The Circus Comes to Town! The Circus and Grand Palace of Variety, St Mary Street, Cardiff, 1870

The term ‘circus’ dates back to ancient Rome. It was originally associated with the rectangular arenas built in towns and cities for entertainment and, in particular, for chariot races, re-enactments of famous battles and gladiatorial combat. The modern circus, based on a central ring housed in a circular building or tent, is a more recent phenomenon that celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2018. The format of the modern circus is attributed to Philip Astley who, in 1768, opened an amphitheatre in Lambeth, London for displays of horse riding. To amuse the audience, in between equestrian acts, Astley provided a range of entertainment including jugglers, acrobats and clowns. Given that the horses provided the centre piece of the show, the ring was a minimum of 42 feet in diameter to provide an adequate turning circle and this has remained the standard size for a circus ring ever since. The circus at that time would, in most instances, have been a wooden structure with the first ‘Big Top’ performances under canvas dating from the 1820s.

The idea of a compact circular arena that brought together a variety of acts was a huge success. It was an extremely popular and spectacular entertainment that appealed to all ages, and soon many cities and towns across Britain had one or more circuses. As we celebrate 250 years of circus the records held at Glamorgan Archives provide us with details of the circuses that were built in the 19th century in the heart of Cardiff.

It is likely that, in comparison to other towns, the circus came late to Cardiff, given that the population boom associated with the docks and the coal trade dates from approximately 1840 onwards.

Glamorgan Archives holds plans for two circuses that were built in Cardiff in the 1870s. The first was built and opened in November 1870 on an unused plot of land on the corner of St Mary Street and Wood Street, later occupied by the Prince of Wales Theatre. St Mary Street in the mid-19th century was far from being a grand street, as confirmed in newspaper reports:

In 1854 Cardiff was a very different place to Cardiff today. The rateable value of St Mary Street was not a tenth of what it is now. The site of the present post office was occupied as a “dead house”. On the opposite side to the Town Hall was the old police station and below it a number of cottages let at 2s 6d a week when tenants could be obtained. The southern front of the London and Provincial Bank was an old fish shop and house let at £10 a year….The corner of Wood Street and St Mary Street was a waste piece of ground on which Signor Quagliani’s circus was afterwards placed. At the bottom of the Street was “the bog”…. [Evening Express, 28 May 1895].

From newspaper reports we know that Signor Quagliani and his Company had left Cardiff by 1863, although it is likely that other circuses, including Holbrook’s, continued to use the land as a circus through the latter half of the 1860s. The circus building would have been a semi-permanent wooden construction, using Astley’s format of a central ring and tiered seating probably for up to 500 people. By 1870 there was a very well defined Circus season in Cardiff, from November through to Easter, suggesting that circus companies were combining summer Big Top tours around Wales with town based circus in the winter months.

The plans for the St Mary Street circus submitted by Circus impresarios, Hutchinson and Tayleure, in October 1870, represented a step change in the scale and decoration of the Circus provided in Cardiff. By 1870 the town was expanding rapidly and, with the expansion, there was a demand for popular entertainment. The local authorities, supported by the police, were in favour of ventures such as the circus that provided family based entertainment that helped to keep people away from the drinking houses in the town.

Hutchinson and Tayleure were established circus providers and they saw the potential in Cardiff with their plans to double the size of the previous building so that they could accommodate up to 1000 people each night. In an attempt to cast the net as wide as possible the new structure had different grades of seating, with boxes charged at 2s 6d per person to a gallery and pit at 1s and 6d respectively. The entrance to the Gallery was on St Mary Street opposite Caroline Street and the Boxes and Pit on Wood Street opposite Temperance Town.

Although we do not have a photograph of the building, the plans held at Glamorgan Archives provide a good impression of its layout (ref.: BC/S/1/90484).




The overall building was rectangular in shape, to make best use of the land available, with ticket offices on both St Mary Street and Wood Street. However, once inside, the interior conformed to the traditional circus layout with tiered seating surrounding a central 42 foot diameter ring. There were two tunnels, opposite each other, for people and horses to enter and leave the ring with platforms above the tunnels for a brass band. The provision of accommodation under the seating for artist changing rooms and, most importantly, stabling for horses confirmed that the Circus followed the tried and tested format of equestrian acts interspersed by a range of acrobats and clowns. In addition, the circus would have featured a number of speciality acts, including singing and recitation perhaps more commonly associated with music hall in later years. Caged and exotic animals only became a common feature in circuses at a later date.

