From affluent Victorian suburb to run-down inner-city thoroughfare
In 1905 Cardiff achieved city status and Castle Road was renamed City Road. This main thoroughfare between the docks and the city centre has two distinctly different characteristics. The larger houses near the junction with Newport Road were originally built for the emerging Edwardian middle classes. At the other end of the street, smaller Victorian terraces have doorways opening onto tree-lined side streets. What are the stories of City Road residents and visitors today? Some say the street has fallen on ‘hard times’, but others are happy to call it home.
City Road, Cardiff
Click each image to find maps, pictures and stories from City Road, Cardiff.
City Road, Cardiff in the 19th century
Rapid industrial expansion continued in Cardiff from the 1850s with the growth of the South Wales mining communities. Cardiff Docks became a major coal exporter, referred to as the ‘coal metropolis of the world’. The Taff Vale Railway, which increased migration to Cardiff, was another consequence of industrialisation.
The late-19th century saw City Road grow as an affluent Victorian suburb. The plush Roath Park opened in 1894. At the north end of City Road were small Victorian terraces, built around the turn of the century, surrounded by tree-lined streets. On Richmond Road, adjoining City Road to the south, were large houses owned by influential businessmen such as James Howell’s Grove House, now Mansion House, home of Cardiff’s Lord Mayor.
After achieving city status in 1905, Castle Road became City Road, a busy shopping street. Kelley’s Street Directories (1914) recorded a strong concentration of butchers, bakers, grocers, boot repairers and ‘Richard Jones Saddler for Trams and Horses’.
What do the maps tell us?
Castle Road led to Plasnewydd, also known as Roath Castle, hence the street’s earlier name. This 1888 map shows Plasnewydd clearly, within an extensive area of parkland. Castle Road runs along the western edge of the estate. Compare this map with the one from 1908, which shows the housing developments of the turn of the century, leaving the Mackintosh Institute on the site of Plasnewydd, with significantly less surrounding land.
Reproduced with permission Cassini Historic Maps
Rapid growth of Cardiff
The population of Cardiff expanded rapidly during the 19th century, as Cardiff became Wales’ largest town, benefitting from the coal mining and shipping industries. The enormous Coal Exchange was built in 1883, and the new ‘urban feel’ was reflected in Victorian arcades and local government buildings. A new Town Hall was built on St. Mary’s Street in 1853. Horse-drawn trams plied the city streets until 1902 when the Corporation of Cardiff introduced electric trams across the city centre. Despite major social improvements, overcrowding and disease were widespread with cholera outbreaks in the 1840s killing over 350 people.
In 1891, Castle Road was a semi-rural outer suburb of the town with terraced housing. Major landowners built houses in the surrounding area at this time. Notable house-builders included Lord Bute, Lord Tredegar, James Howell, founding owner of the long-standing department store, and the Scottish Mackintosh family.
Their names still dominate the street names around Castle Road, renamed City Road in 1905.
Cardiff's oldest surviving cinema building
The Gaiety Cinema, City Road opened in 1912 in the golden age of early cinema. The original seating capacity was for 800 and the striking facade had two small domes.
In 1934 William S. Wort re-modelled the cinema, increasing the capacity to 1,518. From 1956 it became part of the Jackson Withers Circuit. From 1976 - 1988 it was operated by Top Rank Bingo. After some years of dereliction, it became ‘Spin Bowling’ in 2001 until its closure in 2006. The Gaiety is Cardiff’s oldest surviving cinema building and symbolic of the area’s early adoption of ‘mass’ popular culture.
Cardiff Docks and rising coal exports
Bute Street, running alongside Bute Dock, was described by the historian Gwyn Alf Williams as the ‘jugular vein of capitalist Wales’. Industrialisation in South Wales began with iron and then coal. The Glamorganshire Canal linked Cardiff with Merthyr as the coal boom started in the 1850s. Cardiff landowner, the 2nd Marquess of Bute, built the first dock in 1839. The Taff Vale Railway came two years later.
