Cardiff’s lost buildings 8

Town Halls
Various locations
Following the Norman conquest of lowland Glamorgan at the end of the 11th century, the derelict fort beside the River Taff that had been abandoned by the Romans over 700 years previously was brought back into use as the invaders’ military headquarters and systematically reconstructed into an imposing stronghold. By the 13th century the borough of Cardiff had taken root in the shelter of the Castle, a small community of opportunist English traders encouraged to settle in the area by being given special privileges and plots of land as ‘burgesses’ in return for servicing the French lords and their marauding knights. The Castle was the administrative centre of the violent, war-mongering operation against Welsh resistance in Glamorgan and it was within the stone walls, towers and battlements, under the mighty circular motte that was the largest motte the Normans ever built in Britain, that Cardiff’s very first ‘Town Hall’ was built on what is now the Castle Green. It was called the Shire Hall and was essentially where tithes, tolls and taxes could be collected, bribes and preferments organised and summary justice dished out. The crumbling remains of this unrecorded, long-forgotten structure were finally eradicated when the 1st Marquis of Bute (1744-1814) had the hotchpotch of ramshackle buildings on the Castle Green removed in 1780.

By the 14th century the Anglo-Norman colonisers in the walled town were confident enough to build a new Town Hall beyond the Castle confines. Usually called the Guild (or Gild) Hall, it was constructed in 1338 just south of the Castle in the middle of High Street where it met the Church Street/Quay Street junctions. The Guilds were a product of the borough’s prime function, which was to control all trade within the lordship and impose tolls on every transaction. Guilds allowed each trade to operate a lucrative monopoly that eliminated all competition while nurturing the burgesses and a pecking order of parasites who took their cuts from every activity from brewing to milling, bailiffs to shoemakers. The concept of conducting affairs in the best interests of the town and its 2,000 inhabitants was simply unthinkable. Sound familiar?

There is no surviving image of the Guild Hall. Raised before there was any such thing as an architect, it would certainly have been a very basic medieval structure; a no-frills, two-storey block with the town market, or ‘shambles’ as it was known, on the ground-floor along with a claustrophobic, filthy cell where prisoners were locked up (not superseded until a purpose-built gaol was erected in St Mary Street in 1700 – it would last until 1832 when today’s prison was built). Seriously damaged during the 15th century Owain Glyndŵr (c1354-c1415) revolt that came agonisingly close to ending English rule and securing Welsh independence, the Hall was no more than patched up after the rising was crushed. As Cardiff declined into irrelevance after the total annexation of Wales in the 16th century and through the demise of the Guilds, depopulation and poverty in the 17th century and on into the early 18th century, the medieval Hall slowly crumbled into dilapidation. Nevertheless, it was here where country folk haggled and gossiped and joshed over the turnips and the mutton; and here where those interpersonal undercurrents gradually accreted over the centuries into a still extant strand of Cardiffian identity. It was not finally demolished until 1743 having lasted 405 years, making it the longest-lived of all Cardiff’s Town Halls.

It took five years for the new Town Hall to be completed in 1747 on exactly the same plot in the middle of High Street. The progress was slow because the Council’s plea for subscriptions to pay for the work were largely ignored – which also explains why the chance wasn’t taken to shift the Hall to a less obstructive position. The new building, designed off the cuff by anonymous local stonemasons and carpenters in a clumsy lurch for a contemporary Georgian style, was an unremarkable edifice. It had a ‘Council Room’ on the upper floor with its main entrance at the northern end approached by a double flight of stone steps with balustrades of ornamental ironwork. On the ground floor was the Market Hall and, at the southern end, the Shoulder of Mutton Inn and a general shop with oak mullioned windows. All was topped off with a disproportionate ogee-shaped gable bearing an awkward-looking pinnacle lantern. Surviving images of this strange building exist:

The third Town Hall viewed from the Castle ramparts, circa 1825
Third Town Hall in 1853, with newly erected statue of 2nd Marquis

