Archibald Dickson – An Unsung Roath Hero

In March 1939, in scenes reminiscent of today’s Kabul, Archibald Dickson sailed the SS.Stanbrook into the blockaded Alicante harbour.  Rather than load up with the cargo he was there to collect he loaded 2600 refugees trapped there by Franco’s approaching army and took them to Oran, Algeria.  Archibald Dickson and his family lived in Pen-y-Wain Road, Roath Park and was tragically killed later that year, aged 47, when the SS.Stanbrook was torpedoed at the start of WWII.

Archibald Dickson

Archibald Dickson was born in Cardiff on 22 Jan 1892, one of thirteen children born to Robert Dickson, a stone mason, originally from Beer, Devon and Thirza Dickson née Hodges originally from Weston-super-Mare. He grew up in the Canton area.  He joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 15 and gained his First Mate certificate in 1913, aged 21.  He served as a temporary Lieutenant in the Navy in WWI before being discharged in 1919. In 1925 we pick him up sailing to New York on board the Majestic. His profession at the time is Ship’s Officer and his address 9 Princes Street, Roath. He married Rebecca Phillips and they had three children together, one of whom died in infancy. Archibald and Rebecca Dickson and his children lived at 77 Pen-y-Wain Road, opposite the church. He was tragically killed on 18 Nov 1939, aged 47, when the SS.Stanbrook was torpedoed in the North Sea.  Archibald Dickson and 19 crew members were lost.  He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial for Merchant Seamen in London. Commonwealth War Graves Commission record. We have also remembered him on the Roath Virtual War Memorial.

The Stanbrook loaded with refugees

My attention was initially drawn to the story of Archibald Dickson when reading the following piece by Ray Palmer who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here:

Cardiff has many heroes, though some are better known than others.

For instance, have you heard of Archibald Dickson from Pen-y-Wain Road in Roath?  Chances are if you live in Alicante in Spain you’re more likely to know the name than if you live in Roath.

His command was an old tramp steamer called The Stanbrook, which had seen better days. In March 1939 he sailed out of Cardiff to Alicante to pick up a cargo of fruit. But this was the time of the Spanish Civil War, and General Franco’s fascist army was on the brink of victory. His Italian ally Mussolini was blockading the port, making it virtually impossible for vessels to get through. But Dickson was a hardened sailor used to coping with difficulties in his 33-year service, and – anxious to fulfil his contract – he decided to run the blockade anyway, and was able to dock in Alicante.

But what he found there were nearly 30,000 refugees fleeing from Franco’s forces, expecting the town to be bombed, and hoping to catch a ship to safety. Dickson crammed almost 3000 of them onto his ship, and sailed out of the port. Just ten minutes later the expected bombardment of Alicante began in earnest. Dickson made a 20-hour run across the Mediterranean to French-controlled Oran.

But in Oran the authorities kept 1000 men on the ship for weeks, only permitting them to disembark when the ship became a health hazard. Most of the refugees were sent to internment camps and spent years in exile. But those left behind in Alicante suffered far worse at the hands of Franco’s vengeful Nationalists, and thousands were marched off to concentration camps on the outskirts of Alicante.

There was no happy ending for Dickson or his crew either. Just a few months later, World War II broke out. In the early hours of 19 November 1939, The Stanbrook was sailing back to England from Antwerp when a German torpedo hit her port side. She broke in two and sank quickly. Dickson and the 20 crew members died.

The sailor from Pen-y-Wain Road is still regarded as a hero in Spain today, and in April 2018 a bust of Captain Dickson was unveiled in the port. I believe there is also a commemorative plaque in Cardiff Bay.

Archibald Dickson of Cardiff

Archibald Dickson

Another interesting report of the Stanbrook at Alicante was written by Jack Troughton in the Costa Levante News:

SHIP’S Captain Archibald Dickson, his crew and the SS Stanbrook sailed into history when they snatched a cargo of desperate men, women and children from the stricken city of Alicante in the last days of the Spanish Civil War.

The 230ft-long ship left harbour with 2,643 refugees crammed on board; some of the 30,000 desperate supporters of the doomed Republic hoping to flee the country and escape the advancing forces of Nationalist leader General Franco and his fascist allies from Germany and Italy.

In April, a bronze bust of the Cardiff-born seaman was unveiled alongside the existing plaque on the docks, remembering the bravery of the skipper, his 24-strong crew and the ship in March 1939 – the war officially ended on April 1.

And yet the story of the Stanbrook remains largely unknown or forgotten in the United Kingdom; possibly, because the British government with Neville Chamberlain at the helm as prime minister was intent on a policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany at the time.

In Alicante and across Spain the name of Capt. Dickson, his ship, and tale of the maritime great escape are revered. 

The Stanbrook sailed into Alicante on March 19, 1939, after a two day voyage from Marseille; using the cover of darkness to evade a naval blockade of the city.  The ship remained tied up as the captain waited for instructions and was informed by the ship’s owners to proceed to sea “forthwith” unless he was likely to load a cargo.

SS Stanbrook loaded with refugees

SS Stanbrook loaded with refugees

A day later a lucrative cargo of tobacco, oranges and saffron arrived at the port – but so did a host of people looking to escape the fascist forces; many were soldiers and militiamen of the Republican army, along with trade unionists, international brigade members and foreign advisors.

Ignoring orders, Capt. Dickson crammed people onto the Stanbrook and, again at night, set sail for Algeria, bombs being dropped in an air raid as she headed out to sea.

Sadly, six months later in November 1939 and the start of the Second World War, the Stanbrook was lost, torpedoed by a German submarine as she headed to Tyneside from Antwerp.  The 47-year-old captain and 22 officers and men perished after the ship broke in two.  However, Capt. Dickson was able to tell the story before his death in an interview with the Sunday Dispatch newspaper in London; he said, “Amongst the refugees were a large number of women and young girls and children of all ages, even including some in arms.

End of Archie Dickson letter to the Sunday Dispatch

End of Archie Dickson letter to the Sunday Dispatch

“Owing to the large number of refugees, I was in a quandary as to my own position, as my instructions were not to take on refugees unless they were in real need.”

“However, from seeing the condition of the refugees, I decided from a humanitarian point of view to take them aboard as I anticipated they would soon be landed at Oran in Algeria.”

