Stories from Cathays Cemetery

The A48 Theatre Company and the writers Living Lines have joined forces to produce “12 Stories from Cathays Cemetery”  which was made possible through a grant received from The National Heritage Lottery Wales and CADW.  The films are on the A48 Theatre Company YouTube channel and well worth a watch.  Quite a few of the people that feature in the stories have Roath connections. 

You can get to the individual films by clicking the links or pictures in the summaries below.  Credits to the writers of both the short films and the short biographies are given on the A48 Theatre YouTube channel. Eleven of the films are in English and one in Welsh. The English films also have subtitles available.

Francis Batty Shand was the youngest daughter of planter John Shand and his long-term partner, a free woman of colour called Frances Brown. She was born in Jamaica but removed to Scotland when she was 4 years old, probably in the care of her aunt Helen Shand of Elgin, Moray. All of Frances Brown’s seven children were taken from her. She had a portrait painted when each one left and, on writing her will in 1834, asked that each child be given their portrait as a momento of her. While living with her brother in Cardiff Francis Batty Shand was instrumental in founding the Cardiff Institute for the Blind: “Miss Shand was concerned with the “ragged” children she saw in Cardiff and toured the city offering help and support. Miss Shand first opened a small workshop in the Canton area of Cardiff, employing four blind men making baskets for the coal ships sailing from Cardiff ports. Within a year, larger premises were purchased at Byron Street in the Roath area, and ten men were employed. In 1868 a third move was made to Longcross Street off Newport Road, and a fourth move to the iconic Shand House.” In her will, Frances left c. £2,600 in small legacies, £1,000 and a life interest in her property at Moss Terrace, Elgin to Ann Allardice, £1,000 to the trustees of the Cardiff Association for Improving the Social Conditions of the Blind for the ‘Shand Memorial Fund’ and the residue to the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary for the maintenance of a children’s ward named for her late brother John Shand as the ‘Shand Memorial Ward’. Her estate in Scotland was valued for probate at £11,777 2s 5d.

James Driscoll, commonly known as Peerless Jim, was a Welsh boxer who fought his way out of poverty. Driscoll was British featherweight champion and won the coveted Lonsdale belt in 1910. Driscoll was born in Cardiff in 1880 and was brought up on Ellen Street in the Newtown region of the town. Driscoll’s parents were both Irish, and both Catholicism and the local St Paul’s Church played a key part in his life. Driscoll’s father died in a goods yard accident before Driscoll was one. His mother was forced to accept parish relief to bring up her four children. Driscoll was an apprentice with the Western Mail printing works when he began boxing in the fairground booths of South Wales. He turned professional in 1901 and by the end of the year he had secured twelve wins without defeat. On 22 February 1904

Driscoll fought his first match at the National Sporting Club in London, a points decision win over Boss Edwards. That year he also suffered his first defeat in a return bout against Mansfield, losing by points in a ten-round clash.

On 26 February 1906, Driscoll took the British Featherweight title by defeating Joe Bowker in a 15-round contest at the National Sporting Club. He undertook four more fights before his first defence, which included beating Mansfield by knockout in their fourth meet. His first title defence was a twenty-round match and Driscoll stopped his opponent in the seventeenth via a knockout. The 24 August 1907 is recorded as a non-contest fight between Driscoll and fellow Welshman Freddie Welsh.

Boxing historians such as Andrew Gallimore have cast doubt on this being a professional contest and instead regard it as a display fight at a fairground. Welsh supposedly took advantage of this situation and attacked Driscoll with kidney and rabbit punches. Driscoll never forgave his former friend for taking such liberties. On 24 February 1908, Driscoll faced New Zealander Charlie Griffin for the vacant Commonwealth Featherweight title. Again fought at Covent Garden, the match went the full fifteen rounds with Driscoll declared champion on a points decision. After claiming the British and Commonwealth featherweight titles Driscoll went on to prove himself in the U.S.. American boxing fans of the era favoured all-action boxers, but they were won over by the Cardiffian’s skills, giving him the nickname ‘Peerless Jim.’ Featherweight champion Abe Attell faced Driscoll in 1910; the Welshman dominated the fight, but with the “no decision” rule in place, without a KO, he couldn’t take the crown. Driscoll declined a rematch in order to attend an exhibition match in aid of the orphans of St. Nazareth House: “I never break a promise.” He returned to the United States the next year, but a chest infection and an injury in a road accident meant a poor showing.

