The trouble with Splott

Splott’s not got a lot going for it. Where do I begin? No bank; one solitary pub hanging on for dear life; scarcely a useful shop or viable business; a library and community centre scheduled to make way for a block of flats; a medical centre with an appointment system perfectly calibrated to make getting an appointment impossible; a scarred, filthy environment splattered with dog shit and strewn with immense quantities of litter; rat-run roads clogged with particulate-spewing traffic; acres of half-abandoned, jerry-built trading estates; a complete absence of nature let alone any pleasant, green open spaces; and a compliant, conventional, small ‘c’ conservative, culture-free population of utterly unaware and uninformed tools of the powerful, a depoliticised, cowed peasantry spoon-fed their every thought and emotion by prime-time telly and tabloid headline, the better to meekly do the bidding of their overlords. And that’s just the good points!

Splott’s very best attribute is the uniform grid of workers’ housing plonked on the flat East Moors by the Bute Estate and the Tredegar Estate between 1869 and 1899. These streets have survived largely extant – the area having so far had more use as a smokestack industrial zone and all-purpose rubbish dump than as a honey-pot for ‘developers’. Nobody could describe the warren of Pennant sandstone terraces as beautiful, but the huddled, understated houses with their modest late-Victorian gothic touches and congruent proportions have mellowed well under a century of cloud-banked Cardiff skies. Archetypal inner-city streetscapes like this, with their free access, multiple route variations, front-on alignments, delineated intimacy, social possibilities and enticing vanishing points, are no longer built: speculators can get more profit for their square footage these days with tower-blocks, gated ghettos and aloof cul-de-sacs. So, as time goes by, Splott’s very featurelessness, utilitarianism and lack of asinine post-modern statements make it more and more appealing; a refreshing counter-blast to the panting property-porn pitch that prevails in much of Cardiff.

The pleasing rhythm of the streets’ homogeneous elevation is interrupted only rarely by the occasional higher building – usually a former chapel or pub. Of all these non-domestic structures by far the most distinguished and important is the University Settlement/St Illtyd’s complex off Courtenay Road. Discounting the magnificent 1887 Maltings, built away from the housing on East Tyndall Street, this is the precious jewel in Splott’s pretty mediocre architectural crown. Therefore…you know what’s coming…there are well-advanced plans to demolish it.

The University Settlement (U.S.) movement was inspired by writer, painter and social reformer John Ruskin (1819-1900). It had the high aim of breaking down the rigid class-barriers between rich and poor by facilitating their inter-mixing and interaction through social services and education in purpose-built premises and thereby furthering the cause of an advanced, egalitarian society. The first U.S. house was Toynbee Hall, built in London’s East End in 1884, while the movement’s first branch in Wales opened in 1901 in two shops knocked together on Splott’s Portmanmoor Road under the chimneys of the steelworks. The driving force behind the spread of the U.S. movement to Cardiff was Ronald Burrows (1867-1920), noted archaeologist and Professor of Greek at the University College. By 1904 Splott U.S. was able to construct its own building a little to the east on Courtenay Road, designed by Scottish architect Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951).

Schultz, who straddled the transition between the late Arts & Crafts and early Modern architectural movements, is nowadays recognised as a major architect. Through his 50-year career he designed a dazzling range of structures distinguished by their originality, proportionality and straightforwardness, and all underpinned by his firm belief that buildings should reflect their particular function and work in harmony with their unique setting. His masterpiece was the extraordinary Anglican Cathedral in Khartoum, Sudan, while most of his bread-and-butter work was in Scotland for his main client the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900), particularly some enchanting Arts & Crafts cottages, including exquisitely crafted furniture and fittings, on the Isle of Bute itself. Through this connection to Cardiff’s barking-mad feudal baron, Schultz was commissioned to design what would be his only building in Wales.

Courtenay Road (originally Walker Road until renaming in 1916) along with Farmville Road and the bottom of Moorland Road were the last roads in Splott to be laid out at the end of the 19th century. This was Tredegar Estate territory – the road was named after Courtenay Morgan (1867-1934), the 3rd Baron Tredegar. With deep Welsh roots, the Tredegar Estate was not solely motivated by the pursuit of money and thus the comparatively enlightened Baron of Ruperra Castle was persuaded by Burrows to donate the plot opposite the still functioning Lower Splott Farm to the U.S. movement.

Schultz produced a typically sombre, subtle set of structures, a peculiarly affecting mix of down-home rusticity with learned, low-key Byzantine hints. Oxford graduates were billeted in the cute buildings, which included a gymnasium, library and classrooms in a maze of intriguing quarters stretching back from University Place. The utopian intellectuals educated and interacted with the poor and disadvantaged people of Splott on a daily basis, a philanthropic venture that changed many lives (and launched one of Cardiff’s most famous baseball teams, Splott U.S.). All was undone by WW1. Many of the young workers and academics joined the forces, never to return from the carnage in France, the buildings were requisitioned as a military hospital and activity ceased. It proved impossible to resume the project after the War, so many having died or dispersed, and the inspiring experiment was formally wound up in 1924 (the settlement movement disappeared throughout the UK in the 1920s, but continued to play a significant role in the USA until the 1950s).

St Illtyd’s College, founded by the proselytising ‘De La Salle Brothers’ and the first Catholic grammar school in Wales, took over the building. Most of Schultz’s works were removed to be replaced by a stern brick edifice, designed in-house, that still manages to startle and satisfy, looming unannounced above Splott’s terraced vernacular. Parts of the U.S. at the end of University Place were retained and incorporated into the College. St Illtyd’s became a pivotal Cardiff institution where the ferocious ‘Brothers’ flailed many a backside under the motto they had carved in stone on the Courtenay Road façade ‘Duw a Digon’ (God is Enough). Badly bombed in 1941, the overcrowded school moved to Rumney in 1964, where it remains to this day as St Illtyd’s High School. St Illtyd’s retains a presence in Splott at the Old Illtydians club. After periods accommodating small workshops, the College gradually declined into today’s vacant dilapidation, perfectly symbolising the trumping of idealism by materialism in Cardiff.

Splott US

Now ambitious local property developers J R Smart have slapped in an outrageous planning application that seeks to demolish the whole complex and replace it with three speculative blocks of flats. Concerted opposition from councillors, the AM, the MP, local residents and conservation groups has galvanised heritage body CADW into belatedly applying for listed status for St Illtyd’s and the remaining Schultz vestiges. The application currently sits in culture minister Ken Skates’ in-tray. It goes without saying that Skates should grant the listed status and foil Smart’s plans – but that doesn’t mean he will. The family-owned company seems to have powerful friends in Welsh government. Their Capital Business Park in Wentloog and Capital Quarter in Tyndall Street have both been hugely assisted by the Assembly taking out leases on what would otherwise be empty office blocks, and they hold such sway that the Capital Quarter actually includes a road called Smart Way and a pedestrian footbridge over the railway called Smart Bridge – as objectionable and naff as, say, Hayes Bridge Road being named John Lewis Avenue.

Mr Skates and Mr Smart should be smart, stop skating on thin ice and check out the former Lower Splott Farm/St Saviour’s vicarage on the other side of the road, now St Saviour’s Nursing Home, to see how old buildings can be sensitively and imaginatively adapted to new uses without resorting to demolition. And if they really want to contribute to the area, there are two appalling eyesores that greet you on entering Splott crying out for their investment and expertise: the crumbling 1892 Mount Hermon Chapel and the burnt-out shell of the 1913 Splott Cinema; eloquent rebukes to free-market economics and demoralising announcements that round here nobody cares. And that, come to think of it, is the trouble with Splott.

Picture: Linda Bailey