He said the crowds at the port were made up of people of all classes; some very poor and “looking half-starved an ill clad, attired in a variety of clothing  ranging from boiler suits to old and ragged pieces of uniform”.

The captain noted how some people seemed to be carrying their worldly possessions in suitcases, bags or “tied up in handkerchiefs”.

The Stanbrook’s gangplank soon became choked with people and the captain contemplated leaving the quay – but remained tied up because he was fearful people would be thrown into the water and drowned.

Numbers on board made it impossible for anyone to move, people refused to go down below deck into the hold and if any space was made, it was immediately filled with people.

“In all my experience at sea covering some 33 years, I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never will again,” said Capt. Dickson.

With rumours being spread of an impending air raid — two bombs later fell in the ship’s wake as she left – there was a last-minute rush to get on board before the Stanbrook was able to leave; steering a zigzag course to try and avoid warships mounting the blockade. Capt. Dickson said: “We had only just got clear of the port when the air raid rumour proved to be true and within 10 minutes or so of leaving port, a most terrific bombardment of the town and port was made and the flash of explosions could be seen quite clearly from on board my vessel  and the shock of exploding shells could almost be felt.

“The refugees appeared to think that every vessel which moved in sight was a Franco vessel coming to intercept them; and as a large number of refugees were armed, I was rather alarmed at what might have occurred had we sighted a Franco ship.

“Many of the refugees stated that if a Franco vessel did intercept them, they were prepared to sell their lives dearly.”

It was a 22-hour journey to North Africa and conditions were atrocious; there were just two toilets on board and a shortage of both food and water.

When the Stanbrook steamed into Oran, the French colonial authorities first refused to allow her to dock – an angry Capt. Dickson first negotiating the landing of women, children and the elderly; men remained on board for days and were only allowed onto dry land when the seaman underlined the threat of a typhus outbreak.

1939 April

Captain Dickson’s son Arnold and his daughter Dorothy visited Alicante in 2009 as guests of the Alicante Civic Commission for the Recovery of Historical Memory to attend a ceremony to remember the story of the Stanbrook.

Arnold said they were “lionised”; he said: “I felt very humbled. There must have been 3,000 people there – they wanted to thank my father but he wasn’t there; we were the only way they could express their gratitude.  I met two sisters who told me ‘we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your father’.”

And in 2015, Labour International Costa Blanca Branch arranged for a delegation from the Alicante civic commission to visit Capt. Dickson’s home city of Cardiff where they presented a stainless steel plaque to the then Lord Mayor Margaret Jones, depicting an image of the Stanbrook in Alicante harbour and bearing an inscription in English, Welsh and Spanish.

Also present were Capt. Dickson’s two children, two great-grand-children of the ship’s engineer Henry Livingstone, and members of the Welsh section of the International brigades Memorial Trust.

Archibald Dickson of Roath, Cardiff

Archibald Dickson

Stanbrook History

The 1383 ton cargo steamer Stanbrook was built on the Tyne in 1909. It was originally called Lancer but in 1937 renamed Stanbrook, but the same year also carried the name Polyfloisvos for a short time when used by the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  The Stanbrook was a blockade-runner in the Spanish Civil War regularly breaking through Franco’s blockades to deliver food and essential materials.  In August 1938 it was hit by bombs dropped by Italian warplanes and sunk at Vallcarca, 25 miles southwest of Barcelona.  She was later refloated and repaired before once again suffering serious damage after being bombed in Feb 1939.  It is not known if Archibald Dickson was Captain on these occasions.  In March 1939 it was involved in the rescue of refugees from Valencia (described above).

1938 Aug

The sinking of the Stanbrook in WWII is described on uboat.net and wrecksite .   At 02.13 hours on 19 November 1939 the unescorted Stanbrook (Master Archibald Dickson) was hit on the port side in the stern by one G7a torpedo from u-boat U-57, broke in two and sank quickly west-northwest of the North Hinder Lightship. The master and 19 crew members were lost. The torpedo had been a tube runner and hit despite of being launched manually due to the short distance to the target.

Archibald Dickson remembered at Tower Hill memorial

The Memorial Plaque

A memorial plaque dedicated to Archibald Dickson and the Stanbrook was gifted to Cardiff by the people of Alicante.  The Cardiff plaque was at one time unveiled at the Mansion House in 2015 but then there were reports that it would be mounted in a more central location.  The idea now is to have it on display in the Pierhead building but plans have this far been delayed by Covid.

Mark Drakeford with the plaque in 2019

First Minister Mark Drakeford with the plaque in 2019

 

Additional References

The story of the Archibald Dickson and the Stanbrook have been told on many occasions.  Here are just a few more.  Some are in Spanish but browsers are clever these days and often ask you if you want an English translation. 

View from La Vila – Blogs from the balcony

As a tribute to Archibald Dickson and the sailors of the Stanbrook and all the ships that assisted in the evacuations.

Operacio Stanbrook

International Brigade Memorial Trust

A Few Extra Pictures

Archiald Dickson and SS Stanbrook

77 Pen-y-wain Road

77 Pen-y-wain Road, Roath Park, former home of Archibald Dickson and family.


Archibald Dickson of Merchant Navy card

Archibald Dickson of Merchant Navy card

Ted Richards

Chair, Roath Local History Society


————————————

Arthur Cole from Pencoed has penned this poem about Archibald Dickson and kindly allowed us to reproduce it here:-

 

‘Captain Archibald Dickson’

One of thirteen children, such a humble upbringing,

at aged fifteen, the Merchant Navy came calling.

Sea became Archie’s master, many Oceans sailed,

Archie became a Captain, rank deservedly attained.

 

It was at Alicante, where Archie made his name,

a port of desperation, Archie a hero proclaimed.

Franco’s fascists aim, was to overrun the port,

to escape internment, the quay a last resort.

 

With chaos ensuing, Archie had to make a choice,

forego his cargo or see innocent lives destroyed.

Observing fearful families, with everything to lose,

a lifesaving decision, Archie ultimately chose.

 

The S.S. Stanbrook, Archie’s trusty tramp steamer,

would become a safe haven, a high seas redeemer.

