Women of the streets

There are numerous streets bearing female names in Cardiff, particularly in the inner city. Have you ever wondered why? It isn’t the result of any feminist, egalitarian or emancipatory principles, since none of these anonymous women are formally memorialised and all are referenced by their Christian names only. Rather, it is one of the lingering legacies of Cardiff’s position as the fiefdom of a few super-rich aristocratic families at the time when the streets were being laid out in the Victorian era. Given a blank sheet of paper on which to stamp their personal power, and countless new streets to be allocated names as the population increase went off the graph, a handful of high and mighty men indulged themselves in a binge of nepotism, name-checking every female relative from live-in partners via bastard children to never-met distaff cousins. And, if ever stumped for another name, they ransacked the family tree for long-dead great grandmothers, aunts and mothers-in-law or rewarded their agents, advisers and employees with mentions of their wives and children. So, thanks to this entirely random, incidental and accidental process, disconnected from any Cardiff reality, the city’s street directory is thus a faintly ridiculous catalogue of otherwise forgotten duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, baronesses and posh ladies, most of whom never set foot in the place.

To find out who all these women actually were is complicated, tricky and time-consuming, especially as so many of them were saddled with forenames selected from the same tiny range of approved upper-class monikers. Soul-crushingly tedious sessions wading through Debrett’s and thepeerage.com are needed to untangle all the possibilities. There’s no point asking Cardiff council. Although responsible for street names, it devotes zero resources to the matter, restricting its service to rubber-stamping every Acorn Avenue and Catkin Close demanded by volume housebuilders imposing another ghastly, jerry-built speculation across the city’s green girdle. When I enquired, the only answer I managed to eventually extract from some undertrained ingenue at the council’s pitifully inadequate ‘C2C’ call centre was “try the Central Library”. He was blissfully unaware that the Local Studies department has left the building, evicted to make way for a needless coffee shop, and that Cardiff’s archives have been banished to the charming but poky branch library adjacent to Cathays Cemetery a mile north of the city centre. Yep, this Proud Capital™ is the only one in Europe that doesn’t keep its own records in its own primary library. Such massive contempt for Cardiff has been further rubbed in by the cringe-inducing, desultory new title foisted on the 1906 Arts & Crafts landmark on the Fairoak Road/Whitchurch Road corner: ‘Cathays Heritage Library’. Oh please…

Because every bus route goes to, from or through the city centre, it takes just one bus journey from anywhere in Cardiff to get to the Central Library, whereas only three bus-routes in total pass near Cathays Library and like all buses in Cardiff their frequency and reliability leave a lot to be desired. As for rail or any other mode of public transport, now steady on! Cardiff can have any amount of speculative scams dedicated to increasing the dividends of corporate shareholders, but essential amenities taken for granted in every other European capital like a fit-for-purpose public transport system? Don’t be silly! Mind you, one fine day in the far distant future, in a make-believe never-never land imagined by the Labour administration in the Senedd, Cardiff will have a splendid, shiny, comprehensive, rapid-transit Metro system. I’m sure 22nd century Cardiffians are going to appreciate it – assuming there’s still a habitable planet by then. Meanwhile, Cardiff’s written ‘heritage’ is out-of-bounds to most of us, crammed onto grubby shelving and filed away in dusty storerooms in the arse end of town while Ken Skates plays with his train set.

To me these women are intriguing. They had the pretty rare honour of having streets named after them, and yet this was never followed up by even a footnote in the annals – a nonsensical obviation of the entire purpose of naming that can only be explained by the out-and-out sexism and misogyny of the men picking the names, for whom women were mere gloss or decoration and of no intrinsic importance. Since all the women would have been unusually wealthy and well-travelled, and considering that life is amazing and eventful even for a penniless pauper who never leaves the house, it can be fairly safely assumed that they all had interesting lives. But Cardiff has never bothered to take its narrative undercurrents and urban fabric seriously, resulting in today’s shrivelled, shallow and disengaged place, so street names are just one more unimportant titbit chucked into the dustbin of history.