He never got his title shot at Attell. After becoming the first featherweight to win a Lonsdale Belt, Driscoll prepared for an eagerly-anticipated fight against Freddie Welsh. The match was a disappointment, though, as Welsh’s spoiling tactics upset Driscoll’s style. By the tenth round Driscoll’s frustration boiled over, and he was disqualified for butting Welsh. Driscoll’s boxing career was interrupted by World War I. In succeeding years, he continued to box despite failing health, relying on his skills to keep him out of trouble. When he died in Cardiff of consumption at the age of 44, over 100,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. A statue was erected in his honour near the Central Boys’ Club, where he trained, in 1997.

Ernest Thompson Willows was a pioneer Welsh aviator and airship builder. He became the first person in the United Kingdom to hold a pilot’s certificate for an airship when the Royal Aero Club awarded him Airship Pilots Certificate No. 1. Willows was born in Cardiff, Wales on 11 July 1886. He was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, entering the school in 1896 and leaving in 1901 aged 15 to train as a dentist. He built his first airship, the Willows No. 1, in 1905 when he was 19. It was first flown from East Moors, Cardiff on 5 August 1905, the flight lasting 85 minutes. This was soon followed by an improved Willows No. 2, in which he landed outside Cardiff City Hall on 4 June 1910. No. 2 was re-built as No. 3 which he named the City of Cardiff before he flew it from London to Paris in 1910. This was the first airship crossing of the English Channel at night and the first from England to France. The journey was not without incident, including dropping the maps over the side during the night, and problems with the envelope caused the airship to land at Corbehem near Douai at two o’clock in the morning. With the help of the local French aviator Louis Breguet the airship was repaired and arrived at Paris on 28 December 1910. He celebrated New Year’s Eve with a flight around the Eiffel Tower. Willows moved to Birmingham to build his next airship, the Willows No. 4. First flown in 1912, it was sold to the Admiralty for £1,050 and it became His Majesty’s Naval Airship No. 2. With the money from the Navy Willows established a spherical gas balloon school at Welsh Harp, Hendon near London, although this did not stop him building Willows No. 5 in 1913, a four-seater airship designed to give joy rides over London. During the first world war Willows built barrage balloons in Cardiff. After the war he continued with ballooning but on 3 August 1926 he died in a balloon accident at Hoo Park, Kempston, Bedford instantly, together with a passenger. Three other passengers died later that day either in hospital or on their way to it making 5 deaths in all. There is a school named Willows High School built on his old airfield to remember him. There is also a pub called The Ernest Willows which is situated not far from the school.

Senghenedd Disaster. On the morning of Tuesday, October 14, 1913, 950 men and boys were underground at the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd, near Caerphilly. John Walters was not amongst them. He overslept as his young daughters had kept him awake much of the night. At 8am, there was a massive explosion with such force that it sent the cage in the Lancaster pit up the shaft and crashing into the pithead gear. The force of the blast smashed the wooden platform on which the banksman, John Mogridge, was standing and he was decapitated by a large splinter of timber. As there was little damage to York pit, the manager and other men descended the shaft but they were blocked by girders 530 yards down. Mine rescue teams from the Rhymney Valley, Porth, Aberdare and Crumlin raced to the scene but they were hampered by raging fires, thick smoke and roof falls. One rescue worker William John was killed in a roof fall. At 11.30am, an advanced party of rescuers managed to find a man and young boy alive and unharmed in the Bottanic district of the mine. By 1am the following morning, a group of 12 trapped miners were found alive behind a roof fall. A short distance away, another four were found unconscious but still alive. Twenty bodies were recovered from that district. Rescue teams continued to be hindered by further outbreaks of fire, roof falls and gas. After three weeks, only a third of the victims had been brought to the surface. Eventually rescuers reached the districts known as Ladysmith, Pretoria, Mafeking and Kinberly where the majority of bodies were found. More than 90 bodies were so badly mutilated that they could not be recognised. Some had to be identified by their clothing. One young boy’s identity was confirmed when his mother recognised a patch she had sewn into his vest. Another was identified by a champagne cork in his water bottle given to him by a friend and Aaron Manders was recognised by the new boots worn for the first time that day. By the end of the rescue mission, 439 were confirmed dead. Nearly every household in Senghenydd had lost somebody. It was estimated that 1,500 dependants were left without a bread winner. During a Court of Enquiry, several breaches of regulations were uncovered, the most serious being the inability of the ventilating fans to reverse the airflow contrary to legislation implemented on January 1, 1913. It is estimated that if the current of air had been reversed, hundreds of lives might have been saved. This led to 17 charges against the colliery manager and four against the company and they were fined a total of £24. The disaster was the second explosion to cause loss of life at the colliery. Just 12 years before, on Friday, May 24, 1901, a gas and coal dust explosion killed 81 of the 82 men underground at the time.