Possessing great resolve, many lives Archie saved,

a timely intervention, Franco would have enslaved.

 

After ten minutes at sea, Alicante was bombarded,

horrific scenes, a town overrun, humanity discarded.

Archie’s passengers survived, such hell they endured,

their courage undeniable, with safe passage secured.

 

A Spanish Oscar Schindler, is how Archie’s described,

such a brave humanitarian, this cannot be denied.

Archie’s Alicante exploits are forever revered,

a true Welsh hero, who’s now infinitely endeared.

Arthur Cole..2021..All Copyright Reserved

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.

Georgana Pepperdine and the mystery baptism card

I was wondering what to do yesterday morning, middle of lockdown and pouring with rain.  Then the postman arrived.  Somebody had sent me a baptism card from 1896. Two question immediately sprang to mind; Who had sent it to me? and, Who was the named on the card? 

A day later and I still don’t know who sent me the card or probably more accurately, I can’t recall who said they were going to send it to me.  On the other hand I do know a lot more about the person who was baptised and as usual there are some interesting parts to the story and some parts that remain a mystery.

The card was for Georgana Pepperdine.  Thank you Georgana for having such an unusual name!  The baptism took place at St German’s church in Adamsdown on 11 Jan 1896.

The next stage wasn’t too difficult – make myself a cup of coffee and search for Ancestry, Find My Past and other family history resources for Georgana Pepperdine in Cardiff.  Only one hit appeared – her baptism record.

A couple of unusual things jumped out from the record.  Firstly the address was given as Bristol not Cardiff,  and secondly written in the margin was the fact that rather than being an infant baptism she was baptised aged 12.  

The baptism record also helpfully told me her parents’ names and father’s occupation; Robert and Elizabeth Mary Pepperdine and he was a stone mason.  At this stage I was thinking their presence in Cardiff may have been linked to the father’s profession.  Cardiff was booming, houses with stone bay houses were popular and stone masons were no doubt in high demand.  But no. False assumption.

Next stage was to look for the birth of Georgana Pepperdine, again not too tricky given the unusual combination of first name and surname. 

There she was, born in the second quarter of 1883 in Lincoln and her mother’s maiden name was Slater.

Now let’s see if that fits in with the marriage of a Robert Pepperdine to an Elizabeth Mary Slater. And bingo.  There it is in October 1881 in Lincoln. 

This is easy I was thinking, I’m only just finishing my first cup of coffee.  All I need to do now if pick the family up on some census records and everything will be tied up.  How wrong could I be. 

Things started off easy enough.  I found Robert Pepperdine in the 1881 census, living in Lincoln, born in Lincoln and a stonemason.

I then found Eliz M Slater, aged 18, living in Lincoln, with her parents James and Frances Slater.  Elizabeth was born in London and interestingly has a profession listed as ‘formerly actress’.

Moving forward ten years to the 1891 census I expected to find Robert and Elizabeth Pepperdine and their daughter Georgana, but there was no sign of them. Instead I found a Lincoln newspaper cutting from Feb 1886 describing a court case and how Robert Pepperdine had assaulted his wife Elizabeth and mentioning he wished to be separated.
 

Elizabeth Pepperdine then goes on to remarry Charles Henry Bellamy in Bristol in 1889 and they go on to have a number of children. We find them in the 1891 and 1901 census together with Georgana from Elizabeth’s first marriage.

1891 Bristol
1901 Bristol census

Hang on a minute I hear you say.  If Elizabeth and her daughter Georgana now have the surname Bellamy,  how come they turn up in Cardiff in Jan 1896 at the baptism still using the Pepperdine surname.  Well I’m not sure.  I guess if she was born a Pepperdine then in the eyes of the church maybe she needed to be baptised a Pepperdine.

I’m going to give you a family tree sketch now as things are starting to get a bit complicated:

And why did they come to Cardiff for a baptism. Eventually I solved that one too.  Elizabeth’s parents had now moved to Cardiff.  In the 1901 census I find them living in Pearl Street, her father Thomas a retired engine smith. 

1901 Cardiff Census

To tie it all together I found an somewhat terrifying letter in the paper from Thomas Slater.  The address was Topaz Street, close to St German’s church.  It tells about how his son-in-law Edward Morgan (who had married Elizabeth’s sister Jane) suffered a serious injury from falling glass at the Queen Street Lecture Hall.  The glass severed and artery and drenched him in blood.  Another report explains how the pane of glass that smashed was in the dome of the roof in the centre of the hall and a stampede for the exits followed.  

That incident was a few months before the baptism in Jan 1896.  I wonder if her visit to Cardiff was to see her sister and injured brother-in-law.

Georgana goes on to marry Harry Bradburn in Bristol in 1903 and have a child Clifford Frances Herbert Bradburn in 1904.

It is still raining heavily outside.  It’s almost as if Georgana knows that.  She sets me another mystery. 

In the 1911 census she and her husband have moved to London, leaving Clifford their son with his grandparents in Bristol.  There’s nothing too unusual about that if he was settled in a school etc.  What is a mystery though is that I lose all trace of Georgana and Harry, though there is a Georgana Bradburn living in Paddington in 1931 that could well be her.  I can’t find their deaths recorded anywhere. 

1911 Census, London

Never mind, there is some brightness in the sky so let’s leave that for another day.

Let’s just hope that the next miserable day is brightened up by the postman bring me another mystery to solve.

Viscount John Sankey, Lord Chancellor – Roath’s top brief.

I must admit I’d never heard of John Sankey, or Viscount Sankey, to give him his proper title, till a week ago, let alone the fact he was a Roath man.  If like me you find all the wig and gown stuff rather pompous then read on, the man under it is rather an interesting character.

John Sankey

Viscount Sankey, Lord Chancellor

Before we get immersed in the details here’s some of his headline achievements:

  • Lloyd-George appointed him Chairman of the Coal Industry Commission which became known as the Sankey Commission. Its surprise conclusion was that coal mines should be nationalised.
  • Appointed Lord Chancellor in Ramsey MacDonald’s cabinet. The Lord Chancellor is the top legal man in the government and  was also the presiding officer of the House of Lords, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.
  • He gave his name to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man. This had strong input from H.G.Wells. This in turn led to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.

