Convent of the Good Shepherd
Tŷ Gwyn Road
William Burges (1827-1881) is recognised today as one of the greatest architects of the 19th century, if not of all time. The supreme exponent of the Gothic revival and a true artist of astounding creativity, he has been ranked in the same league as “the creator of the Sphinx and the designer of Chartres Cathedral”. Because he didn’t start designing buildings until he was 36 and died when he was only 53, he had a mere 17 years as an active architect and thus didn’t have enough time to complete many works – especially as his painstaking, perfectionist, contemplative approach and sociable lifestyle meant each individual project took years. So there are not many Burges’ works in the world, making each as precious as, say, a Rembrandt painting. Cardiff is therefore extraordinarily blessed to be home to the two acknowledged masterpieces in the entire Burges’ portfolio, Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, not to mention Park House, Castle Mews and the Animal Wall. Would it surprise anyone if I now reveal that Cardiff has had the epic idiocy to dispense with no less than THREE Burges’ works? I thought not. His fantastic 1875 Swiss Bridge across the moat was dismantled in the 1960s after years of neglect. His exquisite 1880 Summerhouse in Bute Park was just allowed to rot before being removed to the St Fagans National History Museum in 1988. And the Convent of the Good Shepherd, a charitable gesture by the devoutly Catholic 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900) for homeless, poor and ‘fallen’ women and girls, built in 1872 on the rolling pastures of Tŷ Gwyn farm, was shockingly torn down in 1970 to make way for the embankments and cuttings of the Eastern Avenue (A48) trunk road from Gabalfa to St Mellons and the limp generic modernism of St David’s Catholic Sixth Form College. Just try to imagine Barcelona doing the same to a Gaudí, London to a Wren or Paris to a Le Corbusier! Busy Billy Burges had been a consultant for the overall project and directly contributed the chapel, so we can be sure the sprawling complex on Penylan hill would have been something special. The chapel was cleverly formed by converting a barn, and Burges stuffed it with his trademark artistry and Gothic flourishes: an ornate altar, a spectacular baldachin (altar canopy), rose and lancet windows, vivid wall-stencilling, a gorgeous frieze and a bell tower. But since virtually all records of the Convent have conveniently disappeared, it isn’t mentioned in the Burges records either and photographs of it are few and far between, it’s difficult to grasp the beauty of what was lost. All I have been able to find are these tantalising glimpses plus a murky aerial photograph:
Chapel exterior and interior shortly before demolition
The Cory Hall was built in 1896 by John Cory (1828-1910) of Cory Brothers, a colossal shipping, coal-mining and coal-exporting business based in Cardiff. Located opposite Queen Street Station on the Station Terrace/North Edward Street corner, it was designed by that well-known architect ‘Anon’ and was a stern, chunky, idiosyncratic presence in rusticated Bath stone with a red-brick upper storey encircled with oval windows separated by faux-classical pillars and topped by parapets and pediments. Cory, a strict Wesleyan Methodist teetotaller and ‘free trade’ Liberal, was a philanthropic man who took his Christianity seriously, using a substantial percentage of his enormous wealth to do conspicuous good works all over Cardiff. He presented the building to the Temperance Society of Cardiff and it opened as a venue for high-minded, moralistic, self-improving lectures, readings, music recitals and religious assemblies. Over the years the religious remit slackened somewhat (although it always remained alcohol-free) and usage gradually widened to include political rallies, trade union conferences, educational seminars, special interest societies’ AGMs, reunions, celebrations, light entertainment shows and full-on concerts. It was the scene of many a momentous event, including the famous David Lloyd George (1863-1945) “peace at home” speech to the Welsh miners union in 1915 and the infamous ‘Battle of Cory Hall’ in 1916, when violent gangs of far-right thugs viciously attacked a pacifist meeting. Embedded into Cardiff history and the ebb and flow of Cardiff life, it was an authentic ‘hub’, a public amenity known and used by all and an intrinsic component of the engaged and healthy civic society that Cardiff once sought to foster. There is no equivalent in Cardiff today (no money in it). The Cory Hall was left high and dry by dereliction all around it during the 1960s and 1970s as the council sold the ground beneath our feet to property developers and all the residential terraced streets south of Queen Street were demolished in preparation for the transformation of Cardiff into a homogenised clone-town. The trustees sold up and the grand old Cory Hall was recklessly wiped out in 1983, along with the distinguished 1900 YMCA Building next door (another Cory gift to Cardiff), and replaced by the unbelievably awful and instantly superfluous Capitol Centre shopping mall. It’s criminal.
