Brian Josephson – Nobel Prize winner

There can’t be many people who win a Nobel Prize for something they discover as a 22-year old student.  Brian Josephson from Pen-y-lan is the only Welshman so far to have won a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Brian Josephson pictures and nobel prize

Family Background

Brian David Josephson was born on 4 Jan 1940 in Cardiff.  He grew up in 26 Earl’s Court Road, Pen-y-lan,  an only-child of Jewish parents.  His father, Abraham Josephson, was a teacher at nearby Howardian High School.  Abraham Josephson had been born in Salford to David and Betsy Josephson who had immigrated from Russia.  Brian’s mother was Minnie ‘Mimi’ Josephson née Weisbard who was born in Swansea, to parents who had immigrated from Russia.  Mimi had various jobs including teaching gifted children and as a reporter.  She once interviewed Dylan Thomas.  Brian has published a number of her poems.

Earl's Court Road, Penylan, Cardiff

Earl’s Court Road, Cardiff, the childhood home of Brian Josephson

School Days

Brian Josephson at Cardiff High School

Brian attended Marlborough Road Junior School before moving onto Cardiff High School.  He credits Emrys Jones, his physics teacher at Cardiff High, with introducing him to the subject of theoretical physics. In the evenings he sometimes attended Pen-y-lan observatory that was on Cyncoed Road in what is now Cyncoed Gardens.  In 1955, aged just 15 he was awarded a mathematics scholarship for Trinity College, Cambridge, having already obtained distinctions in pure and applied maths A-level.  Despite being awarded the scholarship he decided not to go to Cambridge until 1957.


Undergraduate Days

He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1957 and received his BA in physics in 1960.  He initially read maths at Cambridge but later switched to read physics.  This was in the days when computers were the size of a whole room and built using valves.  He published his first paper, dealing with aspects of the special theory of relativity and the Mössbauer effect, while still an undergraduate.  All I can tell you about the Mössbauer effect is that it is to do with certain atomic nuclei bound in a crystal that emit gamma rays   The story goes that Brian attended a lecture on the recently discovered Mössbauer effect and went away and did some calculations.  He sent them to the Government’s Harwell Laboratory and so impressed were they that they sent a car with a uniformed chauffeur to pick him up at his Cambridge college and take him to Harwell to discuss the calculations further.

YOung Brian Josephson

PhD Student

He chose to do a PhD at Cambridge in the Cavendish laboratory under Prof Brian Pippard.  It was whilst studying for this PhD that he developed a theory that became known as the Josephson Effect. It is associated with superconductivity and his work came shortly after the phenomena had been explained.

So what is superconductivity?   When electricity travels from the power station to your house quite a lot is ‘lost’ along the way.  Think of it as a leaking hosepipe.  With superconductivity none is lost along the way meaning there would be fewer power stations needed.  Although many advances have been made in the understanding of superconductivity over the years it is not yet in everyday use in our homes.

Superconductors based on the Josephson Effect have however come into being and found wide usage in the scientific world.  Perhaps the most widespread use is in superconducting quantum interference devices which have the wonderful abbreviation of SQUIDS and  measure extremely small changes in magnetic fields.

For his prediction of the Josephson Effect he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics. The official citation from the Nobel Committee explains he was awarded the prize:

  • “for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier, in particular those phenomena which are generally known as the Josephson effects.”

which the Nobel website explains by:

  • In quantum physics matter is described as both waves and particles. One result of this is the tunneling phenomenon, which means that particles can pass through barriers that they should not be able to squeeze through according to classic physics. In 1962 Brian Josephson predicted unexpected results with superconductors, material that at low temperatures lacks electrical resistance. Without superimposed voltage, a current can result between two superconductors that are separated by a thin insulator. If a rectified voltage is added, on the other hand, an alternating current can result.

After his PhD, Josephson served as a research professor at the University of Illinois, USA, from 1965–66 and in 1967 he returned to Cambridge University as assistant director of research.


Pioneer of the paranormal

Ever since returning to Cambridge he has tended to work outside what people would consider as mainstream physics.  Indeed, it could be said that he works in areas that are anathema to most physicists.  He started studying the relationship between music, language and mind and in the early 1970s, started practising transcendental meditation and trying to find a scientific basis for telepathy. He has studied the brain and the paranormal for over 30 years.

In the 1970s he witnessed first-hand the metal-bending skills of Matthew Manning (similar skills to those of Uri Geller) and was intrigued by what he saw.  He is quoted as saying “I think we are on the verge of discoveries which may be extremely important for physics. We are dealing with a new kind of energy. This force must be subject to laws.  I believe ordinary methods of scientific investigation will tell us a lot more about psychic phenomena”.

He worked out of  a cluttered office on the top floor of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

He describes himself as ‘the resident heretic’.  Brian Josephson certainly has a reputation for being notoriously brilliant but also for taking on controversial subjects such as telepathy and the relation of mind and matter.

He retired in 2007 as a professor at Cambridge and is now emeritus professor, still based in the city. Presently he serves as director of the mind–matter unification project in the Theory of Condensed Matter research group.  It is safe to say that he still goes by his guiding principle of ‘nullius in verba’ – take nobody’s word for it.

Brian married Carol Olivier in Cambridge in 1976 and they have one daughter Miranda Josephson. Brian’s abilities are not only in physics.  He can also play music and has been known to compose pieces,  so why not sit back and listen to his composition and see if it inspires you to come up with a new theory.

Brian Josephson plaque, Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge

Brian Josephson plaque on the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Pearl Street.

I continue to build up the information on our website.  It’s always been my aim to try and make our website the ‘go-to’ site for information on the history of the old parish of Roath.  It is still a long way from being that at present I admit.  For the past couple of months I have been making a determined effort to complete our page on the histories of churches, rather than dart around witting about churches, pubs, schools, streets and buildings etc.  I’ve a fair number still to go but I am getting there.  The final number could be close to a hundred I think.

One advantage of tackling churches is that there are some good resources to hand including the book Cardiff Churches Through Time by one of our members Jean Rose and of course the books on Roath by Jeff Childs.  These are available to purchase from our Society.

Some of my work has led to exchanges with people who know about the history of certain churches.  One of those people has been Richard Haworth who knows about Ebenezer Baptist Church in Pearl Street.  He has kindly not only provided some interesting photographs but also expanded on the history of the church.  I reproduce the full article below.

For anyone worried about all this emphasis on churches, panic not, I’m planning on finishing off the pub history page next.

                                                                      Ted Richards


Ebenezer Baptist Church

Ebenezer Baptist Church on Pearl Street was a daughter Church of Tredegarville Baptist Church. It started as the Christ Church Baptist Mission on Theodora Street in 1879, moving briefly to rooms on Broadway before a building was constructed on Pearl Street in 1883 at a cost of around £700.  In 1886 the newspapers reported that a communion plate and baptismal dress and some other items were stolen from the church. In November 1981 the foundation stones were laid for the new Chapel, the previous building becoming the schoolrooms at the rear of the Church.  

Ebenezer Baptist Church Cardiff Exterior

The Church was built in the gothic style with a capacity of 500 in mind, though the gallery was not added at this stage. The cost was projected to be about £1200. Alderman Richard Cory JP laid the foundation stone and contributed £100 towards the building fund. The Church building was opened on 1st October 1892 with the Rev. Edwin Schaffer preaching a sermon entitled “The Preservation of Mankind”. The following year however Rev. Shaffer was dismissed and Alderman Cory led a service in November 1893 in front of what was described as a “meagre congregation”. The Church survived this wobbly start and the Rev. T Walton ministered from 1894 – 1897.

Ebenezer Baptist Church tea tickets

Ebenezer Baptist Church Cardiff Organ

Ebenezer Baptist Church Organ

In 1899 Rev. Caleb Joshua took up the ministry of the church and remained until his death in 1923, he was said to have “enjoyed throughout the years a good measure of God’s blessing”. Such a significant leader for the Church that on his passing a large plaque was commissioned in his memory and was mounted next to the pulpit. In the late 1920’s, thanks to the good works established by Rev. Joshua, the Church was redeveloped somewhat, this included the installation of a new organ in 1929. Rev. Garnet Powell, locally recognisable for his unusual skull cap, ministered through the late 1920’s and 1930’s. It was during his ministry that the Gallery was finally built. The Church flourished through the next few decades and at one point had a considerable choir who were nicknamed “The Pearl Street Pigeons”. The Rev. Winston took over the ministry for the War years. In 1946 Rev. Glyn Thomas took on the ministry and remained until 1963, his period being described as “a long and stable ministry”.

Ebenezer Baptist Church Cardiff Whitsun prep

Ebenezer Baptist Church Whitsun treat prep

In the early 1970’s discussions with Tremorfa Baptist Church commenced, initially around calling a minister together but this soon progressed into the idea of uniting the Churches due to dwindling congregations. In 1972 Rev. Doug Harbour began his ministry of both Ebenezer and Tremorfa Baptist Churches. Over the next three years plans were put in place for the union and in 1975 it was decided that the new Church should be called “Belmont” named by Church Deacon Mr. Fred Browning. Morning services would take place in the Tremorfa building and evening services in Ebenezer, with any larger special services taking place in Ebenezer as it was the larger property. Because of the size of the Ebenezer building, it soon became apparent that it was becoming too expensive to maintain, especially when considering there were now two church sites. A proposal was made to build a new Church, equidistant between the two locations, the chosen plot was the site of the former Moorland Road Forward Movement Hall on the corner of Moorland Road, Habershon Street and North Park Road. However, despite initial favourable noises form the council it soon became apparent that they had their own use for the site and it went onto become the Moorland Community Centre. So, in 1976 the Ebenezer Church was used for the last time by this congregation. The building was rented to the New Testament Church of God for a year before it was sold to the Sikh community who opened their Gurdwara in 1979. The Sikh community added an extension to building in 2014 also adding a new entrance through one of the houses on Pearl Street and also levelled off the Gallery to create a new room on the upper level. Belmont Baptist Church continues to worship as Belmont Tremorfa Family Church to this day over 140 years after it was first established (2020).

