The Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary: A hospital ‘…as near perfect as it could be’

This is the third in a series of articles on the building and opening, in September 1883, of the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary. It draws on records held at Glamorgan Archives.

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It was little more than 8 months from the laying of the memorial stone to the arrival of the first patients at the new hospital. The number of in-patients at the old infirmary had been steadily reduced during September 1883 to ease the transfer. By 24th September only 9 remained, mostly those with serious fractures. The move to the new premises had begun on Thursday 20th September, with the in-patients to be moved on the following Tuesday. Bad weather, however, forced a delay. It was not until Wednesday 26th  that they were transferred, one at a time, under the supervision of Matron Pratt, by a team from the St John’s Ambulance Society. For the short journey along Newport Road each patient was placed in an ambulance ‘cart’ which could be dismantled and carried into the hospital.

The new hospital was heralded as …unequalled by any in the Principality … and as near perfect as it could be. Yet, in September, many areas were still under construction, including the grand frontage with its 80 foot central tower. The two main ward blocks and the kitchen and laundry were, however, complete. It was just as well that the initial number of patients was low. The staff, including the House Surgeon, P Rhys Griffiths, Matron Pratt, nurses and porters were expected to live on the premises. They also had to live and sleep in one of the wards until their accommodation, in the main wing facing on to Glossop Road, was finished.

It was not all bad news. The new wards had been designed and equipped in line with the very best hospitals in Britain at the time.  Each of the two new ward blocks had two floors. On each floor there was one large ward with beds for 20 patients and three small side wards. There was also a small kitchen and a linen room. To ensure that patients had ample fresh air, at one end of the large ward there was a day room with large bay windows that could be thrown open. Patients on the ground floor had access to an outside terrace that ran the length of the ward. The architects were particularly proud of the sanitary arrangements, described as …most effective and complete. In practice this meant that up to 30 patients shared two bathrooms each with a bath, sink and toilet plus two separate toilets.

Pride of place went to the equipment installed to ensure that the wards were kept warm. This was almost certainly the Saxon Snell Thermhydric Stove used in hospitals, schools and churches across the land. It looked like a very large tiled box positioned in the centre of the ward to house a coal fireplace. The stove heated a series of iron hot water pipes that in turn heated air that was piped around the ward. This revolutionary ‘warm air’ system was hailed as the …latest and best authenticated system of heating, and it was no doubt welcomed by staff and patients as the winter months approached. The photograph of the infirmary ward below was taken much later than 1883 but it gives a good impression of how the new ward would have looked.

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Staff would have been less pleased by the walkway to the wards from the kitchen block. Although the walkway had a roof, the sides were open to the elements and few would have loitered there on winter or rainy days. In a similar vein the laundry and washhouse, although equipped with …the best appliances for washing and mending the whole of the linen of the establishment, were in a separate building that lay beyond the ward blocks. It was only after numerous complaints to the Governors by Matron Platt that it was agreed that the walkway be covered in.

So why the rush to move to the new hospital? The truth was that the infirmary’s finances were often in difficulties. Just days before the move the Governors had met to discuss how they were going to find the £6,000 still needed to pay for and equip the new infirmary. The offer of £400 per annum for the old infirmary to house the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire was too good to refuse. However, the offer came with strings. The University needed the building by 29th September so that conversion work could be undertaken for the autumn term. Hence the rapid move to the new building.

Despite the difficulties, it was soon business as usual for the new infirmary. The first ‘emergency’ may well have been …a small boy called Gibbon who had a severely lacerated back after being caught in machinery at a biscuit works. If not, we know that John Roberts was admitted just 3 days after the move to the new infirmary. A labourer at a grease works on the docks, he had been hit by an engine while wheeling a barrow across a railway line. Miraculously, although bruised and battered, he escaped without serious injury. Both cases demonstrated the dangers in the workplace in 19th century Cardiff and the challenges that lay ahead for the new infirmary.

