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.


Acknowledgements:

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

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

References & further reading:

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

Institution of Civil Engineers Obituary

Uptown Hudson Tubes

Lynn Davies – A leap away from Roath.

I admit it is borderline whether we should include Lynn Davies as a person from Roath.  I was lucky enough to have a quick chat with him recently and by just by virtue of the fact that he is a thoroughly nice man I think we should do our best to include him.

The Olympic gold medal long jump winner in the Tokyo 1964 games was born in Nantmoel, near Bridgend in 1942.  The son of a coal miner, he went to Ogmore Grammar School before moving to Cardiff in 1961 to attend Cardiff Training College in Cyncoed.    He joined Roath Harriers which later merged with Birchgrove Harriers to become Cardiff Amateur Athletic Club with its base at Maindy Stadium, the history of which was covered in our last blog.

Lynn Davies with Ron Pickering

Lynn Davies with coach Ron Pickering (pic GettyImage)

His training runs took in the streets of the area including Roth Park.  His coach and mentor was Ron Pickering, the Welsh national coach, who soon identified Lynn’s athletic skills.  Prior to that he’d had a promising career as a footballer and had had a trial with Cardiff City. Lyn said of his time in Cyncoed that “Suddenly I was in a place which had a running track, gym and excellent lecturers who helped me. At the end of those three years in May 1964 I was the fittest I had ever been.”

 

Lynn_Davies_1964

Lynn Davies winning gold in Tokyo 1964

 

Ron Pickering urged him to concentrate on long jumping and the rest as they say is history.   He won an Olympic gold medal in the long jump in 1964 with a jump of 8.07 metres (26 ft 6 in), making him first Welshman to ever win an individual Olympic gold medal. He was the only British man to win Long Jump gold at the Olympics till Greg Rutherford won gold in 2012.

Since winning gold Lynn Davies has had the nickname “Lynn the Leap”.   At the 1964 Olympics he also ran in the 100 metres and was a member of the relay team which reached the 4x100m final.  And let’s not forget h was a Roath Harrier at the time.  Lynn competed in the next two Olympics in Mexico City and Munich and in Mexico was flag bearer for the British team at the opening ceremony.

 

 

 

1Lynns-medal

Lynn Davies holding the gold medal he won in Tokyo 1964 (Pic: Western Mail)

 

So what of his non-Olympic achievements?  Davies was the 1966 European champion in the long jump and was the silver medalist three years later.  He was also twice the Commonwealth Games champion, winning titles in 1966 and 1970, becoming the first man to win that title twice.  He thereby became the first athlete to hold Olympic, European and Commonwealth titles at the same time.

Lynn Davies on his way to win a 100 meters invitation race at the British Games, 1966 held at White City, London

Lynn Davies on his way to win a 100 meters invitation race at the British Games, 1966 held at White City, London (pic: London Illustrated News)

 

His personal bests were: 100 meters – 10.51s (1967); Long Jump – 27′-0″ (8.23m) (1968).  Lynn Davies’ long jump best of 8.23m, set in Berne in June 1968, is still the fourth best long jump of all-time by a British athlete – despite the improved facilities of today, where all-weather run-ups have replaced the soggy loose cinders that Lynn mostly competed on.  It is also still the longest ever jump by a Welsh athlete.

Lynn Davies was twice a winner of the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year award, taking the honour in 1964 and 1966.

 

 

 

 

After retiring from competitions in 1973 he became technical director of Canadian athletics until 1976 before returning to live in the Cardiff area where he has lived ever since.  He became British athletics team manager and took up  broadcasting career with BBC Wales.

Davies was created a CBE on 17 June 2006, having previously received an MBE in 1967.

He’s always been regarded as one of the sport’s finest ambassadors which no doubt led him to becoming President of UK Athletics, the governing body of the sport in Great Britain, a position he only stepped down from in 2015.

The college in Cyncoed where Lynn Davies started his athletics career was new in 1961 having previously been at the Heath. It has undergone many name changes over the years but he has maintained a strong association with it.  Not only was he a student there but has also been a Senior Lecturer and an ambassador.

Cardiff Met Cyncoed campus Lynn Davies Photo credit - Peter Creighton

The refectory wall at UWIC Cyncoed campus pays tribute to one of its former students.

I think but am not certain that the name changes have been:  1976 it became part of the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education, then in 1990 Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, in 1996 University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) and finally in 2009 Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Lynn Davies in 2018 photo Dai Sport

Lynn Davies in 2018 (photo Dai Sport)

So why so I say its borderline whether he is famous Roath man? Well, the Cyncoed campus sits literally just outside the border of the old Parish of Roath.  Lynn, with one of his famous jumps could have leapt over the border and into Roath, and probably still can. We will therefore include him on our Roath People page.

 

 

 

Hopson & Son tobacconists, Albany Road

One of the businesses synonymous with Albany Road and no doubt still in the memory of many people who grew up in the Roath area would have been the tobacconists Hopson’s.  It was a lot more than just the tobacconist shop ‘House of Hopson’. It was the headquarters of a wholesale tobacco and confectionary business, Hopson and Son Ltd, the largest wholesale tobacconists in Wales.  Hidden behind the shop frontage of 27 Albany Road was a cigarette warehouse where orders were packed for delivery all over Wales and the West of England area to shops, pubs and clubs.

Albany Road had been a residential street called Merthyr Road when first constructed.  Slowly over the years the houses were converted to shop fronts.  The stretch between Inverness Place and Arabella Street was one of the first to see such a transformation.

Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff in early 1900s

Albany Road, early 1900s. H A Hopson, tobacconists, is the awning, just to the right of the lampost, where the man with the cart is standing. On the left is the bootmaker Stead and Simpson, on the corner of Inverness Place.  On the right is the original St Martin’s Church.

The business began in 1899 as a hairdressing and tobacconists shop. The profit at the end of the first year trading was 16s 1d.  In the 1913 Cardiff Trade Directory the business is described as ‘Hopson H.A – hairdresser, confectioner, newsagent and tobacconist’.   When the company first diversified into supplying cigarettes and tobacco to pubs, clubs and other shops the orders were delivered by bicycle and horse-drawn cart.

H A Hopson shop display

H A Hopson window display with Exmoor Hunt, Biggs cigarettes and De Reszke cigarettes named after Jean de Reszke (1850-1925), a famous Polish opera singer.

The shop had a touch of class about it, fitted out with walnut panelling that had been salvaged from the British Ocean liner RMS Olympic and had wall to wall red carpeting.   The shop also had a kiosk facing onto Albany Road to cater for the smoker in a hurry. In 1967 the shop used to stock almost 200 brands of cigarettes and 300 blends of tobacco.  The warehouse operation turned over 6 million cigarettes a week and had 110 employees.

Hopson, Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff, Hairdressing salon

The interior of the tobacconists shop with the entrance to the gentleman’s hairdresser at the rear.

What better way to get an insight into the history of the business than to look at the family history:

William John Hopson

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Hopson family can be traced back to William John Hopson.  In the 1871 census we find William, then aged just 16, living independently in Hereford and working as a gentleman’s hairdresser.  He was son of William Hopson, a trunkmaker, originally from Sedgeley, Staffordshire. William John Hopson marries Sarah Davis in Hereford when he is 19 and by 1881 has his own hairdressing business in Bedminster, Bristol. Ten years later, in the 1891 census we find he has decided to move to Wales and owns a gentleman’s hairdresser business in Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley.  They have five children, one of whom is Henry Albert Hopson b.1874 in Hereford.

