Ralph Hancock – Roath’s very own Capability Brown

Ralph Hancock Photo - Dorothy Wilding

 

The weather is sweltering and the parks and gardens of Cardiff are in full bloom.  I’m reminded of a talk we had at our Society meeting last autumn from horticultural lecturer Bob Priddle all about the life locally born landscape gardener Ralph Hancock.

 

 

English Gardens in AmericaRalph Hancock first came to notoriety when in 1927 he created a rock and water garden for Princess Victoria, the daughter of the late King Edward VII, at the Royal house Coppins, Iver, Buckinghamshire.  She was so impressed she presented to him a little diamond and sapphire tie pin which became one of his most treasured possessions.  In a clever piece of self-marketing he published an illustrated booklet titled ‘English Gardens in America’ in which he described himself as being ‘Landscape Gardener to HRH the Princess Victoria of England’. and sailed off to USA to tell people.  His marketing worked and he designed an exhibition garden at Erie Station in New York to further exhibit his work.

 

Rockefeller Centre Garden

 

He was commissioned to design the famous ‘Gardens of Nations’, a series of roof gardens on the eleventh floor of the Rockefeller Centre in New York in 1930.   The work was made up of a series of cultural style of gardens from places as diverse as Holland, Japan and Britain. It was a sizable undertaking consisting of over 3,000 tons of earth, 500 tons of brick, 100 tons of natural stone and 2,000 trees and shrubs being hauled up the side of the skyscrapers by block and tackle.

 

 

 

Ralf Hancock kensington roof garden Photo by Bryce Edwards, Flickr

Hancock’s work became widely known and in 1935 Ralph Hancock was persuaded to return home to the UK and work on designing a rooftop garden for the Derry and Toms Department Store in Kensington.  The gardens opened in 1938 and included the Spanish garden complete with palm trees and fountains as well as Moorish colonnades and a woodland garden, built with a cascade, a river and its very own pink flamingos.  The building, gardens and Babylon Restaurant had for many years been leased by Richard Branson and the Virgin Group but finally closed to the public in 2018 when the lease expired.  It is not known whether they will ever reopen.

Flamingos in the Kensington Roof top gardens

When the Derry Gardens (as they were first known) were opened on 9th May 1938, they were the largest single roof garden in the world and became a huge attraction. Visitors were charged one shilling entrance and all the money went to support the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing, St John Ambulance, the British Red Cross and several hospitals. By the time Derry & Toms closed in 1973, the entrance fees had generated some £120,000 for various hospitals.

Ralph continued to be a very successful exhibitor at the Chelsea Flower Show, winning gold medals in 1936, 1937 and 1938 shows.  The gardens constructed at Chelsea had moved away from the naturalistic rock garden style towards the arts and crafts style that is now more associated with his later work.  One of Ralph’s specialities became the use of Moon Gates,  which he used both at Chelsea and a number of other garden projects.  He also exhibited gardens at the Ideal Home Exhibition.

Ralph Hancock and the Queen at Chelsea 1949

Ralph with the Queen Mother at one of his show gardens. (photo credit: Pathe News)

Not all the gardens Hancock designed were far away.  In 1948 Sir David Evans Bevan, a director of Barclays Bank, commissioned him to build the gardens at Twyn-yr-Hydd House, Margam Park.   The building was until recently part of Neath Port Talbot College and through the tireless work of the Horticultural Department and lecturer Bob Priddle the gardens were restored to their former glory.  Unfortunately it is understood that maintenance costs and associated drainage problems to the house uneconomic  to maintain and it has sadly been mothballed and the gardens have been allowed to become overgrown.

Twyn-yr-Hydd gardens

The gardens at Twyn-yr-Hydd

Personal Life

Clarence Henry Ralph Hancock, known as Ralph, was born at 20 Keppoch Street, Roath on 2nd July 1893.  In 1901 we find the family living at 88 Albany Road, opposite the junction with Wellfield Road, then later at 42 Ninian Road when he was attending Roath Park Primary school.  It makes me wonder whether his later career choice was influenced by the work of William Pettigrew in Roath Park.

Baptism July 30th 1893

Ralph’s baptism record

1905 - they were living in Ninian Road

Ralph’s school admission

In his early career Hancock was a marine insurance broker working in James Street, Cardiff.  On the outbreak of the First World War he enlisted as a private in the Territorial Army. In December 1915 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the Welsh (howitzer) brigade in 1915, but was invalided out in 1916.  After marrying Muriel Ellis in 1917 they moved to Augusta Road, Penarth and later to England to further his career.

