It remains to this day one of the most read pieces on the We Are Cardiff site, and I am still emailed occasionally by people who have found the post while researching their family history, and have found their way to Newtown.
Mary was Chair and Co-founder of the Newtown Association, an organisation set up in 1996 to record the history of the Newtown community and to keep its memory alive. We’re grateful to her for sharing her memories of the lost neighbourhood of Newtown, and for setting up the Association, who have managed to reconnect a lot of people with distant relatives and family friends from the past.
For those of you interested in paying your respects, the funeral cortege will be visiting the Newtown Memorial Garden on Tyndall Street, on Monday 23 November 2020 around 11:15am.
If you do want to visit, please respect physical distancing rules and allow space around the memorial garden for members of the family. There is limited parking in the area, so we recommend parking at the top of Bute Street and walking over (it’s around a five minute walk from there).
If you’re unable to visit, the funeral will be at 10:30am on Monday morning, and will be streamed (there are strictly limited numbers allowed into the building). Link to the funeral livestream.
For those wanting to send flowers, please consider donating to Kidney Wales instead. The family have set up a JustGiving page to help fundraise for Kidney Wales, an independent charity whose provision of services depends on donations and fundraising events. Unfortunately due to the recent outbreak of COVID-19, a lot of those fundraising events have been cancelled or postponed meaning that a lot of funding that Kidney Wales was depending on is now uncertain. Please help the family support their work during this time of crisis by donating in memory of Mary: JustGiving – In memory of Mary Sullivan.
Looking into the history of our great city of Cardiff, there are a few areas that are long gone, their communities dispersed. One of those areas is Newtown, or “Little Ireland”, an area that sprung up in the early 1830s, but was demolished in the 1970s.
One of the things you may have heard about Newtown is that it was the location of Cardiff’s first race riot: a dubious claim to fame. Race riots aside, Newtown was the much beloved home of a close-knit community of mostly Irish immigrants. Here, we’ll explore some more of the history of the area.
In terms of location, Newtown occupied a small area, situated roughly between Splott and the area that was then known (and still is, by locals) as the docks. Early maps show Adamsdown (to the west of Splott) being part of Newtown, but for locals, the Newtown they lived in was just six streets: Tyndall, Street, Pendoylan Street, Roland Street, North William Street, Ellen Street and Rosemary Street. Today, that area is part of Atlantic Wharf.
“It all started with The Great Irish Famine during the 1840s. Thousands of people lost their lives and thousands more faced starvation and destitution. During that time Cardiff was going through rapid development and the Marquis of Bute made arrangements to bring over a large number of Irish families (mostly from west Cork) to provide the labour to complete the building of Cardiff Docks.”
The Marquis of Bute (he was the Second Marquis, in case you’re counting – 1793-1848) was already the richest man in the world at this time, with thanks to Welsh coal. In 1846, the Marquis shipped over 10,000 starving Irish as “cheap, passive labour to build docks and railways, undercut Welsh wages and scab on strikes” (the hard words of Dic Mortimer).
Regardless of the circumstances, after the Irish arrived in Cardiff (which had a population of 15,000 at that time), suddenly nearly 40 per cent of the town became Irish. There were other ‘Irish’ neighbourhoods of the city, but the Marquis settled many of them into purpose-built housing in an area that was close to the docks: thus, the Newtown community was born.
The area was cramped, to say the least. In its heyday, there were 200 houses, as Peter Finch writes; “jammed, insanitarily, back-to-back, in the sliver of ground between the main rail line and Tyndall Street. A warren of bedrooms used in relays above cramped, over-occupied parlours and damp, unventilated kitchens were home to more than a thousand desperate immigrants.”
Most of the men and some of the women initially worked on the the building of the docks. Once the docks were complete, the people of Newtown continued to work in or around the busy sea port of Cardiff.
The men became dockers, steel workers, foundry or factory workers. The women (the ones not at home looking after children) worked in some of the many other small manufacturing industries, like the Cigar Factory, or in local offices as shorthand typists and clerks, or in the retail industry as shop assistants.
Newtown had everything you’d expect any neighbourhood to have: several corner shops, plus a few public houses. One you may have heard of was controversially removed from its location a few years back, to be moved, brick by brick, to St Fagan’s: the Vulcan.
Another pub was the Duke of Edinburgh on Ellen Street, long since demolished and gone. At the centre of this photo, you’ll see a Newtown legend (in the flat cap): the boxer ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll, who returned to Newtown after his boxing career was over, to run the Duke of Edinburgh pub with his wife Edie.
Driscoll was British featherweight champion and won the Lonsdale belt in 1910, is a member of the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame, the Ring Magazine Hall of Fame, and the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He was born and lived on Ellen Street in Newtown, and even at the height of his fame, remained firmly rooted in his home community. You can probably judge the extent of his fame by his funeral. He died of pneumonia in 1925 (aged 45), and in excess of 100,000 people lined the streets in Cardiff to see the funeral procession. There was a military-led procession through the main thoroughfares of the city, and businesses stopped trading temporarily as a mark of respect.