Richard Haworth

An Ebenezer Baptist Chapel plate

Gaiety Cinema – domed or doomed?

The old Gaiety Cinema on City Road is under threat of demolition again.  Admittedly the iconic domes don’t look at their best any longer.  Maybe with some tasteful renovation they could be incorporated into a modern structure making a real feature in this historic street, formerly known as Plwcca Lane, the Castle Road and now City Road. Join us as we take a look at the history of the Gaiety.

Gaiety Cinema, Roath, Cardiff
The Gaiety Grand in 1913 not long after it had been opened.

Assessing the Gaiety Cinema building in 1995, John Newman refers to it as “presenting an appearance of gay abandon” a marked contrast to its appearance in 2020.  Built in 1910 and originally planned as a roller skating rink and cinema the building is listed by Cardiff Council in its List of Local Buildings of Merit (no 297). The Gaiety opened in 1912 with a seating capacity of 800. The picture of the cinema in 1913 advertises the main feature as ‘Thor, lord of the jungles’ (1913)   A feature of the design is a pair of small art deco domes on either side of the entrance. The words “The Gaiety” were inscribed above the entrance within a curved head mould.  There was also some swag detail  on the upper façade.

The Gaiety Grand Cinema was opened by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Morgan Thomas J P for the Splott (Cardiff) Cinema Co. a group of Cardiff business men who eventually owned 7 or 8 cinemas in the suburbs of Cardiff and who by 1913 had changed the name to the Gaiety Electric Theatre.  The then manager was a Mr J Schlentheim.

Gaiety Cinema, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
Gaiety Cinema, City Road, Roath, around 1912

Between 1920 and 1923 plans were submitted for alterations to the roof and the gallery seating.  As with most cinemas of the time there were two programmes each week, half the chain showing a film on Monday, Tuesday and  Wednesday and passing it to the remaining cinemas on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  All cinemas were closed on Sundays until the early 1960’s. Unlike today you could enter the cinema at any time, even in the middle of a film and stay to the end of a following screening.  Again like most cinemas there were Saturday morning matinees for children.

By the 1930’s there was growing concern about the influence of the Hollywood film industry.  Film going in the United Kingdom was most popular in Northern England, Scotland and Wales.  Data on consumer expenditure in the 1930’s indicates that the average Welsh household devoted 14.4% of their household expenditure on going to the cinema, well above the national average.  In Cardiff the most luxurious cinemas were to be found in Queen Street. The Empire was converted to a cinema in c1933 and The Capitol had opened its doors in 1920. The Queen’s cinema was less pretentious, but in 1929 presented Al Jolson in The Singing Fool, the first “talkie” film released in 1927.  By this time The Gaiety had been open for over 15 years and by 1934 had been remodelled and enlarged by William S Wort an architect who increased the seating capacity to 1518.

Gaiety Cinema, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
The Gaiety with it’s neon advertising signs (Picture: ITV Wales)

Renamed as The Gaiety Cinema, prices in the late 1940’s ranged from 1/6d to 2/6d. Plans were submitted for alterations to the toilets and to have neon lighting fitted. Thousands of leaflets were distributed each month advertising forthcoming programmes.  By the 1950’s cinema attendance was 45% higher than in 1934 and the British are the world’s most avid film goers.  In 1956 The Gaiety Cinema becomes part of the Jackson Withers Circuit, an alias for the Cardiff banker, Sir Julian Hodge, but by 1961 it had closed and reopened as a 7 Day Bingo Hall until 1994. Initially part of the Coral Bingo Hall network, by 1991 was part of Top Rank.  Edith Pearce had visited the cinema many times as a child and was later employed in the Bingo Hall.  She observes that in her opinion one of the failures of the Gaiety’s design were the two shops on either side of the entrance.  Rented out to independent retailers, they continuously changed hands, both in the cinema and bingo eras.

Gaiety Bingo Hall, City Road, Cardiff

Following a planning application to become a public house in 1998, which was withdrawn, the building was taken over by Spin Bowling Ltd in 2001. After an extensive renovation it became ‘The Spin Bar and Bowling Centre’, now having two floors,  a Ten pin bowling alleys and a bar and restaurant area. Sadly it closed in 2006.  A planning application to re-open as a bar, entailing further alterations, was rejected by Cardiff Council in 2007. The building remained empty and  visibly deteriorating.  In 2012 an anarchist group called the Gremlins break into the building and set up ‘The Gremlin Alley Social centre’. They are later evicted.

Gaiety, City Road, Cardiff
Interior of the Gaiety (picture credit: David W. J. Lloyd)

An evaluation of the state of the building was made in 2014 , when ripped  out piping, crumbling walls and a floor covered with needles were found. Councillor Mary McGary then proposed a compulsory purchase order which would have allowed Cardiff Council to dispose of the  site with the consent of the owner. The proposal was rejected due to lack of funding.  

Gaiety cinema, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
Interior shots of the Gaiety. All were taken when the building ceased being a cinema but some of the original features probably remain (photo credits: 1. David W. J. Lloyd, 2-4 Leighton Parker).

In 2015 the Wales United Housing Association began negotiations with the then owners Bonnes Mares Ltd to buy the property. Their proposal was to demolish the building and to construct 40+ affordable flats on the site.  By 2018 ownership appeared to have changed again and the new owners the MSG Group apply to Cardiff Council for a demolition order to demolish the building on 1 Aug 2019.  Recently developer Bonnes Mares has applied for planning permission from Cardiff Council for a temporary car park on the site but has not stated how long this would be for.

Young people will probably find it hard to believe that in the days when the Gaiety opened the films didn’t have any sound.  Theatres had pipe organs to provide music and sound effects to accompany the silent film.  Should, heaven forbid, the domes ever be demolished, then maybe someone should set themselves up on the pavement opposite with an organ to provide appropriate musical accompaniment in true Monty Python style.  Fingers crossed that will never happen.  

Gaiety Bingo, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
Gaiety Bingo Club in the early 1970s.

Roath Park Hotel

The Roath Park Hotel on the corner of City Road and Kincraig Street dates back to 1886.

As of Oct 2020 it is currently under threat of being demolished and replaced with flats.

The three storey stone built property with a roof top platform surrounded by railings is the last remaining Victorian pub on City Road, or Castle Road as it was called when the hotel was built.

Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff with the Roath Park Hotel on the right.

 it was built on land owned by the Mackintosh Estate. Urban development on the Mackintosh Estate began in 1886, but Wright’s Directory of Cardiff 1886 does not list Kincraig Street, so possibly the Roath Park Hotel was not in existence until 1887. An amended plan for some business premises at the junction in 1886 may refer to the building of the Roath Park Hotel, but would need to be examined in the Glamorgan archives (BC/S/1/5933).

We know that the Roath Park Hotel was in existence by 1889 at a time when the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act was in force and was the listed in the Cardiff Directories as being at 170 Castle Rd. It was the last of the Victorian hotels or public houses to be erected in City Rd the earliest being the Gardener’s Arms in what was then  Plucca Lane in 1855 which was renamed as the Military Canteen by 1871 . Richard Steward was the first manager of the Roath Park Hotel until 1904.

By 1905 the Roath Park Hotel was under the management of Enoch D Howells who remained there until 1911, during which time a ban on children under 14 being allowed access to licensed premises was introduced in 1908. He was succeeded by Charles Kyd until 1913, who was in turn followed by Percy A Lewin from 1914 to 1920. From the Electoral Register we know that he lived on the premises with his wife Mary and a lodger(?), Jane Rossatt, a blouse maker.  During World War I 1914 – 1918, early morning, afternoon and evening closing hours were introduced to combat the perceived evil effects of drinking on the war effort.

Photo credit: Brian Lee

Edward J Lloyd was the manager in 1924  (WMCD). Plans exist of the hotel premises in police records between 1926 and 1955 and again can be found in the Glamorgan Archives (DCONC/6/11 a – c), By 1927 Samuel Davey had become the manager.. Photographs of him appear in the Cardiff Yesterday series, vol 8, photographs 55 and 56. The Cardiff Yesterday series can be seen in the Cardiff Heritage Library located in the Cathays Branch Library.

Samuel Davey, landlord of the Roath Park

The hotel mainly manages to keep itself out of the newspapers apart from the usual arguments about liquor licences in the 1890s, the occasional person walking in and dropping dead from natural causes and Mr Naish, a greengrocer, being accused was accused of regularly taking bets in there in 1936.

The 1939 Register shows the occupants as Douglas Buckner (hotel manager), Iris Buckner (hotel manageress), Phyliss Edwards (barmaid) and Ada Selt 9barmaid).

During the 1930’s and after World War II, many young people under 25 preferred the dance hall or the cinema, but fashion changes and in the 1960’s the ‘pub’ was once again in favour only to lose out to bars and clubs in the early 2000’s. Drinking habits, particularly in the evenings tended to revolve around the playing of darts and or skittles and in some public houses singing around a piano. Men would generally drink beer, often Brain’s Dark (the original).  Drinkers of Bitter beer were in a minority.  Women drank ‘shorts’ such as Gin and tonic or Gin and It (Italian Vermouth).

From 1949 the Roath Park Hotel continues to be listed in the Western Mail Cardiff Directory (WMCD), but  the names of managers are no longer given. By 1971, the Electoral Register tells us that David Magee is the manager living in the flat above with his wife Anne. Babycham and Cinazano have now become the preferred drink for women. By the 1980’s the lager revolution was in full swing for both men and women.  For drinking habits generally see The Little book of Cardiff by D Collins and G Bennett, 2015.