Ralph Hancock died of heart failure, at the National Heart Hospital, London, on 30 August 1950. He was cremated at Golders Green and his ashes were later scattered in the Thames by his widow and his daughter, Sheila. There is another sad local connection with the Hancock family.  Ralph’s brother Charles died in the Claude Hotel, Albany Road in 1960.

The family of Ralph Hancock have carried out a lot of research on his achievements as a horticulturist which can be found on the Ralph Hancock website.

 

Derry Roof Gardens Kensington London

Uncovering the history of Wellfield Road

Wellfield Road, Roath, Cardiff

I must admit that Wellfield Road holds a special draw for me.  It’s where as a child I was taken to get my hair cut in Sam’s, where I was occasionally treated to a Thayer’s ice-cream, where I was taken into the china ornament shop under strict instructions to keep my hands by my side and not knock anything over or else I would have to pay for it, where Mr Clarke, the greengrocer, used to give me stamps to put in my stamp collection, and where I was allowed to spend my pocket money in Billy’s or Baker’s.  Ten years later as a teenager I would be spending hours in Ferrari’s bakery making a coffee and choux bun last for hours discussing world affairs or enjoying a late night chicken tikka masala in the Himalaya after an Allbright or two.

Some of Wellfield Road’s past has literally been uncovered this month.  Waterloo Tea are busy preparing their latest outlet at No.41.  It was most recently Ushi’s gift shop.  When the painter took away some of the old shop front and stripped away the paint what should be uncovered but the name H A Tilley, the name of the old shoe shop.  The signs are Waterloo Tea is going to preserve the old H A Tilley name.

41 Wellfield Road - uncovering the past

June 2019 – uncovering the past. Shop being prepared for Waterloo Tea.

 

H A Tilley - Copy

I’ve done a bit of research and found Herbert Arthur Tilley was born on June 29th 1911 in Newport, son of John Tilley, a gardener, and Alice Hannah Tilley (née Underwood).  In 1939 we find Herbert living on Sherbourne Avenue, Cyncoed together with his elder married sister Alice Doreen Lewis (b.1906).  Herbert describes himself as a boot and shoe retailer whilst Alice is a manageress of a shoe shop.  I’m guessing therefore that they may well have run the Wellfield Road shop together.  Alice passes away in 1984 in Cyncoed and Herbert died on May 28th 1993 in Bournemouth.  I can’t find any record of Herbert ever having married.

 

By all accounts Mr Tilley was a very nice man and a capable tennis player playing in a club in Rhiwbina.  He lived for some time on Llanederyn Road in one of those houses that had its own tennis court.

According to the Cardiff Trade Directories, the occupants prior to H A Tilley was a confectioners Brelaz & Williams.  Information on these occupants was somewhat harder to tease out.  Luckily in the past year, being part of our Society’s Research group, I have picked up some very useful tips.  And so with Pat’s help we have found the following:

Brelaz Williams hisotry

Maud Brelaz, nee Williams, was born in Cardiff and marries Charles Louis Brelaz in Dundee in 1923.  In 1925  we find she is advertising herself in the Dundee Courier as Madame Brelaz, Revue Actress and Welsh Singer, open to take on pupils for dancing and singing lessons.  By 1928 they have moved to Wellfield Road and opened a confectionery shop. In January that year the Western Daily Press reports they purchase two Princip steam ovens, manufactured just around the corner in Albany Road. In 1930 however Charles dies in Lusanne, Switzerland.  In 1933 Maud sets up a new company, Penylan Confectioners, with her brother Arthur and family.  We may even have found Maud staring in the 1916 silent film Grim Justice, but haven’t been able to prove that was the same Maud Williams as yet.

So how do we know all this.  Well for shopping streets in particular the very useful resource is Trade Directories.  Some of these are now appearing on-line but the easiest way to access them locally is in Cathays Library.  They tend to cover the period up to 1972.  There is another useful resource in recent years called the Goad maps.  They name every shop on a road in a given year.  The earliest I have found for Wellfield Road is 2006, again in Cathays library.

Goad map 2006

2006 Goad Map of Wellfield Road

Wellfield Road 1972 Trade Directory

1972 Trade Directory for Wellfield Road

 

We do however have a 30 year gap between the mid-1970s and 2006 where information is harder to find.  This is where we would like your help.  Can you help us list the shops that were there in that period?  Any help much appreciated!  Many thanks.

Our Research group is looking to spend some time concentrating on Wellfield Road history.  It seems to make sense given that our Society meetings are held at St Andrew’s URC church hall.   I have started a web page on the History of Wellfield Road.  Hopefully, with your help, that will grow and begin to capture some more of the history of this fascinating street.