Henry Albert Hopson

Henry Albert Hopson originally worked as a hairdresser in his father’s business in Treorchy.  He marries Katherine Saddler in 1898 in Cardiff.  In August 1899 he opens the gentleman’s hairdresser and tobacconist business at 27 Albany Road, no doubt with his father’s support.  In the 1901 and the 1911 census we find the Hopson family living at the Albany Road address. By 1934, when the business of Hopson & Son Ltd is registered, Henry is living at 13 Southcourt Road.  Henry Hopson passes away in 1936 and the business is passed onto his son Clifford Allison Hopson.

Wood lined Hopson and Son Ltd

The wood-lined Hopson tobacconist shop

Clifford Allison Hopson

Clifford Hopson was born in 1904 at 27 Albany Road.  He trained as a ship’s engineer and worked on vessels in Cardiff docks but gave it up when he was 32 and took over the family business when his father died young.  He expanded the business significantly, both via growth and acquisition.  Like many businesses of the time there were annual staff outings to places of interest such as Torquay, Windsor and Bude.  As well as the outings there was the legendary Christmas Dinner, traditionally held at the Angel Hotel, as a way of saying thank you to the staff.   He died in 1961 aged 57.

House of Hopson

 

Alan Clifford Hopson

Alan Clifford Hopson was born in 1938 and takes over the reins of the business when he was just 22 years old. After leaving Cardiff High School at 16 his father had trained him up to run the business, sending him around different parts of the organisation and having him work in the packing warehouse. He was sent on courses and even over to Cuba to learn the fineries of cigar making etc. Alan’s father had already been diagnosed with the leukaemia hence the need and urgency to learn the business as his father’s health deteriorated.  When Alan took over the business continued to prosper but eventually in the 1980s external forces such as supermarkets being able to source cigarettes at discount prices from suppliers and the public’s growing awareness of the health issues began to impact trade.  The business went into voluntary liquidation in Nov 1986. The Albany Road shops and warehouse were sold and are now occupied by the Iceland supermarket.

Alan Hopson conducting an interview

A young Alan Hopson being interviewed in the office area

So what went on in that warehouse behind the tobacconist shop?  Early every morning a fleet of Hopson & Son white vans with their gold leaf lettering would load up in the yard before heading up to the valleys and further afield to make their deliveries.  Once they had departed it left room in the yard for the wagons from the cigarette companies to edge their way in through the arched entrance on Arabella Street, testing the driver’s manoeuvring skill to the maximum.  Whilst they went for a celebratory cup of tea an army of employees would speedily unload the wagon with the aid of rollers and neatly stack the boxes.  It’s hard to believe these days that some suppliers transported their cigarettes on flat bed wagons with just tarpaulin tied over the top of their valuable loads.

Back of 27 Albany Road being prepared for Hopson & Son

The yard behind the Albany Road premises being prepared including and entrance in via Arabella Street.

Later in the day the reps would arrive back from their rounds, clutching the orders that needed to be typed up by the office staff upstairs before being sent down to the warehouse for assembly.

Hopson fleet in Cathays Park

The Hopson & Son fleet lined up early one morning in Cathays Park

The Albany Road premises were just one of a number in the Hopson business  There were shops as well as smaller warehouses throughout Wales and nearby areas, including Chester, Haverfordwest, Newtown, Merthyr and Swansea.  Just off Newport Road in Cardiff  was the confectionary warehouse.

Publicity shot outside Hopson & Son, Albany Road, Cardiff

Rothman’s publicity shot with Alan Hopson in the white shirt.

And how do I know all this?  Well, I was fortunate enough to have a holiday job there for many years. It was there that I earned my first wage, £9.47 for a week’s work back in the 1970s, handed to me in a buff coloured packet and tiny wage slip and a national insurance number that has stayed with me all my life. Before I learnt to drive I worked in the warehouse assembling orders, unloading the wagons and running up and down stairs with the orders. After passing my test I was trusted with delivering the orders and filling in for drivers when they were away on their holidays.  It taught me a lot, not just the geography of South Wales.  You may go to school and college to learn the academic stuff but it was doing jobs like this that you learnt your life skills.

The packing room staff at Hopson & Son Albany Road, Cardiff

the packing room staff at Hopson’s on Albany Road

The business at the time was run by Alan Hopson, the third generation of the Hopson family to manage the business. He wasn’t one of those managers to hide away in an office. He would turn his hand to anything that needed doing and lead by example.  Outside work he was just as energised whether it be with youth work at Albany Road Baptist Church,  roadie for the local Unit 4 pop group or charity work with the Cardiff East Rotary Club where among other things he led an initiative to support disabled sports. As if his life wasn’t busy enough already you can add to that being a Director of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society. He lived by the motto of ‘Service before Self’.  Alan sadly passed away in 2011, also from leukaemia.  Thank you Alan for teaching me so much.

Hopson deliveris being made

Deliveries being made to Cardiff pubs in the 1980s.

Hopson & Son up for sale, Albany Road, Cardiff

End of an era.  The Albany Road premises up for sale.

The Globe

It’s another one of those Roath buildings that tends to evoke lots of memories for people of a certain age.  Get into a conversation with another Roatharian about the Globe and soon you’ll be comparing what films you saw there and who with, whether you were a circle or a stalls person and what you bought from the usherette in the interval.    I think seeing The Graduate stands out for me.  Ahh, here’s to you Mrs Robinson.

Globe Cinema Albany Road with globe on top.

Back in around 1913 someone had the foresight to look at the burgeoning population of Roath and the enthusiasm for silent movies and commission local architects Willmott and Smith too design a cinema building.

The Globe stood on the corner of Albany Road and Wellfield Road, where the Pear Tree pub now is.  It used to be called the Penylan Cinema, had a seating capacity of 542 and dated back to 1914.  In fact there is a reference to there being a cinema there as early as 1910 and called the Albany Cinema. The name the Globe derives from the fact the building used to have a globe sculpture on the roof. Look carefully at the old picture of the Penylan Cinema and not only will you spot the globe on the roof but also the two caryatids; Greek-like female sculpted figures acting as columns supporting the first floor.  These figures were later hidden behind boards advertising the programmes. It probably had a Wurlitzer organ too to accompany the silent movies.

The interior was attractively decorated in classical style with eagles and the initials ‘PC’ (Penylan Cinema) near the domed roof.  Windows in the roof could be opened for ventilation to allow out the billowing cigarette smoke

Globe Cinema interior

Globe Cinema interior – taken after the cinema had closed down (photo credit: Steve Allison)

The cinema was renamed the Globe around the time it was rewired so that talkies could be shown in 1931. It was then owned by Rex Willis and operated with the Coliseum on Cowbridge Road and the Rialto in Whitchurch, often showing the same programme as one of these.

Globe cinema, Roath, Cardiff stalls and circle

Globe cinema, Roath, Cardiff stalls and circle (photo credit: Steve Allison)

In the 1950s the Globe specialised in showing foreign language films, usually subtitled, the only cinema in Wales specialising in such films.  The cinema was even called La Continentale at one stage. The papers of the time throw up some interesting stories. In Feb 1953 there was a private showing of the film Les Jeux Interdits for the Lord Mayor and the French and Spanish consuls.  In 1955 there was another private showing to the Watch Committee, this time of the film ‘The Stain in the Snow’. Only two members of the Watch Committee turned up, the Lord Mayor being one of them, and awarded it an X Certificate.