It was clear that no expense was spared in what Hutchinson and Tayleure styled …their new elegant Circus and Grand Palace of Variety. The local newspapers reported that the building and furnishings had cost a thousand pounds. A report in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian on 12 November 1870 described the new building:

This really fine building will be opened to the public on Monday. As a place of public amusement it promises to be the best of the kind ever opened in Cardiff.

The timber roof is entirely concealed by a complete ceiling of red and white cloth suspended in festoons from the centre with flags and banners of various colours from points along the roof and the pillars supporting the front of the promenade.…The floor of the boxes is covered with Brussels carpet, the back being richly papered and decorated with curtains.

The interior will be lighted by a number of large gas stars giving out hundreds of jets of light… It is more commodious, more comfortable and more elegant that any circus that has been erected in the town.

Hutchinson and Tayleure had left nothing to chance and had made strenuous efforts to win approval from all quarters. During the first week they invited the Mayor to host a ‘grand soiree equestre’ with proceeds to go to the Cardiff Infirmary. They also provided the Cardiff Board of Guardians with tickets so that the paupers from the Cardiff Union Workhouse could attend a performance. Never known to ‘undersell’ themselves, Hutchinson and Tayleure on the first night of the Winter Season announced:

The Entertainments will be varied nightly and include brilliant equestrian achievement, daring gymnastic exploits, great entrees and cavalcades, brilliant spectacle, historical pageants and a host of novel scenes new to the public of this town [Western Mail 14 November 1870].

The people of Cardiff flocked to the Circus in their thousands and filled the arena night after night. Hutchinson and Tayleure did not disappoint. The Cardiff Times reported on 19 November 1870 that the audience:

…crowded every part of the spacious building… The entertainment was of a varied and most entertaining description. The agility of the acrobats, the extraordinary feats of the other performers, both human and animal, and the buffoonery of the clever clowns afforded a treat to the frequenters such as Cardiff seldom affords.

A month later the Western Mail reported that the crowds at the Circus were still …immense... Even a near tragedy (when the trestle tables and mattresses positioned to break the fall of the trapeze artist, Niblo, gave way as he ended his act with a double somersault) was averted by the …cat like agility… of the artist. As the newspaper reported:

His wonderful escape was loudly cheered from all parts of the Circus [Western Mail, December 14 1879].

Yet Hutchinson and Tayleure’s spectacular St Mary Street circus ran for less than 6 years. The story of what happened next is told through a further set of plans held at Glamorgan Archives that will feature in the second of a short series of articles on the Circus in Cardiff.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer


Do you know these people? The 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society

While the records of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society held at Glamorgan Archives major on the running of the Society and the many lectures and events sponsored since its creation in 1867, there is also a section that draws together a number of photographs associated with the main collection. It is a very mixed and fascinating set of images. Within the collection there is a photograph of approximately 150 people standing on the steps of the National Museum in Cardiff posing for a group photograph. They are all very well turned out and there are clues to their purpose from the number of umbrellas and raincoats worn or carried by many of those present.

Museum steps

The photograph is one of over 60 set out in an album, dated September 1967, compiled to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society. The album also contains a programme of the events staged over three days to mark the centenary. From the details in the programme the photograph was almost certainly taken on Saturday 23rd September 1967 at around 9.30am, as the members of the Society gathered to meet the coaches that would take them on a full day of activities. This included a visit to Old Beaupre Castle in the morning followed by lunch, hosted by the Chairman of the Glamorgan County Council, at Duffryn House and a tour of the garden.


As they stand on the Museum steps the group appear to be in very good spirits. Many would have had a late night after attending the Civic Reception and Centenary Dinner held at the City Hall the previous evening. The programme for the Reception, held in the Assembly Room, promised a menu of 5 courses including sole bonne femme, saddle of lamb and peach melba, with music provided by the Eddie Graves Trio. The toast to the Queen was proposed by the Society’s President, Col. Sir Cennydd Traherne, Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan.