Glamorgan Archives holds the records of the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary. For the annual reports produced by the hospital management committee from 1837 to 1885 see DHC/48-50. For the records of the New Infirmary Building Sub Committee see DHC/44. The photograph of the hospital ward is at DHC/107/2.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

The Llandow Air Disaster, 12 March 1950

Amongst the records held at the Glamorgan Archives there is a set of papers with details of the research undertaken by HTV as background for a documentary broadcast in 1990, ‘Shadow Across the Sun’. The collection of letters, photographs and newspaper reports tell the story of the tragic events of 12 March 1950, when 80 people lost their lives in what was, at the time, the worst disaster in the history of civil aviation.

On a Sunday afternoon an Avro Tudor aircraft, code named Star Girl, took off from Dublin with 78 passengers and 5 crew. The aircraft had been chartered to take Welsh rugby fans to the Ireland v Wales game held the previous day. For many it would have been their first experience of air travel. All had gone well on the outward flight from Llandow to Dublin, and the supporters had celebrated Wales securing the Triple Crown with a close 6 points to 3 victory over the Irish at Ravenhill.  On the return flight, however, as the plane approached Llandow airfield it lost height then suddenly rose before crashing to the ground only a short distance from the runway. The crew of 5 and 75 passengers died despite the efforts of the rescue services.  The three survivors, Handel Rogers, Gwyn Anthony and Melville Thomas, had been in the tail section of the plane that miraculously escaped much of the impact of the crash. The report produced by the Ministry of Civil Aviation found it difficult to pinpoint the reason for the disaster, although it was thought that the distribution of weight in the loading of the aircraft had affected its stability and handling.

The research compiled by HTV underlines that barely a community in south Wales was untouched by the disaster. The passenger list included people from all walks of life. Many had booked and travelled as groups from local towns and villages. They included players, coaches and supporters from several rugby clubs. As a mark of respect the Abercarn club subsequently incorporated a propeller in the club badge and Llanharan RFC a black cross. At the inquest the Coroner, struggling with the enormity of the disaster, said that, The disaster is unparalleled in recent times in South Wales and it is comparable only to the great colliery disasters of the past.

The HTV programme commemorating the 40th anniversary of the disaster was broadcast in March 1990. Many came forward to talk about their experience of the disaster, although for others the memories were still far too painful. One product of the programme was a call for a permanent memorial to mark the disaster and remember those who died on 12 March 1950.  With the support of the Welsh Rugby Union and HTV this was answered with the unveiling of a memorial in Sigingstone on 12 September 1990, exactly 6 months after the 40th anniversary.

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Placed close to the site of the crash, the memorial was unveiled by two of the survivors, Handel Rogers and Melville Thomas. The memorial was made from stone from a local quarry at Ewenny with a slate plaque. Its message was simple and to the point.

On Sunday 12 March 1950 a Tudor V Aeroplane returning from Dublin crashed 200 yards from this spot as it approached Llandow Aerodrome. 75 Welsh rugby supporters and 5 crew died. There were just 3 survivors. In Belfast the day before, Wales had won the Triple Crown.

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The HTV papers include the research for ‘Shadow Across the Sun’ and the background to the unveiling of the memorial at Sigingstone. They can be seen at Glamorgan Archives at reference DX651.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

“Come out, come out, wherever you are”: The Great Escape of 10 March 1945

On 10 March it will be 75 years since the Great Escape. The bones of the story are well known. The setting is a camp set up in the Second World War to hold prisoners of war housed in a series of huts ringed by a high barbed wire fence, swept at night by searchlights and patrolled by guards with dogs. Within the compound a group of prisoners, determined to escape, begin to dig a tunnel. Benches are cut up and bed legs are reduced in size to provide wood to shore up the tunnel. Old cans of condensed milk are strung together to make an air pipe to provide ventilation. Prisoners dispose of the earth by spreading it over the camp vegetable garden, a sports long jump pit and within a false wall built into one of the huts. After four months the tunnel is complete. It even has electric lighting. While their colleagues distract the guards with raucous singing and curry powder is thrown along the fence boundary to confuse the dogs, a large group of prisoners emerge beyond the boundary fence. One is shot by the guards but others, disguised in long overcoats with homemade maps, compasses and identity papers, escape into the darkness.

