWR) and just north of the already existing 1839 dock. This was the first foray of the Butes into mass housebuilding and a very bad job was done indeed. The Irish were generally treated as sub-humans by the British establishment at the time, so no attempt at quality was made. The damp, insanitary, structurally-compromised 2-up-2-downs were crammed in around open drains with no concessions made to aesthetics. The homes routinely contained as many as 50 people each, living in conditions of gut-churning filthiness and regularly decimated by typhoid and dysentery. Surprisingly, these genuine slums outlasted the slightly later, much higher quality, Bute estate housing of Tiger Bay by nearly a decade, not being pulled down until 1966.  A point that needs repeating here to counter the misinformation put about by Newtown nostalgists is that Newtown was on BOTH sides of the GWR, not just the south. In fact the earliest streets built were on the north side, in Adamsdown (Pellett, Duffryn, Garth and Morgan). Next came more tiny streets in an eastward extension off an improved and widened Whitmore Lane which was renamed Adam Street (Godfrey, Ivor, Victoria, Davis, Kite and Buzzard), and only after that was Newtown extended south of the mainline railway (with a connecting footbridge, Pont Haearn, demolished in 2015) when Pendoylan, Thomas (soon renamed Roland), North William, Ellen and Rosemary Streets were completed in 1855. Cardiff’s ‘Little Ireland’ was born.

With the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) of 1841 forming Newtown’s western limits, the addition of the Rhymney Railway in 1858, sweeping down to the docks on a high embankment to the east, and then the gigantic Bute East Dock along with its canals and feeders in 1859, meant that Newtown quickly became entirely encircled by railways and waterways and even more of a monochrome ghetto. From the above chronology, incidentally, it can be seen that the frequently-heard claim that “the Irish built Cardiff” is not true. The three key infrastructure projects that turned Cardiff into the world’s carbon capital (the Glamorganshire Canal, the Bute West Dock and the TVR) already existed before the Irish arrived.  Surprise, surprise: the Welsh built Cardiff (the surprise being that it needs stating).

Newtown’s most famous son, champion featherweight boxer ‘peerless’ Jim Driscoll (1880-1925) from Ellen Street, where he lived all his life, is remembered today by a statue on Bute Terrace, dumbly positioned outside the preening tower of the Radison Blu hotel. Driscoll, whose premature death prompted the biggest funeral Cardiff has ever seen, fought as hard for his beleaguered community as he did in the ring, being instrumental in sanitation improvements and poor relief. He would have turned in his grave when the class warriors of Cardiff Council flattened Newtown in 1966 despite a long and passionate local campaign – the better to boost rateable income and clear the central city of undesirable proles (the Council achieved their aim and by the 1970s Cardiff city centre barely had a single resident; the next 30 years were then spent desperately trying to undo the policy and attract people back). The community was broken up and scattered out to new estates at Pentrebane and Trowbridge. To rub salt in the wounds, the light industrial ‘trading estates’ that were erected on the site have all in turn been demolished just 40 years later to become overflow car parks and empty lots where speculators are being induced to erect more unwanted office blocks (called, with thudding predictability, ‘Capital Quarter’ – two words worn to meaninglessness by overuse in Cardiff). After the scandalous removal of the Vulcan pub in Adam Street in 2012, nothing whatsoever remains of Newtown bar a tantalising fragment of wall in Ellen Street. Unless you count that Tyndall Street memorial.

RHYDWAEDLYD  In the late 11th century the Normans, having conquered England in four years flat and established a mighty militaristic state with imperialistic ambitions on battle-hardened Wales’ doorstep, turned their attention westwards. Gwent and Fflint were the first to fall and then in 1091 lowland Morgannwg was overrun by the terrorising troops of Robert Fitzhamon (c1050-1107) after a decisive battle near modern Rhiwbina (the precise location has never been established, key events in Welsh history having long been brushed under the carpet). The army of the last Welsh king of all Morgannwg, Iestyn ap Gwrgan (c1040-1093), was butchered somewhere near today’s Butchers Arms and such was the slaughter that the stream running past here down from the Wenallt was henceforth called Nant Waedlyd (Bloody Brook). Specialising in blinding, castrating, lynching, beheading and burning, Fitzhamon brought the derelict Roman fort in Cardiff back into use and set himself up as the first Lord of Glamorgan. An estimated 50,000 people were killed in his south-east Wales campaign – and it tells you all you need to know about Cardiff that the Welsh capital has not one single memorial to them yet happily commemorates the genocidal criminal Fitzhamon (as well as all his successor Lords of Misrule). Try to imagine a Hitler Boulevard in Paris and you’re getting warm.