So how did a man who grew up on City Road end up as the top lawyer in England and Wales?  Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together.

John Sankey was born on 26 Oct 1866 in the Cotswold town of Moreton in the Marsh, Gloucestershire in a house called ‘Croxdale’ on Evenlode Road. His father, Thomas Sankey was a draper originally from Canterbury, Kent and owned a shop on the High Street.  His mother, Catalina Sankey neé Dewesbury was originally from Manchester.

Croxdale House, Moreton in the Marsh

Croxdale House, Moreton in the Marsh (Image: Google Street view)

In 1875, when John would have been 8, his father dies and mother Catalina moves the family to Cardiff where a number of her husband’s brothers already live and are in business as provision merchants and doing rather well for themselves.  Catalina, John and his siblings live at 157 Castle Road, Roath.  Castle Road is the former name for City Road, the road being reamed after Cardiff achieved City status.  She called the house Croxdale, after their former Cotswold residence.

What was a bit more challenging was to pinpoint exactly where it was on City Road as renumbering of the properties has also taken place.  Using old Directories it possible to ascertain it was two houses north of Northcote Road, now 171 City Road, the SouvLike Greek restaurant, and would you believe there is a decent old photo too.

Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff

Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff. The Sankey residence was the second house on the left. The Roath Park Hotel can bee seen on the right.

In 1879 he won a scholarship to Cardiff Proprietary School, Dumfries Place which his uncle Charles Sankey had been involved in setting up a few years previously.  Some of you may remember the building – it became the Cardiff Student’s Union for a time before being demolished.

It seems he didn’t stay at Cardiff Proprietary school for long as by 1881 John Sankey was attending Lancing College in Sussex paid for through the charity of Canon F J Beck, of St Margaret’s Roath.  In 1885 he went to Jesus College, Oxford, graduating with an Honours degrees in 1891 in classics, history and civil law.

St Margaret's church Roath and Canon Beck

St Margaret’s church Roath and Canon Beck

The 1891 census tells us that John Sankey, aged 26, a student of law, was living with his mother and Uncle’s family in Whitchurch, Cardiff.  What was wrong with Roath I wonder?  Don’t worry, they do return.

In 1892 John goes to London to further his legal training to become a barrister at Middle Temple.

After qualifying he returns to Cardiff and quickly makes a name for himself as a good barrister. For the next 15 years or so the newspapers are full of details of cases he was involved in.  I was attracted by the amusing name for one case: Moses v. Solomon.  William Moses, a traveller in silver plate, was bitten by a retriever dog in Canton, Cardiff, owned by Mr Solomon.  Mr Moses was represented by John Sankey and won the case.

In 1897 he joined the freemasons in Cardiff, becoming a member of the Prince Llewellyn Lodge. That same year he is reported as chairing a meeting of the Cardiff Law student’s debating society at the Council Chamber in the Town Hall, all very much evidence of him integrating into Cardiff society.

In the 1901 census, we find John Sankey, Barrister of Law, living with mother and sister Edith at ‘Croxdale’, 239 Newport Road.  Again, using street directories of the time and old maps it has been possible to pinpoint the house as being opposite the Royal Oak and tram terminus, with the athletic grounds behind them.  The street has also been re-numbered and it is now 343 Newport Road.  I haven’t been quite so lucky in finding a photograph of the actual house this time but it was close.

Although their house was opposite the Royal Oak I suspect he wasn’t regularly to be seen supping a pint of Brains Dark.  He had strong Christian beliefs. He was for some years a sidesman at St Margaret’s parish church, Roath.  In 1907 Roath Vestry were discussing the need to replace John Sankey as it was known he would soon be leaving for London.

343 Newport Road, Roath, Cardiff home of John Sankey

The tram terminus outside the Royal Oak, Newport Road with the Sankey residence being just off picture to the left. 343 Newport Road today.

This was a time for change in the Church.  For many centuries the  church and the state had been intertwined and the church had a certain say over legislation.  The church in Wales was about to be disestablished i.e. separated, from the state, which had great support among the Welsh non-conformists.  This wasn’t to the liking of many in the Anglican church and indeed in 1909 John Sankey was invited to speak in Cardiff at the Park Hotel at a protest meeting against the government’s Disestablishment Bill, alongside the Lord Bishop of St David’s.  That made him a supporter of antidisestablishmentarianism (I hope you appreciate how I have been able to weave in that word, the longest in the English dictionary and one too long to use on a Scrabble board).

1909 also saw John Sankey leave Cardiff and move to London as he was appointed a K.C. (Kings Council), i.e.  appointed by the monarch of the country to be one of His Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law. Called taking the silk on account of the silk gowns worn by a K.C.  That same year he was appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of Llandaff.

At this stage it is evident that he harboured some political ambitions.  In 1910 he stood in the Council election in Stepney, London for the Municipal Reformers, a party allied to the Conservative party and in support of competitive contracts.

Meanwhile his legal career is going from strength to strength.  In 1914 he was appointed a High Court judge in London. During WWI he was Chairman of the Enemy Aliens Advisory Committee, reviewing cases of interned Irishmen.  To top it all in 1917 he was knighted.

John Sankey - Illustrated London News

Returning to ecclesiastical matters, the Church of England and Wales was about to be separated. This was delayed by WWI but in 1920 the Welsh Church Act when English Ecclesiastical law ceased to exist as law of the land in Wales. In preparation for this a new constitution of the Church in Wales was required.  John Sankey is regarded as being at the forefront in drawing up that constitution which is still in place today.

In 1919 Lloyd George appointed him Chairman of the Coal Industry Commission the findings of which were known as the Sankey Commission.  It recommended that the coal mines be nationalised. This was quite remarkable coming from a man who until now had leanings to the Conservative party and for a man who grew up in Cardiff, a city based on wealth generated from a privatised coal industry.  It is said that this experience turned him from being an orthodox conservative into a Labour Party supporter

Fast forward ten years to 1929 and we see John Sankey’s political and legal careers merge as he is appointed Lord Chancellor and a member of Ramsey MacDonald’s cabinet. He holds that position in the Labour and National governments from 1929 to 1935.  The Lord Chancellor was also the presiding officer of the House of Lords and the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.  Not bad for a man who grew up on City Road!