The story has echoes of the escape of 77 Allied serviceman from Stalag Luft III in Poland, which subsequently provided the basis for the film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen. In fact, the escape on the night of 10 March 1945 was much closer to home, with German officers passing through the tunnel and fleeing into the night from the prisoner of war camp at the Island Farm Camp close to Bridgend.

The Island Farm Camp was built in 1939 to be used by up to 2000 women working at the Bridgend munitions factory. Although it was purpose built, with easy access to the factory, it was not a success, with most workers preferring to lodge locally or travel each day to the factory. Rather than abandon the facilities, Island Farm was later used by the American 28th Infantry Division in the build up to the D Day landings. During their stay the camp had a number of well-known visitors, including the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord, General Eisenhower, who addressed the men in April 1944.

With the opening of the second front in France there was a pressing need for accommodation for prisoners of war.  The camp that had witnessed Eisenhower’s rousing speech only months before was put to use again for German and Italian prisoners of war. The first task for many was to complete the perimeter fencing while others worked on local roads and farms. It was soon decided, however, that it would be used exclusively by German officers. As a result 1600 German officers arrived in November 1944. It was this group that brought Island Farm, renamed Camp 198, into the headlines.  After the escape on the night of 10 March many were recaptured within hours and in the following week many more were found in fields, barns and gardens across South Wales. However, one group stole a doctor’s car and travelled by car and train as far as Castle Bromwich near Birmingham. A second group, using goods trains, was eventually apprehended in Southampton. The escape spawned numerous tales, including the suggestion that they planned to rendezvous with a U Boat off the Welsh coast. Most stories of their recapture were humorous and, almost certainly, heavily embellished.

Within weeks the camp was closed, but it was to have a further reincarnation as a prisoner of war camp. In November 1945 it reopened at Special Camp 11 catering for senior German officers all ranked at General or above. Those held at the camp included 4 Field Marshals, von Rundstedt, von Brauchitsch, von Kleist and von Manstein. Many were awaiting trial and some remained at Island Farm until its closure in 1948.  Special Camp 11 was a very different regime. With the war ended the officers were given a fair degree of freedom. Letters of the Verity family held at Glamorgan Archives include two from German officers thanking the family for their hospitality in inviting them to spend Christmas day 1947 at the family home.

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The escape from Island Farm was a major embarrassment for the British Government. Initial fears that the escape was part of wider plan to attack and disrupt the Bridgend munitions factory and local ports proved to be unfounded. Nevertheless the Government was anxious to confirm that the major manhunt launched across England and Wales had been successful in recapturing all of the German officers within 5 days. Most sources agree that 70 prisoners escaped although there has been some debate as to the exact number. A BBC documentary shown in 1976, Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are, opted for 67. A more recent study argued that it was as high as 84 and contended that several might have escaped through the Kent ports.

For many years the camp was left to decay. Photographs held at Glamorgan Archives and taken around prior to its demolition in 1993 illustrate that, although many of the drawings made by the POWs on the camp walls had survived, the camp itself was in poor condition.

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Wall drawing

Incidentally the drawings were not entirely innocent given that several were positioned close to the tunnel entrance to distract the guards. Fortunately, Hut 9 was saved and in 2003 the tunnel was found to be intact. What remains of the camp and Hut 9 is now in the care of the Hut 9 Preservation Group and it is open to the public on a number of days during the year.

The Verity family letters can be seen at Glamorgan Archives, reference DXCB/4/2/33. The photographs of the Island Farm camp are at D1051/1/7/3/1-9. There are also photographs of the Americans at Island Farm in 1944 at D1532/1-10.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

A remarkable offer, and the laying of the Memorial Stone for the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary, 30 January 1883

This is the second of a series of articles on the building and opening, in September 1883, of the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary, now known as the Cardiff Royal Infirmary. It draws on records held at Glamorgan Archives.