(photo credit: Pintof45)

The Electoral Register still refers to the Roath Park Hotel when Melvyn E Evans was living on the premises from 2003 to 2004, but by 2009 it had become simply the Roath Park. Legislation in 2003 had transferred licensing powers from Magistrates to Local Authorities and in 2005 new licensing laws in England and Wales aimed to encourage a continental style café culture and introduced 24 hour licenses. As a result more people spread their drinking throughout the night and public houses continued to close.

An interesting assortment in the windows (photo credit: Sarah Louise on Flickr)

The Roath Park is the last Victorian public house to survive in City Road, there being I believe 8 in 1889. I do realise that fashion and economics are against its  survival as a public house, but given the horrendous change in the topography of City Road, I think that a Victorian building is worth preserving even if put to other uses.  An application  should be made for listed building status and perhaps an approach made to the National Trust or the Landmark Trust. As King Edward VIII once famously said in South Wales, “Something must be done”.

Local councillors have organised a petition against the demolition of the Roath Park.  

It had a skittle alley that was still there in the mid-1980s

. This history of the pub has just been added to the Roath Local History Society ‘Pubs’ page.

History researched by Malcolm Ranson & Ted Richards

John Vipond Davies – good at making connections

Sometime last year I was flicking through the pages of a booklet that my late father had written ‘Welsh Expatriate Engineers of the 19th Century’, looking for any that may have had a connection to the Roath Area.  I came across John Vipond Davies, a pioneering civil engineer.  He wasn’t born in Cardiff but the Davies family did move here from Swansea.  I started some research but must have got distracted and put it aside, as is often the case.  Had it not been for a recent enquiry from his granddaughter asking about the family tree I had started to assemble on Ancestry, I may never have gone back to it.  I’m glad I did as it’s another fascinating story.

John Vipond Davies was born in Swansea on 13 Oct 1862 to Andrew Davies, a surgeon and JP originally from Haverfordwest, and Emily Davies née Edmonds originally from Wantage, Berkshire.

The young J Vipond Davies with his mother Emily.

In the 1881 census the Davies family had moved to 2 Haswell Terrace on Newport Road, near the junction with West Grove.  Dr Andrew Davies was working as a physician, possibly at the nearby Infirmary on Newport Road, the building which later became the University. 

By 1881 John Vipond Davies had already been educated at Wesleyan College, Taunton, now called Queens College, before attending London University.  In the 1881 census in Cardiff  he is described as a student of Mechanical Engineering.

Newport Road, Cardiff with West Grove leading off to the left and the Davies house at 2 Haswell Terrace marked

Before we embark on looking at his impressive engineering career let’s step aside and look at something else I stumbled across.  He played rugby for Cardiff. Not only that but there is a wonderfully clear photograph of him and the team from the 1881 season. Records aren’t necessarily all that complete from those early years of rugby.  Cardiff RFC was only formed in 1876.  We know he played at least six times for Cardiff including at half back in the Cup Final against Llanelli in March 1881, played at Neath.  The match was scoreless at full time and went into extra time. When Cardiff scored a try in the second period of extra time the crowd invaded the pitch rendering further play impossible and Cardiff were declared the winners.  It sounds like it was a boisterous affair, with a disputed try, claims of bias against the Cardiff official and a spot of crowd trouble.  On their return the Cardiff team were met at station by a large crowd and carried shoulder high to the Queen’s Hotel where I guess a night of revelry ensued.    

The 1881 Cardiff Rugby Football club cup winning team with Vipond Davies seated left (Photo: Cardiff Rugby Museum)

Getting back to Vipond’s engineering accomplishments, we are lucky to be able to refer to his application to join the Institution of Civil Engineers in which he detailed his early career in some depth.  Between 1880 and 1884 he was apprenticed to Parfitt and Jenkins Engineers in Cardiff.  These years would have been a busy time for an engineering company in Cardiff as industry, employment and the population all expanded rapidly centred on the coal exporting taking place in Cardiff docks. Parfitt and Jenkins Engineers had a foundry in Tyndall Street and were involved in manufacturing a range of things including  locomotives, marine and stationary engines and boilers, points, crossings, turntables, cranes and railway bridges.  

John Vipond Davies’s Apprentice Certificate still in the family and displayed on the office wall of his great grandson, also an engineer.

We also learn from a newspaper cutting of 1883 that Vipond was one of a group of Cardiff students to gain a distinction in an Cambridge Extension examination at the end of a course studying electricity.

After completing his training he embarks on a variety of roles in the South Wales area.  His first job was to prepare plans for a fuel briquetting  works for Charles M Jacobs. It was this association with C M Jacobs that took him to America but not for another five or so years. In between he gained experience working for the Blaenavon Coal and Iron Company designing blast furnaces, rolling mills and coke ovens. He also works for a time as a mine surveyor for the family business John Vipond & Co at Varteg.

In 1888 his career takes a different turn when he serves eight months as the 3rd Engineer on the newly built SS Argus, built in Newcastle but registered in Melbourne, Australia.  The SS Argus was launched in 1889 so it is unclear if Vipond Davies was just involved in the construction and commissioning or whether he sailed on board too.

The shipbuilders model of the SS Argus

It appears to be in 1889 when John Vipond Davies left Wales for America with Charles M Jacobs that his career really took off.  In 1892 he was Chief Assistant Engineer to Charles M Jacobs working on an 11 foot diameter railroad tunnel under the East River of New York.  The project must have gone well for in 1894 he became a partner in the with C M Jacobs Engineering Company. He worked on railroads and water supply pipelines in Detroit, Ohio,  West Virginia and Tennessee.  In 1895 C M Jacobs also designed a 11,000 ft bridge to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

Perhaps his most prestigious project of the time was the Hudson River Tunnel Project for the Hudson and Manhattan Rail Road company, estimated in 1910 to have cost $60,000,000.  The boroughs of New York are separated by rivers and it is perhaps interesting to think the key part Welshman Vipond Davies had in its development. 

After achieving much in New York he moved on to design the Moffat Tunnel through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  

The Moffat Tunnel in Colorado (photo: W R Berg Jr)

He also ventured to the West Coast and designed the bridge and tunnel across San Francisco Bay and also a bridge over the Mississippi in New Orleans.  

His work was not confined to within USA.  He was consulting engineer on twenty six aqueduct tunnels in Mexico and a bit closer to home he designed and supervised the building of the Paris Metro tunnel under the Seine and across the Place de la Concorde.

You too can find out how to build a tunnel if you track down a copy of a book he co-authored and published called Modern Tunnelling in 1923.

Perhaps the only time his career slowed was in 1907 when he broke his hip bravely arresting a team of runaway horses heading towards a group of school children.  He was in Flushing on his way to catch an early morning train to Long Island when the horses took fright of a passing automobile. Vipond was clinging to the bridle when he was thrown against a tree, fell to the ground and was run over by a passing van.

In 1914 he was awarded the Telford Gold Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers in UK. He also became President of the American Engineering Society in New York.  An interesting insight into the status engineering at the time is obtained from an address he gave to the memory of engineer and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1920

One paper reports that as a retirement present his employees presented him with a gold-handled silk umbrella.  I wonder what his former team mates at Cardiff RFC would have thought about that.  I suspect much banter would have ensued.

Family Life

He married Ruth Ramsey of Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1895 and they went on to have three children, John Vipond Jr, Muriel and Margaret, the offspring of which still live in USA today but are proud of their Welsh roots.

A lovely Davies family bookplate depicting the family residence and a tunnel entrance.

His death at Flushing, New York on 4 Oct 1939 at the age of 76 announced him as one of the foremost civil engineers in USA. He is buried alongside his wife at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.


Thank you to the Davies family for information and images shared.

Thank you to Gwyn Prescott and Cardiff Rugby Museum for information and the image of Vipond Davies’s playing career.

References & further reading:

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

Institution of Civil Engineers Obituary

Uptown Hudson Tubes

Captain George Auger, the Cardiff Giant, tallest man on Earth and the Jimi Hendrix connection.

George possibly with Harold Lloyd

Background to Article

Somebody suggested that I may choose to look at George Auger, the Cardiff Giant, on the off chance he may have been born in the Roath area.  It turns out he wasn’t but by then I was so engrossed in his story that I couldn’t stop.  Please forgive me therefore in posting it here on our Roath Local History Society website. I hope you find his story equally fascinating.

The research behind the article was jointly compiled by family history enthusiasts Joanna Keen, Liz Rees and Ted Richards. They came into contact via the Glamorgan Family History Society Facebook page and were able to pool various resources and research skills and learn from each other to complete this research.

Captain George Auger, the Cardiff Giant

In 1915 the billboards for the Barnum and Bailey Circus in America advertised ‘Captain George Auger, the Cardiff Giant, the tallest man on earth’. You may recall the Barnum and Bailey Circus; it was the focus of the Hugh Jackman hit film The Greatest Showman.

Hugh Jackman The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman in the The Greatest Showman

As with all such claims there is an element of truth in the statement. This has been an intriguing investigation, attempting to prise out the facts from the fiction. In doing so we believe we have uncovered information not previously known about Captain George Auger and his family.

Cardiff Roots

George Auger was indeed born in Cardiff, but not as George, that was a name he adopted later in life for his showbiz career. He was born William Henry Auger on 27 Dec 1881. Articles about his life tend to say he was born in St Mary’s Street but when we ordered his birth certificate we found he’d been born at 48 Gough Street. The confusion probably arose because Gough Street, no longer standing, was in the parish of St Mary’s, Cardiff.