There was an excellent article in the Western Mail last week (those are words I never thought I’d write!) in which Laura McAllister scrutinised the scandalous disappearance of Cardiff’s public toilets and the damaging consequences this is having for all of us – especially women, the old, the sick and the disabled. As she rightly asserts, “providing essential amenities in the public sphere is a mark of a civilised society” – and by that reckoning Cardiff is very uncivilised place indeed. Despite having a one-trick economy dependent on generating as much consumerism as possible, the city centre ridiculously has hardly any public loos left other than those in the few remaining public buildings (Library, Museum, Market) plus a handful of scattered automated boxes that only the very desperate and very brave would consider entering. If you get an unanticipated call of nature you are supposed to sneak into the bogs of a private business like a pub, restaurant or shop and hope the proprietor is understanding. “Inconvenient” is an understatement. Blame ultimately rests with the UK Tory government that has cut local government funding by an incredible 77% since 2010 and forced councils everywhere to reduce all services to the bone – especially free services that don’t involve a financial transaction like the provision of toilets. But Cardiff council shouldn’t be exonerated either, since they so avidly implement the London cuts agenda with no compunction, no resistance, no imagination and no suggestion the destruction will ever be reversed. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Cardiff had public toilets galore, mostly built during the 1870-1920 coal-boom era. Of course, this provision was mainly for men simply because the public domain itself was structured mainly for men. A few ‘lavatories’ catering to both ladies and gents existed, but the vast majority were male-only ‘urinals’ – as they were termed with refreshingly clinical bluntness. These khazis ranged widely in style, from the ornately luxurious in underground chambers via cute mock-rustic cottages in parks through to rudimentary troughs in a tin can open to the elements. Restricting myself roughly to the inner city – or else, rather like a constipated sloth, we’ll be here all day – loos have been lost at: Kingsway, by the Castle wall; the Bus Station in Wood Street; Cooper’s Fields, by the West Lodge; the Public Wharf at the top of the West Dock; Penarth Road, adjacent to the Taff bridge; Herbert Street, under the railway bridge; Bute Street, opposite St Mary’s church; Stuart Street, near the junction with Bute Street; the Pierhead, close to the West Dock Basin; Ferry Road, at the end of Clive Lane; Grange Gardens; Llandaff Fields; Roath Park; Roath Rec; the five-way junction on Holmesdale Street; the four-way junction at the southern end of Cathays Terrace; the bottom of Crwys Road; the top of Splott Road; Penlline Street; Four Elms Road; Hills Street and Grangetown Station. The facilities at Victoria Park, Thompson’s Park, Museum Avenue and Whitchurch Road still survive as buildings, but have been sold off or stand derelict, while the glorious, high-specification slice of Grade 2 Listed Victoriana under Hayes Island, having been outrageously closed by the council in 2013 shortly after a £150,000 refurbishment, was only eventually reopened after being outsourced to the Hayes Island Snack Bar – a cheapskate and ultimately unsustainable abdication of responsibility which involves the low-level humiliation of having to obtain an entry code from the Snack Bar in order to descend those worn steps to the crappers’ cathedral of glazed tiles, porcelain, cast-iron and mahogany below.