The quick victory the Normans were used to achieving didn’t happen – partly because of the terrain, partly because the Welsh were past-masters of guerrilla tactics after long defensive wars against Romans, Vikings and Saxons, and partly because, unlike the motley and very recent Anglo-Danish aggregation of England, Wales had the patriotic fervour, evolved sense of identity and just cause around which to rally. By 1100 the Normans had been restricted to the low-lying fringes of Wales and for well nigh the next 350 years the Welsh fought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to evict the ever more powerful Anglo-Norman forces. The Welsh Wars of Independence, in which 25% of all Welsh people were killed, remain the longest armed conflict in history so far (I bet you didn’t know that).

Meanwhile, through the centuries, a significant hamlet grew where an ancient track down from the mountains forded the Nant Waedlyd. Called Rhydwaedlyd (Waedlyd Ford), it remained a pastoral Welsh-speaking backwater of thatched cottages, market gardens, tenant farmers, mills and  piggeries on the undulating, wooded slopes three miles from Cardiff right into the 20th century. The opening of the Cardiff Railway (CR) in 1909 was the beginning of the end. The CR, a Bute estate venture intended to grab even more of the coal trade, would be the last new railway built in the UK until the Channel Tunnel line in 2003. It was that rarity, a Bute blunder, and was never profitable, closing as a goods line by 1931, but it had a big influence on the spread of suburbia either side of its east-west route from Heath to Coryton – a shallow cutting that went right past Rhydwaedlyd. Among the suburbs that the railway induced was Rhiwbina, conceived as part of the utopian ‘Garden City’ movement. A group of Cardiff intellectuals (NOT a contradiction in terms, I’ll have you know!) led by Herbert Stanley Jevons (1875-1955), professor of economics at the University College, and inspired by the establishment of Letchworth Garden City in England in 1903, formed the Cardiff Workers’ Co-operative in 1912. They bought the lands of Pentwyn farm north of the CR and completed the first batch of houses in Y Groes, Lôn Isa and Lôn-y-Dail in 1913. Rhiwbina was born and Rhydwaedlyd was binned, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The eloquent Welsh names that are everywhere in Rhiwbina were devised with relish by WJ Gruffydd (1881-1954), poet, Liberal politician and Professor of Celtic Studies at the University. It seems odd that he could find no place for the original Welsh name, and odder still that he should choose the name of a farm nearly two miles away (still operating) up the Wenallt. Had he chosen the nearest farm, Rhiwbina would have been named Pentwyn (as it turned out, Cardiff got a suburb named after another Pentwyn three miles east in the 1970s anyhow).

Rhiwbina’s important attempt to bring co-operative living and common ownership to Cardiff was eventually undone by forces beyond the Co-op’s control. World War and economic depression meant the Co-op never had the resources to implement more than 20% of the plan; private developers took up their option on the remaining lands and made no bones about aiming their homes at the very rich; the competitive values of the Anglo-American profit motive took their toll; the broad mix of tenants from all classes gradually withered; a narrow, predictable spectrum of owner-occupiers extended Rhiwbina northwards and eastwards over adjacent farmlands; and the 1968 decision to sell the leaseholds of the original Garden Village marked the formal end of the experiment. In Rhiwbina’s 1930s heyday Cardiff’s Tory papers used to sneeringly call it “Little Moscow”; today it’s more like Little Chef, judging by the waistlines of the ‘independent’ councillors the ward keeps electing. Bloody shame.

