Cardiff, 1888


Imagine the smells of the streets with a multitude of horse-drawn vehicles going about their business, dogs and cats roaming at will, rats and other vermin always present. Fighting, bullying, domestic incidents, waifs, gamin and strays all present and the constant sound of hundreds of public houses with their singing, arguments and fist fights. Men and women urinating and worse in the streets, completing this delightful picture.

Town Council meetings were full of debates regarding the problems that Cardiff was suffering on the streets. On numerous occasions it was blamed on its rapid growth and the town’s inability to keep up with it. One Councillor in 1888 noted:

Cardiff is a town which has increased in population to an extraordinary degree during the last ten years, and now contains a very large population from all parts of the United Kingdom, together with a large number of foreign sailors.

It seems the blame for trouble on the streets was laid at the door of alcohol and its subsequent drunken behaviour. There was a lot of truth in that. The public houses of yesteryear differed to the ones we know today, not in the obvious construction but in the ‘dos and don’ts’ within.

Smoking has been banned for several decades now. It may appear an extreme vision of the past, but nothing could prepare a time traveller for the welcome as they opened the door to a backstreet pub. The smoke haze which permanently hung over the tables was tantamount to a fog. Tobacco was smoked in rolled up cigarette papers or in pipes. The tin receptacles or trays on the tables held hillocks of ash. The fingers of the smokers were burnt yellow at the end as chain smoking was the norm for men and women.

There was a ‘snug’, a ‘smoke room’, domino and card tables, skittles, bagatelle and various other pastimes. Most public house game tables have now gone, whether it is the non-stop furtherance of the supply of meals, or simply that they went out of fashion, today’s pub is a world away from the old ones. In the central areas of old Cardiff, the floor covering was sawdust. Most say it was an easy way to clear up the blood (it probably was) but it was also an easy way to clear up spilt beer, vomit and vermin. The last public house in Cardiff known to use sawdust was the Greyhound in Bridge Street.

Elections brought riots. The police were up against it and sometimes had to face thousands of people in a crowd determined to show up perceived corruption and favouritism. Most of the protesters would gather in the main streets in the centre of town and demonstrate. Within demonstrations lurked extremists, even in 1888.

Directly after this the Head Constable was called away by the report that a man was lying dangerously injured in Mill Lane, and he is not responsible for what subsequently took place. After speaking to the Head Constable, Mr. Duncan advanced to the monument and there addressed the crowd, telling them that the Police had greatly exceeded their duties. Stones came faster after this; the Police got impatient, declared they could endure it no longer, and Inspector Tamblyn, who was in command, gave orders to clear the bridge. He gave no orders to draw staves; but the Police proceeded to drive the crowd over the bridge, down Custom House Street to New Street, using their staves on them. There was here no violent resistance, and the streets were soon clear. There is undoubted evidence of fifteen persons’ having received severe injuries from the batons of policemen. Two of the Police were severely injured by stones, and sixteen or seventeen slightly.

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This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.

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