Although on the Saturday many had taken precautions against the weather, the photographs of Old Beaupre and Duffryn suggest that they had a fine day. Furthermore, the celebrations were far from over. The coaches were expected back in Cardiff at 5.15pm to allow time for those due to attend a Reception at 8.00pm in the National Museum, hosted by the President and Council of the Museum. The album contains a number of photographs of both the Civic reception on the Friday night and the reception held in the National Museum on the Saturday.

Outing 1

Outing 2

On the following day, Sunday 24 September, there was another full day with three separate field meetings concluding with a picnic lunch. Unfortunately the album does not contain photographs of the Sunday field meetings. From the programme, however, we know that the Biological and Geological Section visited Merthyr Mawr and the Ornithological Section visited Kenfig Pool. In addition, the Archaeological, Photographic and Junior Sections came together for a visit to Caerphilly Castle. In each case the meetings ended after lunch so that members could return to Cardiff for Evensong at Llandaff Cathedral.

Dinner 1

Dinner 2

It was a full and varied itinerary to mark a very special event in the Society’s history. If you, or friends and family, were amongst either the 150 people standing on the steps of the Museum on Saturday 23 September 1967 or those that attended the receptions held at the City Hall and the National Museum, you might well be interested in viewing the photograph album (ref.: DCNS/PH/8/16). In addition, there are a number of photographs of the exhibition staged by the Society in September 1967 to mark the Centenary (ref.: DCNS/PH/8/1-15). The photographs can be seen at Glamorgan Archives along with a wide range of records of the proceedings of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society dating back to 1867.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Interior, Tubal Cain Foundry, Tyndall Street, Cardiff

William Catleugh, a millwright and engineer of 4 The Hayes, Cardiff, died on 19 December 1851.  His initial successor in the business was Mr H. Scale but it was later taken over by George Parfitt and Edward Jenkins.  In July 1857, Parfitt and Jenkins advertised that ‘they have the foundry now in working order, and all orders entrusted to their care will be executed promptly and in a superior manner’.

Despite its town centre location – which also served as the proprietors’ home – the plant must have been quite substantial since, in 1862, it was able to produce a locomotive to work the mineral traffic of a colliery in the neighbourhood of Swansea.  However, on 1 April 1864, the Cardiff Times reported that Parfitt and Jenkins had leased upwards of an acre of land at the top of the East Dock, facing Tyndall Street.  A construction tender had been let and foundations for their new foundry and engineering works were already being excavated.

While no specific evidence has been found of the thinking behind the name of the new works, Tubal Cain, a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve, is described in the King James Bible as ‘an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron’.  It therefore seems an appropriate name for what Parfitt and Jenkins would have viewed as a major expansion of their business.  The casting house was a single storey, rectangular brick building with thirteen semi-circular headed windows to the west wall.  The roof was supported on a series of wrought-iron trusses, providing an unusual example of an open tie-bar trussed roof.

At first, Parfitt and Jenkins seem to have operated both the Hayes and Tubal Cain works but, by 1875, the Hayes Foundry appears to have closed.  George Parfitt died in 1886 and Edward Jenkins in 1888 but their business continued to thrive.

While initially serving the shipping and railway industries which were then growing up around the Bristol Channel, the variety of its products gave the company considerable flexibility.  In more recent years, as part of Penarth Industrial Services Ltd, Tubal Cain is said to have been the only jobbing foundry in South Wales capable of producing one-off pieces of work, rather than being limited to production runs.

As the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay progressed in the 1980s, a compulsory purchase order was served on the works.  During a subsequent public enquiry, the Victorian Society argued forcefully for its preservation.  However, in light of the emissions of smoke, dirt and sulphur dioxide fumes, it was concluded that the plant should not continue to operate on the Tyndall Street site and, in due course, it was demolished.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer


Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/34]
  • Holy Bible – Genesis, chapter 4, verse 22
  • Scammell & Co’s City of Bristol and South Wales Directory, 1852
  • Wakeford’s Cardiff Directory, 1855
  • The Cardiff Directory and Handbook, 1858
  • Webster’s Directory of Bristol and Glamorgan, 1865
  • The Post Office Directory of Monmouthshire and the Principal Towns and Places in South Wales, 1871
  • Worrell’s Directory of South Wales and Newport, Monmouthshire, 1875
  • 1851 and 1861 censuses
  • The City and Port of Cardiff – Official Handbook, 1955
  • The Monmouthshire Merlin, 26 December 1851
  • Cardiff Times, 21 March 1862
  • South Wales Echo, 12 Oct 1886
  • Cardiff Times, 20 Oct 1888