•SALTMEAD  If you require clinching corroboration of the old Marxist maxim “all property is theft”, look no further than the peninsular between the mouths of the Taff and Ely rivers, Cardiff’s waterlogged West Moors of creeks and bogs, once a muddy estuarine habitat regularly inundated by the tides where nature had dominion. The native Celts established no settlements here, sensibly preferring to live on dry ground, but that respectful relationship between humans and this environment ended with the Norman assault on Wales in the late 11th century. The era of the robber barons began – an era that has not ceased to this day.

No less than nine times the West Moors have changed “ownership” in dodgy deals since that Norman seizure (via the bishop of Llandaf, the Cistercian monks of Margam Abbey, the de Clare dynasty, the Despenser dynasty, the Cistercians again, the English crown following the dissolution of the monasteries, the Lewis dynasty, the Windsor dynasty and finally the Windsor-Clive dynasty – the Earls of Plymouth). Scarcely credibly, most of the Plymouth’s vast holdings in Glamorgan are still in their hands. Today, in the digital age, the 1000-year-old injustice remains unrectified.

The creation of Grangetown was an accidental consequence of the Plymouth estate’s exploitation of their valleys collieries. They built the Penarth Railway (PR) and Penarth Road to get the coal out to their 1865 Penarth Dock, major infrastructure projects marching across the pristine Moors on curving embankments and forming the Grangetown framework around which workers’ housing was squeezed. To the north of Penarth Road the area bounded by an 1875 loop from the Great Western Railway to the PR was filled with terraced streets between 1880 and 1900 and for a while went by the name Saltmead. The massive influx of workers into the booming coal port meant there was no shortage of tenants for the small houses, despite the permanent damp and the extortionate rents that added further profits to the Plymouth estate’s groaning coffers. In this corner of Cardiff there was the now familiar injection of Irish but most came from England, particularly the depressed agricultural counties of the south-west – hence the Anglo-friendly Saltmead name and the streets named after English shires. In such backstreets the unique cocktail of Welsh lilt, Irish brogue and Devon burr coalesced into the inimitable Cardiff accent. Saltmead’s reputation never recovered from the problems of its damp-riddled housing stock, crumbling back into the briny marshes barely 10 years after completion owing to Plymouth estate pennypinching. It took decades to damp-proof and rehabilitate, by which time the Saltmead name had been quietly dropped – being a little too accurate a description of the area. Even main thoroughfare Saltmead Road was not allowed to retain the name, becoming Stafford Road. The embarrassing “Upper Grangetown” didn’t last long either, and now the much-altered but largely extant grid of streets is just an intriguing quarter of ‘the Grange’, Cardiff’s durable multi-cultural guts, fashioned from saltmarsh and sardonic back-chat.

•TEMPERANCE TOWN  Here is a Cardiff zone that repeated meddling has never managed to get right. In 1850 the Taff was straightened into a new cut as part of the immense works to gain ground for the South Wales Railway (later GWR) from Chepstow to Swansea. Right in front of the new station, on hastily-filled swamps that had been the bed of the river, Temperance Town was laid out in the 1860s in a tight block of eight streets: Saunders Road (in front of the station), Wood Street and Park Street running east-west; Havelock Street, Scott Street, Raven Street, Gough Street and Eisteddfod Street running north-south. The landowner, Edward Wood (1829-1897), was grandson of one of Cardiff’s all-time monsters, the utterly unscrupulous lawyer and banker John Wood (1755-1817) who made his fortune as Bute-appointed Town Clerk at the time of the enclosure of the Heath in 1801, setting his ancestors up for generations. Edward Wood was a self-righteous teetotal campaigner against demon drink, so Cardiff’s first purpose-built working class area didn’t have a single pub but did have a Temperance Hall on axis road Wood Street – hence its name. This crude attempt at social engineering failed (as have all efforts in Cardiff to fit people to the development rather than vice-versa). Temperance Town was soon the very definition of intemperance, with more illegal drinking dens, brothels and crime than anywhere else in Cardiff. And, because the cottages had been cheaply built with no thought to sanitation or structural integrity, within no time it was an unhealthy, dog-eared slum. The first thing visitors to Cardiff saw as they left the station could not have been calculated to give a worse impression, and the Council had Temperance Town earmarked for demolition as early as the 1890s.

