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A Brief History of the Cardiff Parks* by W. NELMES, M.B.E., A.H.,R.H.S., F.Inst.P.A.

from Volume LXXXVII of the Transactions in 1958


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Municipal Parks are a modem feature of community life. Not until the first Public Health Act was passed in 1848-little more than a hundred years ago-could Local Authorities spend the ratepayers' money in purchasing land for parks or in maintaining land for such a purpose, unless they had secured a private Act of Parliament authorising them to do so. It is a remarkable fact that all our public parks in Cardiff have been acquired and developed within living memory. Even now there must be many people in Cardiff who can remember the formal opening of Roath Park by the Marquis of Bute in 1894. A few of the older residents may even remember the site when the Nant Fawr Brook flowed through the wet meadows before the Lake and Botanical Gardens were formed about seventy years ago.

But we must not assume that before the latter part of the last century Cardiff was entirely destitute of open spaces for, although parks as we know them today did not exist, there were certain public walks, commons and other places to which citizens could resort for recreation and pleasant relaxation. For a considerable period during the latter part of the 18th century and the first part of the 19th century, the Castle Green and parts of that section of the Castle Grounds known as Cooper's Fields were (subject to certain restrictions and regulations) opened to the public and this privilege was no doubt very greatly appreciated by the citizens.

We like to think that a town green once existed on the west side of the River Taff and, in fact, the name Cardiff Green' was at one time applied to a piece of land opposite the Cardiff Arms Park and the name Green Street' now perpetuates its memory. Unfortunately there is no direct evidence -- documentary or traditional -- of it ever having been used by the inhabitants of ancient Cardiff for the playing of games. It is probable, and there is strong supporting evidence, that Cardiff Arms Park itself is the site of the ancient town green. At one time, the Park as it was known until relatively recent time was the property of the town and it appears to have been conveyed to the first Marquis of Bute in 1803.

At this time and up to the year 1850, the river followed its old natural course. In that year the river was straightened by making a new cut southwards until it rejoined its natural course just above the present Penarth Road Bridge. (Pl.1A) It is interesting to note that the old stone bridge, which had been constructed in 1795, was now replaced by a wider bridge and this, in turn, was reconstructed in 1930 to give us the crossing we have today.

Although the earliest surviving record we have of the park dates back only to 1721 it is probable that this piece of land was in general use by the citizens of the town from time immemorial. The area named Little Park was closed and added to the private grounds of the Castle about 1860. On the site now occupied by the Angel Hotel there stood the Cardiff Arms Inn, and it was to distinguish the Great Park from the Little Park that the name Cardiff Arms Park' was coined. In the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian of the 27th May, 1837, was a report on the Cardiff festivities in connection with the celebrations of the Princess Victoria's eighteenth birthday, and we read that there were rustic sports and at night fireworks in the park behind the Cardiff Arms Inn.

By 1860, however the term Cardiff Arms Park' had come into general use. The Cardiff Cricket Club was inaugurated in 1845. For the first three years the Club played their game on a field at Longcross where the Royal Infirmary now stands, but the Club has been associated with the Cardiff Arms Park since 1848-110 years. In 1875, a notice appeared in the Western Mail stating that in consequence of the repeated acts of mischief and injury to trees and fences in the Cardiff Arms Park no person will be allowed to enter it without special permission of the Marquis of Bute." This notice marked the definite closing of the ground for general public recreation. In 1921 it was purchased by the Cardiff Athletic Club.

It has already been mentioned that for many years the public enjoyed certain privileges on the Castle Green and the area known as Cooper's Fields now part of Bute Park and, in considering the facilities for recreation in Cardiff during the 18th and 19th centuries, this matter is of great importance. In 1776 Viscount Mount Stuart (afterwards the first Marquis of Bute) determined to put Cardiff Castle into habitable condition. This involved a considerable amount of demolition and rebuilding and what is of particular interest to us the Green, much as we know it today, was laid out at that time. Advice on the turfing and general landscape treatment of the Green was given by Lancelot Brown (better known as Capability Brown "), the celebrated landscape architect. Some of the trees now growing round the embankment were no doubt planted by him. But, as a matter of fact, it was as an architect that he was employed at this time by Lord Mount Stuart For about eighty years then, from 1780 to 1860, the Green and parts of the Castle Grounds, were, with certain conditions, freely used by the people for their pleasure and relaxation.