Gough Street

Gough Street was in Temperance Town, immediately outside what is now Cardiff Central Station. It was one of the close knit streets demolished in the 1930s. It stood where the BBC headquarters now stands in Central Square. It was named after John Gough the temperance campaigner and orator who visited Cardiff and gave a rousing speech at that location and subsequently had a street named after him.

Gough Street, Temperance Town, Cardiff

Gough Street, Temperance Town, Cardiff

The birth certificate of William Henry Auger also tells us he was born to Henry Auger, a policeman, and Elizabeth Lauretta Frances Connop. It appears that William Henry Auger only had a fleeting association with Cardiff, contrary to what some reports say. By Sept 1884 the Auger family are living in Brentford, and William Henry together with his recently born sister Ada Louisa are both baptised in St Paul’s, Brentford, London, perhaps in a ‘buy one baptism get one free’ deal at the time.

Baptised in Brentford in 1884 with his baby sister Ada

The Auger family stayed in London but relocated fairly regularly but with having an unusual surname and with more and more records becoming available online it has been possible to track their movements over time as they crisscross the city. In Apr 1889 William starts school at Wilmot Street School, Bethnal Green.

In the 1891 census we find the Augers, now with five children, living in Hanwell, West London.

Royal Marines

In Feb 1894, and aged just 12, William lies about his age in order to join the Royal Marine Light Infantry. He claimed to have been born in Cardiff in 1875 as opposed to 1881. How did he get away with it? Well, his military record shows that he was already unusually tall at 5′ 8½’. He served for just less than a year and whilst at Portsmouth it appears he chose to desert. We are left to wonder if he was indeed the youngest person to ever serve in the Royal Marines.

Court Appearances

For the next period in William’s life the online newspapers have provided an excellent resource, not only for detailing his adolescent life but also for mapping out his growth. In 1895, William, aged 13 and now 6′ 3″ appears at Marylebone Court with his friend. William Auger was accused of keeping watch whilst his friend John Theil went into shops to steal. His friend was caught with three pairs of stolen socks in his procession and was remanded. We don’t hear what happened to William.

In Sept 1896 there is another court appearance that paints both a sad and at the same time humorous picture. Now aged 14 he is 6′ 6″ tall. He appears to have been arrested for nothing other than looking suspicious in Notting Hill. He tells the arresting officer that he was just trying to find a piece of string for his conker. He tried to bribe the officer to let him go by offering him a toffee but the officer was having none of it and took him into custody. It was left to his mother to testify her son’s age and explain that he was going to be put into long-trousers soon despite him still being a child. The court exonerated him and on leaving the court he ran quickly home trundling his hoop.

William Heny Auger aged 14 in 1896

Police Career

The following year, aged 15, he once again lied about his age, claiming he was 19, and joins Great Western Railways in Paddington where he serves as a policeman. His employment lasts just over a year and he is dismissed in March 1899.

By May 1899 he is working as a doorman at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. Now measuring 6′ 11″ and pretending to be 17 years old he is paired with a small boy in a similar uniform to accentuate William’s height even further. His chest measures 43″ and he is described as being able to lift 180 lbs with just one hand. He opens the door for the theatre goers and they pass underneath without needing in any way to duck.

Possible child

Whilst employed at the Alhambra Theatre he was arrested once again in Jun 1899. This time he was accused of not paying the arrears due to Rose Ward for the maintenance of her child. The amount owed was said to be 16s. William admitted this was correct and his mother came forward and paid the outstanding money.

1900 Aug b

It appears that by Aug 1900 he had fallen into arrears again and was once again arrested. By now he had grown to 7′ 4″ and was described as the second tallest man in the world. He was also now being described as an actor.

Pantomime Days

In the summer of 1900 he marries Elizabeth Hearne from Edinburgh, Scotland in Lambeth, London.

December 1900 does indeed see his embarkation on a career as an actor. It is also the first time we hear of him being referred to as George as opposed to William. He appears at the Ealing Theatre at Christmas 1900 as George Auger the 7′ 6″ Giant in a production of Puss in Boots.

In the 1901 census we find William Henry Auger, aged 22, theatre doorman, born in Cardiff living with Elizabeth Auger, his wife, also 22, born in Scotland. The address is 61 Brook Street, Southwark.

Barnum and Bailey Circus

In March 1904 George and Elizabeth Auger sail from Le Havre, France to New York aboard the S.S. La Bretagne. His arrival in America is recorded in the New York Times. It describes the very uncomfortable journey he’d experienced aboard La Bretagne, having to draw his knees up under his chin to sleep in his six foot berth. It also states that he was to be placed in exhibition at the Barnum and Bailey Circus which opened in Madison Square Garden that month.

How did he end up in America? Well, articles that are written about him say that he attended a Barnum and Bailey Circus performance when they were on tour in London and when the show was over he approached the giant actor of the time only to discover he was taller. It didn’t go unnoticed by the show’s management and he was encouraged to travel to America to join the company. It must be said however that there doesn’t appear to be anything in the newspapers around this time to necessarily substantiate this story.


In November 1904 we find an interesting article in the Evening Express headlined ‘Missing Cardiff Giant – How Mother received Good News’. The article reports how 8 foot, 19 stone, George Auger, had lost contact with his mother when he moved abroad. She had changed address and failed to notify the Post Office of a forwarding address so his letters home were not received. It was only when a neighbour of his mother read a story in the paper of George having an overcoat stolen was the connection made.

Although the article, seemingly based on an interview with William’s mother, contains a lot of interesting information much of it doesn’t quite tie in date-wise so perhaps we need to be cautious. The article says that he had had an offer from the Barnum and Bailey Circus to tour ‘almost five years ago’. It also states that he had been a uniformed commissionaire at the Lyric Theatre, and also a barman at the Windsor Castle, Notting Hill where his services commanded a guinea a night. In the same article it says that he met his wife in Scotland when on tour with Puss in Boots where a ballet-girl captivated the giant’s heart. The next time he visited his mother he was accompanied by a little Scotch bride. That would only make sense if he was in Puss in Boots in December 1899 as he married Elizabeth in the summer of 1900. It may of course be that he was in Puss in Boots for two years running.


In Feb 1905 the New York Times reports of George Auger having to fold himself up and kneel on the elevator floor when visiting the Equitable Life building in order to arrange $10,000 life insurance. He is 8′ 1″ and 320 lbs according to the article. He stated his mother was 5′ 2″ and his father 5′ 11″ and both still living. There is also evidence here that he hadn’t yet adopted the name the Cardiff Giant as in the article it states ‘they call me the British Goliath’. Interestingly it also quotes him as saying he met his wife, 5′ 4″, whilst in Paris a few years ago.

A photo in the UK Sketch newspaper in May 1905 had a picture of 7’10” Giant George Auger with dwarf Paul Oval in his coat pocket. It is not clear where or when the picture was taken but it is in an article about the Union Jack Club in London.


Jack the Giant Killer

The next time we pick up George Auger is in 1907, not as part of the Barnum and Bailey Circus but as an independent artist. He has written a play called Jack the Giant Killer which he takes on tour. He is naturally playing the giant, and now described as ‘the tallest man on earth’, and much of the rest of the cast are described as of diminutive stature including Ernest Rommel the ‘smallest comedian in the world’. The cast also included his wife Elizabeth.

1907 - Jack the Giant Killer cast

In May 1908 Jack the Giant Killer plays Boston before heading over to Europe. They arrive in Liverpool in June aboard the Lusitania describing themselves as vaudeville artists. They probably play a number of venues but we know for sure that he visited his place of birth and played the Empire Theatre in Queen Street, Cardiff in November.

Empire Theatre ueen Street 1901

Empire Theatre in Queen Street, Cardiff


George Auger is still in South Wales in Apr 1909 as we discover with this intriguing story from the Glamorgan Gazette: Maesteg: Cyclist Injured.—Mr. George Auger, the Welsh giant, who is now performing at Maesteg Town-hall, was driving in his motorcar on Wednesday towards Bridgend, when his attention was called to a cyclist lying by the side of the road unconscious and bleeding. Mr Auger put the injured man in his car and drove to Drs. Kirkby and Thomas’s surgery, Maesteg. Dr. Bell Thomas found that he had received serious injuries to the head. He is Herbert Deacon, 26 Garn-Road, Maesteg. Mr. Auger later took the man home in his car.

As we move further along in the career of William ‘George’ Auger we need to be more and more cautious in necessary believing what is written about him. There is no doubt an element of exaggerating things for show-biz effect. Even interviews with George the Giant himself need to be treated carefully. For instance, when in Cardiff in 1908 he is interviewed by the papers. By now according to the paper he is ‘the tallest man in the world’ at 8′ 3″. He is quoted as saying he was born in St Mary’s Street and taken to America by his parents when he was ten months old. He states his mother’s name was Connop (true) and she came from Kidwelly (near Abergavenny actually, but his uncle lived in Kidwelly). Let’s for now concentrate on what we can pick up from the primary source documents and return to the rest later.

Back in America Jack the Giant Killer continued to tour. It was playing Boston again in 1910 and again in 1913.

In the 1910 US Census we find George Auger lodging in Ardmore Street, Washington DC with his fellow performer Ernest Rommell, both describing themselves as actors.

Jack, the Giant Killer, Captain George Auger and Ernest Rommell

There’s a bit of a gap now in information about George though there seems no reason to doubt that he continued to work as an actor in shows in America.

American Citizen

He became a naturalized American citizen in Jan 1917 whilst still living in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Isn’t it funny how when you have to fill in an official forms such as passport applications and army draft registration forms, that the truth is more likely to appear. Having said that, he was still going by the name of George Auger when he completed his passport application form in Oct 1917 rather than his birth name of William Henry Auger. He applied for his passport in New Orleans, Louisiana, with a view on going to work as an actor in Cuba for under six months. We also learn from the form that he hasn’t left USA since Jun 1909.