Ramsey MacDonald Socialist Cabinet 1929

Ramsey MacDonald Socialist Cabinet 1929. Sir John Sankey is sitting second from right.

Let’s not stop there however.  He becomes Chairman of the Indian Federation Committee of the Round Table Conference, part of a series of peace conferences organized by the British Government and Indian political personalities to discuss constitutional reforms in India.

In 1931 he was created a Viscount and in 1934 he was a awarded Freedom of the City of Cardiff.

National Government of 1933

National Government of 1933 containing three Prime Ministers: , Neville Chamberlain (standing 2nd from rt), Stanley Baldwin (sat 2nd left), Ramsay MacDonald (sat centre), with John Sankey sitting bottom right.

In 1940 he gave his name to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man. This had strong input from author H.G.Wells. This in turn led to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.    Here are the suggested rights, in short. Right to nourishment, housing, health care and mental care : right to education : right to have home and private property protected : right to work and earn and be free from slavery : right to move freely about the world : right to public trial and to detention for a short fixed time only : freedom from torture and degrading or inhuman treatment : right not to be force-fed nor stopped from hunger strike if you so choose : and right to finite imprisonment terms.

At sometime too in these later years he was a British member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

He died on 6 Feb 1948 in London leaving in his will £85,000 to his devoted spinster sister Edith, his servants, his old school in Lancing, Jesus College Oxford (to be used for students progressing to the Bar)  and the Church in Wales to be used at the discretion of the Bishop of Llandaff.

John Sankey portrait 1914

He never married and was a strong promoter of Anglo-Catholicism.  He was devoted to his mother who in her later years moved from her house in Newport Road to live with him in his residence in Dean’s Court, next to Westminster Abbey.

He loved walking, twenty to thirty miles was nothing to him when he was in form.  As a golfer it has been said he was one of the worst ever but a delightful partner on the links.

He is buried is buried not in Cardiff but in his place of birth, Moreton in the Marsh where his mother and father were buried.

Newspaper articles throughout a person’s life often fail to mention their character but obituaries do.  Here’s some of his characteristics drawn from those obituaries:  Gentle.  Strict adherence to the rules of fair play.  Popular.  A large and solemn man.  A man of strong opinions, but at the same time admired for his impartial application of the rule of law.  He gained a great reputation for brevity and conciseness in exposition.  A kindly courteous man. Never too busy to talk to old friends. Never in a hurry but always getting there in time.

John Sankey relaxing - Illustrated London News

John Sankey relaxing – Illustrated London News

So next time you are walking down City Road feeling a bit peckish, pop into the SouvLike Greek restaurant, order some halloumi or moussaka and imagine yourself in the room where the young Viscount Sankey, future Lord Chancellor, did his homework in front of a roaring coal fire.

Souvlike, City Road, Cardiff

Souvlike, City Road, Cardiff, childhood home of Viscount John Sankey


I first picked up the achievement of John Sankey when watching a smashing video of Professor Norman Doe delivering a talk at St David’s Cathedral.  Prof Doe’s paper was also illuminating:  N. Doe, ‘The centenary of the Church in Wales: the formation of its Constitution remembered’, in Z. Horak and P. Skrejpkova, eds., Pocta Jirimu Rajmundu Treterovi (Prague: Leges, 2020) 115-126

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.


Acknowledgements:

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

The Cardiff High School Headmaster who never was.

I thought I would start to take a look at the names on the Cardiff High WWI memorial plaque.  I’ve made a slow start.  The first name on the memorial is “J L Davies.  Essex Regt (Headmaster 1915)”.  It’s a sad story, as are all that lie behind war memorial names.

John Llewelyn Davies - Headmaster Cardiff High

Major John Llewelyn Davies (Photo credit: IWM)

The war memorial plaque was originally displayed at the old Cardiff High School on Newport Road but now sited at Cardiff High School on  Llandennis Road. It was dedicated in its original position on 22nd Nov 1922, relocated to the new Cardiff High School building in 1970 and rededicated on 30th June 2006 after being restored and remounted.

Cardiff High School War Memorial

J L Davies Cardiff High War Memorial

J L Davies was Major John Llewelyn Davies. He was born in the picturesque village of St Ishmael, near Ferryside in Carmarthenshire in 1879.  His father, David Davies, was a schoolmaster.  Sometime in the next ten years David Davies moved to Neath where he became headmaster of what is now called the Alderman Davies school, more famous these days for being where Katherine Jenkins started her education.

St Ishmael, Carmarthenshire

St Ishmael, Carmarthenshire, birthplace of John Llewelyn Davies

John Llewelyn Davies attended his father’s school in Neath as did probably his five siblings.  After school he then went on to study at Aberystwyth University and then Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  He graduated with First Class honours in Natural Science and went on to gain an M.A.

Emmanual College Cambridge

Emmanuel College, Cambridge (Photo credit – Wiki)

On leaving Cambridge, John went as lecturer to Carmarthen Training College (Trinity College) for a short period, and subsequently became science master at the Perse School, Cambridge.  As a  schoolmaster,  Major  Davies  was  thorough  and  successful, enjoying great popularity among his boys and colleagues.  His pupils gained  many open  scholarships at universities.

Carmarthen Training College

Trinity College Carmarthen

As well as having a passion for science, John Llewelyn Davies was dedicated to the military.  Whilst teaching in Cambridge he spent seven years as a Lieutenant in the Officers Training Corps.  When the war broke out he gave up his post at Perse School and joined the 11th Essex Regiment as Captain of A Company.

Perse School, Cambridge

Perse School, Cambridge in the late 1800s

In April 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Major.  In May he was appointed as Headmaster of Cardiff High School.  It was agreed that he would take up his post when the war was over.  On 17th August 1915 he was married to Isabel Christina Jessie Fraser B.A. in Wrexham.  Christina, a teacher,  worked at the Training College in Bingley, Yorkshire.  On 30 August 1915, just thirteen days after he was married,  John Llewelyn Davies and his battalion landed at Boulogne, and proceeded to positions at Loos.

On 25th September 1915, Major John Llewelyn Davies is killed on the first day of the battle of Loos in France, one of the bloodiest battles of WWI where 60,000 British soldiers perished.  He was aged 35. He has no known burial site.

