Canton, Cardiff

The Suburb as Urban Memory: A Canton Memoir

Richard Porch remembers the Canton of his childhood with a work of psychogeographic memoir calling back to a time of abundant corner shops, public architecture and a self-contained community functioning as its own urban village.

They say life – like art – only makes sense retrospectively and I think they are right. When I started to think about writing where I grew up in a suburb of Cardiff it was mostly intended to be a memoir. It soon changed when I realised what exactly I was writing about. So, this is not intended to be a history of Canton, numerous local historians have done that already. My account of Canton relates not just to how I experienced it as a child in the early sixties but how (I now realise) successfully compact it was as an urban environment in which to grow up. I grew up there principally it seems to me in the period 1960-67. So, this is part memoir, part work of psychogeography and partly architectural perambulation.

The Canton of my late childhood was bounded by a trinity of three parks. Victoria Park in the west, Llandaff Fields in the east and Thomson’s Park to the north. All of them offered – then and now – different ‘experiences’. That is to say one offered a conventional Victorian municipal experience comprised of flower beds, park benches and a paddling pool (Victoria Park). Thomson’s Park was and is a landscaped twin-level park with a playing field on top and a conventional municipal flower bed offer at street level. While Llandaff Fields was and remains a semi-rural experience with long avenues of trees, numerous playing surfaces and a lot of open space. I used the ‘leisure offer’ of all of them and they functioned as outdoor leisure centres to me. Thomson’s Park got most of my custom as it was a mere ten minutes on foot from my parents’ house in Market Road. In the early 1960s the complete absence of leisure centres meant that municipal parks became venues for cricket, football and general recreational mayhem that revolved around gangs, throwing sticks at each other and bating park keepers, etc. The worst that happened was that you came home a bit muddy and minus your football or cricket bat which had been stolen. In those days none of one’s friends got knifed, beaten to death or arrested for selling drugs. At least no one that I knew did.

Market Road is reached from a turn-off on Cowbridge Road East and continues for roughly 500 yards up to Carmarthen Road where it terminates. It contained not only two short terraces of housing (one beside the police station and the other opposite the school) the aforementioned police station, a nonconformist chapel, a large Edwardian School, a garage, a scrap yard and a cannery. It also supported two corner shops. One rounded the corner onto Market Place, owned by a Liverpudlian called Mrs. Dowling and another at the opposite end of Market Road called Nancy’s. Each of them drew their custom from what could only have been a few immediately adjacent streets of housing. Of which more later.

Cowbridge Road East runs from Ely (where the old Wiggins Teape paper mill used to be) up to Cathedral Road. As a road, it naturally generated development along its 2-3-mile length, a host of small shops, a brewery and only very occasionally, some light industrial sites. It was what planners would call a textbook example of ‘ribbon development’ and it almost directly as a consequence became a district level shopping centre of a linear kind. Roads are economic generators; if you build almost any kind of road between two points the space in between will soon infill with shops. Small at first, made by converting houses, then larger purpose-built things appear, finally large-scale or superstore retailers want a presence. The latter tends to be so big that the car parking needed to support them determines whether or not they can be accommodated. The early supermarkets often came with very little parking, which didn’t matter so much as one-stop shopping trips were a thing of the future. Apart from Donald Knight’s, Canton never attracted the department stores and specialised shops that would enable it to compete with Cardiff city centre, but then it was not supposed to.

In the early 1960s the turn off to Market Road was signalled principally by the old Canton Police Station. This was built in 1883 of that great constructional standby, Pennant sandstone, it had castellated battlements and a small tower with a flagpole attached, all impressive signifiers of law and order. On the opposite side of the road was a branch of Home & Colonial, which was a general grocery store. My chief memory of the Home & Colonial was its hand-operated meat slicer and metal bins canted at an angle to the front of the main counter. They contained loose or shards of broken biscuits of various kinds and tempted the eye (and the hand) of very young customers. Immediately behind the shop was Salem Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, its stubby spire visible best from Cowbridge Road. Built 1909-11 by Habershon, Fawckner & Co. from the inevitable Pennant sandstone with Bath stone dressings, it never really registered as a religious building to me. This was because the external walls to Market Road had their pointed arch ecclesiastical windows located above head height and so the street impression was it was just another stone building. W.G. Habershon originally of London but also latterly of Newport built it in what might be termed a Nonconformist Gothic style for £7000. There was then a lane which led to Harvey Street, which was a little enclave of poverty which crossed the end of Glamorgan Street. Out of nowhere there appeared two streets of two-up and two-down terraced houses without hot water, bathrooms and only an outdoor lavatory. Even in the 1970s the folk living there paid only £3.98p every fortnight. This lane off Market Road via Harvey Street was a short-cut to Cowbridge Road and I always hurried down it for some reason. What was I afraid of? On the other side of the lane and still in Market Road was a large structure which I recall was a garage and car showroom in the early 1960s. It latterly became Hunt’s a firm of shopfitters, the keening of their circular saws cutting sheets of timber could be distantly heard in nearby gardens. It became an outpost of Chapter Art’s Centre in the 1980s. Then a single row of late Victorian semis made of Pennant sandstone were built, in the furthest one up Market Road was where my family lived, opposite Canton High School.