Mr. William Jones JP resided at Pencisely House, Cardiff with his wife Martha. He was the General Manager of the Cardiff Channel Dry Dock and Pontoon Company. This company, founded by the Cory shipping family, were instrumental in building the new graving dock in the Bute Dock, Cardiff. He was a JP and magistrate, a philanthropist and great supporter of the Cardiff Naval Brigade, an organisation established by Sir Edward Nicholl. The Cardiff Naval Brigade sought to encourage young men to take an interest in ‘everything that pertained to sound discipline and manliness giving them the necessary skills to fall in line for the defence of their country when required’. An article in the Evening Express on 26th September 1910 describes how 180 officers and men from the Cardiff Naval Brigade were entertained to tea at Pencisely House by Mr. William Jones JP. The lads were warmly complimented by Mr. Jones on their smart appearance.

The tragic story of Louisa Maud Evans, the Balloon Girl, is told in Welsh. An English translation is provided below together with a synopsis of her life:

“To be famous. To be known. To have people whisper my name as I pass them in the streets. There she is. That’s her. That’s Louisa. On a signal, I fell, and I felt Exhilaration, picturing the sea of eyes below mine, there, far, far, below me – 100,000 pairs of eyes looking up at falling me. And all of them, in that moment of time, they all knew my name, they all knew I existed. This moment, it was perfect, a window of utter release, and freedom, and a gleeful understanding that, unlike those who watched me from below with their Sunday best and their feet on the ground , I knew what it was to be a bird, and I knew what it meant to fly and everything beneath me, the city, the country, spread out like a painting drying in the sun. I could see the spires on the churches and the endless ribbon of the river. I could see the clustered trees and the scattergun tin pot houses. I could see the clouds high above me and the crowds far below me and best of all, they could all see me. Whatever they did, whoever they were none of that mattered. I was their focus, the reason their mouths fell open. I could feel the breath of the wind as it chased me through the sky . Then a realisation , there, that morning, cold and dawning , that I was drifting. That I was drifting away from where I should be to where I should not and that I could not do this and that I would not survive this. The dawning on high that I was so small and I was oh so out of control and that the world, one moment, so far below me, was getting bigger, larger, more apparent by the moment like looking at something through binoculars . I was falling like a paper doll with nothing to clutch at but a wind without handles, a fear, rising, hot against the cold, that we are not invincible and though we may think it, we can fall , we can certainly fall. And as I spiralled I thought back to the thing that, since a girl, I had prized above all things and I realised, yes, as I twisted and twisted , that I would be famous , that I would be known, that the city would remember my name. To be famous. To be known. To have people whisper my name as they pass me in the cemetery. There she is. That’s her. That’s Louisa.”

Louisa Maud Evans, otherwise known as Mademoiselle Albertina, fell to her death during a ballooning accident at the Cardiff Exhibition on July 21, 1896. It is estimated that 100,000 people had gathered at the Cardiff Industrial and Maritime Exhibition in Cathays Park in Cardiff, to see Louisa’s ascent by balloon. She was supposed to have landed by parachute on the outskirts of the city to be returned to the crowds via horse and carriage. However, she never reappeared and her body washed up three days later near the village of Nash, a few miles east of Cardiff. It is thought that Louisa was born in Barton Regis in Bristol in late 1881 and was adopted at 16 months old. She went on to work in a cloth factory but, wanting more in life, ran away at the age of 14 to become a circus apprentice and a trapeze artist. An inquest jury reached a unanimous verdict: “The deceased was accidentally drowned in the Bristol Channel whilst attempting to descend by parachute from a balloon.” A member of the inquest jury said: “We wish to censor Mr Gaudron, showman and balloon aeronaut, in that he showed great carelessness and disregard for the safety of such a young girl by allowing her to attempt her descent during such high winds.” Moved by her death, the people of Cardiff gave Louisa a decent burial and a headstone.