This third attempt at a Town Hall was a short-sighted and inept folly. Sound familiar? More suited to a small, sleepy country town, it was soon rendered obsolete by Cardiff’s key role in the Industrial Revolution in Wales. To try to improve the free movement of the town’s horse-powered transport, in 1779 it was reduced in width and extended southwards by 15ft while a second entrance to the Market was added to the southern end and iron gates installed around both entrances. By 1797 the Hall was being described as ruinous, inconvenient and an embarrassment. Its shortcomings were further exposed after the Town Gates were removed, the Town Walls dismantled and the Glamorganshire Canal joined Cardiff to the valleys. When this was followed by the opening of the first Dock, the coming of the Taff Vale Railway and the diversion of the River Taff, Cardiff’s spectacular growth was well and truly underway and such a traffic blockage in the middle of the High Street was an urgent problem. At last, the building of a big, brand-new Hall in a sensible new position not far away on the west side of St Mary Street commenced in 1849. It was nearly ready in 1853 when Cardiff’s slavering aldermen and Bute toadies unveiled a statue in honour of the recently deceased 2nd Marquis (1793-1848) slap bang in the middle of the road adjacent to the old Hall, so making the bottleneck even worse. This was typical bloody-minded destructiveness by the powerful Tory interests seeking to make life difficult for Liberal mayor John Batchelor (1820-1883), who was attempting to introduce the principles of public service, collective purpose and the improvement of life for the masses to the governance of Cardiff.

When the fourth Town Hall finally opened in 1854, the third, which had lasted just 107 years, was immediately abandoned – yet it still obstructed High Street for another seven years before it was pulled down in 1861. That left the glaring anomaly of the statue of the 2nd Marquis in the middle of High Street. It wasn’t relocated, after much haggling, to the bottom of St Mary Street until 1879 – meaning High Street was unnecessarily blocked for a quarter of a century in total. Does this example of rightwingers being reactionary wreckers and implacable bastards sound familiar? Today, in the pedestrianised High Street, it is possible to feel a barely discernible slight mound underfoot where Town Halls stood for half a millennium. The new Town Hall was the first to utilise professional architects, selected in an open competition won by Horace Jones (1819-1887), architect and surveyor to the City of London Corporation. It was opened in 1854 by a triumphant John Batchelor, but the triumph quickly turned sour. The building was a crude and insistent mock-Palladian lump with few saving graces. Ranks of outsize Ionic columns over-reached for gravitas and pomp and just looked clueless and pretentious instead, and what’s more it was soon clear the fussy Hall was just not fit for purpose.

The St Mary Street Town Hall, circa 1890

In 1876 it had to be considerably expanded to the rear as far as Westgate Street, the new road along the Taff’s former riverbed – a skilfully executed enhancement by local architect Edwin Seward (1853-1924) – but after a mere 52 years it too bit the dust and was closed in 1906. In 1914 this Town Hall was demolished and a six-storey leviathan, built for the Co-operative Wholesale Society, rose on the site. Called Hodge House since pyramid-selling usurer Julian Hodge (1904-2004) got his clutches on it in the 1960s, today it’s a stack of largely deserted ‘luxury’ offices being touted by Legal & General. Nothing at all survives of the St Mary Street Town Hall except its 1860 drinking fountain by fountain specialists Wills Brothers of London. It was relocated to Kingsway and incorporated into the wall of the bridge over the Dock Feeder.

The St Mary Street Town Hall’s replacement was a spectacular improvement, the centre-piece of the new Civic Centre in Cathays Park, originally planned to be the next Town Hall but opened as a City Hall following the granting of city status in 1905. The neo-Baroque dazzler in gleaming white Portland stone boasted fabulous detailing throughout: square pavilions at each corner; a squat, ribbed dome crowned by Cardiff’s finest dragon; a superb off-centre tapering clock tower; and a festooning of immaculately calculated columns, sculptures, windows and parapets. The architects, chosen in an open competition, were Edwin Rickards (1872-1920), Henry Lanchester (1863-1953) and James Stewart (1866-1904), a London-based partnership also responsible for the adjacent Law Courts that opened later in 1905. At long last, at the fifth attempt, Cardiff had a municipal headquarters to be proud of.