It must remembered, of course, that there was in those days a very close relationship between the town and the Lord of the Castle. Until the passing of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, all officers of the Borough were directly or indirectly appointed by the Lord who thus had the government of the town in his hands. The first Marquis died in 1814 and he was succeeded by his grandson, the second Marquis, who continued his grandfather's general policy and throughout his life-time extended to the townsfolk the use of the Castle Green.

Upon the death of the second Marquis, in 1848, his son, a child of one year old; succeeded. It was during the minority of this, the third Marquis, that the privileges connected with the use of the Castle Green and Castle Grounds by the public were gradually withdrawn but not without the provision of privileges of a compensatory nature. In 1858 the Bath and West Show was held in Cardiff. At the annual dinner the toast of the Marchioness of Bute was submitted from the Chair, and Mr. John Boyle- one of the Bute trustees-responded on Her Ladyship's behalf. During the course of his speech he announced that the land on the west side of the river, which had recently been developed as an ornamental walk and pleasure ground with flowers and trees, fountain and lake, would be opened for the free use of the public. (Pls. IB and IVA).

The Sophia Gardens, as it was named in honour of the Marchioness, was maintained at the expense of the Bute estate for ninety years until, in 1948, the garden together with the Castle and adjoining lands was given to the City by the fifth Marquis. Up to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Cardiff was a very small town and no special recreation facilities were needed for a population of barely 2,000. There were rural walks, the commons and, as has been mentioned, the limited use from time to time of parts of the Castle Grounds. By the middle of the 19th century, however, it was quite another story. The population by the year 1831 had increased to over 6,000, by 1841 to 10,000-1851 to 18,000 and 1861 to nearly 33,000.

This was a period of intense industrial activity and it created great social problems not least of which was the pressing need for open spaces. It was not until the early 1840's that the intimate relation between the provision of town open spaces and the health and happiness of the people was appreciated by those in authority in this country. As a result of the overcrowding of houses and people the social and moral conditions of the inhabitants of industrial areas became so bad that Parliament found it necessary, in 1843, to set up a Royal Commission to enquire into the state of large towns with a view to improving the social conditions and health of the people. One of the recommendations presented to Parliament by the Commission was in the following terms

We therefore recommend, for the purposes of aiding the establishment of public walks, that the Local Administrative Body be empowered to raise the necessary funds for the management and care of walks, when established."

To this terse but far-reaching recommendation, made in 1845, we are indebted for that section in the Public Health Act of 1848 which legalized the purchase and maintenance of land for parks and open spaces. It will be noted that the term public walks was used but, in later Acts, public 'parks and pleasure grounds' was substituted. Until the last quarter of the 19th century recreation implied merely the act of refreshing oneself by some pleasant occupation, pastime or amusement and a recreation ground was, therefore, nothing more than a pleasure ground where one could walk, sit down and enjoy fresh air and change of scenery. The word has now come to be applied to athletic games and sports. In spite of the rapid growth of the town, little or nothing was done during the next thirty years to implement the provisions of the 1848 Act though numerous reports to the Borough Council indicated the urgent need for open spaces.