Winifred Fortt. Winifred Ellen Fortt’s father ran a lodging house for Greek Sailors in Cardiff Bay. She became the girlfriend of a lodger, Alec Bakerlis, 24, a fireman, who became jealous every time his 19-year old girlfriend spoke to any of the other residents. This got so bad that Winifred’s father gave him notice to quit and Bakerlis moved to other lodgings. Winifred broke off the relationship and asked a friend to return the ring and some letters Bakerlis had given her. Bakerlis refused to accept them from the friend and insisted Winifred returned them herself. On Christmas evening 1916 Bakerlis approached Winifred and her friend in Bute Street and asked her for the ring. Bakerlis then knocked her over and stabbed her repeatedly, seven or eight times on the head and body. A nearby police officer, Arthur Moss, saw Bakerlis running with a bloodstained knife and apprehended him. Bakerlis admitted to stabbing Winifred. Winifred died 3 days later from Blood Poisoning. Bakerlis was charged with wilful murder, found guilty and executed at Cardiff Gaol on 10 April 1917 by John Ellis.

James Power was born into a rebel family in Crooke, County Waterford, Ireland in 1889. Like his father, he worked on the land. In 1911 James was arrested and found guilty of “riotous behaviour.” When war broke out in 1914 Irishmen were encouraged to fight for Ireland as soldiers in the British Army and James joined the Royal Irish Regiment. He was not a model recruit. His military Charge Sheet cites offences such as “highly irregular conduct in barracks” and being absent without a pass. James did his training at Richmond Barracks in Dublin during 1916. This was the time of the Easter Rising, when Irish Republicans launched a rebellion against being ruled by Britain. The British reacted by mobilising troops onto the streets of Dublin – James Power amongst them. During six days of fighting British troops (including Irishmen such as James) either killed or captured all the rebels. The captured Republicans were imprisoned at Richmond Barracks. Sixteen of them were given a death sentence and were executed. This ruthless punishment made them into martyrs. The Royal Irish Regiment departed from Devenport and James served in Salonika, Egypt and the Battle of Jerusalem. He was awarded the Victory Medal and the British Medal. On returning to Ireland James joined B Company, Third Battalion, East Waterford Brigade as a 1st Lieutenant – the IRA. In the 1920s this was the military wing of the Irish Republican movement that was fighting for Ireland’s independence from Britain. James returned both of his medals. Servicemen who had previously been in the British Army in WWI now needed to prove their Republican credentials to their fellow fighters and one way of doing so was to return their British Army medals. In 1921 a truce was called in the conflict and the next year saw the creation of the Irish Free State when independence was granted to the south of Ireland. There was little work in Ireland at this time and James took up a job in the Merchant Navy, becoming a fireman and trimmer on a ship called the Sheaf Lance that sailed out of Barry in South Wales. It was hard, hot, filthy work – four hours on, four hours off round the clock. In December 1926 James was on a voyage destined for Brazil and Argentina. Its return passage brought it back to Wales, arriving in Penarth near Cardiff on the 5th of April, 1927. James Power left the ship that day, and is not recorded as sailing on any other voyages. His family were told he had died at sea but his death certificate shows that, at the age of 37, James Power was found dead in the Glamorganshire Canal in Cardiff on the 19th April, 1927. He died from “shock from distended stomach acting on diseased heart.” An inquest confirmed that he was not drunk and it is likely that he had a heart attack and fell into the canal. A local shopkeeper identified him, “particularly by his ginger moustache.'” James’ wife, Julia, died in childbirth less than two months later. Their two daughters were adopted. One of them, Mary-Anne, married Albert Martin and had a son, Paul Martin – or Paul Merton as he is better known. Paul said: “It’s 92 years ago this happened. I’m the first member of the family to find out his (James Power’s) final resting place. That is rather remarkable, isn’t it? It’s a long time ago 1927, and it’s taken this long for us to find out the truth.”