1955 Oct 26 western Mail X certificate

 

The Globe - La Continental

The Globe. Note how it appears to have been re-branded as La Continental at this time

In the early 1960s the cinema became a bingo hall for a short while but when that didn’t succeed it reverted to being a cinema sowing more mainstream films, often as double bills at reasonable prices.  In its final decades, the time many of us remember going there, it was a well-managed cinema owned by Mr & Mrs Wardle. Too much noise or sniggering and a torch light would highlight the offenders and order soon restored.

The curtains closed for a final time and the last choc-ice sold in the Globe cinema in 1985.  Sometime after it closed Steve Allison gained permission to take photographs of the interior of the building which he published in a nicely presented book ‘The Globe Cinema, Cardiff’ (ISBN-13: 978-0992989804), (available in Cardiff Libraries).

The Globe in later years

The Globe in later years

The building was demolished in 1987 even though it had had Grade 2 listed building status at some stage, subsequently revoked.  It was replaced by the Globe Centre, a collection of shops, a pub on the corner, originally called 42nd Street, then the Billabong and now the Pear Tree. The complex also would you believe contained a cinema, called the Monroe, which was later run by the Chapter Arts Centre and then became a Bollywood venture for a while before closing in 2001.  Today it is a successful music venue called, yes, The Globe.

Monroe

The Monroe – the last cinema on the site

So I’ll leave you reminiscing about your visit to the Globe, whether it be to see Blazing Saddles or something more refined like the Sound of Music.



A few extra pictures to bring back memories:

The Globe - the waiting area (photo credit: Steve Allison)

The couch in the waiting area where you would meet your fiends before the film began.

 

The Globe entrance prices

The Globe entrance prices (photo credit: Steve Allison)

David Hurn – The man who shot James Bond

David Hurn Photo - Buzz Feed

I first came across the work of David Hurn when reading the book ‘Cardiff – Rebirth of a Capital’.  The book contains many wonderful black and white photographs taken by Hurn but the one that caught my eye was one of a man on a tricycle and with a child in hand taken from outside Pen-y-lan library taken probably in the 1960s.  The church in the background is St Andrew’s URC church, where we hold our monthly meetings.

I was keen to see if we could use that photograph on our website and luckily in doing so managed to meet up with David.  He is both charming and forthright at the same time; there are few wasted words.

Penylan Road David Hurn 1973

 

I saw David Hurn again recently when he opened an exhibition of his photographs at the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir.  There’s just time to catch it if you hurry.

EJKde2IXkAIAC6t

 

Hurn wasn’t born in Roath but he did grow up here.  He was born in Surrey on 21st July 1934 but shortly afterwards the family relocated to Cardiff.  In the 1939 Register he was at school and living at 3 Newminster Road but the house David remembers most vividly is 104 Marlborough Road.   He attended De la Salle School but his dyslexia made education challenging.  His father was in the military and David himself joined the military and attended Sandhurst where he first discovered a love of  photography.

Choosing photography over a military career he headed for London to doggedly pursue a photographic career.  It took time, he initially got other jobs to make ends meet but his big break came when he hitchhiked over to Hungary in 1956 to take photos of the uprising against the Communist regime.

David Hurn Hungary

 

Having got his photographs widely published he was much in demand, though not necessarily as a war photographer.  In the 1960 much time was spent snapping what we would now call celebrities; film stars, pop musicians and alike including the Beatles and Jane Fonda. He quickly worked out that when sent on an assignment there were four important shots to get that may end up differentiating you from your competition, a portrait, a close-up, a wide-angle and a shot in context.

 

Beatles - BBC Doc

 

One day when Sean Connery arrived at the studio for a shoot the publicist forgot to bring one important prop – a gun.  Fortunately David Hurn was keen on air pistol target-shooting and so they were able to use David’s pistols in the photographs.  The plan was to edit the photos afterwards to make it look more like a real gun before they were used on the bill-boards but that somehow got forgotten.

James Bond 1963

 

David Hurn is also known for his photographs of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.  He was one of the first photographers on the scene, and of course not necessarily that welcome.  Local miners were busy digging the bodies of the village children out of the suffocating coal slurry.  The photographs however acted as evidence of the tragedy and were shown in Parliament and played a small part in helping bring about change and preventing another similar disaster.

Aberfan

 

In 1967 he joined the prestigious Magnum photographic cooperative, a top accolade for a photojournalist.

Later in life however he left the world of photography journalism behind he returned to live in Wales where he set about recording the landscape and people of Wales. His collection must be the largest on record totalling over 50,000 shots of the nation and its people. Many of these have now been donated to the National Museum of Wales together with others that he swapped with fellow professional photographers over the years.

Walkers in Roath Area of Cardiff 1973

‘Walkers in Roath Area of Cardiff’ 1973 – (but which street is it?   )

Also on return to Wales he ended up in 1972 setting up a course on documentary photography at Gwent College in Newport which was to become highly regarded.

He is a self-taught photographer. He very much believes in talking photographs of the world as he sees it rather than posed shots. He takes candid shots of life as it happens. His subjects are not asked if they want to be photographed.  He tends to concentrate on scenes he knows will not be there in another 20 years, capturing history as it happens as it were, always attempting to get the definitive picture of the time and place. He is however much more interested in tomorrow than he is in the past and his thirst for life is evident when he talks.

Snowdon

On top of Snowdon

Asked what are the secrets of being a good photographer David will talk about hard work, lots of time spent doing research, tenacity and a good pair of shoes.  The photographer needs to be driven by curiosity and have a lot of patience. A lot is about positioning, working out when you arrive at a place the perfect place to stand and then waiting.   Very rarely would he spend less than 30 minutes at a place just waiting for that perfect shot.  His work ethic is ruthless.  He’s of the belief that anyone who spends less than 7.5 hours a day at it is just playing, but that time is not all about shooting; there is the researching and looking at the work of other skilled photographers.

So what makes a good shot of the community? Well, having a dog somewhere in the picture can add a lot of context he explains.  People making gestures too are very important.

Roath Park 1973 - Magnum Photos

Roath Park 1973

His shots are never edited, they are just life as it happened to be at the time.  Even today in his eighties, David Hurn is taking 4000 photographs a year.  That gets followed by some ruthless selection procedure after which he would end up with just twenty or so to display at an exhibition.

He still has good things to say about his hometown of Cardiff, about its sense of community and the place itself though maybe like many feels there have been wasted opportunities in the architecture chosen for the centrepiece buildings along the waterfront in Cardiff Bay.

Playtime in Mount Stuart School

Playtime in Mount Stuart School 2005

In 2001 he was diagnosed with colon cancer but has made a full recovery.  He now sees radiographers as a most important branch of photography and encourages youngsters with an enthusiasm in photography to consider this as a profession.

Today, David lives in Tintern and still spends time photographing the community in which he lives.  He often works closely with poets and his next project is to ask ten poets to write something about one of his pictures expecting it to demonstrate that we all see different things in the same picture.


