Vol 1 No 9: Forty Years in Splott

The history of Splott is neatly summarised in the following essay by Mr J.M.Cleary on “Forty Years in Splott” which is reproduced from “The Illtydian”, Summer 1964, by kind permission of the author.  It appeared in our Roath Local History Society Project Newsletter Vol 1 No 9. It has been supplemented with photos of places mentioned in the essay.

It is recorded that a group of Norwegian geographers were taken to see the tide-fields at the mouth of the Rhymney river, and fell into ecstasies over the rich grazing afforded to cattle by the grass that flourished upon the estuarine mud. This, they said, is the stuff. If only we could have something like it instead of our unproductive fiords….Six or seven centuries ago the same feelings were aroused in the breasts of land-hungry settlers from the further shore of the Bristol Channel.  They built sea-walls; they reclaimed the salt-marshes; they enclosed the fields which they had drained, and called them “plots”. Hence the name Splott, which occurs in several other places in the Vale of Glamorgan. It has not altered appreciably since its first occurrence:

  • 1393 Splot
  • 1540 Splot
  • 1568 Splattye
  • 1586 the Splote
  • 1604 Splott
  • 1615 the Splott
  • 1658 the Splott

To the autochthonous members of the Cardiff community, as well as to those others – ‘os assimilados’, as the Portuguese would say – of whom I am proud to be one, it is a name of some charm. On allochthonous ears it falls less endearingly, and at least one former headmaster of St. Illtyd‘s was said to have nightmares at the possibility of his college ever becoming known as Splott High School; but what’s in a name ?

So might have spoken the family who were variously known as de Baggetrippe, Baudrub, Bawdryp and Bawdrip, owners of the Splott for three centuries.  From their native village, Bawdrip, which stands on a ridge overlooking the Somerset levels that stretch away to Bridgewater, they came to Penmark in the Vale of Glamorgan about the fourteenth century, in time for Thomas de Bawdripp to witness the eleventh charter of the borough of Cardiff.  In Henry VIII’s reign William Bawdrippe had a town house in High Street, and John Leland noted that “Splot, a maner place longging to Baudrem, lyith fram the mouth of Remny on the shore”.

William Bawdrip, whose clandestine marriage to Margaret Mathew of Radyr was considered in a previous issue (The Illtydian.XXII.3.1950 and reproduced in Project Newsletter Vol.1. No.8) acquired church lands in Splott “late pertayning to the church of St. Mary”.  His son built “a fair house” there about 1596.  This house still stands; I was born in it: by which time it had become the Great Eastern Hotel in Metal Street.  Its former name, “the upper Splott”, was forgotten within the last half-century.

Great Eastern Hotel, Splott, Cardiff

Great Eastern, Metal Street

The “lower Splott” was the vicarage of St. Saviour’s Church, St Illtyd’s next-door-neighbour, upon whose open space former headmasters, in expansive mood, cast acquisitive glances as they planned to cope with ever-growing numbers of pupils.  This period in Splott’s story was well summed up in John Graber’s sensitive poem, published in this magazine (i.e. The Illtydian) in 1938:

Whine of the wind over mudflats and sand.

Shrill with the scream of the seagull ‘s turmoil,

Grey channel mists of November rolling,

Stagnance of summer on salt-soaked soil

Desolate, sad the cattle-bell tolling;

Frosty the dykes and ice-bound the winter land.

Here through the centuries men broke the furrow,

Tended the cattle with harsh sea-grass

Now the wild meadows bear for tomorrow

Asphalt and bricks on the ancient morass.

In the year of Oliver Cromwell’s death the last of the Bawdrips died there on her curtained feather bed in the dining room, and left Splott to her nephew Anthony Mathew.  A generation later he was buried with his ancestors in the nave of Llandaff Cathedral.

My grandfather recalled the sight of cornfields where Constellation Street now runs, a hundred and fifty years after that.  Splott manor’s thirty four acres, then, were still arable and pasture a century ago, but by 1880 the invasion of industry and industrial housing began.  The Roath Dock to the south, and the Great Western Railway main line to the north, were the effective limits of the new Splott.  The old manor-house had come to be regarded as in Roath, though the Splottlands Hotel shows that the old agricultural Splott extended up to Newport Road.