In 1874 we find a special committee set up to consider the matter and the Town Clerk instructed to write to the Marquis of Bute to ascertain the terms upon which he would lease a suitable piece of land for a public park and recreation ground on the northern or eastern side of the town. It appears that on a number of occasions Cathays Park had been mentioned, in connection with a proposed park, for Lord Bute replied that he was not possessed of any piece of land either on the northern or eastern side of the town with the exception of Cathays Park. This land, however, formed part of Cardiff Castle and could not, therefore, be put to the purpose. The terms upon which it was left by the Marchioness of Bute prevented his disposing of it, however, otherwise he might consent to it for such a purpose." In 1875, we find the Council considering the purchase of about fifty acres of land at Plas- newydd from the Mackintosh Estate, (Pis. IIA and IVB) but negotiations were dropped when it was ascertained that the owner would not dispose of the land for a public park unless the Council paid full housing value for it.

It is remarkable that for nearly thirty years after the passing of the Public Health Act of 1848, which enabled Local Authorities to acquire and lay-out land for the enjoyment of the people, not one single area had been so acquired. At a meeting of the Council on the 10th March, 1879, Councillor Richard Davies suggested that a portion of the new cemetery at Cathays could be used as a recreation ground until required for burial purposes. This was eventually agreed to, on condition that no money was spent on preparing the 8 or 10 acres of land for games purposes and that the land was handed back to the Burial Board as and when required.

So Cardiff had its very own recreation ground at last-if only of a temporary character. In 1895, graves and tombstones replaced the goalposts. From 1881, the demands for a public park in the Roath district became very insistent and on the 10th July, 1882, the following motion was resolved at Council

That the representatives of the Roath Ward be appointed a deputation to wait upon Lord Tredegar with a view of trying to make some arrangements with him whereby a public park may be secured for that part of the Borough.'

Subsequently, these transactions were referred to the special Roath Park Committee though, as yet, the term Roath Park had no specific meaning. Little or nothing appears to have been gained from a deputation and correspondence with Lord Tredegar, and again Mrs. Mackintosh was approached to ascertain the terms on which the Corporation could acquire land for a park at Plasnewydd. If these negotiations had been successful Roath Park would have been located in the area between City Road, Albany Road and Cottrell Road. However, the purchase price of 2,000 per acre was unacceptable to the Corporation.

In 1886, further negotiations were proceeding with Lord Tredegar for the purchase of 39 acres of land adjoining Roath Mill which would have included the existing small Brook and Mill Gardens and several roads, including Blenheim and Marlborough. These negotiations were reaching a satisfactory conclusion when, almost casually at a meeting of the Committee, Alderman Daniel Jones suggested an alternative scheme higher up the Brook, between Pen-y-lan Road and Fairoak Farm. It was agreed that the land be inspected and, if found satisfactory, that Lord Bute be approached to ascertain his views. Apparently the Corporation inspected both sites and approved the Fairoak area. To the surprise and delight of the members Lord Bute, when approached, agreed to give the land in the Roath Valley to the Corporation on condition that certain other landowners, including Lord Tredegar, Mr. Godfrey Clark and Mrs. Jackson, would also be willing to present land and thus complete an ambitious scheme which involved a total of 121 acres.

On the 9th November, 1887, the Parks and Open Spaces Committee was formed and this took the place of the special Roath Park Committee which had functioned on rather a parochial basis.

The ceremonial recognition of the inauguration of Roath Park took the form of the cutting of the first sod, performed by the Marchioness of Bute assisted by the Marquis on the 24th August, 1887. This took place on what is now the recreation ground.

The general scheme, as originally outlined, was modified only very slightly. One alteration, however, was that in the original plan the Wild Garden was intended as a second lake.

The newly-formed Parks Committee now set about the work of laying out their new park in earnest, and it was resolved that 40,000 be borrowed for developing the park, constructing the necessary public roads and bridges and for fencing. This was reduced by the Council to 30,000, but the eventual cost came nearly to 70,000. Even in those days, apparently, the cost of municipal schemes often exceeded the estimate - though one could not then blame rising costs of labour and materials.