Cardiff - Rebirth of a Capital

Cardiff – Rebirth of a Capital

PS.  With the help of the members of the Cardiff Days Gone By Facebook group, the scene of the ‘Walkers in Roath’ photo has actually been identified as Atlas Road in Canton at the junction with Denton Street.  The house which could be seen as bricked up in the photo has been demolished.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

Success! I’ve been searching for Christmas for over 20 years and have recently found him.

Evan Christmas Thomas

Evan Christmas Thomas (1866-1936)

My great-grandfather, Evan Christmas Thomas, was what we call in family history research something of a ‘brick wall’.  I could trace him back to around 1900 but any further back was presenting a problem.

This year that brick wall came tumbling down and some interesting stories came to light.  How did the story of him possibly being Wales’s first hit and run victim not get passed down through the family?  There’s even an intriguing Roath connection – perhaps you can help solve that mystery.

The starting point to my research was information that had got passed down through the family.  I knew he was originally from West Wales and had lived in the village of Cwrt Newydd on the Carmarthenshire/Cardiganshire border. After coming to Cardiff I knew he and the family lived in Birchgrove and he worked as a commercial traveller for a paint company.

Evan Christmas Thomas and his wife

Evan Christmas Thomas with his wife Margaret

Twenty years ago the family historian tended to have to leave the house and visit places like libraries to further their research.  I was fortunate enough at the time to have a job which involved regular meetings in London onto which I could tag a visit to the old Family History Centre at Clerkenwell.  There droves of genealogists would move around silently examining the large weighty volumes of birth, deaths and marriages. There would be tutting, sighing and occasionally whoop of excitement to signify success but the sound was mainly the clatter of the metal reinforced volumes being re-shelved.

Obtaining the marriage certificate for Evan Christmas Thomas was straightforward enough. From that I could see he was a woollen manufacturer and did indeed live at Cwrt Newydd.  The wedding certificate gave his father’s name as James, a labourer. I also had a death certificate and the ages on both the death and the marriage certificates gave me a supposed year of birth.

Brick wall

Next job then to get the birth certificate.  With a year of birth and an unusual middle name of Christmas what could be difficult about that.  I searched and I searched but just couldn’t find him.  Letters were written to registry offices in West Wales and family history societies in the area but all came back negative.  There was no birth of an Evan Christmas Thomas registered.

When the 1901 census was released and up came Evan Christmas Thomas, owning his woollen mill in Cwrt Newydd giving his place of birth as Llandysiliogogo, Cardiganshire and speaking both Welsh and English.

I put the search for Christmas aside for a long time, concentrated on other strands of the family tree and then gave family history a rest all together for quite a few years.

When I picked it up again everything had changed.  It had all gone computerised.  I joined Glamorgan Family History Society and attended one of their ‘brick wall’ sessions at Cardiff Central Library – 10am to 2pm on the first Saturday of the month, non-members welcome, and free of charge! I went along armed with all I knew about Evan Christmas Thomas.

The wonderful Nick taught me so much and solved one mystery.  After also failing to find a birth of an Evan Christmas Thomas he pointed out of the library window at Tabernacle Church opposite and said my answer may well lie over there.  He explained that Christmas may well not have been my great-grandfather’s name at birth but one taken on later in life in adoration of Christmas Evans.

Christmas Evans

Christmas Evans (1766-1838) was a famous Welsh Baptist preacher, born near Llandysul, where my great grandfather also came from.  He was a giant of a man, blind in one eye and  much admired.  He worked around Wales and at one time was minister of Tabernacle Baptist in the Hayes Cardiff.

Christmas Evans at Tabernacle chapel, Cardiff

Christmas Evans from Llandyssil, minister at Tabernacle 1828-1832 (Portrait by William Roos, 1835. National Museum Cardiff )

That all sounded very plausible but now left the challenge me with the challenge of finding a birth for an Evan Thomas rather than an Evan Christmas Thomas.  Anyone with ancestry in the West Wales area will be familiar with such a challenge. There seemed to be a shortage of names, both first names and surnames, to go around.  You look at some census records and families living next door to each other all have virtually identical names.  Talk about keeping up with the Jones’s.

1911 Census

The other thing that had appeared in the intervening years was the 1911 Census.  Bizarrely this only served to confuse things rather than add clarity.  Evan Christmas Thomas was now calling himself something else!  Now he was Evan Ceridfryn Thomas. Yes, I’d never heard of the name Ceridfryn either.  In fact there’s only about three people ever been called Ceridfryn and one of them James Ceridfryn Thomas (1856-1932) lived in Roath and was also originated Cardiganshire with a mention in a book on the history of Llandyssil.

In 1911 James Ceridfryn Thomas BSc lived at 93 Ninian Road, opposite Roath Park Pleasure Gardens.  He was a retired headmaster having previously worked at Kingsholm School in Weston-Super-Mare.  He had a degree in science,  was also a minister and also an author, publishing books under a pen-name Keridon. He wrote in an erudite fashion on a wide range of matters much of it beyond my understanding.

Ceridfryn Thomas writting

Man – The Prodigy and Freak of Nature by ‘Keridon’  – James Ceridfryn Thomas

So why did my great grand-father suddenly take on the middle name of Ceridfryn? I think he probably would have known James Ceridfryn Thomas.  There was an active Cardiganshire Society meeting in the Cardiff at the time and maybe they knew each other through though Welsh chapel.  Was it an admiration of his preaching or his writing or did James Ceridfryn Thomas maybe help secure Evan Thomas a job when he came to Cardiff. I’ll probably never know.

Another thing I found this year was my great-grandfather’s grave.  It is in Pantmawr Cemetery in Whitchurch and on the headstone his middle name had reverted to Christmas once again.  It will be interesting to see what he entered his name as on the 1921 census which is released in a couple of years time.

Breaking the rules

This year it dawned on me that I had broken one of the first rules of conducing family history.  Whenever anyone starts looking at their family tree there are a few things to do prior to jumping online and immersing oneself in all the records.  The first is to talk to all living relatives (talking to the dead ones is a bit of a waste of time as they don’t have a lot to say for themselves).  Note down everything they say (apart from the bit where the offer you a cup of tea) .  It won’t all be true.  Some stories will have changed over time but there is usually an element of truth in each one.  The second thing to do is to go through all old photographs and documents and make sure as much information is recorded about them as possible; names, dates, plates etc.

F2 Evan Thomas 1894 bible inscription

Do I keep to the above rules?  No of course I don’t.  This year I re-discovered an old bible belonging to Evan Christmas Thomas hidden away on our bookshelves.  This wasn’t one of those large family bibles with the family history all neatly written out on the inside front cover.  This was a small Welsh bible with Evan’s addresses inside and dated 1894.  It wasn’t from his childhood either.  Evan would have been 28 at this time. I realised that it was telling me his ‘present address’ of Penybont, Velindre and what was probably his ‘home address’ of Bwlchyfadfa, Talgarreg.

We happened to be holidaying in Cardiganshire this year so one day visited Bwlchyfadfa and the chapel and well-maintained graveyard.  I was particularly looking for a James Thomas that may have been Evan’s father.  There were lots of Thomas’s.  One James Thomas looked very promising though somewhat older than I expected.

Breakthrough

The next stage involved many hours pouring over census records, old maps and other various genealogy sources until yes, I eventually found Evan.  I could trace him back from 1901 as a woollen mill owner, to 1891 working as a woollen spinner to 1881 being a woollen spinner’s apprentice and in 1871 being in Bwlchyfadfa as a five year old grandson to James Thomas, aged 64, an agricultural labourer.   Also present in the house was an unmarried daughter Mary and an unmarried son David.  It was all beginning to make sense.