In 1880 it appeared that there was no prospect of sufficient finance being raised to build a much needed new hospital in Cardiff. The situation changed, however, on Christmas Eve, when the following letter was received:

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I have much pleasure in informing you that the Marquis of Bute has instructed me to intimate to you, as the Secretary of the New Building Committee, that his Lordship will make the necessary arrangements for presenting to the Infirmary Committee the freehold site proposed for the new building.

[Letter from Thomas Lewis of the Bute Estate to Dr Alfred Sheen, Secretary of the New Building Committee, 24 December 1880 (DD/HC/44)]

Alfred Sheen could not have received a better Christmas present. The reply issued immediately after Christmas, on the 27th, thanked the Marquess for his …munificent gift which would …dissipate any doubts that may have existed in the minds of some as to the practicality of the project. The land in question lay on the corner of Newport Road and Glossop Road, the site of the current Cardiff Royal Infirmary. It was known at that time as Longcross Common. It had long been seen as the preferred position for the hospital, with ample room for further expansion at a later date. It had an estimated value of £10,000 and although the Bute family had offered to release it for £5000, the price was still beyond the Committee’s reach.

The offer was later amended to a long term lease at a nominal rent but from this point the project was reenergised. Plans were commissioned from the Cardiff architects James, Seward and Thomas and made available for public inspection in the Town Hall in August 1881. Five months later, on 30 January 1882, after several rounds of tenders, a local builder, Clarke Burton, was appointed to construct the hospital at a cost of £22,978. Burton was asked to commence “forthwith” and complete the work in 20 months.

Good progress was made. Almost exactly a year later, on Tuesday 30th January 1883, on a bitterly cold and wet afternoon, the Marquess of Bute braved the hail and rain to deliver a speech from a platform erected on a site that is now the entrance to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary. A great crowd had been expected and the Head Constable had ringed the platform with police. Such was the weather, however, that the number of onlookers, although large, was less than anticipated.

No doubt many present were focused on the holiday declared for the following day when the Marquess was to cut the first sod of the new Dock to be built at Cardiff at a cost of half a million pounds. So, despite the entertainment provided by the band of the Penarth detachment of the Artillery Volunteers, one newspaper reported that several of the speeches that day were …heard with some impatience by a crowd suffering from …cold feet and blue noses.

The Marquess of Bute, however, was well received for this was an auspicious day as he laid the memorial foundation stone for the new Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary that, when complete, would serve South Wales for over 130 years. In exchange, he was presented with an engraved silver trowel with an ivory handle and a set of sketches of the new hospital bound in a book of Moroccan leather. It is likely that the book included the sketch of the front of the new building facing onto Glossop Road that featured in the pages of the Illustrated London News the following month on the 10th February 1883.

Despite the progress made, the Building Fund was still well short of the money required for the new hospital. At the end of the ceremony the Marquess laid £1000 on the memorial stone as a challenge to others. Possibly encouraged by the promise of a ward being named after them if they donated £1,000, the names of those who took up Bute’s challenge were a ‘who’s who’ of the wealthy and influential in South Wales at the time, including Tredegar, Windsor, Cory, Crawshay, Aberdare, Insole, Mackintosh and Dunraven.

If you visit the Cardiff Royal Infirmary you can still see the stone laid on that cold and wet afternoon in 1883. You will need to look carefully. It is at ground level on the left hand side of the doorway at the main entrance. On the right hand side you will see a similar stone commemorating the contribution made to the first hospital by Daniel Jones. It was reported that a container with coins, local papers and a description of the site was buried beneath the stone laid by the Marquess. It is just possible that it is still there today.

The sketch of the Marquess of Bute laying the memorial stone in the Illustrated London News on 10 Feb 1883 is held at Glamorgan Archives, reference DXGC147/28. The transcription of the letter from Bute’s agent of 24 December 1880 is in the minutes of the Building Sub Committee for 27 December 1880, reference DHC/44.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives volunteer

A New Hospital for Cardiff: ‘Let us all do what we can towards this great and benevolent object’

The Cardiff Royal Infirmary on Newport Road is a significant landmark on the local skyline, well known by residents and many visitors to the city. What is not so well known is that the Infirmary, opened on its present site in September 1883, is the second hospital to have been built on Newport Road.

