Cardiff 1870-1890

Was Mary Ann Street really the ‘abode of the vicious and the depraved’? A walk through the street and houses may change our minds in some ways. Yes, there were sensational crimes and aggravated disorder but surely not from every house. As some newspapers and High Court judges stated: ‘Amongst the bad there is always good.’ As today, it was then, we only hear about the bad.

There was a report conducted by Town Council revealing the crimes of each of the households. It would be unfair to some, as with the transient population at the time, a ‘good’ family may have moved out of a house and a ‘bad’ one moved in.

It appears that many of the Mary Ann Street’s social problems manifested themselves from occurrences beyond the residents’ control. If one were to go back further into the street’s history, say around the 1850s, it was a reasonable place to live. Many of the professionals who worked the area at that time, in medical or social wellbeing, would have reinforced the view.

There is no doubt the street deteriorated, but why? When you demolish the worst crime street in Cardiff (Charlotte Street in 1875) the residents must move somewhere. If the residents were criminally bad and anti-social then the matters are simply transferred to other areas.

The shabeens became the centre of police attention and therefore the proprietors made it more difficult to be found out. They were tiny houses backing onto Stanley Street. It was stated by police officers who had the job of raiding these premises that it would take about ten officers to do it properly. A straightforward kick of the front door and running in may very well find illegal drinking going on, but in many cases, it was not as simple as that. The stairs in the houses were not far off vertical so drinkers upstairs in the little back room would make an escape out of the window, across the roofs, and disappear into a Stanley Street house window. So, to do the job properly there had to be officers everywhere.

One would presume that Mrs. Baslick of the Lakes of Killarney public house at 41 Mary Ann Street would have approved of the officers’ attention of the shabeens. She had to fight in court in 1869 to get her legitimate liquor licence.

Mary Ann Street and Charlotte Street have been identified as the two most deprived and unruly streets in the centre of old Cardiff.

Charlotte Street and its notorious public houses were demolished by 1875 to eradicate the trouble. (The Motorpoint Arena and a Marriott hotel stand there today). Mary Ann Street was still going strong though. Police records show that the street suffered on numerous occasions with drunken revelry, robbery and indeed murder. These are facts and are in court records, yet there is still a feeling of injustice as to how the street was tarred during those times.

The date is 7 December 1895 and it is cold. Let us walk down to Mary Ann Street with Police Sergeant John Davies from his headquarters at the Town Hall in St Mary Street. It is Saturday, early afternoon, and one would expect life would be a little more colourful than the quiescent scene that greeted the Sergeant. There were several small groups of children running around barefoot on the cold slabs in front of the terraced houses. The pubs in the street were open, as were the numerous other pubs in that tight little district, but Sergeant Davies saw no sign of drunkenness.

The houses were tiny consisting of ‘two up and two down’ with a toilet shed at the rear. Women were standing at the front door of their houses, there was no sign of men. The sergeant would have surmised that they were in the snug of some local public house.

Looking around it was obviously an extremely poor area. Many of the panes of glass in the windows were broken and rags had been stuffed into them to fend off cold drafts. Walking into the narrow and dark corridors at street level Sergeant Davies would have immediately noticed the mould on the walls. The houses were damp, and residents had hardly any money to survive, let alone decorate. One of the two downstairs rooms may have had a coal or wood fire burning away. On one occasion of a visit to a Mary Ann Street house by an official he was quoted as saying, ‘in front of the fire, lying on the floor, was the ‘lord and master of the house’.

There was hardly any furniture, but there were pictures hanging on the walls of angels and saints, looking down as a reminder of godliness to give the residents hope. It was the beds that contributed to the furniture tally, in fact nothing other than beds. Every space in the dark upstairs had beds in those poky rooms, with the broken window panes. The descriptions were not given but one imagines straw mattresses which invariably were lice-ridden.

Perhaps there were several children in the house and several lodgers, apart from the husband and wife. Men hired just a bed as somewhere to come to when they finished their shift on the docks. They had their few hours’ sleep then had to go to let another in. Think hot-desking for sleep. Not every house was like this but according to contemporary witnesses many were.

One proud woman of the street told the Sergeant in the company of some local officials that her house was immaculate. She went on to say, ‘Cleaner than any in Park Place, Garth Street and Davis Street.’ Her house may have been a palace, but adjacent houses were not.

But it was the steep stairs that gave most trouble to residents. Imagine today a newspaper reporter commenting on a woman climbing stairs as being ‘top heavy, and when pregnant, bottom heavy too.’ Women found the stairs most daunting with the risk of an accident high. One can envisage a drunken man trying to climb the vertical stairs, even worse trying to come down.

On the winter’s day, when Sergeant Davies visited the street and its inhabitants, what would have really struck him was how dark it was inside the house. There was no electricity, gas hardly had made an incursion into the street, therefore it was paraffin lamps and candles that lit the rooms. Even during the day it was gloomy and at night-time pitch black, with flickering candles affording little respite.

The street was heavy with the smell of hundreds of chimneys belching out their sulphurous smoke. Sergeant Davies was well-aware of the instructions to his constables that on entering the houses during the hours of darkness to make sure they had matches in their possession. That may be the only form of illumination.

Whilst the Sergeant wandered through Mary Ann Street on that cold Saturday afternoon in December 1895, he saw little of the activities that caused the sensational headlines and derogatory comments of the time. He fully understood though why the street was at the centre of the twilight world that was, at least literally, Darkest Cardiff.

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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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