When they sneeze, we cough

Sifting through various pieces of writing, I found this article which was intended to follow  a previous blog post: Standing around at the Station.  It was written last year as one of a series of articles exploring the place that religion has played in the growth and life of Cardiff, both yesterday and today.

This article begins at the junction of St Mary Street and Wood Street as we take a journey towards the castle and, whilst we only get as far as Cardiff Market we’re able to take a wider look at the world through the clues still scattered around us.

Monkey Business

Three metal monkeys chime each hour from the glazed clock-tower at the junction of Wood Street and St Mary Street.[1] It’s time to move on. The mischievous monkeys are copies of those carved in wood in Cardiff Castle where they cavort around the Tree of Knowledge. William Burges, their creator, gives a dig at Darwin’s Beagle adventures, and carves into his work the controversies and discoveries of the day. Darwin returned home in 1836 with ground breaking ideas. A small number of Christians still cling to some anti-Darwin doctrines but they are few and far between. People have moved on. Baptised and schooled in the Church of England, Darwin died an agnostic.

On the corner of the street, the belly of the Royal Hotel[2] has been carved up between bars, surrounded by many others, all of whom give a wry smile to the memory of Temperance Town. Here, in the hotel, Sir Robert Scott[3] took his final grand dinner before he pushed out into choppier waters, never to return.

St Mary's Clock
John Lord / The clock, St Mary St, Cardiff  https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2696676

Party animals

Cardiff is a city which pulls in weekend party people. The fancy-dressed groups of stags and hens with bespoke T-shirts is a familiar sight on Fridays as they spill out from the train station. Brains Brewery Quarter, long vacated as an actual brewery, gapes open mouthed at Wood Street.[4]

A few years ago, at an Interfaith event with young people at the Wales Millennium Centre, we asked if Cardiff was a good place to be a young person of faith. For them, it was. They enjoyed living in a city which is diverse and multicultural. One of the things, though, that sometimes raised difficulty for some was the alcohol driven entertainment which is often at the heart of city life, and so often part of the life of many of their friends. It’s one of the industries of any city, and Cardiff is no different.

‘Street Pastors’ is an initiative of trained volunteers from local churches in towns and cities across the country, including Cardiff. Each weekend, they are out and about until the early hours to care for people on the streets, some of whom have partied hard.

Opposite, the oldest Arcade in town, the Royal Arcade of 1858[5]. Above here the first Cardiff Free Library was opened before its grander premises next to St John’s Church


Cardiff Street Pastors at work.  Photograph: https://www.flickr.com/photos/guardiancardiff/5320915838/

Red wine and Jewish friends

In the busy St Mary Street, I almost pass a familiar face.

‘Stanley, how are you?’

We shake hands, tell him I saw him on the Television two days ago, a news item about Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

He raises his eyebrows apologetically, as though to say, ‘I know, again,’ conscious perhaps that he is one of the few representatives of the Jewish community commonly called upon for comment. He does it well.

‘I don’t often walk through the city centre with a bottle of red wine,’ he says, raising the bottle, ‘but I’ve been to the Mansion House for a coffee morning. I won a raffle prize.’

I first met Stanley through his wife when the Jewish Community of the Reformed Synagogue in Adamsdown joined us at St German’s Church for ‘The Day of the Soup’, a community food event, during which we shared who we were through the simmering warmth of soup. Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered together in what was a freezing few weeks in January.

Over the years, I have seen much of him, either on the steps of the Senedd for the bi-annual Merchant Seafarers Memorial Service but more regularly at the South Cardiff Interfaith Network, and so many other things besides, sharing a table with him at various meetings and gatherings.

In 2011, there were 2,064 Jews in Wales, a third of whom live in Cardiff, with two places of worship. At one point, as Industry grew in the nineteenth century, there were dozens of Jewish businesses and people who populated the town with synagogues.

In 1896, when the cornerstone of the new Cathedral Road Synagogue was laid, the Vicar of St Stephen’s Church, Revd A.G. Russell, was present, causing a curt backlash by The Church Times who questioned his presence at such an event. Albert Goldsmid, president of the Synagogue Site Committee, penned a reply in The Western Mail. He saw nothing wrong with Christians assisting at the foundation of a synagogue, in which their Master had been wont to worship and preach. He himself, he said, had lent his hand for Christian denominational purposes without being the less staunch to his race and faith.[6]

2017-12-17 19.30.36
Cardiff Reformed Synagogue during the public lighting of the Menorah

Politics and Religion

I say farewell to Stanley and pass Guildhall Place[7], the site of the fourth Town Hall. It is here, in 1905, that Alderman Robert Hughes opens the letter from the King giving Cardiff city status. Hughes was a parishioner of St Mary’s Church on Bute Street, and a life-long friend of Fr Griffith Arthur Jones who had retired just a year or so before, and a sponsor for many boys baptised and confirmed.