Although the conditions might have been poor, residents remember the streets being alive, with a sense of fun and carnival always in the air.
“I have memories of Hancock’s Draymen with their two big shire horses delivering beer to the Fitzy’s Pub at the top of our street, and of being woken up most mornings by Sammy the Milkman who yodelled as he cycled his way through the street to make his doorstep deliveries,” remembers Mary Sullivan.
“Throughout the week we had a variety of tradesmen selling their wares. Gypsies would come around door to door selling pegs and lucky charms. Then there was the baker, the greengrocer, the fishmonger and Robbo, the ice cream seller on his motorbike, who was later replaced by Mr Dimascio in his van. I also remember Mr Cox who came over the bridge from Union Street to sell custard slices from the back of his green van. There was also the pop seller; the laundry man, the salt and vinegar man; the coalman and the essential ‘Jim The Ashman’ with his famous ashcart – keeping the streets clean.”
Despite this, as early as the 1930s, Newtown had been condemned as a slum, and the council planned to remove all the residents and replace the housing in the 1970s. Plans were brought forward after a young boy, Phillip Joliffe, aged 4, from North William Street drowned after falling from a bridge over the junction canal between the West and East docks. Most people living on the estate agreed the houses needed to be replaced, but they were divided on location: most of the older people wanted new buildings on the same site, but younger residents were keen to move to other estates in Cardiff.
The Council chose the second option, and in 1966 everyone moved out and the buildings were taken down, disbanding the tight-knit community that had existed for 125 years.
Dan O’Neill – columnist for the South Wales Echo – wrote an impassioned letter about the demolition of Newtown. “Today Newtown, ‘Little Ireland’, is as distant a part of our past as Troy except that there is nothing now left to remind us of that area seen in the minds of those who lived there as a sort of shining Shangri La,” he wrote.
“Irish mythology speaks of an enchanted land, an Isle of the Blessed. That is how the people wrenched from their homes thought in exile of their beloved Newtown.
They flattened the Duke of Edinburgh, the pub where Newtown’s most famous son, Peerless Jim Driscoll, breathed his last. The other pubs too. And the houses and St. Paul’s Church, built in the 1870s, the centre of the community. No need for a policeman in Newtown when the priest walked by. Hard men would touch their foreheads, fights would miraculously end.”
Peter Finch details the Newtown that stood just prior to demolition: “In 1966 it had 169 falling-down houses, two pubs and a garage. Half its population called themselves Welsh rather than Irish, but their names – O’Sullivan, O’Leary, Burns, O’Shanahan, Dwyer – gave away their origins. A proposal that the district should be rebuilt where it stood was unaccountably defeated. Families were dispersed to Ely, Pentrebane, Trowbridge, and Llanrumney. The community broken. In 1970 St Pauls, the church, the school and the presbytery, went too in order to make space for the Central Link Road flyover, the route from the changing city to the redeveloping bay.”
As Mary Sullivan remembers it: “Life in Newtown was at times tough, tempestuous and tragic, but there was a lot of love and laughter in those streets and – most importantly of all – an overwhelming sense of community.”
Somewhat remarkably, the strong sense of community survived, and compelled ex-residents to form The Newtown Association. Their aim was to record the history of the Newtown community, to keep its memory alive, and to provide the people of Cardiff with a source of educational archive material about the Newtown community.
You can see the archives of this project on the Newtown Association’s website, where they are still encouraging former residents to share stories and photographs of their time there. So if you or your family were from the area, get in touch with them!
In March 2004, the Association unveiled a permanent memorial to the significant part which the people of the community played in the development of Cardiff. Each year the Association celebrates St Patrick’s Day with a programme of events that includes a few minutes of quiet reflection at the memorial garden in Tyndall Street (just next to the Etap hotel).
For almost 40 years I’ve been living in a leafy suburb in North Cardiff. I’m happy here and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else – but my most vivid memories are of growing up in a very different part of Cardiff. A tiny place called Newtown (‘Little Ireland’). I can clearly remember those six streets of drab grey terraced houses. There were no trees, not one visible blade of grass but life in Newtown was anything but dull. And I loved it.
It all started with The Great Irish Famine during the 1840s. Thousands of people lost their lives and thousands more faced starvation and destitution. During that time Cardiff was going through rapid development and the Marquis of Bute made arrangements to bring over a large number of Irish families (mostly from west Cork) to provide the labour to complete the building of Cardiff Docks. He settled them into purpose built housing near the docks and the Newtown community was born. A vibrant self perpetuating community – spanning four generations – lived and thrived in those six streets. Most of the men and some of the women too worked on the docks And once they were complete the people of Newtown continued to work in or around the Docks. The men became dockers, steel workers, foundry or factory workers. The women (who weren’t at home looking after their children) worked in some of the many other small manufacturing industries, like the Cigar Factory, or in local offices as shorthand typists and clerks, or in the retail industry as shop assistants. Early maps indicate that Adamsdown was part of Newtown but the Newtown I knew consisted of just six streets, these were: Tyndall, Street, Pendoylan Street, Roland Street, North William Street, Ellen Street and Rosemary Street. We had several corner shops and a few public houses. but at the core we had our Church – St Paul’s – where we prayed together and had our baptisms, our weddings and our funerals.