In 1891, William Wallace Pettigrew, a young man of twenty-four, was appointed Cardiff's first Parks Superintendent though, at that time he was known as Head Gardener. (The title has changed throughout the years-Head Gardener, Parks Superintendent, Chief Officer and Director.) During the year 1892 we read in Committee reports that the planting of trees and shrubs in the Pleasure Gardens and Botanical Gardens was proceeding satisfactorily. But earlier than this, in 1888, a deputation of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society attended the November Council meeting and urged the formation of a Botanical Garden. It is due largely to the active interest of our Society, in those days, that we have such a rich collection of trees, shrubs and plants at Roath Park. The Park was opened to the public by the Earl of Dumfries on the 20th June, 1894.

The history of Roath Park has been related in some detail because it was our first and is still, in some respects, our finest public park.

Next, something should be said about the acquisition of Cathays Park. (PI. IIB). The public use of this large central area had been mooted for many years and, in 1887, the Council decided to enter into negotiations with the Marquis of Bute with a view to opening it as a central park. Nothing, however, appears to have resulted from this approach.

In the year 1892, the Corporation was considering the urgent need of enlarging the Town Hall in St. Mary Street or, alternatively, erecting an entirely new building. A letter was then sent to Lord Bute suggesting that he dispose of the whole or part of Cathays Park for public purposes only. The letter goes on We are sadly in need of land for a new Town Hall, Assize Court, Municipal Offices, Technical Schools and University College. These could be arranged around a central park. If Lord Bute would sell this land at a moderate sum, with a proviso that it be devoted exclusively to public purposes such as those indicated, we could make Cardiff one of the most beautiful towns in the country."

The reply of Lord Bute was not unsympathetic. It appeared that the total area of the park was 59 acres and the cost of acquiring 38 acres would be 120,000. The price seems to have frightened the Council and four years after in 1896 we find discussions still proceeding on the best site for the new town hall. The respective merits of Cardiff Arms Park, Temperance Town and the site of the jail were hotly debated in the press and then, once again, the Cathays Park idea was revised.

The debates that took place in the Council Chamber, in committees, in the press and at public meetings on this very important matter during the following eighteen months need not be recounted here. For instance, on the 30th December, 1897, we find the formation of a Ratepayers' Committee to protest against the removal of the Town Hall and Law Courts from the centre of the town, but eventually 59 acres of land were acquired at a cost of 158,000. It is of topical interest to know that one acre at the north-west corner of the park was reserved from the sale, apparently for sentimental reasons. Many years later, however, this small plot of land was sold and, at the present time, a new Technical College is being built there.

As this paper is concerned with public parks, it need not concern itself with the subsequent erection of buildings in Cathays Park, but the actual siting of the buildings more or less decided the shape, size and character of the several gardens - Alexandra Garden, Gorsedd Garden and the Friary Garden, and these were developed as we know them today in the years preceding and following the first World War.

At the end of the 19th and during the first few years of the 20th century other developments were taking place regarding the acquisition of open spaces for public use. The population of Cardiff was increasing rapidly and, in 1900, was more than 160,000. It was imperative that the town should have lungs in the form of recreational areas and ornamental parks. 1889 saw the acquisition of various town squares or Bute Open Spaces as they were generally called. These included Loudoun Square, Clare Gardens, Despenser Gardens, Howard Gardens, Senghenydd, Llanbleddian and Ruthin Gardens, Plasturton Gardens and Bute Esplanade Gardens. These were made over as a gift, but the Corporation undertook responsibility for the various private improvements.

In 1891, the Marquis of Bute and Lord Windsor jointly presented land now comprising Grange Gardens and ten years later, in 1901, Lord Tredegar gave Splott Park-an area of 18 acres.

Reference must be made, in a little more detail, to Victoria Park which originally formed part of Ely Common (Pl. IIIA). There were, as I have already mentioned, the three commons on the western side of Cardiff-Leckwith, Canton and Ely and, in 1886, the Canton and Ely Commons were compulsorily acquired by the Corporation to provide public open spaces in the western part of the town. At a late stage in the negotiations, when in fact it was too late to withdraw, the Council realised the excessive cost of buying out the Commoners and the Lord of the Manor-actually, a sum of more than 18,000 had to be paid in respect of these two commons. In spite of vigorous protests by certain members of the Parks Committee, only 19 acres out of the original 40 acres of Ely Common were allocated by the Council for parks purposes. As a compromise, the Committee was allowed to retain the ground rents of the new houses built on the Common, and part of our parks income is still derived from this source.