This is the first in a series of articles on the building and opening of what was, in 1883, a ‘state of the art’ hospital. It draws on records, plans and photographs held at Glamorgan Archives to trace the early days of a hospital built to provide care for the thousands attracted to South Wales in the latter half of the 19th century by opportunities in the iron, coal and shipping industries.

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Drawing of the proposed Infirmary, 1837 (DV74/8)

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Plan of the proposed Infirmary, 1837 (DV74/7)

The first hospital, known as the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary, had opened in January 1837 on a site on Newport Road now occupied by the Cardiff University School of Engineering. It was built to provide “care for the deserving poor” at a time before public funding for hospitals. The hospital could call on the services of a physician and 2 surgeons. Salaried staff, however, were limited to a House Surgeon, Matron, one nurse, a porter and a housemaid. Along with facilities for outpatient care the new infirmary had 20 beds for those admitted for treatment. Nevertheless, although modest in size, the construction and maintenance of such a facility was an immense challenge as the hospital was completely reliant on annual donations and subscriptions.

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Annual Report of the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary for the year ending December 1837 (DHC48)

Much was owed to one man, Daniel Jones, a solicitor, of Beaupre Castle. Jones provided £3,425, a phenomenal sum at the time, to fund the construction of the first infirmary. The portico above the main door acknowledged his contribution with the inscription ‘Infirmary erected at the sole expense of Daniel Jones of Beaupre’. While much of the money needed for both the maintenance and running of the hospital came from a number of well-known figures, including the Marquess of Bute, the people of South Wales also gave generously year after year for ‘their hospital’.

From the outset the new hospital was far from perfect. In 1843, only 6 years after its construction, the management committee complained that the building suffered from:

…damp walls, smoky chimneys, dry rot in the skirting boards, imperfect pipes … and inadequate drainage.

In 1873, although connections to the local sewers had been improved, an outbreak of erysipelas led to a temporary closure for cleaning, with patients housed in a tent at the rear of the building. Despite an increase in the numbers of beds to 60, by 1876 it was agreed that a new, larger and modern hospital was needed that could cater for a population that had increased in the Cardiff district alone from 8,000 in 1831 to 71,000 in 1871.

The campaign for the new hospital was launched by the Bishop of Llandaff, Alfred Oliphant, with the words Let us all do what we can towards this great and benevolent object. It was estimated that £26,000 would be needed for the building work alone. Given the reliance on donations and public subscription this was no easy task. By now the infirmary had over 500 annual subscribers, sometimes companies and well known families, but often people from across the two counties, many of whom could only afford a £1 a year and sometimes less. In addition, donations were received from collection boxes in local pubs, clubs and theatres, including the Rummer Tavern, the Maendu Working Men’s club and the Theatre Royal. Money also came from the proceeds from exhibitions and concerts plus gifts from grateful patients. However, perhaps the most striking aspect was that since 1873, once a year, on ‘Infirmary Sunday’, churches made a special collection for the hospital. In addition, businesses small and large made an annual work place collection on ‘Infirmary Saturday’.

Nevertheless, the records of the Building Sub Committee charged with raising the finance illustrate just what a herculean task it was to raise enough money to meet both annual running costs and build a new hospital. So much so that plans for a chapel in the initial proposals were soon dropped and the number of beds scaled back to 100, with the possibility of expansion at a later stage to 200. Yet the  committee still concluded, on 16 July 1878, two years after the campaign had begun, that there was:

…no prospect of success at present… and that …the project was becoming daily more unpopular with the townspeople.

Much was blamed on a trade depression that had reduced wages and donations. It appeared that all was lost and the committee was mothballed for two years until Christmas Eve 1880. The story of how the project was revived is told through the next article in this series.