But the City Hall, along with the marvellous 1912 Glamorgan County Hall nearby, were made redundant in 1974 when both Cardiff Council and Glamorgan Council were abolished by the Tory government in England and replaced by Mid Glamorgan, West Glamorgan and, in the Cardiff area, South Glamorgan County Councils – a disastrous dog’s dinner only partially rectified when all three were also abolished by the Tories in 1996. South Glamorgan County Hall by John Bethell (c1940-2022), a subdued but somehow fetching Pagoda-roofed essay, built in what were then derelict docklands in 1988, became the HQ of a restored and enlarged Cardiff County Council and, as County Hall, has been Cardiff’s centre of local government since.

Grade 1 Listed City Hall was left without a purpose, especially after the Council, run by Russell Goodway, refused to release it for the use of the newly-established National Assembly in 1997. It would have made a perfect Senedd building, right in the centre of the Welsh capital, but Goodway, who can barely bring himself to utter the word ‘Wales’, vetoed the idea. So, instead of spending a few million modernising and amending City Hall, Wales had to spend £70million on a brand new building in Cardiff Bay, opened in 2006. Ludicrously, this meant Cardiff had two HQ buildings to maintain when it only needed one, but Goodway’s aversion to any manifestation of Welsh actualisation won the day. As a result City Hall has been scandalously allowed to slide into managed decline, denied essential maintenance work and reduced to a scarcely-used annexe for occasional conferences, trade fairs and civil ceremonies.

If that were not bad enough Goodway still effectively controls Cardiff Council (he’s in charge of “investment and development”) despite a near 40-year record, going back to the South Glamorgan Council days, of staggering incompetence, failure after failure, and an unerring knack of always being wrong (who now remembers the overpaid expenses, the Chamber of Commerce collapse, the attempt to be both Council leader and Lord Mayor simultaneously, the largest salary of any Council leader in the UK?) This is someone who shouldn’t be allowed to run the proverbial whelk-stall, yet he continues to wreak havoc upon Cardiff without let or hindrance. The Council has recently finally admitted that it was an expensive mistake to put City Hall in mothballs rather than let it have a new role as part of a putative Welsh democracy – although there has of course been no apology, let alone resignation, from Goodway the person mainly responsible. Hilariously, he was awarded an OBE in 2020 for “services to local government” – as damning an indictment of the rotten British ‘honours’ system as it is possible to imagine.

Worse still, Goodway is currently outlining insane plans for the future. This involves the demolition of the perfectly adequate County Hall, only 35 years old and merely requiring the routine maintenance and upgrading that all buildings must have to comfortably and prudently last a century or more, and the building of yet another Council HQ somewhere or other while spitting in the face of sustainability and releasing tons of carbon. The site, along with the Red Dragon Centre opposite, will then be turned over to a characteristic Goodway vision of blocks of flats, hotels, a massive indoor arena, offices and other utterly unnecessary, unwanted developer scams for which there is zero demand in order to enrich the building lobby and hedge funds. He calls it a Cardiff Bay transformation, thereby unknowingly admitting that the Bay project he has been cheerleading and enabling for 30 years was another of his big blunders, or else why does it need to be transformed? As for City Hall, he grudgingly labels it a “heritage venue” in the deathless language of the property industry, and promises no more than the bare minimum funding to keep the building standing. This Cardiff gem is thus to be treated as little more than an inconvenient liability. By the Council’s own admission, a huge maintenance backlog has been allowed to accumulate at City Hall due to its own negligence and skewed priorities, so it doesn’t take much imagination to see a future for City Hall as a lowest-common-denominator, monetised, ‘hospitality industry’ dump slowly disintegrating to rack and ruin. Sound familiar? See the Coal Exchange.

So, even though I am writing about ‘lost’ buildings and both City Hall and County Hall are still standing, I make no apology for including them here. Both are in grave jeopardy.

Pictures: Public Domain; Cardiff Central Library; Ian Soulsby