Between the years 1894 and 1897, Ely Common or what was left of it was being developed as an ornamental park with lawns, flower borders and a lake and, on the 16th June, 1897, was formally opened by the Mayor. Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was being celebrated at that time and the park was named Victoria Park in honour of the Queen.

Leckwith Common (Pl. IIIB) has altered but little in the intervening years though it may be interesting, here, to mention that after a lapse of seventy years the City Council is, at last, taking steps to acquire this Common for recreational purposes and, recently, a public enquiry was held to ascertain the recreational needs for this district.

In the year 1896, Cardiff Corporation was considering the desirability of seeking Parliamentary powers to extend the boundary of the town so as to include (with other areas) the district of Llandaff. The construction of a road from Cathedral Road through the fields to Llandaff in order to provide easy access and to develop the fields for building appeared to be an attractive proposition. The whole area was owned by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and the scheme was favoured by this Body. Fortunately, however, one section of the local press, the South Wales Daily News, took up the matter vigorously with the appeal of Save Llandaff Fields." This paper worked on the assumption that the cost would be about 50,000 which sum could be borrowed at 3%. The cry went up, "Are Llandaff Fields worth a halfpenny rate ? Hopes were raised when a highly-esteemed Cardiff family, the Thompson Family, offered 5,000 towards the purchase price. In spite of protests from some members and the usual statements of extravagance and waste of ratepayers' money, a deputation waited on the Commissioners in London to discuss the purchase of the Fields. The members were told that the area available was 71 acres and the price was 69,000.

According to the Western Mail the deputation returned to Cardiff rather frightened," and the Parks Committee on receiving its report was equally depressed. However, there was a feeling that if a portion of the Fields could be sold or let off in building plots the Corporation could recoup some of its losses and, having this in mind, the proposal was regarded in a more favourable light. Naturally, this project was not at all favourably received by Mr. Herbert Thompson who reminded the Council that the object of the family gift was not to help the town acquire land for building purposes but to assist in preserving the Fields as an open space. "A condition of the gift," he said, must be that the Fields remain as an open space and that no buildings, except those necessary for recreational purposes be erected."

The Fields were purchased and the conditions and wishes of the donors of the gift have been, throughout the years, faithfully observed. It was the unanimous wish of all concerned, at that time, that Llandaff Fields should remain more or less unchanged and it was not until recent years that the hedges, which had got into a really bad condition, were removed. During two World Wars, Llandaff Fields were utilised for food production.

Mention of the Thompson Family brings to mind Thompson's Park and the benevolence and generosity of Mr. Herbert Thompson, Mr. Charles Thompson and their sister. Mr. Charles Thompson opened part of his existing garden to the public in 1895. Syr Dafydd's Field, to refer to it by its proper name, remained in the hands of Mr. Thompson for many years and it was maintained by him for public enjoyment. In 1911, the Park was presented to the city, but Mr. Thompson continued to pay for the cost of maintenance until 1924 when the Corporation finally took control, and the garden staff was absorbed into the Parks Department.

In the year 1907 the number of parks numbered twenty-one, and the total area was 238 acres. Many of these were small open spaces, but the principal ones, it will be noted, were

Roath Park 121 acres

Llandaff Fields 70 acres

Victoria Park 19 acres

Splott Park 18 acres

For nearly twenty years, no important additions were made and it was not until the early 1920's that several important areas were added.

The Plymouth Great Wood was given by the Earl of Plymouth, in 1922 (a most generous gift of 43 acres) and, in 1923, Mr. C. P. Hailey presented 10 acres of the existing Hailey Park at Llandaff North, and a further 10 acres were purchased to extend this area.