What I did not realise at the time was that I was living in what we now call an “urban village”. That’s to say it was highly self-contained community catered for by numerous retail, light-industrial and residential elements, all of which were pretty seamlessly integrated. I say seamlessly, although there was nothing particularly seamless about the canning factory at the Carmarthen Road end of Market Road. It rejoiced in the Disneyesque name of ‘Skreks’ and was yet another large rock-faced Pennant sandstone building built, to judge from its design, at some point in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century for the purposes of canning fruit. A small army of girls, their hair compacted into buns and with cigarettes dangling from their lips, (this being the early 1960s) went in there every day to can fruit. This sat waiting in exposed wooden crates outside in the yard. This yard in turn backed out onto the playground of what was Canton High School. Designed in 1904 by and finished in 1907 this was a showpiece Edwardian school that cost £20,000 to build in red Ruabon brick and Bath stone dressings by the architectural firm of James and Morgan. Originally designated the Municipal Secondary School, it did have a pitched roof until a stick of German incendiary bombs fell across Market Road one night in the winter of 1941, since when it has been modernistically flat. It also lost its clock tower that night too. Internally it was organised about a central hall with lots of glazed tiling and parquet flooring. Heavily inscribed timber desks were the norm, quite a few of which still retained their old ceramic ink wells and there was that all-pervasive school smell of varnish. That was overlaid between the hours of 10.30am and 1.00pm by the one of school dinners being prepared. It became Market Road High School briefly for a time in the late 1960’s (which is when I went there) until all students were sent to Fitzalan High School in Leckwith. It sat vacant until Chapter Arts Centre took it over in 1971 and made it into the vibrant arts centre it is to this day. Market Road High’s two-storey North Walian red brick splendour sat nicely within its suburban setting somehow neither dominating nor deforming the area with its presence. It achieved this via the harmony of its elevations none of which are monolithic and are studded liberally with window openings.

Cardiff terraced houses (Image credit: Tony Othen)
Cardiff terraced houses (Image credit: Tony Othen)

The design of large schools would change radically in the 1950s. In would come acres of plate glass cladding a steel structure that made them look more akin to corporate architecture than educational environments. These materials also denuded them of all ornament in a way that was partially ideologically driven but also dovetailed nicely with more prosaic concerns to do with efficiency and economy that were in the zeitgeist at the time. This being the early 1960s children unbelievably either walked or took the bus to school, few were dropped off by parents with a car. So, Market Road was never choked by vehicles doing the school run around 8.30am in the morning or at 3.30pm of an afternoon. Amazingly, it even had its own tennis courts laid out (in concrete) on some adjacent land that separated the school from Skreks canning factory.

