A Light Christmas in Cardiff

The noise of the bonfire night bangers have hardly faded and already the Christmas lights have been switched on in the centre of Cardiff. Impressive lights, especially the three wise men and the drummer boys adorning the castle. Better than 1996 when technical problems reduced the illuminations to rows of white lights.

But let’s take a trip back in time to the Christmas party in Cardiff, in 1895, when the schoolroom was lit by electric light for the first time. It’s not known how many lights were used but the effect must have been stunning for people who had been brought up in the dim shadows of oil lamps or gas lights.

In a day and age when at the flick of switches we can watch television, listen to the radio, wash and dry our clothes, cook, heat our homes or operate our computers it is hard to imagine a world without electricity.

Yet, I was born in a gas‑lit, coal‑fired house in Harvey Street, Cadoxton, Barry (near Cardiff), in 1934. There were gas lights in the street which needed a lamp lighter to bring them to life on a cold winter’s evening. Auntie Annie, my grandfather’s sister, lived just around the corner in a thatched cottage which was lit only by lamplight until well into the 1950s.

But back to the 1990s. There, with the help of the St. Peter’s Chair Magazine, we can have a glimpse of how Christmas was spent in the then town of Cardiff, fast becoming one of the greatest coal‑exporting ports in the world. In 1892 St. Cuthbert’s school (a Catholic school in Cardiff’s docklands – now Cardiff Bay) had not yet been built but there was a catechism class run by members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The youngsters were treated to tea before having a joyful party in St. David’s Hall (a hall, now no more, that belonged to St. David’s R.C.Church, now the Cathedral, Charles Street, Cardiff).

About the same time Catholics flocked to hear Bishop Hedley (Bishop of this part of Wales from 1880 to 1916) speak about voluntary schools – with the proceeds of the collection going towards building St. Cuthbert’s School, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. How different to the present day when the Welsh Office has approved a 1 million plan to build a new St. Cuthbert’s School.

The catechism class of St. Cuthbert’s were marginally better off in 1893 than the destitute poor Catholics – mostly of Irish descent – who were in the Ely Workhouse in Cardiff. The church authorities were struggling to find a solution to a system whereby youngsters of 12 or 13 were being placed as virtual slaves in the homes of the better‑off people in the city on small or no wages and precious little interest in their cultural and religious background.

Nazareth House in Cardiff and St. Michael’s Childrens Home in Treforest provided accommodation for a couple of hundred children but financial difficulties and opposition from the authorities prevented much more being done.

The Vicar General of the Newport and Menevia Diocese, a Monsignor Williams, wrote in St. Peter’s Chair in December, 1893, that the Board of Guardians had refused a request to send Catholic children from the Ely Workhouse to Catholic schools and institutions.

Pointing out the problems of providing Catholic teachers at the Workhouse, Monsignor Williams, in a letter to the Western Mail in December 1892 stated:

“You may as well send a pious lady once or twice a week to the woods to teach the rabbits to be tame and the wild boars to be gentle as send a pious lady, or priest, to a Protestant institution to teach the Catholic children to grow up good practical Catholics.”

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the Board of Guardians accepted the principle of Catholic children for Catholic schools.

There is no record of how Christmas was spent in the Ely Workhouse, but members of St. Peter’s Holy Family Confraternity knew how to enjoy themselves in December 1894. The entertainment was provided by a harpist, Miss George (it was not common to use Christian names in those Victorian days). Her ‘taste and touch of her instrument were universally admired and praised.” She also played a duet with her pupil, Miss Buist.

On Boxing Night the Holy Family Confraternity celebrated with a Japanese buffet; drinks were restricted to those who ordered “solid refreshments” from the Yokohama menu!

Meanwhile, the 150 orphans and 50 elderly people at Nazareth House were entertained at their Christmas tea with a lantern show presented by the Vicar General. The 1890s version of a Walt Disney video, no doubt. And the St. Vincent de Paul Society had their own version of ‘Meals on Heels’, walking around St. Peter’s Parish to deliver 100 hot meals to housebound elderly people.

Just a few weeks earlier Cardiff’s first ever Catholic Civic Service had been held in St. David’s Church in the presence of the Mayor, Alderman Carey. The procession from the Town Hall to the church was accompanied by St. Paul’s Brass Band and escorted by members of the Hibernian Society and the Irish National League. Thousands of people lined the route for the historic occasion.

©: John O’Sullivan, a writer on local history and Catholicism, a freelance journalist in Cardiff.

Published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter, 1997.

Christmas Box