Coal exports reached nearly 9 million tonnes per annum in the early 1900s, reaching a peak in 1913. The world’s first £1 million cheque was signed in Cardiff’s Coal Exchange.
City Road, Cardiff in the 20th century
In 1955 Cardiff became the capital city of Wales and the mid-20th century secured City Road’s status as an important shopping street. As one of the busiest routes into the city centre, trolley buses and trams were the main means of transport.
Cardiff suffered badly during the Great Depression with the first hunger march from Cardiff to London in 1931. Half the coal pits in South Wales closed, and riots within the dockland’s black communities flared up in response to discriminatory employment practices. Although parts of City Road were destroyed in the blitz, the main character of the area survived after World War II with stable class and community life represented in distinctive middle and working class areas at each end of the road. The sense of community was evident in family run shops and businesses, schools, pubs, the Gaiety cinema and other venues for culture and leisure.
The changing landscape: looking at maps
This 1908 map shows the north end of City Road. The streets of terraced housing were built on extensive parklands of Plasnewydd, now the Mackintosh Institute. Compare this with the map of the same area in 1888.
The area around City Road is still known as Plasnewydd, from the Welsh plas (manor) and newydd (new).
Map reproduced with permission from Cassini Historical Maps
Cardiff, capital city of Wales
Cardiff became the capital of Wales in 1955. Cardiff’s prominence as an historic and cultural centre, as well as industrial and transport hub, is evident in Cardiff Castle.
Given to the city by the fifth Marquess of Bute in 1947, the castle is the main tourist attraction in the centre of the city today. In addition to its museum, ruins, park and site of a military tattoo, the castle later became a popular rock venue hosting Welsh bands such as Stereophonics.
Rise of the middle classes
Roath Park opened in 1894, a popular leisure venue for the Edwardian middle classes at the north of City Road. Built under strict supervision of two major landowners, Lord Bute and Lord Tredegar, new houses around Roath Park were designed for the aspiring middle classes who rented the houses on 99-year leases, to confirm their new status.
Historians suggest the middle class preference for ‘respectable’ leisure pursuits like ‘healthy’ outdoor activities, was motivated by fears of poverty, disease and the ‘immoral’ habits of the urban poor. This period also sees the rise of class-conscious trade unions.
City Road in decline
The economic recession and demise of coal mining had a serious impact in South Wales from the 1970s. As a result, derelict shops and business premises were commonplace. The decline of manufacturing and emphasis on service industry is seen in City Road; used car dealers and other small businesses changed hands amongst a transient, population.
City Road reflected these trends; boarded up shops, flats and houses became the norm. Retail and service industries characterise regeneration, leaving its mark on City Road.
What's in a name?
The streets of terraced housing, shown on the map from 1908 have 20th century names. But Peter Finch reflects on the 18th century history of the area: should it be forgotten?
‘City Road was known as Heol-y-Plwcca after the gallows field at its northern end. In a plot known as 'cut throats', where the Road has its junction with Albany, stood the town gibbet. Nearby were plots called Cae Budr (defiled field), Plwcca Halog (unhallowed plot), and Pwll Halog (unhallowed pool). Today they've got side streets built across them and are happily called Strathnairn, Glenroy and Keppoch. The grimness has been vanquished, buried under back garden clay and foundation, forgotten.’ Cardiff poet Peter Finch
How to appeal to your customers
City Road pubs survive by redefining their appeal.