I can still remember enterprising, or was it errant school mates, climbing the wall between Skreks and the tennis courts to steal the fruit awaiting the cannery’s cooking vats. I believe the land the tennis courts once stood on was sold for development in the 1990s. In its early 1960s heyday I can just about remember Market Road being thronged with very neat school children wearing the regulation cap, blazer and short trousers then de rigueur for the period. Between the school and the tennis courts was a very pleasant and bijou caretaker’s house with a little yard behind and the inevitable coal bunker. This being the early sixties most homes were still warmed by coal fires and you needed an outside bunker in which to keep your supply of ‘nutty slack’ dry. The latter was delivered by a coalman whose blackened lorry would inch its way down streets unclogged by parked cars, pausing only long enough for him to heave a sack of coal onto the pavement outside the house. The houses in Market Road did not have ‘coal holes’, a cellar beneath the house accessed via a cast-iron cover. Local legend has it that they were known as the ‘dolls houses’ on account of the symmetry of their single street façade. They were built by the council in the mid-late 1880s when Canton was being laid out as a new suburb. It is interesting to speculate just how much planning went into Market Road especially when I reflect on the density of uses that it contained. It had Skreks cannery at the top end along with a small scrap yard run by a Mr. Hampson. Roughly midway down Market Road a removal firm called Mansfield’s was operated from no 27. Apart from a brass plaque outside the house announcing this fact they owned two vast, high-sided removal vans painted sky-blue and cream which were parked in the road invariably opposite their house. The removal business must have been lucrative in the early 1960s because old Mr. Mansfield drove a Jaguar as did his son ‘Joe’ who lived there with his mum and dad. A bit further up and near the end of Market Road Mr. Hampson’s scrap yard had two high iron doors which closed to secure the yard. Nevertheless, I always remember it open and always full of scrap, but hardly ever did one see the man himself. I can only ever recall seeing him once or twice and never to speak to. In any case kids did not talk to adults in those days unless addressed first. He was of average height and build with a full moustache and a flat cap. He wore, on the few occasions when I actually saw him, a dark blue boiler suit. With hindsight he was straight from central casting and was every inch what one would expect an urban scrap dealer to look like. Interestingly his yard never seemed to generate traffic, noise or pollution; it was a very quiet scrap yard. Like Skreks it has since been redeveloped for housing, which is what it always should have been.

Immediately next door to Hampson’s scrap yard and on the corner of where Market Road met Carmarthen Street was a corner shop. This one was run by Nancy and Henry Burrows with their two sons Paul and Robert. The corner shop was one of the early 1960s most ubiquitous features in the urban landscape and one which has almost completely died out. In the bit of Canton I lived in there was a corner shop on almost every corner, God knows how they survived economically when their ‘trading hinterland’ seemed to amount to nothing more than the street they were on the corner of. Even as a child I remember thinking there were a lot of them. I can recollect no less than ten corner shops within a three-block radius of our house in Market Road. Looking back, these corner shops were the retail equivalent of subsistence farming – they were subsistence retailing. Such shops were not ‘manned’ all the time, only when the bell above the door rang and signalled a customer was in the shop did someone venture out from the interior to serve them. Consequently, they tended to be full of tinned goods and packets of stuff prepared long ago and in no danger of going off. Nancy’s, as it was universally known, was a classic corner shop with two windows, one facing out into Market Road and the other into Carmarthen Street. Neither were ‘dressed’ as such and arguably they did not need to be because the passing trade was pretty much non-existent. As everyone knew where the shop was the windows were almost redundant. As you entered Nancy’s the floorboards beneath you deflected noticeably, in deference perhaps to all the thousands of faithful customers who had trodden them over the years. From memory the interior was dark and dimly lit by household bulbs. There was a small counter, a manually-operated till and shelves behind containing every imaginable food stuff that could be squeezed into a tin or jar. There were jars of Borax Honey, packets of Atora beef suet and packets of Hornimans loose tea. As one’s memory turns over, a whole back-catalogue of long-forgotten products wells up in the minds-eye. ‘Farley’s’ rusks for babies, ‘Oxydol’ soap flakes and cardboard tubes of ‘Flash’ floor cleaner to name but three. Fronting the counter was of course jar upon glass jar of congealed sweets made virtually from pure sugar for the kids whose teeth they were destined to rot. Freezers full of frozen food capable of being rendered edible by microwave technology that would come later in the decade; tinned food was the convenience food of the early 1960s. The eponymous Nancy herself would have served you standing in front of shelves stacked with brands of cigarettes, none of which bore gory health warnings. Long-vanished brands like my father’s favourite ‘Park Drive’, Woodbine and Kensitas would have adorned the wall to the rear of the counter. Kensitas came with coupons which enabled you, once you had saved up a few hundred or so, to exchange them for things as handbags, dolls and electric drills. Never for something you would really need – like an iron lung. Behind the counter was a door leading to the family’s living quarters and the rest of the house.