Newtown was situated between the Docks and Splott. It was surrounded by railways, walls and feeders to the dock – rendering it a virtual island. My family lived in Pendoylan Street, and when I say my family I really do mean my family. My Grandmother – who worked for Edward England on the Dock unloading potatoes – had thirty seven grandchildren. All but six of them lived in our street. The rest of the houses were occupied by other relatives or friends.
No-one had a telephone, but there was a Public Telephone Box at the end of Tyndall Street, opposite the Church. I remember someone putting a piece of carpet on the floor of the phone box. I have been told that the Priest’s Housekeeper used to polish the phone and occasionally put fresh flowers in there. Oh, there is so much to tell about the Newtown but I have neither the time nor the space here. But I shall jtry to give you a snapshot of what it was like living there. As anyone who lived there will tell you that doors were never locked and what little we had we shared. It was a common occurrence to go next door or across the road to ‘borrow’ a cup of sugar, a couple of rounds of bread or a ‘drop’ of milk. The first family in our street to have a telly were ‘the Welsh’s’ and we would queue up to watch it. Needless to say everyone wanted to be Terry Welsh’s best friend.
In those days everyone had a tin bath which would be brought into the living room every Saturday night and the younger children would be bathed in front of the fire. The first one to have a bathroom was my Aunty Nora (my mother’s sister) and us older ones would have to put a shilling in the Mission Box for African babies if we wanted to have a bath.
Babies were delivered assisted by the appointed unofficial Street Midwife (in our street it was Mrs Slade) and when there was a death in the street the same Mrs Slade would oversee the washing of the body while an army of women would take care of cooking for the family, helping with the children and preparing the front room where the corpse would be laid out ready for a good old Irish Wake. The wake could last two or three days and nights. As children we would be encouraged to knock on the door to pay our respects – the smaller ones having to be lifted up to peer into the coffin and say a little prayer. The men would take it in turns to stay up all up all night sharing a couple of bottles of Guinness and maybe a drop of the hard stuff too, recalling stories and telling tales involving the deceased.
Before any of us had television we entertained ourselves – there was always someone to play with in the street. We played games of baseball, football, Rugby (touch & Pass), Cricket Alleligo, Leapfrog, Bulldog, Hopscotch, Allies, Buttons and Rat Tat Ginger, We’d sling a thick rope on the arms of a lamppost to make a swing. Summer days seemed to last so much longer then. Towards the end of October we’d start collecting old wood, newspaper and orange boxes in preparation for Bonfire Night. Our Bonfire was generally built at the top end of the Street. Window panes would crack and putty start to melt before we’d hear the siren and wait for the big red fire engine to lumber into the street. Luckily I don’t remember anyone being injured – although for the life of me I cannot understand how any of us escaped.
The streets always seemed to be alive. I have memories of Hancock’s Draymen with their two big shire horses delivering beer to the Fitzy’s Pub at the top of our street and of being woken up most mornings by Sammy the Milkman who yodelled as he cycled his way through the street to make his doorstep deliveries. Throughout the week we had a variety of tradesmen selling their wares, Gypsies would come around door to door selling pegs and lucky charms. Then there was the baker, the greencrocer, the fishmonger and Robbo, the ice cream seller on his motorbike, who was later replaced by Mr Dimascio in his van. They had fierce competition from my Auntie Annie though – she made her own ice cream and sold cornets and wafers and toffee dabs too from her back kitchen. I also remember Mr Cox who came over the bridge from Union Street to sell custard slices from the back of his green van. There was also the pop seller; the laundry man, the salt and vinegar man; the coalman and the essential ‘Jim The Ashman’ with his famous ashcart – keeping the streets clean. I promise you I am not just looking through Rose Coloured glasses. Life in Newtown was at times tough, tempestuous and tragic, but there was a lot of love and laughter in those streets and – most importantly of all – an overwhelming sense of community.
Sadly a Compulsory Purchase Order during the mid sixties began the demise of Newtown. It’s Church, houses shops and pubs were demolished and its community scattered to the four corners of the city. Remarkably the community survived – we still had a Newtown Identity. So thirty years on, inspired by a poem recorded by Tommy Walsh, entitled Newtown: the Parish of St Paul’s, a group of us former residents got together and formed The Newtown Association.
I am pleased to say we achieved our aim, which was to record the History of the Newtown community, to keep its memory alive, and to provide the people of Cardiff with a source of educational archive material about the Newtown community, And in March 2004 we unveiled a permanent memorial to the significant part which the people of the community played in the development of this wonderful City.
Mary Sullivan lives in Penylan with her husband Vincent to whom she has been married for forty four years. They have five grandchildren and a great grandson. She is Chair and Co-founder of The Newtown Association – an organisation set up in 1996 to record the history of the Newtown community and to keep its memory alive Mary currently works as an administrator for Communities First in Cardiff Bay – an area very close to where she was born.
Mary was photographed in the Newtown memorial garden by Ffion Matthews