Letter in hand, he is congratulated by the gathered crowd, elevated now as he is to be the first Lord Mayor of Cardiff. His portrait hangs beyond the Castle in County Hall, built the following year. After applause and celebratory speeches, they take to the balcony to share the news, and then there is a torchlight procession to St Mary’s back in Tiger Bay to celebrate the centenary of Lord Nelson’s death.

Pushed, as it often is, outside of public life we can often forget the faith which nurtures the lives of some of our leaders, or overlook the beliefs of those who turn their lives to the service of others. Despite being multicultural, Cardiff had to wait some years before Councillors of other religions emerged. Much has changed, and local politicians now represent more realistically the people they represent.

In 1993, Jaz Singh became the first Sikh Cardiff Councillor, and was Deputy Mayor in 2008, the first Gurdwara in Cardiff having its humble beginnings in a terraced house at Ninian Park in 1956. When eyeing up land for a purpose built Gurdwara years later in the 1980s, he notes with gratitude the help given by Mohammad Javid, who was chairman of the Pakistan Welfare Association and a Member of Woodville Mosque, although there was some criticism by some members, reminiscent of the Jewish-Christian comments of the Church Times a century before.

Back in Butetown, one of Citizens Cymru’s campaign is for dignity in Burial for the Muslim Community. Citizens is a collaboration of organisations uniting for the common good, it provides a means through which many different communities, regardless of creed or colour, can work together on issues which affect them, and build power to change society for the good,

On the site of the former Victorian Town Hall is Julian Hodge House, built in 1915 for the Co-operative Wholesale Society in a style reminiscent of the Edwardian buildings of Regent Street, London. Julian Hodge was one of Wales’ most famous financiers.[8] Two ambitions dominated his life: to found a bank and to build a cathedral.[9] The boy from a poor background became a merchant banker and established the Commercial Bank of Wales but failed to convince the Roman Catholic hierarchy to accept his £3m offer for the building of a new Metropolitan Cathedral in Cardiff.

Christopher Hilton / Cardiff: market entrance, St Mary Street / Heol Eglwys Fair

‘Oh Lord, here is iniquity’

Here, in the street, many people were publicly hanged from the gallows for Cardiff Market was once the site of the 16th century Gaol, expanded in 1770, and continuing as a town gaol until 1877 years after the County Gaol moved across the city in 1832. It remains there still, served by a multi faith chaplaincy.

One of the most famously executed was Dic Penderyn caught up in the political and social unrest which washed through industrial Wales. Working conditions and wage cuts, redundancy and debts led to riots in Merthyr Tydfil where buildings were ransacked to destroy debt records held by the courts. One of the Highland Regiments stationed at Brecon was sent in. Soldiers fired into the crowds. Sixteen people were slaughtered.

One solider, Donald Black, was stabbed in the leg by a soldier’s bayonet. Uncertain of his attacker, a young man called Richard Lewis, known as Dic Penderyn, was arrested. He was charged and imprisoned in Cardiff Gaol, taken to the gallows at 8am on 13 August 1831 at the age of 23 years.   His final words were: ‘O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd, Oh Lord, here is iniquity.’ He is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Aberavon.

The valleys have their own stories to tell but they are inextricably linked to the growth of Cardiff. In a novel retelling of the story of Jim Driscoll, the catholic and Cardiff born, Irish boxer from the long gone Newtown area of Cardiff, Alexander Cordell writes with Driscoll’s voice in the winter of his seventh year: ‘A strike of coal miners was going on in a place called Tonypandy, and when they sneeze we cough, said Gran.’ 1.6 million people live within a 45 minute drive to Cardiff, and thousands from the valleys join the Cardiff work force each day.

The Glamorganshire Canal, constructed in 1790, escalated the conveyance of iron and coal from the valleys to Cardiff, swiftly followed by the Taff Valley Railway in 1840 which further enabled the growth of what was once a small town which, at one time, had been described as being “near Llantrisant.”