Immediately opposite Nancy’s on the other side of Carmarthen Street (and so technically not in Market Road) was another corner shop which, for those with a nose for social gradations, catered to an almost imperceptibly different class of customer. This shop was called ‘Arnott’s’ and its trading hinterland might have said to have been Rectory Road all the way up to where it met Romilly Road. Mr. Arnott was a large jovial shopkeeper-type again straight from central casting, with a bristling silver moustache. His shop actually looked like it had been designed to be a shop and although smaller than Nancy’s was efficient-looking and bright. He wore a white full-length coat in order to demonstrate his professional shop keeper’s credentials and spoke with an accentless middle-class voice. He was therefore considered ‘posh’ in our part of Canton. His wife worked with him in the shop and she wore a Terrylene housecoat. The only distinctive thing I can remember about her was that she had a bit of one her nostrils missing, not much, but enough to make a child stare and stare with undisguised curiosity. My mother always took us there in October to choose our Christmas annuals. A selection of Christmas comic books represented the ‘literary’ dimension of my presents each December. Nevertheless, they were I would argue, a ‘literary experience’ of some limited kind and got me used to the idea of a book as a source of pleasure. Annuals with names like the Hotspur, Lion, Beezer, Dandy and Beano were endlessly read and re-read until they disintegrated. A fate that awaited many of my toys at that time.

(Image credit: Nathan Langer via Unsplash)
(Image credit: Nathan Langer via Unsplash)

To re-cap for a moment. Market Road began with a police station and a chapel, a large Edwardian school occurred halfway up, a firm of shopfitters / garage, two corner shops followed by a scrap yard and a cannery were all tightly integrated. Although densely grained it somehow never felt compressed, but it does now. Not bad for a side road only around a couple of city blocks or 500 yards long. Crossing Carmarthen Street there was more housing on both sides of the road and certainly no light industry as it ran towards the more prosperous Romilly Road at the top end. The Romilly Road residential offer got better the closer one got to Thomson’s (Tommo) Park. Its housing was and is larger and of noticeably better quality being more suburban than urban.

In the early 1960s cinemas could be found out in the suburbs and not just the city centre of Cardiff as now. As it happens, there was a cinema just around the corner from Market Road in the early sixties unambiguously called the Canton Cinema. I clearly remember spending Saturday mornings in there for sixpence (do not bother trying to convert that into decimal currency) watching a feature film, a ‘B’ film and then cartoons. It was called going to ‘the pictures’, never the cinema, and remains the phrase I use to this day. It was a large utterly anonymous shed of a building with some minor concessions to classical features especially to the Cowbridge Road and Library Street elevations. Otherwise, it was just a big rectangular box with a column–free interior ripe for conversion into something else of a retail nature. Which was exactly its fate at some point in the early to mid-sixties when the ‘Fine Fare’ chain of supermarkets came to Canton. In addition to the bulk of the supermarket and two terraces of suburban housing, Library Street contained the eponymous institution after which it was named. Canton Branch Library became an unwitting visual and cultural antidote to the supermarket, which was built without a service yard on this highly constrained site. A philanthropic gift by Andrew Carnegie the American steel magnate, the library was designed in 1906 by the Cardiff architect E. M. Bruce Vaughan and looks like a chunk of a church dropped down absentmindedly in a Canton side street. As befitted the architect of many Cardiff’s churches its design was very ecclesiastically inspired and in its original form had wonderful Gothic interiors that I wish I had photographed. These were lost when someone set fire to the Library some years ago. The Christmas annuals aside, this is where I consolidated my love of reading and it exposed me to a range of printed matter on subjects which I suspect is just not catered for today. I have lost count of the number of libraries I have gone into where the principal titles on show were ghosted autobiographies of footballers and spin-off books inspired by television series. Its quiet Gothicised interiors were insulated by the Pennant sandstone of its construction which kept the rumble of Cowbridge Road East’s nearby traffic at bay. Carnegie donated £5000 to pay for it and there was a stipulation that the building cost £4750 with £250 allowed for fitting it out. Another prominent architect of Edwardian Cardiff, Edwin Lanchester one of the architects of the City Hall and Law Courts, awarded Vaughan £75 for winning the design competition for its creation.

Cardiff city hall (image credit: Mario Sánchez Prada via Flickr)
Cardiff City Hall today (image credit: Mario Sánchez Prada via Flickr)

Design competitions were the norm for selecting architects at the time for anything from a public library to a school and most major public buildings. Vaughan was a Cardiff architect born and bred and believed that major public commissions should go to Cardiff architects. He wanted to design the City Hall and Law Courts but did not win the required design competition, much to his chagrin. Nevertheless, he did go on to design a lot of churches and schools in the period 1880 – 1914. A few streets away and around 1887 he designed Canton’s Radnor Road School in his favoured Gothic style, which can also still be seen. It is another example of however densely-built the suburb was, decent architects could still populate its suburban streets with good public architecture. This is made somewhat easier because inner-city Cardiff is not beset with serried ranks of terraced housing in the way that (say) Swansea is.

