Brief history of Cardiff summarized
A brief overview of the history of Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
Cardiff Roman Fort
Cardiff began as a Roman fortress. The Romans invaded Wales around 50 AD and around 55 AD they built a fort on the site of Cardiff. In the late 1st century the fort was reduced in size, as Wales was at peace.
However, in the mid-3rd century the fort was rebuilt and strengthened to defend South Wales against invading Irishmen. However, in the fourth century Roman civilization declined. At the end of the century the Romans abandoned Cardiff Fort.
Cardiff in the Middle Ages
Cardiff City was founded when the Normans conquered Glamorgan. A Norman named Robert Fitzhamon conquered the area. He built a wooden castle within the walls of the old Roman fortress. (The castle was rebuilt in stone at the beginning of the 12th century).
Soon a small town grew in the shadow of the castle. This was often the case in the Middle Ages, as the castle garrison provided a market for goods made by the town’s artisans. Cardiff had a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 in the Middle Ages. Towns were very small in those days, especially Welsh towns.
In Cardiff there were weekly markets. After 1340 there were also two annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets, but they were held only once a year and lasted fifteen days. Buyers and sellers would come from all over Glamorgan and further afield to attend a Cardiff fair.
In medieval Cardiff there were the same craftsmen found in any medieval city such as butchers, bakers, brewers, carpenters and blacksmiths. There were also leather workers such as shoemakers and glovers. The medieval city of Cardiff was also a busy port. The ships were loaded and unloaded at a city dock.
At the beginning of the 12th century, a wooden palisade was built around the city to protect it. At the end of the 13th century it was replaced by a stone wall. Then in the 13th century the friars came to Cardiff. The friars were like monks, but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach.
There were two orders of friars in Cardiff. The Dominicans were called black friars because of their black robes. The Franciscans were known as Gray Friars because of their gray suits. Though long gone, the Gray Friars still live on Greyfriars Road.
In 1404 Owain Glendower burned Cardiff. It was an easy task as most of the buildings were wooden with thatched roofs. However, the city was soon rebuilt and once again flourished.
In the 16th century, Cardiff was still a quiet little town. In 1538 Henry VIII closed the two convents. They were cannibalized for building materials.
One writer described Tudor Cardiff: The River Taff runs close to the city walls in the western part of the city and washes the walls but is too rough for a part of it so it collapses (undermines) and the The sea flows towards the walls where, in the western corner, there is a dock just to which both ships and boats go.
Another writer said: “The River Taff runs under the walls of the castle of his honor and from the north part of the city to the south part, where there is a fair dock and a safe harbor for navigation.”
In the 16th century, in order to collect customs, the port of Cardiff was officially extended from Chepstow to Worms Head. In those days there were many pirates operating from Cardiff, often with the collusion of local officials. The navy finally took decisive action to suppress piracy in the early 17th century.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, most of Cardiff’s foreign trade was with France and the Channel Islands. Coal and some iron were exported. Salt and wine were imported. There was also a thriving coastal trade (in those days it was difficult and expensive to move goods overland, so goods were often transported along the coast from one part of Britain to another).
Cardiff goods were taken to Bridgewater, Minehead, Bristol, Gloucester and London. The main goods were agricultural products such as cheese, salted butter, wool, grain and fur. Coal and iron were also transported to other British ports.
From them the tanned leather was brought to Cardiff, along with the malt, which was used in brewing. At the end of the 16th century, 16 ships operated from Cardiff.
However, in 1607 Cardiff suffered a serious flood. Then, in 1642, came the civil war between the king and the parliament. At first, most of the townspeople supported the king. However, by 1645 the king was losing the war and lost support at Cardiff. In 1645 the city was captured by parliamentary troops.
The civil war ended in 1646, but in 1648 there was a rebellion in South Wales. However, the rebel army was defeated in a battle at the site of Fagins Drive. Then Cardiff became a peaceful port again.
In the 18th century, Cardiff was still a small town, no bigger than it had been in the Middle Ages. In 1762 the water bailiffs were appointed. They charged tolls for the maintenance of the city dock. There were also 3 private docks in Cardiff.
In 1774 an Act of Parliament created a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners who were responsible for paving and cleaning the streets of Cardiff and lighting them with oil lamps. In the 1780s the East, West, North and Blounts gates were demolished because they impeded traffic.