Thought to be the most arrested woman in Victorian Wales, the facts of Minnie McGuire’s life can mainly be found in court records and newspaper reports, which variably spell her surname as McGuire, Maguire and Macguire. Minnie’s exact birth date is unknown, but it’s estimated that she was born around 1860. She was descended from Irish immigrants and, during her many court appearances, her address was often given as ‘no fixed abode’, although she lived in bedsit rooms in various houses in the poorest areas of central Cardiff. Throughout her life, she was arrested multiple times for violence, drunkenness and lewd behaviour, and served many spells in prison. An article in the Cardiff Times of 18th July 1885 described her as “an incorrigible woman” and detailed her prison sentence of three months with hard labour, as a result of the charge of being “a disorderly prostitute”. Almost four years later, the South Wales Echo of 29th May 1889 reported that, at her seventy-second appearance at court, the same sentence was inflicted on her for being drunk and disorderly. Such reports brought her infamy and her exploits were well-known to the people of Cardiff. Minnie was also known to have travelled from town to town selling inexpensive wares as a ‘hawker’, although newspapers from subsequent years suggest that she was still getting into trouble in these places, having made appearances at several other courts in South Wales and as far afield as Taunton and Cheltenham. By this point, her total number of convictions was well over a hundred. Elm House, a workhouse for adults in Cardiff, was where Minnie spent her final days. Her death certificate gave her age as fifty-four. She was given a ‘pauper’s burial’ and her grave in Cathays Cemetery is unmarked.

Hamadryads are Greek mythological beings or sprites that are bonded to trees. Cardiff’s Hamadryad gave her name to a ship, a hospital and more recently, a Welsh medium primary school. Here, she introduces us to Dr Henry Paine, Medical Officer of Health, now a resident of Cathays Cemetery but best known for the public health improvements he brought to Cardiff and for the seamen’s hospital ship, The Hamadryad. In the face of a rapidly growing population throughout the nineteenth century, many of Cardiff’s inhabitants faced poverty, unsanitary conditions and repeated outbreaks of disease. Dr Paine made improvements to the water and sewage infrastructure of the city and is credited with saving many lives over the course of his career. In 1866 Dr Paine bought and fitted out the Hamadryad, a 43 year-old frigate, as a hospital for seamen, with a doctor, medical staff, matron, nurse and cook. The ship was moored on “Rat Island” and was used for thirty years. To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, a permanent seamen’s hospital was built and was opened on 29 June 1905. The Royal Hamadryad Seamen’s Hospital provided free medical treatment for seamen until 1948, when it was incorporated into the National Health Service. The hospital ship was broken up, but the ship’s bell and figurehead were preserved. Today, the figurehead is exhibited in the Cardiff Story Museum.

Edward Kaltenbach and his brother Adrian Kaltenbach sought asylum in Cardiff from Baden (now part of Germany) in the late 1860s. Cardiff was expanding rapidly thanks to coal. They set up their watch, clock and jewellery business in Caroline Street, a business which continued to flourish on the same site for nearly 150 years. The main shop premises were always at 22 & 23 Caroline Street where Edward Kaltenbach advertised “WATCHES! WATCHES! WATCHES! Silver patent lever watches, chronometer balances, all kinds of other gold and silver watches, and gold and silver jewellery”. Kaltenbach’s contemporaries were William Weichert and Polish born Wladyslaw Spiridion Kliszezewski. A measure of Spiridion’s prestige is the fact that James Keir (1839–1921), another Cardiff watch- and clockmaker and jeweller, always paid tribute to him in his advertisements, proudly stating that he had been ‘10 years with Spiridion’. Another watchmaker, George Best, was not so well-renowned. His business was located at 27 Talbot Street Cardiff and later in the High Street Arcade. In 1889 he was declared bankrupt, a circumstance which he blamed on the failure of the shares he had bought in Allsopp’s brewery. The Official Receiver stated that his assets would produce only 1d in the £. His Honour granted the debtor his discharge but suspended his business operations for 18 months, Best having previously been declared bankrupt in 1885.