Coliseum Cinema, Cowbridge Road, Cardiff

The Canton Coliseum Cinema was designed by local architect, Edwin J. Jones and built by the Canton Cinema Company in 1912.  The approved building plans imply that it would seat 899 downstairs with a further 192 in the gallery, but comments on the Cinema Treasures website suggest that the seating capacity might have been significantly less than this.  Located at 139-143 Cowbridge Road East, on the corner of North Morgan Street, it opened on 6th January 1913, with The Panther’s Prey as its principal feature film.  Around 1930 it was equipped with a RCA sound system and was re-named Coliseum Cinema.


Like many other cinemas, it became a bingo hall in the 1960s.  In the late 1980s it was demolished and the site was subsequently re-developed by Castle Leisure Ltd (part of the business empire established by Solomon Andrews, and still owned by his descendents), who claim that it was ‘the very first purpose-built bingo club in the UK’.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

The Students Union, Dumfries Place, Cardiff

Designed by Manchester architect, Alfred Armstrong, this building on the western side of Dumfries Place originally housed the Cardiff Proprietary School – also known as Cardiff College.   Established in 1875 and accommodating 300 scholars, it offered ‘a sound and liberal education at a moderate cost’, aiming to prepare boys for university, the naval, military & civil services, and also for scientific, professional and commercial pursuits.


The school seems to have run into financial difficulties at a relatively early stage.  By 1886, the governors sought to transfer it to a local educational charity while, in 1891, parents were advised that, ‘owing to the want of support’, the school would close on 31 July that year.  Following an extraordinary general meeting in October 1892, the company was wound up and the building sold to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire.

Initially, the University appears to have used the premises for art classes but, by 1895, it was a Technical School, continuing in this role until the First World War.  From 1916 until about 1950, it housed government offices, including the National Health Insurance Commission, Welsh Board of Health, and Ministry of Pensions.

During the 1950s, the Students Union moved here from 51 Park Place, and remained in occupation until their Senghennydd Road building was erected in the 1970s.  Following demolition, the Dumfries Place site is now occupied by a modern office building known as Haywood House.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/5]
  • Cardiff Borough Building Regulation Plans, plan of Proprietary School, Dumfries Place, 1875 [BC/S/1/901021]
  • Cardiff Borough Building Regulation Plans, plans of Cardiff Technical College, Dumfries Place, 1895 [BC/S/1/10923.2; BC/S/1/10923.1]
  • Cardiff Times, 30 May 1874
  • South Wales Echo, 18 November 1886
  • Kelly’s Directory of Monmouthshire and South Wales, 1891
  • Western Mail, 11 May 1891
  • The London Gazette, 25 November 1892, p. 6937
  • Wright’s Cardiff Directory, 1893-94
  • Various Cardiff directories, 1908 – 1964
  • Stewart Williams, Cardiff Yesterday, vol. 11, image 156


Victoria Buildings, Bute Street, Cardiff

At the 1861 census, Peter Steffano, a 51 year old ship chandler was living with his family at 56, 57 and 58 Bute Street, Cardiff.  The household also included Austrian-born Joseph Brailli, aged 23, a clerk in the chandlery who was married to Steffano’s daughter, Sophia.  By 1871, the business, now operating as Stefano and Brailli, was at 63 Bute Street; the Brailli family lived at no. 65 and the Steffanos at 66.

Peter Steffano died in 1874 and, by 1881, the Brailli family had moved their home to Crockherbtown (now Queen Street).  They appear, though, to have retained the business premises since, in April 1887, Joseph received local authority approval to rebuild 64-67 Bute Street.


The new building was designed by E M Bruce Vaughan and given the name Victoria Buildings.  It included ground floor shop premises with warehouse space in the basement and at the rear of the first floor.  The remainder of the first floor, and all of the second, provided office space.  There was no longer any residential accommodation.