Canton in 1962 had a very decent spread of shops for a suburb. I cannot say its retail architecture was of any great merit but it did not look particularly jerry-built which was surely its saving grace.

At the westernmost extremity of ‘my world’ (as defined by Canton) was Kings Road. Beyond that lay the exotic netherworld of Grimwades second-hand shop and St. David’s Hospital where my sister was born in 1958. The latter was originally a Union Workhouse built sternly in (guess what?) Pennant sandstone during the late 1870s. Only the façade remains after demolition to enable a housing development behind. Immediately to one side of it there used to be a small flower shop called Treseder’s, I call it a shop, in reality it was an overgrown timber kiosk, although quite picturesque and not at all temporary-looking. Beyond that town beckoned and as a nine year-old that was quite beyond my ken. Going backwards toward Canton you encountered the aforementioned Grimwades. Now this was a modern two-storey brick and glass structure and absolutely packed with second-hand goods of every description. I can remember an interior lined with reel-to-reel tape recorders, musical instruments and cameras of every type. To a child it was a cornucopia of goodies that were – at least to my way of thinking – just presents that nobody wanted. I always thought of it as basically an adult’s toyshop. Going still further back into Canton and looking at the opposite side of the road was a fully-fledged department store. Called Donald Knight’s it was where a supermarket is now, I think. I never penetrated its gloomy exterior although my sister did as a child and she told me it was a really old-fashioned place, a hangover from the 1950s and (again) dimly lit and with timber fixtures displaying dated goods. I only ever remember the windows which looked like an exercise in period window dressing from the middle 1950s. They looked very dated to me even in 1962 and remember, I had no reference material against which to judge them. That is how bad they were. I think Donald Knight’s was a very early casualty of the creeping menace of the supermarket and it duly disappeared at some point around 1965. On that side of Cowbridge Road the only other building that registered in my imagination was the Coliseum bingo hall.  This was formerly a cinema built in the early 20th century and it had a compact and highly idiosyncratic presence, like a seaside pavilion, detached from some pier and pitched up in a Cardiff suburb. From memory, there was a small kiosk beside the main entrance that sold sweets and (inevitably) cigarettes before you entered the smoky domain within through a set of double doors. It was painted cream, blue and white I think.

Of the sundry pubs that dotted Canton then I can recall nothing other than the pungent smell of stale beer as one passed the doorways. Coming still further down Cowbridge Road on that side I can only clearly recall Pope’s Photographic Shop with its many cameras and photographs of old Canton. A marvellous place trapped in a time warp which only recently succumbed to the predations of progress. Switching to the other side there was Merret’s the Bakers where my mother dispatched me every Saturday morning to collect two unsliced white loaves. Strange to relate though we never bought anything else there. Whenever we wanted pasties or crusty cobs I was directed to Franklyn’s. There was an elderly Woolworth’s in Canton in 1962, which had a timber planked floor and counters with glass partitions. I’m pretty sure it had a goods lift that opened onto the street. All the sales assistants wore coloured housecoats as a uniform. Next to it was a smart branch of Montague Burton tailors with very trendy windows. On the corner of Severn Road was a fascinating remnant of Edwardian Canton in Zeidmans. As I remember it, this was some sort of drapers-cum-general hardware store and my chief memory of it was that it used an archaic cash handling system that dispensed with till points and cash registers. Instead, it depended on what I think are called ‘lamsons’, these were a pneumatic air-filled tube which snaked through the two storeys of the building. A hollow tubular vessel containing details of the transaction and payment was dropped into the void and they whistled off. Their destination was a central point in doubtless some gloomy back office where a cashier there processed the transaction before returning it with any change due and a receipt. This seemed very old fashioned to me even then and in later incarnations of the building (i.e., as John N. Sennington’s hardware store) it subsequently disappeared. Zeidmans like Donald Knights were clearly left over from the 1950s and were slowly being eliminated by retail survival of the fittest. Then I cannot really recall anything notable between Franklyn’s and Halford’s bicycle shop on the corner of Llandaff Road except for S.A Auff the tobacconists. Llandaff Road gets more architecturally interesting the further away you move from Cowbridge Road East. For this is the historic core of Canton but that is for another time.


Richard Porch is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.