‘Poets Corner was built as the Ruperra Hotel c1876 when City Road was still known as Castle Road. Named The Poets Corner for as long as I can remember before changing its name in the 80's to the appalling 'PC's Food & Drink Factory' when it was well known for live music. Later became the 'Tut 'n' Shive' before recently reverting to the name inspired by the nearby streets, Byron Street, Milton Street, Shakespeare Street etc.’ Cardiff photographer Roach Park Mark
City Road, Cardiff in the 21st century
Cardiff is a cosmopolitan city, comprising more than 100 different ethnic communities. Some describe City Road as ‘run down’, but it is one of Cardiff’s most culturally diverse areas, home of the largest sari showroom in Wales, Indian take-aways, shisha bars, Islamic associations, fast-food outlets and halal restaurants. In 2005, City Road's diverse community celebrated the centenary of Cardiff’s city status.
The gradual decline of manufacturing industry and growth of the service sector was increasingly evident in the rise of used car sales and small businesses such as internet and mobile phone dealers. While the architecture of City Road remains virtually unchanged, shops have replaced residential use in recent years. Retaining its earlier social divisions, the contrast between smaller terraces with no front garden and larger Victorian properties has continued. Students tend to live in the terraces with the larger properties being civic offices. The social composition reflects a more transient population.
Arrival of students in City Road
The expansion of higher education since the 1980s brought more demand for cheap student housing close to the university area in Cathays. City Road was a prime location. Students have helped transform the area and rekindled an alternative bohemian culture with notable performances by poets and musicians in pub venues.
The Mackintosh Institute, formerly Plasnewydd, has become a popular venue for creative writing projects such as Cabaret 246. It also houses sports facilities. The area around City Road is known as Plasnewydd, from the Welsh, plas (manor) newydd (new).
Are the Police losing control?
‘If the Police have lost control in an area then they should look at ways and means of regaining that control. Maybe by targetting the 3 Tescos in the immediate area who sell cheap booze instead of the hard working businessman? Using the Council to do the work of the Police and penalise buinesses in a time of economic hardship is simply ridiculous. If there's a problem with a saturation of bars and the clientele which frequent these establishments then the law allows for the proprietor to have his or her license withdrawn. To penalise newly established businesses and lump restaurants in with cheap and tatty bars is disgraceful. Does the Council want to turn City Road into a run down street full of empty shells where businesses once stood? Their stance on issuing alcohol licenses doesn't appear to be very liberal at all.‘ Pengold, on a blog published by Guardian Cardiff, July 2010.
Regeneration and redevelopment
The Millennium Centre was built in 2004 in the docklands area of Cardiff, which had fallen into disuse following the decline of the coal industry.
Its architectural design incorporated traditional Welsh slate, metal, wood and glass. The centre, known as ‘Armadillo’ to locals, was intended to reflect the variety of modern Welsh culture as a venue for theatre, dance and opera.
What's in store for the Gaiety?
The Gaiety is Cardiff’s oldest surviving cinema building, and symbolic of the area’s early adoption of ‘mass’ popular culture. Standing at 195-197, City Road, it was opened in 1912, the golden age of early cinema. The original seating capacity was for 800 and the striking façade, which remain at the entrance today, had two small domes. In 1934 William S. Wort re-modelled the cinema, increasing the capacity to 1,518. From 1956 it became part of the Jackson Withers Circuit. From 1976 - 1988 it was operated by Top Rank Bingo. After some years of dereliction, it became ‘Spin Bowling’ in 2001 until its closure in 2006.
A run-down thoroughfare?
'City Road is a run-down inner-Cardiff city thoroughfare. It's thick with car showrooms, Asian restaurants, 24-hour groceries and boarded, abandoned shops. It runs from the student land of Cathays, through the five-way death junction of City, Albany, Richmond, Crwys and Macintosh, to the closed and decaying Royal Infirmary on Newport Road. It's a street everyone knows but hardly anyone loves. . . There's a bakers, a Lebanese fast-food and an army surplus store selling Italian combat jackets, imitation pistols, folding shovels and camouflage water bottles. For a brief time City Road was called Castle Road, after Roath Castle, the former great house which now runs bowls, drinking, the Night-Writers creative writing group and tennis as The Mackintosh Institute.' Cardiff poet Peter Finch
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