By May 1918 he had returned from Cuba and was appearing in the Fred Bradna Circus in Washington DC for three days, a show attended by the President’s wife, Mrs Woodrow Wilson. The show netted a whopping $3,300 on the first day and George Auger, ‘the Cardiff Colossus’ was extremely popular.

US Army

He gets drafted into the US WWI army in Sept 1918. On his draft form his date of birth is correct. His employer is Barnum and Bailey and he is living in Bridgeport, Fairfield County, Connecticut. His height is officially given at 7′ 6″ in the section reserved for information about whether the individual is physically disqualified to serve. This, together with the fact that the war was all but over, meant that he probably saw no active military service.

Early Death

He died suddenly on 30 Nov 1922 aged 40. His early death is made even sadder by the fact that he was about to break out of the circus role and embark on a career in the ‘moving pictures’. He had signed a contact said to be worth $350/week to star alongside actor Harold Lloyd as the giant Colosso in the film ‘Why Worry?’.

Harold Lloyd with George Auger

Harold Lloyd with George Auger in what was probably a promotional photo for the film they never got to make, ‘Why Worry?’.

His cause of death was said to be indigestion having passed away after eating a thanksgiving day meal at the friends he was staying with.

1922 lowering the coffin 4ab78943-2a23-4f6d-aacf-9db6421da481

His body had to be lowered in a specially made coffin from the second floor window of the Manhattan apartment where he died using block and tackle, with 1000 people looking on. His faithful bulldog named Ringling whined throughout the operation.

His funeral was attended by many of his showbiz colleagues including many of diminutive stature who were part of his act. Also present was Ringling the bulldog who was to have gone with George to California the next week to start filming the movie.

By the time his obituary appears in the papers he is 8′ 4″. He was described as a good natured, likeable person who lounged through life trying to make the best of what nature had served him.

He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, sadly in an unmarked grave (plot: range 34, grave 293).

Queen Victoria’s connection

There’s a one interesting aspect of his life not covered above, mainly because it is difficult to substantiate and may or may not be true. In America he went by the name of Captain George Auger. The Captain title is said to have derived from his days as a policeman in London and was given to him by Queen Victoria when he was assigned as part of the police escort when she moved about the city. She is said to have dubbed him Captain and the title stuck with him. Whether he did ever serve Queen Victoria is unknown but it is believable that their paths did cross when he was working at Paddington or on the trains and she was heading to Wales or the West Country.

The two Cardiff Giants

The other angle we haven’t covered is why he was called the Cardiff Giant. It is not as obvious as it first appears. If you Google the Cardiff Giant then it’s a sort of 50:50 chance if you come across the story of Captain George Auger or the Cardiff Giant hoax story. Not long before George arrived in America a rock purported to be of a ‘petrified man’ was discovered at Cardiff in upstate New York in the 1860s. It was over 10 foot long. So impressed were Barnum’s Circus by the idea of having this on display that they attempted to purchase it without success. Instead they had a copy of the original Cardiff Giant and put it on display. It turns out that not only was the Barnum circus copy not real but the original Cardiff Giant was also a hoax. Arrive then a man from London, born in Cardiff and what better to call him than the Cardiff Giant.


It would be tempting to leave the story there, at its natural conclusion. There are however more revelations to come in the Auger story.

Elizabeth Connop – mother

Let’s start by looking at William’s mother, Elizabeth Lauretta Frances Connop. She was born in 1860 in the small village of Llanwenarth in the Usk valley to the west of Abergavenny. Her father was William Connop, a blacksmith, and her mother Christina Moyse. We don’t know how she met William’s father Henry and they both appear to be missing from the 1881 census, the year William was born, so the first time we pick her up in the records after leaving home is on William’s birth certificate, living in Cardiff in Dec 1881.

Elizabeth and Henry have six children together between 1881 and 1892, one dying in infancy. All apart from William are born in London. Somewhat unconventionally they don’t get married until 1891 in Putney, Surrey ,after the birth of their fifth child.

In the 1901 census she is living in the Kensington area of London seemingly separated from husband Henry and employed in a laundry. In 1911, still working in a laundry, she is living in Notting Hill with son James and her now married daughter Ada. She dies aged 72 in Hammersmith, London in 1932.

Interestingly, one Connop family tree in Ancestry mentions the fact that Elizabeth’s brother, James Moyse Connop (born 1843) was a ‘giant of a man’.

Henry Auger – father

Let’s now move onto looking at William’s father Henry Auger. He was born in 1857 in Isleworth, Middlesex, the eldest son of James Auger, a garden labourer, and Rachel Ray.

He joins the army in 1877 and becomes a Corporal in the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He marries Phyllis Rapley in Isleworth in Jan 1879. They had a daughter Rachel Phillis Auger whose birth is registered in Brentford in Q2 1880. The marriage was to be short lived however as we know that by 1881 Henry has met Elizabeth Connop. He buys himself out of the army in Jun 1881. On leaving the Coldstream Guards, Henry Auger joins the police force. Phyllis Auger (nee Rapley) later remarries in Sep 1882 in Croydon to another member of the Coldstream Guards, Joseph Brier. She appears to incorrectly and conveniently state she is a widow on her marriage certificate.

We have already covered the fact that Henry goes on to father six more children with Elizabeth including our William ‘George’ Auger so let’s pick up Henry Auger again in the 1890s. It appears he leaves Elizabeth not long after the birth of James Auger in 1892 and sets up home with Ada Offord. By 1895 the first of their 12 children are born, Ellen Offord Auger. Henry also appears to have left the police force by now and is working as a painter. It is convenient for us that the Auger family have a nice unusual surname and are born in London where the baptism records are available making the family history much easier to confirm.

Harry Auger and family

Henry ‘Harry’ Auger and his third wife Ada Offord and some of the children he had by Ada and two of the children he had by Elizabeth Connop (photo: the Auger family)

I trust you are counting these children; that’s one by Phyllis Rapley, six by Elizabeth Connop and twelve by Ada Offord making a total of nineteen. It appears that there may have been one more too making it a round twenty. Some family trees on Ancestry appear to indicate he may have fathered Charles Henry Hall in 1903.

In the 1911 census Ada and the children are living in Chiswick, now with ‘John’ Auger. It appears that Henry at this stage is not keen to use his real name for some reason.

Henry also appeared in no rush to marry Ada Offord either. Even though they have their first child in 1895 they don’t get married until 22 years later in Oct 1917 after all twelve of Ada’s children have been born.

In Sep 1915 with WWI raging Henry Auger bravely joins the army again. He is now aged 58, although on his army record he claims to be only 48. In the army record he lists his children born by Ada Offord but under the section requiring him to detail his marriage he provides details of his wedding with Elizabeth Connop. He lasted barely six weeks in the army before being discharged, the reason given in his records given as ‘not being likely to become an efficient soldier’.

Henry dies in 1921 in Reading , Berkshire aged 67, at the home of his niece Ada Tuffin (nee Rolf). There are a lot of Ada’s in the Auger family!

It is not clear how much Henry knew about his first born son William ‘George’ Auger, the Cardiff Giant, and his life in America. He and Elizabeth appear to have separated when William was around 12.

To finish off let’s have a quick look at some of William ‘George’ Auger’s siblings; only a couple I assure you, not all 19.

His younger sister Lucy joined him in Connecticut and was probably involved in the circus too. She married James Pendergast and they had two children, John and Margaret.

Brian Auger, rock star

The other sibling of William ‘George’ Auger to note is James Auger, born in 1892. James married twice and by his second wife Ivy Jones had seven children, one of which is Brian Auger, born 1939 in Hammersmith. Brian is a notable jazz rock pianist.


Brian Auger has a long accomplished musical career. In the 1960s he formed the band Steampacket which included Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll. He later recorded a number of albums with Julie Driscoll which included the song, ‘Wheels On Fire’, another version of which became the theme tune for the ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ TV series. In the London club scene in the 60s he also became friendly with and would jam with people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

Brian Auger moved to California where he still fronts up a band which includes two of his children. It is not apparent whether Brian is even aware that his uncle was the Cardiff Giant.

Central Square, Cardiff

So that completes the story of William Henry ‘George’ Auger, the Cardiff Giant, with all its twists and turns. Next time you exit the station in Cardiff into Central Square imagine yourself back in 1881 in the closely packed streets of Temperance Town where his life began.

BBC Central Square Cardiff

BBC Wales HQ in Central Square, Cardiff, where Gough Street, Temperance Town once stood.

BBC Wales were kind enough to pick up on this research and as a result published this online article The Greatest Showman: the story of Cardiff’s Giant.

George Auger with Douglas Fairbanks Snr and Charlie Chaplin

The Newport Road Skeleton

Cardiff University Queens Building Skeleton

Newport Road isn’t where I was expecting to see a skeleton. There I was relaxing on the upper deck of the bus when I spotted it out of the window on Cardiff University Engineering Department.  It’s on the stone facade above the doors and looking very Gothic indeed.  The rest of the stone facade looked interesting too, comprising of two statues and four relief stone carvings of distinguished scientists.

Cardiff University Queen's Building

I did a bit of research, didn’t find a great deal, so went back and took some photos on a dank morning.  An ideal topic for a blog post I thought.  Four sculptured busts of scientists, Jenner, Lister, Hunter and Pasteur.  I could write a bit about each.  Then I did some more painstaking research and found a couple of blog posts.  One from Bob Speel looked at the sculptures in terms of the sculptor and style, the other from Pat English does pretty much what I going to do and looks at the scientists themselves.  Both blog sites are very good and I would recommend them.  I’ve little doubt that I can’t hope to add much to their blog posts in terms of knowledge.