Here, in St Mary Street, in 1852, the YMCA began in Cardiff, established at first at 100 St Mary Street, eight years after George Williams and Co of London formed the Drapers Evangelistic Association, changing it name to Young Men’s Christian Association. The largest and oldest youth charity in the world, they support more than 250 young carers (aged 7-16) and their families in South East Wales and provide sexual health outreach programmes to young people throughout the city. They also offer childcare, youth clubs, and health and wellbeing opportunities every day of the week and provide accommodation for nearly 120 homeless people in Cardiff, supporting them into independent living. The YMCA moved from St Mary Street to purpose built premises to sit snugly next to Cory’s Temperance Hall opposite Queen Street, but both buildings have long been demolished.[10]

St Mary Street, looking towards the castle.  Picture by Jon Candy https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncandy/4713871733

Let the fire be lit

On the right is James Howells’ department store which swallows up what’s left of Bethany Church within, where the walls still hold the memorial to Rawlins White, burned at the stake in the street outside, and who wept when he saw his family as the crowds called for fire and flame. “Burn him, let the fire be lit.” It is 30 March 1555 and Queen Mary I is on the throne.

White gives no resistance to the soldiers who escort him, carefully arranges the wood and straw around his own body hoping that the flames will burn quickly.

As a fisherman, he had lived off the Taff, pulling salmon from the river upstream. Unable to read and speaking only Welsh, he became familiar with Scriptures through the help of his son who read to him each night. Inspired by itinerant preachers who regularly called at Cardiff during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VII, he passed on the preaching to others willing to hear.

Despite resistance, White’s silence cannot not be won until he is confined to Cardiff Castle and, more recently, the dark, damp, disgusting cell of the Cockmarel Prison from which he is led to death. Chained to the stake, the fire is lit, his legs burn quickly, his body slumps forward. On the same day in Carmarthen another Martyr, Robert Farrar, the Bishop of St David’s, breathes his last.

The Gallows Field

A hundred years later, in 1679, during the reign of Charles II, two catholic martyrs are marched to the gallows, marking another chapter in the twists of faith and the cost of clinging to ones belief in the face of another, and a reminder of the disturbing deeds of human beings, of rulers and governments, when confronted by difference and dissention.   But these were different times. Surely, not today, not in this world, not in our world?

The site of the Gallows Field or Plwcca Halog (Plwcca meaning dirty, wet, uncultivated land) is now a busy junction in Cardiff’s cosmopolitan Roath where City Road and Crwys Road cross and meet three others in a place known these days as ‘Death Junction.’   One day, when walking nearby, a fellow priest told me how he had encountered someone from another Cardiff parish where my appointment as Vicar had recently been announced, and met with mixed reception.

‘We had expected more, really,’ they said. ‘He’s from the valleys.’

I coughed.




[1] The clock’s face and mechanism came from the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay, retrieved from America, and installed here in November 2011 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-15633393

[2] The Royal Hotel, built 1866

[3] Sir Robert Scott left Cardiff on 15 June 1910. His ship, the Terra Nova, was returned to Cardiff in 1913

[4] Brains Brewery occupied the site in 1914

[5] There are 797 metres of Arcades in Cardiff

[6] The Jews of South Wales, Ursula R.Q. Henriques 2013, page 30

[7] Opened in 1853, demolished 1913. Constructed by W.P. James to the design of Horace Jones (the same architect responsible for Tower Bridge in London). It accommodated the courts, police station, fire brigade and post office. The building was expanded in in 1880 , and the Post Office was relocated in 1886 to a new seven-storey building on the corner of Westgate Street and Park Street.

[8] Julian Stephen Alfred Hodge, financier, born October 15 1904; died July 18 2004

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2004/jul/21/guardianobituaries.obituaries

[10] Designed by local architects J.P. Jones, Richards & Budgen, the building had five storeys and a basement.   As well as living and boarding accommodation, it provided a gymnasium, lecture theatre, classrooms, a library and reading room.  The ground-floor frontage included two shops – one of which was originally designed as a restaurant.  Its foundation stone was laid in 1899 by Sir George Williams and it opened the following year. The Cory Memorial Temperance Hall was built at a cost of £5,000 and presented to the temperance societies of Cardiff by John Cory (1828 – 1910), as a memorial to his late father, Richard.  Richard Cory (1799 -1882) had founded the family’s shipping and coal mining businesses.  He was a leader of the Methodist movement in Cardiff and supported various social, educational, moral and Christian activities in the area.  As the temperance movement developed in Cardiff, he is reputed to have been the first to sign ‘the pledge’. The YMCA also moved from Station Terrace.  In 1974, they purchased a former convent school in The Walk, to continue their youth and community work and, subsequently, to develop a hostel for students and young workers.


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