The next stage involved a leap of faith.  Spending the money and ordering what I thought was the correct birth certificate for Evan Thomas among all the Evan Thomas’s listed.  A tense week followed whilst I waited for the certificate to arrive.  Then bingo!   There he was, Evan Thomas, born to Mary Thomas, Bwlchyfadfa, an illegitimate birth, no father mentioned.  He was born on January 2nd 1866 so it was sort of a Christmas birth.

It was satisfying to find him eventually.  A number of things had obviously thrown me.  Christmas was not a name given from birth but one adopted later.  The James mentioned on his wedding certificate as his father was no doubt his grandfather that had helped bring him up in the absence of a father.  In fact Evan’s mother Mary dies when he was just nine after  long illness.  And the different birthplaces that kept being mentioned on census records i.e. Llandyssil and Llandysiliogogo, is explained by the fact that the parish boundary goes straight through the middle of the village of Bwlchyfadfa.

The old chapel at Bwlchyfadfa

The old chapel at Bwlchyfadfa, before the new one was built nearby in the 1890s.

Having pieced it all together I got in contact with Wyn Thomas, the minister at  Bwlchyfadfa Chapel to see if I could access any baptismal records etc.  I wasn’t necessarily expecting a positive response as such records are often missing or been transferred to record offices or the minister is just too busy.  Wyn however couldn’t have been more helpful and I paid another visit to the chapel to meet him.

Bwlchyfadfa is a Unitarian chapel.  Christening in such chapels weren’t as common as in other denominations or necessarily recorded and preserved.  Unitarianism was however big in the area with quite a lot of chapels and a magazine that went back to the 1800s.  One possibility was that there would be a mention in the magazine of the Thomas family.  The copies of the magazine stored at Bwlchyfadfa chapel didn’t go back far enough but Wyn had an idea, another chapel nearby may have the older copies of the magazine.

GelliAur Mill

Gelliaur Mill where Evan Thomas worked as a wool spinner

As we travelled though the lanes of rural Cardiganshire he pointed out the mill, Gelliaur, where Evan had been a woollen spinner in 1891, now converted into a house.  We arrived at the chapel and climbed up onto the balcony and there, sat in dusty piles, were copies of Ymofynydd magazines dating back 150 years.  A quick search and we found the obituary to my great-great-great-grandfather James Thomas.  It tells of a man strong in his faith but one so hard of hearing that he used to sit on the steps of the pulpit so he could hear the sermon.  So that’s where I get my hearing deficiency from!

James Thomas headstone and obit

Grave and obituary of James Thomas mentioning his respected grandson. Loose Google translation: February 28, Mr. James Thomas, Waunfach, Bwlch-y-Fadfa, aged 84 years. Our old brother was very zealous in Bwlch; and because of the hardness of his hearing he always sat in the pulpit. The old brother had the privilege of bringing his children up to a full age, and we understand that they, along with a respected Grandson, did their part for him. The following Monday his fatal death was buried at the Bwlch cemetery, when the Rev was preached in the chapel. W. J. Davies, the minister, to a large congregation. May all the relationships be comforted by the promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Elizabeth, Mary and David Thomas headstone.

The obituary of Evan’s mother Mary was also in the magazine and makes harrowing reading.  Wyn later found her grave, her brother David and mother Elizabeth at Pantydefaid Unitarian Chapel, Prengwyn.  The inscription on the tombstone was also incredibly sad and roughly translates to ‘We suffered very long with illness, looking for help but failing, until God the one who knew when released us from our suffering.’

We should never forget what a wonderful invention pain relief drugs are.

 

 

 

 

A slight mishap

There was another shock to come.  Back home I continued to search for any mention in the newspapers of Evan Christmas Thomas and I stumbled upon a story of him I’d never heard.  In 1907 it is reported he was cycling on the road from Merthyr to Brecon when he was knocked off his bike by a car travelling at 9mph on the wrong side of the road and he was rendered unconscious.  The chauffer-driven car didn’t stop.  After regaining consciousness it took him six hours to wheel his damaged bike to Brecon where he caught a train back to Cardiff.

F2 E C Thomas 19 Jun 1907 Evening Express and Evening Mail

19th June 1907 – Evening Express and Evening Mail

There are so many questions I have over these reports.  What was he doing there.  He was a commercial traveller for a paint and varnish company. Was he working or a just very keen early cyclist?  I can’t imagine the roads were very good back in 1907.  And the big question – was he Wales’s first cycling hit and run victim?

And so there we have it.  Some of the life of Evan Christmas Thomas has slowly revealed itself together with his sick mother Mary and hard of hearing grandfather James.  A lot more stays hidden away waiting to be discovered.



 

Postscript: some additional information-

James Ceridfryn Thomas from Ninian Road, Roath:

1930 June 12th Western Mail

South Wales Daily News Sept 1902

Man

Carmarthen Weekly Reporter 1913

Evan Christmas Thomas – more reports of his mishap with a chauffeured driven car:

F2 Evan Christmas Thomas 22 Jun 1907 Weekly Mail - Cycling accident

 

 

A470 just past Storey Arms near milestone

I was walking down off Pen-y-fan last week when I realised I was approaching the very spot where Evan got bowled over – the A470 just past Storey Arms near where a milestone used to be till recently.

Norman Biggs – Welsh rugby international killed by a poisoned arrow.

Headlines

Norman Biggs portrait

There are so many headlines I could have used for this article such as ‘Wales’s youngest rugby international‘ or ‘The fastest man in the world?‘ or ‘Where’s his missing memorial?‘.  I was spoilt for choice.

I’ve been researching Norman Biggs now for a couple of years – a fascinating character.  It’s not just him – there’s a story to tell about the whole of the Biggs family, but let’s concentrate on Norman for now.

Norman’s early life

Norman Witchell Biggs was his full name.  Yes, I thought it was a misprint too and it should have been Mitchell, but no, it really was Witchell.   He was born in 1870 in St Andrew’s Place in the middle of Cardiff, to John Biggs, owner of the South Wales Brewery and Emily Sophia Biggs née Clark.  Norman was baptised a few months later in St Mary the Virgin church on Bute Street.  This confused me for a while as it’s not the nearest Anglican church to St Andrew’s Place until I found out that the Biggs family had strong associations with the church; there is a plaque in the church to Norman’s grandparents John and Eliza Biggs.  Perhaps they were benefactors when the church was being built.

In the 1881 census we find Norman Biggs in Lewinsdale School, Weston-Super-Mare.  I’m always amazed by how much travel there seemed to be between Cardiff and Somerset 150 years ago.   There is no sign of the school there nowadays, just Lewinsdale Lodge, now a B&B.

When Norman Biggs returns to live in Cardiff he attends Cardiff Proprietary School, also confusingly known as Cardiff College.   I say confusingly because the building was on Dumfries Place, and later went on the become part of the University and later still the Student’s Union.

Cardiff College

Cardiff College building on Dumfries Place, later became part of the University and later still the Student’s union (Pic credit: Cardiff Libraries)

Norman’s sporting prowess started to show though at a young age.  In 1884, aged just 13, he is playing for Cardiff College (Cardiff Preparatory School) against the University 2nd team and scores two tries. A year later the paper reports Norman, aged 14, playing cricket for Cardiff College versus Llwynypia 2nd XI.