Battle of Loos

photograph (Q 28986) Battle of Loos, 25th September, 1915. Ruined buildings in a street in Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous Tower Bridge can be seen. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205092033

One of his fellow officers wrote “He was very much a fine soldier and all had such implicit confidence in him.  He was so capable and absolutely to be relied upon. The regiment feels very much his loss for he was one of the ablest officers”.

John Llewelyn Davies is remembered on a number of War Memorials.  As well as the Cardiff High School memorial his name also appears on memorials at Aberystwyth University, Trinity College Carmarthen and Perse School Cambridge as well as the Loos Memorial at Dud Corner Cemetery, France.

Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University – one of the places Major J L Davies is remembered

His wife of just one month, Christina, continued her teaching career and never did remarry, and lived into her eighties.  She passed away in Chirk, Denbighshire in 1964.

The probate of Major John Llewelyn Davies details that the executor was his bother  Richard Jones Davies.    The probate also states that  he died as Wesel in Germany.

John Llewellyn Davies probate announcment 2nd May 2016 Cambrian Leader

John Llewellyn Davies probate announcement 2nd May 2016 Cambrian Leader

One newspaper report states that the brother, Richard Jones Davies lived in Llanishen, so maybe there was a connection to Cardiff after all.  I tried to find Richard Davies in Cardiff in the 1911 Census but failed.  It turns out he was at the time in hospital in Pinewood, Wokingham, Berkshire.  Pinewood hospital was a place for those recovering from tuberculosis, a not uncommon disease at the time.

So Major John Llewelyn Davies never got to take up his post as Headmaster of Cardiff High School. Judging by his prior achievements I’m sure he would have been very successful in that role.  A sad loss to his family and to Cardiff High School.

Trinity College War Memorial

Loos War Memorial, France (Photo Credit: Gwyn Prescott)

Subsequent Information

After publishing this blog post Gwyn Prescott (rugby and military historian) was kind enough to share with me his bio on Major J L Davies.  It contained some interesting additional information:

  • The Red Cross reported that Major John Llewelyn Davies had died of wounds in German hands at Wesel, Germany. A fellow officer wrote: “He was such a fine soldier, and [all his men] had such implicit confidence in him. He was so capable and absolutely to be relied on. The regiment feels very much his loss, for he was one of the ablest officers.”  His official date of death is given as 25th September 1915, the day on which the Battle of Loos opened. However, it appears that he may have been mortally wounded on the 26th and, as he died in Germany as a prisoner of war, his death must have occurred later. He was 36. His grave was subsequently lost so he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing, Dud Corner, France. He is also commemorated on war memorials in Aberystwyth University; Emmanuel College Cambridge; Perse School Cambridge; and the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, London.

RSC War Memorial Burlington HOuse

Royal Society of Chemistry memorial at Burlington House, London

Gwyn Prescott also made me aware that J L Davies was a Chemist.  When I had read that he graduated with degrees in natural science I had assumed he was a biologist or alike, forgetting that Cambridge University natural science degrees cover a breadth of scientific topics.  Being a chemist myself I realised when I read his name is remembered on the memorial at Royal Society of Chemistry offices in Burlington House that I would have walked past his name on a number of occasions.

Extra bits

I’m a great believer in not only sharing the findings from research but also the methods of how to go about conducting that research.  I’m by no means an expert and there are others far more expert than me out there in Cardiff.

Researching names on war memorials isn’t always straightforward.  In Wales there are a lot of common surnames making things tricky.  On war memorials it is often only the initials and surname quoted.  And beware, sometimes errors are made even in spelling a name etc.

At least in the case of the Cardiff High war memorial plaque the regiment names are quoted which can help.  In the case therefore of ‘J L Davies.  Essex Regt’, the first thing I did was to see if he was listed on the Commonwealth War Graves.  There were a number of matches J L Davies’s but only one in WWI in the Essex Regiment and he was Major John Llewelyn Davies.  I’m still not convinced however at this stage that I have the right person.

I then spent quite a long time looking for a John Llewelyn Davies in Cardiff on the census records.  A census is carried out once ever ten years in England and Wales but the information kept secret for a hundred years.  The last census therefore available for us to study is the 1911 census. A sort of census was carried out in September 1939 but detailing a lot less information but is also available and called the 1939 Register.  Let me clarify by what I mean when I say ‘available’.  Census records are most easily searched and accessed using the two main family history websites Ancestry and Find my Past.  Unfortunately, both these are subscription websites.  Don’t get despondent, there’s good news.  Both can be accessed free of charge in Cardiff libraries.

John Llewelyn Davies

So I search for John Llewelyn Davies in Cardiff in the census information and find nothing.  This is where I made a mistake.  I should have probably just done and internet search for ‘John Llewelyn Davies’ and ‘Cardiff High School’ where I would probably have discovered that others had carried out similar research.  Instead I just kept looking for a John Llewelyn Davies on census records but without a date of birth things were proving tricky.  Eventually I found one born in Ferryside and had a father who was a schoolmaster. Then I found him in the 1911 census as a schoolmaster in Cambridge which would explain him being a member of the Essex Regiment.  Things were beginning to fit together.  A couple more bits were obtained from Wales Newspapers Online and then back to some more general searching using Google (other internet search engines are available!).

John Llewelyn Davies obit

Mid Glam Herald and Neath Gazette Dec 4th 1915 Obit

I won’t bore you with every avenue I took during my search but I did enjoy doing it.  If you are interested in starting off or honing your skills I can recommend the Glamorgan Family History Society.  They periodically run courses for beginners and have a session on the first Saturday of the month at Cardiff Central Library for more experienced researchers who may have hit a brick wall in their particular project.  A number of Cardiff libraries also run sessions for beginners such as Cathays and Rhydypennau and maybe some others.

My final recommendation is a train trip to Ferryside and St Ishmael, the birthplace of Major John Llewelyn Davies.  I went there earlier this year and the views across the estuary to Llansteffan and Laugharne were something else.  Don’t forget to tell the train conductor you want to get off however as Ferryside is a request stop.  More about that trip on my own blog Cardiff Capers.

The Secrets of a Cardiff House slowly revealed.

