In 1829 Bute Street only had a few buildings at its north end where it met today’s Custom House Street. It appears that it was one of those buildings that housed the first Bute Street police office some decades later. The location of the station is classified as Bute Street but research shows it could be seen from Crichton Place, Hope Street and Wharf Street. It was most likely that it had two entrances, the front on Bute Street and the rear on Hope Street. The house numbers of Bute Street were inconsistently marked on maps. The land being laid down with potential numbering, which subsequently changed. Also it can be found that some shops were renumbered, albeit very closely numerically.
Butetown and Docks officers were looking for a haven, a new police station. The port of Cardiff and its associated problems were growing much faster than the tormented Constabulary to keep pace with. They had routine occurrences such as house fires, accidents, sudden deaths and surely the most important of all, crime prevention. More often than not it is the sight of a uniform that keeps trouble at bay and the more officers patrolling the more they can be seen.
The patrolling Bute Street Borough officers did get some help from their colleagues in the other police forces working their own patches. For example, the Canal Police. They had their hands full too. Problems of deaths in the canal, trouble on the barges, licensing, helping out with docking and berth allocation and making sure commerce moved smoothly.
What the Borough officers needed was their own base in the new Butetown area. A convenient place where they could take prisoners, rather than the terrible slog up to St Mary Street dragging struggling men or women. It was Jeremiah Box Stockdale, the Chief, who persuaded the powers that be to act, leading to Bute Street’s first police office.
The actual layout, indeed the location, is not easy to find. What we do know is that accommodation of the most basic nature was being provided for vagrants and tramps in a Bute Street building. It evolved into a base for the Bute Street police officers, but there were other people using the facility too – tramps. Police stations in certain areas were treated as a casual ward (place of safety) for the homeless or vagrants.
Not to confuse the Bute Street police stations, forward to 1893 when a major police station was proposed, the derelict land they looked at was numbered 227 and 228. This included a piece of Maria Street classified as 1a. That new station was built on that land and opened in 1895 and closed in 1969 on the demise of Cardiff City Police Force.
Some police stations in the nineteenth century took on the role of workhouses to accommodate the homeless. They were sometimes nicknamed the ‘Spike’ and theories abound why this was. In return for a night’s accommodation in a casual ward the occupant paid with their labour – for example cutting wood for the fire.
Therefore, these rough and ready buildings were used temporarily as police stations but were obliged to take in vagrants and this was especially so in the middle years of the nineteenth century in big cities. The whole idea of the spikes was as a temporary respite from the elements whilst the occupants went out to find work. If work was not forthcoming, or they were incapable of employment, the workhouse was the next stop. They may not always gain entry to the main workhouses so the police station became a temporary lodging place. Bute Street’s lost police station was a busy one, the queues for entry each night were long, especially when the winter winds took hold.
On one day in the early 1870s the following were to be found in that dreadful Bute Street police station looking for shelter and warmth around the stove. The Census showed:
- Robert Phillips, 36 years, a Labourer from Gloucester. Now a Vagrant.
- Robert Tucker, 37 years, a Labourer from London. Now a Vagrant.
- William Johnson, 27 years, a Labourer from Dumbarton. Now a Vagrant.
- Thomas Carter, 34 years, a Labourer from Bristol. Now a Vagrant.
- John Hall, 31 years, a Labourer from Dublin. Now a Vagrant.
- William Harris, a Labourer from Surrey. Now a Vagrant.
- John James, 55 years, Engine fitter from Durham. Now a Vagrant.
- John James, 60 years, Smith from Minehead. Now a Vagrant.
- Henry James, 14 years, Juvenile from Axbridge. Now a Vagrant.
- Alfred James, 12 years. Juvenile from Axbridge. Now a Vagrant.
- John James, 27 years, Labourer from Pembroke. Now a Vagrant.
- James Welsh, 27 years, Labourer from Kilkenny. Now a Vagrant.
- John Rees, 21 years, Labourer from Ludlow. Now a Vagrant.
- Thomas Rees, 23 years, Labourer from Manchester. Now a Vagrant.
- Lewis Llewellyn, 24 years, Wool Spinner from Glamorgan. Now a Vagrant.
A spanner is thrown into the search for the location of the lost police station. Further investigation takes us deeper into the topographics of old Butetown. Another identifiable location adjacent to the North and Lowes canal bridge in Bute Street is found. It was situated two houses up from the hump bridge and on the left going north. There appears to be an entrance leading down the steps from Bute Street to the canal feeder, then going in at the Hope Street level. There may have been a lane running at the rear of the buildings towards Wharf Street. Hope Street went in a straight line all the way from the North and Lowes Canal bridge in Bute Street, across several other streets including Whitmore Lane (Custom House Street) to what was New Street. Therefore, anyone standing at the end of Crichton Place could look directly down towards the rear entrance of the police office, be it a few hundred yards away.
So, we have two possible locations for Butetown’s lost police station. There certainly is evidence that could lead us to both locations. Of the two it is the latter mentioned, the North and Lowes bridge locale, that has the most evidential gravitas.
It was Chief Stockdale who told of a small premises at the top end of Bute Street that was being used for the purpose of relieving vagrants of their awful lives, in giving them a roof and somewhere to sleep. He had one of his men supervise and it was ‘not a nice job.’