The four scientists Hunter Jenner Pasteur Lister

The building in question is Cardiff University Queen’s buildings on Newport Road.  Much of the building is of modern construction but the old tower dates back to 1915. To give it it’s proper description it is gothic Revival tower-facade retaining high-quality sculpture and I’m glad to see is a listed building.  There are two plaques on either side of the oak doors that indicate the first stone was laid in 1915 and then the building was opened in 1921 by the then Prince of Wales. I say oak doors but that’s a guess but they are decorated with what appears acorns, so hardly likely to be eucalyptus.

Cardiff University Queen's Building foundation stones

So if it’s the engineering building, then why is it adorned with the statues and sculptures of four non-engineering scientists. Apparently the building was originally the Medical school which makes sense as it is close to the Royal Infirmary up the road. That would also explain the two life sized statues which are part of the Bath stone facade; Asclepius, Greek god of Medicine and I’d swear an oath that the other one is Hippocrates.  Asclepius is holding his staff and two cocks stand at his feet.  It was traditional to sacrifice a cock to thank Asclepius for being healed.  I would happily sacrifice a chicken or good piece of tofu if only I could get an appointment with my doctor.

Cardiff University Gods

There’s so much on this facade to help keep you or your kids entertained if you are ever passing by on a bus or waiting at the bus stop. Get them to see how many carved animals that can spot just above the doorway. Among them I spotted a squirrel, lizard and mouse. And there’s probably a live pigeon hiding away in there too.

Cardiff University Newport Road Carved animals

John Hunter

And so the scientists. Perhaps the least known is the 18th century Scottish surgeon John Hunter.  Now here’s and interesting character.

John Hunter

Throughout his career he collected many thousands animal and human corpses. It is said that his collection of live animals from around the world at his home in London may have led to the inspiration for the story of Doctor Dolittle. On the other hand his brother who obtained many of the human corpses for him has been accused of grave robbing and even worse, calling into question whether Hunter was more like Dr Jekyll than Doctor Dolittle.  To the top right of Hunter is a patient in a bed being watched over closely by a young man and a skeleton. Presumably this is to represent Hunter pioneering the importance of observations in medicine. But why the skeleton? I still don’t know.

Dr Dolittle or Dr Jekyll


Louis Pasteur

Pasteur in his laboratory

Representing France is Louis Pasteur. People no doubt know Pasteur mainly for his work as a microbiologist but he started his career as a chemist and even obtained his first professorship in that field in the University of Strasbourg.  His list of achievements are pretty staggering; vaccines for rabies and anthrax, inventing pasteurisation and an understanding of fermentation. After he died in 1895 he was buried in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but his remains were reinterred in the Pasteur Institute in Paris. I’m not convinced that’s a move for the better if you ask me.  Would I want to be taken back to work after I die?  Before passing he asked for his laboratory notebook to be kept in the family and not shared. Only recently have historians gained access to them and are divided in what is revealed but seem to agree on the fact that a good summary would be “In spite of his genius, Pasteur had some faults”.  If I had an epitaph like that I’d be pretty happy.


Joseph Lister

Joseph Listeur and his impressive sideburns

Joseph Lister was born in Upton House, West Ham, London. I bet I can guess which football team he supported.  He’s the man who realised that washing your hands is so important. If he were alive in these days of Covid-19 I’m sure he’d be features on many public service advertisement.  As the ‘father of disinfection’ he hailed the use of carbolic acid to sterilise everything in sight.  Initially Lister’s ideas were mocked by others in the health field who proudly wore their blood stained aprons as a badge of honour. The medical journal The Lancet warned the entire medical profession against his progressive ideas. Next time I smell the phenolic odour of Laphroig whiskey I will think of Joseph Lister and drink to him as a testament to his ingenuity.


Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that when you put Jenner into a popular search engine everything that turns up is about Caitlyn Jenner, who is apparently an American sex-reassigned ex-athlete and now TV personality.  A couple of pages down you come across our man, Edward Jenner, from the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire.  His work on the smallpox vaccine has led to the much used quote that he ‘saved more lives than any other human’ and earned him the title ‘the father of immunology’.


The Unanswered Questions

And so we have it, what is probably a unique collection of sculptures of these four heroic scientists, Jenner, Pasteur, Lister and Hunter all in the same place.  Other than the outstanding question of the skeleton I have one other query.  Why is it called the Queen’s Buildings?

The early history of City Road, Cardiff

The area we know today as City Road was once an insignificant strip of land created in medieval times when the ecclesiastical boundaries of Roath and Cardiff were drawn up by the Church.  The area began as a narrow, uneven muddy dirt track, the western side of which lay in the small parish of Cardiff and the eastern side in the hamlet of Roath.  The middle of the track was disowned by both parishes and consequently was severely neglected for hundreds of years, hence its name of Plucca Lane, (Plucca is Welsh for muddy).  The alternative spelling of Plwcca is also used sometimes.

1789 Plwcca Lane, Roath, Cardiff map

1789 map of Roath with Plwcca Lane marked with a dotted line towards the left and side. Note the milestone marked near the Elms (still in the grass by the old Roath library)

The dirt track ran from the Long Cross, a tall boundary cross placed by Payne De Turberville which originally stood near the junction of what is now Newport Road and City Road, to heathland to the north of both parishes.  The surrounding area of land was also once muddy uncultivated land, where rushes originally grew hard by the lane and mats were made of them and sold in the town for domestic purposes.

For hundreds of years, outside the northern end of Plucca lane between the boundaries of Cardiff and Roath was an area used for executions.  It isn’t known whether gallows were a permanent structure on the site, but in relation to other areas there were not that many executions over the years, so it is likely that a temporary structure was used each time, possibly using the cart that the prisoner was conveyed in.  The condemned would be tethered to a wooden frame and dragged behind a cart from the gaol in St Mary Street or the Castle through what is now Queen Street, to Newport Road, then left into City Road and up to what is now the junction of City Road, Albany Road, Richmond Road and Mackintosh Place.  Depending on the sentence, the unfortunate would be hanged until dead, or hanged drawn and quartered whilst still alive.  The remains would either be left there to rot or taken away by relatives for secret burial.  Public executions ended in 1868, and from then, the condemned were executed within the prison walls.

1679 Father Phillip Evans and Father John Lloyd executions

Plaque on the side of the Nat West bank on Crwys Road marking the site of the gallows.

1800: Plasnewydd Mansion was built around this time

1801: The Common heathland to the north of Plucca Lane was enclosed and the parcels of land sold off by Cardiff Council often at a loss.

1830:  The habitation at this time consisted of Roath Castle and six small cottages in two fields.

1839: The first Bute Dock was built by the second Marquess of Bute and the need for housing set loose a tidal wave of housing development that would change the face of Plucca lane and Roath entirely.  But development of Plucca Lane was hindered by constant disagreement between Cardiff and Roath Health boards.  It had been agreed by both sides that the developers were initially responsibly for improving the pavements and putting in kerbs, but when a complaint was made about the developer’s failure to put in kerbs their side of the road, they responded by saying that the council had not produced their plans showing how high the pavement and kerbs should be.


1840 tithe map of Roath, Cardiff

1840 Tithe Map of Roath with Plucca Lane running from top to bottom in the centre.  Plasnewydd (later called the Mackintosh) is seen leading off Plucca Lane

1856: At a Cardiff Board of Health meeting, Councillor John Batchelor (who at the time lived at Talworth House in Plucca lane) complained that there were now 30 houses in the lane and they were all without street lamps.  Charles Crofts Williams from Roath Health Board replied that he supposed that the poor gas company would have to bear the cost of installing lamps, and Batchelor retorted that the poor gas company could afford to erect splendid houses at their works.

1857: Advertisement for new villa

Sale of neat well-constructed villas Plucca Lane Roath

To be sold at auction by Mr Abbott.

At the Queens Hotel on Friday 28 August 1857, two substantially built semidetached villas situate and being nos 12 and 13 Plucca Lane in the Parish of Roath.  Consisting each of four bedrooms, two parlours, large kitchen, with cupboards and good scullery, walled garden, 145 feet from front to back entrance, supplied with water from the company’s main.

They are neatly fitted up with iron palisading and grass plot at front. Held on lease for 99 years. Ground rent £7.14 s.

Nos 14 and 15.-Same but with excellent spring water pumps to each villa.

Every care has been taken fitting up the above villas. Excellent opportunity for those at the Bute Docks as it is situate in a direct line and easy walking distance from there.

They are a few yards from the Turnpike Road in consequence of which avoid unpleasantness of the dust.

Residence in that healthy and delightful neighbourhood is much sought after, but cannot be abandoned by all who seek them.

The auctioneer went on to say that interest has been secured on three of the houses of which two have been let to respectable tenants at £20.00 per year and the other being a corner shop and bake house.

1857:  John Batchelor sent a letter in March to the Chairman of Cardiff Board of Health as he was unable to attend in person.  He complained of the disgraceful and almost impassable state of Plucca Lane and the offensive state of the ditches either side.  He said that the road is in such a condition that it is dangerous to life and property and the ditches of such a character (so many houses draining into them) that when Spring rains shall have ceased scouring them, they will be detrimental to public health.  The surveyor was ordered to repair the lane and the inspector of nuisances to prevent privies from being emptied into open ditches.

1858: Advertisement in local newspapers on 6 February 1858 from John Homfray Esq

Penlline Castle offers for sale at auction

To Colliery and Distillery Proprietors, Timber Merchants and Others:

…Lot 2, 24 oak trees numbered with paint 8 ash trees and a quantity of pit wood and cordwood growing on the land occupied by Mr Hemmingway [John Batchelor’s old residence] Plucca Lane who will show lot 2.