If anyone thinks that I’m going to use up vital weeks doing the research necessary to produce a definitive record of these women of Cardiff’s streets, they are very much mistaken. It isn’t just a matter of the effort involved; it is also the fact that, other than me, there isn’t a single person on the planet interested in the topic. Not that such considerations ever stopped me before…so, what I will do here is broadly sketch the dynastic influences in each of today’s inner-city wards. The Butes owned most of 19th century Cardiff, apart from scattered chunks of ground that had fallen into other hands and the ancient plots within the walled medieval core that predated their dominance – hence the preponderance of women with Bute Estate connections (streets that no longer exist in italics):

Adamsdown: Augusta, Moira (Bute Estate); Blanche, Helen, Nora, Theodora (Bradley Estate);
Butetown: Adelaide, Alice, Angelina, Christina, Eleanor, Ellen, Evelyn, Frances, Frederica, Hannah, Louisa, Margaret, Maria, Rosemary, Sophia (Bute Estate)
Canton: Daisy, Ethel, Nesta (Romilly Estate)
Cathays: Catherine, Charlotte, Flora (Bute Estate); Mary Ann, Millicent (Tredegar Estate); Fanny, Florentia, Gladys, Gwennyth, Letty, May, Minny (Wood Estate); Harriet (Mackintosh Estate)
Grangetown: None – the Plymouth Estate built Grangetown and had a policy of naming streets after their other possessions, Welsh coal towns, the places Grangetown’s English migrants had moved from, or themselves (Clare was one of the dynasty’s old Earldoms, not a person)
Riverside: Sophia (Bute Estate); Ann (Wyndham Estate)
Roath: Arabella, Diana, Violet (Mackintosh Estate); Lily, Rose (Roath Court Estate)
Splott: Corise, Cornelia, Elaine, Enid, Gwendoline, Margaret (Bute Estate); Adeline, Janet, Marian (Tredegar Estate); Florence (Bradley Estate)

The modern equivalent of the Bute Estate would be a rapacious corporation like Redrow Homes, currently plastering their stunningly ugly mega-developments across the precious, irreplaceable countryside around Cardiff, encouraged, enabled and approved by the Labour council and the Labour Welsh government. In complete disregard of climate change, habitat destruction, species extinction, air pollution, aesthetics, architecture and the future itself, this shocking avalanche of concrete, breeze-blocks, cheap bricks and generic ‘executive’ ghettos is occurring right now at entirely superfluous new outer suburbs called, with predictable glib aspirational signalling, ‘Churchlands’, ‘Parc Plymouth’, ‘Cae St Fagans’, ‘Rhiwlas’ and ‘Cwrt Sant Ioan’.  Prices in the first batch completed start at £310,000 for ‘The Ludlow’ and rise to £555,555k for ‘The Highgate’ (oooh, there’s classy), making the hideous houses wildly unaffordable to 95% of Cardiff, where the average income is £25k a year. Why are they being built? Because Labour in Wales, having long abandoned even mildly redistributive Keynesian economics and become more capitalist than the ‘Fuck Business’ Conservatives, is now a pathetic prisoner of ‘Growth Dependency’ in order to disguise the lack of a functioning, healthy economy. For reasons that nobody in Welsh Labour can ever explain, ‘Growth’ is an end in itself – and is always meant literally as sheer size. The resulting inevitable flurries of economic activity (more building, more people consuming etc) are not an achievement, but merely as artificial, contrived, temporary and useless as the bulging biceps of some steroid-hooked gym bunny – and as unimpressive as reviving a smouldering fire by chucking a can of petrol on it. True ‘growth’ would be to improve, learn, progress and prosper with what you have already and without harming, exploiting or diminishing anyone or anything else – now that would be an achievement.

But I digress. Returning to the women listed above, over the years I have garnered biographical info about a few of them, but nowhere near enough to yet constitute an in-depth piece. For now, to give just a hint of the many untold stories, I will pick out one of them: Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard (1854-1932) – whose name was tweaked to the more orthodox spelling ‘Gwendoline’ in the humble Splott backstreet named after her.

From a branch of the immensely rich and powerful Fitzalan-Howard dynasty led by the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle in Sussex, Gwendolen was the daughter of the 13th Duke’s second son, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Glossop (1818-1883) and Augusta Talbot (1831-1862), from the equally loaded and influential family of the Earls of Shrewsbury. Scions of English Catholicism, they had seven children altogether and all, bar one confirmed bachelor, married advantageously into the same inbred and stratospheric strata of privilege. Youngest daughter Gwendolen did best of all. In 1872, only 18 years old, she snapped up John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900) and Lord of Cardiff.

The famous Caroline Aherne (1963-2016) joke comes to mind when one wonders what on earth attracted young Gwen to the podgy, bookish and self-obsessed richest man in the world. Only eight when her mother died, she was brought up in wings of Arundel Castle and lavish Belgravia mansions by governesses and relatives while her busy father, a Liberal MP from 1848 to 1868, remarried within a year and was a remote, distant figure. That doesn’t mean she was looking for the-love-she-never-had when marrying the Marquis. The aristocracy don’t operate like that; all their marriages are in essence arranged marriages, tactical alliances to accrue assets and ensure a continued life of luxury. In a way, it’s more honest than the specious ‘falling in love’ myths of the ordinary marriage – usually nothing more romantic than a combination of peer pressure, cultural indoctrination, social expectation and lust.