Splotlands Hotel

Splotlands Hotel

The new Splott was laid out in a rigid gridiron pattern of streets based upon the main line of the railway, which cut its inhabitants off from the north as effectively as any American railway track ever segregated a township’s communities in the land of the free.  Newtown; Grangetown; Canton; Roath; Splott; fifty years ago these were separate entities, and, when St. Illtyd’s College came to Splott, that tradition was very much alive and my contemporaries placed each other according to parochial loyalties, and kept their friendships accordingly.

As the tramcar carried us down Splott Road we passed at each corner the monuments of Victorian religion: the Salvation Army; the Baptists; the Church in Wales; the Methodists. These were in the main street: a little off centre were St. Ainon and Jerusalem, Bethlehem and St. Alban’s-in-the- Moors. They stand at this day; many of them, alas, less frequented than formerly: a monument to the piety of the nineteenth century.

St Alban's Church, Splott, Cardiff

St Alban’s Church, Splott, Cardiff

The construction of new docks and the erection of the great Dowlais works had brought together thousands of inhabitants who were overwhelmingly and unashamedly working-class, and St. Alban’s became and has remained a unified parish untouched by those social stratifications which exist elsewhere.  The Rosminian fathers built a school-cum-chapel in 1891; on the rest of the plot my grandfather had his bootmaker’s shop and also grew vegetables on the spot where one of his many great-grandsons, a pupil of St. Illtyd’s now says mass.  The concentration of Catholic families in the neighbourhood of the church is still a marked feature of local life; St. Illtyd’s has helped to nourish the vocations of many boys who were baptised there.  An article on “The Old Illtydian in English  Literature” in a former issue of this magazine (i.e. The Illtydian) mentioned only too briefly as is the case here – the tribute paid to “St.Urban’s-on-the-Moors” by W.B.Ready in one of his books of short stories published in the U.S.A.  St.Illtyd’s, then, was founded in a parish with a flourishing Catholic life, and the connection with St.Alban’s church has always been maintained to their mutual benefit.  The De La Salle Brothers were themselves domiciled in Splott Road for same years and made many friends among the local people; at one time or another several of the lay staff lived in Splott, notably those dedicated teachers, the late Clement McCormick and Mr M.Fennell.

At the time of the air raids on Cardiff the destruction wrought on the school buildings was made somewhat more bearable by the reflection that, had the bomb struck anywhere else in that crowded locality, our friends and neighbours would inevitably have been killed.  The shock hastened the end of Gilbert Brown who had -assiduously – and incomparably before or since – looked after the college buildings.

In the early years there were sometimes fears that St.Illtyd‘s, Cardiff’s second Catholic Grammar school for boys – would go the way of the first, St.Joseph’s, which for twenty years struggled on in the . buildings now occupied by De La Salle School, before closing at the. beginning of this century.

Time was to show that St.Illtyd’s problems were to be caused not by scarcity but by overflow; as those of us who strove, a few years ago, to cope with grammar-school work in classes of over forty will not easily forget.  Growth and a higher standard of grammar-school building are sending St.Illtyd’s pupils away from Splott to Llanrumney (a nonsense-place-name, if ever there was one, to replace our noble monosyllable), but their memory will remain attached to the building which Mr.Ellis planned for Brother Gilbert, the master builder. Few visitors to the school ever see it as it should be seen. And not only visitors, but pupils, too.

St Illtyd's School for Boys, Cardiff

St Illtyd’s School for Boys

How many of you, who have had the patience to read this essay thus far, come to St.Illtyd’s by way of Splott Road, from which it is invisible, or by Courtenay Road, where it seems to crouch under the dominating presence of the Dowlais gasometer?  Those who enter from University Place get a view of the buildings erected at the turn of the century to house an interesting experiment in adult education, the University Settlement, whose history cannot be told here.  The best – the outstanding – approach is by way of Farmville Road, from which, topping a slight but commanding rise, Ellis’s monumental facade appears to the greatest advantage.  Were I planning the last days in the present buildings – and I am deeply grateful that I am not – I would be tempted to march the school up this road as a grand gesture of farewell.  Above them the boys would see St. Patrick and St.De La Salle; still higher the star, “signum fidei’; and the cross “fidei coticula’; and surrounding these the old motto of the crusading Stradlings of St Donat’s – “Duw a digon’.  If this is to be St. Illtyd’s memorial in its local habitation for the last forty years, who would require more?

J.M.Cleary