1861:  Mr Dalton, the Clerk of The Peace issued a legal statement that Cardiff Local Board of Health had to repair 598 yards commencing at the old Turnpike gatehouse in Newport Road and running down the lane, the remaining portion of the lane was to be repaired by Roath local Board and Parish of Roath.  There were now 19 inhabited houses and 9 uninhabited houses in the lane, with plans for more residences being submitted.

1863: Houses in Plucca Lane are numbered in September that year.

1865: Development had started at the Newport Road end of Plucca Lane but there were still major problems in the rest of the lane.  In the winter the path way was impassable because it was knee deep in mud and during the summer one would be covered in dust.  In some places the pathway was 12 feet higher that the cart track and in others about a foot lower where stagnant pools of water lay.

Scavengers carts were employed to clear up the rubbish thrown out into the streets by the residents but they rarely visited Plucca Lane as the contractors said it was optional whether they came or not to this lane.  Complaints were often made by residents that the water carts employed to dampen down the dust in Summer, were seldom seen in the area.

A rate payer complaining to the Cardiff Times in February that year said that the Cardiff Surveyor had recently been seen inspecting the conditions in the lane but had only ventured as far as the Canteen (a wine merchants not far from the southern entrance) before making his retreat.

 1874: After finally receiving thoroughfare status, Plucca Lane ditched its notorious name and was Officially named Castle Road in deference to the nearby mansion known as Roath Castle, formerly Plasnewydd.


1880 map top part of Castle Road, Cardiff

1880 map of the northern part of Plucca Lane, again marked with a dotted line indicating the Cardiff-Roath boundary. The four-way junction near the top was later to become a five-way junction when Mackintosh Place was built. (map from

1883: The narrow entrance to Castle Road from Newport road is improved and widened by the demolition of Longcross House which was by now an eye sore on the corner of the junction.

1880 map of lower Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff

1880 map of lower Plucca Lane.  St Peter’s church now built.  Talworth House still standing on Plucca Lane (top of map).  At the bottom of the map can be seen Tredegarvillle School built but the Infirmary not yet built. 

1889: There were now 154 properties in Castle Road, 101 of which were also commercial enterprises and 53 were private residences.

P Dyer, Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff

P Dyer, Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff


John Hopkins Drapers, Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff

John Hopkins Drapers, Castle Road, Roath.

Hancock and Son Chemists Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff

1906: Cardiff received City status in 1905 and in 1906 the name of Castle Road was changed to City Road.

Thank you to one of our members Pat Jones for writing this article.

Clive Sullivan – Britain’s first black sporting captain

Clive Sullivan became first black person to captain any British international sports team when he captained the Great Britain Rugby League team in 1972.

Clive Sullivan pic

We received an enquiry  at Roath Local History Society last month asking if we knew where Clive Sullivan had been born.  I must admit I didn’t and hadn’t even realised his unique achievement.  I’ve enjoyed researching his exploits and have the pleasure of awarding him one of our virtual red plaques, particularly poignant in these days of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Clive was born in Splott, Cardiff on 9 Apr 1943.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he was born at 49 Wimborne Street.

Wimborne Street map

Wimborne Street no longer exists, demolished in the 1970s, along with many neighbouring streets.  The street was originally named Fishguard Street, but later renamed Wimborne Street after Lord Wimborne, owner of the nearby steel works.  The southern edge of Moorland park in Splott follows the line of the former Wimborne Street.

Clive was the second of four children born to Dorothy Eileen Sullivan née Boston.  Doris herself was born to Joseph Donald Boston, a seaman, originally from Antigua and Lily Brain originally from Bristol.  The Brain and Boston families also lived in lower Splott, in Aberdovey and Pontypridd Streets respectively.  I haven’t however found any link between the Boston side of Clive Sullivan’s family and Billy Boston, another great rugby league player from Cardiff.

Wimborne Street 1970s

The caption with this 1972 photo states that it is ‘Mrs Alice Huntley who had lived at 51 Wimborne Street for 48 years’. She would therefore have been a next-door neighbour of the Sullivan family. (pic credit: alamy)

Clive’s father was Charles Henry Sullivan an electrical engineer then serving in the RAF. Charles Sullivan was Jamaican whose family had emigrated to Cardiff before the Second World War. He walked out on Doris when the children were young never to be seen again leaving her to bring up Brian, Clive, Yvonne and Elmyria.

When Clive Sullivan was young he suffered medical problems with his legs and knees necessitating several operations at the Royal Infirmary.  He defied the surgeon who told his mother that he may never walk properly to go on to be an exceptional sprinter and sportsman.

Doris and her young children moved across town to Ronald Place, Ely and the children attended Herbert Thompson Primary School.  By now Clive had recovered from his surgeries and he and his siblings became known in school as the ‘Four Flying Sullivans’ because of their monopoly in sprinting events.

At the same school was Jim Mills, who went onto play rugby league for Widnes.  In the playground Clive used to call Jim ‘lanky’ and make use of this phenomenal speed to get away.  Years later when Clive was playing for Hull he got tackled just before the try-line by Jim Mills who said to him ‘Now, who did you call lanky?’

Clive Sullivan serving in Cyprus

Clive serving in Cyprus (pic credit: R. Daniel)

After leaving school Sullivan worked briefly as a mechanic before he joined the army.  In Catterick he trained as a radio operator and then joined the Parachute Signals Squadron, stationed in Hampshire, and then saw active service in Cyprus with the UN Peacekeeping Force.  Whilst at Catterick he started playing rugby for the army.  His skills were spotted by a Hull FC scout and he was signed up though it was somewhat of a stuttering start to his sporting career, plagued with injuries, knee operations and a bad car crash in 1963.


In 1964 he left the army and was able to dedicate himself to his rugby career.  That same year he met his wife Rosalyn Byron in Hull who he married a couple of years later.

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Clive Sullivan on his wedding day (pic credit: R Daniel)

Clive Sullivan played on the wing and was a prolific try scorer. He had blistering pace, exploiting any gaps in the opposition defence.   In one match against Doncaster in 1968 he scored seven tries, still a Hull FC record.

He first played for Great Britain in 1967.  In 1972 he was selected as Captain of the Great Britain side that went on to win the Rugby League World Cup held in France where he scored a try in each of the four games. He also captained the Wales Rugby League team. In all, Sullivan represented Great Britain 17 times and appeared at three World Cups, 1968 and 1972 with Great Britain, and in 1975 for Wales.  His length of the field try in the 1972 World Cup final against Australia is regarded as one of the game’s finest.  Now here’s a good fact to store up for quizzes: he was the last person to lift the World Cup for Great Britain as since then the home nations have played individually.

Clive Sullivan or ‘Sully’ as he was known, played for Hull FC and later their rivals Hull Kingston Rovers, before returning to Hull FC to complete his career. He played a total of 352 games for Hull FC, scoring 250 tries He was the first player to score over 100 tries for both sides.

Clive Sulllivan at full speed

His achievements were recognised when he was awarded an MBE in 1972 and was the guest on ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1973.

Just six months after retiring from rugby he tragically died of cancer aged just forty two on 8 Oct 1985 in Hull.  Clive and Rosalyn had a son Anthony and a daughter Lisa. Anthony followed in his father’s footsteps playing rugby league for both Hull as well as St Helens  and Wales.  He also did something his father didn’t, he played rugby union for Cardiff and for Wales.

Clive Sullivan is remembered with great fondness and respect in his adopted city of Hull. There isn’t any tribute to this fine rugby league player in his native city of Cardiff but in Hull they renamed the A63 dual carriageway Clive Sullivan Way in his honour.

This is your life 2 - Copy

Clive presented with the red book on ‘This Is Your Life’ (pic credit: Hull Museums)

Perhaps next time however you feel like a walk I could encourage you to go to Moorland Park in Splott and trace the line of the former Wimborne Street and remember Clive ‘Sully’ Sullivan, one of our greatest sportsman from the area.



One of the most informative and interesting articles I found on Clive Sullivan was from the African Yorkshire Project


Bernice Rubens – Booker Prize winner

Bernice Rubens was the first woman to win the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1970.


She was born Bernice Ruth Reuben in Glossop Terrace on 26 July 1923.  A lot of you are probably now thinking, well that’s not very special, I was born there or my Mum or Dad were born there.  Yes, Glossop Terrace was home to the maternity clinic and where many Cardiffians first saw the light of day.  But Bernice was born at 9 Glossop Terrace, not in the maternity clinic but immediately next door to it.

Glossop Terrace

Glossop Terrace with the Reuben household on the nearside.

Nearby Tredegaville Infants School provided her early education.  After that she went to Roath Park Girls School.  She either used to catch the tram up City Road and call into Woolworth on Albany Road on the way to school or used to get a lift to school on the handlebars of her brother’s bike.

Roath Park Girls School Bernice Rubins second row fourth from left

Roath Park Girls School Bernice Rubins second row fourth from left

She came from a Jewish family.  Her maternal grandparents, Millie and Wolf Cohen, lived in Riverside and had fled Poland carrying just the family sewing machine.  Wolf made his living in the drapery business and had his workshop in the attic room.  As a child Bernice used to enjoy playing with the button box in her grandfather’s workshop.  He had been given the sole concession to make uniforms for American Marine Officers serving overseas.

Bernice was the third of four children born to ‘Dolly’ Cohen, daughter of Millie and Wolf, who had trained as a primary school teacher and was a suffragette. Dolly did a lot of work with local Jewish charities; the blind, infirm and the elderly.

Every Friday the Rueben family travelled across Cardiff to go to the synagogue.  She dryly noted that there was another synagogue in Cardiff; there had to be a second one so that they could quarrel with each other.