Gwendolen rarely visited Cardiff except when required to do her duty at her husband’s side at formal functions. She spent her days having four babies and running the household at the Bute family seat, Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute off the west coast of Scotland. The original 1719 building was completely rebuilt and enlarged in 1880 after a major fire in 1877 (luckily she was in the Bute’s mainland winter home, Dumfries House in Ayrshire, at the time), and turned into a flamboyant mansion by Scottish architect Robert Rowand Anderson (1834-1921), aided by the Marquis’s Cardiff Castle collaborator William Burges (1827-1881), who added his trademark fabulous neo-Gothic embellishments. Here Gwendolen raised her four children, Margaret (1875-1954), John (1881-1947), Ninian (1883-1915) and Colum (1886-1957), wined and dined, selected soft furnishings, hired and fired, looked out across the Firth of Clyde to the mountains and the Western Isles, and tolerated her moody husband’s frequent disappearing acts. He was forever otherwise engaged pursuing an extraordinary sweep of interests and obsessions, religion, medievalism, antiquarianism, architecture, linguistics and all the sciences in particular, and when he wasn’t ensconced in his magnificent library he would be stomping through the Holy Land on some wacky occult hunt. She wouldn’t have minded at all: she could do her own thing, take long shopping interludes based at the Bute’s London mansion, or wallow in absurd luxury in the Scottish palace, bathing in the world’s first heated pool in the glow of Scotland’s first house to have an electricity supply. If I could add that she fucked with one of the stable lads while hubby was away, I would. But I don’t know that, so I won’t – mainly for fear of straying further into Downton Abbey territory.

Money was not even a consideration, since the 3rd Marquis set the bar high as one of the most profligate spenders in history. Oh yes, Gwendolen was having a wonderful life…but her husband’s mounting health problems gradually and inexorably tarnished everything. He had what was then called Bright’s Disease, today it is known as acute nephritis – aka kidney failure. Some of his ancestors had it too, so maybe there was a genetic cause. The many unpleasant symptoms include heart disease and high blood pressure and this brought about a series of ever-more debilitating strokes from 1896 until his death in Dumfries House in 1900 at age 53. Gwendolen was a widow at age 46.

Eldest son John, who became the 4th Marquis, inherited the Bute Estate and all its colossal assets, including Mount Stuart House, while the other three children each got £100,000 (£8.5 million in today’s values). Lest we forget, all this lucre was kindly supplied by Welsh coal. Gwendolen was well looked after, of course, but the systemic and institutional disempowerment of all women in that era meant she had no property and financial rights and had to settle for whatever her children bestowed. She was gently uncoupled from her Mount Stuart House paradise and deposited in a four-storey Georgian townhouse in Marylebone, central London. There she lived as the very archetype of the cobwebbed dowager through 32 years of widowhood until her death at the age of 78.

I fancy they were not happy years: bereavement, dislocation, purposelessness and the poignancy of glories past were compounded by the death of second son Ninian in 1915 in the Battle of Loos during WW1. Few parents can bear outliving their children. Holidays on the French Riviera and London’s many consolations…the lunches, the cocktail parties, the boxes at the theatre, the Regent Street shops…would not have consoled.

Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard at least was spared living long enough to see what is being done to her family’s Cardiff legacy. Howard Gardens, one of the last patches of public open space in the city centre, has been summarily privatised and then obliterated by oppressive, overbearing blocks of ‘student flats’ erected by hedge funds to exploit planning loopholes and get around restrictions and minimum standards. When they remain unfilled, as many blocks are in Cardiff because no sane student wants to or can afford to live in them, they are then let out to tourists and temporary visitors on short-term leases and, lo, the planning laws have been trashed. As Cardiff’s skyline is turned into a forest of aggressively ugly empty buildings for which there is no demand, and the council takes its usual position of being the apologist for unscrupulous profiteering and defender of the indefensible and prepares to nod through all the planning applications in the pipeline, I can’t help thinking that the unelected toffs and nobs of the past were enlightened, honourable and scrupulous in comparison. There can be no greater indictment of Cardiff council than this: they are poisoning the very idea of democracy.

The gardens where Gwendolen cut the ribbon in 1890 are gone. Land originally stolen by violence then given back to Cardiff by aristocratic largesse has been stolen again – but this time by those who are supposed to represent us. Oh, how I envy you Gwendolen! You are a lucky, lucky woman: you are dead.