They got around to it in 1937, galvanised by the GWR’s posh art deco Portland stone rebuild of the original station in 1934. Without consultation and ignoring the close-knit community’s opposition, the people of Temperance Town were dispersed to new estates at Leckwith, Ely and Tremorfa and their homes bulldozed. The site remained a large wasteland used as a car park until the Central Bus Station opened in 1954. The Council congratulated itself on its farsighted integrated transport hub and the exciting modernity of the surrounding office blocks that rose in the 1960s as the few remaining traces of Temperance Town along Wood Street were erased: the gothic 1879 Board School, the 1883 St Dyfrig’s Church and finally, in 1969, the neo-Georgian Temperance Hall itself (it had become Wood Street Congregational Chapel in 1869 and was Cardiff’s biggest Nonconformist place of worship).

The fate of each of the replacement developments encapsulates all the failings of Cardiff’s inept leadership. Terminal House had an expensive face-lift in 1984, but so irredeemably slimy and seedy had it become it was given up as a hopeless case and knocked down in 2009. The Empire Pool was demolished in 1998, just 40 years old, to make way for the grim grey box of the Millennium Plaza “entertainment complex”, already looking ripe for the attentions of Cardiff’s overworked demolition gangs. St David’s House would be largely empty were it not for charity shops and the offices of Cardiff Bus. Marland House rapidly became an oppressive hell-hole where Cardiffians went to claim Housing Benefit and get on the ever-lengthening housing waiting list, with scuzzy, low-prestige outfits like Spar, Londis and Burger King along the ground floor. Central Square in front of the station could not have been more inappropriately named – Peripheral Oblong is more like it – and its most impressive feature, David Pye’s hulking 1999 sculpture Cadair Idris, proved such a temptation for graffiti sprayers, weak bladders and vandals that it had to moved out of harm’s way to Hamadryad Park in Butetown. The interesting railway water tower stands peeled and stained, its 1986 bright yellow daffodil mural faded to a dirty smudge. Hideous Southgate House is mostly empty apart from an army recruitment office positioned brazenly to ensnare deprived and dim kids as they get off the trains. And, with exquisite irony, the planners’ own planning office was so badly planned it lasted just 30 years and now they’ve pulled that down too!  Now Council leader Phil Bale can be heard uttering the same hackneyed jargon as all his predecessors as it’s all swept away for the latest ‘masterplan’, with a completely unnecessary BBC Wales vanity project as the centrepiece. How embarrassing for the capital of Wales that visitors will soon be greeted by the very symbol of British contempt for Wales, a London-based organisation that abuses its virtual monopoly here by cutting Welsh programming by 40% in the last ten years and spending only £70 million of the £190 million annually raised from Wales by the license fee.  One thing’s for sure: the promised ‘dramatic overhaul’ will look nothing like the architect’s sketches. The fact is that 70 years of running round in ever-decreasing circles since old Temperance Town bit the dust have achieved the seemingly impossible: a marked deterioration. That mythic first-time visitor to Cardiff, emerging blinking from the station, has long been faced with pigeons, litter, chewing-gum, taxi ranks, bus shelters, building sites, empty offices, fast food outlets, Big Issue sellers, rent boys, winos, the British Army, Oxfam, Lifestyle Express and a general air of small town dilapidation as their introduction to the city. Prediction: the preening phalanxes of anonymous corporate concrete and glass currently rising will be even less impressive.

•TIGER BAY  For the full, calamitous tale of the rise and fall of Tiger Bay, see, and, to add insult to injury, the latest speculative development area alongside Roath Basin (one of Cardiff’s three surviving docks), based around new BBC studios and the heard-it-all-before aspiration to become “a European destination for the media and creative industries sector”, has been named Porth Teigr. This impertinent piece of hollow post-modern lip-service neatly sums up the Bay project’s bankrupt ideology: after being demonised and excoriated when it really existed, now it’s decided that Tiger Bay’s been safely dead long enough to be glibly name-checked in a crass lurch for rootsy credibility.