An 1884 directory still lists Joseph Brailli as a ship chandler at the Bute Street premises but, by 1891, the chandlery was run by Thomas Harper and Sons.  Also listed at Victoria Buildings in that year’s directory were Jacobs & Co, outfitters, Foster Hain & Co, ship brokers and James Evans & Co Limited, colliery proprietors.  The Thomas Harper company was still there in 1955, by which time the right hand shop unit housed the local branch of George Angus, manufacturers of industrial belting and a range of other products including oil seals.  The offices continued to be occupied by shipping companies, along with HM Immigration Service.  By 1972, the listed occupants were Reg Oldfield, photographer, Ken Jones, turf accountant, and J. F. Griffiths, builders’ merchant.  Signage in Mary Traynor’s drawing suggests that the latter two companies remained until the building’s demise.

The approximate site of Victoria Buildings now comprises the outdoor areas behind nos 5, 6, 7 & 8 Bute Crescent (Jolyon’s Hotel, Duchess of Delhi restaurant, and the Eli Jenkins public house).

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/32]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plans for rebuilding of 64-67 Bute Street, 1887 [BC/S/1/6250]
  • 1861-1891 censuses
  • Various Cardiff directories
  • England & Wales National Probate Calendar 1874
  • Williams, Stewart, The Cardiff Book, vol. 2 (p.185)

Merthyr House, James Street & Evelyn Street, Cardiff

Merthyr House was erected in 1918 on the corner of James Street and Evelyn Street, Cardiff.  The building ran back as far as Adelaide Place and presented Bath stone frontages to each of the three streets.  Designed by local architect Henry Budgen, it was built by the renowned Cardiff firm of E. Turner & Sons Ltd.  A Turner brochure referred to it as the ‘western end’ of the building, which suggests there might have been ambitions to extend it over the whole block with an additional facia to Adelaide Street, but this appears never to have come to fruition.  From the outset, Merthyr House was occupied as offices.  Its tenants included some of the most prominent South Wales coal and shipping companies.


In the early hours of Sunday 17 March 1946, a fire broke out in the second floor offices of the Reardon-Smith shipping line.  The fire seems to have taken hold very quickly.  Firefighters rescued the caretaker and his family who were trapped on the top floor and there was no loss of life or appreciable damage to surrounding buildings.  A considerable part of the south side of the building was saved but the northern (James Street) end was destroyed.  In addition to losing their operating base, several companies lost records detailing their histories.

A few days after the incident, Sir James Wilson, Chief Constable of Cardiff, voiced criticism of the speed with which the National Fire Service had responded, and also the manner in which they fought the fire.  The Home Secretary appointed John Flowers KC to inquire into the issues Sir James had raised, and his report was published in July of the same year.  In the event, not only did Flowers find none of the complaints to have been justified, but he specifically commended the manner in which one fire officer had handled the rescue of the top floor occupants.

In 1950, approval was sought by the owners, J Cory & Sons Ltd, to renovate Merthyr House.  Their plans clearly show that the James Street end of the building had now been wholly removed; its site being used for car parking.  In fact, the northern section was never rebuilt, though a rather incongruous single-storey concrete entrance block was added, at some point, on that side of the building.

Merthyr House never regained its pre-fire status as one of Butetown’s principal office buildings.  In the early 1960s, it was occupied by a distributor of motor cars; later it housed the Works Department of the University of Wales Press.  And at some point, it was re-named Imperial House.  After several years of neglect, it was demolished and the site currently stands empty.

David Webb, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Sources consulted:

  • Mary Traynor Collection [D1093/2/31]
  • Cardiff Borough, building regulation plans, plan for renovations at Merthyr House, James Street, 1950 [BC/S/1/39995]
  • Flowers, John KC, Inquiry into the Fire at Merthyr House, James Street, Cardiff on the 17th March 1946 (Cmd. 6877)
  • Superb Buildings erected by E. Turner & Sons Ltd (1929)
  • Lee, Brian, Cardiff’s Vanished Docklands
  • Lee, Brian & Butetown History and Arts Centre, Butetown and Cardiff Docks (Images of Wales series)
  • Various Cardiff directories

South Wales Echo, 18 March 1946; 21 March 1946; 3 August 1946