Glamorgan Archives holds the records of the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire Infirmary and Dispensary. For plans of the hospital opened in 1837 see DV/74/1-9. For the annual reports produced by the hospital management committee from 1837 onwards see DHC/48-50. For records of the New Infirmary Building Sub Committee see DHC/44.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Snapshots of Dyffryn Gardens: The Tropical Lily Pond at Ely Racecourse

In the year that the National Trust celebrates its 125th anniversary we are taking a look, through photographs and records held at Glamorgan Archives, at the Trust’s largest and probably best known property in South Wales, Dyffryn Gardens. The gardens at Dyffryn were laid out for the Cory family over 100 years ago by the famous garden designer and landscape architect Thomas Mawson. Over the years the gardens have been much admired and won many awards. The records held at Glamorgan Archives include three certificates awarded to the Cory family at local horticultural shows in the period 1925-31. The awards cannot possibly do justice to the range of plants and trees to be found at Dyffryn, many of which had been brought from abroad. However, they do provide an insight into the esteem with which Dyffryn Gardens was held at the time. They also tell us a little about some of the prize plants to be found in the gardens that were selected for display.

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The three certificates are for the Ely and District Horticultural Society Show in August 1925, the Barry Horticultural Society Show in August 1931, and Barry and District Chrysanthemum Society Show in November 1931. For Reginald Cory and his head gardener at the time, J T Smith, both Fellows of the Royal Horticultural Society, this sounds like pretty small beer. However, it has to be remembered that the Cory family were not at the shows to compete. Rather, they were invited to provide an exhibit as the centre piece of the show. The aim was to promote the event to the public and to raise money for charities through sale of the exhibits afterwards. Dyffryn Gardens was one of the premier gardens in the South Wales and advertising frequently referred to the displays to be provided by Reginald Cory and his sister, Florence, as …a special feature of the show. The three awards held at Glamorgan Archives were, therefore, Certificates of Merit given to Reginald or Florence Cory to mark their contribution to the event. Unfortunately, the details of the exhibits added to the certificates in ink are badly faded. In one instance, the Ely and District show, the wording is no longer visible. A little detective work, however, using local newspaper accounts has helped to add a few details.

The exhibit at the Barry Chrysanthemum show was, to an extent, self-explanatory. In line with the style at the time it is likely this was a mixture of different species of chrysanthemum, possibly drawing on the extensive plant collection brought together by Reginald Cory from around the world. It would have been assembled under the careful eye of the Head Gardener, J T Smith. We also have a clue as to the display at the Barry Show in August 1931, with reference in the local newspapers to water lilies …being one of the principal features.  This was probably a well-known and much admired display that Reginald Cory and J T Smith had used in various forms at several shows.  Although Reginald had left Dyffryn by 1931, it is possible that J T Smith, working with Florence Cory, reused the design from earlier shows. In 1926 at the Ely Show, held at Ely Racecourse, it was described in the following terms:

One realised again the wonderful part that Mr Reginald Cory of Duffryn is playing, not merely in adding to the ornamentation of small shows, but of inculcating a wider knowledge and appreciation of rarer phases of floral culture. At Ely he exhibited a water flower scheme. Through his head gardener, Mr J T Smith, he depicted with amazing realism, a water lily pond such as found in tropical woods, surrounded by brilliant foliage plants indigenous to those climes. Mr Smith succeeded in combining a perfect naturalness of setting with a richly blended harmony of colours. The exhibit well deserved the diploma awarded to Mr Cory. [Western Mail, 3 August 1926]

The most ornate of the certificates, awarded at the Ely and District Horticultural Show in August 1925, is also the most difficult to pin down. The newspapers at the time simply recorded that:

the feature of the show was the collection of exhibits not for competition and Mr Reginald Cory, Duffryn, set a splendid example in this direction. His display was a really beautiful one. [Western Mail 4 August 1925]

But what was it? It was reported that the lily pond design with its tropical setting was used for the first time in 1926. It is tempting to guess that J T Smith opted for a display based on dahlias for which Dyffryn was internationally famous. If there is anyone with access to records or photographs who could help us with this one please get in contact. But it has to be remembered that Reginald was out to both impress and display unusual plants. He also had an extensive heated glass house at Dyffryn that held a variety of exotic species. So dahlias are not our first choice. It is more likely that the theme would have been a tropical setting drawing on what were termed ‘stove and greenhouse plants’.