Butetown from the south, 1930s

Looking up Bute Street (right centre), 1930s

•TREDEGARVILLE  The Morgans of Tredegar were unusual among the large landowners of Wales in that they were actually Welsh, tracing their lineage back to Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132-1197), a king of Deheubarth famed for his triumphant 40-year resistance struggle against the Norman invaders of what is now Dyfed. The Morgan clan built up their holdings through all the vicissitudes across the centuries until they possessed vast swathes of Gwent and Glamorgan and, at the start of the industrial revolution, were the only serious rivals to Bute power in Cardiff. By then they had ditched their Welsh character and assimilated into the British landed gentry, scaling the peerage ladder via knight, baronet and baron to ultimately reach viscount. It was Charles Morgan (1792-1875), the 1st Baron Tredegar, who gave the go ahead for the Tredegarville development from his mansion at Tredegar Park near Newport in 1857. Covering orchards and pastures on either side of Roath Road (today’s Newport Road) between the just-completed Rhymney Railway and the ancient Plwcca Lane (today’s City Road), Tredegarville was Cardiff’s first expansion east of Crockherbtown and Cardiff’s first middle class suburb. Large opulent villas, aimed at the growing mercantile and professional classes, were laid out on a grid of streets to the designs of the Tredegar Estate architect William Habershon (1818-1892) and for a good half century this was one of Cardiff’s most successful and coherent neighbourhoods.

However, by the 20th century Tredegarville had been engulfed on all sides and the flight of the rich from the inner city saw the graceful Victorian housing gradually metamorph into offices, schools and surgeries. Luftwaffe bombs in 1941, road-widening after the war, a doomed attempt to turn Newport Road into Cardiff’s ‘financial district’ in the 1960s and speculative office developments on Fitzalan Road and Fitzalan Place (Tredegarville’s Grove Road and South Grove) in the 1970s meant nothing remained of Tredegarville south of Newport Road by 1980, apart from the primary school on Glossop Road, which also preserved the Tredegarville name. The demolition of all the superbly-detailed gothic villas was to no avail: most of the offices are either vacant or have been converted into student halls and half-empty apartment blocks, the dubious honour of being Cardiff’s business quarter shunted elsewhere (currently Callaghan Square). On the north side of Newport Road the entire magnificent stretch of Victoriana between Queen Street and City Road has gone barring Number 19, the 1858 Oddfellows House, originally the Spanish Consulate. Again, this was a category error by council planners: the ugly offices chucked up between the 60s and the 90s in their tawdry strivings for a mini-Manhattan at the behest of speculators are nearly all to let, meaning  Newport Road was wrecked for nothing.

What remains of Tredegarville can be seen on surviving streets The Walk, The Parade, West Grove and East Grove where the stuccoed villas, tree-lined avenues and spacious dimensions still appeal, notwithstanding time’s ravages and the glut of cosmestic dentistry practices, dodgy private schools and chartered accountants. Worth seeking out particularly is Cardiff & Vale College (formerly Coleg Glan Hafren) on The Parade, a creamy French Renaissance carnival built in 1895 (as Cardiff High School for Girls, which amalgamated with the High School for Boys and moved to Cyncoed in 1973). Also noteworthy is the Mansion House at the top of West Grove, a cumbersome stately pile built in 1891 for department store tycoon James Howell (1835-1909), and official residence of the Lord Mayor and venue for formal civic occasions since sold to the city in 1913. Howell’s previous house on The Walk is interesting; now flats and between 1920 and 1953 the Prince of Wales Hospital for limbless WW1 veterans, it’s a magisterial gothic hunk in Cardiff’s signature Pennant sandstone with an ornate cast iron entrance canopy plus a freakish replica in Radyr stone of the Neolithic cromlech at St Lythans in the front garden! Along with the primary school, Tredegarville Baptist chapel on East Grove, built in 1863 with ballast stone from around the world carried to Cardiff on the Cory coal-shipping fleet, is the last bearer of the Tredegarville name.

Cardiff & Vale College