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Walking a Hard Beat | John F. Wake

The Golden Cross is one of only a few of the original Victorian pubs still standing.

Cardiff, 1870

It was a dark evening, the new gas lighting not giving up much illumination for the beat officer. Men, women and children, scurried down the tiny side lanes on seeing the policeman, indicating some were up to no good. There were arguments in the street occurring between husband and wife referencing money being spent on alcohol rather than on food for the children.

The officer could see the spire of St John’s above the rooftops giving a little hope that amongst it all there was a haven of calm. He made his way, swinging his long baton by his side, to Greater Frederick Street and checked out the Pembroke Castle. All quiet. It would have been a totally different atmosphere and more antagonistic for the PC attempting to police the other side of town: the dreaded Charlotte Street. To walk down from St John’s Church, through the Hayes and over the canal bridge may have seemed to a new officer a walk into hell. It may appear a little ‘over the top’ to describe it as such, but examining the arrests, the street characters and the number of pubs with their reputations it was a kind of hell, especially to police constables. Bear in mind there were only a handful of officers attempting to keep the peace. The worst street of all with its infamous landlord, Mad Jack Matthews, was a dreaded walk-through. His story is in Cardiff. Those Cruel and Savage Streets.

Still today a police officer would have his or her ‘most dreaded pub’ in relation to trouble, but in those days it seems almost every pub was trouble. Borough Constables had their hands full with riotous prostitutes, disorderly houses, let alone street begging. The world of the constable was not safe, not safe at all.

There were many complaints being made about the police, or the lack of them, and it must have been annoying that the vociferous north side classes were always criticising. But it was not only the rich who may be criticising the Borough Constabulary, one or two backstreet locals were not happy at all about the state of the policing in the area.

John James who ran a boarding house at the far end of Whitmore Lane, part of today’s Adam Street, Bute Terrace and Custom House Street, could finally take it no more and made an official complaint. His annoyance was with the constables. He claimed he hardly ever saw one, especially at night and they were not doing their job. He complained that his whole household was kept awake by constant disturbances and fights among prostitutes and the ‘lowest of characters’ outside in the street. ‘Where were the police?’ he complained. ‘They never are around.’

1970s photo of the former site of the Hayes Bridge, which went over the Glamorgan Canal

Another man had seen policemen enter the most notorious public houses, when they should not be, and mixing with the clientelle. The hairdresser said the street in front of his door was constantly crowded with troublemakers. He had repeatedly asked the police to clear the pavement, but they did nothing. In consequence he said that customers could not enter his shop. A local druggist endorsed these complaints. Not all locals were unhappy with the actions or inactions of the police.

PC 13 was based at the Town Hall station in the 1870s. He did the work a future a Detective Department would undertake, simple, but extremely time consuming. Take, for instance, a woman living at 13 Tyndall Street, just north of the docks. She called the police because a sailor had stolen some clothes from her house. Acting on information received, PC 13 went to a brothel in Whitmore Lane and arrested the man and even managed to get out of him where the stolen property was. PC 13 then went to a house in Mill Lane, searched it, and retrieved the stolen property. The thief received twenty-eight days hard labour.

It is easy to answer Mr James’ question as to where the police officers were. If you only have a handful of officers on a night shift they could not be everywhere. Fights were two-a-penny and injuries to officers, minor though many were, had to be treated. Dragging people up to the police station and placing them in a cell took time, as did the paperwork and processing, all of which had to be done before they could go back out onto the streets. There were no officers to relieve them, no phones, no communications, and most arrests required the attention of at least two officers.

Even in the 1950s and 1960s, towards the end of the Cardiff Police, to take a man off a walking beat, for whatever reason, had exactly the same effect as Mr James was complaining about all those years ago. Today with radios and cars it is wholly different.

The Foresters Arms was in Whitmore Lane, then classified as Newtown. It was the Great Western Railway that cut the settlement into two. The landlord, Billy Colston, his wife, and children, had come from Gloucestershire to cash in on the town’s growth. A visiting constable would have noted from the accents that most of the servants were from the West Country too. There was one local girl, Jane Williams (21) working as a servant in the pub. Jane was to marry a few years later and have children of her own. It was odd not to hear an Irish accent among the Foresters’ staff as most of the houses and businesses in the vicinity were inhabited by Irish immigrants.

Lewis Street, later renamed Bute Street then later again Hayes Bridge Road, was the main entry street into the area. It was awash with pubs and people even though it was a short street. An officer on his way down Lewis Street would walk past pubs such as The Cumberland, Butlers, The Locomotive, The Cardigan, and The Brewers, many having as notorious a landlord as clientele. A swift walk along Charlotte Street, just off Lewis Street, to reach the far end of Whitmore Lane (now Custom House Street) by the Mill Lane canal bridge, could be challenging for the beat officer. In that small street were many ill-famed pubs, the Lame Chicken, Jolly Sailor, Cornish Arms, Ship, Irishman’s Glory, Irish Harp, Albion, Sailor’s Return and the most notorious of all, The Flying Eagle. Enough has been said about this pub in a previous book but it seems to sum up the constable’s violent playground when it came to policing this infamous area.

The instances of Borough officers being injured as they carried out their duties were numerous. One particular incident sums that up. A Bute Terrace cobbler had two pairs of shoes stolen from his shop at lunchtime. The two people responsible, from West Wales, were seen by an officer trying on the shoes in School Street (off Bute Terrace). He approached them and was attacked and beaten unconscious. He couldn’t even blow his whistle for assistance, and all for a pair of shoes.

School Street / John Street area off Bute Street, 1960s

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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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Walking a Hard Beat | John F. Wake

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