Nobody today seems to know for certain why the Rothesay Castle public house in Bute Street on the corner of South Church Street became known as the House of Blazes. As early as the mid-1800s the name House of Blazes was being used to describe this pub. Many of the older inhabitants of Butetown think it was because of its violent past, its fights, its atmosphere, and the infamous folk stories it spawned. Many in the early twentieth century didn’t know it by any other name.
It stood next to St Mary’s Church in Bute Street. On the other side of the church was 240 Bute Street, the original Salvation Army Hostel for Homeless Men.
The Cardiff City Police officers serving after the war, right up to the demise of the force and pub in 1969, remember little trouble, or as one put it, ‘No more than any other’. A reflection on what was considered normal for the time. Working girls still used the pub, even though it was in the same block as the 1895 Victorian Police Station. One of the last ladies to use the pub in the late 1960s showed mock respect to passing police officers by curtsying as they walked by. It was innocent fun, so where does its terrible reputation come from?
If we look at just one year in the life of the Rothesay Castle it may become clearer: 1869. There were numerous instances of trouble in the pub in that year, many did not attract the notice of the police but many did. Its reputation was growing and the police were not happy. There was a police office at the top of Bute Street and officers were often summoned to the pub as they passed it on their way back to the station.
July was a particularly bad month that year. After a street altercation a brother and sister in their twenties ran into the pub and attacked an Italian sailor. The assault was particularly vicious. The woman used a piece of a sharpening steel (used to sharpen knives) to hit his face regularly during the fight. The brother also laid into the man. Staff in the pub, who were used to trouble, joined in and pulled them apart and ejected them. The woman was fined in court the following day the sum of 40/- (£2).
Let us jump forward to 1905. The surrounding area had changed and the biggest change was that a new police station was now only 100 yards away. Opened in 1895, the station quickly became the busiest in Cardiff for callers and incidents. Now locals could walk or run in for advice, or give warnings of potential problems, or report serious crimes. There were several single man’s quarters in the station over its two floors. So, there was instant assistance if a major disturbance occurred. There are reports of the station desk officer shouting up the stairs to try and wake up off-duty officers, or in a real emergency knocking on their door.
The police station also housed violent and disorderly drunks who used to scream the place down once put in the ground floor cells, so one could imagine that just a shout up the stairs may not have sufficed. All this on the same block as the Rothesay Castle.
There were regular occurrences of fighting in the pub spilling out into South Church Street. One brawl resulted in Alex Germain being stabbed in the arm by Peter Sement. The argument started inside but the two men were pushed out into the street to finish it.
It is amazing to think that the pub was a haunt of prostitutes even up to its demise in the late 1960s. But in 1905, ten years after the police station was opened, the pub was out of control in relation to prostitution, and something had to be done.
Mary Jones was pub licensee in 1905 and she ran it with a liberal attitude. She did not seem to mind who was in her pub or what they were up to as long as the money kept coming in behind the bar. The pub was busy, even though it stood next to the biggest church in Butetown, with locals, sailors, prostitutes, all adding to its vibrancy.
The Magistrates were not happy, the Council was not happy and, therefore, the police were not happy. Embarrassment arose from the close proximity of the pub to the police station, and the apparently ineffectual policing.
McKenzie, the chief of police, told his men to look out and note everything that happened inside and outside the pub. The officers went about the task with gusto hiding behind the wall of the Bute Road branch of the Taff Vale Railway, making notes at varying times of the day and night. It was exactly 34 yards and 2 feet from the rail observation wall to the Bute Street entrance. They could see the South Church Street entrance too, as well as the main entrance. They recorded whether the lights were on and off. They noted the new electric lights and their ‘candle power’ to illuminate the area. They noted the size of doors, whether they had glass panels, the distances between doors. No stone was left unturned.
They noted the names and descriptions of the girls going in and whether they came out with a man. The officers knew many of them, having arrested them over the years or been involved in their domestic disturbances. Police officers noted their own personal visits to the pub when investigating licensing misdemeanours and disorderly behaviour. The observations were centred on one week at the end of September 1905.
To read the report it is one of the most comprehensive enquiries that McKenzie and his men could assemble in that first year of Cardiff becoming a city. He chose two officers that had exemplary service records and were well-respected to carry out the enquiry, with liaison with beat officers too. Even photographic evidence was gathered.
Mary Jones was summoned, and she appeared before the Deputy Stipendiary (also named Jones). To former Cardiff City Police officers today it may appear unusual to hear what happened next. The Stipendiary went down to Bute Street and made observations himself. As a result of his observations the case was dismissed. This was a spectacular end to the police enquiry and a kick in the teeth for Chief McKenzie.
Ironically, a few years later Mr Jones was still Deputy Stipendiary for Cardiff and he heard a case of Robbery with Violence against three men. Rather than say they had been drinking in the Rothesay Castle they kept referring to it as the House of Blazes. In fact, they did not even know the real name of the pub.
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.