A few weeks ago I spotted a postcard of Cardiff for sale on eBay.  It wasn’t your traditional postcard with a picture of Cardiff Castle, the City Hall or Roath Park lake.  This was a picture of a house, a seemingly ordinary house with nobody posing in front of it. The postmark was 1908.

Cardiff postcard

Mystery Cardiff postcard

I tried to think about where in Cardiff the house could be but quickly realised it looked like so many houses in Cardiff suburbs built in the late Victorian period.  Let’s enlist some help I thought and posted it on the ‘Cardiff Now & Then’ Facebook page – it’s just the sort of thing they may like doing.  Suggestions of where the house could be flooded in.  Some of the streets mentioned are no longer in existence making checking problematic.   With the help of Google Street View however it was possible for me and others in the Facebook group to check most of them and discount many of the suggestions.

Cardiff postcard Miss Grant 26 Bonnington Square Lambeth

My eye was caught by one particular suggestion proposed by David Meek.  David was suggesting it could be 66 Albany Road, opposite his family-owned shoe business, itself of historical significance being one of the oldest businesses in Albany Road.  I examined the image closer.  It certainly looked a good match.  The ornate roof ridge tiles however didn’t match but that didn’t discourage me too much – ridge tiles are often replaced over time.

66 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff 2019

66 Albany Road today, occupied by CPS Homes

The fact that Albany Road is very much in the heart of our area of interest in Roath Local History Society led me to led me to entering a bid on eBay for the postcard.  In the meantime I set about examining the writing on the back. The card was addressed to Miss Grant of 26 Bonnington Square, South Lambeth, London.  I managed to find the Grant family at that address in the 1911 census.  Miss Grant was probably Edith Alice Grant, a blouse maker.  A bit more research revealed that Edith also had a sister, Bertha Grant, who in 1911 was living with her aunt and uncle in Monmouth.  Bertha is another possibility for the postcard recipient.

Grant family 1911

The Grant family at 26 Bonnington Square, Lambeth in 1911. Miss Edith Grant, a blouse maker, was 27. In 1908, the date of the postcard, she would have been 24.

The final day of the eBay auction arrived and the minutes ticked down.  Lo and behold I won the bidding with my bid of £5.  To be honest I was the only bidder.  A picture of an anonymous house in Cardiff evidently didn’t pique people’s interest.

Whist waiting for the postcard to be delivered I looked again at the photo of the writing on the back of the card.  Working on David Meek’s suggestion that this was 66 Albany Road, I attempted to link it to the family living there in 1911.  In 1911 the house was occupied by the Phillips family headed up by Frederick Phillips, a dental mechanic, whatever one of those is!  Tantalisingly the family originated from London, though the three younger children had all been born in Cardiff.  Eliza, the mother-in-law, had even been born in Lambeth.  Try as I might though I couldn’t find any link between the Grant family and the Phillips family.

66 Albany Road 1911

The Phillips family in 66 Albany Road in 1911.  Was one of these the postcard author?  I had my doubts.

The postcard arrived.  I immediately rushed upstairs and found my magnifying glass.  Bingo!  The house was number 66.  The image posted on eBay hadn’t been good enough quality to see this but now having the original in front of me I could examine it much better and see the number 66 etched on the front door window.

66 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff, front door

An enlarged view of the front door on the postcard

I still wanted further proof that I was looking at 66 Albany Road and not 66 in another street.  I set about examining the brickwork under the magnifying glass and comparing it to the enlarged Google Streetview image.  I discovered that in a few rows thicker bricks were used than in other rows.  And yes, those layers did match in both the postcard and the modern day.

Stonework comparison

A brick-by-brick comparison of today’s 66 Albany Road with the postcard picture.

That still left an obvious question.  Why make a postcard picture of a seemingly mundane house.  Almost out of desperation I conducted a newspaper search on “66 Albany Road” (Hint – if you haven’t used it yet, Welsh Newspapers Online is a great resource).  I struck gold and all was explained.  In 1908, 66 Albany Road was home to the St Alban’s School of Music run by Abraham N James.

Cymro a'r Celt Llundain 9th Mar 1907

Newspaper cutting from Cymro a’r Celt Llundain 9th Mar 1907

Abraham N James was not shy in his advertising.  He advertised in London newspapers targeted at the Welsh ex-pat community living there. I’m guessing the postcard was just part of his advertising material.  I’m left wondering whether his pupils from far away also boarded in the house.

I started researching the James family.  Abraham Nehemiah James was born in Neath and married Mary Ann Price from Merthyr in 1887 and moved to Aberdare.  They had two daughters, Vida Annie Patti James (b.1889) and Florence Novello James (b.1891) both born in Aberdare.  The name Patti seems to be a nod to Dame Adelina Patti, one of the world’s great opera singers of the time who made her home in Craig y Nos in the Swansea valley.  Florence’s middle name Novello was a nod not to Ivor Novello but his grandmother Clara Novello, an acclaimed soprano singer.

Patti and Novello

Dame Adelina Patti and Clara Novello (photos: Wiki), who the James girls were named after.

 

So let’s have a look at the message on the postcard again.  The handwriting isn’t easy to read but my best guess is:

Dear Miss Grant,

So sorry to hear that you have been laid up.  Dadda and Mamma are away now & Auntie is here with us.  V and I are busy in Coll now.  I will write again when Dadda and Mamma come home. Hoping your better. With love be (?).

Frustratingly there aren’t many clues there.  The V could be one of the daughters Vida.  Of course the writer of the postcard may have nothing to do with the James family.  The writer could be a pupil at the St Alban’s School of Music.  I even thought that Miss Grant could have been a former music teacher of the postcard writer.  Lots of possibilities there.

Plaques on 66 Albany Road

The house in the postcard has two plaques, frustratingly too unclear to read.

So what happened to the Abraham James and family?  In 1911 they had moved from 66 Albany Road to Waterloo Road in Penylan.  Abraham died later that year aged 62 leaving just £72 in his will suggesting that his music school may not have been a great money spinner.