One last thought. Although the Cory family did not compete at local shows, the newspapers reported that, at the 1931 Chrysanthemum Show, the Silver Cup for ‘Lady Amateurs’ was won by Mrs F Smith, Duffryn Gardens. Could this have been the wife of the Head Gardener? If so, it is possible that other competitors might have seen the term, amateur, as a little generous. The three certificates can be seen at Glamorgan Archives, reference D1121.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Snapshots of Dyffryn Gardens: Reginald Cory, Thomas Mawson and the creation of a classic Edwardian garden

In the year that the National Trust celebrates its 125th anniversary we are taking a look, through photographs and records held at the Glamorgan Archives, at its biggest and probably best known property in the Cardiff area, Dyffryn Gardens. The first of a series of snapshots of Dyffryn Gardens looks at the original and celebrated gardens laid out in the first two decades of the twentieth century by Reginald Cory and Thomas Mawson.

Dyffryn Gardens passed into the management of the National Trust relatively recently in January 2013. The Dyffryn estate dates from the 16th century and possibly earlier. However, the house and gardens in their current form are largely the product of the Cory family, following John Cory’s acquisition of the Dyffryn estate in 1891. Owner, with his brother Richard, of Cory Brothers and Co, John Cory had made his money from coal and shipping. Dyffryn Gardens was acquired as the family home for John, his wife Anna Maria, their son Reginald and daughter Florence. Alongside the rebuilding of much of the house, John and Reginald Cory set work in motion work to transform the gardens. The key to this work lay in the appointment in 1903 of Thomas Mawson to design and oversee the redevelopment of the gardens. Mawson was a man at the top of his profession. A garden designer and landscape architect with an international reputation who went on to design parks and gardens across Europe and North America, it was Mawson working with Reginald Cory, a talented horticulturist and plant collector, who laid out the plans for the new gardens. The Cory family also appointed a number of exceptional Head Gardeners who supervised and directed much of the work. Much is owed, in particular, to Arthur J Cobb, who was Head Gardener during a significant part of the development period. Cobb, who later lectured at Reading University and wrote extensively on gardening, including his 3 volume ‘Modern Garden Craft’, played a significant role in the development of what is recognised as one of the finest examples of an Edwardian garden.

The series of 20 photographs held at Glamorgan Archives by the photographers Neame Roff of Walmer, Kent, provide a unique insight into Mawson’s garden design, with its impressive sweeping lawns and lily canal running from the south terrace complemented by an intricate series of ‘garden rooms’ to the west of the house and an arboretum to the east. Commissioned by Reginald Cory, the photographs illustrate how the gardens would have looked in their pomp in the 1910-1926 period. Those familiar with the gardens today will see how they have changed with the growth of trees and shrubbery over the years. The photographs also provide a template for the work being undertaken by the National Trust to restore parts of the gardens to how they would have looked when first laid out by Reginald Cory and Thomas Mawson. We have included just a short selection from the overall portfolio:

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The gardens from the east side of the house (D15/1)

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The Dahlia Gardens – the site of the international dahlia trials held at Dyffryn in 1913 and 1914 (D15/18)

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The walled garden with its extensive glass house (D15/11)

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The Pillar Garden with its bonsai trees (D15/13)

The eagle eyed amongst you may also have noticed that in three of the photographs a figure can be a seen in the background, examining the plants or just posing for the camera. We cannot be sure, but our theory is that it is the Head Gardener. Always smartly turned out it would seem that, even at this early stage in his career, Arthur J Cobb was a man out to make his mark and be noticed. The Neame Roff photographs of Dyffryn Gardens are held at the Glamorgan Archives, reference D15/1-20.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer