In 1870 the Liberal government of William Gladstone (1809-1898) passed the Elementary Education Act, the first attempt by the British State to establish a basic public education system for all children. The Act gave local authorities the power to fund schools through local taxes and set up School Boards to establish schools for children between the ages of five and 12 in areas where existing schooling was inadequate. Cardiff, with its incoherent hotch-potch of charity schools, church schools and dodgy private ventures and where scarcely a quarter of children were in receipt of any formal education at all, was very much one of those areas. So, between 1878 and 1902 (when the system changed and the concept of primary and secondary schools was introduced) Cardiff acquired 19 brand new elementary schools (+ one higher elementary) – dubbed ‘Board Schools’. To provide enough school places for the offspring of the exponentially expanding town, as well as allow for the separation of girls and boys within each school plus a separate building for infants, the schools had to be built on a grand scale with room for expansion. Moreover, as the first substantial, purpose-built schools of Cardiff, tangible symbols of civic pride, collectivism and progressive values erected at a time when the discipline of school architecture was in its idealistic infancy, they were all constructed to the highest possible standards of design, utility, structural engineering and aesthetics. Oh yes, the Board Schools of Cardiff were something to behold. But 11 of the 20 are no more and just nine remain. This is their story.
The first to open in 1878 was Eleanor Street Board School, superbly positioned on a small isthmus jutting out into the inter-tidal muds of the Severn estuary with fantastic vistas of the Sea Lock of the Glamorganshire Canal, the mouth of the Taff and the Ferry Road swing bridges westward to Grangetown. Flanked by the elegant terraced houses of Windsor Esplanade and North Terrace (later renamed Penarth Terrace), home to sea captains, ship masters and merchants, and overlooking a small park full of trees and ornamental plants, the school was set in a comparatively peaceful, secluded haven, in stark contrast to the chaos and clamour of the docks to the east and the ships out in the estuary entering and leaving the booming coal port. The School Board had a policy of distributing its commissions to local architects and, since Eleanor Street was on Bute Estate land, the honour of designing the inaugural school went to the Bute Estate’s in-house architecture team led by youthful Edwin Corbett (1849-1934). Corbett would go on to design many striking buildings in his home town, including the County Club in Westgate Street, the Institute of Engineers in Park Place, the Hamadryad Hospital and the looming array of neo-Gothic houses along Cathedral Road and Ninian Road. Here he delivered a chunky, dignified edifice in Pennant sandstone with red brick embellishments, Bath stone dressings featuring beautifully carved calligraphy, and the Gothic flourishes that were such a trademark of Victorian Cardiff. Across the playground to the rear was a delightful mini-version for infants.
Generations of docks’ kids passed through the school’s arched portals before it was all knocked down in 1973 (by when it was a primary school) as part of the wholesale ‘redevelopment’ of Butetown which had begun in the late 1950s with the eradication of Tiger Bay to the north – and hasn’t really ceased to this day. The school, Penarth Terrace and most of Eleanor Street itself were required to make way for the Butetown Link dual carriageway, which emerged from its tunnel at precisely this spot. The surviving stump of Eleanor Street was reconfigured into Eleanor Place and filled with cheap’n’nasty ‘maisonettes’ (i.e. shoe-boxes). At the same time a replacement school, Mount Stuart Primary, was opened in Adelaide Street on the opposite side of the Butetown tunnel. Initially nothing more than rudimentary prefabs, it was eventually rebuilt in 1996 as an inviting pair of silver-roofed space-age spheres. Here Betty Campbell (1934-2017), pioneer educator in the fields of black history, colonialism, slavery and civil rights and redoubtable defender of the besieged Butetown community, worked for 30 years as Wales’ first black headteacher.
Later in 1878 Wood Street Board School opened, an elaborate, fairytale concoction near the east bank of the Taff designed by leading Cardiff architect of the time George Robinson (1832-1914) – whose surviving buildings in Cardiff include the Racquets & Fives Club in Westgate Street (now the WRU gift shop) and Insole Court in Llandaf. Wood Street was the spinal cord of Temperance Town, a grid of eight streets laid out in the 1850s on the former bed of the river, which had been diverted westward in 1850 to gain ground for the mainline railway from Chepstow to Swansea and the Central Station. When the Board School was built Wood Street was a cul-de-sac, stopping at the river. In 1890 it was linked to Tudor Street in the brand new Riverside district being built on the west side of the river by Wood Street Bridge, so turning Wood Street into a major route across Cardiff and ending Temperance Town’s period as a self-contained enclave.
In 1893 the Board School acquired a neighbour on reclaimed land hard by the newly-embanked Taff: St Dyfrig’s, a big, defiant Anglican church by renowned English Arts & Crafts architect JD Sedding (1838-1891), brought to completion after his sudden death by his colleague Henry Wilson (1864-1934). Thus assembled, this pretty sensational neo-Gothic array of school and church graced Cardiff for decades until first the school in the 1950s and then the church in the 1960s were demolished to make way for the bus station, council planning offices (both subsequently demolished themselves) and a widened Wood Street Bridge. In truth the Wood Street Board School had seemed doomed ever since 1937 when all of Temperance Town was flattened and the population dispersed to new estates in Ely and Tremorfa.
Also in 1878, Millicent Street Board School was opened in the heart of old Cardiff, close to boisterous Hayes Bridge Road and the glassy, gliding waters of the Glamorganshire Canal. Millicent Street nominally still exists, but only as a dark, filthy canyon for delivery vehicles, otherwise it has been completely obliterated along with the entire bustling network of tightly-packed streets that once existed between Queen Street and Bute Terrace. The school was the shortest-lived of all Cardiff’s Board Schools. An early victim of the policy of clearing the city centre of residents and small independent businesses, it was replaced by warehouses in 1910. Details of the architect and photographic records of the building must exist – but, handicapped by Cardiff’s shameful lack of accessible local archives, I have yet to unearth them. PS: Today, Cardiff city centre has no state schools at all – no Cardiffians live there, see.
Next, in 1879, came Adamsdown Board School at Adamsdown Square. Adamsdown Square was a prestige Bute Estate development of the 1870s, an atmospheric amphitheatre of solid houses either side of tree-lined Adamsdown Gardens, cool and shady in a sunken bowl below the elevated Windsor Road Bridge to the west and the mainline railway to the south. The long, low-slung school, filling the north side of the Square, was designed by Walter Blessley (1839-1915), one of the many local architects to be influenced by Gothic revival virtuoso William Burges (1827-1881). Blessley delivered a Gothic glossary of interlocking gables, huge arched windows, pinnacles, minarets and a centrepiece tower topped by a straining spire. The compelling urban space was further enriched in 1893 with the addition of St Elvan’s church on the west side (renamed All Saints in 1903 after the original All Saints in nearby Tyndall Street closed), a minor gem from church architecture specialist John Coates Carter (1859-1927) with pink Radyr stone facings and a quintessential belfry.
Deconsecrated in 1965, the battered church was converted into flats in 2012, but Adamsdown Board School is no more. It closed in 1985 (a new primary school was built in System Street) and was unforgivably demolished in 1988 to be replaced in the 1990s by grotesquely inappropriate, clashing blocks of flats that utterly destroyed Adamsdown Square’s visual harmony and rhythmic proportions. A hint of what was thrown away can be seen in some of Blessley’s surviving buildings in Cardiff, like the row of villas in Park Place, Pascoe House in West Bute Street and the Prince of Wales and the Great Western in St Mary Street.
1879 also saw the opening of South Church Street Board School in Tiger Bay. Designed by Peter Price (1824-1892), who was also architect of the Royal Arcade and the Castle Arcade, it was a lavish, lofty beauty, replete with plunging roofs, immense chimneys, castellated campaniles and rusticated stylings.
Beginning in 1959 at Loudon Square and working northwards, the Council systematically erased Tiger Bay street by street until nothing was left. The Board School, as the picture above shows, was one of the last buildings to bite the dust in 1970 as South Church Street itself was expunged from the map. An integral component of Tiger Bay life for 90 years was gone, to join an ever-growing catalogue of wantonly vandalised Butetown splendours.
Into the 1880s, as Cardiff’s turbo-growth went into hyperdrive, the next batch of schools was soon planned, designed and executed with an urgency of social purpose quite unimaginable in today’s privatised, corporate city. In 1882 Severn Road Board School was opened in Canton and…brace yourself for a shock…it still exists!! Designed by John Price Jones (1851-1893), architect of many pleasures in Cardiff such as High Street Arcade, Market Buildings and the Borough Arms in St Mary Street, the building has been knocked about a bit over the years in the perpetual evolution and reconfiguration of education provision, losing its dramatic gables and windows in the process – but at least it has been recycled and re-used rather than rubbished. The oldest surviving Board School is today Severn Road Primary with an Adult Learning Centre on the top floor.
Soon afterwards in 1882 came Splott Road Board School by William Habershon (1818-1892), architect of the Tredegar Estate. The solemn, bulky complex, with ranks of gables and floor-to-ceiling arched windows topped by a splay-foot spire, stretched from Railway Street almost as far south as Carlisle Street.
To maintain such a building required the sustained loving care and attention Habershon had put into its design, so of course the council took the cheaper option: it was demolished in 1971. If that were not bad enough, the STAR Centre (Splott, Tremorfa, Adamsdown, Roath – an acronym!) was built on the vacant plot in 1981. A serious contender for the title of ugliest building ever erected in Cardiff, with windowless orange-brick walls, wasteful voids of pointless exterior paving and atrocious flat roofing, it completed the degradation of Splott Road into today’s tragic scene of urban dereliction. The eyesore was closed in 2016, to be replaced by a new ‘hub’ in Splott Park, and is now a temporary overspill facility for the health board while it awaits demolition – confirming that the decision to get rid of the Board School was just another stupid, as well as expensive, council blunder.
Crwys Road Board School appeared in 1883, another startling cathedral of education by Edwin Corbett with elaborate brickwork and an ostentatious tower facing what was then the main road to the Glamorgan hills and Merthyr.
Its phase as a school was comparatively brief; it was shut down in 1939 at the outbreak of WW2 to be used for war purposes and after the war became the College of Food Technology. The College moved to Colchester Avenue in 1966 (eventually absorbed into what is now Cardiff Metropolitan University, the Colchester Avenue campus closed in 2010), leaving the old Board School high and dry. It was duly bulldozered in 1973 and the big plot between Fanny Street and Gower Street was filled with a contemptuously hideous concrete monstrosity, today occupied by the Co-op and a charity shop.
Grangetown Board School in Bromsgrove Street by Cardiffian EM Bruce Vaughan (1856-1919), best known as an ecclesiastical architect, was founded in 1884 and I’m pleased to report that this emphatic Pennant sandstone specimen of Victoriana has survived as Grangetown Primary.
There was a pressing need for 1885’s Howard Gardens Board School to provide more places for the young of Adamsdown and Tredegarville as well as begin to address the absence of schools for the over-12s. This was the first ‘higher elementary’ school opened by the School Board, and therefore Cardiff’s first municipal secondary school, an innovative, daring step intended to prepare students over the age of 12 for possible entrance to the new University College opened two years earlier (when the ‘elementary school’ system was abolished in the early 20th century it became Howard Gardens High School). The school was part of an upmarket Bute Estate development creating a ‘city square’ around a small tree-filled park. An early work of Edwin Seward (1853-1924), a Somerset man who studied architecture under George Robinson and designed buildings as intrinsic to the city as the Free Library and the Coal Exchange, the muted Tudor-Gothic pile brooded on the west side of the square next to the equally evocative School for the Deaf and Eglwys Dewi Sant, Cardiff’s first Anglican church for Welsh speakers.
Of all these Board Schools, Howard Gardens had the most eventful history. The premises were requisitioned by the military during WW1 and then the building was severely damaged during the blitz in WW2 (along with the Deaf School and Eglwys Dewi Sant), by which time it was widely acknowledged to be the best secondary school in Cardiff. Beyond repair, it eventually had to be demolished in 1953 and a modern replacement, called Howardian High School, was built off Colchester Avenue in Penylan. But this successful comprehensive was scandalously closed in 1990 and a housing estate built across most of the site and its playing fields. 25 years later, the Howard name was revived when the functional and formulaic modernism of a new primary, Howardian Primary School, was slotted in on some left-over ground in 2015. Back at Howard Gardens the uninspiring concrete block of Cardiff College of Art was built in 1965 where the original school stood, but in 2014, by then part of Cardiff Met Uni, it was relocated to the Uni’s Llandaf campus and the building torn down to make way for impossibly oppressive and misconceived gigantic multi-storey slabs of ‘luxury’ student flats with suitably fatuous names like ‘Prime Living’ and ‘Eclipse’, blatant scams by private hedge-funds to milk gullible Chinese students and exploit planning loopholes. Seizing what was previously public open space, these astoundingly awful carbuncles have spread right across the precious green sward and Howard Gardens has been stolen from Cardiff – aided and abetted by the treacherous and spineless Labour council. And now, rendered redundant by the pandemic, they stand empty and unwanted, the slums of the future. You would need to have a heart of stone not to laugh.
