A History of Cardiff

By Tim Lambert

The Roman Fort at Cardiff

Cardiff began as a Roman fort. The Romans invaded Wales about 50 AD and about 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 now at peace.

However, in the mid-3rd century, the fort was rebuilt and strengthened to defend South Wales against Irish raiders. Yet in the fourth century Roman civilisation declined. Towards the end of the century, the Romans abandoned the fort at Cardiff.

Cardiff in the Middle Ages

The town of Cardiff was founded when the Normans conquered Glamorgan. A Norman called Robert Fitz Hamon conquered the area. He built a wooden castle within the walls of the old Roman fort. (The castle was rebuilt in stone in the early 12th century).

Soon a little town grew up in the shadow of the castle. That often happened in the Middle Ages as the castle’s garrison provided a market for the goods made by the craftsmen of the town. 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 2 annual fairs. In the Middle Ages, the fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they lasted a fortnight. Buyers and sellers would come from all over Glamorgan and even further away to attend a Cardiff fair.

In Medieval Cardiff, there were the same craftsmen you would find in any Medieval town like butchers, bakers, brewers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. There were also leather workers like shoemakers and glovers. Medieval Cardiff was also a busy port. Ships were loaded and unloaded at a town quay.

In the early 12th century a wooden palisade was erected around the town to protect it. In the late 13th century this was replaced by a stone wall.

Then in the 13th century, the friars arrived in Cardiff. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 2 orders of friars in Cardiff. The Dominicans were called black friars because of their black costumes. The Franciscans were known as grey friars because of their grey costumes. Although they have long since disappeared the grey friars live on in the street name Greyfriars Road.

In 1404 Owain Glendower burned Cardiff. That was an easy task as most of the buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. However, the town was soon rebuilt and it flourished once again.

Cardiff in the 16th century

In the 16th century, Cardiff remained a small and quiet town. In 1538 Henry VIII closed the two friaries. They were cannibalized for building materials.

A writer described Tudor Cardiff: ‘The river Taff runs near the town walls in the west part of the town and washes the walls but somewhat too hard for part of it is thereby overturned (undermined) and the sea flows to the walls where, at the west angle, is a fair quay to which both ships and boats resort’.

Another writer said: ‘The River Taff runs under the walls of his honor’s castle and from the north part of the town to the south part where there is a fair quay and a safe harbor for shipping’.

In the 16th century, to collect customs, the port of Cardiff officially extended from Chepstow to Worms Head. In those days many pirates were operating from Cardiff often with the connivance of local officials. The navy finally took decisive action to suppress piracy in the early 17th century.

Cardiff in the 17th century

In the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the foreign trade of Cardiff 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 by land so merchandise was often transported along the coast from one part of Britain to another.) Goods from Cardiff were taken to Bridgwater, Minehead, Bristol, Gloucester, and London.

The main goods were farm produce such as cheese, salted butter, wool, grain, and skins. Some coal and iron were also transported to other British ports. Tanned leather was brought from them to Cardiff along with malt, which was used in brewing. In the late 16th century 16 ships operated from Cardiff.

However, in 1607 Cardiff suffered from a severe flood. Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. At first, most of the townspeople supported the king. However, by 1645 the king was losing the war and he lost support in Cardiff. In 1645 the town 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 routed in a battle on the site of Fagins Drive. Afterward, Cardiff returned to being a peaceful port.

Cardiff in the 18th century

In the 18th century, Cardiff remained a small town, no larger than it had been in the Middle Ages. In 1762 Water Bailiffs were appointed. They charged tolls for the upkeep of the town quay. There were also 3 private wharves 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 East, West, North, and Blounts Gates were demolished because they impeded traffic.

From the late 18th century Wales was transformed by the industrial revolution. At that time increasing amounts of iron were exported from Cardiff. However, it was difficult to transport iron to the port by land so in 1794 a canal was built. In 1798 a sea basin was created with a sea lock to allow ships in where they could be loaded or unloaded from barges or the wharf.

In 1796 a writer said of Cardiff: ‘The inhabitants of this town and neighborhood carry on a considerable trade to Bristol and send thither great quantities of oats, barley, salt butter and poultry of all kinds and from this town, there are not less than 8,780 tons of cast and wrought iron shipped annually to London and other places’.

Cardiff in the 19th century

In this century Cardiff grew at a phenomenal pace. In 1801 the population was less than 1,900. By 1851 it was over 18,000. By 1871 it was almost 60,000. By 1900 the population was over 160,000.

Exports of coal and iron from Cardiff boomed in the 19th century. The export of grain also flourished. In 1839 Lord Bute built a dock, which became known as Bute West Dock. East Dock was built in 1855. Roath Basin was dug in 1874. It was followed by Roath Dock in 1887.

The railway reached Cardiff in 1841. By making transport easier it fueled the growth of Cardiff. In the 19th century, there was a shipbuilding industry as well as a rope-making industry. Other industries included iron and steel, brewing, milling, and papermaking.

Meanwhile, there were many improvements to Cardiff in the 19th century. From 1821 there was gas street lighting. 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. Furthermore, Royal Arcade was built in Cardiff in 1856. Castle Arcade was built in 1887. The Castle’s living apartments were rebuilt in the 1870s.

Despite these improvements, like all 19th century towns, Cardiff was overcrowded and dirty. Diseases were rife and 383 people died in a cholera epidemic in 1849.

However, life in 19th century Cardiff gradually improved and sewers were built. The town also gained a pure piped water supply. In 1883 an infirmary was built. The first public library in Cardiff opened in 1861. The University of South Wales was founded in 1893. Roath Park opened in 1894. It was followed by Victoria Park in 1897 and Cathays Park in 1898.

Cardiff in the 20th century

Amenities in Cardiff continued to improve during the 20th century. From 1902 electric trams ran in the streets. (They stopped running in 1950). Duke St Arcade opened in 1902. In 1901 Splott Park opened.

Then in 1905, Cardiff was made a city. A new City Hall was opened in 1906 and Queen Alexandra Dock was built in 1907. The National Museum of Wales opened in 1927 and the War Memorial was built in 1928. The Temple of Peace was built in 1938.

Meanwhile, in the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built in Cardiff.

During the Second World War, 355 people were killed in Cardiff by German bombing. Large parts of Butetown were destroyed as was part of the city center. But after 1945 Cardiff was rebuilt. The Central Bus Station opened in 1954. Then in 1955, Cardiff was made the capital of Wales.

In the 20th century, the port of Cardiff declined drastically. The old manufacturing industries also declined but they were largely replaced by new service industries including tourism.

Sherman Theatre was built in 1973. St Davids Shopping Centre was built in 1981 (it was renewed and enlarged in 2009). It was followed by Capitol Shopping Centre in 1990. The National Ice Rink opened in 1986. A new Central Library opened in Cardiff in 1988. The Principality Stadium opened in 1999. So did Mermaid Quay.

Meanwhile, in 1996, Cardiff was made a unitary authority.

Cardiff in the 21st century

At the beginning of the 21st century, Cardiff is a flourishing city. The Cardiff Millennium Centre opened in 2004 and The Cardiff Story opened in 2011. In 2022 the population of Cardiff was 373,000.

A view of Cardiff

Last revised 2024