From the end of the 18th century, Wales was transformed by the industrial revolution. Increasing amounts of iron were exported from Cardiff at this time. However, it was difficult to transport the iron to the port by land, so in 1794 a canal was built.
In 1798 a sea basin with a lock was created to allow ships to be loaded or unloaded from barges or from the dock.
In 1796 a writer spoke of Cardiff: The inhabitants of this city and neighbourhood, carry on a considerable trade with Bristol, and ship large quantities of oats, barley, salt butter, and poultry of all kinds, and from this city there is no less 8,780 tons of cast and wrought iron shipped annually to London and elsewhere’.
In this century Cardiff grew at a phenomenal rate. In 1801 the population was less than 1,900 inhabitants. In 1851 there were more than 18,000. In 1871 there were almost 60,000. In 1900 the population was more than 160,000 inhabitants.
Cardiff’s coal and iron exports boomed in the 19th century. Grain exports also flourished. In 1839 Lord Bute built a dock, which became known as Bute West Dock. The East Dock was built in 1855. The Roath Basin was excavated in 1874. It was followed by the Roath Dock in 1887.
The railway reached Cardiff in 1841. By facilitating transportation, it fueled the growth of Cardiff. In the 19th century there was a shipbuilding industry as well as a rope manufacturing industry. Other industries include iron and steel, brewing, milling, and papermaking.
Meanwhile, there were many improvements to Cardiff in the 19th century. Starting in 1821, public gas lighting was installed. In 1835 a covered market was built. In 1853 a new Town Hall was built. In 1886 a Coal and Shipping Exchange was built. It was followed by the Pier Head Building in 1896.
Also, the Royal Arcade was built in Cardiff in 1856. The Castle Arcade was built in 1887. The castle apartments were rebuilt in the 1870s.
Despite these improvements, like all 19th century cities, Cardiff was overcrowded and dirty. The disease was widespread and 383 people died in a cholera epidemic in 1849.
However, life in the 19th century in Cardiff gradually improved and sewers were built. The city also got a supply of pure piped water. In 1883 an infirmary was built. Cardiff’s first public library opened in 1861. The University of South Wales was founded in 1893. Roath Park opened in 1894. Victoria Park followed in 1897 and Cathays Park in 1898.
In this century, Cardiff’s population growth slowed. The population was about 160,000 in 1900 and reached 280,000 in 2000. That was a big increase, but not as big as the 19th century.
Services in Cardiff continued to improve throughout the 20th century. From 1902 electric trams circulated through the streets. (They stopped racing in 1950). The Duke St Arcade gallery opened in 1902. In 1901 Splott Park opened its doors.
Then in 1905 Cardiff became a city. In 1906 a new town hall was opened and in 1907 Queen Alexandra’s Wharf was built. The National Museum of Wales opened in 1927 and the War Memorial was built in 1928. The Peace Temple was built in 1938.
Meanwhile, in the 1920s and 1930s the first council houses were built in Cardiff.
During World War II 355 people died in Cardiff from German bombing. Large parts of Butetown were destroyed, as well as part of the city center. But after 1945 Cardiff was rebuilt. The Central Bus Station opened in 1954. Then in 1955 Cardiff became the capital of Wales.
In the 20th century, the port of Cardiff was drastically reduced. Old manufacturing industries also declined, but were largely replaced by new service industries, including tourism.
The Sherman Theater was built in 1973. The St Davids Shopping Center was built in 1981 (renovated and extended in 2009). It was followed by the Queens West Shopping Center in 1987 and the Capitol Shopping Center in 1990. The National Ice Rink opened in 1986.
In 1988 a new Central Library opened in Cardiff. The Millennium Stadium opened in 1999. At the end of the 20th century it was decided to revitalize Cardiff’s Docklands by dedicating them to shopping and entertainment. Meanwhile, in 1996 Cardiff became a unitary authority.
At the beginning of the 21st century Cardiff is a flourishing city. Among its attractions are the new Mermaid Quay, famous for its restaurants, the oval basin and the Atlantic Wharf Leisure Village. Additionally, the Cardiff Millennium Center opened in 2004 and The Cardiff Story in 2011. Today Cardiff’s population is 357,000.
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