International debut

In 1887 Norman Biggs plays first match for Cardiff on March 9th 1887, aged just 16 years 4 months and scores a try.  His speed makes him a natural winger.  He had a meteoric rise and a year later, he is picked to play for Wales against New Zealand. He becomes the youngest player to play for Wales aged 18 years 1 month 19 days. He held that record for 120 years until Tom Prydie made his Wales debut in 2010 at age of 18 years and 25 days.

Norman Biggs in Wales jersey

Norman Biggs in Wales jersey (pic credit: Wikipedia)

Norman’s first game for Wales didn’t go well. Although Wales won Biggs was ‘palpably nervous’.  The game was held in Swansea where the crowd was hostile towards Wales players from Cardiff and the east of Wales. Newspaper quotes include: ‘The crowd positively pooh-poohed Biggs’, ‘Biggs I am bound to admit disappointed me’, ‘He is a rattling good man, next to George Morgan, the best in Wales’.

A week later, on 29th December  1888, Norman Biggs faced the same tourists, this time as part of the Cardiff team. Biggs had been disappointing in his international debut, but regained his form on the pitch at the Cardiff Arms Park. Within 90 seconds of the start of the match, Biggs scored a ‘sparkling try’.  Biggs should have scored again, but dropped the ball after crossing the line in the slippery conditions.  Cardiff won by a goal and a try to one try.

1888-89New Zealand Native team

1888-89 New Zealand Native team

In January 1889 Norman is picked again to play for Wales, this time against Scotland, but pulls out as part of the ongoing dispute between east and west Wales clubs.

In March 1889 the papers report on Norman taking part in a debate at Cardiff University on smoking, speaking on the side that smoking causes harm and winning.  That’s pretty insightful considering it was 60 years before the link between smoking and ill health was proven scientifically.

On March 2nd 1889 he plays again for Wales in Swansea, this time against Ireland. Wales lost with Ireland scoring two unconverted tries.  Biggs had a bad game being at fault for at least one of the Ireland tries when an overhead pass of his was intercepted. Wales finished bottom of the table that year; bottom of three – England didn’t participate that season.

Let’s take another break from the rugby now for this story that demonstrates the athletic ability of Norman Biggs.  It is reporting on the Cardiff University sports day on May 11th 1889: ‘The lion of the day was Norman Biggs, well-known Cardiff Football player who pulled off the 100 yds, 220 yds, the quarter, the hurdles, the high jump, the prize for throwing the cricket ball, and then crowned a phenomenally successful day by bringing himself and partner in first at the three-legged race’. How many modern day rugby internationals would take part in a three-legged race!

Reports of him partaking in a fun three-legged race are somewhat contradicted by his appearance in team photos.  He always seems somewhat grumpy and surly.

Cardiff 1888-89 team Norman Biggs middle row 2nd from left

Cardiff 1888-89 team Norman Biggs, middle row 2nd from left. perching on a backwards facing chair (pic credit: Cardiff Rugby Museum)

Fastest man in the world?

Watching Norman Biggs sprint down the wing with ball in hand must have been an exhilarating experience given his outstanding pace. There’s even an argument for saying he could have been the fastest man in the world.   In 1889 Norman Biggs goes Cambridge University.  It is not clear what he studied or whether he ever graduated. Here’s an extract from an obituary of Norman Biggs:

“Leaving the Cardiff College he graduated at Cardiff and took up his residence at Trinity Hall.  Here one of his first accidents occurred.  In playing football he had a couple of ribs broken and the necessary rest robbed him of his blue. He however made a name in sprinting and it is on the record that he did the 100 yds in even time.  He had against him such fine flyers as Monypenny.  It was a remarkable thing that in the 100 yds Norman could beat Monypenny but in the 120 yds the latter could always reach the line first, the explanation being that Norman was the better starter.”

The Monypenny in the quote above was Charlton Monypenny.  Here’s what it says about him in Wikipedia: “While at Cambridge he achieved two running records, the World Record for the 150-yard dash (14.8 secs) and the Cambridge quarter of a mile track record (49.5 secs) which stood until 1931.  In 1891 Monypenny was recognised as the seconded fastest man in the world behind American Luther Cary, recording a time of 10.8 seconds in the 100-metre sprint on 22 July. The next year, although recording an identical time of 10.8 seconds, he was judged the joint fastest men in the world that year, along with American athlete Cecil Lee”

Put those two articles together, the fact that Biggs could beat Monypenny over 100 yds and the fact that Monypenny was judged one of the fastest men in the world, and it could be argued that Norman Biggs was possibly the world’s fastest.  An obituary and Wikipedia are hardly ‘primary sources’ for history researchers I admit but it makes you wonder. Add to it that he was only doing athletics because an injury prevented him playing rugby and those sprint times would have been made from a standing start rather than using blocks or spiked shoes and it is all pretty remarkable stuff.

International Success

Biggs plays again for Wales in 1892 against Ireland but again ends up on the losing side.  In 1893 however his fortunes change and he finds himself part of the first Wales team to win a Triple Crown. On January 7th at the Arms Park, Wales beat England 12-11 in what has become known as the ‘Devil’s match’ because fires were lit around the ground the previous night to keep the pitch frost-free and enable the game to go ahead. Biggs scored.  ‘After each of the three quarters had handled the ball, Norman Biggs having cleverly been given the ball by Conway Rees, sprinting away from Lockwood, got the better of Field, and scored a really fine try’.

Triple Crown medal belonging to Frank Hill in Cardiff Rugby Museum

Medal awarded to players of Wales’s first triple crown winning side. This one belonged to Frank Hill and is on display at Cardiff Rugby club Museum.

The following month Wales travel to Scotland and win 9-0 and again Norman Biggs scores a try. The 1893 away game against Scotland is described as Biggs’ best international match and ‘his speed and general play were the main factors in securing the first victory of the Principality over Scotland at Scotland’.

In March Wales play Ireland at Stradey Park, Llanelli.  Wales win 2-0 though a try from Gould.  Ireland fielded one more forward than Wales (it was a choice how many forwards and backs were playing at the time).  Quotes from the papers included: ‘Gould and Norman Biggs time after time stopped rushes, the later player saving his front rank by screw punting’, ‘the most uninteresting international contest for years past’.

Cricketing Skills

In the summer of 1893 Norman plays cricket for Glamorgan against a Cardiff team that includes his brother Selwyn, thereby becoming one of a select band of players to play both cricket for Glamorgan and rugby for Wales.  Selwyn in fact later goes on to play for Glamorgan and become their opening bowler for a number of years.

Club Loyalty

Club rugby was somewhat different in the 1890s. Players weren’t contractually bound to a club as they are now and sometimes turned out for other clubs if they found themselves in different parts of the country.  Norman Biggs played for London Welsh in matches against both Cardiff and Swansea in 1890.  He also plays a fair bit for Richmond over the years. At one time in 1893 he gets collared by a reporter on his return to Cardiff.  Norman explained ‘he was in London for a fortnight seeing a doctor every day, after he had an operation.  Playing for Richmond there was no need to exert himself and nobody cared who won’.

