Roath Court Harriers
There were two types of Roath Harriers, those with two leg and those with four. I believe both may have their origin in the very heart of Roath, at Roath Court, where Roath Manor House once stood a location which has a history dating back over a thousand years. Roath Court is now the James Summers Funeralcare Home on the junction of Newport Road and Albany Road.
In the 1800s the Williams family lived at Roath Court and owned the Roath Court Estate. If I told you some of their family names were Claude and Crofts you can start to get a picture of how far their estate spread in the Roath area.
In the 1870s the head of the Williams family at Roath Court was Charles Henry Williams who, as well as being a JP and Chairman of the Roath Board of Health, was keen on sport, a huntsman and maintained a pack of hounds called the Roath Harriers. I’d always thought a harrier was a bird. Well it is, but it’s also a type of hunting hound. Just goes to show my urban upbringing and general ignorance I guess.
The pack may have been kept at Roath Court itself or more likely they were kept at Ty-y-Cwn or Ty’n Cwn (the dog’s house) which was a thatched house, opposite where the Claude on Albany Road. It was demolished in 1898 and later Albany Road Baptist Church built on the site.
The painting of the Royal Oak pub by an unknown artist with horse and hounds outside is likely to be depicting the Roath Court Harriers.
In 1878 we read in a newspaper report that a presentation was made to Charles Henry Williams for maintaining the Roath Court Harriers. A year later there is mention in a Council report that the hounds have a case of hydrophobia amongst the pack. That’s a term used for a fear of water, not debilitating in itself, but a symptom observed with dogs who have rabies. The pack seems to have survived because in a book published in 1903 there is reference to Charles Williams and his eighteen couples of twenty-inch cross-bred harriers.
Roath (Cardiff) Harriers
When I was searching the newspaper archives for Roath Harriers and Roath Court in the 1880s period something strange appeared. The mention of horses and hounds disappears and references to Roath Harriers the athletics club start to appear.
Roath Harriers was the first athletics club in Wales. It was formed back in 1882. And a very successful club it was too. Lynn Davies, the Olympic long-jump gold medal winner who leapt to victory in Tokyo in 1964 was a Roath Harrier at the time. In 1966 he went on to win the European Championship in Budapest.
‘Lynn the Leap’ has long had a strong association with the area. He attended Cyncoed Teacher Training College as a student and later as an employee as it went through various name changes over the years. He pounded the streets of around Roath in his training regime. After all an all-round athlete and not just a long-jumper.
In 1938 Roath Harrier Jim Alford, from Llandough Street, Cathays, won the Mile Empire Games gold medal in Sydney, becoming the first athlete in a Welsh vest to strike gold in the Empire Games. After service with the RAF as a squadron leader during the Second World War, Jim went on to become the first national coach for athletics in Wales.
Another notable Roath Harrier was Brian Lee, winner if the EW O’Donnell Senior Cross-Country Championship Trophy in 1959. Brian was a journalist and the man we are indebted to for publishing many books on the history of Cardiff.
In 1968 Roath Harriers merged with Birchgrove Harriers to form Cardiff Amateur Athletics Club.
By now I was beginning to ask myself why so many athletics clubs have the name Harriers in their title, Roath Harriers, Birchfield Harriers etc. I’d learnt that Harrier was a type of hound but this only partially explained things. The other reason is that prior to cross-country becoming sport there was a paper-chase sport in which two runners called ‘hares’ laid a trail of paper in the countryside and runners called ‘hounds’ tried to follow them and catch them up before they reached home. Sounds great fun. Now why did that die out and why isn’t it an Olympic sport? Hence many of the athletics clubs that originated from the sport of paper-chasing have Harriers in their name.
The first mention I find of the Roath Harriers athletes is in 1884 when they met at Roath Court and headed off to Marshfield. From 1884 to Spring 1890 they seem to have assembled at Roath Court. Was Charles Henry Williams an athlete himself or just interested in the sport and benevolent enough to host the club? Well he certainly didn’t have an athletic appearance in pictures.
Newspaper reports of the Roath Harriers in the 1880s and 1890s describe the paper-chasing events in detail, the various routes that were taken and the adventures that ensued, leaping gates and falling into rivers. These routes are certainly interesting from a local history perspective.
The Cardiff Times on April 13th 1935 carried an article entitled: ‘Roath Harriers’ Club: How it was started fifty two years ago’, the first paragraph of which reads:
Fifty-two years ago three Cardiff Docksmen laid a wager that they would run from Cardiff to St. Mellon’s and back. Starting from a tree that used to stand in the middle of the road near Roath Court, they ran as they had planned. So intrigued were they with their first taste of running that they, with a few chosen friends, formed themselves into a club. This club became known as the Roath (Cardiff) Harriers. For three years the club was of a private nature, but from 1889 onwards it was Officially known as the Roath Harriers, and soon boasted a large membership.
This article appears to substantiate reports from the 1880s that the meeting place was Roath Court.
An undated cigarette card depicting the crest of the Roath (Cardiff) Harriers states the club was originally of a private nature, dating back from 1884, the oldest amateur organisation in South Wales.
By October 1890 however a newspaper reports that they opened their season at their headquarters, the Royal Oak which is further east along Newport Road from Roath Court
In their AGM in Sept 1892 the Roath Harriers resolved to move their headquarters to the Claude Hotel and the newspaper reports later that year did indeed state that races started from the Claude. In 1893 however the headquarters had been moved back to the Royal Oak.
In 1953 V.I.Pitcher published a short booklet, ‘Roath (Cardiff) Harriers: A short history of the premier athletic club in Wales from its formation in 1882 to date’. Gone was any mention of a connection to Roath Court, or even paper-chasing for that matter. The opening paragraph reads:
Roath (Cardiff) Harriers, the first athletic club to be formed in Wales, came into being as the result of a wager. In the early 1880’s there were employed at the Cardiff Docks, in the offices of the various shipping factors, a number of young men who were proud of their athletic prowess, particularly at running. Over their morning coffee, these young “bloods” were apt to discuss their feats, with a result that challenges were forthcoming, and one Saturday afternoon, having solicited the aid of the landlord of the Royal Oak Hotel in providing changing quarters, these same young men fined up near the old oak tree in Newport Road, preparatory to deciding the issue once and for all in the only practicable way—by taking part in a race. The actual result of the ensuing struggle does not matter—what was important was the fact that the run was so thoroughly enjoyed, that they decided to hold runs every Saturday afternoon, and the Royal Oak Hotel was formally adopted as Headquarters. Thus, in 1882, the first athletic club, catering solely for athletics, was formed in the Principality. Membership was by invitation only and confined to a limited number.
It may be that V.I.Pitcher had access to some very detailed early documentation regarding the club’s history or maybe there was some poetic licence being used.
The 1935 newspaper article makes reference to the race ‘starting from a tree in the middle of the road near Roath Court’. I have studied old maps but can’t locate such a tree at either Roath Court nor the Royal Oak. Of course the fact that the Royal Oak is named after a tree (having previously been called Spring Gardens), and that there is a tree edging into the left-hand side of the painting of the Royal Oak does somewhat edge the argument that way.
As someone interested in Roath history however I still like the notion that both sets of Roath Harriers, those with four legs and those with two, had their origin at Roath Court, the most historical location in Roath.
A smashing photo that Jon Morgan shared of the Roath Harriers in the 1923-34 season. The sacks on the floor look to be the paper used in paper chasing seeming to prove that the sport of paper chasing lasted a fair number of years.