John Cory, rich and well respected, and a philanthropist, went to see for himself and was shocked. He saw in the premises 30-40 vagrants, some in a disgusting state and some who were only too willing to work if they could find a way out of their predicament. He was so upset by it all he called in again a few days later and was met by the same awful sight. Cory noted ‘My pigs enjoy a better life than these men’. He was not happy that police officers were based there and supervising the scores of vagrants and tramps forced into every corner.
The building had one stove, the walls were damp, and there were no sanitary arrangements. The floor was made up of cold slab stones and on them had been constructed what were described as platforms. These raised areas, away from the cold floor and rats, could sleep about five men and there were only three platforms. The police officer in charge had informed his colleagues that he had seen up to forty men in this one room. The men who could not fight for a place on one of the platforms huddled around the stove.
It was suggested in 1875 that the building needed two cells. They were subsequently built and were more like mini corridors, measuring just ten feet by five feet (roughly three metres by two metres). One cell was kept free should a woman come into custody, which was a regular occurrence.
There are reports of men, crammed like sardines into this one male cell, leading to scuffles and injuries. Two drunken militia men had been put in the cell already occupied by one other. They severely beat him. There are reports that up to eight men were sometimes forced in this tiny space. A cells-man in the latter days of the Cardiff City Police would tell you that to open a cell door in which there were five residents was always a little worrying. It was rare that anything happened, but if anything did you would be on your own in the cell block and it would not have taken much to overpower you and take the keys. Therefore, when there were drunken, hostile and violent men crammed into that tiny cell, on opening the door an officer must have had back-up, either in the shape of a fellow officer or a weapon. Hard times indeed for both the law breakers and the law keepers.
This is how one Cardiff resident described the police station.
Poor wragged wretches with no property in the world but the filthy tattered garments they stand and throng the station nightly. Sixty or seventy men nightly call at the station for their ‘take’ of bread. They share between them a dormitory or room which scarcely affords adequate breathing or lying space for a tenth of that number. Of the stench with the overcrowding of this ‘black hole of Calcutta’ generates, of the horrible squalour and filth of its inmates we might write a harrowing description: but we forebear, our object not being to pen a sensational paragraph, but to awaken the comfortably situated, to a recognition of the extreme depth of poverty which exists in our prosperous town. It seems incredible that there should be scores of adult males in this town, in good health, yet reduced to such poverty, from want of employment as to be unable to pay for the cheapest class of lodging, and to have no change of clothing, no luggage, no property whatever but the one dress of rags and tatters, which they wear night and day, from the time of first procuring it until it rolls off them, or is borne away from them by the vermin its constant use has generated. Yet such appears to be the fact for the same well known faces have come, night after night throughout the winter, to swarm into the lower station.’
The exact street number of the lower police station is not known, but it was certainly in the vicinity of Bute Street, Hope Street and Crichton Place. The address was given as Bute Street.
One 1875 report refers to the building as Bute Bridge Police Station. There were several deaths and injuries that had been caused near Bute Street railway bridge. It is known there were petitions given to the council to make Bute Bridge safer. By that they meant lowering the roadway to give a higher access to taller vehicles. It was eventually done, as we see today, as we drive under Bute Street Bridge. Therefore, the police station had to be near the bridge.
We know the area at that point at the top of Bute Street was always in the news. One writer to a newspaper said it was worse than other places he had worked, London’s East End, Southampton or Portsmouth.
Another anonymous writer from the mid-1880s wrote:
Sir, Will you allow me through the medium of your paper to call the attention to the sanitary authorities of Cardiff to the vile smells which emanate from the vicinity of the upper part of Bute Street. Between five and six each evening, the stench is simply overpowering. I think the matter should be taken up.
One clue of the location comes from researching the area as it stood in the 60s. If you were to walk under the railway bridge at the top of Bute Street going south, just past the entrance to the Cardiff International Athletic Club (CIAC), on the right was then a relatively new building. It housed a Royal Mail garage at one time. Around that building were the original streets of Crichton Street, Crichton Place, Hope Street and Bute Street, including the Custom House pub, Quebec pub, and the Ocean Wave Club.
The new building was incongruous with the others. So, what was there before? Locals say it was derelict land, which fits with the search for the location, as it was the only space available for the Royal Mail garage. One local resident remembers derelict land that was probably warehouses, or cafes and some terraced houses. Close by were the railway arches where vagrants used to sleep, but in latter days they were used by small businesses. It appears that the Royal Mail garage may have been the original location of the first Bute Street Police Station.
Another clue to the exact location comes from a police report that says:
I was at the door of the police station and then moved away a short distance. I went across and stood three or four yards down Hope Street, thereby looking round I had a good view of the door.
Nearby, Crichton Place was occupied in those days by a variety of business proprietors or the gainfully employed. They seemed to have been newcomers to Cardiff from London, Cornwall, Pembrokeshire, and other parts of Wales. The street was still standing in the 1960s but demolished, as were many other streets. It had only one row of terraced houses, the other side being the trackbed (retaining) wall of the Great Western Railway as it entered Cardiff General Station.
Further investigation takes us deeper into the origins of this docklands police station or office. Another location appears on a map near to the North and Lowes Canal Bridge in Bute Street. It was situated two houses up from the humped bridge on the west side. There were probably two entrances, one on Bute Street and one on Hope Street. Hope Street went in a straight line all the way from the North and Lowes Canal Bridge, across several other streets including Whitmore Lane (now Custom House Street) to what was then New Street. Anyone standing at the end of Crichton Place could look directly towards the rear entrance of the police office a few hundred yards away.
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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.