Conclusion of International Career

Norman Biggs plays two more matches for Wales.  In January 1894 against England at Birkenhead Park in front of a crown of 7,000 Wales suffered a heavy defeat, losing 24-3.  In a post-match interview Biggs was asked why he had failed to tackle Harry Bradshaw, who scored the first try; Biggs responded “Tackle him? It was as much as I could do to get out of his way!”

In March 1894 Wales beat Ireland 3-0 in a game where all the backs were from Cardiff.  The very next international saw Norman’s younger brother Selwyn selected for the first time, the brothers missing each other by just one match. Selwyn also goes on to have a very successful international career.

Norman Biggs George North comparison

Norman Biggs compared to today’s Wales winger George North – note the difference in weight!

Cardiff Captain

In the 1893-94 season Norman Biggs captains Cardiff.   During the season Biggs scored 58 conversions, 25 tries and two dropped goals bringing his points tally to 199 points, a record that remained till 1972–73 when it was surpassed by John Davies.

1893-4 Cardiff Rugby Club.  Norman Biggs captain with ball and Selwyn Biggs top right (picture credit: Cardiff Rugby Club Museum)

Biggs played for Cardiff from the 1886–87 season through to 1898–99.  He played in 166 matches for Cardiff, was one of the highest scoring players the club has produced. Biggs ended his Cardiff career with 107 tries, four less than another of his brothers Cecil. He scored five or more try conversions in a single match on seven occasions, six in the same season (1893-94), against Gloucester, Bristol, London Welsh, Penygraig, Exeter and Cardiff & D.R.U.

The last notable club Biggs represented was Bath.  He turned out in the 1886-89 seasons sometimes.  His decision to go to Bath was probably guided by the fact that his father’s brewery may have had an interest in the area. Some match reports also mention him and Selwyn promising to turn up but not and instead playing for Richmond.  Norman was said to be captaining the Bath senior team during the 1899–1900 season but did not appear in the match reports, instead diverted by the next stage in his life.

 

The Boer War

On 5th January 1900 he joined the Glamorgan Imperial Yeomanry, a volunteer force. In the British army at the time the officers were from the gentry and the professional middle classes and the recruits from the poorest sections of society. You wonder how much horse riding experience Norman Biggs had before joining the yeomanry.  It is true that the Biggs house Oldwell, Penylan, Cardiff did have stables so he had probably built up some experience.

Norman Biggs signs up

Norman Biggs signs up

His exploits in the Boer War are relatively well reported in the papers.  People were naturally keen to hear how one of their rugby stars was fairing.  In May 1900 he had arrived in South Africa and sends a drawing home to his brothers which was published in the Western Mail.  The letter included a picture of the cook and wood gatherers.  At this time his unit was still undergoing training near Cape Town.  The papers also report Biggs was keen for a photograph he’d sent to be forwarded to the Conservative Club in St Mary’s Street, so we learn of his political affiliation.

 

 

By December 1900 his unit is on the front line.  A letter from R S Jenkin the old Swansea football forward describes how Norman Biggs the ex-international three quarter was wounded.  He says “Six miles from Vrede, our left rear flankers were fired on by almost a dozen Boers.  We on the right flank heard the firing and saw the state of affairs and opened fire.  Shortly the rearguard came back and things got interesting.  Norman Biggs, G F Williams (late of Llandovery) and Sergeant Thomas were in the centre and as soon as they heard the firing on the right they concluded that the right flank was in trouble.  They came across and Norman, mad like, went galloping towards the Boer fire, in spite of orders to the contrary being shouted to him. He having got the idea into his head that I and the others were concerned, and he meant to find out.  Anyhow, he got within a hundred yards and found things getting hot, when he was wounded in the uppermost part of his thigh.  He turned about but had only got a few yards when his horse was shot dead.  He lay down behind it, and was about to aim, when he saw the Boers mounting and getting into position to cut off his retreat, so he picked himself up and ran off.  He was shortly picked up by one of our officers, who put him on a horse and caught hold of the stirrup himself.  The horse shield (sic), and Norman once more embraced mother earth.  Then Major Wyndham-Quin put him on a horse, and this time he was taken in safety to the hospital.  He is now much better as it is only a flesh wound.”

Biggs injured in 1900

map credit: Google

Norman was sent initially to the military hospital in Harrismith.   On December 19th 1900 he returns to UK on board the hospital ship Simla with 284 other men. It seems he was not home long.

Hospital ship Simla

Hospital ship Simla

In February it is announced he is to join ‘Paget’s Horse’, an elite horseback unit, as a Captain.  He returns to South Africa but in May we read he is in hospital in Winberg with fever.  In September he is discharged from hospital and in November fighting again. We don’t read much about him in the following year.  He arrives home in late 1902.

Paget's Horse Yeomenary

Paget’s Horse (picture credit: Look and Learn)

Extended military career

On returning home Norman appears to have made a decision to extend his military career rather than return to the family brewing business which by now was in its twilight years.  He joins the regular army.  He is initially stationed in Cardiff Barracks training recruits, then Aldershot, then Hythe where he takes a course in the School of Musketry.

He serves as the District Superintendent of the Northern Nigerian Constabulary. The papers say he returned to Nigeria in October 1907 having been on leave in England that summer, so must have been there previously at some stage.

Poisoned Arrow

He was killed 27 Feb 1908 at Chinuku, Northern Nigeria, after being hit by a poisoned arrow in a brush with natives whilst on patrol duty. Newspaper reports say he was trying to arrest some ‘Pagans’ who had been pillaging and were hiding in a village.  On approaching the village they were attacked.

Biggs did not reload but instead rode onto the next village to allay fears of the natives who would have seen the neighbouring village burning.  His intention was to warn them that their force had no quarrel with them and that they had nothing to fear.

The papers report that unfortunately his mission was misunderstood and before he could get close enough to explain his mission he was shot in the thigh by a poisoned arrow. Biggs pulled out the arrow and a fellow officer cauterised it with a red hot knife. Biggs was removed by horse to Sakaba, some 50 miles away but he died four days later. He was buried at Fort Sakaba with full military honours attended by 30 officers. It is theorised that his heart may have been weakened having had a couple of bouts of malaria.  The arrow was sent home for analysis, but I can’t find any record of the outcome of the analysis.

Nigeria and Norman Biggs place of death marked by red pin

Chinuku, Northern Nigeria (map credit: Google)

The poison used in poison darts varies throughout the world.  In South America it is often taken from a venomous frog, in southern Africa from a poisonous beetle and in Northern Nigeria from the plant Strophanthus.  Cardiac poisons tend to be fast-acting.  The fact that Biggs died four days after being hit by the arrow would seem to indicate to me he probably died of a resulting hemorrhage rather than the poison itself – but why spoil a good story.

Norman Biggs’s Grave

The grave of Norman Biggs is marked with a simple metal cross that is talked about in a YouTube video.  It looks in remarkable condition even after all this time.  The cross appears to read:  In loving memory of Norman W Biggs of Cardiff, Great Britain. Cpt 3rd Welch Rgt. DSG N Nigeria  Killed in action. Died 27 Feb 1908.

The cross on grave of Norman Biggs

The cross on grave of Norman Biggs

There is a fascinating YouTube video interviewing a local man who seems to be saying that it is thought they were missionaries but the locals thought they were cannibals. Click the CC button at the foot of the YouTube video to get the subtitles.