Abraham family in 1911 in Waterloo Road, Cardiff

Abraham James and family living in Waterloo Road, Penylan, Cardiff in 1911

In 1939, Vida James the daughter, is living at Roath Court Road and described as incapacitated but lives until 1969 when she was living in Langland on the Gower peninsular.   Florence James, possibly the postcard writer, married Albert Lukey in 1915 and lived in Winchester Avenue, Penylan, Cardiff.  She unfortunately dies ten years later in 1925 aged just 35.  Albert Lukey remarries in 1938 and dies in 1960 in Winchester Avenue.  The world can seem quite a small place still sometimes.  My grandparents lived in Winchester Avenue and my mother was born there.  They would have no doubt have known Albert Lukey and his second wife Dorothy.

So finally, lets return to the picture postcard.  This is probably one of the best pictures that exists of an Albany Road house before it was converted into a shop and therefore of historical significance itself.  66 Albany Road has had many occupants over time.  From 1937-1958 it was Glynne Jones a ladies hairdressers.  In the 1980s it was the jewellers Gold, Gold, Gold.  Nowadays it is occupied by CPS Estate and Letting agents.  The stonework looks lot cleaner than it did in 1908.

66 Albany Road probably in the 1980s

66 Albany Road, far left, occupied by Gold, Gold, Gold, in the 1980s (Photo credit: Alec Kier, Roath Local History Society)

I wonder if you listen very very carefully when passing 66 Albany Road whether you can still hear the voices of budding operatic stars being put through their paces by Abraham Nehemiah James?



Appendix:

Too many bits and pieces were collected in researching Abraham James to include in the body of the article so I offer them here if you still have the staying power to read them.

John Thomas harpist Pencerdd Gwalia

The patron to Abraham James’s St Alban’s School of Music is advertised as being the Royal harpist John Thomas (Pencedd Gwalia)

 

Jan 3rd 1879

An early advertisement from Abraham James in 1879

Aberdare Times 1896

Aberdare Times 1896 – before the James family moved to Cardiff

 

Patent application

A patent application for educational dominoes filed by Abraham James in 1895

Aberdare Leader 23rd Dec 1905

Aberdare Leader, 23rd Dec 1905

Tarian Y Gweithiwr 5th Sep 1907

Tarian Y Gweithiwr 5th Sep 1907

Aberdare Leader 26th Dec 1908

Aberdare Leader 26th Dec 1908

Ralph Hancock – Roath’s very own Capability Brown

Ralph Hancock Photo - Dorothy Wilding

 

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

 

 

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

 

Rockefeller Centre Garden

 

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

 

 

 

Ralf Hancock kensington roof garden Photo by Bryce Edwards, Flickr

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

Flamingos in the Kensington Roof top gardens

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

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

Ralph Hancock and the Queen at Chelsea 1949

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

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

Twyn-yr-Hydd gardens

The gardens at Twyn-yr-Hydd

Personal Life

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

Baptism July 30th 1893

Ralph’s baptism record

1905 - they were living in Ninian Road

Ralph’s school admission

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

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

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

 

Derry Roof Gardens Kensington London

Uncovering the history of Wellfield Road

Wellfield Road, Cardiff history

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

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

Waterloo Tea, Wellfield Road, Cardiff

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

 

Tilley Shoe Shop, Wellfield Road, Cardiff

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

 

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

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

41 Wellfield Road, Cardiff - History

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

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

Wellfield Rad, Cardiff plan 2006

Wellfield ROad, Roath, Cardiff 1972

Wellfield Road 1972 Trade Directory

 

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

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

Summer Programme 2019

Here are the details of R.L.H.S.’s Summer Visits 2019:

 All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

Merthyr

Thursday, 6th. June: Merthyr Town Centre.  A guided walk around Merthyr led by the charismatic historian, Huw Williams, with afternoon tea to finish.  Cost £10.00, inclusive of VEST transport and afternoon tea.  Mini-buses leave St. Andrew’s URC at 12.30 (estimated return – 17.00).  All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

 

 

Cardiff reformm synagogue

Thursday, 13th. June: Cardiff Reform Synagogue, Moira Terrace, Cardiff. CF24 OEJ.  We will be welcomed by R.L.H.S. Member, Stanley Soffa, who this year was awarded the BEM in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list – For services to community cohesion,  combating anti-semitism and the  Jewish community in Cardiff.  This evening visit also includes a talk on “The History of the Jewish Community of Cardiff”, beginning at 19.30.  Free on-street parking in Howard Gardens.  All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

 

Cardiff masonic hall

Wednesday, 19th. June: Cardiff Masonic Hall,  8, Guildford Street, Cardiff. CF10 2HL
Mr. Naunton Liles will guide us around this fascinating Victorian complex, founded in 1893 and centred around three Masonic temples. He will outline its history and how it functions today.  Tour begins at 14.00.  All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

 

Maindy Barracks

Thursday, 27th. June: Maindy Barracks, Whitchurch Road, Cardiff. CF14 3YE.  John Dart, retired Sergeant Major of The Welch Regiment, will put us through our paces at this military installation, built in 1877.  Look  lively, you’re in the army now!  Tour begins at 14.00.  All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

 

Pierhead Building

Thursday, 4th. July: Pierhead Building & Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay
At the Pierhead Building, Alan Knight will give an historical introduction, before we engage with the various exhibitions for ourselves. This will be followed by a leisurely stroll along the waterfront, for refreshments at a second landmark building – the Norwegian Church.  Meet at 14.00 at the Pierhead Building.  All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

 

Tewkesbury Abbey

SOLD OUT Wednesday, 10th. July: Tewkesbury Abbey.  The VEST mini-buses will arrive & depart from the Abbey. Leaving at 16.00 gives ample time to see something of both the Abbey and the town.  Entry to the Abbey is free but visitors are asked to leave a donation.
Mini-buses leave St. Andrew’s URC at 10.00 (estimated return – 17.00).  Cost: £9.00.  SOLD OUT

 

Booking Details:

 All places have now been filled and bookings have closed.

Only two of the trips incur a charge, but, because of security issues, we need to have a register of names and contact numbers (preferably mobiles), for each visit.

It would help enormously, if you could bring the exact money for Merthyr (£10.00) and Tewkesbury (£9.00) to our April or May monthly meetings.   Alternatively, cheques should be made payable to Roath Local History Society.

All bookings and reservations must close on Thursday 23rd May

Please note carefully the various days and times – two trips are on a Wednesday
and one is an evening event.