Her father was Eli Ruben, who had fled from Latvia carrying just two violins with him.  He arrived in Hamburg hoping to purchase a ticket to America but got swindled by a ticket salesman and ended up in Cardiff. He took Cardiff to be New York for a full week on arrival.  Lots of other Jews ended up in UK rather than America as a result of a similar swindle. This was the only story Eli told of his youth, none of former life in Latvia.  He never forgot his refugee status and would continue to remind his children that the family were guests in this country.

Eli became a credit draper i.e. someone who would clothes on credit.  He used to travel up to the valley towns on a Saturday to distribute the clothes orders and collect the payments.  Bernice would accompany him on those trips sometimes.  She remembers Eli being much loved in the valleys and being welcomed with a cup of strong tea and a scone. They would hear the miners signing as they finished their shifts at the mine and were returning home.

The Reubens family were not well-off.  Bernice was the third youngest of four children. Clothes were passed down the generations of children regardless of taste or gender.  The violins that travelled from Latvia and the substandard piano with candlesticks at either end were played a lot by the children in Glossop Terrace household. From this humble start all her siblings had professional careers in classical music.  Bernice didn’t like the sound of the violin and was mindful of the hand-me-down tradition in the household and preferred the cello which was beyond the means of the family so the violin got passed down from Beryl, the second oldest, to Cyril, the youngest.

Went onto attend Cardiff High school for Girls in The Parade.  She played cello in the orchestra. She tells how after much persuasion she became the proud owner of a brand new Burberry coat with the hem turned up in expectation that she would grow but she never did grow and remained five foot one and a half inches for the rest of her life.

Cardiff High School for Girls, The Parade, Cardiff

Cardiff High School for Girls, The Parade, Cardiff

In the evenings she would parade up and down Albany Road with other girls from Cardiff High, having sneakily changed out of school uniform. The primary purpose seemed to be to meet boys from the neighbouring Boys High School for Boys on Newport Road. If the girls were lucky it would end up with a quick kiss in a shop doorway of Albany Road, but only the one she stresses.

The family used to go to Porthcawl in the summer and stay in a property owned by the Sidoli family, the owners of the large ice-cream business in South Wales.

In spring 1939 the Rubens family took in fourteen year old Hugo Gross from Hamburg, one of the Kindertransport refugees fleeing Nazi Germany at the onset of WWII.   His parents never made it out of Germany.  He stayed with the Reubens family throughout the war but later a wealthy benefactor in New York made contact, a former mistress of father, and Hugo emigrated to USA to live with her.

The onset of war bought bomb drills in Cardiff High for Girls, the donning gas masks and filing down to the basement cloakrooms.  The family moved into their grandmother’s house in Brook Street, Riverside in the war so that all the family could be together, but she still travelled back across Cardiff to attend school.  In one air raid their windows were blown in.  Not having a cellar room or an air raid shelter in their Brook Street house they were invited to shelter in the neighbour’s cellar.  The only thing was that the neighbour also ran the local brothel, an educative experience for naive Bernice.

One night an air raid destroyed houses on the other side of the street.  Rather than stay in Riverside and risk further raids the family evacuated to a farm just outside Cardiff and within easy reach of a train station so the children could continue to travel into Cardiff by train to attend school.

He parents took advantage of the fall in house prices in the war and after six months living in the countryside  they moved back into the city and purchased 101 Kimberley Road, Penylan in ‘the habitat of the upwardly mobile’.

They had left the old piano at Glossop Terrace for the use by the now extended maternity hospital, possibly to lullaby newly born babies to sleep.  A new piano was in place in Kimberley Road, won by Harold at an Eisteddfod competition and one that Bernice turned down in preference to playing a cello out of tune. So what happened to her siblings?



Cyril ended up playing in the London symphony Orchestra.  Beryl after a time aboard returned to Cardiff and played in the Welsh National Opera. Harold, the eldest was the most talented and successful.  He quickly exhausted the teaching capabilities of the local teachers early.  He was sent away to London at a young age to further his learning of the piano with Madame Levinskaya.  Each weekend Harold would travel to London for lessons.  His study with Madame Levinskaya is the subject of Bernice’s book, ‘Madame Sousatzka’, which subsequently was made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine in the title role.

Beryl, Harold, Cyril and Bernice Rubens in 101 Kimberley Road

Beryl, Harold, Cyril and Bernice Rubens in Kimberley Road.


She attended Cardiff University in the war years and read English.  She had thought about staying on to complete a BEd but wanted to escape Cardiff and a  flirtatious ‘non-affair’ with one of her tutors so instead found a job teaching at Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham.  Although she enjoyed the teaching she was out-spoken about the headmaster’s corporal punishment sessions and was subsequently dismissed but with excellent references.

The war ended but instead of returning to live in Cardiff Bernice moved to London.  She recalls visiting the family in Cardiff occasionally.  Her mother passed away in 1987 and a few days later Bernice says her childhood home of Glossop Terrace was demolished.  Gone were the houses and the communal garden to be replaced by a car park with only one tree, a sycamore, remaining in the corner.  Both the car park and sycamore tree have in the past year themselves been replaced, this time by the West Wing Student Accommodation block.

She settled in London working as a teacher, although maintained close links to her parents back in Cardiff to the extent that he mother used to send her a roast chicken every Friday by train.  The guard on the train would have the responsibility of safely transporting  the said chicken and of handing it over to Bernice who would collect it personally at Paddington station.

She once almost missed the opportunity of meeting her future husband as a result of having to rush off to Paddington to collect the weekly chicken.  Whilst having a coffee in a Swiss Cottage cafe she was asked if she could do a favour by Dannie Abse, another author and Jew from the Roath area of Cardiff.   Dannie asked if she could pass a message onto a friend of his, Rudi.  She was about to leave the cafe to walk to Paddington station just as Rudi arrived.  She passed on the message but didn’t miss the opportunity to return an hour or so later and ask him around to share the chicken from Wales.

Hans Rudolf ‘Rudi’ Nassauer was the son of a German wine shipper.  The Nassauer’s were another family that had escaped Nazi Germany and fled to England. They didn’t warm to the prospect of  their son marrying Bernice, someone who supported their Ridi’s ambition of being a writer rather than going into the Nassauer family business. They married on 29th Dec 1947 at the Windsor Place synagogue on Cathedral Road. They had a troubled marriage, his frequent infidelity being blamed for a lot according to Bernice.  It eventually ended in divorce but not before they had two daughters, Sharon and Rebecca.  She stayed in contact with Rudi throughout his life.


In her memoir Bernice describes regularly moving house in London over the years, the motivation was amusingly seemingly always based on the need for a new oven.

After leaving teaching Bernice had a successful career starting with the making of documentary films initially about disability and then a variety of foreign assignments.  Interestingly, her authorship is not a major feature of her memoir.  Only later in the book when the subject of her writing being made into films does she expand.  The winning of the Booker Prize is glossed over.  She relates the experiences of having to go on book selling tours and of her memories of being on judging panels of literary prizes.  She is critical of some judges choices advising people to have more faith maybe in those novels that have made it onto the shortlist rather than just the outright winners.  She had a strong friendship with the author Beryl Bainbridge with whom she would tutor as part of creative-writing courses in North Wales.  Their joint love of soap operas seemed to be a strong part of this friendship.


The Elected Member


Her first novel ‘Set on Edge’ was published in 1960. It was with her fifth novel ‘The Elected Member’ that she became the first female winner of the Booker Price in 1970.  The novel tells of troubled Norman Zweck, from a close-knit Jewish family in the East End of London.  He is addicted to amphetamines and is convinced that he sees silverfish wherever he goes.  The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Literature describes Rubens’s narratives as being written ‘in a precise, straightforward style which accommodating her extremes of imagination and quirky humour’.

Tracking the genealogy of Bernice Reuben is made slightly challenging at times as she adopted a different spelling of her surname.  She was born Reuben, a name she still when married in 1947, but later changes it to Rubens.

Bernice Rubens died in London on October 13, 2004 having completed the first draft of her memoirs which was later published under the title ‘When I Grow Up’ and had been the principal source of information in this blog.  A surprisingly large proportion of the book covers her life growing up in Cardiff and her subsequent return visits.  Her humour comes through in the writing as does an insight into the Cardiff Jewish community and traditions. I found it an interesting read which is surprising given that it antagonised me on the first page when she described Splott as ‘the unmentionable and undisputable armpit of Cardiff’.  I’ll put it down to a quirky sense of humour.

When I grow up


Refs & additional material:

From the Writers Write website:

Eight Quotes by Bernice Rubens:

  1. If you’re a writer there will come at least one morning in your life when you wake up and want to kill your agent.
  2. [On being a judge for the 1986 Booker Prize:] I got to the point where I couldn’t read a laundry list without considering it for the Booker Prize.
  3. I have a kind of habit – I write the book then I do the research to see if I got it right. That’s what normally happens.
  4. I don’t particularly enjoy writing, I love having written. I like having ideas – I can have them when I’m in bed or something, nowhere near my desk. Then I can develop them and when I get up I write them. They may not sound so good when you write them down, but I like that aspect very much, when you’re developing in your mind. That’s very exciting.
  5. I think I’ve done my bit for teaching because I taught a lot of creative writing, and that’s nice, when you discover a new talent.
  6. [On The Booker]… it’s a good prize to win. It doesn’t mean to say you’ve written the best book.
  7. A book’s a book, a film’s a film, and if it’s different I don’t get offended.
  8. I don’t think I would find a publisher now. They don’t read the books, they weight them, and their accountants play a very huge part in it. It helps to be young, it helps to be pretty, which means you can go on telly – it’s all PR now.


An interview with Bernice Rubins 

Obituary of Bernice Rubens

Obituary of Rudi Nassauer