Margaret Jones-Morewood was a well-known soprano soloist in the late 1800s. Born Margaret Ann Jones on 17th August 1863 in the Swansea Valley, she was singing locally by the age of ten, and benefit concerts were arranged so that she could hire a singing coach. When she was seventeen, she went to train at the Royal Academy of Music in London and graduated with the distinction of medallist. Margaret’s father was employed at the tinplate works owned by Messrs. E. Morewood & Co. in Llanelli and, as his colleagues were very supportive of her aspirations, she adopted Morewood as part of her stage name during her time at the academy, along with the informal version of her first name, Maggie. Further success beckoned, including performances at the National Eisteddfod, leading parts with the Turner Opera Company, and top-billing at the Cardiff International Exhibition of 1888. In 1890, Margaret married John Jones, the manager of a silversmiths, and moved to Cardiff, where they had a daughter and a son. When she was expecting her third child, she went into labour two months early and gave birth to a stillborn baby. Two days later, on 9th October 1894, Margaret died. An inquest was held and her youngest sister, Gwendolyn ‘Gwennie’ Jones, was called as one of the witnesses along with the couple’s servant, who claimed that John had been physically violent towards Margaret, including during her most recent pregnancy, a claim that he denied. Following the post-mortem, the verdict was that she had died from natural causes and that premature births were common. However, although the jury concurred, they requested that the Coroner severely censure John for his conduct towards her and he agreed, stating that he could not understand how any man could treat his wife in the manner alleged, especially in her condition. Before long, most of the family left Wales for new lives in the United States. Their connections to the metal industry continued, however, as Gwennie married William H. Davey, General Manager of a tinplate works in Washington, Pennsylvania.

In this video, Roger Swan (Memorial Manager, Bereavement Services, Cardiff Council) introduces us to the cemetery, some of its history and emphasised the benefit of visiting and having a walk around.

WWI Belgium Refugees – the Roath Connection

The German invasion of Belgium in 1914 shocked the world by its suddenness and the ruthlessness of its army.  Many towns were almost destroyed by the ferocity of the bombardment, and troops were recorded as committing atrocities, murdering innocent civilians. 

The carnage received a lot of press attention and sympathy in the UK – the “Rape of Louvain” was a popular theme, accompanied by photographs showing the destruction of the medieval town centre.  For the civilian population, there was little choice but to escape the devastation.  Many thousands crossed the border into France, and the UK set up numerous relief funds and local organisations were established to help refugees.  In all, some 200,000 – 250,000 refugees came to British shores.

Many of these were women and children, plus men beyond the age eligible for military service.  Some had professions and occupations which they put to good use over here, encouraged by local aid bodies.  The image of the plucky refugee was a common one, immortalised in fiction by the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

In Wales, some 4,500 refugees were accommodated, whilst Lord Bute offered to find homes for 3000 refugees in Cardiff and on Rothsay.  Towns including Cardigan, Aberaeron, Lladysul, Lampeter and Barmouth all invited Belgian refugees.  The Davies sisters of Gregynog (the daughters of David Davies the entrepreneur who developed Barry Docks) recruited 91 of what they termed “a better class of refugee”, mainly artists and musicians, and set them up in Aberystwyth and Barry, hoping to enrich the cultural life of Wales, with a degree of success.  The Western Mail ran a column in Flemish and a Belgian primary school was set up at 9 Richmond Road.

News in Flemish in the Western Mail of Jan 1915.

By early 1915 the local authorities had ascertained the following numbers of Belgian refugees in the whole of Glamorgan:

Male over 16         408

Female over 16     505

Male children         212

Female children     202

Total                     1327 

Source: Glamorgan County Council War Distress Relief Committee (GC/WD/1)

Records from the Roath Park United Reformed Church show that it was agreed that a house in Albany Road be taken subject to the Belgian Relief Committee agreeing to furnish same.

St Martins Church in Albany Road had its original Lady chapel decorated by a Belgian refugee artist in gratitude for the kindness shown by the parishioners during the First World War.  However, much of the interior was destroyed by bomb damage during the Second World War.

It is fair to record that as the war dragged on public opinion began to turn against those Belgian male refugees who were of military service age who hadn’t enlisted, at a time when British men were conscripted, and thus support for the “plucky Belgians” began to wane.  About 90% of the refugees were said to have returned to Belgium after the war, leaving about 25,000 who settled in the UK.

Thank you to Jon Roberts for this guest contribution to our blog. Pictures added by Ted Richards.

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.

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.

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

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.


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