In the year 1924, Councillor R. G. Hill-Snook, who was then Chairman of the Parks Committee, purchased 112 acres of woodland above Rhiwbina for the sum of 1,100 and offered it, on the same terms to the Corporation. His offer was gladly accepted. Many thousands of people from Cardiff have enjoyed the quiet amenities of this very pleasant rural retreat. It was when Councillor (later Alderman) Hill-Snook was Lord Mayor, in 1930, that he purchased a further 26 acres at the Wenallt and presented this to the City.

Several important parks and recreation grounds were acquired in the 1930's, and brief reference will be made to two - Heath Park and Ely Racecourse.

A most interesting story could be told of the attempts to promote horse racing in Cardiff, and three of our largest recreation grounds - Heath Park, Ely Racecourse and Pontcanna - would figure largely in such a story.

Heath Park forms part of a very large tract of land once known as The Great Heath. It was here that horse racing took place during the 18th and the early part of the 19th centuries. At what particular period racing was established I have been unable to ascertain, but as early as 1784 the Corporation was contributing an annual subscription of ten guineas. By the award of 1809, which carried into effect the Enclosures Act of 1801, the Corporation's share in the division of the Heath was 330 acres, and this included the whole of the Racecourse area. The annual two day race meetings appeared to have gone on, but gradually becoming less popular until 1848 when racing ceased and the Corporation sold their land at The Great Heath to Mr. Wyndham Lewis. The price was about 40 an acre. In 1936, 200 acres of the same land were purchased by the Corporation, but the price then was 500 an acre.

The Ely Racecourse was opened on the 30th May, 1855, and racing continued with varying success until 1934. Soon afterwards the Racecourse was purchased by the Council and it is now one of our finest and most extensive sports areas. Recently discussions took place with a view to promoting horse racing at Pontcanna, but the estimated cost of layout and provision of stables, stands, etc., proved quite prohibitive.

In conclusion, reference may be made to two very important additions to our parks of recent years.

The most important, of course, was the Castle Grounds, 70 acres of which, with the Castle, were a gift from the Marquis of Bute to the City.

Cardiff is probably unique in possessing such a wonderful expanse of park land stretching from the centre into the suburbs. On the west side of the river Pontcanna and Sophia Gardens Field form an important sports centre and will, no doubt, be used in the future, as in the past, for national agricultural shows. In Bute Park a Botanical Garden and Arboretum are being formed. Several times during the past half century the establish ment of a Botanical Garden has been considered and it may be recalled that about twenty-five years ago discussions took place between certain Local Authorities in Wales regarding the acquisition of the Duffryn Gardens for a Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture. That particular project was abandoned owing to certain legal difficulties. The relatively small botanical garden at Roath Park (15 acres) is inadequate to hold a representative collection of trees and shrubs and in fact this was fully realised when the park was formed.

One must not omit to mention Parc Cefn On and how it came to be acquired. Local Authorities are often blamed for the protracted way in which they conduct their business and probably with some justification. In the case of the Parc Cefn On acquisition, however, very prompt action was taken On a certain Saturday, in 1944, news was received that the property was for sale and the next day it was inspected by several members of the Council on the Monday a deposit was paid by the Chairman of the Estates Committee and on the Tuesday a meeting was specially convened to approve the purchase of the property by the Corporation. The Dingle is lovely at all times of the year and, in Spring, as you all know, it is particularly delightful.

The citizens of Cardiff now possess more than 2,000 acres of public open spaces.

I hope this brief history of a few of the more important parks, recreation grounds and woodlands has been of some interest.

*This paper was read as a Presidential Address to the Cardiff Naturalists on 22nd October, 1958. The author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness for much of the information embodied in this paper to his immediate predecessor, the late Mr. A. A. Pettigrew, Chief Officer of the Cardiff Parks Department, whose MS History of the Public Parks and Recreation Grounds of Cardiff he has consulted.



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