YouTube video stills

Cardiff honours Biggs

The news of the death of Norman Biggs was widely reported in the papers.  A large service was held in his honour on March 16th 1908 at St John’s church, Cardiff.  Mr W T Morgan and a large number of Cardiff Rugby Club assembled at the Drill Hall in Dumfries Place and marched along Queen Street to St John’s along with members of the Glamorgan Yeomanry and the Welch Regiment.  The members of the Wales rugby team were unfortunately delayed on the train on their return from Ireland so arrived 90 minutes after the service.

Norman Biggs Memorial Service

I always think it’s best to treat obituaries with a note of caution but they do make interesting reading.   One obituary says that at the age of 16 Norman Biggs was chosen to play for Wales but that his headmaster, Mr Birbeck Terry,  vetoed it on the grounds that he was not sufficiently well set to stand the gruelling game of twenty years ago. The obit says that he worked for his father initially at the Salisbury Road brewery and then at the Canton Cross Brewery.

Another obituary says Biggs had ‘a fund of humour yet could be caustic in his criticism of colleagues, but he was a good judge of character and seldom mistook his man, realising that an exaggerated compliment was the best way to bring out the best in some men and a whip of sarcasm the best for others’.

The Missing Memorial

A year later on March 27th 1909 the Weekly Mail reports of a meeting held at the Angel Hotel to discuss the idea of a memorial tablet to Norman Biggs and that St John’s or St Andrew’s church commended itself.  The meeting was attended by members of Cardiff Rugby and Cricket clubs, the Glamorgan Yeomanry and the Welch Regiment.  The vicar of St John’s was even on the committee.

I have visited both churches and never found a memorial tablet or memorial window.

Two years later another interesting snippet appears in The Clifton Society of May 16th  1912.  The idea now seems to be the idea is for a stained glass window at St John’s and it has been placed in the hands of Cardiff Football Club.

The Clifton Society May 16th 1912

It appears that this remarkable athlete is remembered by a simple metal cross in Nigeria but not in any way in his home city of Cardiff and am left wondering the reason for that.  Is it because the people of Cardiff were already beginning to question the actions that took place in Britain’s colonial past I wonder.


 

Many thanks to rugby and military historian Gwyn Prescott for his assistance, especially in the early days of my research into Norman Biggs.

I have a talk prepared on Norman Biggs and the Biggs family.  If you are a member of a group that may be interested in hearing the talk please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

Norman Biggs poster cropped

Remembering Frank Gaccon

The only public war memorial in our ‘area of interest’, the ancient parish of Roath, is the one outside St Saviour’s church in Splott.  That leaves a lot of the people who lost their lives in WWI, WWII and other conflicts not remembered.  One way to rectify that would be to have a ‘virtual’ memorial, in some ways following the good example of Grangetown Local History Society in their work.  I have started to assemble a Roath virtual war memorial but it is early days yet.

One way to derive a list of the war casualties is to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.  There you can search for specific casualties or search by keyword.  We are lucky in that the suburbs we are interested in have fairly unique names; Splott, Adamsdown, Roath, Penylan, Cathays, Cyncoed etc. I looked at the first name on the Cyncoed list and found Francis Wilberforce Gaccon.  As I began to research the person behind the name more deeply I began to uncover his interesting life story.

Francis ‘Frank’ Wilberforce Gaccon was born on 6th April 1888.  His father was Watkin Gaccon, originally from Aberdare and a marine engine engineer.  His mother was Alice Charlotte Morgan originally from Overton, Gloucestershire on the banks of the River Severn. Frank grows up in 96 Habershon Street, Splott where he attended Splottlands School and Cardiff University College (1904-11).

Evening Express 25th Jan 1908

An early picture of Frank Gaccon

He followed his father into engineering receiving his training with Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds.   After holding various positions with this firm he joined the staff of Nash’s Autocars, Cardiff, and after two years started his own business as a garage and engineering works company.  During WWI he worked for Bute Docks Engineers and Shipping Company under the Admiralty fitting engines to lifeboats of hospital ships.

After WWI he worked for a year for the Royal insurance Company before again starting up his own successful company Frank Gaccon & Co Consulting Engineer and Damage Assessors serving all the leading insurance companies for South Wales. In 1926 he was elected as a full member of the Institute of Automobile Engineers  His head office offices were based in Charles Street, Cardiff.

Frank had a very successful sporting career.  He started his career playing football then converted to rugby playing initially for Penylan and in January 1908 is talked about as a promising forward playing for Cardiff Reserves.  By December that year he is already in the Cardiff first team playing against Australia.

Frank Gaccon rugby player

Frank Gaccon in Cardiff Rugby Club shirt (photo credit: Cardiff Fire & Rescue, Gaccon family)

He played 105 times for Cardiff Rugby Club including against Australia in 1908 (Cardiff won 24-8)  and against South Africa in 1912 (Cardiff lost 6-7).  One later newspaper report indicates he may have played for Wales but that appears erroneous.  Frank was elected captain of Cardiff for the first official post-war season 1919-20 but he had to resign after a few games owing to injury.  He was captain Cardiff Rugby (Wartime Charities) XV against the New Zealand Army team in 1919.  The game was played in front of a crowd of 10,000 in Cardiff and ended up scoreless.  He was also Honorary Secretary of the Cardiff Rugby (Wartime Charities) XV charity that raised almost £2000 during the season, £100,000 in today’s money.

 

 

Cardiff Rugby (war charity) Football Team 1919

Frank Gaccon (with rugby ball) captaining Cardiff Rugby (war charity) Football Team 1919 (Photo Credit: Cardiff Rugby Museum)

After finishing his rugby playing career he went onto enjoy yachting and became commodore of Barry Yacht Club.

He married three times.  In 1917 he married Gertrude Alice Hamlin but sadly their marriage was short lived as she passed away a year later. At that time he was living in 8 Agincourt Road, Roath.   In 1920 he marries Lily Rodwell in Leicester and they have a daughter together. Lily passes away in 1939 and in 1940 Frank marries Lilian Plowman.

Daughter of Frank Gaccon visiting Cardiff Fire Brigade HQ 2017

Daughter of Frank Gaccon visiting Cardiff Fire Brigade HQ 2017 (Photo credit: Cardiff Fire and Rescue)

When WWII was declared Frank sacrificed his business and joined Cardiff Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.) and became Divisional Commander of the Cardiff A.F.S.  He was killed in Newport Road whilst on duty on 3rd March, 1941.   That was a heavy night of fire bombing in Cardiff.  It was the night Roath Road Wesleyan church on Newport Road, at the junction of City Road, was destroyed.  There was also damage on Newport Road to the nurse’s hostel and further east along Newport Road  at the junction of Albany Road.  I had assumed he was killed in one of these events so it came as a shock when I later discovered he was killed when the car he was driving whilst on duty was damaged by a bomb. It is reported that after fighting five fires he was motoring to get more hose when the high explosive bomb killed him. He was 53 years of age at the time and living at 153 Cyncoed Road.  He is buried at Cathays Cemetery, Plot: M 948a.

Gravestone at Cathays Cemetery

Frank Gaccon Headstone (photo credit: Friends of Cathays Cemetery)

As a slight aside, he may also have been killed if he had still been living in Agincourt Road as it was on that night that residents of numbers 10 and 12 Agincourt Road were killed and the night that neighbouring Marborough Road School was damaged beyond repair.