I will end this with a lament for Cardiff’s ultimate urinal. I remember it as if it were yesterday…silent, deserted Burt Street and Harrowby Place in the early 70s…the warm summer sun beating down from a cloudless sky…gulls gliding and circling overhead…the salty tang of the flood tide racing across the mudflats…those rows of utilitarian cubicles with unlockable saloon bar doors arranged around an open-air walled courtyard…that handsome stranger loitering at the entrance…oh yes, I remember it well. Later, I couldn’t resist telling a friend about it. “I met a great guy down the docks this afternoon,” I said. “Who was he?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I replied, “he didn’t take his hat off.”
Wales Empire Pool
Only two generations of Cardiffians ever had the pleasure of experiencing the wonderful Wales Empire Pool. Yet if ever a building was designed to last it was this modernist showstopper, built by the council on the site of disused timber yards and saw-mills beside the Taff in time for the 1958 Commonwealth Games. The very definition of a public asset, the Olympic-sized swimming and diving pool was paid for, owned by and aimed at the people of Cardiff and designed in-house by the City Architects Department under John Dryburgh (1918-1991) and the City Surveyors Department under Edward Roberts (1906-1979), with expert assistance from structural engineering guru Oscar Faber (1886-1956), whose death during the design stage meant his consultancy partners completed his contribution. Imposing without being overbearing, it was a sleek, understated essay in airy mid-50s optimism. The rich orange-brick oblong featured a yawning triple-decker centrepiece of concrete pillars and mullioned glass and a dramatic grid of cube-like recessed windows that continued around each side, all topped by a single-span, overvaulting chequered dome and secured by Faber’s state-of-the-art deep-piling through the alluvial muds into the bedrock. The interior was, if anything, even better. Flooded with natural light from the ranks of skylights in the dome, the echoing, capacious foyer, stairwells, changing rooms and spectator facilities utilised high quality materials in a set of streamlined spaces replete with chrome, parquet and hand-painted tiling, while the pool itself was a steeply shelving monster rippling across translucent blue tiles flanked by tiers of 2,000 tip-up seats, dizzy diving boards at the deep end and a delightful Art Deco cafeteria behind huge plate glass windows at the other. More than this, the pool was a statement of Welsh nationhood, marking Wales’ first-ever hosting of an international event as well as Cardiff’s new status, granted in 1955, as the capital of Wales. It was greeted with tremendous local enthusiasm, rave reviews in the architectural journals and general critical acclaim, and instantly became a much-loved and much-used public amenity integral to the city.
And in 1998, a mere 40 years later, it was bulldozed into oblivion. Despite widespread opposition, all that expenditure of creativity, ingenuity, resources, labour, social value and collective good was wantonly thrown away, simply because the WRU insisted it must be sacrificed to help fund their nearby stadium development. In its place was erected the cheap’n’nasty Millennium Plaza (today called Stadium Plaza), an utterly inessential, barrel-scraping “entertainment complex” that has turned out to be nothing more than a vehicle for various hedge funds looking to leverage debt. There could hardly be a better example of how Cardiff has been taken over by corporate capitalism, how commercialisation and monetisation now dictate all planning decisions, how local government has been castrated by the centralising British State and reduced to a passive observer outsourcing the contracts, and how the public realm has been asset-stripped, plundered and privatised. Today it is unthinkable that Cardiff council would embark on any such project. In 2008, by which time the swimming habit was all but extinct in Cardiff, the Wales Empire Pool was replaced by the ‘Cardiff International Pool’ in the bleak ‘International Sports Village’ down the Bay (Cardiff is far too grand to do ‘national’ these days). Already shabby, this privately-run, cramped, infantilised hellhole, inaccessible to Cardiffians without a car and cold-shouldered by Cardiffians with a semblance of discernment, is but a pale, insulting simulacra of what has been lost.
Pictures: J Osborne Long/St Peter’s Church Archive, RCAHMW, WalesOnline, pinterest, People’s Collection Wales