History of Penarth
Our oldest reference to Penarth goes back almost 1,000 years, to when Osbert, a Norman knight, granted land here to St Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol...
The Abbot probably ran his estate here from a centre at Cwrt y Vil off Lavernock Road. Henry VIII grabbed his land, which was then given to Bristol Cathedral, and leased out in turn to big local families, the Herberts, Lewises and Windsors.
The following centuries saw episodes of piracy and smuggling. There was a terrific row between Parson Alport and local farmers about rights and dues he claimed but they rejected, with blows exchanged, assaults in the street of London and years of legal wrangling. There was the civil war, when blood ran down the river Ely. But in general life was quiet.
There were several big farms – including West House, The Kymin, Rogers Moor, Cwrt y Vil, Lower Penarth – and several smaller holdings. Perhaps a 12-20 families lived in the parish (probably fewer than 100 people), living in scattered thatched, stone houses, with a small mediaeval church perched on the hill. The families intermarried with the neighbouring parishes, traded through Cardiff and Bristol, and looked forward to the annual village revels, held every May.
There are a few remnants still from that time, such as the remains of the old monastic centre at Cwrt y Vil and the much modified West House farmhouse. The local vicar kept a smallholding and today’s Glebe Street still bends around where his land once was. Stanwell Road snakes its way along its original ancient route.
Change came with the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. Coal dug in the south Wales valleys was brought south to Cardiff by canal and by rail. The Bute family built docks in Cardiff to take through which the coal was exported. Robert Clive, a Tory politician and shrewd investor, who had married Lady Harriet, the Windsor heiress, also saw an opportunity and bought the Penarth freehold off Bristol.
Penarth Docks just before opening in 1865
A company was set up to build a dock behind the headland, and streets were laid out between the dock and the new Windsor Road, the area that still includes almost every pub in the town and most of the old chapels.
Building the dock did not go smoothly. The contractors went bust, there was a trade depression and both Clive and his only son died prematurely. Building stopped in the town, and shopkeepers closed their doors.
The investors pressed on. Building picked up after the dock opened in 1865. A grand new church was built dominating the town. Just below it sweeping roads of fashionable houses and villas were laid out. In the 18th century The Kymin had already become a smart seaside residence and others now followed a smart seaside residence and others now followed right round the headland and wherever there was a view of the sea.
The Arrival of the Railway
The arrival of the railway link to Cardiff in 1878 provided a second boost. Building picked up in the old town and filled the area between there and the railway station. The town centre shifted towards Windsor Road, now with shops both sides.
It was intended to extend the railway beyond the town and new roads were laid next to the planned route – Plymouth Road, Westbourne Road, Victoria Road – and gradually the old landscape of fields, fences and ponds disappeared under streets and houses.
Penarth had been a popular seaside destination, even before the town was started, accessible by water from Cardiff. Omnibuses and the railway brought in more visitors, and donkeys and bathing machines and refreshment stalls appeared along the front. The Estate took it properly in hand from the 1870s, creating gardens and a fine esplanade, and giving support to a boathouse, public baths and finally a pier.
Penarth Railway Station
The population grew: Welsh, English and Irish, rich and poor and people from across the world brought in to the dock. Some of the wealthiest families in Wales resided here yet there were years when the poor relied on soup kitchens.
By the 1890s the maturing town faced something of a crisis. Illegal drinking had become a serious problem, there were sharp political battles, Barry became a serious rival on every level, and Cardiff was itching to annex the town. As it crept south across the plateau’s two moors; Rogersmoor and the West Moor, it became a town of two halves.
In 1892 the Board had created two wards, the North ward became known locally as The Bowery, with its Daggertown, mainly working class housing, with no banks, dentists, doctors or solicitor’s offices. The south ward was middle class and became known as Villadom. The denizens of the two halves differed in many ways, accent, attire, employment, schooling, social morals and wealth.
St Augustine's Church, Penarth
The War Years
Yet the town kept its nerve, its independence and though it slowed a little, its growing prosperity.
By 1900 the dock, expanded in the 1880s, was booming, handling over 3 million tons compared to just over 1 million in 1870. During the First World War the docks were very busy, over 200 Penarth men lost their lives and there was considerable anti-German sentiment,. So much so that some families changed their names, e.g. next door neighbours in Albert Crescent changed names from Kaiser and Ernst to Kingston and Ernest.
During the 1920s the Cenotaph designed by William Goscombe John was erected in Alexandra Park, the Pier Pavilion was added to the pier and work on Llandough Hospital started, it opened in 1934.
Penarth's Victorian Town Centre
In 1935 the dock was handling reduced tonnage, just over 1.2 million tons and in 1936 this fell further to just over 638,000 tons. The docks, which had been such a crucial part of Penarth’s dramatic growth closed. The depression caused large scale unemployment between 1936 to 1939.
During the 1930s Basque refugees escaping Franco’s regime were accommodated at the empty Ship Hotel, they were followed by Czech refugees from the Sudetenland fleeing the Nazis. Both groups were financially supported by Welsh miners.
At the declaration of war the docks reopened, air raid shelters were built in house gardens, mainly built with brick and concrete and public shelters were built in the middle of streets. (Plassey Street between Arcot and High Street).
The dock was very busy from the day of its reopening, shipping out ammunition, bombs, aircraft parts, vehicles petrol and locomotives, initially for the BEF campaign in France and later for the North Africa campaign. When the Americans joined the war they took over the whole dock and turned Penarth into an American garrison town.
During the hostilities the town suffered numerous bombing raids, the worst one on March 4th 1941, it started at 08.41 and waves of bombers carried on for over six hours. The next day the ARP reported that at least 150 high explosive bombs had been dropped with over 5000 incendiary bombs. All Saints Church and the Holy Nativity Church were gutted as were houses on Clive Place, Glebe Street and Salop Street and in other parts of the town. There was serious consideration given to the demolition of St Augustine’s Church when papers recovered from an enemy plane showed that the church was being used as a landmark for the raids on the docks.
The immediate post war decade of 1945 to 1955 was one of austerity with numerous shortages and rationing, the town was still two distinct halves, with all of the north ward and much of the south ward lacking electricity.
Social change was taking place, mainly because of the new Labour Government, of whom the town’s new MP James Callaghan was a member, he later became Prime Minister and is also known for having played cricket matches on the sandbank in the Severn Estuary at low tide in the summer.
From the late 1940s through the 1950s there was a huge council house building programme and this saw large numbers of families leaving the densely crowded accommodation on Penarth ridge for the semi-detached estates of the Penarth plateau. This also started the dissolution of the social differences prevalent in the town, the town’s urbanized area doubled.
In 1974 Penarth Urban District Council was taken over by the Vale of Glamorgan Council, many people feel that the new body was not as interested in the town as the old Council.
Since the 1980s there has continued to be huge developments of houses in the town, mainly privately built and owned. Penarth is no longer an industrial town but is often cited as one of the best towns to live in in Wales and is a popular choice for people re-locating to the area.
Penarth has appeared in many top 10 places to live in Wales including The Times newspaper.
John Street, Penarth
The Pilot Public House, Daggertown,
War Memorial by Cardiff born artist William Goscombe John