Albany Road Board School in Roath arrived in 1887 and, surprise, surprise, it has survived (as Albany Primary School). As it’s not a ‘lost building’ and can be readily viewed I won’t go into more detail here about this model Board School, except to add that the architect was Llewellyn Batchelor (1845-1920), son of John Batchelor (1820-1883), the ‘Friend of Freedom’ whose statue stands in The Hayes. The same applies to the next one, also from 1887: Radnor Road Board School in Canton by EM Bruce Vaughan. Today it is Radnor Primary School – a living rebuttal of the theory that Board Schools could not be adapted to the requirements of contemporary schooling.
Some parts of the 1891 Moorland Road Board School in Splott, by William Habershon, have also been spared, but most of it was demolished in the 1950s when a new primary school, Moorland Primary, was built on the site and the remnant block on the Singleton Road side was stripped of Habershon’s gables and decorative touches. A better example of his work can be seen next door in the picturesque 1894 Splott Branch Library, Cardiff’s first purpose-built library – now the ‘Old Library’ community and sport centre. Nobody bothered to photograph what was one of Cardiff’s largest Board Schools before it was mutilated, so this contemporary snap of today’s extant frontage from dismal Moorland Park, where the terraced streets of Lower Splott once stood, will have to do.
A survivor comes next: the 1892 Stacey Road Board School, now Stacey Primary. The splendid, lofty neo-Gothic work-out by Edward Bruton (1854-1926) is a visual feast that always repays an excursion to the indeterminate Adamsdown/Roath zone south of Newport Road.
Then, in 1893, Court Road Board School opened in the Saltmead area of northern Grangetown; another big, confident structure by John Price Jones, who did not live long enough to see the opening. The embracing, spacious, light-flooded school could accommodate 1200 children: girls on the ground floor and boys on the upper floor as per the Board School template, with entrances on Rutland Street, and infants in a separate block on the Court Road side. After suffering bomb damage in WW2 the school was repaired – but nevertheless it was shut for good in 1969 for all the usual tendentious reasons and then demolished in 1970. Hitherto, I can find no old pictures of this lost building. The empty site was left to become wasteland for over 35 years until being transformed into a community park, called Courtmead Gardens. This rare and welcome new green space, which features 500 bronzes depicting Grangetown stories fixed into the ground, has transformed the streetscape, bringing the real feel of an urban village and vividly indicating the ‘Green City’ direction of travel Cardiff must follow if it is to have a viable future.
Roath Park Board School is thankfully very much still with us as Roath Park Primary. The 1895 architectural gem on Pen-y-wain Road is one of Edwin Corbett’s finest buildings, an immaculate Queen Anne style corker in red pressed brick with red stone and red terracotta detailing. The 1898 Lansdowne Road Board School in Canton by the Cardiff firm Veall & Sant has survived too (as Lansdowne Primary). Virtually unaltered, it is a marvellous creation replete with fine workmanship and clever artistry. Both schools are Cardiff must-sees.
There was a final flurry of three new Board Schools in 1900, planned before the 1899 Welsh Intermediate Education Act came into force. The Act, a belated recognition by the UK government of the total inadequacy of education in Wales beyond the age of 12, enabled Wales to introduce public secondary schools at last and begin the long process, which continues to this day, of establishing a specifically Welsh education system. Two of these last three Board Schools have endured: the wonderful Whitchurch Road Board School (now Gladstone Primary) by George Robinson and, perhaps the most spectacular of all, Virgil Street Board School (now Ninian Park Primary) by the Cardiff firm of architects Robert & Sidney. Last but not least is one more Board School that didn’t last the course: Marlborough Road Board School in Roath by the architecture practice of Habershon, Fawckner & Groves that William Habershon had formed before he died.
Bombed beyond repair in 1941, the candy-striped feast of bravura stone and brick coursing all had to be pulled down apart from the original infants block to the rear. Marlborough Primary, a mediocre chain of utilitarian huts, was built on the site after WW2. In 2012 the unique, alluring 1898 Steam Laundry on the other side of Blenheim Road, also by Habershon’s firm, was demolished despite concerted local opposition and replaced by a repulsive block of 58 private ‘assisted living’ flats called Thomas Court – a lucrative cash-cow allowing the growing ‘Care Sector’ to squeeze more profits out of the loaded retired. And thus council planning officials completed the barbaric ruin of Marlborough Road started by the Luftwaffe.
Pictures: John Briggs; People’s Collection Wales; Roath Local History Society; John Briggs; Pinterest; Connect Cathays; Pinterest; Inksplott; Roath Local History Society